At the University of Pittsburgh, Dorsett became the first freshman in 29 years to be named All-American (Doc Blanchard of Army was the previous one in 1944). He finished second in the nation in rushing with 1,586 yards in 11 games and led the Pittsburgh Panthers to its first winning season in 10 years. He was Pittsburgh's first All-American selection since the 1963 season, when both Paul Martha and Ernie Borghetti were named to the first team. His 1,586 rushing yards at the time was the most ever recorded by a freshman, breaking the record set by New Mexico State's Ron "Po" James record in 1968. By coincidence, James, like Dorsett, hailed from Beaver County, Pennsylvania, in particular New Brighton.
At the beginning of Dorsett's freshman year at Pitt, his son Anthony Dorsett was born September 14, 1973. Later in the 1973 season, Dorsett encountered some controversy when it was discovered that his son was born out of wedlock. With Dorsett having no intention of marrying his son's mother, it rankled many old-time steel workers who believed that when a man gets a woman pregnant, he should "do the right thing and marry the mother-to-be". According to Dorsett's rationing, his best way of raising his son would be through following his dreams of playing professional football as opposed to marrying a woman he wasn't in love with and working in a steel mill, something that ultimately paid off for Dorsett due to his Hall of Fame career as well as the steel industry collapsing in the late 1970's into the 1980's.
Three games into his sophomore season, he became Pitt's all-time leader in career rushing yards, surpassing the old record of 1,957 yards set by Marshall Goldberg, who helped Pitt to a national championship in 1937.
Against Notre Dame in his junior year, Dorsett had 303 yards rushing to break his own school single game rushing record. As a senior in 1976, he had a total of 290 yards against Notre Dame. He darted 61 yards on his first run of the season and tacked on 120 more by the end of the 31–10 Pitt win.
As a senior he helped lead his school to a national title in 1976, picking up the Heisman Trophy, the Maxwell Award, the Walter Camp Award for Player of the Year, and the United Press International (UPI) Player of the Year award along the way as he led the nation in rushing with 1,948 yards. He was a three-time first-team All-American (1973, 1975, 1976) and a second-team All-American in 1974 by UPI and Newspaper Enterprise Association (NEA). Dorsett finished his college career with 6,082 total rushing yards, then an NCAA record. This would stand as the record until it was surpassed by Ricky Williams in 1998.
Dorsett is considered one of the greatest running backs in college football history. In 2007, he was ranked #7 on ESPN's Top 25 Players in College Football History list. In 1994, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.