1978 Oklahoma Football: A Heisman, A Near-Miss & A Loss Avenged.

Barry Switzer led the Oklahoma Sooners to national championships in 1974 and 1975 and nearly won another in 1977 before a stunning Orange Bowl defeat cost them the final #1 ranking. Expectations in Norman were that the beat would go on, and 1978 Oklahoma football was  #4 in the preseason polls.

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OU’s wishbone offense might be best compared to the read-option offenses of the 21st century, but with three backs in the backfield and it was all about running the football on the triple-option. Thomas Lott, the bandana-clad quarterback, only threw  55 passes all season, and backup J.C. Watts only threw 38. It’s only a modest exaggeration to say that today’s Sooner quarterbacks throw that many in a game. 

But that run-heavy attack shouldn’t be confused with a staid conservatism. The Sooners were explosive and churned out big plays.  Billy Sims ran for over 1,700 yards, led the Big Eight in rushing by over 600 yards and won the Heisman Trophy. Kenny King, a future NFL starter, was the #2 back. He and Lott each finished in the conference’s top 10 in rushing yardage. 

The offense scored more points than anyone in the country. The defense wasn’t quite as good, but at 18th nationally in points allowed, they certainly weren’t a weak spot. OU’s defense was keyed by All-American linebacker George Cumby. 

Oklahoma played a pretty good Stanford team on the road to open the season. The Cardinal had a coach by the name of Bill Walsh who was one year away from making the jump to the NFL and becoming a legend. They had a productive quarterback in Steve Dills. The Sooners had to survive 35-29.

Switzer’s team quickly found its second gear the next two weeks, smashing West Virginia and woeful Rice. In the meantime, #1 Alabama was upset by USC, second-ranked Arkansas struggled and third-ranked Penn State also failed to impress in a win. That, combined with Oklahoma’s reputation, moved them to the top of the polls for the start of the Big Eight schedule.

Missouri was a good team that was going to make their mark on this race before it was over, and they were ranked #14 when they visited OU on September 30. But the Sooners won decisively 45-23, and prepared for the annual rivalry battle with sixth-ranked Texas.

Sims set the tone of the Red River War early, with an 18-yard touchdown run. He ran for 131 yards on the day and the Sooners overall rushed for 311 yards. They led 17-3 at half, 24-3 in the third quarter and were never threatened in a 31-10 win.

One week later, Oklahoma had to survive a letdown scare from lowly Kansas, the worst team in the Big Eight and the Sooners only won 17-16. But they got back on track and rolled over a pretty good Iowa State team, Kansas and Colorado and were still atop the polls when they prepared to go to Nebraska on November 11. 

The Sooners and Cornhuskers dominated the old Big Eight (the organizational forerunner of today’s Big 12) and this November game was always an anticipated game nationally. 1978 was no different, with Nebraska undefeated and ranked #4. 

Sims again looked to set the tone of a big game, bolting 44 yards for a touchdown and an early 7-0 lead. But a turnover, when Lott’s pitch on the option went awry, set up Nebraska for the tying touchdown. It would prove to be a pattern—the Sooners fumbled nine times on this day and the Cornhuskers recovered six of them.

The game was tied 14-14 early in the fourth quarter when Nebraska got a field goal that marked their first fourth quarter points against Oklahoma since 1971. OU still drove down to the three-yard line with less than five minutes left and looked ready to win it. In a fitting conclusion, Sims fumbled and the Huskers recovered. 

In one fell swoop, the national title and the Orange Bowl bid that went to the Big Eight champ were gone. Or so it appeared. One week later, Oklahoma took out its frustrations on a bad Oklahoma State team in the Bedlam rivalry game. They scored 62 points and then got word that Missouri had upset Nebraska 35-31. 

The Sooners and Huskers were co-champs of the Big Eight. Nebraska still had the automatic bid to the Orange Bowl by virtue of the head-to-head win, but now the question of whom to invite loomed. Had Nebraska beaten Missouri, top-ranked Penn State would have been ticketed for MIami and a 1 vs. 2 battle for the national championship. Now they were redirected to the Sugar Bowl, where Alabama had moved back up to #2. 

The Orange Bowl Committee decided to invite Oklahoma and create a rematch. While Sooner fans were undoubtedly delighted to not have to wait a year to get the bad taste of November 11 out of their mouth, it was a poor decision. A rematch between comparable teams always favors the team that lost the previous game. 

What’s more, a perfectly logical alternative was to send Oklahoma to to the nearby Cotton Bowl to play 10-1 Houston. But bowl pairings were a free-for-all back then and with the Cotton Bowl having access to Joe Montana’s Notre Dame, they weren’t going to pass up on it. And while a rematch was unfair, there could be no question that this Sooner team was deserving of the New Year’s stage. 

Oklahoma made a strategic adjustment for the Orange Bowl and ran its option in more of a convoy, keeping people around the ballcarrier in the event of a fumble. It turned out to be unnecessary—the only fumbled once. After spotting the Huskers the first touchdown, OU scored the next 24 points and led 31-10 before a couple late Nebraska touchdowns made the final score respectable at 31-24.

Oklahoma finished #3 in the polls. They would return to the Orange Bowl each of the next two years and win both times. But their next national championship wouldn’t come until 1985.