-- FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The last time Oklahoma stepped off a plane in Florida, its team chemistry, as the players describe it, was in total disarray. The disheartened Sooners had four losses going into the Russell Athletic Bowl, where they got thoroughly destroyed by Clemson last December.
"Everyone was just ready for the season to be over," said defensive end Charles Tapper.
This week, the Sooners are back in the Sunshine State preparing for a rematch against the Tigers in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Capital One Orange Bowl. But this time, they're a different team with a different mindset on a ride they wish would never end, fashioned through a national controversy, a makeshift locker room and an eight-hour travel delay.
"There are so many things that have built this team up," said fullback Dimitri Flowers. "Turned us into a brotherhood."
It's not easy to quantify what exactly has turned the Sooners from Russell Athletic Bowl embarrassment into national championship contender. These Sooners don't have a single consensus All-American. They don't boast a surefire first-round NFL pick. They probably won't even have an underclassman declare early for the draft.
Oklahoma, however, has more than made up for that with gritty play and a hard-nosed mentality that has shined in the fourth quarter. And the forging of that makeup began with a firestorm that descended on Norman in the spring.
"You need adverse situations," said linebacker Eric Striker, "to bring the greatness out of people."
In March, a video surfaced showing members of Oklahoma's Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity singing racist chants with references to lynching African-Americans in a bus on the way to a party. In part because of social media, the video rapidly became a national story.
Just a few hours after the video surfaced, Striker posted a profanity-filled Snapchat video calling the students at Oklahoma "phony." He later apologized for his language in the rant, but his anger in the video reflected that of many of his teammates.
Others had a different initial reaction. Flowers had heard about the video the night it went viral, but it wasn't until the next morning when he showed up for football workouts with running back Samaje Perine that he understood the significance of it and the impact it would have, both on the team and on campus.
"There were a bunch of black [players] that didn't show up," said Flowers, whose mother is white and father is black. "I remember being in shock, like, wow, something crazy is happening."
The football team wound up becoming the symbol of protest. That Monday, dressed in black and linked arm-to-arm, the Sooners skipped their spring practice and held a silent protest together inside the indoor practice field. They held another silent protest later in the week and canceled all practices until after spring break.
What the public didn't see, however, was the impromptu meeting the players put together that Sunday to discuss what to do.
"We said, 'We gotta do something,'" Striker said. "'We can't just let this fly by. We've got a stage. People listen to us, let's make a statement and bring positive change.'"
The meeting lasted through the night. And that, ultimately, was the first step in Oklahoma building a team that became so difficult to break this season.
"We talk about it all the time," said cornerback Zack Sanchez. "That was probably the biggest leap in bringing us together as a team that I've ever seen in anything. It was movie-like. It was the kind of stuff you see in movies."
The meeting didn't start out smoothly. Several players, including Striker, were angry. Others thought they shouldn't get involved.
"Tempers were flaring ... guys almost came to blows, yelling at each other," said center Ty Darlington. "There were differences of opinion on how to handle it and what our role should be as football players."
That forced the leaders of the team -- Darlington, Striker, Tapper, Sanchez, wide receiver Sterling Shepard, quarterback Trevor Knight and guard Nila Kasitati -- to lead the discussion. And after several hours, the team finally came out unified.
"That was the biggest thing, the guys putting their own beliefs and pride aside and looking to the leaders," Sanchez said. "Sometimes you get leaders just because they can play well. With us, it's guys that really want this team to be better.
"The rest of the team was like, whatever y'all decide, that's what we're going to ride with. The guys were going to stand behind us. That was when everybody realized we can take on this together, and there's nothing we can't handle as a team."
Said Flowers, "We got closer, because we had to. We had to come together."
The Sooners have been unified ever since.
"It really did bring us together because you saw guys have common ground on something, whereas maybe we didn't have a lot of similarities in the past," Darlington said. "You saw guys hide differences in order to do something a little bit greater. You see the same concept applied to the team, when we're laying aside small differences to go after a national championship. We got a real life training of how to do that back in March."
The Sooners are quick to point out, however, the team-building didn't stop there.
Because of the ongoing renovations to Memorial Stadium, Oklahoma's locker room currently consists of a glorified trailer, forcing the Sooners to squeeze together every day, regardless of position or clique, in a way they never had to before.
"You're around guys you probably wouldn't talk to," Sanchez said. "You're actually getting to know him, more than he's just your teammate. Everybody in that locker room knows each other. I don't think there's one person I haven't had a regular conversation with. Everybody is close. At this level, I think that's the biggest thing you need is camaraderie and everybody being tight-knit."
An eight-hour flight delay in Oklahoma City on the way to Kansas State -- the week after the Sooners lost their only game of the season to Texas -- only amplified that.
"I think I had little conversations with like every guy on the team," said Tapper, who pointed out that was the first time he had talked in-depth with first-year offensive coaches Lincoln Riley and Dennis Simmons. "Like, 'Hey Coach, how many kids you got?' Talking about things that really brings you closer."
Despite the delay, the Sooners stomped K-State 55-0 the following afternoon, igniting their turnaround. Oklahoma went on to knock off Baylor on the road with a dominant fourth quarter, held on to beat TCU with a stop on a two-point conversion attempt and defeated Oklahoma State in Stillwater to punch its ticket to the playoff.
"There are so many things that have brought us closer in the last year," Tapper said. "When challenges have been thrown at us, on the field, off the field, everyone has come together.
"I want every guy on this team to be the best man at my wedding. The bond on this team ... it's real."