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Oklahoma Sooners Football: The best teams to fall short of a national championship

Oklahoma has won seven national championships, but plenty more of its teams could be classified as ‘great’.

69th Annual Heisman Memorial Trophy Announcement 2003 Photo by Paul Hawthorne/WireImage

When it comes to college football blue bloods, you won’t find many programs bluer than the Oklahoma Sooners. In addition to seven national championships, the Sooners have captured dozens of conference titles, a ton of major national awards and 162 first-team All-Americans.

OU has seen more than its fair share of great teams over the years that fell short of a national crown. But which one is the best?

Honorable mention seasons include 1948, 1953, 1957, 1958, 1979, 2001, 2002, 2007, 2015 and 2019. The fact that these didn’t make the 16-team cut of seasons that didn’t produce a natty speaks volumes about how much success this program has experienced.

Here are our picks for the 16 best title-less Oklahoma teams, dating back to the 1940s. You’ll find a “bracket” with all of them at the bottom. Later on, you’ll be able to vote for the winners via our Twitter account: @CCMachine. The polls will open on Friday, May 8 at approximately 10 a.m. CT.

1949

Record: 11-0 overall, 5-0 conference
Big 7 championship
Sugar Bowl: Oklahoma 35, LSU 0
Final AP ranking: 2
Coach: Bud Wilkinson
All-Americans (Awards):

  • E Jim Owens
  • QB Darrell Royal
  • HB George Thomas
  • OT Wade Walker
  • OG Stanley West
Coach Bud Wilkinson

OU and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish both finished the ‘49 season with unblemished, but ND ended the year on top of the AP poll. This edition of the Sooners featured a nasty defense that allowed just eight points per game. Additionally, this was the last college football season to feature a large number of grown-ass men who had fought in WWII, so this team likely would’ve handled its title-winning successors from the Wilkinson Era.

1954

Record: 10-0 overall, 6-0 conference
Big 7 championship
Final AP ranking: 3
Coach: Bud Wilkinson
All-Americans (Awards):

  • E Max Boydston
  • C Kurt Burris

As part of the Sooners’ 47-game winning streak running from 1953 to 1957, The ‘54 team ranked No. 1 for most of the early part of the year, but ended the season third. Despite going undefeated, OU was prohibited from playing in a bowl game due to the Big 7’s “no-repeat” rule.

1967

Record: 10-1 overall, 7-0 conference
Big 8 championship
Orange Bowl: Oklahoma 26, Tennessee 24
Final AP ranking: 3
Coach: Chuck Fairbanks
All-Americans (Awards):

  • OT Bob Kalsu
  • NG Granville Liggins

After the sudden death of predecessor Jim Mackenzie, Chuck Fairbanks took over as head coach at Oklahoma prior to the ‘67 season. The Sooners bounced back from a 6-4 campaign in 1966 to capture a conference title, with their lone loss coming to the Texas Longhorns. Sophomore running back Steve Owens helped pace the OU offense, setting up for a Heisman Trophy season in 1969.

1971

Record: 11-1 overall, 6-1 conference
Big 8 championship
Sugar Bowl: Oklahoma 40, Auburn 22
Final AP ranking: 2
Coach: Chuck Fairbanks
All-Americans (Awards):

  • C Tom Brahaney
  • QB Jack Mildren
  • RB Greg Pruitt
NCAA Photos Archive

Offensive coordinator Barry Switzer’s wishbone attack was firing on all cylinders in ‘71. It featured All-American quarterback Jack Mildren running the show, with star runner Greg Pruitt churning out nearly nine yards every time he ran the ball. The team’s only defeat came at the hands of the Nebraska Cornhuskers in what was dubbed the “Game of the Century.”

1972

Record: 11-1 overall, 6-1 conference
Big 8 championship
Sugar Bowl: Oklahoma 14, Penn State 0
Final AP ranking: 2
Coach: Chuck Fairbanks
All-Americans (Awards):

  • C Tom Brahaney
  • OT Derland Moore
  • HB Greg Pruitt
  • LB Rod Shoate

OU kept on rolling in ‘72, the final season with Fairbanks at the helm. Rod Shoate and Lucious Selmom set the tone for a ferocious defense that held nine of 12 opponents to seven points or fewer. The Big 8 later penalized the Sooners for using an ineligible player, forcing them to forfeit three games.

1973

Record: 10-0-1 overall, 7-0 conference
Big 8 championship
Final AP Poll ranking: 3
Coach: Barry Switzer
All-Americans (Awards):

  • OT Eddie Foster
  • NG Lucious Selmon
  • LB Rod Shoate

OU enjoyed a golden era in the 1970s, including ‘73. It was Switzer’s first season as head coach, paving the way for back-to-back national titles in 1974 and 1975. He also happened to have the services of all three Selmon brothers — Lucious, Lee Roy and Dewey — all of whom would eventually become All-Americans up front. Lee Roy, of course, would also end up enshrined in Canton.

The backfield combo of QB Steve Davis and RB Joe Washington gave the country a preview of what was to come in the next few years. The only blemish on the season was a tie at then-No. 1 USC, but the inability to play in a bowl game (probation) prevented the Sooners from making a late statement.

1977

Record: 10-2 overall, 7-0 conference
Big 8 championship
Orange Bowl: Arkansas 31, Oklahoma 6
Final AP ranking: 7
Coach: Barry Switzer
All-Americans (Awards):

  • LB George Cumby
  • DB Zac Henderson
  • LB Daryl Hunt
  • NG Reggie Kinlaw

A successful ‘77 season ended on a sour note with a blowout loss to Lou Holtz’s shorthanded Arkansas Razorbacks in the Orange Bowl, which derailed any hope of capturing a third national championship in four seasons. OU diehards, however, still celebrate a dramatic win over the Ohio State Buckeyes in the third week of the season.

1978

Record: 11-1 overall, 6-1 conference
Orange Bowl: Oklahoma 31, Nebraska 24
Final AP ranking: 3
Coach: Barry Switzer
All-Americans (Awards):

  • LB Daryl Hunt
  • NG Reggie Kinlaw
  • OG Greg Roberts (Outland)
  • RB Billy Sims (Heisman, Davey O’Brien, Walter Camp)
Portrait of Billy Sims

Superstar RB Billy Sims made the first of what would be many notable Oklahoma appearances at Heisman Trophy presentations in ‘78. He captured the award on the back of almost 1,900 yards on the ground. His brilliance running the ball probably overshadowed a salty defense that forced 50 turnovers throughout the season. It would’ve been an unblemished campaign if not for the OU offense fumbling nine times (six lost) against Nebraska in Lincoln. However, the Sooners would avenge its only loss of the regular season in a rematch with the Huskers in the Orange Bowl.

Prior to the Bob Stoops Era, this team was widely regarded as the best OU team to not win it all. That’s still the case.

1984

Record: 9-2-1 overall, 6-1 conference
Orange Bowl: Washington 28, Oklahoma 17
Final AP ranking: 6
Coach: Barry Switzer
All-Americans (Awards):

  • NG Tony Casillas

Weird is about the only way to describe the ‘84 season for the Sooners. There was an exceedingly controversial tie versus Texas in the Red River Shootout and an inexplicable loss to the lowly Kansas Jayhawks. OU went into the Orange Bowl ranked No. 2 in the country after closing with wins over No. 1 Nebraska and No. 3 Oklahoma State, but a 28-17 loss to the Washington Huskies featured a disastrous personal foul penalty on the Sooner Schooner leading to a crucial blocked field goal attempt.

1986

Record: 11-1 overall, 7-0 conference
Big 8 championship
Orange Bowl: Oklahoma 42, Arkansas 8
Final AP Ranking: 3
Coach: Barry Switzer
All-Americans (Awards):

  • LB Brian Bosworth (Butkus)
  • OG Mark Hutson
  • TE Keith Jackson
  • OG Anthony Phillips
NCAA Football Archive Photo by John Biever/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

A year after capturing a national championship in 1985, the ‘86 OU team may have fielded the best defense in the history of the program. The Sooners allowed a total of 81 points in 12 games and pitched five shutouts. An early loss at Miami knocked OU out of the title picture, but the Sooners were playing spectacular football by the end of the year. They won their final seven games by a combined scored of 288-28.

1987

Record: 11-1 overall, 7-0 conference
Big 8 championship
Orange Bowl: Miami 20, Oklahoma 14
Final AP Ranking: 3
Coach: Barry Switzer
All-Americans (Awards):

  • DB Rickey Dixon (Thorpe)
  • OG Mark Hutson
  • TE Keith Jackson
  • LB Dante Jones
  • DE Darrell Reed

The ‘87 team essentially picked up where the Sooners left off the year before, winning 11 games by an average score of 44-8. OU’s fearsome defense found new alphas in Thorpe Award winner Rickey Dixon and hard-hitting linebacker Dante Jones, while option QB Jamelle Holieway kept the ground game humming until an injury derailed him late in the season. Freshman Charles Thompson filled in admirably for Holieway, but for the third year in a row, the Miami Hurricanes took down OU, topping the Sooners by a 20-14 score in the Orange Bowl to win the national championship.

Kids, if you ever wonder why your parents or grandparents despise the ‘Canes so much, revisit the three-season stretch from 1985-87.

2003

Record: 12-2 overall, 8-2 conference
Big 12 runner-up
Sugar Bowl: LSU 21, Oklahoma 14
Final AP ranking: 3
Coach: Bob Stoops
All-Americans (Awards):

  • OT Jammal Brown
  • WR Mark Clayton
  • DT Tommie Harris (Lombardi)
  • LB Teddy Lehman (Bednarik, Butkus)
  • PR/KR Antonio Perkins
  • CB Derrick Strait (Nagurski, Thorpe)
  • QB Jason White (Heisman, Davey O’Brien)

OU looked like one of the most dominant teams in college football history through its first 12 games of the season. A shocking blowout loss to Kansas State in the Big 12 championship and a lackluster effort in a national title bout with the LSU Tigers sent the Sooners home essentially empty-handed at the end of year. Nevertheless, an explosive passing attack under the command of Heisman-winning QB Jason White and a stout collection of physical defenders make this one of coach Bob Stoops’ best teams (just ask Les Miles and Oklahoma State).

2004

Record: 12-1 overall, 8-0 conference
Big 12 championship
Orange Bowl: USC 55, Oklahoma 19
Final AP Ranking: 3
Coach: Bob Stoops
All-Americans (Awards):

  • OT Jammal Brown (Outland)
  • C Vince Carter
  • WR Mark Clayton
  • DE Dan Cody
  • RB Adrian Peterson
  • QB Jason White (Maxwell, Davey O’Brien, Unitas)

OU brought back a bounty of stars in ‘04, including White for a sixth season. Electric freshman Adrian Peterson still stole the show in one of the most impressive seasons ever for a running back, let alone a rookie. The Sooners lacked the horses to hang with a stellar USC team in the national championship game, but they still possessed one of the most talented rosters in school history.

2008

Record: 12-2 overall, 7-1 conference
Big 12 championship
Orange Bowl: Florida 24, Oklahoma 14
Final AP ranking: 5
Coach: Bob Stoops
All-Americans (Awards):

  • QB Sam Bradford (Heisman, Davey O’Brien)
  • TE Jermaine Gresham
  • DT Gerald McCoy
  • OG Duke Robinson

If the no-huddle spread was a niche thing in college football prior to the ‘08 season, OU brought it into the mainstream that year. Behind a devastating offensive line, Heisman winner Sam Bradford quarterbacked the Sooners to a national title shot versus the Florida Gators. While the offense got the glory, this squad had an underrated defense anchored by standout defensive tackle Gerald McCoy.

2017

Record: 12-2 overall, 8-1 conference
Big 12 championship
Rose Bowl: Georgia 54, Oklahoma 48
Final AP ranking: 3
Coach: Lincoln Riley
All-Americans (Awards):

  • TE Mark Andrews (Mackey)
  • OT Orlando Brown
  • QB Baker Mayfield (Heisman, Manning, Maxwell, Davey O’Brien, Walter Camp)
  • LB Ogbonnia Okoronkwo
COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 16 Tulane at Oklahoma Photo by David Stacy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Was this offense the best in program history? Heisman winner Baker Mayfield spearheaded a diverse attack with NFL-caliber talent across the board. The D never lived up to its potential, though, which kept the Sooners from playing for a national championship.

2018

Record: 12-2 overall, 8-1 conference
Big 12 champion
Final AP rankiing: 4
Orange Bowl: Alabama 45, Oklahoma 34
Head coach: Lincoln Riley
All-Americans (Awards):

  • WR Marquise Brown
  • QB Kyler Murray (Heisman, Manning, Davey O’Brien)
  • OG Ben Powers

With Kyler Murray following in the footsteps of Baker Mayfield at quarterback in 2018, Oklahoma became the first program in college football history to produce back-to-back Heisman Trophy winners at the same position. (Like Mayfield, Murray also went first in the NFL draft in 2019.) The Sooners avenged their only regular season loss with a 39-27 win over the Texas Longhorns in the Big 12 championship game, capping OU’s fourth straight conference title. The season ended with a 45-34 loss to the Alabama Crimson Tide in the first round of the College Football Playoff.


Alright, here’s how we’re seeding the field:

  1. 1978
  2. 1971
  3. 1986
  4. 1987
  5. 2008
  6. 2003
  7. 2004
  8. 1949
  9. 1954
  10. 1973
  11. 2017
  12. 2018
  13. 1972
  14. 1977
  15. 1967
  16. 1984

Here are the first-round matchups:

  • No. 1 1978 vs. No. 16 1984
  • No. 8 1949 vs. No. 9 1954
  • No. 4 1987 vs. No. 13 1972
  • No. 5 2008 vs. No. 12 2018
  • No. 2 1971 vs. No. 15 1967
  • No. 7 2004 vs. No. 10 1973
  • No. 3 1986 vs. No. 14 1977
  • No. 6 2003 vs. No. 11 2017

Again, you’ll be able to vote for the winners via our Twitter account: @CCMachine. The polls will begin on Friday, May 8 at approximately 10 a.m. CT.