Penn State's year of horror in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal left the school in shock. Severe NCAA penalties handed down to players who had nothing to do with the mess threatened to dismantle the program for years. Things looked bleak when the Nittany Lions started 0-2, but then things changed: Guided by first-year Coach Bill O'Brien, Penn State won eight of its last 10 games.
The school received more positive news last week when O'Brien rejected offers to coach in the NFL, saying he was "not a one-and-done guy."
7. The Irish are back (we think)
Notre Dame's return to college football's upper echelon was going just fine until Monday night. The Fighting Irish were 12-0 and ranked No. 1 entering the BCS title game but were no match for the Crimson Tide. Notre Dame was trying to win its first national title since 1988. The question now: Is Notre Dame really back or was this season the product of several lucky victories against a schedule that didn't turn out to be as good as it looked in September?
8. The wrath of Kirk
Why is college football the only sport that doesn't embrace underdogs? News that Mid-American Conference champion Northern Illinois had earned an automatic bid to the Orange Bowl drew unexpected and vitriolic backlash from many analysts, including ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit. Northern Illinois qualified fairly under BCS rules by finishing in the top 16 ahead of an automatic-qualifier league.
Why the outrage? Wisconsin won the Big Ten with an 8-5 record and earned a trip to the Rose Bowl. Northern Illinois faced Atlantic Coast Conference champion Florida State in the Orange Bowl and trailed only 17-10 in the fourth quarter before losing 31-10.
9. League of their own
In what conference is your favorite school playing today? More important, will it be in that league tomorrow? College football went through another ugly round of realignment during the season when the Big Ten announced it would be adding Rutgers (from the Big East) and Maryland (ACC). The ACC piled on and plucked Louisville from the Big East, putting that conference on life support. Boise State, which had planned to join the Big East next season, decided to remain in the Mountain West.
What's left of the Big East is due exit fees from two schools — Boise State and Texas Christian — that never played in the league.
10. Changes in attitudes
Jim Mora began his coaching era at UCLA by taking his team to San Bernardino for a boot camp that would put some kick back in the program. Mora believed UCLA was "soft" and set about turning the ruined Bruins into nine-game winners in a season that included only the second victory over USC since 1998. It was quite a contrast to the 50-0 debacle of a loss in 2011.
The only problem is that UCLA totally botched the 2012 ending. Consecutive defeats to Pac-12 champion Stanford could be forgiven, but not the horrible effort in a blowout defeat to Baylor in the Holiday Bowl.
Mora has UCLA on the right track, but the program is best served when it allows others to dictate when the program is "back."