It hadn’t taken Urban Meyer long to make an impact at the University of Florida. In 2006, just his second season in Gainesville, Meyer won a national title. In the 2008 college football season, Meyer, along with quarterback Tim Tebow, obtained legendary status as the Gators won it all again.
Tebow had an electric season, throwing 30 touchdown passes against just four interceptions. He was also one of four Florida rushers who compiled between 600 and 700 yards on the ground. Almost singlehandedly, he made the Gator offense a top-5 unit nationally.
The Florida defense was also among the nation’s best. They were anchored by All-American linebacker Brandon Spikes and had playmakers in pass-rusher Carlos Dunlap and ballhawk defensive back Ahmad Black.
Florida was one of four SEC teams to open the season in the top 10. One of those teams was not Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide. This was Saban’s second year and the Tide had been mediocre in 2007. But this would be the last time that Saban could fly under the radar.
Alabama was strong in the trenches. Offensive tackle Andre Smith won the Outland Trophy and center Antoine Caldwell was an All-American. They paved the way for Glenn Coffee to rush for almost 1400 yards and for Mark Ingram to chip in over 700 more. Defensive tackle Terrence Cody was another All-American.
The Tide didn’t blow the scoreboard lights out, but they didn’t have to. Starting the season ranked #24, they knocked off ninth-ranked Clemson 24-10 on August 30. In late September, Alabama took out Georgia, the preseason #1 team, with a 41-30 win.
On that same September day, Florida took a 31-30 loss to Ole Miss, who had an All-American offensive tackle by the name of Michael Oher. Tebow, distraught by the outcome, made a public vow in the press conference afterward. The lengthy speech has become known in Gator lore as simply “The Promise”, and its words are carved in stone in Gainesville.
Florida came out two weeks later and crushed fourth-ranked LSU 51-21. The Tigers, along with Georgia and Auburn, didn’t live up to lofty preseason expectations. Florida pounded Georgia 49-10. Alabama beat LSU 27-21.
The Crimson Tide was ranked #1. The Gators were #2. They met in the SEC Championship Game for a ticket to play for the national title. Florida won it 31-20 and earned the spot in what was then called the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) National Championship Game.
The race for the other spot came down to battles in the Big 12. And those battles were characterized by a lot of points. Oklahoma, Texas, and Texas Tech all had explosive passing games and were all in the national picture.
OU quarterback Sam Bradford completed 67 percent of his passes for 9.8 yards-per-attempt. He threw 50 touchdowns against just eight interceptions. Bradford won the Heisman Trophy. Colt McCoy in Texas had a 77 percent completion rate, while still producing 8.9 yards-per-attempt. McCoy’s TD-INT ratio was 34/8. Texas Tech’s Graham Harrell clocked in at 71% completions, 8.2 YPA and a 45/9 TD-INT ratio.
Yep, the points were flying in the Big 12. OU got big years from All-American tight end Jermaine Gresham. Chris Brown and Demarco Murray ran behind an offensive line led by All-American guard Duke Robinson. Harrell had Michael Crabtree to throw to down in Lubbock. And Texas had a defensive star—linebacker Brian Orakpo won the Lombardi Trophy.
These three teams split their head-to-head games and finished in a circular tie in the Big 12’s South Division. Texas won the Red River Rivalry game 45-35 in October. But the Longhorns lost a thrilling 39-33 decision to Texas Tech. On November 22, Oklahoma hammered Texas Tech 65-21.
The team ranked highest in the BCS standings would get the nod to play in the league’s conference championship game, against North winner Missouri. It was an unfortunate outcome, because everyone also knew that whomever the ranking system chose was going to be #2 in the country and go to the BCS National Championship Game.
The combination of computers and voters chose Oklahoma. The Sooners dropped 62 points on Mizzou and got their shot at the national title. Texas settled for a Fiesta Bowl bid. Texas Tech went to the Cotton Bowl.
Through much of the 2000s, you didn’t talk about the national championship race without bringing up Pete Carroll’s USC program. The 2008 college football season was no different. The Trojans had the nation’s best defense, led by All-Americans in linebacker Rey Malaugua and safety Taylor Mays. They had a respectable offense with Mark Sanchez at quarterback. And they hammered Ohio State 35-3 in the early part of September.
USC was on top of the polls, but a Thursday night hiccup was all it took to derail their bid–a stunning 27-21 loss to Oregon State before September was out. The Trojans won out the rest of the way and took home the Pac-10 title. But they couldn’t rise above the SEC or Big 12 contenders in the polls and settled for a Rose Bowl bid.
The race for the Big Ten’s spot in Pasadena came down to Penn State and Ohio State. Both teams were all about defense. The Nittany Lions had a playmaker in All-American defensive end Aaron Maybin, with his 12 sacks and 20 tackles-for-loss. The Buckeyes relied on Thorpe Award-winning defensive back Malcom Jenkins, and linebacker James Laurinatius. Each team had a 1,200-yard rusher, Evan Royster, and Chris “Beanie” Wells, respectively.
It was fitting that the prime-time battle in Columbus in late October was a slugfest. Penn State won it 13-6. They would get the chance to play USC in the Rose Bowl, while Ohio State was slotted alongside Texas in the Fiesta.
There was another unbeaten team lurking out there, albeit one that was not given consideration for the BCS title game. That would be Utah. Kyle Wittingham took over the program from Meyer in 2005, after the latter went undefeated and left for Florida. The 2008 edition of the Utes had a high-efficiency passer in Brian Johnson and were consistent on both sides of the ball. Placekicker Louie Sakoda was the nation’s best.
Utah gradually played their way into the top 10. They passed key tests in November, edging Boise State 13-10 and blowing out BYU 48-24. The Utes might not get a national title shot, but they did get a major bowl bid—against Alabama in the Sugar.
The card of major bowl games was rounded out by Virginia Tech and Cincinnati in the Orange. The Hokies were led by one of the nation’s better defenses and a 1,200-yard rusher in Darren Evans. Cincinnati, coached by Brian Kelly, had a pair of 1,000-yard receivers in Dominick Goodman and Marty Gilyard. The Bearcats won the old Big East football conference and its automatic bid to a BCS bowl game.
The highlight of the bowl undercard was the Cotton, which didn’t regain its “major” status until 2014. Texas Tech’s chance to make a statement went by the boards in a 47-34 loss to Ole Miss and a special season in Lubbock ended on a dour note.
USC got the run of the biggest bowls started on New Year’s Day when they dismantled Penn State 38-24, a game not even as close as it sounds. The Trojans were widely regarded as the nation’s best team, even if few were prepared to excuse the non-showing against Oregon State.
Virginia Tech went on to beat Cincinnati 20-7 in a pedestrian Orange Bowl game. The following night in New Orleans, Utah had a chance to show what they could do, and they didn’t miss it. The Utes jumped out to a big lead early and rolled the Crimson Tide 31-17. The Fiesta Bowl was a thriller, with Texas pulling out a 24-21 win over Ohio State.
That set the stage for the last battle, between Florida and Oklahoma. A good game was tied 14-14 early in the fourth quarter. Both Tebow and Bradford made some mistakes, with a couple interceptions each. The difference was that the Gators could run the football. Both Tebow and Percy Harvin went over 100 yards. Florida scored the game’s final ten points and won 24-14.
The University of Florida now had two football national titles and two basketball national titles since 2006. The Gators were the pre-eminent athletic program in all college sports.