Senior College Football Columnist

A memorable season no doubt ... although seldom about football


Angry Penn State students take to the streets after Joe Paterno's abrupt firing. (Getty Images)  
Angry Penn State students take to the streets after Joe Paterno's abrupt firing. (Getty Images)  

On Labor Day night who could have conceived that Joe Paterno would be hiring a crisis communication firm -- to improve his image?

Or that a start-up cable network no one was watching and no carrier wanted to sign would become the biggest football story at Texas since the wishbone?

Or that TCU would be in dealings with its third conference in 11 months.

Or that Urban Meyer would be back in his chosen profession less than a year after leaving it.

OK, 2011 wasn't that unbelievable. But as we chug towards the end of the 14th year of the BCS, the 75th year of the wire-service era and the 142nd year since Princeton and Rutgers teed it up, there is one overarching truth to this season.

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It was seldom about football.

Start with the dearth of true earth-shaking upsets. It wasn't until Oct. 29 that four-touchdown underdog Texas Tech finally delivered the goods, knocking off then-No. 1 Oklahoma. The Red Raiders then backed it up by losing their last five. Boise State lost on a missed field goal but Boise State always seems to lose on a missed field goal. Oregon just wasn't good enough proving it by losing early -- to LSU -- and late -- at home to USC.

LSU and Alabama have been seared into brain stems for a while now. The joy of six (consecutive SEC titles) is upon us. Ultimately that's a fortunate thing because of the annoying backbeat of 2011. A portion of our cognitive football thinking has had to be dedicated to realignment. It's one thing to play Scrabble with teams in the offseason when the pads are off. It's another to impact the season itself.

And it did impact the season. It was tragic for both coaches and players that they were upstaged by the likes of a bowtie-sporting president who hijacked Texas A&M athletics steering them toward the SEC -- for better or worse. Missouri quickly followed the same path so clumsily that the SEC scooped itself. The conference mistakenly released a prepared statement announcing Mizzou's arrival 15 days before it actually happened.

Administrators at Oklahoma and Texas couldn't figure out what they wanted to do. In a period of 16 months the two rivals joined hands and came within a leap of faith of joining the Pac-12. The first time they backed away, saved by network promises of future money. The second time, in late September, Pac-12 presidents were so turned off by the schools' collective conduct that they told them to forget it.

Hours before the so-called Game of the Century, the story of the year -- the Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal -- broke. (US Presswire)  
Hours before the so-called Game of the Century, the story of the year -- the Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal -- broke. (US Presswire)  
Texas wouldn't give up its illegitimate offspring of ESPN, the Longhorn Network. Squirrely OU president David Boren said it would "return" to the Big 12 if its list of demands were met. No one bothered to ask: Where the hell were you going to go, D-Man?

An interim commissioner guides the Big 12 that has lost four teams in 16 months. Just don't try to memorize the current 10-team membership. You may be wrong -- tomorrow. The poor, deconstructed Big East has hung in mid-air longer than a Munchie Legaux bomb. Things were so much simpler on Labor Day night. The 87,711 souls who jammed into Cowboys Stadium that evening saw both history and a Honey Badger being made. LSU and Oregon staged the first game between top five teams to kick off the season on a neutral field in 30 years.

At that point, football was still dominating the conversation. The night before Baylor won arguably the biggest game in its history over TCU. Early in the third quarter, fourth-year junior quarterback Robert Griffin III had more touchdown passes (five) than incompletions (three).

He would get better. Inevitably and inexorably RGIII became part of the national dialogue.

Through the first four games of the season, Wisconsin's Montee Ball was basically sharing carries with James White. Something happened in Oct. 1 against Nebraska. It became Montee's ball. That night he carried for 151 yards and four touchdowns in a 31-point win that began steering the Badgers toward a second consecutive Rose Bowl.

With 38 total touchdowns, Ball wouldn't stop running until he led the nation in total rushing yards (1,759). Next target to be run over: Barry Sanders' NCAA-record 39 touchdowns.

Meanwhile, Michigan State threw a Hail Mary ... Georgia rebounded ... NFL fans dared thinking about their teams sucking for (Andrew) Luck ... USC was good but couldn't go bowling ... Ohio State was an NCAA scofflaw but insisted on going bowling.

The season and the sport turned upside down on Nov. 5. Hours before the so-called Game of the Century in Tuscaloosa, the Story of the Century broke. Grizzled veterans in the Bryant-Denny Stadium press box couldn't bring themselves to finish a detailed 23-page report from the Pennsylvania attorney general. It detailed alleged sexual abuse of young boys by former Paterno defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky.

What some were calling the biggest game in SEC history was suddenly and forever mixed in with the Penn State scandal. To follow the sport, you had to follow both stories. In parallel universes we were debating both the worthiness of a rematch and Paterno's ability to keep his job.

It wasn't about football, but, really, it was. The scandal shined a light on the insular existence of big-time coaches. It highlighted a disease that pervades the sport -- the tendency to do anything to protect The Football Program. Nutty college kids were the nationally televised avatars for blind loyalty.

Maybe they didn't know better, but the myth and the program and the school being sold to them certainly did. The stain continues to spread.

A lot of us have moved on, as Americans tend to do. A month later we're back debating whether that national championship rematch is worthy of our attention. The Heisman announcement is Saturday. Christmas is coming. There is even word that Longhorn Network viewership is inching up.

This was the season when no one seemed accountable. Century-old rivalries are in the recycle bin thanks to realignment. Conferences became content farms. Games became "inventory". A city, a university and a program lies in ruins in western Pennsylvania. This was the year CNN became as much must-see viewing in the sport as CBS Sports Network.

Even Mack Brown may last longer than LHN which should give us all hope.

If it was seldom about football then how will the 2011 college football season be remembered?

Check your local listings.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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