After being one of the nation’s top three programs in the 1970s (along with USC and Alabama), the Oklahoma Sooners had slid backward the past three years. They lost four games each year from 1981-83. 1984 Oklahoma football wasn’t seen as likely to reverse the trend, ranking #16 in the preseason polls and behind conference rival Nebraska in national esteem. But the Sooners got an Orange Bowl bid and ended up squarely in the middle of the national championship conversation.
The talent base wasn’t as dazzling as previous OU editions had been. The only All-American was defensive tackle Tony Casillas. Lydell Carr’s 694 yards led the team and the passing game was as inept as one would expect from a traditional option-first offense.
Danny Bradley only completed 48 percent of his passes, though he did get a decent 7.3 yards-per-pass, thanks to a big-play threat in future NFL tight end Keith Jackson.
Oklahoma beat Stanford 19-7 to start the year and then trounced Pitt 42-10. The Panthers had been ranked #3 in the preseason polls, but an opening home loss to BYU had Pitt down to #17 by the time they hosted OU, and the Panthers would end up a 3-7-1 train wreck. For now, the OU win was seen as impressive enough to boost them to #11.
A 24-6 win over Kansas State came as top teams were starting to fall left and right, and the Sooners rose to #3. It wastime for the annual showdown with Texas and the Longhorns were ranked #1. The game ended in a 15-15 tie, but the tie worked in Oklahoma’s favor—they moved to #2.
OU played poorly in a 12-10 win over a bad Iowa State team and that presaged a 28-11 loss at Kansas, who finished the year 5-6. Oklahoma was now down to 10th in the polls and a national title seemed a longshot. But they picked themselves up, rolled over two lousy teams in Missouri and Colorado by a combined 91-24 and were ranked sixth in the nation as they headed to Nebraska.
The Cornhuskers were atop both the Big Eight and the national polls, and had a 27-game conference winning streak. Nebraska and Oklahoma traded touchdowns in the first half, with the Sooners getting an easy score off a turnover. A field goal early in the fourth quarter helped OU nudge ahead 10-7.
Oklahoma was being outplayed in the general flow of the game. The running game for both teams was basically a wash, neither good nor bad. Bradley was no passing threat at all, throwing for just 58 yards, while the Cornhuskers at least got some movement through the air.
But OU would win the turnover battle 4-3 and they made big defensive stops. Nebraska drove inside the 10-yard line, but was forced to settle for a field goal attempt they missed. And when the Cornhuskers had 4th-and-goal on the 1-yard line with 5:32 left, Oklahoma made one more stop. They tacked on a clinching touchdown and had a 17-7 win.
There was still the matter of playing a home game with Oklahoma State and this one wasn’t exactly a game to overlook. The Cowboys had one of their best teams and were ranked #3 in the country, while Oklahoma was now #2. The winner would have a chance at the national championship.
The rivalry game called Bedlam was tied 14-14 in the third quarter, when two big turnovers made the difference. One set up a Sooner field goal and the other, a muffed punt, produced a clinching touchdown. Oklahoma had a 24-14 win and after a three-year hiatus were back on top of the Big Eight, its accompanying trip to the Orange Bowl.
OU’s opponent was fourth-ranked Washington, but you could be forgiven if you thought it was BYU. The Cougars were ranked #1, but played a weak schedule and then played in the Holiday Bowl (as they were contractually obligated to do) on December 21, barely escaping 6-5 Michigan, 24-17.
While BYU was expected to win the final vote regardless of what happened in the Orange Bowl, Oklahoma still had the sympathies of a large national contingent that thought them a worthier national champ. Switzer openly campaigned for his team as the rightful #1. Perhaps that resulted in the Sooners not being ready at the kickoff.
Washington jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter, before Oklahoma answered with a pair of TDs of their own and kicked a field goal for a 17-14 lead they took into the fourth quarter. But the Huskies ended the game as they had begun—with two touchdown drives. Oklahoma lost 28-17.
It was still a comeback year for the proud Oklahoma football program. They still finished #6 in the final polls. And they set the stage for what would be a national championship season in 1985.