The 2000 Oklahoma Sooners Return To National Prominence

The Oklahoma Sooners were no strangers to competing for national championships and doing it at the Orange Bowl, but when they arrived in Miami following the 2000 college football season, it had been a while since Boomer Sooner had been on top.

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OU won the national championship under Barry Switzer in 1985 and played for the title in 1987, both times in the Orange Bowl. But 1988 had been the last time they were relevant on the national stage. The 2000 Oklahoma Sooners, led by second-year head coach Bob Stoops, made the program’s first major bowl since 1987 and brought the first national title in fifteen years to Norman.

The Sooners opened the season unranked, but it didn’t take long for them to make a statement. UTEP came to Norman for the season opener on September 2 and this was a pretty good Miners team, one that would win eight games and make a bowl. The Oklahoma defense forced seven turnovers, quarterback Josh Heupel threw for 274 yards on 18/36 passing and the Sooners romped 55-14.

Two games against soft non-conference competition followed. OU destroyed Arkansas State and Rice with a 300-yard passing game from Heuepleach time. And each time a back went over 100 yards, with Andre Woolfolk and Quentin Griffin taking turns. The Sooners closed September and opened Big 12 play by hammering Kansas 34-16, thanks to another seven-turnover day from the defense with three interceptions by defensive back J.T. Thatcher.

By the time September was over, Oklahoma had risen to #10 in the polls. But the biggest games of the season were still ahead and not much is bigger—anywhere in the country—then the Red River Rivalry game with Texas that beckoned on October 7.

Texas came into the game ranked #11, so no one anticipated what was about to go down. On the game’s first possession, Heupel rifled a 29-yard touchdown pass to Woolfork. Then the quarterback connected on a 20-yard pass to tight end Matt Anderson setting up an easy TD. Linebacker Rocky Calmus was playing with a cast due to a broken thumb, but it didn’t stop him from intercepting a pass and taking it to the house.

By the time the first half was over, OU had scored on all five offensive possessions along with the Calmus touchdown. They led 42-7 and the final was a 63-14 stunner.

There was no time to celebrate though, because the following week was a trip to face second-ranked Kansas State. The Sooners wouldn’t start quite so fast in this game—they trailed 7-3 when Thatcher brought a kickoff back 93 yards for a touchdown. Heupel was again throwing strikes all over the field—he would finish 29/37 for 374 yards and for the second straight week have zero interceptions. Sophomore receiver Antonio Savage was the key target, with seven catches for 116 yards.

Oklahoma led 38-14, but they one thing they were not doing was running the football. OU only netted 11 yards on the ground. They were unable to just run the game out and Kansas State came back with a long touchdown pass and a special teams score of their own. The lead was cut to 38-31 with more than ten minutes to go. Heupel calmly responded by hitting key throws, pushing the Sooners into field goal range and getting the clinching points in a 41-31 win.

OU was now sitting at #2 and the only team ahead of them was historic rival Nebraska, still in the Big 12. After a week off to catch their breath, the Sooners prepared to host the Cornhuskers in a game that woke up the echoes of the 1970s and 1980s when this game was must-see college football—not just regionally, but nationally.

It didn’t start well. Nebraska, led by quarterback Eric Crouch, rolled to easy touchdowns on their first two drives. Oklahoma looked like a program that might still be a year or two away from competing with the big boys. Then the game completely turned on a dime.

Heupel hit a key pass to receiver Curtis Fagan setting up a touchdown that cut the lead to 14-7. Late, Heupel again connected with Fagan, this time for a 34-yard touchdown pass on 3rd-and-14 that tied the game. The OU defense found its bearings and in the second quarter they held Nebraska to one first down and 16 yards rushing.

Oklahoma nudged out to a 17-14 lead by halftime and kept it going into the second half. Nebraska couldn’t move the ball—though Crouch would rush for 101 yards, he was ineffective passing and no one else made a notable contribution. Heupel finished the day 20/34 for 300 yards and the final was 31-14.

Oklahoma celebrated their return to the top of the polls by crushing lowly Baylor 56-7. Heupel threw for 313 yards and three touchdowns, while the defense held the Bears to 94 yards of total offense. But over the next three weeks, the Sooners lost some of their crispness and they flirted with danger.

Heupel threw a couple interceptions at bowl-bound Texas A&M. He was still able to throw for 263 yards, but it took a Pick-6 from linebacker Torrance Marshall to be the difference in a 35-31 escape. The offense was sloppy at home against another bowl-caliber opponent in Texas Tech, turning the ball over four times. They were able to outrush the Red Raiders 136-21 and win the game 27-13.

The regular season finale at Oklahoma State, the Bedlam game, was another defensive affair. The Cowboys were not a good team in 2000, but they forced Heupel into a poor 19/36 for 154 yards and two interceptions stat line. The defense again delivered though and so did the running game—Griffen rushed for 115 yards and the Sooners escaped with a 12-7 win.

The late season swoon from Heupel almost certainly cost him the Heisman Trophy—as it was, he still finished a close second to Florida State’s Chris Weinke and ahead of a couple notable names in Purdue’s Drew Brees and TCU running back LaDanian Tomlinson. More important though, was that Oklahoma was undefeated and champs of the Big 12 South.

Prior to 2011, the Big 12 was split into divisions, so the undefeated regular season wasn’t the end of the journey. Revenge-minded Kansas State had taken the North. The rematch would take place in Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium on the first Saturday of December.

In the frigid cold, Heupel got off to a slow start. He threw a pair of first-quarter interceptions. Oklahoma also wasted a turnover opportunity of their own when they were subsequently stopped on 4th-and-goal from the 1-yard line. They were fortunate to only be behind 10-3 midway through the second quarter.

Right before half, Heuepl got into a groove and led a game-tying TD drive. He led another drive in the third quarter. It was 17-10 and the Sooner defense was in control. But the special teams weren’t—they allowed a punt return for a touchdown that tied the game 17-17.

Heupel answered early in the fourth quarter when he connected with Woolfork over the middle on a 17-yard touchdown pass to go up 24-17. The game stayed there until just over a minute remained. OU got a clinching field goal, K-State scored a meaningless TD with six seconds left and the 27-24 win sent the Sooners to Miami.

The Orange Bowl was hosting the national championship game, which brought back plenty of Oklahoma nostalgia. Their greatest moments had taken place in this bowl game. In Switzer’s day, it was because the old Big Eight Conference was tied the Orange Bowl. This time it was coincidence—the format that existed from 1998-2005 called for one of the four major games (including the Sugar, Rose and Fiesta) to rotate hosting the 1 vs. 2 teams. Oklahoma fans were just fine with waking up the echoes of their past in Miami.

Florida State was the defending national champion and even though Oklahoma was the #1-ranked team, the Seminoles were installed as hefty 11-point favorites. To put this in perspective, that’s the same spread that existed for the legendary Miami-Nebraska Orange Bowl of 1983, widely considered one of the great upsets of all time.

Perhaps it’s understandable that the public didn’t believe in these Sooners—even though Calmus and Thatcher were 1st-team All-Americans, the program only had two players chosen in the NFL draft the following April and none higher than the third round. The same was true the following year. People who use the “eye test” insisted Florida State was better.

But people that used the test of “how many football games has this team won and who have they beaten” would have noted the two victories over Kansas State and the routs over Nebraska and Texas. Maybe that’s why what happened isn’t seen as a historic upset in spite of the pointspread.

The potent Florida State offense did nothing against Oklahoma. The Sooners got a field goal in the first quarter and a field goal in the third, and even with the score 6-0, it felt like that would stand up all night. FSU couldn’t run ,gaining only 27 yards on the ground. Weinke was forced to the air constantly and finished 25/52 for 276 yards, a relatively inefficient performance that included a couple picks. When Griffen ran for a fourth-quarter touchdown to make it a two-score game at 13-0, you could start the party in Norman.

Oklahoma didn’t get the shutout, although the fact Florida State needed a safety to get its only points in the 13-2 final almost served to catch the eye even more than a shutout would have. To casual fans, the game might have been forgettable. But to those who loved the 2000 Oklahoma Sooners, it was a championship that told the college football world they were back.