Week 16: Written by Ryan Nanni
To many people (me included), the idea that 2023 Florida State could go undefeated, win a power conference title, and be denied a shot at the College Football Playoff seems dumbfounding. This was the kind of thing we were supposed to be leaving behind, relics from the days of the BCS or the decades where the AP and Coaches Polls awarded championships in postseasons that often didn't even see the top teams play one another.
So today, we're going to talk about the school that had, in a strange way, the opposite of FSU's experience. This is the story of 1974 Oklahoma, the team banned from the postseason…but still won a national championship.
Let's start with the ban. Shortly before the start of the 1973 season, the Big 8 put Oklahoma football (and basketball) on probation for recruiting violations involving falsified transcripts. The football team was slapped with a bowl ban for 1973 and 1974 and a television ban for 1974 and 1975. (The Sooners were allowed to honor the terms of the TV contracts they'd signed for the 1973 season since those had been set up before these penalties were issued.)
The '73 Sooners were also welcoming a new head coach, Barry Switzer. He now had to find a new starting quarterback; Kerry Jackson, a sophomore who'd gotten a lot of action his first season and happened to be the first Black quarterback in Norman, was ruled ineligible as one of the players who'd had grades altered. And he had to keep his team motivated even though they'd never be rewarded with a bowl.
And, I gotta tell you, he did a fantastic job. Facing a positively stacked schedule featuring five teams that finished the season ranked, Oklahoma went 10-0-1 and won the Big 8 title. In the final Coaches Poll, which came out before bowl season, the Sooners were second to undefeated Alabama. They came in third in the final AP Poll, which wasn't conducted until after bowls, so it had Notre Dame first after the Irish beat Alabama 24-23 in the Sugar Bowl.
Could a bowl game have pushed Oklahoma past the Irish? Doubtful; Nebraska, who got the Big 8's Cotton Bowl bid, beat a Texas team that was ranked eighth entering the game, which wouldn't have been as impressive as Notre Dame's win. And, perhaps more crucially, Notre Dame finished the year without any losses or ties, which the Sooners couldn't claim.
However, two changes in early 1974 further hurt Oklahoma's chances to win a title. At their annual convention, college football's coaches voted to make new changes to their poll. First, they joined the Associated Press in moving the final vote to after the bowl games. Second, and more pointedly, they recommended barring any school on probation from getting votes in the Coaches Poll, and they asked the sportswriters to join them.
But the AP declined, and Oklahoma started the season ranked first in their poll. They didn't stay there very long, however, dropping to third after their first game, an ugly 28-11 win over a Baylor team the Sooners were favored to beat by 43. Other than a close victory over Texas and a sloppy win over Iowa State on the road in bad conditions, Oklahoma enjoyed smooth sailing after that early stumble. They hung near the top of the AP Poll for a couple of months before they retook the top spot in Week 10 thanks to Michigan State's upset of Ohio State.
And that's where the Sooners stood at the end of the regular season – undefeated, first in the AP, and winning the vast majority of first-place votes in that poll. Simultaneously, they were nowhere to be found in the Coaches Poll, which had 11-0 Alabama as their top team entering bowl season.
Had the Coaches Poll stopped there, as they had for decades, their championship would have been awarded to the Crimson Tide. Pro-Oklahoma grousing would likely have taken place, but it wouldn't have been all that controversial to give the title to a team with no losses or ties, who was also second in the AP Poll then.
But, instead, both polls pushed on to the postseason, where a problem that had yet to exist in 1973 emerged. Alabama was in the Orange Bowl and facing Notre Dame again, but the Irish weren't undefeated this time. They'd already taken two losses, the second by 31 points to USC to end the regular season. So, neither poll could look to the Sugar Bowl to serve as a de facto national championship. There also weren't any other exciting candidates for the top spot. Miami of Ohio was the only other team without a loss and had yet to face a particularly grueling schedule. Between both polls, just one other school, Ohio State, was garnering any first-place votes, and those were only in the coach selections.
An Alabama win, even over a Notre Dame that was just No. 9 before the Orange Bowl, might have given everyone enough cover to pick the Crimson Tide. Then Alabama lost again, this time 13-11, turning the ball over four times against the Fighting Irish. Ohio State had already blown their chance to take advantage of Alabama's misstep, falling to USC 18-17 in the Rose Bowl earlier that day.
So the AP made 11-0 Oklahoma, who hadn't played in any bowl game, their national champion. It wasn't unanimous – USC got the nod from the Coaches Poll with a record of 10-1-1, and Michigan, who also hadn't made a bowl game, got some votes – but it was decisive. (At least for the sake of irony, it's probably worth noting that USC coach John McKay was one of the most vocal proponents of the decision to keep teams on probation out of the Coaches Poll altogether.)
What if the Sooners actually benefited from their postseason ban? Bowls had much more latitude in their selections at this point in time, so it's hard to say who Oklahoma would have played, but it wouldn't have been a weakling. And, college football games being what they are, there's no guarantee even this extremely talented Sooners squad would have won that contest. In a bizarre twist that wasn't the fault of anyone on the 1974 team, Oklahoma found a way to win a national title without passing or even taking one final test like every champion since then.