Owens attended the University of Oklahoma, where he played for the Oklahoma Sooners football team from 1967 to 1969. As a senior in 1969, he was recognized as a consensus first-team All-American, and became the second Oklahoma Sooner to win the Heisman Trophy (after Billy Vessels, and preceding Sam Bradford, Jason White and Billy Sims). He was the Sooners' all-time scorer with fifty-seven touchdowns until DeMarco Murray beat his record in 2010, and retains the third highest Sooners career rushing total with 4,041 yards.
Owens holds the distinction of executing touchdowns on the first three forward passes of his NCAA career. He also established the career rushing record of 3,867 yards that stood for two years until Ed Marinaro broke it in 1971. His 1967–1969 career points per game record would be broken the following season by Arkansas' Bill Burnett.
In 2006, the university erected a bronze statue of Owens on its campus in Heisman Park, commemorating his 1969 award. He was also a member of the Kappa Sigma fraternity at the University of Oklahoma.
The Detroit Lions chose Owens in the first round (nineteenth pick overall) in the 1970 NFL Draft, and he played for the Lions from 1970 to 1974. In 1971, he rushed for 1,035 yards, becoming the first player in the history of the Lions' franchise to run for more than 1,000 yards in a single season, and was selected for the Pro Bowl. Owens was forced to retire in 1975, after a series of knee injuries plagued him from 1972 through his retirement announcement in 1975.