2008 NCAA College Football Top 25: The 2008 Year in Review
It seems like just a few short weeks ago that this glorious spectacle known as college football kicked off, yet we now find ourselves wanting for another eight months. Sure, there’ll be the usual distractions like National Signing Day, Spring Football, and Reporting Day in August, but they’ll only serve as vivid reminders that football season isn’t in full swing.
And what a year 2008 was! From the preseason predictions, where I correctly predicted top ten seasons for both Penn State and Texas Tech (Ignore my SEC preview where I picked Auburn versus Tennessee in the title game. What I really picked them for was to get both of their coaches fired) to the bowl season, where my wise prognostication led me to pick six of the first seven games correctly (ignore my prediction of a 5-2 record for the Big Ten and a 7-3 record for the ACC), I could not have asked for more in my first season covering college football at collegesports-fans.com.
2008 will be remembered for the controversy at the top. In past years, I’ve been largely blasé towards the whining from the peanut gallery of teams who feel they deserve a shot because most of the whining comes from teams who simply didn’t earn their shot. However, unlike Georgia in 2007 or Michigan in 2006, we come to the end of the year with no less than three teams worthy of calling themselves National Champions: Southern California, Texas, and Florida. Furthermore, Utah knocked off Alabama from the mighty SEC in the Sugar Bowl and finished 13-0! While I cannot be honest and say that I feel Utah would be able to run through a BCS conference outside of the Big East unscathed, the Utes have established themselves as a consistent factor in the BCS. Since 2004, Utah has won more BCS games (2) than Ohio State (1), Oklahoma (0), Boise State (1), Georgia (1), Penn State (1) and a host of others.
This controversy led me to reconsider my longstanding opposition to a playoff system, which I presented in the form of my ‘Variable’ BCS System. While I will definitely never be a proponent of a full-blown playoff, years like this have become far too common to stand around idly. A word of caution, though, for those that would blow up the BCS entirely: College football has never been as exciting as it is now. Don’t kill the golden goose.
WRAPPING UP: The Conferences
Much was made of conference strength all season, with fans of the Big XII and SEC fighting it out for the title of the best conference in the land. Bowl season opened some eyes as the Pac Ten ran off a 5-0 record and the Big Ten struggled to a 1-6 mark in the face of difficult competition. At the end of this season, my conference power rankings now stand thus:
WRAPPING UP: The Top 25
With all of the controversy entering the bowl season with no less than seven BCS conference teams boasting only one loss, I made a conscious decision early on in the process to consider five teams for National Title consideration: USC, Texas, Penn State, Oklahoma, and Florida. Penn State and Oklahoma fell by the wayside, leaving only USC, Texas and Florida for me to consider.
Why not Utah? Well, it isn’t just the big wins that each team had were more impressive (Utah’s wins over Oregon State, TCU, and Alabama don’t compare to Florida defeating Georgia, Alabama, Oklahoma, and Florida State or USC defeating Ohio State, Penn State, and Oregon) but the weekly difficulty of their respective schedules. See, I have no doubt that Utah could beat almost anyone on any given day. What I do doubt is that Utah could face a BCS conference schedule (outside of the Big East), deal with the subsequent injury attrition and avoid upsets by much better depth teams. Florida’s mid-level opponents were Vanderbilt, South Carolina, LSU, Miami and Kentucky, all bowl teams, while Utah’s mid-level opponents were Air Force, Colorado State, Wyoming, and UNLV. There really isn’t any comparison. Do you think that if Utah played Oklahoma, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, Missouri, Kansas and Colorado like Texas did that they would have avoided a loss, much less two or three? I, for one, don’t.
Thus, after a great deal of thought and consideration I present to you my final top 25 and crown my 2008 National Champion: The Trojans of The University of Southern California.
#1) Southern California Trojans (12-1, #5 After the Regular Season)
There was no more impressive bowl victory, to me, than USC’s dominating win over Penn State. A lot of people will scoff at a victory over a Big Ten team thanks to the conference’s recent struggles in BCS games but Penn State was definitely one of the country’s best teams. The difference athletically between the participants in the Rose, Fiesta, and National Championship games was frankly negligible. The Nittany Lions also showed that they were a very dangerous team by making a valiant effort at a comeback in the second half, but there is no denying that USC won this game in impressive fashion. USC showed a very strong aerial attack on offense and quarterback Mark Sanchez is definitely one of the country’s best. Factor in one of the best defenses in recent history and you’re looking at the best team in the country. USC was hindered by the perceived weakness of the Pac Ten all year but after a 5-0 bowl showing I think it is safe to say that was a mistake (and a major reason for a change in my thinking regarding a plus one system). When picking between Florida and USC, it came down to one decisive factor for me: Would Florida (or anyone else for that matter) beat the Trojans on a neutral field? The answer is for me is no. USC might not have had a chance to play for the crystal football but they are my choice as the 2008 National Champions of College Football.
#2) Florida Gators (13-1, #1)
Florida was crowned BCS champions for the second time in three seasons, the first team to accomplish that feat since the BCS’ inception. The Gators joined LSU as the only team to become multiple BCS champions as they defeated Oklahoma 24-14. While the offenses dominated the discussion leading up to the National Title Game, the defenses actually dominated the game itself. Florida showed that their defense was one of the country’s best and a 4 th quarter surge was all that the Gators needed to hoist the crystal football for the 2 nd time in 3 years. However, while I watched Oklahoma shoot themselves in the foot during the first half, all I could think was that USC would not have squandered similar chances and that would have been enough to beat the Gators. Still, Florida had an excellent season and while I might not be declaring the Gators my #1 team, they are certainly a very deserving champion and should be honored.
#3) Texas Longhorns (12-1, #2)
Texas had perhaps the biggest gripe with the system as they were forced to watch archrival Oklahoma play for the national title despite beating the Sooners 45-35 on a neutral field back in October. However, the Longhorns still were a long shot contender for the AP National Title going into the Fiesta Bowl. After watching the Longhorns pull out a last minute victory over a better-than-most-people-think Ohio State team in the best bowl game of the year, I’m convinced that Texas is a fantastic team. However, Ohio State was, by far, the best defense they faced all year, holding the ‘Horns to season low 24 points (partly aided by a controversial 4 th down on the game’s final drive) and the Buckeyes’ unit isn’t quite as good as Florida or USC’s defensive corps. Thus, Texas finishes the year at #3 and will be a strong contender for the #1 ranking entering 2009.
#4) Utah Utes (13-0, #9)
Utah surprised everyone in the country (and perhaps exposed Alabama in the process) by jumping out to a 21-0 lead early and held on to move to 2-0 in BCS games. While I’m quite sure that Utah isn’t on par with the Floridas and USCs of the world, they’ve now had two unbeaten seasons capped off with BCS wins in the past 5 years. Utah’s strong defense was the biggest reason for their excellent season and their #2 finish in the AP poll is the best in school history.
#5) Penn State Nittany Lions (11-2, #4)
Penn State spent all week before the Rose Bowl explaining that USC was not, in fact, faster or stronger. What the Nittany Lions forgot was that USC wouldn’t get rattled and beat themselves on the big stage. After a first quarter where Penn State played the Trojans even, the second quarter was dominated by USC thanks to both the excellence of the Trojans and ruinous mistakes by PSU. A very strong second half brought the game back to a respectable 38-24 mark but Penn State knows that they didn’t play their best. Still, an 11-2 mark brings PSU’s seniors’ career record to 40-11 in their four years, a very impressive statistic considering that Penn State had missed bowl games for the three years prior to their arrival. Penn State was an excellent team this year and will continue to be a fixture in the top 25 in years to come.
#6) Oklahoma Sooners (12-2, #3)
Oklahoma has now lost 5 consecutive BCS games. FIVE! The last time OU won a BCS game was before any current college players even entered high school. After seeing the mounds of hatred flung upon Ohio State after consecutive National Title Game losses, Oklahoma fans are going to be in for a long offseason. The Sooners had an excellent year this season and their defense proved far stouter than most gave them credit for after holding Florida to a season low in the National Title Game. Oklahoma also suffered more injuries than anyone outside of Athens, Georgia and will be a contender again next season if Heisman winner Sam Bradford returns. However, until the Sooners win a BCS game, there is a cloud that will hang over ‘Big Game’ Bob Stoops and his football team.
#7) Alabama Crimson Tide (12-2, #6)
Alabama shocked the world twice this season. The first shocker was the strength of the Crimson Tide’s offensive and defensive lines, which dominated the regular season as the Tide ran through the SEC. Despite a game manager at quarterback and only one major receiving target (Julio Jones, a true freshman!), Alabama entered the SEC title game as the #1 team in the country. Even after their loss, the Tide were considered a heavy favorite to defeat Utah. However, the Tide shocked the world again by forgetting to play the first quarter of the Sugar Bowl and spotted Utah an insurmountable 21-0 lead. Thanks in large part to star tackle Andre Smith supposedly deciding to talk to an agent, leading to his subsequent suspension for the Sugar Bowl, Alabama’s vaunted lines didn’t hold up and now head coach Nick Saban will have to deal all offseason with the fallout from losing his final two games of the season, both coming against the only two elite opponents the Tide faced all season. Despite playing an SEC schedule, Alabama still only finished with the 32 nd toughest slate in the country ( Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma, Ohio State, and Texas all finished in the top seven). That said, Alabama re-established themselves as a major player on the National stage this year and will return most of this season’s team next fall. Alabama was among the country’s leaders in freshmen played, so watch out for the Tide.
#8) Ohio State Buckeyes (10-3, #8)
Ohio State’s image received a major facelift despite losing to Texas in the Fiesta Bowl by a 24-21 mark. While a major traditional power like Ohio State normally wouldn’t have anything to do with moral victories, a very impressive loss felt like a win to many after the debacles of the last two National Title Games. Texas benefitted from a questionable spot on a 4 th down conversion during their game-winning drive and Ohio State carried the play for much of the first half. I have a lot of difficulty moving the Buckeyes down after such a strong showing and the AP voters agree with me, actually moving OSU up a spot in their final vote. The Buckeyes rebounded well from an early season beating at USC to play excellent defense the rest of the year and held both Penn State and Texas to their season low point totals. Ohio State is also the only team in the top fifteen starting a freshman quarterback, Terrelle Pryor, and should be a major contender in 2008.
#9) Texas Christian Horned Frogs (11-2, #12)
TCU continues the top 10 trend of excellent defense. In fact, TCU’s defense was so good that they held Utah (31 points scored on both Alabama and Oregon State) to a measly 13 points in a difficult late season loss. TCU then went out and dominated high-flying Boise State’s offense in a 17-16 Poinsettia Bowl victory. Simply put, TCU could play with almost anyone in the country this year thanks to their swarming defense and is very deserving of a top ten finish.
#10) Texas Tech Red Raiders (11-2, #7)
The trend of good defense ends with Texas Tech, because the Red Raiders seemed incapable of playing any defense all season long, capped off by a 47-35 loss to Ole Miss in the Cotton Bowl. For all of Texas Tech’s offensive wizardry, the Red Raiders still haven’t found nearly enough consistency on defense. In many regards, they’re a great example of the Big XII in 2008: Lethal on offense, weak on defense. Texas Tech loses a lot of excellent players, including senior quarterback Graham Harrell and most of the offensive line and will probably take a step back in 2009 after having one of the best years in school history this fall.
#11) Oregon Ducks (10-3, #19)
Oregon finished the season on an absolute roll, knocking off high-powered Oklahoma State by a 42-31 margin in the Holiday Bowl. Oregon developed a vicious ground attack after getting some consistency at the quarterback position following some early season injury troubles. Oregon ran archrival Oregon State out of their own stadium with the Beavers’ Rose Bowl hopes on the line and might have sent out longtime coach Mike Bellotti with a bang, winning six of their final seven games. Oregon has a very bright future.
#12) Georgia Bulldogs (10-3, #15)
Georgia was a relative disappointment after starting the year #1 in the country. However, the Bulldogs rebounded from losing two of their final four games to defeat a gutsy Michigan State team 24-12 in the Capital One Bowl. The biggest reason for their success was definitely the play of their defense, which held Michigan State to 6 points in the first half when the Spartans had ample opportunities to put the Dawgs in a huge hole. That defensive performance will be needed next fall as star junior QB Matthew Stafford and redshirt sophomore tailback Knowshon Moreno declared for the NFL draft. Georgia might have been disappointing this year but they return a large core of players for another run next fall.
#13) Iowa Hawkeyes (9-4, #20)
Iowa is one of the season’s best stories. The Hawkeyes started 3-3 before finishing the season on a 6-1 run, including a stunning win over Penn State. Iowa finished the year with a flourish as they blew out South Carolina 31-10 in a game which was over midway through the second quarter. Iowa’s four losses this season came by a combined total of 12 points and by the end of the season there were few teams which could match the Hawkeyes’ combination of a powerful running game and excellent defense. Iowa will lose star tailback Shon Greene to the NFL but most of this team returns next season and could contend for the Big Ten title.
#14) Ole Miss Rebels (9-4, #21)
Ole Miss is another team that overcame some early struggles to play inspired down the stretch and finish the year strong. The Rebels absolutely dominated Texas Tech’s defense in winning the Cotton Bowl and the Rebels are the only team to defeat BCS Champion Florida this year. Should Florida’s Tim Tebow opt to go to the NFL, quarterback Jevan Snead will be without question the SEC’s best returning quarterback in 2009. Ole Miss is a young team which could challenge LSU and Alabama for the SEC West next fall.
#15) Oklahoma State Cowboys (9-4, #10)
Oklahoma State had one of the most successful seasons in school history this fall, yet couldn’t quite get over the hump against elite competition. The Cowboys’ 4 losses all came against teams which finished in the top eleven! However, OSU had a very strong running game all season long and with quarterback Zac Robinson returning they’ve definitely established themselves as contenders in 2009 in the Big XII South.
#16) Boise State Broncos (12-1, #11)
Boise State had another uber-successful season but failed to win their bowl game for the second consecutive season. However, the Broncos continued their winning ways with a freshman quarterback and will probably dominate the WAC against next year. Boise State needs to seriously consider petitioning the Mountain West for inclusion if they want to consistently have a chance to be considered among the country’s best instead of getting fat on the Idahos and San Jose States of the college football world.
#17) Missouri Tigers (10-4, #25)
Missouri has certainly played some exciting games against the Big Ten this fall. After a 55-45 win over Illinois to begin the year, the Tigers pulled out an overtime 30-23 win over upstart Northwestern in the Alamo Bowl. Despite the disappointment of losing four games, the Tigers still won the Big XII North and won ten games. It is the end of an era in Columbia now that Chase Daniel has graduated and it will be very interesting to see how Missouri fares next year without him.
#18) Virginia Tech Hokies (10-4, #23)
Virginia Tech rode a dominating defensive performance to victory in the Orange Bowl. Despite their offensive struggles (and their fans’ idiotic chanting of ‘ACC! ACC!’ after the game. Please, your conference went 4-6 in bowl with wins over Nevada and Navy among them. You’re not the SEC and it is not even close), the Hokies used their time-tested formula of great defense and special teams to suffocate the Bearcats into errors. Virginia Tech is a pretty young team with a quarterback in Tyrod Taylor who is just coming into his own. Virginia Tech will be a major factor in the ACC race next fall.
#19) Oregon State Beavers (9-4, #22)
Oregon State followed up their stellar regular season by winning the worst bowl game of the year. The Beavers’ 3-0 win over Pitt in the Sun Bowl was the least interesting and weirdest bowl game I’ve seen in my lifetime. It was like both teams decided they wanted a throwback to the 1920s to be their final mark on the college football season. Either way, Oregon State won without the Rodgers brothers, who were huge parts of their offense all year and the Beavers will certainly have high hopes for next fall after having such a strong year when most people predicted them to regress.
#20) Cal Golden Bears (9-4, #24)
Cal was inexplicably left out of the final AP poll. I guess winning your bowl game over a BCS conference team while featuring one of the country’s best tailbacks and winning nine games (including wins over Oregon and Michigan State) isn’t enough to be considered one of the country’s best 25. That or most of the voters have been too lazy to pay attention to the west coast all season. Cal is a very good football team who fought mighty USC to a 17-10 loss earlier this year, USC’s toughest win of the season. The Golden Bears are well deserving of a top 20 spot and will be a force in the Pac Ten next year as well.
#21) Michigan State Spartans (9-4, #14)
Michigan State was done in against Georgia because of poor play at the quarterback position. For some reason, head coach Mark Dantonio replaced ineffective senior Brian Hoyer for one series, allowing the Spartans to move the ball under freshman Kirk Cousins’ direction, yet Dantonio never went back to the talented freshman who threw for 130 yards and a touchdown against Ohio State earlier this season. Simply put, Michigan State led 6-3 at half when they probably should have led 16-3. The Spartans will benefit from better quarterback play next season but their 9-4 season is a very good sign of things to come in East Lansing.
#22) Northwestern Wildcats (9-4, #16)
Northwestern, like Cal, was snubbed by the AP voters. Why? Because the Wildcats held Missouri’s high powered offense to 23 points in regulation? Because Northwestern developed into one of the country’s toughest defenses? Again, this is a sign of sheer laziness on the part of many of the writers, ignoring the Wildcats because they’re in the Big Ten and are, well, Northwestern. Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald’s emphasis on defense paid off this season and should continue to allow the Wildcats to be a solid team in the Big Ten for years to come.
#23) Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (9-4, #13)
Paging Georgia Tech…….Paging Georgia Tech……You have an appointment to play in the Chik-Fil-A Bowl…….. Paging Georgia Tech…….Paging Georgia Tech……You have an appointment to play in the Chik-Fil-A Bowl……..After watching Tech run the ball well all year and play disciplined defense, their absolute demolishment at the hands of LSU was one of the biggest surprises of bowl season. Georgia Tech showed their youth by seemingly being in awe of the scene and LSU, chock full of veterans of last year’s National Title Game, took full advantage and this game was 35-3 at halftime. Georgia Tech still had a great season, breaking their losing streak to Georgia, but they will have a very sour taste in their mouths this offseason after such a dismal performance in the season’s final game.
#24) Cincinnati Bearcats (11-3, #17)
Cincinnati’s dream season came to an end after the Bearcats couldn’t move the ball after their opening possession and fell to the Hokies in the lowest rated Orange Bowl in history. However, the Bearcats appear to be here to stay, having won double digit games in back to back seasons. Assuming Cincinnati can hold onto head coach Brian Kelly, the Bearcats will be good for the foreseeable future.
#25) Nebraska Cornhuskers (9-4, Not Ranked)
Nebraska rounds out the season’s top 25 after besting Clemson in the Gator Bowl. After slogging around the entire first half, senior quarterback Joe Ganz led the team back to victory despite having to briefly leave the game in the 3 rd quarter after getting hit hard. Nebraska’s defense has developed well and head coach Bo Pelini has the Huskers moving towards contention in the Big XII North. A return to national prominence, however, is still a long way off but this season is certainly a step in the right direction.
By Matt Baxendell
Matt Baxendell is collegesports-fans.com’s top 25 guru. Feel free to tell him how wrong his rankings are by emailing him at matt.baxendell @ gmail.com with all your questions, comments, and anything else you would like to share.
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