The 1978 NCAA Division I-A football season was the first season of Division I-A football; Division I-A was created in 1978 from the splitting of Division I for football only. The season came down to a rare #1 vs. #2 post-season meeting as #1 Penn State and #2 Alabama met in the New Year's Day Sugar Bowl. The game is most remembered for Alabama's goal line stand with four minutes left in the game. On fourth down and a foot, Alabama managed to keep Penn State out of the end zone and went on to win 14-7. Keith Jackson, who did the play by play for ABC, called it the greatest game he'd ever seen. 76,824 people packed the Louisiana Superdome, which was tremendously loud.
Alabama's only loss that year was 24-14 in Birmingham to Southern California. Both schools claim this year as a national title year. Alabama claimed the national title because it defeated top-ranked Penn State on the field. USC claimed the title because it defeated Alabama in the regular season and also finished with only one loss. The AP Poll and most other voting outlets crowned Alabama as national champion, while the UPI coaches' poll selected USC. This was the first year of the Pacific-10 Conference, as the Pac 8 added Arizona schools the University of Arizona and Arizona State University.
Top ranked Penn State, as an independent, was not tied to any bowl game so the Nittany Lions accepted the Sugar Bowl invitation where they would meet SEC Champion Alabama, who was ranked 2nd in the AP and 3rd in the UPI. Pac-10 champion USC (ranked 3rd in the AP and 2nd in the UPI) faced #5 Michigan in the Rose Bowl in a battle of one loss teams. Nebraska had upset Oklahoma to earn the Big 8 title and automatic Orange Bowl berth; the Orange Bowl pulled a surprise by inviting the Sooners to play Nebraska in a rematch. Most observers felt Clemson would be invited and Oklahoma would play Houston in the Cotton Bowl Classic. The Cotton Bowl Classic bid went to Notre Dame and Clemson had to settle for the Gator Bowl despite a better record and higher ranking than Notre Dame.
In unusually cold and icy Dallas, Notre Dame overcame a 34-13 deficit to beat Houston 35-34. In New Orleans, Alabama used a 4th quarter goal line stand to upset Penn State 14-7. In Pasadena, USC defeated Michigan 17-10, aided by an official's ruling on a touchdown by Charles White when TV replays clearly showed that he fumbled on the two yard line. In the Orange Bowl, Oklahoma won its rematch with Nebraska 31-24. One other Bowl of note saw Clemson beat Ohio State 17-15 in the Gator Bowl; the next day, legendary Ohio State coach Woody Hayes was fired for punching Clemson defensive back Charlie Bauman in the throat after his game saving interception.
In the AP poll, Alabama (11-1-0), on the strength of their Sugar Bowl win over Penn State, was voted #1. In the UPI poll, USC (12-1-0) was voted #1, based in a large part on their easy early season 24-14 win at Alabama over the Crimson Tide.