Oklahoma was seeking their first national championship since 1956, when they were still under the direction of the great Bud Wilkinson. Chuck Fairbanks became the head coach in 1967, promptly won an Orange Bowl and finished #3 in the nation. But a 20-12-1 record over the next three years cooled the momentum. The 1971 Oklahoma football team bounced back—and only a narrow loss in one of college football’s legendary games stopped them returning to the top of the polls.
Fairbanks had installed the wishbone offense, with Jack Mildren at the controls. Mildren, a future lieutenant governor in the state of Oklahoma, became a statewide icon by running the three-back option attack with skillful precision. Mildren himself ran for over 1,400 yards. And he had one of the best backs in the nation to pitch to in All-American Greg Pruitt, who rolled up 1,665 yards at a stunning 9.4 yards-per-attempt.
Running the ball was the stock in trade of the wishbone, with Leon Crosswhite and Roy Bell combining to add in over 1,200 more yards. Up front, Tim Brahaney was the best center in the country, with Ken Jones an All-Big Eight performer at guard. Oklahoma only threw 64 passes for the entire season, but still scored the most points of anyone in the nation.
OU’s defense was a little more pedestrian, ranking 38th nationally in points allowed. But they still had a future NFL starter up front in Ray “Sugar Bear” Hamilton at defensive end, and All-Big Eight lineman Derland Moore. Steve Aycock at linebacker and defensive back John Shelby also got recognition as All-Conference.
Oklahoma opened the season ranked #10 in the polls and began by taking apart bad teams in SMU and Pitt by a combined score of 85-29. The Sooners were up to #8 when USC came to town on October 2.
The Trojans were ranked #17, the traditional power in the Pac-8, and from the perspective of history, we know that they would win a national championship just one year later. But the 1971 edition was a little more mediocre. They would lose four games and one those defeats came in Norman, 33-20.
Oklahoma was set up for the Red River Rivalry showdown with Texas. The Longhorns were ranked #3 in the polls. Both teams ran the wishbone and on this October afternoon, they were both running it exceptionally well. An early turnover put OU in a 7-0 hole. A 46-yard run from Pruitt was the key to a game-tying drive. The teams traded scores and it was 14-14 after the first quarter.
In the second quarter, Pruitt popped another big run, a 41-yard rush that was the key play in a 96-yard touchdown drive. Oklahoma then recovered a fumble and scored again. By halftime, they were up 31-21.
The second half saw the Sooner defense get settled in. And Pruitt kept running, to the tune of 216 yards on 20 carries. Mildren carried 27 times for 111 yards. Oklahoma pulled away to a 48-27 win, and when the next polls came out, OU was all the way up to #2.
Big Eight rival Nebraska was #1, and the Sooners and Cornhuskers were slated to play on Thanksgiving Day. Essentially, Oklahoma controlled their own destiny.
There were still some very good teams left before Turkey Day, and foremost among them was Colorado. The Buffalos were ranked #6 and came into Norman next. In a spot where OU might have let down, they instead played one of their most complete games of the year. Pruitt had another huge day, going for 190 yards on just 14 carries. The offense as a whole rolled up 670 yards—an astonishing number against anyone, much less one of the nation’s better teams. The defense shut down the excellent Colorado running back Charlie Davis. The final score was 45-17.
The offense went to Manhattan and exploded even more against mediocre Kansas State, in a 75-28 win. A solid Iowa State team, that would go 8-3, was up next. The Sooners routed the Cyclones 43-12. A road trip to lowly Missouri finally produced a letdown, but it was against an opponent unable to really take advantage. Oklahoma still won 20-3. On November 13, OU beat a subpar Kansas State team 56-13. They had a week and a half to get ready for the game of the year.
This 1971 Nebraska-Oklahoma game was the first of what would be many such games hyped as “The Game of the Century”. It was on the cover of Sports Illustrated the week before the game. The winner was going to the Orange Bowl, where they would play the winner of the Auburn-Alabama game on Black Friday for the national title.
The game was everything the national audience could have hoped for. Nebraska’s defense sold out to stop Pruitt and succeeded. But Mildren took advantage of the extra breathing room. He ran for 130 yards. He rallied OU from 28-17 down to take a 31-28 lead with just over seven minutes to play. But the Cornhuskers got the last word with a touchdown inside the final two minutes. Oklahoma lost a heartbreaker, 35-31.
There was still the Bedlam Rivalry against Oklahoma State to play the following Saturday. The Sooners, to their credit, didn’t mail it in, and blew out a mediocre Cowboy team 58-14.
The Oklahoma-Auburn game in the Sugar Bowl was essentially a national consolation game. It proved to be part of an opportunity for the Big Eight to demonstrate a historic level of dominance. OU’s opening drive went 77 yards in a 13 plays, ending with a Mildren touchdown run. They added two more touchdowns before the quarter was out. The wishbone was humming. Mildren carried it 30 times for 149 yards. Oklahoma’s total rush yard advantage was an overwhelming 439-40. The lead rose to 34-0 in the third quarter. Only the entry of Sooner reserves in the fourth quarter let the final score appear halfway respectable at 40-22.
It was a prelude to what happened that night in Miami, when Nebraska smashed Alabama to win the national championship. The Cornhuskers and Sooners finished 1-2 in the final polls. Moreover, Colorado, with losses only to the two conference heavyweight, finished #3 in the final ranking. The 1-2-3 trifecta for the Big Eight was historic and not matched since.
1972, for better or for worse, ran to a similar script. Oklahoma had a great team, won the Sugar Bowl, and finished #2 in the nation. This time it was a close loss at Colorado that cost them the top spot. Fairbanks went on to coach the New England Patriots, and Barry Switzer would take over. As good as Fairbanks was, Switzer changed the dynamic of OU’s rivalries with both Nebraska and Texas. They started dominating both. And by 1974, they were back atop the college football world.