NCF Nation: 2012-conference-overview-final

2012 SEC regular-season wrap

December, 5, 2012
12/05/12
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Here we are again talking about another potential national championship for the SEC.

Weren’t we having this same conversation last year, the year before that and the year before that?

In fact, does anybody really remember the last time we weren’t having this conversation?

The BCS Championship Game festivities will again include an SEC team this season, and once again, it’s Alabama carrying the banner for the league.

If you think everybody else in college football is tired of seeing the SEC win all the time, try taking the temperature of fans in Baton Rouge, La., or Athens, Ga., or Auburn, Ala., over how tired they are of seeing Alabama win all the time.

The Crimson Tide will be chasing history Jan. 7 in the Discover BCS National Championship game against Notre Dame when they go after their third national title in the past four years. The last team to win three outright national titles in a four-year span was Notre Dame in 1946, 1947 and 1949.

An Alabama victory in Miami would mark the seventh consecutive national championship for the SEC, which might have been as balanced and strong across the board this season as any of the seasons during its national championship run.

The final BCS standings looked more like the SEC standings. Six of the top 10 teams were from the SEC, and all six won at least 10 games.

And talk about beating up on each other.

Texas A&M, in its first season in the SEC, waltzed into Bryant-Denny Stadium and upset Alabama 29-24 with two weeks remaining in the regular season.

Georgia lost by four touchdowns to South Carolina back in October, but rebounded to make its second consecutive appearance in the SEC championship game. It wasn’t until the final play that Alabama’s 32-28 win over Georgia was decided last weekend in Atlanta.

Florida is headed back to a BCS bowl for the first time since 2009 thanks to a transformation in Will Muschamp’s second season that saw the Gators go from being soft at times in 2011 to one of the most physical teams in the league this season. Florida will meet Louisville in the Allstate Sugar Bowl after collecting four victories over teams that finished in the top 12 of the final BCS standings.

Steve Spurrier has South Carolina poised to win 11 games for the second straight season. It wasn’t until a year ago that the Gamecocks had ever won 11 games in a season.

The Aggies, who lost close games to Florida and LSU during the first part of the season, showed no signs of stage fright during their first season in the SEC.

So much for Kevin Sumlin’s up-tempo, spread offense not being able to cut it in the SEC. The Aggies led the conference in just about every offensive category and scored 29 or more points in six of their eight league games.

It wasn’t just the old guard that made waves this season.

[+] EnlargeJadeveon Clowney
Kim Klement/USA TODAYAs a sophomore, South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney led the SEC with 13.5 sacks.
Vanderbilt won eight games for the first time in 30 years, and second-year coach James Franklin has the Commodores in a bowl game for the second consecutive season for the first time in school history.

Ole Miss began the season shouldering a 14-game SEC losing streak, but first-year coach Hugh Freeze guided the Rebels to a bowl game, and probably more importantly, pinned a 41-24 whipping on rival Mississippi State in the regular-season finale.

The SEC has historically chewed up and spit out coaches, and this season was no exception.

Arkansas’ John L. Smith, Auburn’s Gene Chizik, Kentucky’s Joker Phillips and Tennessee’s Derek Dooley were all sent packing. In Chizik’s case, his ouster came just two years removed from winning a national championship, but the Tigers crashed this season with their first 0-8 SEC finish in school history.

It was also another gut-wrenching season for South Carolina star running back Marcus Lattimore, who suffered a gruesome-looking knee injury in the Tennessee game and was lost for the season. He was already coming off a torn ACL in his other knee the season before.

On a more positive note, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel will be in New York this weekend and has a great chance to become the first freshman in history to win the Heisman Trophy.

Johnny Football may well become Johnny Heisman.

Offensive MVP: Manziel. While Manziel is admittedly a big video-game buff, his numbers this season weren’t from a video game. They just looked that way. He broke Cam Newton’s SEC record for total offense in a season and cranked out 4,600 yards while accounting for 43 touchdowns. He also saved his best game for the biggest stage by rolling up 345 yards in total offense against No. 1 Alabama in the Aggies’ 29-24 win.

Defensive MVP: South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. This was an extremely tough call, and in any other year, Georgia’s Jarvis Jones and Texas A&M’s Damontre Moore would be runaway winners. But Clowney was the most explosive game-changer in the league this season defensively. He leads the SEC with 13 sacks and is second with 21.5 tackles for loss. Easily one of the best pass-rushers in college football, Clowney became a much more complete player this season as a sophomore.

Newcomer of the Year: Manziel. He was a redshirt freshman by classification, but played liked a seasoned veteran. One of the most impressive things about Manziel is that he learned from earlier losses against Florida and LSU, when he didn’t play as well, then proceeded to carve everybody apart down the stretch. He’s the first freshman in FBS history to pass for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in the same season. The award for the top true freshman goes to Georgia running back Todd Gurley, who leads the SEC with 1,260 rushing yards.

Biggest surprise: Ole Miss. Florida certainly deserves mention here. Not many people had the Gators winning 11 games and going to a BCS bowl back in August, which is a tribute to Muschamp and his staff. But nobody had the Rebels getting to a bowl game in Freeze’s first season. They’d lost 14 straight SEC games when he arrived. Not only that, but they were way down in scholarship numbers and forced to play a ton of first-year players. They scrapped their way to six wins, and it could have easily been eight or nine wins if they could have held on to a few fourth-quarter leads.

Biggest disappointment: Arkansas. The Hogs went from No. 8 in the country and talking about a national championship in the preseason to sitting at home for the postseason. It was a disaster from the outset, and the team simply didn’t respond to Smith, who stepped in during the spring as interim coach after Bobby Petrino was fired. The Hogs finished 4-8 (2-6 in the SEC). They lost to Louisiana-Monroe in Little Rock the second week of the season, and it was all downhill from there.

Best game: Alabama 32, Georgia 28, Dec. 1, SEC championship game. The previous few SEC championship games had been blowouts, but this one went down to the final play when the clock ran out on the Bulldogs after Aaron Murray’s tipped pass was caught by Chris Conley at the Alabama 5. Georgia, which led 21-10 midway through the third quarter, drove from its own 15 with 68 seconds to play and no timeouts. But when Conley gathered in the deflected pass and was tackled inbounds, the Bulldogs had no way to stop the clock. Alabama rushed for an SEC championship game-record 350 yards, as the Crimson Tide’s offensive line took matters into its own hands in the second half.

It would be nice to write one of these season-ending wraps without any mention of the word realignment.

Alas, for the second straight season, the Big East has been raided. And for the second straight season, the Big East representative in the BCS is on the way out the door.

Louisville had one of the best seasons in school history, and yet, the Big East cannot truly celebrate the accomplishments of the Cardinals. Commissioner Mike Aresco decided not to attend the de-facto league championship game between Louisville and Rutgers last week, as both teams have announced their intentions to leave -- the Cardinals to the ACC and the Scarlet Knights to the Big Ten.

That leaves the Big East headed into the future with a collection of former Conference USA and Mountain West schools. Temple is the only school remaining from the original group that began Big East football play in 1991.

But the future is not now, at least not for another few months. What we saw in 2012 was a roller-coaster season that featured three ranked Big East teams in the first BCS standings, then none at all, then the thud of conference realignment, then one of the grittiest college performances we have all seen in quite some time.

In the end, the Big East was not much better, and not much worse than it has been in seasons past. In typical Big East fashion, four teams ended up sharing a slice of the league title -- Louisville, Rutgers, Cincinnati and Syracuse. Yes, Syracuse, a team that begin the year 2-4 and was on the verge of implosion.

But it is the Cardinals who got the BCS berth thanks to their 20-17 win over Rutgers on Thursday night in New Jersey. Teddy Bridgewater did what he has done all season, this time with a broken wrist and sprained ankle. His performance in that game got folks around the country talking. And his body of work this season -- 3,452 yards, 25 touchdowns to seven interceptions -- should get him into the preseason Heisman conversation next season, perhaps Louisville's last year in the conference.

[+] EnlargeTeddy Bridgewater
Jamie Rhodes/US PresswireTeddy Bridgewater passed for 3,452 yards with 25 touchdowns and just 7 interceptions.
Bridgewater ranks in the top 15 in the nation in total passing yards and passing efficiency. There are only six players in the country with 25 or more touchdown passes who have thrown fewer interceptions than Bridgewater. His development this season was one of the biggest story lines to watch in the conference.

Had Louisville stuck around the league, there would be much more to celebrate. Realignment has put a damper on the entire Big East season, once again.

Offensive MVP: Bridgewater left no doubt with his final performance of the regular season, at Rutgers. He lifted Louisville to the BCS while hobbling, and he remained on the fringe of the Heisman talk throughout much of the season. The reigning Big East freshman of the year will likely be among the frontrunners for the trophy entering the 2013 season, and a strong Sugar Bowl performance against Florida could go a long way in gaining national attention.

Defensive MVP: Khaseem Greene won the Big East defensive player of the year award last season, and he is the frontrunner again this season. The senior overcame an ankle injury suffered in last season's New Era Pinstripe Bowl and notched 125 total tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, 2 picks, 8 hurries, 6 forced fumbles and 2 fumble recoveries.

Newcomer of the year: It's rare that you see a fifth-year senior in this category, but that's the situation Temple's Montel Harris found himself in after being dismissed from Boston College in the offseason for a violation of team rules. He overcame early-season injuries to lead the Big East in rushing yards per game, averaging 105.4.

Biggest surprise: Syracuse started its final Big East season 2-4 overall. Remarkably, it bounced back to win five of its final six games -- including delivering then-No. 9 Louisville its first loss of the season -- en route to clinching a share of the Big East title. The Orange cut down the turnovers, established their ground game and played much tighter defense, and coach Doug Marrone deserves plenty of credit after a late-season collapse a year earlier that had kept this team from bowling.

Biggest disappointment: South Florida entered 2012 as the Big East's preseason No. 2 team, looking to bounce back from a season that ended with seven losses in its final eight games. Instead the Bulls went through a program-worst 3-9 season defined by injuries and underwhelming play all-around. The defense recorded just two interceptions the whole season, and coach Skip Holtz was fired after his third season in Tampa, Fla.

Best game: Louisville's 34-31 overtime home win over Cincinnati on Oct. 26 takes the cake here. The game featured a 10-point Bearcats lead, a pair of touchdowns in the final two minutes of regulation, an untimely icing the kicker timeout from Butch Jones (and a shrug for the ages) and 416 passing yards from Bridgewater.

2012 Big Ten regular-season wrap

December, 5, 2012
12/05/12
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The Big Ten's 2012 regular season can be summed up by the following facts:

  • The league's best team, Ohio State, went 12-0 but won't play in a bowl because of probation.
  • The league's best nonconference win came in Week 1 when Iowa beat BCS-bound Northern Illinois. The Hawkeyes proceeded to go 3-8 the rest of the season.
  • The league shockingly announced in mid-November that it was adding Rutgers and Maryland. The Scarlet Knights and Terrapins each embraced Big Ten football by promptly losing their last two games, with Rutgers fumbling away a golden opportunity to make a BCS bowl.
  • The league's Rose Bowl representative, Wisconsin, went 7-5 in the regular season. After winning the Big Ten championship game despite finishing third in the Leaders Division, the Badgers celebrated for a couple of days -- and then saw head coach Bret Bielema leave for Arkansas.


Yes, it's safe to say that 2012 played out kind of like the disaster movie of the same name for the Big Ten. Not even the Mayans could have predicted such cruel endings as Illinois' nine-game losing streak or Nebraska's bug-meet-windshield showing in the conference title game.

But we shouldn't overlook the good stories that occurred in the league this year, either. Ohio State's refuse-to-lose season under Urban Meyer was fun to watch all year long, and the Buckeyes look poised to enter 2013 as a legitimate national title contender. Penn State emerged from the ashes of a horrific scandal and decimating NCAA sanctions to go 8-4, inspiring a community with its resiliency. Northwestern won nine games and had a chance in all 12 with a young team. Minnesota doubled its victory total from 2011 and made it to a bowl game for the first time since 2009. Indiana went from one to four wins and made a rare, if brief, appearance in the national spotlight with a chance to make it to the Big Ten title game. Wisconsin made a school-record third straight Rose Bowl.

Unfortunately, those stories aren't what most people will remember about this season in the Big Ten. The conference sealed its narrative in Week 2 when it went 1-6 against BCS opponents and Notre Dame, with Northwestern's win over Vanderbilt the lone bright spot. Even though some of those opponents turned out to be much better than expected -- like Oregon State, UCLA and the Irish -- the Big Ten never could reverse the negativity. Michigan, which began the season in the top 10, got blasted by Alabama in the opener and ended up losing to teams ranked Nos. 1, 2 and 3 in the Associated Press poll. Nebraska won a division title but couldn't shed its label as a big-game flopper. Michigan State had Rose Bowl dreams but failed to win a single conference home game while going 6-6. Purdue had to win its last three just to get to 6-6, and then it fired head coach Danny Hope. Iowa and Illinois were train wrecks.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Greg Bartram/US PresswireBraxton Miller was at his finest this season late in games as he led Ohio State to a 12-0 mark.
The league became a national punching bag yet again, something it can only change through better performances on the national stage. It will get that chance during bowl season, but now its Rose Bowl team likely will be led by an interim coach, while all seven postseason teams figure to be underdogs. The Big Ten will need some luck to make sure its difficult year doesn't extend into early 2013.

On to some awards:

Offensive MVP: Ohio State QB Braxton Miller. Stats can't really measure what Miller did, even though he has some great numbers (2,039 passing yards, 1,271 rushing yards, 28 total touchdowns). He made huge, game-winning plays to bail out the Buckeyes time and again. Ultimately, 12-0 is his best stat.

Defensive MVP: Penn State LB Michael Mauti. While Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier and defensive lineman John Simon and others had standout years, no one meant more to his team on and off the field than Mauti. He was an emotional leader who helped keep the program together. He also was a tackling machine.

Newcomer of the year: Penn State DE Deion Barnes. He ran away with this award by registering six sacks (which ranked fifth in the Big Ten), 10 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles (tied for fourth in the league). The redshirt freshman has superstar potential.

Biggest surprise: Northwestern. A year after struggling to stop anyone on defense, the Wildcats showed much better toughness on that side of the ball, especially against the run. Venric Mark shocked everybody by not only becoming a reliable running back, but a 1,000-yard back who was one of the best in the country. The Wildcats were a few plays away from going 12-0.

Biggest disappointment: Michigan State. We picked the Spartans to win the league in the preseason but underestimated just how much the offense would struggle with a new starting quarterback (Andrew Maxwell), a young receiving corps and a disappointing offensive line. After a season-opening win against Boise State, Michigan State went 0-5 at home, and its last five losses were by a total of 13 points.

Best game: Michigan 38, Northwestern 31, OT, on Nov. 10 in Ann Arbor. This game featured the play of the year in the Big Ten. Michigan trailed by a field goal with 18 seconds left when it took over on its own 38-yard line with no timeouts. On the Wolverines' first play, quarterback Devin Gardner heaved a throw down the field, and receiver Roy Roundtree made a spectacular catch after tipping the ball to himself in midair. That 53-yard reception set up Brendan Gibbons' 26-yard field goal to tie things up with two seconds left in regulation. Michigan won in overtime, and the Wildcats were left to wonder what had just happened.

2012 Pac-12 regular-season wrap

December, 5, 2012
12/05/12
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The Pac-12 -- again -- produced national title contenders but not a team playing for the crystal football when the final bell rang. Further, for the first time since 2008, the conference didn't provide a Heisman Trophy finalist.

A short summary of the regular season: It was pretty good but could have been better. But it was definitely surprising.

Better? If things had fallen the right way, seven Pac-12 teams could have been ranked in the final regular-season poll. USC began the season as a national title contender only to yield that spot to Oregon. Then Stanford ended the Ducks' hopes on Nov. 17 with a 17-14 overtime win in Autzen Stadium.

So the conference streak without a football national championship extends to eight seasons.

Surprising? UCLA won the South Division over rival USC, and Stanford beat out Oregon in the North by virtue of the aforementioned win in Eugene. Neither was tapped in the preseason as the conference champion by any of the 123 media members who voted.

Surprising? USC quarterback Matt Barkley topped just about every preseason Heisman Trophy list. He didn't even make first- or second-team All-Pac-12.

Surprising? Three of the four new coaches turned in strong seasons. Start with Jim Mora, who led the Bruins to the Pac-12 championship game and a national ranking. And, a year after USC beat UCLA 50-0, the Bruins prevailed, 38-28.

Sorry for bringing that up, USC.

Both Arizona's Rich Rodriguez and Arizona State's Todd Graham finished 7-5, though Graham handed Rodriguez his fifth defeat in the Territorial Cup.

Sorry for bringing that up, Wildcats.

The new coach who was expected to make the most noise -- with both his mouth and his team -- was only 1-for-2, and it wasn't Mike Leach's team doing the talking. His Cougars finished 3-9 and recorded just one conference victory. Of course, that lone Pac-12 win was over Washington.

Sorry for bringing that up, Huskies.

The good news is a record eight bowl teams, including a third consecutive season with two BCS bowl berths, which means an extra $6.1 million for the conference to split up.

The bad news is two more coach firings: Jeff Tedford at California after 11 seasons and Jon Embree at Colorado after just two. That means half the teams in the Pac-12 will have changed coaches over the past two years.

Further, USC's disappointing season lands Lane Kiffin on the 2013 hot seat, the only Pac-12 coach who will be stuck with that designation heading into 2013.

What about some highlights? Well, here you go.

[+] EnlargeWill Sutton, Corbin Berkstresser
AP Photo/L.G. PattersonArizona State's Will Sutton averaged almost a sack per game this season, including one at Missouri.
Offensive MVP, Marqise Lee, WR, USC: Not only is he the most dominant wide receiver in the country, he might also be the most dominant player. Heisman voters say otherwise, but we in the Pac-12 know just how dominant he can be. His record-setting season should be more than enough to earn him the Biletnikoff Award for the nation's top receiver. And if he has matching numbers on a nine-win USC team, he's in New York this week.

Defensive MVP, Will Sutton, Arizona State: The numbers alone paint a pretty good picture of just how dominant the speed-rushing defensive tackle was. He led the conference in tackles for a loss per game and averaged almost a sack per game. He was a wrecking ball -- the kind of player offensive coordinators design their game plan around.

Newcomer of the year, Marcus Mariota, Oregon: In a year in which redshirt freshmen quarterbacks became all the rage, Mariota stood out with his efficiency as a passer, his athleticism as a runner and the speed with which he commanded Oregon's offense. His presence assures Oregon will continue to be one of the best offensive teams in the country in the coming years.

Biggest surprise: A school not named USC or Oregon is going to the Rose Bowl. In fact, neither team played in the Pac-12 championship game -- which many thought was as foregone conclusion before a single ball had been hiked. Stanford and UCLA were surprises -- but they also earned it.

Biggest disappointment: USC's once-promising season first got hijacked at Stanford. And from then on the Trojans were swimming in concrete shoes. After starting the season No. 1 in the AP poll, the Trojans became the first such team since 1964 to end the year out of the Top 25. The contrarian opinion Kevin Gemmell offered up back in March came to fruition. And it was a complete disaster. And, yes, even worse than Ted Miller's "Worst Case." And that's pretty bad.

Best game: Depends on where your tastes lie. If you like defense, then it was Stanford's performance at Oregon, where they held the Ducks to fewer than 200 yards rushing and won in overtime. Jordan Williamson's 37-yard kick sent shock waves throughout college football. If you like offense, you have to look to the Nov. 3 shootout between Oregon and USC. The stakes weren't as high as we all thought a few months ago, but some of the league's premier offensive players showed up as the teams combined for 113 points, 68 first downs and 1,145 yards of total offense.

2012 Big 12 regular-season wrap

December, 5, 2012
12/05/12
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When the Big 12 trimmed down to 10 teams before the 2011 season and eliminated the league title game, the more cynical folks around the league hung a cloud over the eight teams in the Big 12 that don't reside in Austin, Texas, or Norman, Okla.

It had been almost a decade since anyone other than Texas or Oklahoma won the Big 12. Now, there would be no path through the easier Big 12 North that would provide one game to dethrone the Sooners or Longhorns, one of which would surely be waiting on a neutral field.

"Nobody from the league can beat them in the Big 12 championship, so how in the world is anyone supposed to be better than both Texas and Oklahoma for an entire season?" was the familiar line of thought.

Nobody other than Texas or Oklahoma had even represented the Big 12 South since 1998, and it had happened only twice in the 15-year life of the division.

Shows what we know in the two years since the league did away with divisions. Texas has been down, sure, but Oklahoma State won the outright title in the first year by beating Oklahoma soundly in the finale with the title on the line.

This year, Kansas State did the same against Texas, with Oklahoma also claiming a share of the league.

Still, both teams beat Texas and Oklahoma en route to their titles, doing further damage to the perception that the Big 12 is a shallow, two-team league.

More depth means more intrigue, which means more folks tuning in and more relevant games. It also means more hope for the rest of the league and more enthusiastic fans optimistic about their team's chance to one day hoist the crystal trophy.

Oklahoma State and Kansas State did it. Why can't TCU? Or West Virginia? Don't rule out Art Briles doing it in the new stadium at Baylor soon enough, and Oklahoma State might offer an encore to its Big 12 title next year, assuming it hangs on to coach Mike Gundy.

The Big 12 isn't what we thought it would become after eliminating divisions and a championship game. It's better, thanks again to the continued resurgence of what we thought was the Big 12's middle class.

Let's pass out a few awards for a memorable Big 12 season:

[+] EnlargeKansas State's Collin Klein
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesKansas State quarterback Collin Klein scored a league-high 22 touchdowns.
Offensive MVP: Collin Klein, QB, Kansas State. Klein is the Big 12's only player who booked a ticket to New York City for the Heisman Trophy presentation, and for good reason. He carried Kansas State to a Big 12 title, and no single player in the league is more important to his team. He completed 180 of 272 passes (66.2 percent) for 2,485 yards, 15 touchdowns and seven interceptions for Kansas State, adding 895 rushing yards and a league-high 22 touchdowns.

Defensive MVP: Devonte Fields, DE, TCU. Fields edged out a pair of other big-time pass-rushers -- Texas' Alex Okafor and Kansas State's Meshak Williams -- to win this award. His nine sacks were second most in the Big 12, and the true freshman added 17.5 tackles for loss for the Frogs' defense, which led the Big 12 in total defense in its first year in the league. That was 2.5 TFLs more than any player in the league, and four more than Williams. Fields also was the first Big 12 player to intercept Klein, adding two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. He finished with 49 tackles (32 solo).

Newcomer of the year: Devonte Fields, DE, TCU. What more needs to be said about Fields? He didn't even enroll at TCU early, and the 240-pound fresh face will be even scarier next season after a year going through TCU's offseason strength and conditioning program. Don't buy Fields' big first year? Talk to a few of the Big 12's tackles. They'll tell you. Fields had a quiet day last week, but even Oklahoma's Gabe Ikard, one of the league's best linemen, raved about him, calling him probably the best pass-rusher they played all season.

Biggest surprise: TCU's resurgence. I wasn't the only one prepared to bury TCU's first season in the Big 12 after losing star quarterback Casey Pachall and three days later, a home game to Iowa State by 14 points. The personnel losses were too much, we thought. Nope. The Frogs rallied, despite losing 20-plus players and fielding a team that was 70 percent freshmen and sophomores. They led the league in total defense, rolled over Baylor, beat West Virginia with a pair of gutsy calls in overtime and beat Texas solidly on Thanksgiving night. The Frogs also hung tough with Big 12 co-champions Oklahoma and K-State. These Frogs belong, and will only get better. Honorable mention: Iowa State reaching a bowl, Kansas State winning the Big 12.

Biggest disappointment: West Virginia. Dana Holgorsen warned that his team might have been overrated after drubbing Clemson in the Orange Bowl, and in hindsight it was. But even still, a five-game losing streak with the offensive talent residing in Morgantown was inexcusable. The defense received weekly wake-up calls against high-flying Big 12 offenses, but Geno Smith, Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin couldn't keep up after racing to a top-five ranking and a 5-0 start. Dishonorable mention: Texas Tech's second half.

Best game: Oklahoma 51, Oklahoma State 48 (OT). We thought there was a BCS bowl on the line in this one, and even though Northern Illinois (with an assist from the sorry Big Ten and Big East) changed that, it didn't change this classic in Norman laced with tons of emotion and a rivalry that's gaining fast on Red River as the Big 12's most compelling annual series. Oklahoma rallied from an 11-point, second-half deficit, tying the game on an 81-yard punt return by Jalen Saunders. Blake Bell rushed for a touchdown on fourth down in the final seconds to send the game into overtime, where Brennan Clay's beastly 18-yard touchdown run won the game and set off one of the biggest celebrations at Owen Field in a long, long time. Honorable mention: West Virginia 70, Baylor 63; TCU 39, West Virginia 38.

2012 Notre Dame regular-season wrap

December, 5, 2012
12/05/12
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Where do we begin? The spring, when a freshman All-America transferred to South Florida? Right after the Blue and Gold game, when the incumbent starting quarterback and a starting linebacker were arrested at an off-campus party?

How about fall camp, when one of two inexperienced starting corners ruptured his Achilles, months after a contributing safety underwent shoulder surgery that ended up sidelining him this season?

Notre Dame entered the 2012 season with questions under center, with very little experience in the secondary -- and even less when Jamoris Slaughter went down for the season Week 3 at Michigan State -- and with a schedule on deck that, on the surface, seemed as challenging as any in recent memory.

Twelve games later, the Irish stand undefeated and No. 1 in the country, awaiting their Jan. 7 date with defending champion Alabama in the Discover BCS National Championship Game. Brian Kelly has already worked his best job to date in a 22-year career that features championships at every level at which he has been a head coach.

The offense is led by a redshirt freshman quarterback who is only just beginning to realize his potential. The defense is led by a Heisman Trophy finalist who is as strong of a leader this program has had in decades, and its coordinator is one of the hottest names in coaching circles after the Irish led the nation in scoring defense.

That third-year coaching stigma around Notre Dame, the idea that something special happens in every strong leader's third year, from Frank Leahy to Dan Devine to Ara Parseghian to Lou Holtz? Maybe there is something to that, as Kelly has the Irish on the doorstep of a national title after consecutive 8-5 seasons.

Notre Dame entered the season unranked. It had dates with three top-10 teams, and five top-25 teams, with three coming on the road.

The Irish dealt No. 10 Michigan State its first blow of many this season. They turned the tables on Denard Robinson and No. 18 Michigan, a reversal of recent years. They beat No. 17 Stanford with a goal-line stand, a stark contrast in physicality between the two teams from past meetings. They won at No. 8 Oklahoma, and they won three games after that, setting up a showdown with their archrival.

USC entered the season as the No. 1 team in the country, with many of us viewing the teams' regular-season finale as a chance for the Irish to maybe play spoiler against the Trojans.

The Irish instead entered that finale as the nation's No. 1 team, with the Trojans unranked. Notre Dame won, delivering USC its fifth loss of the season.

How wrong we all were.

Offensive MVP: Tough choice, but I'll go with Theo Riddick. The senior has played all over the field during his career before finally settling into the hybrid role of running back and slot receiver. He established himself as the Irish's No. 1 back while Cierre Wood was suspended during the season's first two games, and he leads the team with 880 rushing yards and five touchdowns, while adding 35 catches for 364 yards and a touchdown. Tyler Eifert is the bigger name and will be a high-round draft pick, but his numbers became a casualty of an offense that was still developing early in the season.

[+] EnlargeTheo Riddick
Harry How/Getty ImagesTheo Riddick found his groove as a combination running back/slot receiver for the Irish.
Defensive MVP: Manti Te'o is the obvious choice here, as he is one of three Heisman Trophy finalists and leads the team with 103 tackles, seven interceptions and two fumble recoveries. He deserves all of the credit he gets, but let's not overlook the efforts of Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt up front, too. Nix might be one of the most underrated players in the country -- as inside linemen usually are -- while Tuitt made many forget about Aaron Lynch by recording 12 sacks this season.

Newcomer of the year: KeiVarae Russell was recruited as a running back, and he didn't get to campus until June. Then projected starting cornerback Lo Wood ruptured his Achilles tendon in camp, and Russell surged to the top of the depth chart at corner, before making an impact in his first season. He played outstanding on a big stage at Oklahoma and has made many forget that he is a first-year player.

Biggest surprise: Raise your hand if you thought, after four weeks and two yankings, that Everett Golson would be leading an undefeated Irish team at USC in the regular-season finale. The redshirt freshman quarterback's rise has been perhaps the biggest development for this Irish offense, as he has steadily grown while the playbook has steadily opened. He has become a bigger threat with his legs, has handled the bright lights well and, best of all for Notre Dame, has upward of 40 remaining college starts.

Biggest disappointment: We're getting picky here with a 12-0 team that is ranked first in the country, but there is room for improvement. How about the punt-return game, which, while not losing Irish yards the way it often did last year, has never really gotten going under true freshman Davonte' Neal, with the Irish ranking 115th nationally in punt returns, averaging 2.44 yards per return. Red zone offense, ranked 75th nationally, has room for improvement as well.

Best game: The end of the Stanford game, on Oct. 13 in Notre Dame Stadium, was out of a movie scene. Heavy rain, power against power, deafening roars from the home fans. Football at its purest element was on display, with the Irish winning their sixth game with a goal-line stand against a Cardinal team that had simply outmuscled Notre Dame in recent matchups.

This will be remembered as one of the worst seasons in conference history.

North Carolina was ineligible for the postseason. Miami won the division for the first time since joining it, but self-imposed a postseason ban for the second straight season. Georgia Tech fired defensive coordinator Al Groh midseason, dropped to 6-7 and needed a waiver from the NCAA just to play in a bowl game. Virginia Tech dropped out of the Top 25 only three weeks into the season and needed to beat rival Virginia in the final week of the season to become bowl eligible. Virginia regressed, winning just four games, and coach Mike London fired four of his assistants, including defensive coordinator Jim Reid.

And that was just the Coastal Division.

Two Atlantic Division coaches, BC’s Frank Spaziani and NC State’s Tom O’Brien, were both fired. Wake Forest suspended eight players, including four starters, over a two-week span during the season. Maryland announced it was out, leaving for the Big Ten, and the ACC announced Louisville was in. Clemson lost to South Carolina. Florida State lost to Florida. And the ACC decided it would sue Maryland in an attempt to force the university to pay the league’s $50 million exit fee.

The ACC went 0-4 against its SEC rivals in the final week of the regular season and for the second straight year had three strikes against Notre Dame. The conference had six bowl-eligible teams, two short of filling the league’s bowl tie-ins.

Hooray for Duke!

The Blue Devils, led by ACC Coach of the Year David Cutcliffe, were the first to become bowl eligible in the Coastal Division. Duke finished 6-6, earned its first bowl bid since 1994, and in November still had a legitimate chance to play for the ACC title.

It wasn’t all bad.

Florida State and Clemson put on a September show in Tallahassee for ESPN’s "College GameDay" crew, quarterback EJ Manuel had a Heisman moment in that game, and ACC offenses flourished under veteran quarterbacks this year. New stars, like Maryland’s Stefon Diggs and Miami’s Duke Johnson, emerged, while old stars, like Tajh Boyd and Giovani Bernard, shone brighter.

[+] EnlargeFlorida State's Bjoern Werner
Mitch Stringer/US PRESSWIREFlorida State's Bjoern Werner was the best and most consistent player in the ACC.
Florida State won its first ACC title since 2005, but lost defensive coordinator Mark Stoops to Kentucky the day after the game. The Seminoles had a good season, but left many wondering if it could have been a great season had they not lost on the road in the fourth quarter to NC State.

The good news?

It can only get better.

Offensive MVP: Tajh Boyd, Clemson. Boyd led the ACC in total offense with 376.4 yards per game, throwing for 3,550 yards and 34 touchdowns on the season. Though he won ACC Player of the Year and ACC Offensive Player of the Year honors by a whisker, we both agreed on Boyd as the best player in the league this season.

Defensive MVP: Bjoern Werner, Florida State. Werner quite easily won ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors for good reason. He was the best, most consistent player in the league this season, leading the league with 13 sacks and finishing second with 18 tackles for loss. He and teammate Cornellius "Tank" Carradine formed the best duo in the league.

Newcomer of the year: Duke Johnson, Miami. Stefon Diggs was great, too, but Johnson gets the nod here for having a better season. Johnson ended up with 2,070 all-purpose yards, second in school history to Willis McGahee (2,108 in 2002). He was a game-changer not just at running back but in the return game, as he scored 13 total touchdowns this season.

Biggest surprise: Hello, Duke! The Blue Devils are headed to a bowl game for the first time since 1994, and were in contention for the Coastal Division crown until the second-to-last week of the regular season. Easy to see why David Cutcliffe was named the league's coach of the year.

Biggest disappointment: Virginia Tech. Does anybody remember when the Hokies started the season ranked No. 16 in the AP poll? Us neither. Virginia Tech is about to finish up its worst season in 20 years. This is one season removed from being an at-large selection into the BCS. There were breakdowns all over this team, from Logan Thomas to the running game to what was supposed to be a great defense. Now the Hokies need a win in their bowl game to avoid finishing with a losing record for the first time since 1992.

Best game: No. 4 Florida State 49, No. 10 Clemson 37. The first meeting between two Top 10 ACC teams since 2007 did not disappoint. The Tigers jumped out quickly to a 28-14 third-quarter lead but could not withstand the Noles blitz that ensued. Florida State scored 28 straight points to take the win, as EJ Manuel had the best game of his career -- throwing for 380 yards and two touchdowns.

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