Barry Switzer’s Oklahoma Sooners were the clear frontrunner in the old Big Eight Conference and a consistent contender for the national championship. They had won or shared the conference title each of the last four years and finished atop the polls nationally in 1974 and 1975. After a shaky start, the 1980 Oklahoma football team took its place in that winning tradition.
One area where the ’80 Sooners did slip was defense. A program that normally produced dominating Ds, only finished 45th in the country in points allowed and lacked All-American talent.
Nor did the Sooners throw the ball effectively–or barely at all. J.C. Watts threw ten interceptions in spite of attempting only 78 passes all season. What Oklahoma could do was run the wishbone option attack like nobody’s business.
The three-back set was balanced, and Stanley Wilson, David Overstreet and Buster Rhymes all finished with over 600 yards, as did Watts. The four players were in the top ten of the Big Eight in rushing and they ran behind an offensive line anchored by a pair of All-American guards, Louise Oubre and Terry Crouch.
OU opened the season ranked #5 in the polls. After a season-opening win over lowly Kentucky, the defensive problems were exposed. They hosted Stanford who had this talented sophomore quarterback named John Elway. The Cards were unranked and surprised everyone with a decisive 31-14 win. Oklahoma dropped to #12. The defense looked even worse the following week at awful Colorado, but the offense absolutely exploded in an 82-42 win.
The annual rivalry battle with Texas was up next—in the college football world prior to 1996, this was a non-conference game, with the Longhorns in the old Southwest Conference. Texas was ranked third in the country and while they would eventually fade, it didn’t happen in this game. Oklahoma lost 20-13 and slid to #17. The national title hopes were gone.
Switzer’s team got back on track with wins over Kansas State and Iowa State, and then welcomed sixth-ranked North Carolina to Norman. For the second time in 1980, the Sooners would face a future NFL great. This time it was outside linebacker Lawrence Taylor. But this time, the result was much different.
The Oklahoma running game got cranking, and blasted out 495 yards. Watts ran for 139. The game was close at the half, with the Sooners up 14-7, but a trio of third-quarter touchdowns blew it open. Watts didn’t complete a pass, going 0-for-2, but he didn’t need to in a 41-7 romp.
The Sooners struggled at mediocre Kansas, winning 21-19, though the victory moved them back into the Top 10. They again survived against a pretty good Missouri team, winning 17-7.
In spite of the losses, Oklahoma hadn’t lost within the Big Eight and that meant their November 22 trip to #4 Nebraska was for an outright conference championship and the Orange Bowl bid that came with it.
OU surrendered a long touchdown run to Nebraska’s Jarvis Redwine early and fell behind 10-0. The Sooners rallied with two second quarter touchdowns to lead 14-10 at half, but their running game bogged down badly. The defense hung in, but the Cornhuskers scored a touchdown with 3:16 left and with a 17-14 lead, the Nebraska fans littered the field with oranges in anticipation of their prize. It proved to be premature.
Rhymes tore off the biggest play of the season, a 43-yard run that got Oklahoma to the 16-yard line. A field goal was still essentially useless—because of the non-conference losses and Nebraska’s higher ranking, the Cornhuskers would surely get chosen for the Orange Bowl if the teams played to a tie in this era prior to overtime. Rhymes made sure that wasn’t necessary, diving over the top for the winning points with less than a minute left.
After the struggles of the early season, Oklahoma was again the Big Eight champs and they were all the way to #4 in the polls.
The Orange Bowl offered a rematch, as Oklahoma met second-ranked Florida State in Miami for the second straight season. The previous year, the Sooners had pounded FSU. The sequel was much better for college football fans, although OU fans were pushed to the edge.
The Oklahoma offense struggled. They ran the ball 55 times and only got 156 yards. They turned it over six times. One of them was a botched punt that was recovered in the end zone. The Sooners trailed 17-10 late in the game.
Oklahoma got the ball on their own 22-yard line with 2:37 left. Watt led the drive of his life, leading OU 78 yards for the touchdown and then converting the two-point play for an 18-17 lead.
Florida State made one last gasp, reached the Oklahoma 40-yard line and sending kicker Bill Capece out to try a desperation 57-yarder. He got good leg into it, but not quite enough. Oklahoma had another Orange Bowl victory.
To the surprise and disappointment of the Sooner faithful, the program would disappear from the New Year’s stage for a few years. Oklahoma lost ground to Nebraska in the Big Eight for each of the next three seasons. It wasn’t until 1984 that OU started up another run of four straight conference championships and Orange Bowl berths, including their national championship run of 1985.