- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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The season began and ended with Alabama reigning as BCS champion. But that's not to say that college football didn't do its typical job of unveiling the unexpected on the unsuspecting. A Heisman champion came out of nowhere. The preseason No. 1 went nowhere. And everywhere a fan turned, he came across a new star or a new team intent on making a name for itself.
If we didn't know it before the season, we know now that Texas A&M belongs in the Southeastern Conference and that Stanford can thrive without Andrew Luck. We know the names Bridgewater and Manziel, Jadeveon and Marqise. And we know that the Crimson Tide are No. 1.
Here are 10 lasting moments from the 2012 season:
1. Texas A&M freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel had dazzled one and all with his ability to run, throw and throw on the run. But this was No. 1 Alabama. This was Bryant-Denny Stadium. This was the Crimson Tide that had come back from the dead to win at LSU, 21-17, the previous week. And then Manziel drove the Aggies to touchdowns on their first three possessions. The first one, when Manziel bumped into Aggies guard Cedric Ogbuehi, lost the ball, plucked it out of midair, scrambled to his left and threw a 10-yard touchdown to Ryan Swope, had every Heisman voter hitting rewind to see it again.
2. As metaphors go, it would be hard to beat the deflated footballs that USC quarterback Matt Barkley got caught throwing in the 62-51 loss to Oregon. The Trojans began the season at No. 1 but finished at 7-6. Barkley began the season as the Heisman favorite and ended it on his back, blindsided by UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr, with a injured right shoulder that knocked him out of USC's final two games. USC lost to Stanford, UCLA and Notre Dame for the first time in 20 years.
3. You can argue that the officials quick-whistled Stanford tailback Stepfan Taylor as he writhed and churned his legs from the 1-yard-line on fourth down in an attempt to score the tying touchdown at Notre Dame. But you can't argue that the officials ruled Taylor down, that Notre Dame used the 20-13 overtime victory as a springboard on its climb to No. 1, or that the game prevented the Cardinal from claiming it belonged in the Discover BCS National Championship against Alabama. A few inches caused all that arguing.
4. Late on a Saturday night in November at Baylor's Floyd Casey Stadium, a gaggle of media members congregated outside the Kansas State locker room, waiting for Wildcats head coach Bill Snyder after the unranked Bears destroyed the No. 1 Wildcats, 52-24. The writers and cameramen were studying their phones, waiting for texts and refreshes to update the overtime game between No. 13 Stanford and No. 2 Oregon. In a matter of minutes, the Ducks were also dethroned. Notre Dame and Alabama moved into the top two spots. Snyder emerged, Styrofoam cup of coffee in his right hand, and coolly dissected the beatdown.
5. In the finality of January, it is easy to forget the excitement that sprang forth in September when West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith racked up touchdowns like they were first downs. Through two games, Smith threw as many touchdowns as incompletions -- nine. In the fourth game, Smith beat that ratio, completing 45-of-51 passes for 656 yards and eight touchdowns. The fact that the Mountaineers needed every single one, beating Baylor 70-63, warned of the problems ahead. West Virginia, after a 5-0 start, lost its next five contests and finished 7-6. But in the early morn of the season, Smith made West Virginia's Big 12 debut look like the dawn of a new era.
6. Word began to trickle out of Fayetteville early on a December morning. Little Rock columnist Wally Hall tweeted that Arkansas had hired a coach and that it would be a surprise. He undersold it. The news that Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema walked into athletic director Barry Alvarez's hotel room in New York and told him he was leaving -- just like that -- rocked the sport. The coach of the Big Ten champion bailed out to take over a four-win SEC school. The only grace note for the Badgers is that the players convinced Alvarez, a Hall of Fame coach, to return to the sideline for the Rose Bowl.
7. Rarely, if ever, has entry into the Discover BCS National Championship depended on one snap. Alabama led Georgia 32-28 with :09 remaining, so overtime couldn't happen. From the Tide 8-yard-line, Bulldogs quarterback Aaron Murray signaled a fade pass to the right side of the end zone. Georgia had ended dozens of two-minute drills with this play. They had time. It would either be a touchdown or an incompletion that left time for one more snap. That was the beauty of the play. But when Tide linebacker C.J. Mosley tipped Murray's pass in midair, instinct overtook all those practices. Chris Conley caught it and went down inbounds, 5 yards short of the goal line. Not to mention 5 yards short of the national title game.
8. The Penn State seniors could have frozen out new head coach Bill O'Brien. Seniors ignore new coaching staffs all the time. But these seniors didn't. Together, with O'Brien, they salvaged what could have been an ugly season. Linebacker Michael Mauti, the heart and soul of the locker room, tore up his knee in the next-to-last game. When he was introduced before the season finale against Wisconsin, the Beaver Stadium crowd roared its appreciation. And when the Badgers missed a field goal in overtime and the Nittany Lions beat the Big Ten champs-to-be, 24-21, the players and coaches celebrated as if they had won the crystal football.
9. Signature tackles don't happen very often in the backfield. Sacks, yes. But sacks develop over several seconds. For a defensive linemen to decleat a ball carrier running straight ahead behind the line of scrimmage takes a player of immense strength, stunning quickness, or, in the case of South Carolina sophomore Jadeveon Clowney, both. Before the Outback Bowl, Clowney said his goal was to win the 2013 Heisman Trophy. After he knocked the helmet and the ball loose from Michigan back Vincent Smith in the fourth quarter of the Gamecocks' thrilling 33-28 victory, Clowney made it clear he hasn't set his goal too high.
10. In the end, it wasn't Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater's immense talent or his fast-twitch intelligence that made his 2012 season so memorable. It was the sophomore's guts. With a broken left (non-throwing) wrist and a sprained right ankle, Bridgewater practiced little before the Big East championship showdown at Rutgers. But Bridgewater came off the bench in the second quarter. He couldn't take a snap from center and he could barely move. But he completed 20-of-28 passes for 263 yards and two touchdowns to lead the Cardinals to a 20-17 victory and a berth in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. A healthier Bridgewater took Louisville to a 33-23 upset of No. 3 Florida.