My favorite college football stories of 2012
To mark the passing of another eventful year of championships, triumphs and memorable moments, SI.com's writers are remembering the stories they connected to most across the sports landscape in 2012.
My editors have asked me to share with you my 10 favorite college football stories of 2012, which I'm happy to do, because it means I don't have to discuss realignment or coaches changing jobs. Well that, and because 2012 was a particularly fun season. We have both a national-championship participant (Notre Dame) and a Heisman winner (Johnny Manziel) that nobody saw coming. We had a tense BCS race (three undefeated teams in mid-November) that still managed to resolve itself cleanly, a bevy of memorable upsets (Stanford over USC and Oregon; Baylor over Kansas State) and a number of fantastic finishes (Alabama-LSU and Alabama-Georgia).
I enjoyed this regular season tremendously -- and I only hope the bowls can be nearly as entertaining.
1. The legend of Johnny Football. The week of Texas A&M's scheduled opener against Louisiana Tech (later postponed), I called Aggies offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury to find out more about the then-unknown redshirt freshman who had unexpectedly won Texas A&M's starting quarterback job. Johnny Manziel, a little-known player out of Tivy High in Kerrville, Texas, would be handed the keys to the Aggies' new Air Raid-style offense. "We've never been a big quarterback-run type offense," said Kingsbury. "But if you have a five-receiver route, it's hard to cover five guys and [the quarterback]. We think that's a huge advantage that he brings." Indeed, Manziel's running ability (1,181 rushing yards) and uncanny improvisational skills proved too difficult for most SEC foes to defend, something that became all too evident in the Aggies' 29-24 victory at No. 1 Alabama, a game that would become the defining moment of Manziel's Heisman Trophy-winning season. His nickname, his season-long media gag order and the intrigue of A&M's move to the SEC all contributed to Johnny Football's mystique, but mostly, he was just darn fun to watch -- even on plays that didn't count.
2. Notre Dame's renaissance. The Fighting Irish were never "irrelevant"; they just weren't very good for the past 18 seasons. In fact, I devoted untold column space over those years to the struggles and drama surrounding the Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis eras, respectively. It's much more fun, both for those of us that cover the sport and for longtime fans of college football, when Notre Dame is making news for winning football games. And it's even more interesting that this year, the Irish returned to national championship contention not behind a 40-points-per-game offense like the ones Brian Kelly employed at Cincinnati, but thanks to an old-school, hard-nosed defense led by standout linebacker Manti Te'o. There were times over the years when it seemed unlikely a Midwestern private school playing an independent schedule could ever again reach the heights it so often enjoyed from the 1920s to '80s. But now that it's happened -- and now that the nation once again associates those gold helmets with elite-level football -- it feels only natural. It's as if the Irish were here all along.
3. An SEC title game classic. I've covered seven SEC championship games throughout my career, including two previous editions (Florida-Alabama in 2008 and '09) that served as de facto national semifinals. None could match the intensity, the suspense, the momentum swings and the memorable plays from Alabama's 32-28 win over Georgia. When Alec Ogletree returned a blocked field goal 55 yards for a touchdown to put the Bulldogs up 21-10 midway through the third quarter, it appeared as if Mark Richt would finally secure his landmark victory. Then, when Alabama promptly wiped that lead away six minutes later, it appeared Richt's team was in trouble. But then Georgia reclaimed the lead. Then AJ McCarron responded with a 45-yard touchdown pass to Amari Cooper with 3:15 left. Finally, I watched from the sideline as Aaron Murray drove the Bulldogs inside the Alabama 10-yard line only to have time expire after a completed pass inbounds. Between several monstrous rushing performances (Alabama's Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon and Georgia's Todd Gurley), McCarron's clutch throw and the inexplicable final sequence, this was the most exciting game I've covered in years.
4. Bill Snyder rules. I already wrote an ode to Kansas State's 73-year-old patriarch when I nominated him for Sportsman of the Year. I also wrote a feature about him last season when the Wildcats started 7-0, the first indication that Snyder was sparking yet another revival in the Little Apple. But when Kansas State lost 58-17 to Oklahoma last October, it fueled the perception that the team's eventual 10-win Cotton Bowl season was a mirage. Many, including me, predicted the Wildcats would return to earth in 2012. Instead, Snyder's team scored a 24-19 win at Oklahoma on Sept. 22 en route to a 10-0 start and a No. 1 spot in the BCS standings prior to its loss to Baylor on Nov. 17. K-State's success was more explainable this time around with quarterback Collin Klein blossoming into an eventual Heisman finalist and Arthur Brown, Meshak Williams and Ty Zimmerman, among others, comprising a bona fide big-time defense. Still, it's hard to quantify exactly how Snyder continues to produce top-10 teams with top-50 recruiting classes, and it's not like the man is delivering public insights. But then again, that's part of his charm.
5. College football gets a playoff. While covering the games is always the most glamorous part of my job, I spent much of this year stalking conference commissioners outside of hotel meeting rooms in New Orleans, Dallas, Fort Lauderdale, Chicago and Denver. It was all worth it to be able to forever say I was in the audience at the press conference on June 20 when Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick stood before a ring of his colleagues and announced: "We have reached consensus on a four-team playoff." It marked the culmination of five-plus months of blow-by-blow coverage over such nuances as campus sites versus bowl sites, conference champions or the top four teams. But more notably, it was a watershed moment for a sport that had managed to exist for 143 years without a postseason tournament. While we certainly have our doubts as to whether a four-team bracket determined by a selection committee will satiate fans any more than the long-maligned BCS, this much was clear: We were witnesses to history in the making.
6. Oregon outdoes itself. On Oct. 18, I watched in awe from the press box as Chip Kelly's Ducks exploded for 43 unanswered points just minutes into the second quarter of their game against Arizona State. You would think that after four years of watching Kelly-coached attacks (six dating back to his time as a coordinator), I'd be numb to Oregon's offensive outbursts. But this was something to behold -- something different than I ever witnessed during the Dennis Dixon, Jeremiah Masoli or Darron Thomas/LaMichael James eras. Behind a gifted redshirt freshman quarterback, Marcus Mariota, and a noticeably more physical offensive line, the Ducks reached new levels of explosiveness in 2012. I was in attendance again on Nov. 3 in Los Angeles when Oregon scored the most points (62) any opponent had ever put up against USC. The Ducks aren't the only team that plays fast, but they do so in such clinical fashion (running the same stretch play with Kenjon Barner over and over against the Trojans) as to seem unstoppable -- right up to the part where Stanford went to Eugene and humbled then-unbeaten Oregon, 17-14, in overtime. That, too, has become a staple of Kelly's teams; there's seemingly no middle ground between 42 points and 14. For the first time in three years, the Ducks did not win their conference in 2012. But they were no less entertaining. Arguably, they were even more so.
7. Geno Smith, September Heisman winner. I happened to spend a Saturday off the road on Sept. 29, and while the noon games (or 9 a.m. my time) often tend to be snoozers, I couldn't take my eyes off of the alternatingly fascinating and maddening Baylor-West Virginia game. There were no defenses in sight, as the teams combined for 133 points and an inconceivable 1,507 yards of total offense (Baylor gained 700 and lost). But Smith's performance, in particular, stood above the rest. He attempted 51 passes and only six fell incomplete. He threw for 656 yards and eight touchdowns. At that point in the season, through four games, Smith had thrown 20 touchdowns and no picks. It appeared as if Dana Holgorsen's offense was near the point of perfection. That wasn't the case, as Texas Tech walloped Smith and the Mountaineers, 49-14, two weeks later to start a five-game losing skid. But Smith's hot streak was sure fun while it lasted.
8. Kolton Browning takes on the SEC. We could not have known at the time that Arkansas and Auburn were headed toward season-long implosions. On the night of Sept. 8, the Razorbacks were still a top-10 team playing a so-called gimme game against Louisiana-Monroe of the Sun Belt, and they jumped to a 28-7 third-quarter lead accordingly. But that's when star quarterback Tyler Wilson went out with a head injury, while Warhawks counterpart Browning led his team back, culminating in a game-tying 23-yard touchdown pass with 47 seconds left. More remarkably, in overtime, coach Todd Berry went for it on fourth-and-one when he only needed a field goal. Browning did his best Vince Young impression, as he scrambled, turned a corner and ran for the game-winning 16-yard touchdown. A week later, Browning finished with 481 yards of offense against Auburn, as ULM nearly pulled off another upset before falling in overtime.
9. #MACtion heads to South Beach. When I first started covering college football in the late '90s and early 2000s, the MAC was the most noteworthy of the non-BCS conferences. It produced stars like Chad Pennington, Byron Leftwich and Ben Roethlisberger. Then it slipped into oblivion for about eight years. But starting midway through last season, when Toledo seemed to be putting up 63 points every Tuesday night, MAC football regained an identity -- and a hashtag. The league took things to historic heights this year, notching a record 16 nonconference wins over FBS foes (including Cincinnati, Rutgers, Iowa and Indiana) and seven over bowl teams. The zenith moment was Northern Illinois' 44-37 overtime win against Kent State in a conference championship matchup of 11-1 teams. The Huskies will now represent the league in the Orange Bowl, where quarterback Jordan Lynch (1,771 rushing yards) will enjoy a brighter stage than any of those previous stars ever did. But let us not forget my favorite MAC player in 2012, Kent State's indescribably fast Dri Archer.
10. Duke goes bowling. I'm not right about a lot of things, so I have to pat myself on the back on those rare occasions when a bold prediction comes true. Duke, an ACC basement dweller for the past two decades, will play in a bowl game (the Belk Bowl) for the first time since 1994. The Blue Devils made it anticlimactic, starting 6-2 and clinching bowl eligibility on Oct. 20 (though they haven't won since). Speaking to coach David Cutcliffe during the team's fast start, it was clear how much work he'd put in over the past five years to get to this point, and he was enjoying the heck out of it. The team's biggest standouts, quarterback Sean Renfree, receiver Conner Vernon and cornerback Ross Cockrell, have all been in the program at least four years. Throw in successful seasons by Stanford (11-2), Northwestern (9-3) and Vanderbilt (8-4) and 2012 had a refreshing Revenge of the Nerds feel to it.
(NOTE: Technically, Alabama won the national title on Jan. 9, 2012. But for the purposes of this article, we're considering only the 2012 season and the events of this preseason.)