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Sooners have historical edge on Noles

On the Sunday morning before Florida State played Oklahoma in the 1980 Orange Bowl, then-Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden listened to Sooners quarterback J.C. Watts deliver his testimony at a Miami church.

"I left the church thinking, 'If that boy plays as well as he preaches, we're in trouble,'" Bowden said.

More than three decades ago, Bowden put Florida State on college football's map by playing fierce games against Watts and the Sooners in back-to-back Orange Bowls in 1980 and '81.

On Saturday night, FSU coach Jimbo Fisher, who succeeded Bowden in 2010, can take a big step in returning the No. 5 Seminoles to the ranks of the sport's elite if his team can upset the No. 1 Sooners at Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee, Fla.

Bowden, 81, knows it won't be easy.

Bowden's teams went 0-4 against the Sooners, including three losses in the Orange Bowl. In the 2001 Orange Bowl, No. 1 Oklahoma nearly shut out No. 2 Florida State in a 13-2 win that cost Bowden a chance at his third national championship.

"Oklahoma was the one team I could never beat," Bowden said. "We played them twice in the Orange Bowl back in the 1980s and had them beat the second time. We played them for the national championship in 2000 and couldn't score. We just couldn't beat them."

Florida State played the Sooners in Norman, Okla., in 1976, during Bowden's first season with the Seminoles. Bowden had inherited a woebegone FSU program, as the Seminoles had lost 31 of their previous 35 games. Oklahoma had won national championships in 1974 and '75. Not surprisingly, OU easily defeated FSU, 24-9.

Three years later, Florida State was 10-1 and ranked No. 4 nationally when it played Oklahoma in the 1980 Orange Bowl. FSU had a 7-0 lead and seemed ready to score again after cornerback Bobby Butler blocked a punt. The Seminoles recovered the ball at the OU 17, but they couldn't capitalize after a botched snap spoiled a field goal attempt.

A few minutes later, Watts ran for a 61-yard touchdown. Oklahoma went on to a 24-7 victory. Watts ran for 127 yards and All-America running back Billy Sims ran for 164 in his final college game.

"His program wasn't on the rise yet like it was in 1990s," former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer said. "He didn't have the players he had in the 1990s. I had four NFL first-round draft picks. Our two tailbacks, Billy Sims and David Overstreet, were first-round picks. Stanley Wilson, our fullback, helped lead the Cincinnati Bengals to the Super Bowl. Bobby didn't have guys like that."

The Seminoles and Sooners played a rematch in the Orange Bowl in 1981. FSU had a 17-10 lead with 3:19 left, after its top-ranked defense forced Watts to fumble four times and lose three. But Watts, who was known more for his running skills in OU's vaunted wishbone offense, took over the game with his passing in the final three minutes. He completed 6 of 7 passes for 74 yards in a 78-yard scoring drive, which ended with his 1-yard touchdown pass to split end Steve Rhodes with 1:33 to go.

"J.C. had thrown a lot of big passes in big games, but he'd never had to take us the length of the field throwing the ball," Switzer said. "Our offense wasn't equipped to do that because we weren't supposed to be in that situation. We had to do it a different way and fight from behind. J.C. did something that he'd never done before. He did something they had no idea he could do."

After Watts' touchdown pass cut FSU's lead to 17-16, Switzer did something FSU might not have expected him to do. Instead of attempting an extra point to tie the score, Switzer elected to go for two and a victory.

With the Seminoles believing Watts would try to run into the end zone on an option play, he sneaked a pass over the top to tight end Forrest Valora for an 18-17 win.

"In a bowl game, if you're not playing for the national championship, you go for the win," Switzer said. "Two points was a win for us so we went for it. It was a well-executed play and the guy was wide open."

At the time, Bowden called Watts' performance the greatest individual effort he'd ever seen. More than 30 years later, he still says Watts' performance ranks among the best against FSU, outdone only by former Virginia Tech quarterback Michael Vick's effort in the 2000 Sugar Bowl. Vick ran for 97 yards and passed for 225 yards with a touchdown during a 46-29 Seminoles win that gave Bowden his second national championship.

"I'd give an edge to Vick by a nose," Bowden said.

Watts, who played professionally in the Canadian Football League, was a four-term congressman (R-Okla.) from 1995 to 2003. After retiring from politics, he founded a consulting and lobbying firm in Washington, D.C.

"He was impressive and always has been," Bowden said.

Switzer led the Sooners to 157 victories and three national championships before resigning after the 1988 season. He coached the Dallas Cowboys from 1994 to '97, leading the team to a 27-17 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XXX.

Bowden won two national championships and 377 games during his 46-year coaching career, the second-most victories among major college football coaches.

But none of those wins came against the Sooners.

"In the 1990s, we didn't play Florida State," Switzer said. "I wasn't coaching there, but it's fortunate we didn't play them because I don't know if we could have beaten them."

Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.