The 1976 NCAA Division I football season ended with a championship for the Panthers of the University of Pittsburgh. Led by head coach Johnny Majors (voted the AFCA Coach of the Year), the Pitt Panthers brought a college football championship to the home of the defending pro football champions, the Steelers. Pitt also had the Heisman Trophy winner, Tony Dorsett; the Panthers had been ranked ninth in the preseason AP poll.
During the 20th century, the NCAA had no playoff for major college football teams, which became Division I-A in 1978. The NCAA Football Guide, however, did note an "unofficial national champion" based on the top ranked teams in the "wire service" (AP and UPI) polls. The "writers' poll" by Associated Press (AP) was the most popular, followed by the "coaches' poll" by United Press International) (UPI). The AP poll consisted of the votes of as many as 62 writers, though not all voted in each poll, and the UPI poll was taken of a 25-member board of coaches.
September 11 #1 Nebraska failed to win its opening game, being tied 6–6 by LSU in Baton Rouge, escaping with the stalemate only after the Bayou Bengals missed a 44-yard field goal attempt in the closing seconds. #2 Michigan beat Wisconsin 40–27, and #3 Arizona State lost its home opener 28–10 to #17 UCLA, and dropped to 18th, then out of the Top 20 entirely. #4 Ohio State beat Michigan State 49–21, and #5 Oklahoma won 24–3 at Vanderbilt. After a 31–10 win at #11 Notre Dame, #9 Pittsburgh rose to third. With Nebraska and Arizona State dropping to 8th and 18th, and Pitt and UCLA moving up, the Top Five was: 1.Michigan 2.Ohio State 3.Pittsburgh 4.Oklahoma 5.UCLA.
September 18 The top five teams all won: #1 Michigan beat Stanford 51–0, and #2 Ohio State won 12–7 at #7 Penn State. #3 Pittsburgh beat Georgia Tech 42–14 in Atlanta, #4 Oklahoma beat California 28–17, and #5 UCLA beat Arizona 37–9. The poll remained unchanged: 1.Michigan 2.Ohio State 3.Pittsburgh 4.Oklahoma 5.UCLA.
September 25 #1 Michigan crushed Navy 70–14, and #2 Ohio State lost 22–21 to Missouri and fell to sixth. #3 Pittsburgh beat Temple 21–7, #4 Oklahoma beat Florida State 24–9, and #5 UCLA beat Air Force, 40–7. #6 Nebraska, which beat TCU 64–10, returned to the Top 5: 1.Michigan 2.Pittsburgh 3.Oklahoma 4.UCLA and 5.Nebraska
October 2 #1 Michigan beat Wake Forest 31–0, and #2 Pittsburgh won 44–31 at Duke. #3 Oklahoma won 24–10 at Iowa State, while #4 UCLA traveled to Columbus and played #6 Ohio State to a 10–10 tie. #5 Nebraska beat Miami (FL) 17–9, but dropped to sixth. #6 Georgia shut out #10 Alabama 21–0 and moved up to fourth. Top Five: 1.Michigan 2.Pittsburgh 3.Oklahoma 4.Georgia 5.UCLA
October 9 #1 Michigan defeated Michigan State 42–10, and #2 Pittsburgh beat Louisville 27–6. #3 Oklahoma played its annual game in Dallas against #16 Texas to a 6–6 tie. #4 Georgia was upset 21–17 at Mississippi, #5 UCLA beat Stanford 38–20, while #6 Nebraska won 24–12 at Colorado and rose to third. #7 Maryland, which beat NC State 16–6, rose to fifth. The Top Five was: 1.Michigan 2.Pittsburgh 3.Nebraska 4.UCLA 5.Maryland
October 16 After playing its first five games at home, #1 Michigan traveled to Evanston and defeated Northwestern, 38–7. #2 Pittsburgh beat Miami (FL), 36–19. #3 Nebraska shut out Kansas State 51–0, #4 UCLA beat Washington State 62–3, but #5 Maryland narrowly beat Wake Forest 17–15, and fell to sixth. #6 Oklahoma returned to the Top Five after a 28–10 win at #15 Kansas. The top five was: 1.Michigan 2.Pittsburgh 3.Nebraska 4.UCLA 5.Oklahoma
October 23 #1 Michigan won 35–0 at Indiana, while #2 Pittsburgh won 45–0 at Navy. #3 Nebraska lost 34–24 to #17 Missouri. Though Mizzou finished with a 6–5 record, they had also upset USC and Ohio State. #4 UCLA won 35–19 at California, #5 Oklahoma lost 31–24 at home to Oklahoma State, #6 Maryland won 30–3 at Duke to reach 7–0. #7 USC (which had lost its opener to Missouri, then won four, beat Oregon State 56–0, and crashed the top 5: 1.Michigan 2.Pittsburgh 3.UCLA 4.USC 5.Maryland
October 30 #1 Michigan beat Minnesota 45–0 and #2 Pittsburgh beat Syracuse, 23–13, as both teams reached 8–0. #3 UCLA won 30–21 at Washington and #4 USC beat California 20-6. #5 Maryland beat Kentucky 24–14, but fell back to sixth place in the polls, trading places with Texas Tech, which had beaten #15 Texas 31–28. The top five was: 1.Michigan 2.Pittsburgh 3.UCLA 4.USC 5.Texas Tech
November 6 #1 Michigan lost 16–14 at Purdue, and fell from the top spot. #2 Pittsburgh's 37–7 win over Army allowed it to take over the top spot. #3 UCLA beat Oregon 46–0, #4 USC won 48–24 at Stanford. #5 Texas Tech won 14–10 at TCU. The top five was: 1.Pittsburgh 2.UCLA 3.USC 4.Michigan 5.Texas Tech
November 13 #1 Pittsburgh beat West Virginia 24–16, and #2 UCLA won 45–14 at Oregon State to extend its record to 9–0–1. #3 USC beat Washington 20-3, #4 Michigan beat Illinois 38-7, and #5 Texas Tech beat SMU 34–7 to reach 8–0. The Top Five was unchanged: 1.Pittsburgh 2.UCLA 3.USC 4.Michigan 5.Texas Tech
November 20 While #1 Pittsburgh was idle, three conference championships were determined on the same day. In Los Angeles, #2 UCLA and #3 USC were both unbeaten in the Pac-8, so their crosstown game determined the conference title for the Rose Bowl berth. UCLA suffered its first loss of the season, falling to the Trojans 24–14. The same day in Columbus, Ohio, the Big Ten's two best teams were meeting to determine the other berth in the Rose Bowl. In conference play, #4 Michigan had one loss and was second to #8 Ohio State; it was no contest as Michigan won 22–0 over the Buckeyes and climbed to second. The Southwest Conference title and a trip to the Cotton Bowl came down to a meeting between #5 Texas Tech and #9 Houston, in its first year of membership; the visiting Cougars handed the Red Raiders their first loss, 27–19. #6 Maryland closed an 11–0 regular season with a 28–0 win at Virginia, and the ACC champion was invited to meet SWC champion Houston in the Cotton Bowl. Top-ranked Pittsburgh was invited to play in the Sugar Bowl after the players took a vote and made it clear that they would prefer to play SEC champion #5 Georgia there rather than face lower ranked Big 8 co-champion Colorado in the Orange Bowl. The Orange Bowl then controversially selected Big 10 runner up Ohio State to play Colorado over Pac-8 runner up UCLA, even though UCLA had a better record and higher ranking than Ohio State. It was believed that Ohio State would bring more fans to Miami for the warm weather than UCLA would, and Orange Bowl officials did not like the prospect of a UCLA - Colorado matchup as it would be two schools from the west playing back east. The Top Five was: 1.Pittsburgh 2.Michigan 3.USC 4.Maryland 5.Georgia
November 27 #1 Pittsburgh moved its game against Penn State from its campus to Three Rivers Stadium. Pitt had not beaten the Nittany Lions in its last ten meetings, but on the night after Thanksgiving, cruised to a 24–7 win. Tony Dorsett, who rushed for 224 yards and scored two of Pitt's touchdowns, breaking the record for yards in a season (1,948) and becoming the first college player to reach 6,000 yards rushing in a career, closing with 6,082. (He was awarded the Heisman Trophy the following week.) USC maintained its #3 ranking with a 17–13 win over Notre Dame, and the final regular season poll was 1.Pittsburgh 2.Michigan 3.USC 4.Maryland 5.Georgia.
At the Sugar Bowl at the Superdome in New Orleans, Pitt quarterback Matt Cavanaugh passed for 192 yards, and Dorsett had 32 carries for 202 yards, overcoming Georgia's heralded "Junkyard Dogs" defense. After taking a 21–0 lead at halftime, the Panthers cemented their number one status with a 27–3 win over Georgia. In the Cotton at Dallas, #6 Houston beat #4 Maryland 30–21, and #3 USC beat #2 Michigan 14–6 in the Rose in Pasadena. At the nightcap in Miami, Ohio State justified their Orange Bowl invitation by crushing Colorado, 27–10.
Pittsburgh received 59 of the 62 first place votes cast to win the AP Trophy, and was ranked #1 by UPI as well, followed by 2.USC 3.Michigan 4.Houston and 5.Oklahoma. The other Division I unbeaten team, Rutgers (11–0), was ranked 17th in the final poll.