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A RETURN TO FLORIDA

Sooners set to face off against familiar foe in Florida Statel

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By John E. Hoover


Of course Oklahoma would play its bowl game in the state of Florida. And of course the Sooners would meet Florida State.


When the Sooners and Seminoles meet on Dec. 29 in Orlando in the 2022 Cheez-It Bowl, it’ll be OU’s 27th postseason game in the Sunshine State — by far the most of any state. And in FSU, it’ll be the Sooners’ fifth bowl game matchup — most of any opponent.


“It's a great matchup,” said Florida State coach Mike Norvell. “But it’s a great opportunity with two of the storied programs of all of college football history, to be able to link up in a great game and a great place and atmosphere.”


Oklahoma’s Brent Venables concurred.


“We’re honored — thrilled,” said Venables, “to have the opportunity to play a great football team in Florida State.”


OU was quickly installed as a 7.5-point underdog to the ‘Noles, who went 9-3 this season and were one of college football’s streakiest teams. FSU started 4-0, then lost three in a row, then finished the season with five straight wins.


“It's an opportunity for our group to play one more game together for this season and try to get our 10th win,” said Norvell. “I’m really proud of all the steps that our team has taken. They've worked hard through the year. These guys have responded throughout and now have an opportunity to play in such a great bowl game and against a very explosive and talented Oklahoma team.”


The Sooners, meanwhile, lost four one-possession games, including three by three points and two by a walk-off field goal, stumbling down the stretch to a 6-6 record. OU opened 3-0, then lost three straight, then won two but lost three of its last four.


“We’ve been competitive,” said Venables. “When we’ve had all of our starting players available, we’ve been really competitive. We had four losses that all came down to one score. The things that it takes to win, we weren’t good enough to do that. But I think we’re good enough for when we put it all together, we can play with anybody.”


OU’s history with Florida State is decidedly one-sided — the Sooners have won the last five meetings vs. the Seminoles — but has included some all-time classics.


>In 1964-65, the Sooners lost 36-19 to FSU in the Gator Bowl.


>In 1979-80, the Sooners beat FSU 24-7 in the Orange Bowl.


>In 1980-81, the Sooners beat FSU 18-17 in the Orange Bowl.


>In 2000-01, the Sooners beat FSU 13-2 in the Orange Bowl to win the BCS National Championship.


The ’80 Orange Bowl featured a Billy Sims-led OU squad against an undefeated FSU team that led the nation in defense during the regular season. Sims and company turned in a dominating performance that included 400-plus rushing yards in a 24-7 victory.


OU did not have Sims in the ’81 Orange Bowl rematch, which came down to a late OU touchdown pass from J.C. Watts to Steve Rhoads and a 2-point conversion pass from Watts to Forrest Valora.


“J.C. played a big role in both the 1980 and ’81 Orange Bowl games, running and passing the football,” said hall of fame coach Barry Switzer. “Those were both memorable games for different reasons, but both were really great wins for our football program.”


The two rivals have met three times in the regular season, as well. Switzer sent Bobby Bowden’s career to an 0-3 start in 1976 with a 24-9 OU win in Norman, and Bob Stoops handed Jimbo Fisher his first career loss (47-17 in Norman) in 2010 and then beat Fisher again (23-13 in Tallahassee) the following season.


These Seminoles could be a much stiffer test, however.


Quarterback Jordan Travis has completed 63.2 percent of his passes for 2,796 yards and 22 touchdowns with only four interceptions this season. Travis earned second-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference accolades from the league’s coaches.


“Jordan Travis,” Venables said, “is as dynamic and explosive as an offensive player as there is in the country.”


Travis gets help from running back Trey Benson, who ran for 965 yards and nine touchdowns and averaged 6.8 yards per carry this year, and wide receiver Johnny Wilson, who caught 35 passes for 695 yards and five scores. Both were named second-team All-ACC.


In all, FSU had eight players on the All-ACC team, tied for third-most in the league behind Clemson (12) and Pittsburgh (nine). The first-team included guard Dillan Gibbons, defensive end Jared Verse and safety Jammie Robinson. Offensive tackle Robert Scott made the second team, and offensive tackle D'Mitri Emmanuel made third team, while seven other Seminoles were named Honorable Mention All-ACC.


Oklahoma put three players on the 2022 All-Big 12 first team — wide receiver Marvin Mims, left tackle Anton Harrison and punter Michael Turk — while three others — running back Eric Gray, tight end Brayden Willis and defensive end Ethan Downs — made second team. Eight other Sooners were honorable mention, and quarterback Dillon Gabriel was named Big 12 Newcomer of the Year.


“He’s an extremely talented quarterback,” said Norvell, pointing to Gabriel. “And you see the way that he’s played this year. I mean, he just continues to get better — just his vision, his arm talent, the things that he can do. He just has that natural playmaking ability that shows up throughout the course of a game.”


FSU is among the national leaders in both total offense and total defense. The Seminoles rank 13th nationally at 475.7 yards per game, and 14th nationally at allowing just 307.2 yards per game.


“They’re long, they can run and they’re playing with great confidence,” said Venables.

OU ranks 18th nationally at 472.2 yards per game on offense, but the Sooner defense has struggled, giving up 450.5 yards per game to rank 120th in the nation. That’s on pace to be the second-worst defense in school history, behind the 2018 team that yielded 453.3 yards per game.


Both rosters have been affected this month by the NCAA Transfer Portal and NFL opt-outs. The Seminoles lost two defensive tackles (Shambre Jackson and Jarrett Jackson) and a linebacker (Amari Gainer), who were rotational pieces to the portal, while the Sooners have seen 12 players so far hit the portal — including wide receiver Theo Wease and 11 reserves.

Other than Wease, Venables said, the rest of the portal departures “really had not been able to carve out a niche and did not contribute in any way in regards to on-the-field play.”


The big losses for Oklahoma are at running back and offensive tackle, where Gray, Harrison and Wanya Morris all have opted to begin training for the NFL Draft. So has defensive tackle Jalen Redmond, leaving the Sooners without four starters heading into the Cheez-It Bowl.


“I’m excited about all the guys that will be part of the team and are not in the portal,” said Venables. “We have a great opportunity sitting in front of us. That group of guys that will get on the plane and go down to Orlando can’t be more excited about this opportunity.


“Two tradition-rich programs, and it's going to be a great challenge for our guys.”


(This story appears in the December 2022 issue of Sooner Spectator. For more information, call 405-364-4515)

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