- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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Another season has ended, and another Alabama team is playing for the national championship. With every Crimson heart in every Crimson throat, the Tide survived Georgia 32-28 on Saturday night in the Southeastern Conference championship game and will play for their third BCS title in four seasons.
And no one outside the SEC footprint is happy. The immortal Red Smith wrote in the 1950s that rooting for the New York Yankees was like rooting for U.S. Steel. These days, Alabama fans nod in appreciation and say, "Tell me about it."
The SEC will seek its seventh consecutive BCS title, which makes the league a lighthouse, a point of reference in a season defined by disbelief. Otherwise, college football this season has been the unlikely achieving the improbable.
Take, for instance, the game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum one week ago. In August, everyone assumed it would be the No. 1 team in the nation versus a 7-4 team. And everyone proved to be correct, except for the part that Notre Dame was No. 1 and USC was 7-4.
The Fighting Irish not only proved themselves relevant, but proved that in the most prolific offensive season in NCAA history, defense dominates. Suffocating, physical defense propelled Notre Dame to defeat two AQ-conference champions (No. 8 Stanford, No. 11 Oklahoma) a division co-champion (Miami) and, for that matter, everyone else in its 12-game path.
Two figures to keep in mind: Alabama scored 35 rushing touchdowns. Notre Dame allowed two.
Nevertheless, we look at the Irish and ask, "How did they get here?" And we will do the same Saturday night in New York if, that is, the Heisman Memorial Trust hands its 25-pound doorstop to Irish linebacker Manti Te'o, who would be the first defensive player to win college football's most prestigious award since 1997. If Te'o doesn't win, it will likely be because the Heisman will be awarded to a freshman for the first time in the award's 78-year history.
Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel turned Kyle Field into his backyard, playing with the kind of joy and improvisation that usually ends when Mom announces that it's time to come in for supper. Not only did Johnny Football set the SEC total offense record with 4,600 yards, but he led the Aggies to a 10-2 record in a league in which every expert agreed the Aggies would be overmatched.
Another likely Heisman finalist, Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein, led a team picked to finish sixth in the Big 12 to the conference championship. The Wildcats reached No. 1 for one week before losing, but have the consolation of winning a bid to the Fiesta Bowl.
You want unlikely? Oregon went 11-1, finished in the top five -- and failed to play in the Pac-12 championship game. Stanford began its season unLucky and will end it in the Rose Bowl, thanks to redshirt freshman Kevin Hogan. He stepped into the starting lineup in November and defeated four consecutive ranked teams, including the Ducks.
Stanford players call themselves Nerd Nation, yet there's nothing nerdy about the most physical brand of football west of the SEC. For two decades, Notre Dame and Stanford have had to contend with the supposition that a university can't maintain high academic standards and win football games. This season, not only have they been fixtures in the BCS standings, but Northwestern went 9-3, Vanderbilt went 8-4 and Duke and Rice (both 6-6) will play in bowl games.
Stanford returns to Pasadena for the first time in 13 years. Wisconsin returns for the third consecutive season, and just how did the Badgers do it? They finished third in the Big Ten Leaders Division with a record of 7-5, 4-4 in a league even commissioner Jim Delany acknowledged had fallen. The Badgers lost three games in overtime, two others by a field goal and reached the Big Ten championship game only because Ohio State and Penn State are both in NCAA jail.
Ladies and gentlemen, meet your Big Ten champion.
It's been a season of go-figure. Florida comes off a 7-6 season and earns a BCS bid. Oregon State reversed its 3-9 record of a year ago. Kent State and Northern Illinois reached the Mid-American Conference championship game with 11-1 records. In the Big East, a league that has had trouble defining its football self for two decades, half the league finished first. Louisville won the BCS bid Thursday night when one-handed, one-legged quarterback Teddy Bridgewater ignored his injuries and came off the bench to lead the Cardinals to a comeback victory at Rutgers.
And the head scratching isn't limited to the top of the standings. Auburn, only two years removed from the national championship, went 3-9 and fired coach Gene Chizik. Colorado went 1-11, dumped coach Jon Embree after only his second season, and didn't even win the award for quickest trigger. That would go to Southern Mississippi, which let go first-year coach Ellis Johnson after the Golden Eagles went 0-12.
In a season of strange faces and strange finishes, the tried and true survived only down south. Florida State, as predicted, won the Atlantic Coast Conference, which the Seminoles hadn't done since 2005. And, of course, there was Alabama and the SEC, back in the BCS National Championship Game, where everybody expected them and nobody wanted them. Some things you can count on, whether you want to or not.
3dSharon Katz, ESPN Stats & Information
3dAndrea Adelson and Matt Fortuna