What do the 1980 and 1981 Orange Bowls tell us about this week's Oklahoma-FSU game?

Last year in advance of the Oklahoma game, we took a look back at the 1976 FSU-Oklahoma game as an interesting point of historical reference. It was a turning point of the Bowden era as the first-year coach turned to a core of freshman who kept the game in Norman close well into the second half. That led to a follow-up interview with then-FSU quarterback Jimmy Black, which newcomers to TN might find interesting.

This week's matchup has me thinking about a few years later -- the Orange Bowl games following the 1979 and 1980 seasons -- as possible analogs to the present.

The 1979 season was historic in many respects for Florida State -- it was the school's first undefeated regular season and first time to 11 wins. In fact, both of those facts were true for ANY Florida university.

The Noles 11-0 campaign led to another first -- FSU's first major bowl game, an Orange Bowl tilt vs. mighty Oklahoma.

FSU achieved 11-0 with a stellar defense and solid offense. The most important win was a 24-19 nationally televised (big deal in those days) win over LSU in Baton Rouge.

The two-headed quarterback of Jimmy Jordan and Wally Woodham led the FSU offense while Ron Simmons -- the greatest player to ever don the garnet and gold -- led a stingy FSU defense that held opponents to 3.7 yards per play.

A 27-16 win over Florida in Gainesville completed the undefeated season and sent FSU to the Orange Bowl. Still only ranked 4th, FSU had no chance to win a national title, but the big stage was reward enough.

Unfortunately, the stage was too big and the spotlight too bright.

As Bowden would later say, when Oklahoma came out of the lockeroom, "the field tilted."

An early FSU touchdown was illusory (and somewhat reminiscent of last year's game). From then on, Oklahoma dominated, winning 24-7 in a game that wasn't nearly that close.

FSU amassed just 182 yards of offense on 62 plays. On the other hand, the Sooners piled up 411 yards in RUSHING ALONE on 59 attempts. J.C. Watts and Billy Sims both went over 100 yards in the romp.

Florida State simply wasn't able to compete with bigger, faster and less stage-shocked Oklahoma.

The 1981 Orange Bowl was a different story. Despite suffering an early-season loss to Miami, 10-9, the 1980 FSU team was actually better than its undefeated predecessor.

Consecutive wins over No. 3 Nebraska (in Lincoln) and the No. 3 Dan Marino-led Pitt Panthers in Tallahassee were arguably the best back-to-back wins in school history.

And oh, could the 1980 team play defense. Long-time readers of TN know how strongly I feel that the 1980 defense was FSU's best ever. Here is my first story at TN that makes that case.

FSU entered the game ranked No. 2 in the nation, but was denied a shot at the national title when
the Sugar Bowl selected No. 7 Notre Dame as the opponent for No. 1 Georgia. When the Bulldogs beat the Irish earlier in the day, FSU knew there would be no national title. Still, a chance to finish No. 2 and regain respect lost in the previous year's Orange Bowl was motivation enough.

The Seminoles took a 7-0 lead on Ricky Williams run with just 49 seconds left in the first half. Then, a mostly-forgotten, but key play in the game: OU's kick return fumbled the ball on the kickoff return, but the ball bounced crazily forward and ended up going out of bounds well up field. The Sooners parlayed the huge break into a 53-yard field goal on the last play of the half

Yes, the OU offense that had "tilted the field" a year ago, managed only a long field goal. The Sooners took the lead with a third-quarter score, but FSU answered with a field goal to tie, then caught their own break when a high punt snap sailed into the end zone and Bobby Butler pounced on it for a touchdown with 11:07 left.

But J.C. Watts would not be denied, driving Oklahoma more than 70 yards in the waning moments to a winning score and two-point conversion for an 18-17 win. FSU fans will remember a Watts' screen pass being tantalizingly bobbled by defensive lineman Gary Futch -- a sure game-clinching interception -- that was not to be. (here is a replay of the second half of the game -- the Futch play is at 2:11:35)

Statistics told the story of FSU's defensive dominance of the mighty Sooner rushing attack. Instead of more than 400 yards as was the case in the 1980 Orange Bowl, Oklahoma managed just 146 rushing yards on 55 attempts - a shocking 2.6 yards per carry ... surely one of the lowest ever in the Switzer era. Combined with passing yards, Oklahoma ran 66 plays for 274 yards.

Bowden called it one of this most painful losses at FSU, but it was actually a great harbinger of FSU's arrival on the national football stage.

So, you might be asking, what's the connection to this year's game?

I see three main points:

1) We talked about this last year and it applies again -- to win, you have to be able to COMPETE. FSU was not able to play competitively with Oklahoma in the 1980 bowl game much like it wasn't able to in the 2010 regular season game in Norman. Can FSU compete in 2011 -- demonstrate that it is in the same ballpark with the Sooners when it comes to talent, scheme, poise and toughness?

2) In the big picture, winning truly isn't everything. The Noles didn't beat OU, but that loss -- and particularly THE WAY FSU's defense shut down the vaunted OU rushing attack -- laid a foundation for the future that was hugely vital, even given the final outcome. I don't think it's necessary for FSU to beat OU this Saturday for it to be an important milestone for the Fisher era.

3) Most importantly, one year CAN make a huge difference. FSU had no answer for OU's running attack in the 1980 game. But just a year later, it forced Oklahoma to pass the ball to victory on a final drive -- which only a star like Watts could have pulled off. It's certainly possible and plausible for FSU to close the gap in a similar fashion on Saturday.

I see FSU competing with OU Saturday. But I think a veteran Sooner team with a veteran quarterback will find a way to pull away -- something like 28-20 or so. But that the game will be in doubt for much or all of the game will speak volumes about the progress being made by the FSU football program under Jimbo Fisher.

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