With the 2012 college football regular season in the books, it's time to take a look back at the games that defined it -- not the best ones, necessarily (though several of these were classics) but the ones with the most impact on getting the season where it is today: BCS No. 1 Notre Dame vs. No. 2 Alabama for all the glittering marbles.
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Here's our pick for the 10 most important games in the 2012 BCS race, the ones that wound up most profoundly shaping the 2012 season -- whether we knew it at the time or not:
1. Alabama 32, Georgia 28, Dec. 1. OK, so we did know this one was kind of important at the time -- a major reason it will likely also go down as the single best game of the 2012 season. After 12 weeks and 11 wins each, the Crimson Tide and Bulldogs played a de facto national semifinal for the right to play for the BCS crown, and no one watching would argue they didn't play the hell out of it.
But aside from the game's quality, it's worth noting that unlike the other national semifinal played this season (see the next entry on the list), the winner of the SEC Championship Game was always going to be installed as the championship game favorite, the team expected to extend the SEC's national championship streak to seven games. A Fighting Irish upset in Miami would retroactively slide the No. 2 game here up a peg -- but for now, with all due respect to Notre Dame, that's enough to give this game the slimmest of edges. It's simple: No game played this season made a more immediate impact on the BCS battle than this one. (Recap)
2. Notre Dame 20, Stanford 13 (overtime), Oct. 13. With the Cardinal only two weeks removed from a loss at Washington and only a week removed from a desperate last-minute comeback against Arizona, no one outside of a handful of Palo Alto diehards would have predicted that Stepfan Taylor's controversial failure (or "failure") to cross the goal line in overtime would prove to be one of the defining moments in the national championship race.
Not only did the officials' determination that Taylor's forward progress had stopped short on fourth-and-goal keep the Irish's undefeated season intact, but it was ultimately the only thing standing in the way of the Cardinal and their own trip to Miami. Replay the season with a Cardinal victory here, and you're looking at a 12-1 Pac-12 champion with wins over both 11-1 Notre Dame and 11-1 Oregon ... meaning you would also be looking at the team that would be preparing to face the Crimson Tide as we speak. College football's four-team playoff actually showed up two seasons early; we just didn't realize we were watching the first semifinal when it happened. (Recap)
3. Stanford 17, Oregon 14 (OT), Nov. 17. Of course, the above narrative would have also dramatically changed if the Cardinal hadn't pulled out their stunning overtime win in Eugene as 21-point underdogs. The Ducks' remaining games following their second championship-hopes-destroying home defeat in as many years? At Oregon State -- a game they won by 24 points -- and a hypothetical home game against UCLA, a team ranked 73rd in total defense that we're guessing would have had some trouble slowing down the Ducks in Autzen. It will likely gnaw at Chip Kelly forever that all his team had to do for its second shot at a BCS title was score more than 14 points in regulation on their own turf ... and they couldn't quite manage it. (Recap)
4. Baylor 52, Kansas State 24, Nov. 17. The Wildcats won't walk away from their mid-November fall from BCS grace with quite so much regret, given the comprehensive ambush that awaited them in Waco. But with Texas politely disposed of by 18 points and with no conference championship game hurdle to clear, it's obvious that if the Wildcats had emerged from this game with their perfect season still intact, they would be sitting where Alabama is right now. (Recap)
5. Alabama 21, LSU 17, Nov. 3. The first of three consecutive games on the list that might be thought of as national championship quarterfinals, the battle on the bayou ultimately decided who won the SEC West -- and got the BCS play-in opportunity in Atlanta that went along with it. Give LSU the victory here instead of the Tide, and the Tigers go to the SEC title bout at 11-1 and in the exact same boat, BCS-wise, as their Tuscaloosa rivals. Hand the Tide an extra loss to go with their defeat to Texas A&M, though, and no amount of Auburn-pummeling would have gotten them back in the race. Considering how slim the margins were in this game, the SEC's BCS race never came closer to being turned on its head. (Recap)
6. Kansas State 24, Oklahoma 19, Sept. 22. At this early stage, the Wildcats weren't thought of as a threat to run the table, meaning the result seemed more significant for the Sooners being knocked out of the title picture (again) than for propelling Bill Snyder's team into it. In the end, Oklahoma would have had to deal with Notre Dame anyway -- a loss it's doubtful they could have overcome to set up a rematch -- so the impact here lies with Kansas State, which seized the Big 12's lone BCS baton and took it just one win short of the finish line. (Recap)
7. Georgia 17, Florida 9, Oct. 27. With the stink of the Bulldogs' pratfall at South Carolina still in the Jacksonville air and Florida riding high off of its rout of the Gamecocks, the 2012 Cocktail Party wasn't supposed to be a turning point for the entire BCS chase. But Georgia's upset win gave it sudden control of not only the SEC East but its BCS championship destiny -- all while knocking the Gators out of their top-2 perch and ensuring it would take an even crazier series of upsets than the season gave us to put Florida back in the national championship chase. (Recap)
8a. Florida 20, Texas A&M 17, Sept. 8; 8b. LSU 24, Texas A&M 19, Oct. 20. Play either of these games at the end of the season rather than in Week 2 or mid-October, and the Aggies are a 10-1 powerhouse with the Alabama win under their belts and a top-three BCS spot, needing just one more win to ice the SEC West. So it's worth remembering that winning either of these games would have accomplished just as much for the Aggies when they actually happened as they do in this hypothetical. Win in Tuscaloosa without either one of these defeats already in the loss column, and it's the Aggies who go to Atlanta -- and might be on the way to Miami, too. (Recap; Recap)
9. Florida 44, South Carolina 11, Oct. 20. Third SEC verse, same as the first: If the Gamecocks had won this game instead of being annihilated in a flurry of turnovers and special teams mistakes, they yoink away the Bulldogs' SEC East title and take on Alabama. Yes, this list has a distinctive SEC flavor, but that's not by accident -- when six different teams finish 10-2 and within one game of advancing to an SEC Championship Game, it's entirely fair to say that any game in SEC's "big six" pseudo-round robin was a crucial piece to the national title puzzle. (Recap)
9. Washington 17, Stanford 13, Sept. 27. A bit of a Thursday night slog in Seattle in late September, even after the Cardinal's upset over USC, this didn't feel like one of the most important games of the season. But giving Stanford this win dramatically changes the complexion of the end-of-year picture; even given the loss to Notre Dame, a 12-1 Cardinal team with an unblemished Pac-12 record and its single loss on the road at the No. 1 Irish would have a much, much stronger argument than the current 11-2 Cardinal. Even this win wouldn't have propelled the Cardinal past the SEC champion into a rematch, but it might have made the calls to move the playoff forward a year longer and louder. (Recap)
Honorable Mentions, Nos. 1-11: Every other game Notre Dame played. The Irish's No. 4 ranking behind Alabama, Oregon and Kansas State when all four were undefeated made it clear that any loss by the Irish at any time would have knocked them out of the BCS title hunt -- meaning that each of their 11 games that weren't against Stanford were more-or-less equally important in the eyes of the BCS race. But we'll give some extra oomph to the win over Oklahoma (one that eliminated the Sooners for good and ensured the Irish wouldn't fall behind a one-loss conference champion), the heart-stopping escape against Pitt (when a 33-yard Panther field goal in the second overtime missed) and the USC victory that clinched the BCS championship berth.
Two Games That Aren't Part of This Top 10:
1. Texas A&M 29, Alabama 24, Nov. 10. A thriller? A classic? A colossal upset? The eventual Heisman winner's Heisman moment? This game was all of these things, but what it wasn't was an important game where the national title picture was concerned -- or at least, where that picture ended up. If Alabama had won, would the stakes of their game against Georgia have been any different? No, and with the Aggies' two losses behind them already, they'd already been BCS Championship-eliminated. (Recap)
2. North Carolina State 17, Florida State 16, Oct. 6. Yes, the loss eliminated the Seminoles from national title consideration -- no ACC team would have a shot without going undefeated. But with the Gators lurking on the scheduled, it turned out the 'Noles weren't going undefeated anyway. (Recap)
And one last Honorable Mention for something that's not a game and happened in 2011 but must be mentioned anyway: Gene Smith and Ohio State deciding to play in the 2011 Gator Bowl and delaying their impending bowl ban to this season, a move that would prove to eliminate the Big Ten from the national championship discussion completely.