The path to this season's national championship game began almost as soon as Florida and Oklahoma closed their 2007 seasons with embarrassing bowl losses.
Oklahoma came within nine points of the school scoring record with freshman quarterback Sam Bradford in 2007, but Bob Stoops wanted more out of the offense. He tasked coordinator Kevin Wilson with reviving the no-huddle offense he ran in a previous stop at Northwestern.
At Florida, coordinator Charlie Strong didn't need to tweak any schemes. His young defense was torched for 524 yards by Michigan in the Capital One Bowl, and Strong's task was to repair the confidence of his defense and prepare it to keep up with the Gators' high-powered offense.
Though Strong would come out on top in Florida's 24-14 win for the BCS title, both coordinators succeeded wildly during the 2008 season, earning Rivals.com National Coordinator of the Year honors.
Barry Switzer used to brag about hanging half a hundred on opposing defenses. Wilson isn't as boastful, but his offense had no problem reaching that plateau.
In the Big 12, the best offensive league in the country, the Sooners stood above the pack. Sam Bradford, Oklahoma's fifth Heisman winner, helped the Sooners score 716 points - the most in college football's modern era. The Sooners were the first team to score at least 60 points in five consecutive games and were the first team to have a 4,000-yard passer (Bradford) and two 1,000-yard rushers (Chris Brown and DeMarco Murray).
Oklahoma returned the makings of a potent offense. Bradford led the nation in passing efficiency as a redshirt freshman. Despite losing senior Allen Patrick, Brown and Murray would make up a deep backfield. Three of the top four receivers returned, including standout tight end Jermaine Gresham. The offensive line would be one of the most experienced in the nation. Still, Stoops wanted an additional edge. He wanted the offense to push the tempo of the game.
An assistant to the late Randy Walker at Miami University and Northwestern, Wilson had experience with the no-huddle offense. The Sooners had tinkered with it in past seasons, but it never stuck. This season, with nine returning starters, Oklahoma's offense was ready for the tweaking.
"With returning players it gave us a comfort level," Wilson said. "We were taught this when we first did this – kids learn what you could teach. If you can teach it, they can learn it."
Wilson and his staff taught it well.
The Sooners led the nation with 79 offensive plays per game, averaging nearly 10 more than they did in 2007. Despite the eye-popping numbers – the Sooners led the nation with 51.1 points per game and were third with 547.9 yards – Oklahoma protected the football and protected the quarterback.
The Sooners gave up only 11 turnovers, tied for the fewest in the nation with Baylor, which played two fewer games than Oklahoma.
Oklahoma also was third in the nation with just 0.93 sacks allowed per game. The teams ahead of the Sooners were Air Force and Navy – two option-based teams.
"We're more proud of the fact that we played sound and clean," Wilson said. "We didn't talk about style points with these guys. These guys were having fun and heaving success, and it kept snowballing."
Only one team found a way to slow down Oklahoma's offense. In the national championship game, Florida held Oklahoma to two touchdowns - three fewer than any other team. The Gators also were the only team to hold the Sooners to fewer than 400 yards of total offense.
The championship game was Strong's finest moment, but it capped a season-long achievement.
"What a job," Florida coach Urban Meyer said after the win over Oklahoma. "I was looking at their stats, and to hold that outfit to two touchdowns and 363 yards – that's one of the great coaching jobs of the year and certainly of the last 10 years, and he's done it many times."
In 2007, the Gators' young defense was torched in losses to Georgia and Michigan in the second half of the season. Starting two freshmen and a sophomore in the secondary in 2007, Florida was last in the SEC in pass defense and 11th in the league in pass efficiency defense.
Strong would spend 2008 massaging egos. His players called him a players' coach and a father figure, but Strong also wasn't afraid to be demanding of his top players.
"Coach Strong, he calls everybody 'sorry' – I mean he calls [linebacker Brandon] Spikes 'sorry,' and Spikes is one of the best players on the team," strong safety Ahmad Black said. "He's always joking around. … He's always there for you and puts you in the right situations, and he's just a great guy."
Strong and his staff pushed all the right buttons with this defense. The Gators led the SEC in pass efficiency defense in '08 and finished in the top 10 nationally in yards and points per game.
After the national championship game, comparisons with Florida's 2006 defense began. That season, the Gators started three first-round picks on defense – ends Jarvis Moss and Derrick Harvey and free safety Reggie Nelson. As with the 2008 defense, it also stifled a Heisman winner in the national championship game.
Eight players from the 2006 defense were drafted, but delivering a national championship with this year's defense may have been a bigger accomplishment.
"In '06 we had a really good defensive football team, but we had a group of guys on that team with Moss, with Reggie Nelson – you had some first-rounders," Strong said. "You're going to have some guys that are going to develop on this defense into first-rounders, but right now those guys haven't developed."
Strong will have to wait until the 2010 draft to see if any of this group will develop into first-round picks.
With Spikes, a junior, opting to return for his senior season, Florida returns its entire defensive two-deep depth chart. That means Strong won't need to do much tweaking this offseason, either.