Barry Switzer had the Sooner Schooner running at full blast during the 1970s and the final year of the decade wasn’t much different. Oklahoma was a regular on the New Year’s Day stage and had won consecutive national titles as recently as 1974-75. The 1979 Oklahoma football team came into the season with the reigning Heisman Trophy winner in Billy Sims back at running back and an All-American linebacker in George Cumby.
The Sooners’ high-speed wishbone offense, built on the option, had a new starting quarterback in J.C. Watts, a future Republican congressman from the state. Watts only threw 81 passes all season, but he still ran for 455 yards and his ten rushing touchdowns were second in the old Big Eight Conference only to Sims’ 22. Stanley Wilson provided another threat at running back.
Oklahoma was ranked #3 in the country to start the season, trailing only defending national co-champs Alabama and USC. The Sooners started off the season with four straight decisive wins over mediocre competition in Iowa, Tulsa, Rice and Colorado. The first real test came on October 13 when they met fourth-ranked Texas in Dallas.
OU capitalized on an early turnover, and Watt hit Wilson with an 11-yard touchdown pass and a 7-3 lead. But Texas took the lead back in the second quarter, and then simply outmuscled Oklahoma. The proud Sooners were outrushed 223-128 and allowed the Longhorns to control the ball for nearly 39 minutes. The game ended 16-7 and Oklahoma slipped to #8 in the polls.
Switzer’s team resumed the blasting of mediocrity with blowouts over Kansas State, Iowa State and Kansas. Mixed in this timeframe was another blowout of Oklahoma State. The Cowboys had won seven games this year, coming mostly out of nowhere with a rookie head coach that Switzer would one day become indelibly linked—Jimmy Johnson.
The blowouts were setting up Oklahoma for their season-ending showdown with Nebraska, but with 1979 being a year where the chalk mostly held, it wasn’t helping OU move up the polls. They escaped Missouri 24-22 and were still sitting on #8 when it was time to host the third-ranked Cornhuskers for the conference championship and automatic Orange Bowl invite that went with it.
Sims had taken a modest step back from his Heisman standards of 1978—he rushed for 300 fewer yards and USC running back Charles White ended up winning the award in 1979. But don’t tell anyone from Nebraska that the ’79 version of Sims was watered down—he poured it on for 247 rush yards on 28 carries.
After trailing 7-3 at the half, Oklahoma scored consecutive touchdowns and though Nebraska scored with just under five minutes left, the Sooners closed out a 17-14 win. They moved up to #5 in the rankings.
Florida State was a newcomer to the national stage under a relatively unknown head coach named Bobby Bowden. Even though the Seminoles went undefeated, they were ranked #4. There was no realistic path to a national championship, but they got the nod to play Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.
Whether it was talent, experience with the big stage or a combination of both, the Sooners were ready for prime-time and the Seminoles were now. Oklahoma spotted FSU an early 7-0 lead. Watts tied the game with a 61-yard touchdown jaunt and OU took over the rest of the way.
Defensive back Bud Herbert intercepted FSU quarterback Jimmy Jordan to set up the go-ahead score. Herbert later intercepted backup QB Wally Woodham. The game ended 24-7, the outcome never in serious doubt.
Oklahoma closed the season as they had begun, ranked #3 and trailing only Alabama and USC. The Sooner Schooner continued to churn along in the national elite.