It had been fifteen years since the Oklahoma Sooners had won a national championship and almost as long since they’d even seriously contended for one. That wasn’t expected to change when the 2000 college football season opened. Three teams from the Big 12 Conference were ranked in the top 10 of the preseason polls. Oklahoma wasn’t one of them. But the Sooners would outlast everyone else and return to the top by season’s end.
The OU defense ranked fifth in the nation for points allowed, led by All-American linebacker Rocky Calmus and ball hawking defensive back J.T. Thatcher, who intercepted eight passes. A potent offense had Josh Heupl at quarterback. A future head coach, Heupl finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting.
Oklahoma built momentum in September and moved up to #10 in the polls when October arrived. Season-defining games against those conference foes who had been more highly regarded in August were up. The Sooners raised more than a few eyebrows when they utterly demolished Texas 63-14. Then Heupl’s offense won a 41-31 shootout over #2 Kansas State.
The third hurdle was the biggest—the top-ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers. Nebraska had the second-best offense in the country, thanks to an explosive ground attack. Dan Alexander rushed over 1,100 yards and future NFL starter Correll Buckhalter added 750 more. Eric Crouch, a year away from winning the Heisman Trophy at quarterback, ran for nearly 1,000 yards of his own. Dominic Raiola was the best center in the country.
But the OU defense had a decided edge, even with the presence of Cornhusker All-American Carlos Polk at linebacker. The Sooners won and it was decisive, 31-14. They were ranked #1 in the country. A couple of stiff challenges came down the stretch—OU survived #23 Texas A&M 35-31, and the rematch with Kansas State in the conference championship game was a hard-fought 27-24 win. But when the dust settled, Oklahoma was the only unbeaten team in the nation. They were headed to the Orange Bowl, which was designated to host this season’s 1 vs. 2 national championship game.
The joust for the other spot came down to heated debate between two archrivals from the state of Florida. The Florida State Seminoles were the defending national champs and ranked #2 to start the season. The Miami Hurricanes looked primed for a comeback year after several years out of the national spotlight, and were ranked fifth in the opening polls.
Florida State had an elite offense and quarterback Chris Weinke won the Heisman. Wide receiver Marvin Minnis was an All-American. The Seminole defense was even better, ranking first in the nation in points allowed and led by Lombardi Award winner Jamal Reynolds at defensive end.
Miami had their own decorated defensive star with Butkus Award-winning linebacker Dan Morgan. The Hurricanes had a defensive back named Ed Reed who turned out pretty good in the pros, and who made All-American in 2000. Ken Dorsey was at quarterback and threw 25 touchdown passes against just five interceptions. Dorsey had a couple of future NFL targets in wide receiver Santana Moss and tight end Jeremey Shockey. James Jackson was a 1,000-yard rusher in the backfield.
In spite of that talent, the Hurricanes took a hit early in the season when they lost to Rose Bowl-bound Washington 34-29. Miami was ranked #7 when they faced Florida State. On the same October day that Oklahoma was polishing off Texas, the Hurricanes won a 27-24 thriller over the Seminoles.
Miami still had a big hurdle to clear in the Big East Conference that they played in through 2003. Virginia Tech, also a Big East member through the ’03 season, had played for the national title just one year earlier. They had a sensational quarterback in sophomore Michael Vick, plus a tough runner in 1,200-yard rusher Lee Suggs. The Hokies were a top five offense nationally, and were unbeaten when they visited Miami on November 4.
The Hurricanes-Hokies battle was to see who would get the inside track to the Orange Bowl. But Vick had a bad ankle, and Miami’s defense was significantly better in either case. The ‘Canes won 41-21 and were set up at #2 in the polls.
But meanwhile, Florida State was polishing off the ACC in impressive fashion. In consecutive games against ranked teams from N.C. State and Clemson, the Seminoles dropped 112 points. They were up to #3 in the polls coming down the stretch and heading into a big game with fourth-ranked Florida.
Steve Spurrier routinely churned out great offenses at Florida during this era. In 2000, even with quarterback duties being split between Jesse Palmer and Rex Grossman, the Gators piled up the points. Jabar Gaffney was one of the nation’s top receivers. Florida got a key early win in the SEC East when they knocked off #11 Tennessee 27-23. Even though the Gators took a loss against Mississippi State, they bounced back with comfortable wins over good teams in Auburn, Georgia, and South Carolina.
All of which made Florida State’s 30-7 blowout win over Florida on November 18 look even more impressive. There was a hot debate on over whether FSU or Miami should get the nod to play Oklahoma.
The system at the time relied on a rigid computer formula to determine opponents for the national championship game. Even though pollsters, moved by the head-to-head result, had Miami at #2 (as the Playoff Committee of today likely would), the computers loved Florida State’s blowout wins. When Florida secured the SEC crown by hammering Auburn 28-6, it made FSU’s blowout of the Gators look even better.
All of which is to say that Florida State, even with the head-to-head loss to Miami, and even with both teams having just one loss overall, it was the Seminoles who were ticketed to play Oklahoma. The Hurricanes were paired up with Florida in the Sugar Bowl.
About the team that beat Miami…Washington was one of several good teams battling it out in the Pac-10. The Huskies had a versatile quarterback in Marques Tuiasosopo, and an All-American offensive lineman in Chad Ward.
They were joined in the fight for conference honors by both teams from the state of Oregon. The Oregon Ducks were led by quarterback Joey Harrington, an eventual top-3 pick in the NFL draft, and running back Maurice Morris, who rolled up nearly 1,200 yards.
Oregon State was coached by Dennis Erickson, who had won a pair of national titles at Miami. The Beavers were led by an explosive runner in Ken Simonton, who went off for over 1,500 yards. The receivers were both NFL-bound, and strangely enough, both for the Cincinnati Bengals to keep wearing orange and black—Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Jonathan Smith was an efficient quarterback with a 20-7 TD/INT ratio.
Oregon drew first blood in the conference when they beat Washington 23-16 at the end of September. Oregon State made their first splash that same day when they knocked off eighth-ranked USC, the preseason league favorite. The Trojans faded while the Beavers kept rising.
Washington’s 33-30 win over Oregon State kept them in the hunt for the Rose Bowl. The Beavers finished off the season by outgunning ranked UCLA 44-38, and then winning the rivalry showdown with Oregon 23-13.
When all was said and done, all three teams—Washington, Oregon, and Oregon State, were in the national top 10. The Huskies were #4 and had some of us wondering why they, with the same record as Miami and Florida State, didn’t get more consideration for the Orange Bowl. As it was, the Huskies went to the Rose. Oregon State got a Fiesta Bowl bid. Oregon finished #8 and settled for the Holiday Bowl.
Opponents for Washington and Oregon State in the major bowls came out of the state of Indiana. Purdue football had been making strides with a wide-open offense led by the great Drew Brees at quarterback. Brees threw for over 3,600 yards. He also ran for over 500 yards. Montrell Lowe just missed being a 1,000-yard rusher, while Vinny Sutherland did cross that threshold at receiver. In the month of October, the Boilermakers won a 32-31 thriller over Michigan, beat Northwestern 41-28, and edged Ohio State 31-27. The Big Ten title was split three ways between Purdue, Michigan, and Northwestern. The head-to-head wins sent the Boilermakers to Pasadena.
It isn’t often you use the phrase “quietly good” when talking about Notre Dame, but that was the case for the Irish in 2000. A close loss to Nebraska on September 9 indicated this Notre Dame team might be improved off a sub-.500 campaign in 1999. The Irish beat the Boilermakers in a 23-21 thriller, and from there quietly churned out a 9-2 record. A two-pronged rushing attack with Julius Jones and Tony Fisher led the way and Notre Dame got a Fiesta Bowl bid.
There were only four major bowls at this time—Rose, Sugar, Fiesta, and Orange—so some of the nation’s better teams had to be on the undercard. They all made statements. Oregon won a good 35-30 game over Texas in the Holiday Bowl. Nebraska crushed Northwestern 66-17 in the Alamo. And Virginia Tech easily beat Clemson 41-20 in the Gator.
That set up the marquee events. Oregon State showed just how good they were, running through and around Notre Dame to a 41-9 blowout win in the Fiesta. Washington took an early lead over Purdue and rode it to a 34-24 win in the Rose.
Now, it was time for the championship-deciding games. The writers’ poll had made no commitment to voting the winner of the Orange Bowl #1 in the country, as the coaches’ poll had. Which meant that if Miami and Florida State both won, the writers might choose to elevate the Hurricanes, creating a split national title. In the Sugar Bowl, Miami at least gave the AP something to think about with a 37-20 win over Florida.
The ultimate story of the Orange Bowl battle though, was defense. Specifically, the Oklahoma defense. That explosive offense of Florida State was kept off the scoreboard entirely. The Seminoles’ only points came on a safety. The Sooners won 13-2, silenced any remaining doubters and were undisputed national champions.