A year to the date after the Sooners stunned the Seminoles in the 1980 Orange Bowl they found themselves facing Florida State again the the Orange Bowl on January 1st 1981. This time FSU was ranked #2 in the nation and had a legitimate shot at claiming a national championship if they could have pulled off a win against the 4th ranked Sooners.
After getting run over in the 1980 game the Florida State defense stepped up to the challenge in `81 and put the brakes on the Sooner offense. Forcing five turnovers the Seminoles held Oklahoma to just 156 rushing yards on 55 carries and had sacked J.C. Watts five times.
"Their defensive game plan gave us more problems than it did the year before," said Barry Switzer. "We weren't as talented in the running back position, losing Billy Sims and Stanley Wilson, two All-Americans, to the NFL."
The Seminoles turned at 10-10 fourth quarter tie into a 17-10 lead when a high snap on a punt went through the hands of Fred Keeling and was recovered by Florida State in the end zone. With their backs against the wall and their running game essentially derailed Switzer was left with no choice but to do something unconventional. He turned Watts loose...to pass the ball.
Watts guided the Sooners 78 yards down the field and eventually hit Steve Rhodes on an 11-yard strike with 1:27 remaining in the game to draw Oklahoma to within 17-16. Not wanting to settle for a tie, Switzer trusted the arm of Watts one more time. Finding tight end Forrest Valora open behind the defense Watts floated the ball to him to the game winning two-point conversion, providing the 18-17 final score.
"We win with our running game," said Rhodes. "That's the first time they ever threw to me in the end zone."
"It was ridiculous for a wishbone team to throw the ball against us the way they did," said Bobby Bowden. "I'm still waiting for them to run the ball."
The win ended FSU's chance at a national championship and gave Oklahoma a #3 ranking to end the season with a 10-2 record. I would be nineteen years before the two teams would meet again and, as in the previous two meetings, the setting would be the Orange Bowl with a national title on the line.