One traditional powerhouse program and another up-and-comer on their way to becoming a powerhouse program crossed paths at the 1980 Orange Bowl. Oklahoma and Florida State arrived in Miami each having completed the 1979 college football regular season ranked in the top five and ready for what would prove to be the first of two consecutive New Year’s Day battles on South Beach.
Oklahoma was a regular on the New Year’s Day stage and had won consecutive national titles as recently as 1974-75. They came into the 1979 season with the reigning Heisman Trophy winner in Billy Sims back at running back. OU had 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.
Barry Switzer’s program was ranked #3 in the country to start the season, trailing only defending national co-champs Alabama and USC. Oklahoma 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.
The Sooners 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’s floundering football program had been taken over in 1976 by a guy named Bobby Bowden, and he immediately got the Seminoles respectable at 5-6. The next two years saw FSU win a combined 18 regular season games. Bowden’s program was coming and ’79 was the big breakthrough year.
Ron Simmons was an All-American defensive tackle and who anchored that side of the ball. Offensively, Bowden could get physical with 1,000-yard rusher Mark Lyles, and the coach alternated two quarterbacks, Jimmy Jordan and Wally Woodham. They threw the ball a lot by the standards of the day—a combined 332 attempts for both, the most any starting quarterback that made it to a New Year’s Day bowl game threw. Jackie Flowers, with his 37 catches for 622 yards was the top target.
Florida State had enough respect to be ranked #19 when the season began. They opened with five opponents who hovered more or less around the .500 mark. The Seminoles nipped Southern Miss, crushed Arizona State and beat Miami in the three home games that started the year. Then they survived a tough game at Virginia Tech, 17-10 and shut out Louisville. Florida State was up to #9 in the country.
After beating a bad Mississippi State team 17-6, Bowden took his team to Baton Rouge. LSU wasn’t great, but they were decent, finishing the season with a winning record. And Death Valley was no more hospitable to visitors in the late 1970s then it is today.
Jordan got most of the time at quarterback, and though he was a little erratic—14-for-31—he made big plays. Those fourteen completions got a stunning 312 yards. He threw three touchdown passes, a 53-yard strike to Hardis Johnson and a 40-yard pass to Flowers. Florida State won 24-19 and moved up to #6.
The following week at lowly Cincinnati was a trap game and FSU survived it, 26-21. It set up another important test, this one at home with South Carolina and their talented running back George Rogers.
Florida State took an early 13-0 lead before Rogers, who would win the Heisman the following year and have a good NFL career, ripped off an 80-yard touchdown run. FSU never really contained the big and explosive back, but they had a running game of their own. Lyles gained 132 yards on 25 carries and the Seminoles were vastly better in the air. This time it was Woodham, efficiently moving the ball at 15/29 for 145 yards (not bad numbers in this era) and the ‘Noles pulled away to a 27-7 win.
An undefeated season and major bowl invite was now in FSU’s crosshairs and they didn’t let up, crushing mediocre Memphis, 66-17. The season finale was with Florida, who went winless this season. The Seminoles put their rival out of their misery with a 27-14 win. They went to the Orange Bowl ranked #4.
There was no viable path for the Oklahoma-Florida State winner to claim a national title. Alabama and Ohio State were both unbeaten, but even if they both lost, that would mean third-ranked and USC (undefeated at 10-0-1) needed to beat Ohio State and that would crown the Trojans. The Orange Bowl was boxed out, but the storyline of traditional power versus up-and-comer was no small consolation prize.
Florida State started quickly, but you could tell they weren’t quite ready for prime-time. An early 7-0 lead might have been bigger if not for some mistakes. Watts broke through with a 61-yard touchdown run that tied the game and it was all Oklahoma the rest of the way in a 24-7 win. Simmons would concede afterward that the Sooners simply had more talent.
Oklahoma ended the season where they began, at #3 nationally. Florida State was just get started at becoming a major bowl regular.