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Revisiting the 2008 college football season with advanced box scores

We had record-setting offensive numbers and a 3-0 bowl game. 2008 was strange and memorable.

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FedEx BCS National Championship Game - Oklahoma v Florida Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images

After the glorious 2007 season, one with more drama and less of a center of gravity than any season in our respective lifetimes, came a pivot-point season.

The 2008 campaign saw some teams putting up unimaginable offensive numbers — the Big 12 experienced a perfect storm of innovation and quarterback experience, with OU’s Sam Bradford winning the Heisman and nearly every team starting either a senior (Mizzou’s Chase Daniel, Texas Tech’s Graham Harrell, Nebraska’s Joe Ganz) or junior quarterback (Texas’ Colt McCoy, OSU’s Zac Robinson, Kansas’ Todd Reesing, Kansas State’s Josh Freeman). Big 12 teams nabbed seven of the nine spots in Off. S&P+, plus an eighth in the top 20, and Baylor, with a freshman named Robert Griffin III, surged to 33rd.

Then you had ... the others. Really, this was a lot like the 2018 NFL season that just passed — a lot of teams figured out fun and interesting ways to move the football (Florida and USC were also dominant, and Oregon was rising quickly), and those who weren’t innovating were spiraling.

The SEC had five teams in the Off. S&P+ top 25 but also had five ranked 94th or worse. Vanderbilt had one of the 10 worst offenses in the country (113th) but still managed to rise to 13th in the polls with a 5-0 start. Plus, Auburn (94th) was going through its “Tommy Tuberville needs to liven up the offense, so he hires a spread guy (Tony Franklin) who is rejected by the rest of his coaching staff” season and ended up playing in games with scores like 14-13, 14-12, 17-7, and, of course, 3-2.

We had a 3-0 Sun Bowl as well.

This was a year of extremes. Let’s use advanced box scores to walk back through it.

August 30: No. 24 Alabama 34, No. 9 Clemson 10

Another way in which this was a pivot-point season: Alabama was officially back. After going 7-6 in Nick Saban’s first season, the Tide were given a top-25 preseason rating seemingly as a courtesy. But then they went out and started the season 12-0.

August 30: No. 6 Missouri 52, No. 20 Illinois 42

Most of the sporadic Mizzou-Illinois series in St. Louis in the 2000s was forgettable, but the 2007-08 games were both absolutely absurd.

September 13: No. 9 Auburn 3, Mississippi State 2

September 13: No. 1 USC 35, No. 5 Ohio State 3

Honestly? This might have been the best USC team of the Pete Carroll era. Maybe it was second to 2004. The Trojans’ fifth gear was better than everyone else’s, and they treated Ohio State like a Mountain West team in this one.

Ohio State v USC
Rey Maualuga
Photo by Jeff Golden/Getty Images

September 20: No. 18 Wake Forest 12, No. 24 Florida State 3

Here’s your semi-regular reminder that Wake beat Florida State three straight times at one point in the 2000s (and that the end of the Bobby Bowden era really was offensively moribund).

September 25: Oregon State 27, No. 1 USC 21

The Jacquizz Rodgers game. OSU’s running back had 37 carries for 186 yards against what was, per S&P+, the second-best defense in the country. And even on TV, you could tell the atmosphere was just damn special. USC was the best team in the country, and Oregon State took ‘em down.

September 27: Ole Miss 31, No. 4 Florida 30

The most mythologized Florida loss of all time.

Also: an extremely unlikely Ole Miss win. Kinda mind-blowing to think back and realize that this happened on the same weekend as Oregon State’s upset win.

September 27: No. 8 Alabama 41, No. 3 Georgia 30

On that same weekend, Alabama officially announced its presence. Georgia had a blackout game and a chance to prove that it was the class of the conference instead of Florida. And then Alabama bolted to a 31-0 lead.

September 27: Michigan 27, No. 9 Wisconsin 25

LOOK AT THAT FIRST-HALF SUCCESS RATE FOR THE WINNING TEAM. A bad Michigan team hosted a top-10 team, did almost literally nothing offensively for a half, and then won anyway.

October 4: No. 4 Missouri 52, Nebraska 17

As a Mizzou fan, I can say that this game was almost certainly the peak of the Chase Daniel era. Nebraska turned out to be a top-20-level, nine-win team, and the Tigers did whatever the hell they wanted to in Lincoln.

You can usually tell when something’s the peak because the route starts going downhill soon afterward.

October 4: No. 19 Vanderbilt 14, No. 13 Auburn 13

GameDay was in town. This game was a huge deal. And these teams ended up finishing a combined 12-13.

October 11: No. 5 Texas 45, No. 1 Oklahoma 35

You rarely see an injury swing a game the way OU linebacker Ryan Reynolds’ did in the third quarter of this one. It was 28-20 OU when Reynolds went down, and it was 25-7 Texas from there.

When USC went down, it very much looked like we were on a collision course for an OU-Florida national title game. Then both teams got upset, too, and fell apart from there. Right? Isn’t that how that played out?

October 11: No. 11 Florida 51, No. 4 LSU 21

In the eight remaining regular season games after The Speech, Florida outscored opponents by an average of 52-12. And they tossed the defending national champion around like a rag doll.

October 11: No. 17 Oklahoma State 28, No. 3 Missouri 23

Mizzou was unstoppable offensively (the Tigers had scored at least 42 points in every game and, if I recall correctly, hadn’t yet suffered a single three-and-out), and fans were already looking ahead to a potential No. 1 vs. No. 2 (or at least No. 2 vs. No. 3) game at Texas the next week. It was a perfect football evening in Columbia, and everyone was expecting a party. Instead, this became one of the first true breakthrough wins of the Mike Gundy era.

I can attest that an 18% post-game win expectancy for OSU does not make this Mizzou fan feel any better. There were some funky bounces in this one.

The Tigers got wrecked by Texas the next week, too.

October 25: No. 3 Penn State 13, No. 10 Ohio State 6

I had completely forgotten that Penn State had gotten up to No. 3 in the polls that year.

October 25: No. 1 Texas 28, No. 7 Oklahoma State 24

I had also completely forgotten that, the week before the famous Texas-Texas Tech game, UT had to win a statistical tossup game against an awesome OSU. Couldn’t even find highlights of it on YouTube—it was completely overshadowed by what happened next.

November 1: No. 6 Texas Tech 39, No. 1 Texas 33

Gotta love that maybe the two most impactful games of the season were night games in Corvallis and Lubbock.

November 6: No. 10 Utah 13, No. 11 TCU 10

Meanwhile, out west, Utah was putting together its second perfect season in five years...

November 8: Iowa 24, No. 3 Penn State 23

A very Iowa win in very Iowa weather.

November 22: No. 5 Oklahoma 65, No. 2 Texas Tech 21

Historically, this season was defined as much by the OU-Texas controversy — which team would end up No. 2 to face Florida? — as anything else. Mack Brown went on every damn network that would have him to politic for his team, and it worked to some degree. But despite UT’s head-to-head win, I just couldn’t even pretend to feel sorry for the Horns for missing out, not after OU absolutely erased the team that had beaten UT.

These three teams all went 1-1 against each other, and OU easily had the best scoring margin in those games. And this offense truly was remarkable at the end of the season.

By the way, a friend of mine who was there said this impromptu “Jump Around” moment was maybe his favorite of all his trips to Owen Field. It was at the end of a 43-7 first half, and he said the stadium literally (somewhat literally maybe?) shook.

November 29: No. 5 USC 38, Notre Dame 3

After a dreadful 2007, Notre Dame improved back to the level of seven wins and a top-50 ranking in 2008. And USC humiliated the Irish all the same.

December 5: Buffalo 42, No. 12 Ball State 24 (MAC Championship)

The game that ended up earning Turner Gill the Kansas job. Brady Hoke’s Ball State was undefeated no more.

December 6: No. 2 Florida 31, No. 1 Alabama 20 (SEC Championship)

Alabama led 20-17 heading into the fourth quarter and was 15 minutes from the national title game in Saban’s second year. And then Florida played one of its most perfect quarters ever.

December 6: No. 4 Oklahoma 62, No. 19 Missouri 21 (Big 12 Championship)

How terrifying was OU’s offense? Mizzou began the game with a missed field goal and a punt, and even though it was only 3-0 OU at the time, I remember thinking “That’s it, it’s over” after the punt. The Mizzou defense had held this unstoppable force to three points in 10 minutes; that was the Tigers’ chance.

It was 38-7 by halftime.

December 30: No. 15 Oregon 42, No. 13 Oklahoma State 31 (Holiday Bowl)

Oregon bounced back nicely this season from the humbling end to 2007, and Chip Kelly would take over in 2009. This was just a really fun bowl game, nothing more and nothing less.

December 31: No. 24 Oregon State 3, No. 18 Pitt 0 (Sun Bowl)

This bowl game: far less fun and far more memorable.

January 1: No. 5 USC 38, No. 6 Penn State 24 (Rose Bowl)

Penn State was, per S&P+, a top-five level team this year. And USC was on a completely different level.

After that Oregon State loss, USC never got higher than fifth in the polls in the regular season.

The CFP race this year would have been damn outstanding. The fourth spot in the playoff (after Florida, OU, and Texas) would have either gone to one-loss Alabama, one-loss USC, or unbeaten mid-major Utah. Since Bama had just lost to Florida, and since there’s no reason to think that the committee would take mid-majors any more seriously then than they do now, I’m betting USC gets the nod. And considering that all four of those teams were among the best of the S&P+ era (2005-present) ... damn, that would’ve been fun.

January 2: No. 7 Utah 31, No. 4 Alabama 17 (Sugar Bowl)

Ah, the Stevenson Sylvester game. Sylvester has three sacks, Utah leaps out to an early lead, and Alabama can’t claw back.

Utah was pretty lucky to be unbeaten (as we’ll see when we discuss the year’s S&P+ rankings), but damn, did the Utes take advantage of their opportunity here.

January 5: No. 3 Texas 24, No. 10 Ohio State 21 (Fiesta Bowl)

The year of the Big 12 concluded with a pretty disappointing bowl season — OU lost to Florida, OSU lost to Oregon, Texas Tech lost to Ole Miss, and Mizzou eked by Northwestern — but UT nicely held up its end of the bargain here.

January 8: Florida 24, Oklahoma 14 (BCS Championship)

OU completely dominated the second quarter and had a chance to seize total control of the game. Instead, two Florida goal line stands kept the halftime score at 7-7, and the Gators ended up seizing control instead. I used that second quarter as the primary example in the finishing drives chapter of my first book (Kindle edition only $6.99!).