USC quarterback Matt Barkley's decision to return for his senior… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
From New Orleans — The year in college football should have been blindfolded, handed a cigarette and walked off the end of a plank. In many cases it was the grown-ups, not the kids, who proved irresponsible with their audaciousness, shamelessness and recklessness. The Fiesta Bowl corruption case looked like the low-life story of the year until Ohio State, Miami and Penn State came along. The season ended with the lowest title-game rating ever.
Our top/bottom 10 moments:
1. Say it ain't so, Joe
Penn State was not just the biggest news story in college football this year; it was one of the biggest stories in any sport, in any year. On Nov. 9, less than two weeks after he became major college football's victories leader with 409, 84-year-old coach Joe Paterno was fired by Penn State's board of trustees in the wake of a child sex abuse scandal involving former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.
The news shocked a community and a nation. New England Patriots assistant Bill O'Brien was recently hired as Penn State's third head coach since 1950.
2. When will it ever end?
The Southeastern Conference won its eighth Bowl Championship Series title Monday night in New Orleans and also lost for the first time. That's because two SEC teams, Alabama and Louisiana State, met for the championship. It was the conference's sixth straight national title. Five different SEC schools have won titles since the BCS was formed in 1998: LSU, Alabama, Tennessee, Auburn and Florida.
3. Conference shuffling
The regular season got sidetracked by upheaval in the major conferences, led by Texas A&M's emotional defection from the Big 12 Conference to the SEC. Missouri also jumped from the Big 12 to the SEC, Pittsburgh and Syracuse announced plans to leave the Big East for the Atlantic Coast, and West Virginia is intent on bolting the Big East next season for the Big 12. Pac-12 leaders, after considering expansion to 16, decided to stand pat.
4. The rise of RGIII
The Heisman Trophy was supposed to be Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck's to lose, and somehow he did. A late season surge of spectacular highlights made junior quarterback Robert Griffin III Baylor's first Heisman winner. Luck finished second for a second straight season while Stanford became the first school to finish second three straight years. Cardinal tailback Toby Gerhart, in 2009, finished second to Alabama's Mark Ingram.
5. Barkley comes back
Quarterback Matt Barkley's December decision to return for his senior season instantly made USC one of next season's favorites in the BCS race. With USC serving out the second of a two-year bowl ban, Barkley led the Trojans to a 10-2 record and No. 6 ranking in the final Associated Press poll. USC's strong season and Barkley's return should help the school navigate the loss of 30 scholarships over the next three seasons.
6. Change is coming
Commissioners met in New Orleans on Tuesday to start work on a new format that could lead to a limited playoff beginning with the 2014 season. The current BCS contract expires in two years — after the Rose Bowl concludes its second rotation in the double-host format. After 14 years of the BCS, sentiment appears to be leaning toward a "plus-one" model that might lead to a four-team playoff. Figuring out the details, well, that will be the hard part.
7. The Shoe and the U
Ohio State and Miami, which staged a great BCS title game following the 2002 season, were sullied and shamed in 2011 with major scandals. Coach Jim Tressel was forced to resign on Memorial Day after covering up his knowledge of NCAA violations involving his players. Ohio State recently received a one-year bowl ban. Miami faces sanctions because of numerous players allegedly receiving gifts and extra benefits from booster Nevin Shapiro.
8. Coaching Carousel
It seemed like half of the Football Bowl Subdivision schools formed a search committee in 2011. Urban Meyer left ESPN's booth to take over Ohio State; Jim Mora is replacing Rick Neuheisel at UCLA. Pac-12 schools made some of the most interesting moves: former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach took over at Washington State and Arizona hired Rich Rodriguez, the former Michigan and West Virginia coach.
9. Never had a prayer
Wisconsin would have landed in the BCS national title game if not for losing two regular-season Big Ten games, against Michigan State and Ohio State, on Hail Mary passes. Michigan State's last-second, 44-yard heave in East Lansing on Oct. 22, Kirk Cousins to Keith Nichol, was probably college football's play of the year. Wisconsin then spiked a last-second Rose Bowl chance against Oregon because time ran out before it could try a Hail Mary.
10. Don't Sugar coat it
The Sugar Bowl's decision to bypass Boise State and/or Kansas State ranks as one of the worst selection blunders in bowl history. The Sugar selected two teams not ranked in the top 10, Michigan and Virginia Tech, over BCS No. 7 Boise State and No. 8 Kansas State. Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore, who lost three games in a four-year career by a total of five points, had to cap his 50-win career in the Las Vegas Bowl.