During my first year of pee-wee football, our head coach asked two simple questions that stick with me to this day. The team was circling up and taking a knee following our last practice before the championship game. Our coach began by asking "Who won our league's Super Bowl last year?" In immediate unison, the entire team recited, "THE AUSTINTOWN FALCONS!" He then asked, "And who did they beat in the championship?"
We suddenly became silent and looked at one another with quizzical expressions. About four different teams were listed until someone finally landed on the correct team. But our coach's point was abundantly clear to us--everyone remembers a champion. No one really remembers a team that just came close.
Such is the way of life, which is why the Big Ten Championship 2008 team is largely forgotten about outside of State College. While that team was not the best in the nation in 2008, it came one or two plays from ultimately playing for, and quite possibly winning, the national championship.
The Bowl Championship Series, aka BCS, is no longer around for a simple reason--it was an extremely flawed system. While the current College Football Playoff is far from perfect, it's light years ahead of the BCS in terms of effectively selecting a true champion.
The team started the season ranked 22nd in both the coaches and AP polls. They looked like a candidate to win eight or nine games, play in a decent bowl, but not make any waves in the overall national outlook. The best player, linebacker dynamo Sean Lee, was out for the season after tearing his ACL in spring practice. Quarterback Daryll Clark was an unknown commodity, outside of the fact he looked good in a handful of wildcat plays in the previous year's Alamo Bowl victory against Texas A&M. The defensive line was largely inexperienced and expected to take a step back. Plus, it seemed next to impossible that the team would be able to get past Ohio State, especially after a demoralizing blowout loss at home in 2007. Ohio State started the season ranked 2nd in the nation, and with most of their key starters back, it seemed all but inevitable they would sweep through the Big Ten and possibly play for another national championship.
Then the season started and it appeared Penn State was far better than their 22nd ranking. The offense began lighting up the scoreboard each week, while the defense proved dominant once again. Clark seemingly couldn't miss. Evan Royster ran through holes the size of shipping containers created by a physical offensive line. Aaron Maybin came out of nowhere to become one of the most feared defenders in the nation. The linebackers settled in quite well, with Lee coaching them up from the sidelines. They quickly developed into a well-balanced team that seemed capable of beating anyone, something that became especially evident following a 48-7 drubbing of Wisconsin on the road. After slipping past Ohio State in Columbus in a defensive slugfest, it appeared no one could stop Penn State from finishing undefeated and a potential shot for the national championship.
Then, everything went wrong in Iowa City. The Hawkeyes entered the game with a 5-4 record that included wins against Maine, Iowa State, Florida International and Indiana--not exactly murderer's row. But then a handful of factors helped result in the team's first loss of the season. Perhaps most notably, Clark was still recovering from a concussion that took him out of the Ohio State game early two weeks earlier. Clark did not seem to be himself, and to this day fans still wonder if they would have been better off starting Pat Devlin, a mega-recruit with plenty of talent himself since Clark seemed out of sorts that afternoon, far removed from his usually productive, back-to-back Big Ten MVP Award-winning-self. This seemed to be proven correct after a Clark misfire led to an interception with just 3:48 remaining. The game was also played on a particularly windy day, which seemed to have a major impact on the usually high-powered offense. Bizarrely enough, the team elected not to use heaters on the sideline, likely giving Iowa an extra advantage.
Still, Penn State built a lead and it appeared they were on their way to another victory, just closer than expected. But then, Iowa slowly started to creep back. It appeared they would just come close enough to make it interesting as Penn State prepared to stop them one last time before running out the clock. Then something happened that remains etched in my memory. On a key third down, quarterback Ricky Stanzi had a pass batted down that looked to be the nail in the coffin. However, a controversial flag was thrown on safety Anthony Scirrotto for pass interference. It appeared as though Scirrotto was making a play on the ball as he swatted it away. The refs saw it differently, keeping the drive alive for the Hawkeyes. A few plays later, Stanzi would connect with Derrell Johnson-Koulianos at the 15, setting up Iowa's game-winning field goal as time expired.
Penn State's national title hopes were doomed. No matter how the rest of the season would play out, there was no way a one-loss team from the Big Ten would get the chance to play for a national championship, especially after Ohio State's embarrassing losses to Florida and LSU in the previous two BCS title games. Penn State would go on to win its final two contests of the season against Indiana and Michigan State to clinch the Big Ten title and a spot in the Rose Bowl.
But what about Florida and USC?
Yes, Florida and USC were much better than Penn State in 2008. USC proved it on the field by topping the Nittany Lions 38-24 in the Rose Bowl to close out the season. Florida recovered from an early-season loss to Ole Miss to sweep through the rest of the schedule and ultimately win the national championship. It would be difficult for any reasonable college football fan to claim that Florida wasn't the best team in the country that season.
But remember, this was in the days of the excruciatingly flawed BCS, where a team didn't necessarily need to be one of the best two teams in the nation, they just had to be very good and extremely lucky. It was a system built on the pillars of subjectivity, lobbying and name recognition.
If Penn State had just one more break in the Iowa game go in their favor, they would have finished as one of three undefeated FBS teams, along with Utah and Boise State. The Utes and Broncos did not have the strength of schedule to be considered for a title game appearance, and finished sixth and ninth, respectively, in the final BCS standings of the regular season.
Now, here's where things get really interesting.
The season finished with seven one-loss teams (Oklahoma, Florida, Texas, Alabama, USC and Texas Tech, along with Penn State) and no undefeated teams from a major conference. Adding to the confusion, the Big 12 created a complete quagmire by having three one-loss teams that all took a turn beating one another. Complicating things further, Oklahoma finished the season at number one in the Coaches Poll (much to the dismay of Texas, which beat the Sooners 45-35 earlier in the season), with Florida taking the top spot in the AP Poll.
When the dust settled and the BCS computers went ring-a-ding-ding, as elite former Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer would say, Oklahoma came out on top of the final BCS standings with Florida at number two. Now, if the awful pass interference call on Scirrotto had never been called, or if Devlin would have started to allow Clark to recover for another week, or if the Iowa skies were pleasant that afternoonr or if Penn State would have remembered to bring their damn sideline heaters, it's a safe assumption that the Nittany Lions would have been all alone at number one following the regular season. And since Oklahoma fared better than Florida in the eyes of the BCS, the Sooners and Nittany Lions would have faced off in Miami for all the marbles.
This would have been a huge break for Penn State, as the Nittany Lions probably would have had little chance of defeating the Tim Tebow-led Florida Gators. But a match-up with Oklahoma would have been much, much more favorable. Oklahoma was a one-sided team with an explosive offense and a below-average defense. However, the offensive productivity seemed to be vastly inflated by the downright awful defenses throughout the Big 12 (if you go back and watch tape from that season of the Big 12, you would likely be under the impression that tackling and defending a receiver downfield were strictly outlawed, or at the very least, frowned upon, by the conference). This became abundantly clear in the Sooners clash with Florida, where their high-powered offense managed only two scores when it finally faced off with a competent defense.
Penn State had a much more balanced team, finishing in the top 15 in both total offense and defense. Barring disaster, it's completely reasonable to assume the Nittany Lions defense would have limited the Sooners offense, while Clark and company would have put up enough points to come away victorious. This wouldn't have been the result against Florida, USC, and possibly others from the one-loss logjam that defined 2008. But in the days of the BCS, many teams that hoisted the championship trophy weren't necessarily the best team in the nation but still will be remembered forever as a national champion. With just one more break, the 2008 team could have been immortal.
What Does It All Mean?
Well, not that much really. Many programs can look at one game or one play and think "What could have been?" At the very least, we were able to waste a summer afternoon reflecting on a great team that could have been remembered much differently with just one more favorable break.
If my former coach asked the same two questions to a group of college football fans, they would immediately remember Urban Meyer and Tim Tebow leading the Gators to a crown. They likely wouldn't remember too much about Penn State, Oklahoma and the other also-rans who just didn't make it to the top of the mountain.
Regardless, the 2008 squad will always be remembered fondly by Penn State fans. They continually defined expectations and created a slew of memories that will live on forever in the program's storied history. And they taught us to always believe those improbable national title hopes aren't really all that far out of reach.