by Matt Hinton
Back in September, Alabama picked up the 2012 season right where it left off at the end of 2011: in another ostensibly-neutral venue, standing over the remains of another ostensibly-worthy challenger in the wake of another lopsided, start-to-finish slaughter that left no doubt of Bama's place as the reigning overlords of college football. By Monday night, at the end of another season, in another venue, against another unbeaten challenger, only the scenery had changed. Where the new script called for Notre Dame in Miami, the plot of the Crimson Tide's dynasty-clinching 42-14 romp over the Fighting Irish was so familiar, even the final score was a rehash of their 41-14 romp over Michigan on opening night. In the span of a few hours, they made an entire season look like a dress rehearsal.
Like last year's suffocating shutout win over LSU, Alabama made claiming a national championship look so easy that Notre Dame –- a blue-chip outfit that finished the regular season with a 12-0 record, the No. 1 scoring defense in the nation and a No. 1 ranking in every major poll –- look like it didn't even belong on the same field. Against a defense that had yielded nine touchdowns all season, the Crimson Tide scored six, all on drives covering more than 60 yards. Four seconds into the second quarter, Bama had more touchdowns (three) and more points (21) on its first three offensive possessions than the Irish had allowed in any game. At the same juncture, Notre Dame's offense had one first down and had not crossed midfield.
Against a team that often thrived on time of possession, Alabama held the ball for more than 38 minutes. Against a front seven that allowed two 100-yard rushers in twelve games, Alabama produced two 100-yard rushers in a little over three quarters. Against a secondary that allowed eleven passes of 25 yards or longer, fewest in the nation, Alabama completed five. Against an offense that averaged 202 yards rushing, Alabama allowed 32. Opposite a defensive front touted as a match for its own, Alabama's offensive line owned the line of scrimmage and rendered the most decorated player on the field, Manti Te'o, utterly irrelevant. On the bright side, the Irish's freshman quarterback, Everett Golson, did not embarrass himself in a flurry of turnovers. End bright side.
When they're at their best, as they were on Monday, watching the Crimson Tide under Nick Saban can seem about as much fun as lining up against them. Alabama is such an efficient, well-oiled machine, it's only interesting on the rare occasions when someone like Johnny Manziel manages to glitch the system. But for Saban, a restless perfectionist who preaches means over ends so relentlessly that his philosophy of emphasizing "process" rather than results has become as iconic as Bear Bryant's houndstooth cap, there can be no greater compliment. His assembly line, more than any other would-be "dynasty" in the BCS era, is built to last.
Consider that Alabama lost eight players from the 2011 championship team who were subsequently drafted by the NFL, six of them off the nation's No. 1 defense, four of them in the first round, one of them a finalist for the Heisman Trophy. The 2012 Crimson Tide returned fewer starters than any other team in the SEC. Both starting cornerbacks were new, both outside linebackers, all the wide receivers. But they still finished No. 1 nationally in both yards and points allowed, and improved scoring by more than a field goal per game. There were some familiar faces on Monday night, but man-for-man, the lineup that throttled Notre Dame was hardly the same one consigned to the myths a year earlier against LSU.
The 2013 team, anchored by ultra-efficient quarterback A.J. McCarron and essentially everyone who touched the ball for the Crimson Tide this season, looks even more terrifying on paper than the one that just clinched back-to-back titles. Every year, though, it gets a little clearer that thinking about Saban's program in the standard terms of "rebuilding" or individual attrition is missing the point: the program is not a collection of individuals, subject to the unpredictability and inconsistency of mere mortals. It is a machine, a Death Star, and the players who cycle through it are only cogs in its punishing, pitiless pursuit of world domination. They're the best cogs, of course. Top-of-the-line, state-of-the-art, blue-chip cogs. But when it comes down to it, ultimately one will do as well as the next. There is always another cog. And as far as Alabama is concerned, at this point, sitting around wondering whether the new cog is going to work as well as the old one makes about as much sense as a sledgehammer factory wondering how its next generation of hammers is going to uphold the prevailing standard of bludgeoning things.
This time, it was Notre Dame's turn to be bludgeoned, in another unwatchable bloodbath that enshrined Saban as the most accomplished college coach of his generation and probably a few others. Virginia Tech, you're on the clock.
- The single best game of the bowl season was Clemson's come-from-behind, 25-24 upset over LSU in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, a game that propelled Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd to both stardom and the hot tub. Out of 100 Clemson snaps, Boyd was called to run or pass on a staggering 79 of them, including five sacks by LSU's loaded defense. Still, with his team trailing late, 24-16, Boyd rallied the Tigers for a 70-yard touchdown drive to pull within two points, and subsequently rescued them from oblivion with a 26-yard, fourth-down laser to DeAndre Hopkins with time running out. From there, Boyd completed four consecutive passes to move Clemson into range of the winning field goal as time expired on his biggest victory as a starter. How impressive was that? Less than a week later, six starters on LSU's defense had declared early for the draft.
- By contrast, Stanford's grueling, 20-14 win over Wisconsin was not exactly a Rose Bowl for the ages, but it did mark another notch on Stanford's rise from laughingstock to upstart to perennial Pac-12 power. In consecutive seasons, the once-lowly Cardinal have had to replace a runner-up for the Heisman Trophy (Toby Gerhart), a head coach (Jim Harbaugh) and another runner-up for the Heisman Trophy (Andrew Luck). In those seasons, they're 35-5 with three consecutive trips to BCS bowls, three consecutive top-ten finishes, and their first conference championship in more than a decade. With David Shaw entrenched on the sideline and redshirt freshman Kevin Hogan's emergence at quarterback over the second half of the season, there is no end in sight.
- Defying the "Heisman Hex," Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel manage to raise the bar even higher in the postseason, setting a Cotton Bowl record with 516 yards of total offense (287 passing, 229 rushing) and four touchdowns in a 41-13 thumping of Oklahoma. As a team, the Aggies piled up 600-plus yards for the seventh time in 13 games and became the first SEC offense ever to go over 7,000 for the season, coming in for their highest finish in the AP poll (sixth) since 1985. With Manziel back this fall, and A&M's November 10 upset at Alabama suddenly looking even more impressive now than it did then, expectations over the next eight months will be through the roof.
- Arguably the hottest team heading into the offseason is Baylor, which capped a four-game winning streak with a 49-26 massacre of UCLA in the Holiday Bowl that wasn't nearly as close as the score suggests. Incredibly, the offense didn't miss a beat in the absence of Robert Griffin, turning in nearly identical numbers in terms of both yards and points per game under senior quarterback Nick Florence, who actually broke RG3's school records for passing yards and total offense in a season. More impressively, three of the four wins down the stretch came at the expense of ranked teams, including a 52-24 blowout over Kansas State that kept the Wildcats from playing for a national championship.
OFI TOP 25
1. ALABAMA (13-1). Crimson Tide are the first repeat champions of the BCS era, and the first to take back-to-back AP crowns since the 2003-04 USC Trojans. They're already favored to make it three in a row in 2013.
2. OHIO STATE (12-0). Sanctions aside, the mediocrity of the Big Ten took a huge bite out of the Buckeyes' strength of schedule. But the only undefeated season in the FBS is the only undefeated season in the FBS.
3. OREGON (12-1). Ducks dispatched Kansas State without much trouble in the Fiesta Bowl, but got a much bigger win when Chip Kelly decided to turn down the NFL.
4. NOTRE DAME (12-1). Best Fighting Irish team in 20 years has plenty to build on, but plenty left to overcome after the championship beatdown.
5. FLORIDA (11-2). Gators laid the biggest egg of the postseason in a Sugar Bowl flop against Louisville, but still boast four wins over teams that finished in the top fifteen. No one else except Alabama has more than two.
6. TEXAS A&M (11-2). Depending on where the game would be played, Aggies may be the only team that could conceivably be favored over Alabama right now.
7. GEORGIA (11-2). Bulldog fans are certain they could have throttled Notre Dame, too, if not for that ill-fated tip at the end of the SEC Championship Game.
8. SOUTH CAROLINA (11-2). Gamecocks' Outback Bowl win over Michigan was one of the most entertaining of the bowl season, and clinched the best poll finish in Carolina history.
9. STANFORD (12-2). Cardinal overcame a heavy exodus to the NFL from the 2011 team, and will have to do it again to be back in Pac-12 contention next fall.
10. KANSAS STATE (11-2). Wildcats were the best team in the Big 12, and as long as Bill Snyder is around, they'll always be within striking distance of that title in any given season. But thank goodness Baylor saved America from a K-State/Notre Dame championship game.
11. FLORIDA STATE (11-2). Seminoles didn't win over any skeptics by beating Northern Illinois, but they did tie a school record for wins and claim their first BCS victory since 2000.
12. CLEMSON (11-2). Tigers improved their stock immensely with the rally to beat LSU, finally absolving them of a humiliating collapse in the 2012 Orange Bowl. If both return to school, Boyd and Hopkins can be one of the most lethal pass-catch combos in the country, and that's not even counting a healthy Sammy Watkins.
13. LSU (10-3). Other Tigers will be loaded athletically, as always, but mass exodus from the defense is going to lead to a year of growing pains without a step forward from quarterback Zach Mettenberger.
14. LOUISVILLE (11-2). Sugar Bowl stunner over Florida introduced America to ascending sophomore quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, with whom it should get along very well with next year.
15. OKLAHOMA (10-3). Aside from a bizarre blowout win over Texas in October, preseason Big 12 favorites have very little to hang their hats on after being eviscerated by A&M.
16. UTAH STATE (11-2). Best season in Aggies history propelled head coach Gary Andersen to a dream job at Wisconsin, as an indirect result of Utah State coming within a field goal of beating Wisconsin earlier in the season.
17. SAN JOSE STATE (11-2). Spartans are losing their head coach, too, but have a much stronger foundation to survive the transition from the WAC to the Mountain West.
18. BOISE STATE (11-2). By Boise standards, this qualifies as a mild disappointment, which says a lot about how far the Broncos have come in the last decade. Despite a major step back on offense, BSU still fielded the best defense in the Mountain West and claimed a share of the league title.
19. NORTHERN ILLINOIS (12-2). MAC champs were clearly outmanned in the Orange Bowl, but between a successful fake punt in the first half and a successful onside kick in the second, they didn't leave anything in their pockets.
20. NORTHWESTERN (10-3). Gator Bowl win over Mississippi State was the Wildcats' first bowl victory since the 1948 Rose Bowl, and clinched ten wins for only the second time in school history.
21. TEXAS (9-4). Longhorns are still struggling to establish an identity, but only lose three seniors from the entire starting lineup, setting them up –- brace yourself -– to open 2013 as favorites to win the Big 12.
22. OREGON STATE (9-4). Beavers dropped three of their last four and blew a fourth-quarter lead in the Alamo Bowl, but can't complain with an improvement from three wins in 2011 to nine.
23. VANDERBILT (9-4). The last time the Commodores won nine games in a season? 1915. Football wasn't really even the same sport in 1915.
24. NEBRASKA (10-4). Once bound for the Rose Bowl, the Cornhuskers ended the season by giving up 640 yards to Wisconsin (539 rushing) and 589 yards to Georgia (427 passing), the two worst defensive games of Bo Pelini's tenure.
25. BAYLOR (8-5). Most encouraging part of the Holiday Bowl romp over UCLA: The Bears won comfortably despite losing the turnover margin by three, their first win of the season after finishing in the red.
- - -
In: San Jose State, Boise State, Vanderbilt, Baylor. Out: UCLA, Kent State, Michigan, Penn State.
LOWSMAN TROPHY WATCH
Lowsman Emeritus: Alabama's Offensive Line.
Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack, D.J. Fluker, Anthony Steen, and Cyrus Kouandjio made up the best front in college football at the beginning of the season, remained the best front in college football throughout the season, and finished as the best front in college football at the end of the season. With their closing efforts against Georgia and Notre Dame, thoroughly dominant performances against two defenses stacked with NFL talent, they've earned a nod toward posterity.
1. Kyle Van Noy, LB, BYU.
Through three quarters in the Poinsettia Bowl, BYU trailed San Diego State in a plodding 6-3 slugfest, and both offenses were beginning to look they'd never find the end zone again. In San Diego State's case, that turned out to be true. For the Cougars, though, the best offense was their best defensive player, who scored twice in the fourth quarter –- once via fumble recovery, once via interception -– en route to a 23-6 victory. In addition to the touchdowns, Van Noy ended the night with eight total tackles, three tackles for loss, two sacks, a forced fumble and (just for good measure) a blocked punt.
2. Alex Okafor, DE, Texas
A two-time All-Big 12 pick, Okafor lived up to the billing in his final game, going out with eight tackles and a career-high five sacks in the Longhorns' come-from-behind, 31-27 win over Oregon State in the Alamo Bowl. As a team, Texas capped a maddening season for the defense by sacking OSU quarterback Cody Vaz ten times, picking him off twice, and holding the Beavers to their worst game of the season through the air.
3. Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews, OTs, Texas A&M.
Elusive as he is, Johnny Manziel benefited immensely this season from the presence of two All-American bookends up front, who did their part in the Cotton Bowl by giving their star quarterback enough time and space in the pocket to perform entire ballets. Of the many obstacles the Aggies face to fulfilling expectations in 2013 (beginning with the fact that they still share a division with Alabama), none will be bigger than the state of the offensive line if Joeckel and/or Matthews decide to go pro.
4. Malliciah Goodman, DE, Clemson.
It took him five years, but Goodman finally lived up to the blue-chip recruiting hype in his last game, dropping LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger four times in the upset. On passing downs, Goodman was virtually unblockable, eventually forcing LSU to abandon all hope of throwing downfield in favor of screens and other short, quick throws just to get the ball out of Mettenberger's hands. This was an unprecedented turn from a guy who'd been credited with only nine sacks over the previous four years combined.
5a. Kevin Minter, LB, LSU.
5b. Barkevious Mingo, DE, LSU.
On the other side, Mingo made his impact felt immediately -– and quite literally- – by knocking dynamic receiver Sammy Watkins out of the game on a violent hit in the Clemson backfield during the first play from scrimmage. Mingo would finish with three more tackles for loss, including a sack, but was still overshadowed for defensive MVP honors by Minter, who registered an astounding 19 tackles in his final game.
Honorable Mention: Syracuse linebacker Sirike Diabate was credited with ten total tackles and four for loss in a 38-14 rout over West Virginia. ... In the ugliest bowl game, Rutgers linebacker Khaseem Greene shone through with 11 tackles and a fumble recovery for the Scarlet Knights' only touchdown in an overtime loss to Virginia Tech. ... SMU defensive end Margus Hunt had three tackles for loss, two sacks, and two forced fumbles in a 43-10 upset over Fresno State. ... And at some point the government is going to have to look seriously into legislation declaring Jadeveon Clowney an illegal weapon.