The Alabama Crimson Tide and the SEC overall were riding high coming into the 2012 college football season. The Tide had won two of the previous three national championships. The conference was fresh putting LSU, along with ‘Bama into the title game the prior year. 2012 might not have produced an all-SEC championship game. But it did showcase more of the league’s dominance, and the end result was yet another crown for Nick Saban’s program.
Alabama was loaded on defense and on the offensive line. The nation’s stingiest D was led by All-Americans in linebacker C.J. Mosely and defensive back Demarcus Millner. A running game that produced a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon was anchored by All-American linemen Barrett Jones and Chance Warmack.
Quarterback A.J. McCarron didn’t have to do a lot—but he still did plenty, with a 67 percent completion rate, 9.3 yards-per-attempt, 30 touchdown passes and only three interceptions. Amari Cooper was a 1,000-yard receiver.
The Crimson Tide opened the season ranked #2, and their first game was a high-profile showdown with eighth-ranked Michigan. Alabama rolled to a 41-14 win, and they were off and running.
On the other side of the SEC, Georgia and Florida would both have big years. The Bulldogs had a big-play offense. Aaron Murray averaged better than 10 yards per pass attempt. Todd Gurley ran for nearly 1,400 yards. The defense was led by All-American linebacker Jarvis Jones. The Gators were an offensively challenged team, but had a national top five defense that was keyed by All-American defensive back Matt Elam.
Florida made early statements, decisively beating Tennessee in September, and then knocking off LSU in early October. Georgia was blown out by a good South Carolina time that had Jadeveon Clowney on the defensive front. But the Gamecocks turned around and lost to LSU and Florida in short order.
By the end of October, it was clear that the annual Georgia-Florida rivalry game in Jacksonville would settle the SEC East, and that LSU-Alabama in Baton Rouge would again be the decisive game in the SEC West.
On October 27, the Bulldogs knocked off the Gators 17-9. A week later, the Tide rallied late to beat the Tigers 21-17. Georgia and Alabama were on a collision course for the SEC Championship Game. The Tide was at the top of the polls. The Dawgs were moving up fast, and with only one loss were in a strong position to play for a national championship.
But in the meantime, there were other teams in the SEC West. Alabama had already gotten by a good Mississippi State team, and their Thorpe Award-winning defensive back Johnathan Banks. And there was someone else was lurking—a rising freshman star who went by the nickname of Johnny Football.
Johnny Manziel was the quarterback for Texas A&M. By season’s end he would throw for over 3,700 yards and run for over 1,400. Nor was he a lonely warrior. The Aggies had the Outland Trophy winner on their offensive line with Luke Joeckel. They had an All-American on the defensive front with Damontre Moore.
A&M had taken a couple of early losses. But they were rolling when they showed up in Tuscaloosa on November 10. And they shocked the nation. Manziel’s running and passing paved the way for a 29-24 upset of Alabama. The performance would vault Manziel to the Heisman Trophy. And it had thrown the national landscape, then a race for just two spots in the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) National Championship Game—into chaos.
Notre Dame was quietly chugging along. The Irish weren’t highly regarded to start the year. And while they had a decent two-pronged rushing attack with Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood, Notre Dame’s offense ended the year ranked 81st nationally in points scored. But they could defend. Linebacker Manti Te’o intercepted seven passes and won the Butkus Award. Defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt finished with 12 ½ sacks. The Irish D ranked second in the nation.
They won a series of close games, including over Michigan and Pac-10 contender Stanford. Notre Dame surprised the nation in late October when they went to Norman and decisively beat Oklahoma 30-13. Brian Kelly’s Irish just kept on winning until they were the only undefeated team left standing. The Irish had their share of skeptics, but no one disputed they would fill one half of the BCS National Championship Game in Miami.
The Pac-12 and Big 12 were at the forefront of conferences with contenders seeking to fill the void created by Alabama’s loss. But it wasn’t the teams you might have expected. USC had been the preseason #1 team, and Oklahoma started the year ranked #4. Neither the Trojans nor the Sooners had vintage years and other challengers stepped up.
Oregon was at the height of their explosiveness during Chip Kelly’s head coaching tenure. The Ducks, coming off a Rose Bowl in 2011, were ranked #5 to start the season. Marcus Mariota had a spectacular year at quarterback. He threw 32 touchdown passes, completed 69 percent of his passes, and ran for over 750 yards. Kenton Barnes rolled up over 1,700 yards on the ground. The Ducks had the second-best offense in the nation and their defense was good enough to win.
Oregon blew out ranked opponents from Arizona and Washington by a combined 101-21. They won a wild 62-51 game over USC in early November. The Ducks were up to #2 in the polls when their key regular season game with Stanford arrived.
The Cardinal was a team that was almost the polar opposite of Oregon. Stanford’s offense was pedestrian, ranking 72nd in the country. They weren’t explosive. But they were physical. Stepfan Taylor was a 1,500-yard rusher. They had an NFL-bound tight end in Zach Ertz who caught 69 passes. They could play defense, with pass-rushing end Trent Murphy leading the way. When Stanford visited Oregon on November 17, the Pac-12 North division crown was on the line.
Kansas State was the rising contender in the Big 12. They had a versatile quarterback in Collin Klein, a good running game led by John Hubert and a quality pass-rusher in Meshak Williams. The Wildcats knocked off OU 24-19 in September, and were off and running, Kansas State dropped 55 points two straight weeks in beating ranked opponents from West Virginia and Texas Tech. When November 17 arrived, Kansas State was #2 in the land.
That November 17 date proved another threshold in the point in the season. Stanford upset Oregon 17-14. Kansas State inexplicably no-showed against Baylor and was crushed 52-24.
The Cardinal would go on to beat UCLA in the Pac-12 Championship Game and go to the Rose Bowl. Kansas State still closed out the Big 12 title and got a Fiesta Bowl bid, where they would play Oregon. But the upsets had put the SEC back in the national championship picture.
Alabama and Georgia were 2-3 in the rankings when they met in the SEC Championship Game. In a terrific game, the Tide held off a late Bulldog drive and preserved a 32-28 win.
The strange nature of the rankings dropped Georgia behind Florida in the final regular season polls. That meant the Dawgs settled for the Capital One Bowl, while the Gators were Sugar Bowl-bound. But in the meantime, Alabama was playing Notre Dame for the national championship.
In a normal year, Ohio State would have been involved in this discussion. But this was not a normal year in Columbus. The Buckeyes were on probation for NCAA violations committed at the end of Jim Tressel’s coaching tenure. After a tumultuous interim season in 2011. Ohio State hired Urban Meyer. And even though the Buckeyes weren’t eligible for postseason play, they immediately returned to the national elite.
Braxton Miller was a good all-around quarterback and Carlos Hyde ran for nearly 1,000 yards. Ohio State dropped a 63-38 pounding on Nebraska in early October. They moved into the Top 10 and then kept climbing. They went to Madison in November and beat Wisconsin in overtime. The Buckeyes ended the year by knocking off Michigan 26-21 and concluding a 12-0 season.
Penn State was also on probation, due to the abuse allegations that brought the Joe Paterno era to a tragic end a year earlier. At the time, the Big Ten did not use a geographic divisional split. Wisconsin was in the same division as the Nittany Lions and Buckeyes. And therefore, the Badgers had a virtual free pass into the Big Ten Championship Game.
Wisconsin had a potent ground attack. Montee Ball was an All-American who ran for over 1,800 yards. James White added more than 800 yards himself, and Melvin Gordon cleared the 600-yard threshold as the third back in the rotation. But the Badgers otherwise struggled offensively. They lost five games and went 4-4 in league play. But that was enough to get them into the conference title game. And once there, the Badger running game unloaded on Nebraska to the tune of a 70-31 win. For the third straight year, Wisconsin was going to the Rose Bowl.
Florida State was starting to lay the groundwork for what would be a national championship run a year later. The Seminole offense, led by E.J. Manuel at quarterback, finished 10th in the nation in points scored. A physical defense was even better. The defensive line combo had All-American Bjoern Werner along with Cornelius Carradine. The playmakers combined for 24 sacks and 31 tackles-for-loss. Florida State rolled to a 49-37 win over Clemson in September. Even though a loss to N.C. State in October ended any national hopes, the ‘Noles won the ACC and headed to the Orange Bowl.
The Big East was still a football conference in 2012, and Louisville was their best team. Teddy Bridgewater, a future NFL starter, completed 69 percent of his passes for nearly nine yards per attempt. Jeremy Wright and Senorise Perry formed a balanced rushing attack. The Cardinals got the league’s auto-bid to the major bowls and were matched up against Florida in the Sugar Bowl.
There’s still one spot left in college football’s biggest games, and it was a big surprise. Northern Illinois had a fantastic all-purpose quarterback in Jordan Lynch. A physical runner, Lynch rolled up over 1,800 yards on the ground. He threw for over 3,100. Martel Moore was a 1,000-yard receiver. Even though the Huskies lost a game early, they got rolling. By the time the MAC Championship Game in Detroit arrived, it was apparent that the Northern Illinois-Kent State winner was going to be in position to qualify for a major bowl. The Huskies won that game 44-37 and were sent to the Orange Bowl to play Florida State.
The most significant bowl games started on January 1. Georgia made their statement by rolling past Nebraska 45-31 in the Capital One Bowl. The Rose Bowl was marked by the surprise return of Wisconsin legend Barry Alvarez to the sidelines. Having moved to becoming the full-time AD seven years earlier, Alvarez stepped in when head coach Bret Bielama accepted the Arkansas job. It wasn’t enough to save the Badgers from dropping a tough 20-14 decision to Stanford.
Florida State steamrolled Northern Illinois 31-10 in the Orange Bowl. The following night in the Sugar Bowl, the SEC stumbled. Bridgewater’s Louisville team came in and rolled Florida 33-23 in a game more decisive than the score indicates. It was an odd prelude to March Madness when Louisville also beat Florida in the Elite Eight.
Oregon and Kansas State was the most high-profile of the non-championship major bowl games. But it wouldn’t be competitive. The Ducks were dominant, cruising to a 35-17 win. With only the close loss to Stanford marring their resume, Oregon finished #2 in the final polls.
Alabama and Notre Dame had a rich history from the 1970s, all of which favored the Irish. They had won an epic Sugar Bowl game in 1973 that was winner-take-all for the national title. Notre Dame won a great Sugar Bowl battle over the Tide a year later that cost Alabama another national championship. In 1977, a close vote between the Irish and Tide for the top spot went Notre Dame’s way. This was all in addition to 1966 when a 9-0-1 Notre Dame team was voted national champions over 11-0 ‘Bama.
All of which is to say that Crimson Tide fans steeped in history had reasons to want revenge. And on January 7 in Miami they got it in spades. Alabama crushed Notre Dame in the trenches, doing anything they wanted offensively. The final score was 42-14 and the damage was mostly done by the second quarter. It was an annihilation.
More than that, it was the solidification of a dynasty. The Crimson Tide had three national titles in four years. They were college football’s first repeat champions since Nebraska in 1994-95.