It feels like just yesterday that USC was No. 1, West Virginia was scoring on everyone and Arkansas still had post-Petrino hope. As always in college football, things change quickly, and between the launch of Sports on Earth the week before the season and now, we've had one of the most exciting seasons in recent memory.
Notre Dame -- really, Notre Dame - is back atop the sport, trying to reclaim dignity for the northern part of the country in a sport that's been dominated by the Southeastern Conference , a league that, even though it doesn't currently have the No. 1 team, is as dominant as ever. Before bowl season begins, let's pause to take stock of the national landscape after the regular season and hand out some imaginary hardware.
Conference Power Rankings
College football has typically been cyclical in nature, momentum shifting between the South, the Midwest and the Heartland. But demographics continue to shift, and the balance of power in high school football has entrenched itself deeply across the South, from Florida to Texas, from Gainesville to College Station, thus allowing the balance of power in college football to be the same. Alabama opened the season by flicking Michigan back to Ann Arbor from Arlington like a confused fly. It was perhaps the only significant win by an SEC team over a good team from a different region (perhaps we can count LSU over Washington as well) all year, but it doesn't matter that's there's never a large sample size until the bowl games. We assume that the SEC is dominant, and that assumption is usually correct.
Alabama, Florida, Georgia, LSU, Texas A&M and South Carolina comprise six of the first 10 spots in the final BCS standings, and no reasonable observer of the 2012 season would argue much differently. The teams spent the season beating up each other, and while Oregon of the Pac-12 and Kansas State of the Big 12 also finished with one loss, we didn't spend one minute debating whether the Ducks or Wildcats should go to the BCS National Championship ahead of the SEC champion. A playoff will partially solve this problem, but as long as the SEC keeps winning national championships, nobody is going to legitimately question its place atop the college football world. Even if Notre Dame beats Alabama in Miami, that doesn't change the fact that the top 10 is filled with teams from Florida to Texas.
Offensive Player of the Year: Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
Defensive Player of the Year: Jarvis Jones, LB, Georgia
Coach of the Year: Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M
2. Big 12
Presenting the three stages of the 2012 Big 12 football season:
For nearly half the season, newcomer West Virginia appeared ready to take the conference by storm, a perfect fit for the league as a spread-the-field, defense-optional juggernaut led by a coach with Big 12 roots. Geno Smith was everyone's Heisman favorite, and we brushed aside the Mountaineers' total inability to stop any offense with a pulse because their own offense was so entrancing. Then they imploded against Texas Tech, lost another four games in a row and plummeted out of the national consciousness.
In the middle, Kansas State became America's darling, Bill Snyder resurrecting the program for the second time with a perfect quarterbacks marriage with Collin Klein, who became Smith's successor as Heisman frontrunner. The Wildcats opened 10-0, scoring 55 points per game in back-to-back wins against West Virginia and Texas Tech, and crushing opponents with arguably the best defense in the Big 12. Then they got blown out by Baylor and knocked out of the national title race.
So, we reached the last few weeks, a quiet period in which Kansas State attempted to recover from heartbreak, and eventually did so by clinching a trip to the Fiesta Bowl with a win over Texas. The most newsworthy team became Oklahoma, the one eliminated from the BCS because Northern Illinois clawed its way into the top 16, causing Kirk Herbstreit to lose his mind on national television. It was a solid but unspectacular season for the Big 12, and it must have really hurt to see Texas A&M rush toward stardom in the SEC West. The league needs Texas to re-emerge as a national threat.
Offensive Player of the Year: Collin Klein, QB, Kansas State (MVP edition); QB Geno Smith and WRs Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, West Virginia (insane numbers edition)
Defensive Player of the Year: Devonte Fields, DE, TCU
Coach of the Year: Bill Snyder, Kansas State
Matt Barkley had "unfinished business," and the balance of power on the Pacific Coast was supposed to shift to the South. One LA team held up its end of the bargain, only it wasn't USC. Jim Mora and star players Brett Hundley and Johnathan Franklin headlined the best UCLA team in years, one that dispatched its city rivals and won the Pac-12 South for the second year in a row. USC was left losing five games, four within the conference, and having everyone across the country laugh at Lane Kiffin.
Instead, the power stayed North, where Oregon spent most of the season as a national title contender, where David Shaw made it clear that Stanford isn't going anywhere post-Luck, and where Mike Riley made one of the biggest turnarounds in America while becoming In-N-Out Burger's best customer. Not all is perfect, especially if Chip Kelly bolts from Oregon for the NFL, but it's a fun league with a smart commissioner in Larry Scott and an interesting crop of coaches.
Offensive Player of the Year: Kenjon Barner, RB, Oregon
Defensive Player of the Year: Will Sutton, DT, Arizona State
Coach of the Year: David Shaw, Stanford
4. Big Ten
Over the last half-decade, the Big Ten has typically saved much of its embarrassments for bowl season. That still may/will happen, of course, but things just keep getting worse even before Christmas. There was the Michigan debacle against Alabama to open the season. Ohio State went undefeated, but nobody cared because it's ineligible. Penn State's ineligible. Wisconsin made its third straight Rose Bowl, but did so by going 7-5 and then waking up to score 70 against Nebraska. Then head coach Bret Bielema left for Arkansas, which is the Wisconsin of the SEC (minus the recent conference championships). Purdue fired coach Danny Hope for going 6-6. Illinois has lost 16 of its last 19 games. Iowa paid Kirk Ferentz $3.8 million to lose to Central Michigan and go 4-8. Michigan State needed a last-game win over Minnesota to get to a bowl. And, the Big Ten, which can at least boast about its bloated bank account, made everyone laugh adding Maryland and Rutgers to reopen the realignment floodgates.
The Big Ten remains extremely powerful in many ways, but the amount of respect the league has lost on the field since Ohio State lost to Florida in the 2006-07 national title game is extraordinary, and the situation isn't getting any better.
Offensive Player of the Year: Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State
Defensive Player of the Year: Ryan Shazier, LB, Ohio State
Coach of the Year: Bill O'Brien, Penn State
Ten years ago, the ACC was thought to be on the verge of becoming a superconference, expanding from nine to 12 teams to add Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College to a solid pool of teams headlined by Florida State and Clemson. We're still waiting. Florida State was one of the offseason's most hyped teams, but the Seminoles' championship hopes went down in flames when they lost to N.C. State. Even at 10-1 before losing to Florida, they were ranked only 10th because BCS computers hated their schedule. Virginia Tech won six games, failing to get to 10 for the first time since 2003 - the Hokies' final season in the Big East. The ACC even needed a special waiver to get Coastal champion Georgia Tech into a bowl game because it finished 6-7. North Carolina was ineligible, and Miami played in empty stadiums before becoming ineligible too.
The ACC is 2-13 all-time in BCS games, and it better hope it moves to 3-13, given that Florida State plays the MAC's Northern Illinois in the Orange Bowl. The league will soon lose Maryland and gain Pitt, Syracuse and Louisville - plus, partially, Notre Dame - but that's not really a recipe for greater national prominence.
Offensive Player of the Year: Tajh Boyd, QB, Clemson
Defensive Player of the Year: Bjoern Werner, DE, Florida State
Coach of the Year: David Cutcliffe, Duke
6. Big East
The Big East has lost everything. Virginia Tech, Boston College, Miami, Pitt, Syracuse, West Virginia, Rutgers, Louisville all left (as did TCU, which never even played a game in the league) or will soon be gone. The league's devolvement into a new Conference USA is nearly complete (Tulane!). So, the Big East finished 2012 in a fitting way, by having the ACC's Louisville beat the Big Ten's Rutgers to ensure a four-way tie for the championship in an eight-team conference. Next up, we'll be watching noted rivalries between Temple-Houston and Tulane-Connecticut on the football field, and a conference named the Big East that has a Western division featuring teams from California and Idaho.
Offensive Player of the Year: Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
Defensive Player of the Year: Khaseem Greene, Rutgers
Coach of the Year: Charlie Strong, Louisville
7. Mountain West
Boise State was knocked down a peg and shared the conference title with San Diego State and Fresno State, but the Broncos still won 10 games and finished 19nd in the BCS in a rebuilding season. Boise State and San Diego State are still heading to the Big East, so the conference will take a hit, but it will welcome San Jose State and Utah State and remain a solid second-tier league.
Offensive Player of the Year: Stephfon Jefferson, RB, Nevada
Defensive Player of the Year: Phillip Thomas, S, Fresno State
Coach of the Year: Tim DeRuyter, Fresno State
#MACtion has taken over weekday nights in October and November, and now it takes over the Orange Bowl thanks to Northern Illinois' stellar season. Aside from a brief appearance and disappearance by Temple, the league has stayed stable and comfortable in its own skin as a heavily regionalized league that still produces a lot of NFL talent and sends many coaches to bigger things. Who doesn't love the MAC? Aside from Kirk Herbstreit, of course.
Offensive Player of the Year: Jordan Lynch, QB, Northern Illinois
Defensive Player of the Year: Chris Jones, DT, Bowling Green
Coach of the Year: Darrell Hazell, Kent State
We'll miss you, WAC. In its final year of football as it gets ripped apart by realignment, the WAC put together a very solid season, with Utah State, San Jose State and Louisiana Tech all making top-25 appearances during the season. The only disappointment is Louisiana Tech's absence from a bowl game after drama in dealing with the Independence and Liberty Bowls, but at least we'll always have October's shootout in Shreveport with Johnny Manziel to remember.
Offensive Player of the Year: Quinton Patton, WR, Louisiana Tech
Defensive Player of the Year: Travis Johnson, DE, San Jose State
Coach of the Year: Mike MacIntyre, San Jose State
10. Conference USA
Aside from being plundered by the Big East in its attempt to become the new Conference USA, the actual Conference USA had perhaps the most anonymous season imaginable. Gone was the excitement of Case Keenum and Kevin Sumlin at Houston, and almost nothing happened. Defending conference champion Southern Miss lost head coach Larry Fedora and proceeded to lose every game in 2012, snapping a streak of 18 straight winning seasons in impressively terrible fashion, costing Ellis Johnson his job after one season. Tulsa beat UCF to win the league, and, well, that about covers it. Only those two teams and East Carolina finished above .500 overall.
Offensive Player of the Year: Rakeem Cato, QB, Marshall
Defensive Player of the Year: DeAundre Brown, LB, Tulsa
Coach of the Year: Bill Blankenship, Tulsa
11. Sun Belt
The MAC of the South, the Sun Belt is a lovable little conference that unfortunately hasn't had as much luck protecting its teams from realignment. Still, the league provided some memorable moments thanks to Louisiana-Monroe, which beat Arkansas and nearly beat Auburn and Baylor in three games decided by a total of 11 points to open the season. Throw in Middle Tennessee beating Georgia Tech and Western Kentucky beating Kentucky on a trick-play two-point conversion, and there were some entertaining nonconference moments against the big boys. Of course, just as Arkansas State wins the league title for the second year in a row, it loses a one-and-done coach to the SEC. Hugh Freeze went to Ole Miss last year, and now Gus Malzahn will go back to Auburn, reminding us of the Sun Belt's status as a Triple-A league.
Offensive Player of the Year: Kolton Browning, QB, Louisiana-Monroe
Defensive Player of the Year: Quanterus Smith, DE, Western Kentucky
Coach of the Year: Todd Berry, Louisiana-Monroe
Obviously, it was the best year in a while for the independents, as Notre Dame shocked the college football world by going undefeated and claiming a spot in the national title game. BYU and Navy both finished above .500, while Army led the nation in rushing and managed to beat Boston College and Air Force for its two wins.
Offensive Player of the Year: Trent Steelman, QB, Army
Defensive Player of the Year: Manti Te'o, LB, Notre Dame
Coach of the Year: Brian Kelly, Notre Dame
Small-school player of the year: Jordan Lynch, QB, Northern Illinois. The Manziel of the MAC replaced productive former starter Chandler Harnish and led Northern Illinois to the MAC's first BCS bid. Lynch threw 24 TD passes, ran for 19 and led the MAC in rushing with 1,771 yards. With the conference title on the line against Kent State, he ran 36 times for 160 yards and three touchdowns. He gets the nod for this award just ahead of explosive Kent State athlete Dri Archer.
National coach of the year: Brian Kelly, Notre Dame. There are many worthy candidates, from Ohio State's Urban Meyer to Florida's Will Muschamp to Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin to Stanford's David Shaw to Kansas State's Bill Snyder. But it's hard to beat Kelly, who's won everywhere he's gone, taking a step up each time, covering Grand Valley State, Central Michigan, Cincinnati and now Notre Dame. In only his third season in South Bend, he has the most historic college football program back on top, ending all worthless debates over whether Notre Dame is still "relevant."
National coach of the year in an impossible situation: Bill O'Brien, Penn State. His team lost four games, including the first two against Ohio and Virginia. But O'Brien transformed Penn State's offense, making former walk-on Matt McGloin the Big Ten's leader in passing yards and touchdowns, and he couldn't have handled all of the distractions more effectively for a program in peril. Now he'll have to successfully navigate open transfer waters again, and Penn State will have to make sure he stays long-term, because an 8-4 season surely attracted the attention of college athletic directors and NFL general managers.
Genius offensive coordinator of the year: Kliff Kingsbury, Texas A&M. Ten years ago, Kingsbury was the first of Mike Leach's absurdly productive quarterbacks at Texas Tech, throwing for 5,017 yards and 45 touchdowns in his senior season in 2002. Now, at age 33, he's perhaps the hottest coordinator in the country, seen as an offensive guru who learned from Leach and Kevin Sumlin and coached Johnny Manziel to a Heisman-worthy season as a freshman.
Genius defensive coordinator of the year: Bob Diaco, Notre Dame. The 39-year-old Diaco has risen through the ranks of college football and has spent six of the last nine seasons on Brian Kelly's staffs at Central Michigan, Cincinnati and Notre Dame. His 12-0 Fighting Irish defense was perhaps the biggest story of college football this year, one that gave up a national-low 10.3 points per game and went a month without giving up a touchdown.
Game of the year, Hal Mumme-approved: West Virginia 70, Baylor 63. "Is this what we want football to be?" Nick Saban asked. Sure, why not? West Virginia's defense was awful most of the season, and, until Phil Bennett came up with a masterful game plan to stop Kansas State, Baylor's was too. But West Virginia's first Big 12 game was one of modern offensive beauty: Geno Smith's 656 yards and eight touchdowns, Nick Florence's 581 yards and five touchdowns, a parade of touchdowns and "Country Roads" echoing through the afternoon in Morgantown.
Game of the year, Bo Schembechler-approved: Stanford 17, Oregon 14. Stanford's game against Oregon was the best defensive performance of the year, a masterful job of slowing down Oregon's vaunted high-speed rushing attack. We've seen Oregon start slow against Stanford on multiple occasions the last few years, only to blow up and scored 50 anyway. The Ducks couldn't flip the switch this time. Zach Ertz caught a game-tying TD with 1:35 left, then Jordan Williamson hit a game-winning field goal in overtime. Stanford did this despite forcing only one turnover. The Cardinal was just better.
Best game of the year: Alabama 32, Georgia 28. Perhaps at no time all season was the agony of defeat greater than for Mark Richt and Georgia at the SEC title game in Atlanta, as Tommy Tomlinson wrote. College football games don't get much better than this - a national championship bid on the line in the championship game of the nation's best conference, several lead changes, two good quarterbacks, two great running games, several defensive stars. It was an instant classic college football game, combining crisp play with a down-to-the-wire finish with the highest stakes possible.
Sports on Earth All-America Team
QB: Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M
Johnny Football wasn't even the favorite to win the starting job in the spring. But, he won it, and here we are. Under offensive gurus Kevin Sumlin and Kliff Kingsbury, Manziel led the SEC in rushing and is favored to become the first freshman Heisman winner after making dazzling plays all season and leading the Aggies to a win over Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
RB: Kenjon Barner, Oregon
Barner averaged 6.5 yards per carry and ran for 21 TDs in football's most explosive backfield. Between Barner, De'Anthony Thomas and QB Marcus Mariota, it was hard to pick out the best Heisman candidate, but Barner was the most consistently spectacular.
RB: Ka'Deem Carey, Arizona
Carey broke out in Rich Rodriguez's offense and led the country by averaging 146.4 rushing yards per game. He had 366 yards and five touchdowns against Colorado. Even Colorado's atrociousness can't make that sound unimpressive.
WR: Marqise Lee, USC
The explosive receiver led the nation with 112 catches and also led the Pac-12 in kick return average, while frequently making highlight-reel plays. In one game against Arizona, he had 16 catches for 345 yards and two touchdowns and returned a kick 72 yards.
WR: Terrance Williams, Baylor
Even without RGIII, Williams somehow bested Kendall Wright's 2011 season with 1,764 yards for Baylor's No. 1 ranked offense.
WR: Stedman Bailey, West Virginia
Bailey caught at least 11 passes five times and thrived in Dana Holgorsen's Air Raid offense. He had 303 yards and five touchdowns in the shootout with Baylor.
TE: Zach Ertz, Stanford
Ertz replaced All-American Coby Fleener and caught 66 passes even without Andrew Luck.
OL: Barrett Jones, Alabama
Last year's Outland Trophy winner anchors the most talented line in college football.
OL: Luke Joeckel, Texas A&M
Joeckel's a potential top-five NFL draft pick at left tackle who helped pave way for Manziel's huge season.
OL: Chance Warmack, Alabama
He's a mauler in the run game inside at guard who opened holes all season for T.J. Yeldon and Eddie Lacy.
OL: Taylor Lewan, Michigan
The Big Ten's Offensive Lineman of the Year draws a great matchup with Jadeveon Clowney in Outback Bowl.
OL: Jonathan Cooper, North Carolina
Cooper was the best blocker for the ACC's best runner, Giovani Bernard, and part of the O-line that gave up fewest sacks in the conference.
All-Purpose: Tavon Austin, West Virginia
Austin finished second nationally in catches, joining Stedman Bailey in the 100-catch club. He also had two special teams TDs, and he ran for 344 yards in one game against Oklahoma.
DL: Stephon Tuitt, Notre Dame
Manti Te'o got all the press, but Tuitt starred in front of him on the line with 12 sacks.
DL: Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina
Clowney tied for second nationally with 13 sacks, including four in the final game against Clemson.
DL: Damontre Moore, Texas A&M
Moore had a monstrous start to the season, and ended up with 20 tackles for loss and 12 ½ sacks.
DL: Bjoern Werner, Florida State
He tied Clowney for second nationally with 13 sacks and starred for the all-around great Seminoles defense.
LB: Jarvis Jones, Georgia
Unblockable in the passing game, he had three sacks, five tackles for loss and 13 tackles in one game against Florida, Georgia's biggest win of the season.
LB: Manti Te'o, Notre Dame
The much-publicized leader of the best defense in America, Te'o finished tied for second nationally with seven interceptions.
LB: Khaseem Greene, Rutgers
He filled the stat sheet every week for very good Scarlet Knights defense and forced six fumbles with 125 tackles.
DB: Dee Milliner, Alabama
The Alabama secondary had some uncharacteristic lapses, but Milliner starred and broke up 18 passes.
DB: Matt Elam, Florida
Hard-hitting safety made plays everywhere with 10 tackles for loss and four interceptions.
DB: Jordan Poyer, Oregon State
The Beavers' cornerback intercepted seven passes for one of the most improved defenses in America.
DB: Phillip Thomas, Fresno State
The Bulldogs gave up only 163 passing yards per game, and Thomas led the nation with eight interceptions, in addition to his four sacks and 12 tackles for loss.
K: Dustin Hopkins, Florida State
He set the NCAA all-time record for career points scored by a kicker and made 24 of 28 field goal attempts this year.
P: Kyle Christy, Florida
He averaged 46 yards per punt and regularly gave opposing teams brutal field position.
QB Collin Klein, Kansas State; RB Montee Ball, Wisconsin; RB Johnathan Franklin, UCLA; WR DeAndre Hopkins, Clemson; WR Quinton Patton, Louisiana Tech; WR Markus Wheaton, Oregon State; TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Washington; OL D.J. Fluker, Alabama; OL Dallas Thomas, Tennessee; OL David Yankey, Stanford; OL Dalton Freeman, Clemson; OL Braxston Cave, Notre Dame; All-Purpose Dri Archer, Kent State
DL Sam Montgomery, LSU; DL Star Lotulelei, Utah; DL John Simon, Ohio State; DL Will Sutton, Arizona State; LB Kevin Minter, LSU; LB Ryan Shazier, Ohio State; LB Arthur Brown, Kansas State; DB Bradley Roby, Ohio State; DB Tony Jefferson, Oklahoma; DB Johnthan Banks, Mississippi State; DB Eric Reid, LSU
K Caleb Sturgis, Florida; P Ryan Allen, Louisiana Tech