College Football Playoffs: The 2008 Season and Planning for the Unpredictable


No season in the Bowl Championship Series’ 13 years of existence exposed more holes in the system than 2008. However, conference commissioners’ proposed and university presidents’ ratified four-team playoff proposal offers no solution to the problems that campaign posed. Quite the contrary — such a system exacerbates what the sport faced then.

Under the playoff format scheduled to begin in 2014, the 2008 tournament would have featured top seed Oklahoma facing USC in one semifinal, and co-Big 12 champion Texas drawing would-be national champion Florida in the other. All four would have been outstanding encounters, and could have left us with a different national champion. Remember, while UF defeated Oklahoma in Miami, the Gators boasted no feat that Texas could not duplicate.

That said, UT ended the campaign with a blemish on its slate. The Longhorns fell to Texas Tech in one of the top games played in the past, or any decade. The Red Raiders were excluded from the BCS because of a restriction on conferences sending more than two teams to the premiere bowls. Such regulation has spared the nation inundation of SEC teams in recent years, but in ’08 the case for any of the Big 12’s top three as the sport’s best was compelling.

Tech’s argument flattened somewhat when the Red Raiders fell in the Cotton Bowl to Ole Miss — and Ole Miss had earlier that year defeated champion Florida. Losing to the Rebels was not such an indignity, nor an argument against Tech’s worthiness for a hypothetical playoff spot given the champion lost to them.

Much like the economic climate since 2008 has dictated for job seekers, there were so many teams with similar resumes vying for limited spots. What made OU or UF more deserving of a title game spot than USC, which boasted one of the best defenses in college football history that season? Or what of Big Ten powers Ohio State and Penn State, both of which finished 11-1 and played in BCS bowls?

UF proved its worth against Alabama, handing the Crimson Tide its sole defeat in the SEC Championship. However, the Tide beat Ole Miss. The Big 12 conundrum proved that head-to-head wins were not the end-all, be-all. That’s seven teams with almost identical credentials, nearly double the allotment of playoff spots the new format features.

Everyone lost to someone that season…well, almost everyone.

Utah ran through a perfect 13-0 docket, earning some votes for the top spot in the Associated Press’ final poll. The Utes’ pledges from sportswriters were not enough to split the title, as had been the case five years earlier when USC and LSU were both crowned champions.

Argument against crowning UU king of the mountain was that it emerged from a conference that did not pose the rigorous challenges an Oklahoma faced with fellow 11-1 finishers Texas and Texas Tech, or “true” champion Florida in the SEC.

And there’s validity to such an argument — to an extent. UU faced San Diego State, New Mexico and UNLV: three teams that would strike fear into no team’s heart. However, the Utes opened the season traveling to one of the more formidable venues in college football, and left Michigan’s Big House with a win.

UU welcomed Oregon State to Rice-Eccles Stadium later in the early season, and dispatched the Beavers with a loss. OSU factored into the Pac-10 championship race that season with its defeat of USC, and USC was a team that almost assuredly would have factored into the playoff hunt were the system in place.

The Beavers were one of four ranked teams the Utes defeated in the 2008 season. That’s no number at which to scoff. It’s the same amount of ranked foes Alabama beat this past season in its championship campaign.

Among the ranked teams UU knocked off was TCU. The Frogs ended their campaign in grand fashion, knocking off Boise State in the Poinsettia Bowl. The match-up was the first of three outstanding affairs between the two programs from 2008 through 2011. And it’s a match-up that happened because BSU was left out of the BCS despite finishing 12-0.

Though the WAC was a weaker conference than the Big Six, and certainly the UU’s home MWC with its three ranked teams, the Broncos did defeat Oregon in the non-conference. Still, that wasn’t enough to keep the Broncos from becoming the first unbeaten passed over for a BCS berth since Marshall in 1999.

Even an eight-team playoff would not have been large enough to include BSU; not with the seven one-loss teams and Utah pulling rank above the Broncos. Of course, in retrospect with its defeat of BSU, 10-2 TCU would have been a viable candidate for the postseason. The Frogs’ sole defeats were to national runner-up Oklahoma, and arguable champion UU.

The 2008 season was an anomaly in the near decade-and-a-half of BCS rule. Nevertheless, a similar scenario playing itself out under the new playoff format is sure to draw ire if (when?) it comes to pass.