College football stories: Comebacks, controversies

The college football year opened with LSU winning a national title by downing Ohio State in the BCS national championship game, the Buckeyes’ second consecutive title-game loss to an SEC school.

While that was controversy-free, the sport – as usual – had its share of flare-ups.

The recruitment of the nation’s No. 1 prospect took longer than usual. One of the most successful coaches in college history – regardless of sport – was on the outs with top school officials. Two of the nation’s marquee programs struggled mightily. And one of the participants in the national title game was the beneficiary of a weird tiebreaker.

On the field, there was offense galore, especially in the Big 12. One SEC school returned to what it likes to think is its proper place on the national scene. Some of the nation’s lesser-known programs pushed their way into the top 10. And that coach who was on the outs is back on the hot list again.

Here’s a look at the year that was in college football.

Photo Ohio State QB Terrelle Pryor passes during the Big Ten Conference game against Michigan.
( Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

10. The Terrelle Pryor saga: His recruitment out of Jeannette (Pa.) High lasted an extra six weeks. In the end, he signed with Ohio State. The spotlight didn’t fade once he got to Columbus. After the third game of the season, a loss at USC, Pryor was elevated to the starting quarterback job. He displaced fifth-year senior Todd Boeckman, who had guided the Buckeyes to the national title game last season. While still raw as a passer, Pryor showed great athletic ability in guiding the Buckeyes to the Fiesta Bowl.

9. The Year of the ‘Little Guy’: At various points during the season, Ball State, Boise State, BYU, East Carolina, TCU, Tulsa and Utah were seen as potential “BCS busters” – teams from outside the “Big Six” conferences that could force their way into the BCS mix. By the time the season had ended, only Boise and Utah were unbeaten. By virtue of ranking three spots higher in the final BCS standings – sixth, as opposed to ninth – Utah will play in the Sugar Bowl against Alabama.

8. LSU wins, then falls: The Tigers opened 2008 by cruising past Ohio State in the BCS title game, becoming the first two-loss national champion since 1960 and furthering the national perception that the Buckeyes can’t hang with the “big boys.” But the ’08 season wasn’t as kind to LSU. The Tigers received inconsistent quarterback play and had problems on defense, and they finished the regular season 7-5. Included in that mark were three home losses at Tiger Stadium, aka “Death Valley.”

7. Joe Paterno and Penn State: Denied a contract extension in the offseason by high-ranking school officials, the venerable Nittany Lions coach stuck it to “the man” the best way he knows how – by winning. Paterno led his team to an 11-1 record, the Big Ten title and a spot in the Rose Bowl. The Nittany Lions’ loss came by one point at Iowa on a last-second field goal. After the regular season ended, Paterno – who turned 82 on Dec. 21 – was given a three-year contract extension.

6. ‘See you later, coach’: In years past, schools waited until the end of the season if they wanted to fire their coach. No more. Clemson got the coaching carousel spinning by firing Tommy Bowden on Oct. 13, six games into the season. Eastern Michigan, Kansas State, Syracuse, Tennessee, Toledo, Utah State and Washington also announced during the season that their coaches wouldn’t return. After the season, Auburn dismissed – though it was dubbed a resignation – Tommy Tuberville, who was one of the most successful coaches in school history. In all, 19 schools parted ways with their coach this year.

Photo Notre Dame went 7-6 under coach Charlie Weis in 2008.
( Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

5. Notre Dame’s continued struggles: The Fighting Irish were 3-9 in 2007, the worst season in school history. They started 4-1 in 2008 season, and talked turned to whether they could squeeze into a BCS bowl. But it went south after that. Notre Dame went 2-5 the rest of the way, including an inexplicable home loss to Syracuse in which the Irish blew a 13-point lead. That led to speculation that Charlie Weis – believed to be the highest-paid college football coach in history – would be forced out at the end of the season. Weis will return for 2009, but he very likely will be coaching for his job.

4. The ‘Big House’ becomes ‘Bleak House’: Michigan’s coaching search didn’t go smoothly after Lloyd Carr stepped down at the end of the 2007 season. However, the Wolverines still ended up with Rich Rodriguez, whose departure from West Virginia set off a storm of criticism and led to a lawsuit. And while Rodriguez was going to install a new, wide-open system at a school that played a relatively staid offense, no one expected things to go as badly on the field as they did. The Wolverines started 2-2, including an impressive come-from-behind victory over Wisconsin. But then the bottom fell out, and Michigan lost seven of its last eight to finish 3-9 – the worst record in school history. In addition, the Wolverines’ streak of going to a bowl for 33 consecutive years ended.

3. Pass-happy quarterbacks: The Big 12 was home to one of the most prolific groups of quarterbacks in NCAA history. Six league quarterbacks threw for at least 3,000 yards and three more threw for at least 2,700. Included were huge seasons from Texas Tech’s Graham Harrell (4,747 yards, 41 touchdowns), Oklahoma’s Sam Bradford (4,464 yards, 48 touchdowns), Missouri’s Chase Daniel (4,135, 37 touchdowns) and Texas’ Colt McCoy (3,445 yards, 32 touchdowns). Bradford became the second consecutive sophomore to win the Heisman Trophy after guiding the Sooners to a spot in the national title game.

2. Alabama is back: The Nick Saban-coached Crimson Tide finished 7-6 in 2007. While improvement was expected this season, no one expected this. The Tide will take a 12-1 record into the Sugar Bowl, which is Alabama’s first appearance in a BCS bowl since the 1999 season. The Tide spent part of the season at No. 1, the first time that had happened since they won the national title in 1992. They reached the SEC Championship Game – where they lost to Florida – for the first time since 1999. And Alabama did this with a relatively young team. Indeed, most thought the Tide wouldn’t be a legitimate national contender until, most likely, 2010. While the Tide benefited from the SEC being weaker than usual, this season’s performance still was quite impressive.

Photo Florida and Oklahoma will meet in the BCS title game on Thursday, Jan. 8, 2009 at 8pm ET.
(Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

1. BCS controversy: Come on – a season without a BCS controversy is a season in which no games are played. But this season had something no other season had had: The BCS standings helped determine a conference championship game participant. The fifth tiebreaker in the Big 12 is a team’s spot in the BCS standings. Because Oklahoma was ranked higher than Texas on Nov. 30, the Sooners became the Big 12 South’s participant in the league’s championship game. All of this came about because of a three-way tie between OU, Texas and Texas Tech. In head-to-head matchups, Texas beat OU, Texas Tech beat Texas and OU beat Texas Tech. In the Big 12 title game, Oklahoma blasted Missouri to earn a spot in the national title game, where it will meet Florida. The game matches two of the most potent offenses in NCAA history. OU scored 60 points in five consecutive games, the first team to do that in 89 seasons (since Tulsa in 1919). Florida set an NCAA modern-era record by winning eight consecutive games by at least 28 points.

Mike Huguenin is a Yahoo! Sports college sports editor. Send Mike a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Dec 29, 2008