Posted: Monday August 27, 2012 12:35PM ; Updated: Monday August 27, 2012 7:18PM
Stewart Mandel

Year of unprecedented change not dampening enthusiasm for kickoff

Story Highlights

Realignment, postseason reform, Penn State, etc. have ushered in seismic change

Notre Dame's opener in Ireland could prove problematic as the season progresses

Plus: BCS forecast; news and notes from across the nation; Week 1 mini previews

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AJ McCarron and Alabama beat LSU in the teams' controversial BCS title game rematch, helping to alter college football's postseason landscape in the process.
AJ McCarron and Alabama beat LSU in the teams' controversial BCS title game rematch, helping to alter college football's postseason landscape in the process.
John Biever/SI

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All across the country this week, old friends will reconnect in tailgate lots and bleachers. Chief Osceola will plant his spear, the Song Girls will don their sweaters and a sousaphone player will dot the "i."

As the 2012 college football season begins, the timeless rites of autumn return. But for a sport that engenders such attachment in large part because of its familiar comforts, it's remarkable to think just how radically things have changed in the span of a year.

Flash back to the Friday of opening weekend, 2011. Hours before Robert Griffin III began his Heisman campaign by leading Baylor to a frenetic 50-48 upset of TCU, Oklahoma President David Boren touched off panic throughout the Bears' stadium by confirming the Big 12 school was holding active discussions with other conferences. The next night at Cowboys Stadium, just a short drive from Big 12 headquarters, reporters swarmed Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott prior to the kickoff of LSU-Oregon. "Several schools have reached out to us," Scott said, and once again college athletics braced for potentially seismic change.

We got it, all right -- just not in the way most would have predicted that evening. Fifty-one weeks later the Big 12 is not only standing, but thriving. Baylor not only retained its home, but is now joined both by the Top 25 team it faced that night (TCU) and a Top 25 team from another part of the country entirely (West Virginia). Few would have seen that marriage coming this time last year, though it now seems no odder than Missouri joining the SEC.

A year ago this week, Joe Paterno was beginning the 46th season of his Penn State career, his biggest concern seemingly his underperforming quarterbacks. Who could have foreseen Paterno being fired before season's end, his reputation sullied for failing to stop a sickening child predator who roamed the Penn State locker room? By January Paterno had passed away; last month Penn State, one of the four remaining BCS programs to never have committed a major NCAA violation, received the stiffest NCAA sanctions since SMU.

On a lighter note, LSU beat Oregon that first Saturday night en route to a perfect regular season and berth in the BCS championship game. That wasn't entirely surprising. The fact that LSU and Alabama staged a rematch of their regular-season meeting two months later, however, was entirely unprecedented and unpopular.

Oh, and over the summer college football adopted a playoff. That really happened.

Within the span of 12 months, the aforementioned events redefined history and fundamentally altered the sport. And that doesn't include a whole bunch of other changes that in most years would have been deemed hugely notable.

For instance, Urban Meyer is now the coach of Ohio State, Mike Leach has resurfaced at Washington State, Charlie Weis is somehow the head coach at Kansas ... and Bobby Petrino will have time to watch them all on television. Speaking of which, Erin Andrews will now be on Fox, Scott Van Pelt will now be appearing on GameDay and the Pac-12 Networks are now on the air.

It's not like the sport completely reinvented itself. The players will still wear facemasks, a touchdown will still count for six points and Texas still doesn't have a quarterback. But just when we thought America's most chaotic sport couldn't get any wackier, Boise State managed to achieve simultaneous membership in the Big East and Big West.

But the beauty of college football is that nothing but the weather (and possibly your kid's soccer schedule) can truly impact the enjoyment of Saturdays in the fall. Ole Miss is coming off a dreadful 2-10 season and the Rebels have a new coach in Hugh Freeze, yet the scene at the Grove on Saturday will be as resplendent as it was a year ago, five years ago or 50 years ago. Across the country, the pregame locker rooms will be as tense as ever. The postgame bars will be as crowded.

And just 14 weeks from now, a season we've spent eight months anticipating, dissecting and predicting will have produced a national championship matchup, a new cast of stars, another round of coaching changes and, we can only hope, another set of memories.
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