Notre Dame: Backlash and a bowl loss saw Notre Dame underrated entering the season. We felt they might be good. We did not see them exiting unscathed from what appeared to be a heinous schedule. They were set to play what looked then to be the best teams in the Big Ten, the Big 12 and the Pac 12 on the road. In this third year, we saw the progression that made Brian Kelly’s name at his previous stops. The defense predicted to be good was great. The offense predicted to be a disaster was stable. The Irish improved from 118th to 23rd in turnover margin. They earned a spot in the BCS title game. The scary part is this season was premature with a young team. Next year was supposed to be the year Notre Dame made the leap forward.
Kansas State: Kansas State won 10 games in 2011. They weren’t a 10-win team on paper, finishing 106th in yards per play defense and 76th in yards per play offense. Some fools felt this made the Wildcats a regression candidate for 2012. Instead, they improved to 49th and 21st respectively, went 11-1 and by some measures were the best team in the country. Kansas State won the nation’s strongest conference, without a single recruiting class ranked in the Rivals Top 50. This year’s freshman class was the only one still playing that ranked higher than the University of Kansas. Bill Snyder is a wizard. There’s no other rational explanation.
Texas A&M: There were reasons to like them. They had a number of returning starters, especially on offense. They were better than their 6-6 record in 2011, going 1-5 in one-score games. Three of those losses came to 10 or more win teams. Still with a new head coach, a new conference and a new freshman quarterback, no one saw them competing seriously, much less playing toe to toe with Florida and LSU, upsetting Alabama in Tuscaloosa and playing arguably the best football in the conference by the season’s end. A few fate twists going differently and they could have gone to the BCS title game. Incredible.
Stanford: Many expected Stanford to be decent without Andrew Luck. Few expected the Cardinal to win 11 games for a third-straight time. This team upset Oregon in Eugene and was a fluky four-point loss at Washington and a bizarre no touchdown call in overtime at No. 1 Notre Dame away from an undefeated season. Their defense rivals any unit in the country. Had they uncovered freshman quarterback Kevin Hogan earlier that might have made the difference. This is the season where David Shaw was to show his mettle. He’s shown he’s one of the bright young coaches in the country, with a stock pile of talent that’s not even contributing yet. Luck was never going to stay for a fifth-year, but if he had…
Penn State: This team looked like a disaster entering the season. The opening salvos – a loss to Ohio at home and a kicking debacle against Virginia – seemed to support that theory. Then, Penn State rebounded strongly and closed the season 8-2. Bill O’Brien had almost an entire offense of new starters, but somehow turned Matt McGloin into a viable starting quarterback: 24-5 TD to INT ratio, 61 percent completion rate and more than 3,000 yards. That alone deserves coach of the year recognition. Things get darker for Penn State from here, but this season will be remembered positively.
Northwestern: An overtime at Michigan away from 10 wins. Picked up arguably the Big Ten’s best OOC win against Vanderbilt.
Florida: The offense still stunk, but the collective team solidified far sooner than many anticipated. They had a better resumé than either team that played in the SEC Title Game.
Ohio State: Soft schedule. Awful conference. We had them projected in the top ten. 12 wins are still 12 wins.
Baylor: Art Briles just keeps on producing good teams. They were 7-5, upset Kansas State and lost three one-score games away to West Virginia, Texas and Oklahoma.
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