The 2008 college football season was ultimately remembered for Florida’s victory over Oklahoma for the national championship and Alabama’s return to prominence under Nick Saban. But the midmajor team that captured America’s sympathies deserves a little love themselves. The 2008 Utah football team did everything they realistically could to make their case for #1, including a memorable Sugar Bowl takedown of one of the big boys.
Utah was no stranger to undefeated seasons and major bowl victories, as strange as that might sound. The 2004 Utes enjoyed a perfect regular season and won the Fiesta Bowl, getting their coach, Urban Meyer, the chance to move up and win at Florida. But that ’04 team had played a much more pedestrian schedule and their bowl opponent was a four-loss Pitt team, mediocre by major bowl standards. 2008 was different.
Brian Johnson was at quarterback, and the team had future NFL talent on the defensive side, with Paul Kruger at end and Sean Smith on the corner. Utah went to Ann Arbor to start the season and got the Rich Rodriguez era at Michigan off to a poor start with a 25-23 win. Utah also went outside the confines of their Mountain West Conference and beat Oregon State 31-28. The Beavers would end the year 8-4.
Utah also decisively beat a 10-2 BYU team, 48-24 and survived a tough 13-10 fight against TCU. The Horned Frogs were on their way to a ten-win season and just a year away from a run that would see them win 24 straight regular season games and the Rose Bowl following the 2010 season.
It was good enough to get Utah a ticket to the Sugar Bowl. The opponent was Alabama, who had lost only to Florida, and the Tide led that after three quarters.
Johnson came out blazing in New Orleans and completed five passes to five different receivers, and Utah took a 7-0 lead. An interception led to another touchdown. Then Johnson got the ball back and again reeled off five more completions. Before the first quarter was out, the Utes had a 21-zip lead.
Alabama came fighting back, and cut the lead to 21-17 in the third quarter. Utah drove to the Alabama 28. Johnson turned a 3rd-and-10 into another touchdown pass, Utah added a field goal and the 31-17 upset was complete.
The 2008 Utah football team was unlike 2004 not just in the quality of teams they beat, but in the circumstances surrounding them. 2004 had USC and Auburn each finish the bowl season with a perfect record. Florida and Oklahoma already had a loss apiece when they met for the national title. It produced a wave of sentiment to give Utah the AP national title, voted on by the writers. The coaches’ poll was contractually obligated to take the Florida-Oklahoma winner.
Utah didn’t get a national title—but they did get 16 votes for #1, a surprisingly large number. And other than power conference apologists, who insist the only possible explanation for the Sugar Bowl was that Alabama didn’t care, Utah had impressed a nation.