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Sooners unbeaten, undisputed No. 1

By BOB HARIG

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 5, 2001


MIAMI -- There is no debate now. In the days, weeks and months to come, the BCS bickering that was sure to rage with a different outcome will dissolve like Florida State's offense did Wednesday night.

Oklahoma made it simple, ending all arguments.

With a stunning 13-2 victory over the Seminoles in the Orange Bowl at Pro Player Stadium, the Sooners claimed their seventh national championship and first in 15 years, denying FSU and coach Bobby Bowden their second title in a row and third in eight years.

The Sooners on Thursday were crowned champions of the Associated Press and ESPN/USA Today polls, foregone conclusions after their victory gave them a 13-0 record and the distinction of being the nation's only undefeated team.

Funny, but the Sooners were ranked No. 1 in both polls since late October, a standing they were not able to cement until their win over the Seminoles, who dropped out of the top four in the final AP poll for the first time since 1986.

An FSU victory was the anticipated result, the one that would have led to considerable consternation. Miami, Washington and Oregon State also would have finished with one defeat.

All that became moot with Oklahoma's victory, a point second-year coach Bob Stoops tried in vain to make in the days leading up to the game.

The Sooners, as Stoops said, deserved to be in the Orange Bowl as the only undefeated team in Division I-A.

But to just about everyone other than those from the Sooner State, it was only a matter of time before Oklahoma was dispatched and co-national champions would be crowned. Oklahoma, two years removed from a losing record, was an 11-point underdog.

"This is this year, and this is a team that has played well in big games this year," Stoops said. "I don't know why it comes as a surprise. It certainly wasn't a surprise to us.

"I've said all along that the oddsmakers were wrong. It became popular to brag on Florida State, but if you looked at what we had done all season, I'm not so sure that was the thing to do."

But Oklahoma kept hearing about its supposed deficiencies, its lack of experience in big games, the powerhouse it would be facing. The Sooners admitted that plenty of motivation was to be gained from such talk.

"We've never been a team to back down from anybody or anything," receiver Josh Norman said. "Somebody challenges us, then we're willing to step up and fight, claw and scratch down to the end. I didn't think we'd be that big of an underdog."

The Sooners became the first team since Georgia Tech in 1990 to win a national title two years after having a losing record. The quick turnaround, and perhaps some lackluster showings in their last three regular-season games, were among the reasons Oklahoma was a big underdog.

In each of their big games this season, the Sooners were the underdog, including games against No. 10 Texas, No. 2 Kansas State and No. 1 Nebraska -- victories that propelled them to the top spot they would never relinquish.

Heisman runner-up Josh Heupel passed for 214 yards, and the Oklahoma defense stymied Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke. Although the FSU quarterback threw for 274 yards, he was mostly ineffective through three quarters. He threw two interceptions, and his fumble deep in FSU territory led to Oklahoma's only touchdown, in the fourth quarter.

The Sooners' suffocation of FSU was thorough: The Seminoles connected on 1 of 17 third- or fourth-down conversions and were nearly 250 yards below their season average, which led the nation.

"You feel so proud of these kids, the way they believed in our game plan," co-defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. "They were aggressive. They were confident. They put enough pressure on Weinke to create some mistakes. They played to win."

Now comes the really hard part -- maintaining the excellence achieved in two seasons. The Sooners will have to replace two of their biggest stars, Heupel and linebacker Torrance Marshall, who had a sack, an interception and six tackles, and was named the Orange Bowl's most valuable player.

Stoops appears unfazed. He talked glowingly Thursday about the 22 freshmen and sophomores on the two-deep roster.

And if there is pressure, that is OK at Oklahoma.

"I've said for two years I wanted the expectations to rise in Norman," Stoops said. "If they (fans) are upset about not winning championships, they're no more upset than I am."

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