As the Superdome plays host this Monday night to arguably college football’s best offense and one of the nation’s top defenses, a potential classic battle of polar opposites is in store for those watching across America. The Big 12 champion Sooners and SEC at-large Tigers are no strangers to the Sugar Bowl. Auburn makes its’ sixth post-season trip down to Nawlins, going 3-2 in the previous five games, while OU makes its’ eighth appearance in the Bayou bowl classic, sixth-most by any team. So to gain a little perspective ahead of yet another anticipated Big 12-SEC showdown, let’s take a trip back through the great Oklahoma football tradition’s previous seven trips to the sweet bowl game in the Big Easy. (For those interested, here’s a look at Auburn’s previous Sugar Bowl appearances.)
#5 Oklahoma vs. #3 North Carolina (1948 season) - January 2, 1949
Strangely enough, Bud Wilkinson’s bunch began this season with a head-scratching loss to Santa Clara. Anyone who was alive back then recall if this was a powerhouse Santa Clara program we’re talking about here? Santa Clara? Anyway, the 10-1 Sooners headed to New Orleans to face Southern Conference champions and Sugar Bowl favorites the North Carolina Tar Heels led by stalwart rusher “Choo-Choo” Charley Justice, who came into the game hampered by an illness. This allowed the opportunistic Sooners to take advantage behind a playmaking defense and the leadership of quarterback Darrell Royal.
Oklahoma linebacker Myrle Greathouse intercepted a pass to set up a touchdown run from the 1 by Jack Mitchell, who took home player of the game honors as the Sooners never looked back and took care of UNC 14-6 for Bud Wilkinson’s first of many bowl wins while in Norman. Royal told his head coach after the game, “You know, maybe defense isn't a glamorous way to win a Sugar Bowl, but it will win football games and that's what we were down here for, wasn't it?” OU 14, UNC 6
A low-quality look back at a high-profile win... You’ve got to love the old-school broadcaster voice, though:
#2 Oklahoma vs. #9 LSU (1949 season) - January 1, 1950
The undefeated Sooners were becoming a known powerhouse under Bud Wilkinson, and this statement win against a national power capped a perfect 11-0 season. This game, despite being competitive early, ended up quickly turning into a blistering blowout, with OU shutting out the Bayou Bengals 35-0. But this matchup was highlighted by an infamous spy scandal, as chronicled by The Oklahoman’s Berry Tramel and also discussed in detail in former OU President George Lynn Cross’ book Presidents Can't Punt.
While world powers were engaged in a slightly more critical version of espionage, so was the world of college football, or at least the nefarious LSU Tigers. Wilkinson, during a pre-bowl Sooner practice in Biloxi, was supposedly alerted to possible spy activity by suspicious characters with binoculars watching the Sooners from atop a garage.
“A man who identified himself as Clarence Johnson said that OU's last two practices had been watched by three men stationed atop a garage within viewing of the practice field. Johnson said the men worked with a camera, binoculars and a large scouting chart. They had pulled a tarp over themselves to remain hidden.”
Borrowing Tramel’s words, Wilkinson “put aside his gameplan for a spyplan” and assembled his own crew of sleuths to neutralize the enemy. Long story short, Wilkinson’s spy crew, “Project Apprehend LSUnatic” (I just made that up), sure enough found and chased away a man the next day who was “standing on a ladder, watching over the practice fence, screened from the field with a blanket draped between two garages” and managed to snap a photo before he eventually slipped away.
“’Moments later the man broke from Scafidi's grasp and ran into a house … the owner of the house granted him sanctuary and threatened to prosecute anyone else who entered his house.’
Dennis' film was developed, a print was displayed at the OU alumni hotel and eventually New Orleans residents identified the spy as Piggy Barnes, a former LSU player then playing for the Philadelphia Eagles. OU’s investigation even revealed that Barnes' sanctuary came from another former Tiger, Elbert Manuel. The story reached the press, and LSU officials denied knowledge of the spying, even suggesting that someone had perpetrated a hoax to motivate the Sooners.”
Lots of good all that secret-agent shit did for those sneaky Tigers — final score: Sooners 35, LSU 0. LOL.
#1 Oklahoma vs. #7 Kentucky (1950 season) - January 1, 1951
The Wildcats, coached by Bear Bryant, were 10-1 and SEC champions entering this New Year’s Day contest against No. 1 Oklahoma, who were already crowned AP regular season National Champion. Bud Wilkinson was in for a surprise as OU’s legendary split-T was thwarted by an aggressive, multi-look approach from Kentucky’s defensive front, which often lined up nine men in the box to stop a young Billy Vessels, Leon Heath and the vaunted rushing attack. Bryant, five seasons before taking over at Alabama, also employed some creatively effective strategies on special teams to slow down Oklahoma.
“In another bold move, Bryant, ever-mindful of Oklahoma's devastating speed, decided to use an unprotected punter and a line that did little blocking on punts, believing it was less of a gamble than allowing OU return man Billy Vessels an opportunity to break loose on kicks.” – from the book Sugar Bowl Classic: A History by Marty Mulé
At the end of this slugfest, the Sooners weren’t able to overcome the Bear’s defensive innovations in a 13-7 defeat. Kentucky’s upset win also snapped OU’s 31-game win streak. OU 7, UK 13
You can check out (higher quality) video of the game here.
#3 Oklahoma vs. #5 Auburn (1971 Season) - January 1, 1972
The famed ‘71 season of Oklahoma football featured the “Game of the Century” against Nebraska ahead of this post-season clash with Auburn, led by Heisman-winning quarterback Pat Sullivan. This meeting was the two football programs’ only meeting to date, and began with the Sooners marching out to a 31-0 halftime lead and easily taking care of War Eagle, 40-22, in Tulane Stadium.
In the era of Chuck Fairbanks, this Sooner squad was powered by wishbone warriors Jack Mildren and Greg Pruitt, and was nothing short of a monster — leading the nation in scoring at 44.9 points per game and setting NCAA regular-season records for total offense (566.5 yards per game), rushing yards (5,196) and rushing yards per game (472.4) — in an 11-1 season. OU by season’s end had accumulated 980 yards more than the next best offensive team in the country. The defense was no slouch either, as Steve Aycock, Raymond Hamilton and company forced Sullivan and Auburn into three first-half turnovers and manhandled the Tigers even after Fairbanks had inserted his talented backups.
Mildren could not be stopped on that day, as OU amassed 439 rushing yards – a new Sugar Bowl record -- breaking the old mark of 373 set by Georgia Tech in 1944. As Auburn’s defense keyed in on stuffing Pruitt, the quick-footed Mildren took advantage and out-played his Heisman counterpart on his way to being named Most Outstanding Player with 149 rushing yards and three touchdowns. OU 40, Auburn 22
Check out the highlights from Sooner Sports:
#2 Oklahoma vs. #5 Penn State (1972 Season) - December 31, 1972
Following the graduation of Jack Mildren, quarterback Dave Robertson led the Sooners back to New Orleans following the 1972 regular season, this time against Joe Pa’s Nittany Lions of Penn State, who back then played their college football as Independents. Both teams entered the contest with one loss, and OU achieved the unique distinction of playing in the Sugar Bowl twice in one calendar year, dismantling the Auburn Tigers earlier on New Year’s Day. Heisman runner-up Greg Pruitt and fullback Leon Crosswhite were the veteran leaders of this solid group, but breaking onto the scene were freshmen Tinker Owens, who earned player of the game honors with five receptions for 132 yards and a touchdown, as well as electric running back “Silver Shoes” Joe Washington, who helped secure the 14-0 win for OU. On defense, the Selmon brothers feasted on a jittery start by the Lions, as Joe Pa would heap the ultimate praise on Fairbanks’ wrecking crew.
“Oklahoma is definitely the best football team we have played this year. No doubt about it. I told Chuck (Fairbanks) I hope Ohio State beats Southern California for you." - Joe Paterno
This game would also be the last as a Sooner for Pruitt, who finished his storied college career ranked second at that time in school rushing yards (3,122) behind only Tinker’s older brother and 1969 Heisman winner Steve Owens. OU 14, Penn State 0
Highlights from Sooner Sports:
#3 Oklahoma vs. #2 LSU (2003 BCS National Title Game) - January 4, 2004
What more can be said about this one? A stacked Sooner squad with seven All-Americans fell just short of a second title in four seasons under Bob Stoops. I was in New Orleans for this week of debauchery and disappointment and must say, f*** you, LSU. Heisman winner Jason White and an OU team draped in hyperbole from national pundits all season came crashing down against Bill Snyder’s Wildcats in the conference championship and carried the hangover into the BCS title game against those damn Tigers. No reminders needed, this game sucked.
Down only a touchdown late in an ugly contest of offensive futility, White threw four incompletions to give away a winnable game against Nick Saban in his team’s rowdy backyard. On another note, as a rather pissed-off, crimson-clad lad on Bourbon Street I believe I quickly forgot all about this game to focus merely on surviving the streets full of LSUnatics without incident and/or untimely death. What has since made this Sugar Bowl not appear as crappy as it felt back then is the Orange Bowl that happened the year after. OU 14, LSU 21
**NO FOOTAGE WILL BE SHOWN FROM THIS SOUL-KILLING SUCKFEST**
#11 Oklahoma vs. #3 Alabama (2013 season) - January 2, 2014
I can think of only a couple of ways to adequately move on from the above debacle in the 2004 Sugar Bowl. A national championship would be way number one, but coming in a close second would be a win against Bama and revenge against Saban a decade later. Although a national title wasn’t in play after the 2013 season for either team, most of us agree this was about as sweet a way to go out as there was that season.
So, we conclude this look back with the most recent Sugar Bowl appearance for the Oklahoma Sooners, a storybook 45-31 victory over the Alabama Crimson Tide. This game marked OU’s fifth win in New Orleans, ranking the Sooners behind only Alabama (eight), LSU and Ole Miss (six each) for most wins in Sugar Bowl history.
OU 45, Bama 31:
#7 Oklahoma vs. #14 Auburn (2016 season) - January 2, 2017
It’s back to the present now, and only two days remain until a much-anticipated post-season clash takes place between two contrasting brands of elite college football in Nawlins. The Big 12’s best against an SEC powerhouse in the sweetest bowl of them all, as the 2016 Sooner squad looks to make its own history in the Big Easy.