Penn State Success and 14 Other College Football Surprises Through First Half
It's hard to believe we're already halfway through the 2012 college football season, but here we are.
The 2012 season has—unsurprisingly—been filled with surprises and outright shockers.
Who would have thought Penn State could come back from the edge of oblivion with some impressive wins?
And that hasn't been the only surprise of the season.
Here's our list of the 15 biggest surprises of the first half of the 2012 college football season.
Penn State's Success
We don't need to rehash everything that has happened to the Penn State football program over the past 12 months.
But when the 2012 season got underway, not much was expected from the Nittany Lions.
After all, the program had to proceed under the crushing weight of massive NCAA sanctions, severe limits in scholarships, a bowl ban and multiple player defections—and that's just for starters.
It wasn't too much of a surprise when Penn State opened with a loss to Ohio University from the Mid-American Conference, and even less of a surprise when the upper rows of bleachers at Beaver Stadium were left empty.
But after Week 2, something clicked in Happy Valley. Penn State suddenly decided that it was no longer going to be the whipping dog of the Football Bowl Subdivision.
The Lions put together four straight wins—including a victory over then No. 24 Northwestern—and the pride is starting to come back to Penn State, little by little.
It will undoubtedly take years for the wounds at PSU to heal, but a winning football team will help the community heal in a way perhaps nothing else can.
Wisconsin's Run Is at an End
After 31 wins over three seasons in Madison, the magic seems to have departed for the Wisconsin Badgers.
The Badgers are a hot mess right now on offense and were barely able to squeak out wins against FCS Northern Iowa, Utah State and the University of Texas at El Paso.
The other wins are against terrible Illinois and questionable Purdue.
While the Badgers will finish the season with a nice bowl invitation, 2012 will be a far cry from the usual Big Ten championship seasons Wisconsin has been putting together.
And it's worth noting that the Badgers will benefit greatly at bowl bid time from two other Leaders Division teams' ineligibility.
The Big East Is Back
It's been an annual tradition to make fun of the Big East.
And we all expected 2012 to be a banner year for Big East bashing now that West Virginia has moved over to the Big 12.
But something funny happened along the way: the Big East turned out to be pretty good.
With the season half over, the conference has three teams in the latest Bleacher Report College Football Top 25 Poll, and all three are in the top 20, and 5-0 or better.
That's all going to end soon, as all three—Rutgers, Cincinnati and Louisville—will meet one another, but it's nice to see the Big East having a renaissance of sorts.
Boise State Isn't Immortal
We all suspected there would be some sort of offensive fall-off at Boise State now that Kellen Moore, the winning-est starting quarterback in FBS history has graduated.
What we didn't expect was a Boise State team ranked 82nd in scoring offense in the FBS after seven weeks.
For comparison, Boise State finished fifth in scoring offense last season, second in 2010 and second in 2009.
There's no question that Chris Petersen is one of the nation's top coaches and he's done a remarkable job with very limited resources in Boise. But the Broncos just aren't the Broncos this year and even a No. 21 position in the latest B/R Top 25 seems generous.
Michigan Not as Advertised
Remember way back in August when all of the preseason polls were released?
Remember how Michigan was in the top 10?
Remember what happened next?
The Wolverines were clearly not the team we all thought they were and have stumbled twice already in 2012.
We may have expected the University of Michigan to lose to Alabama, but 41-14?
A lackluster performance against Air Force and the turnover-filled debacle at Notre Dame ended any delusions of grandeur in Ann Arbor.
Michigan has only been able to put together convincing wins against 0-6 UMass and a couple of Big Ten bottom-feeders.
It seems that any team with a defense capable of slowing down Denard Robinson has an excellent shot at beating the Wolverines this season—and that's a big surprise given Michigan's run to the Sugar Bowl last season.
The Big 12 Does Have Some Defense After All
Yes, there are some teams in the Big 12 that can play defense.
Okay, maybe teams is stretching it a bit. How about “team.”
Texas Tech is the fourth-rated defense in the FBS, giving up just 243.0 yards per game on average.
There are only two other Big 12 teams in the top 30.
The lofty numbers were all well and good against teams like FCS Northwestern State, Texas State and New Mexico.
But holding the ultra-high-octane West Virginia passing attack in check was impressive and vindicating for new defensive coordinator Art Kaufman.
Conference USA's Epic Collapse
Last season, everyone was awe-struck by the dynamic play of Houston quarterback Case Keenum.
And when Southern Mississippi knocked off the Cougars in the Conference USA Championship Game—spoiling Houston's BCS run in the process—it was one of the more entertaining games of championship Saturday.
Those two teams are a combined 3-8 so far in 2012, and by Week 2, there wasn't a single undefeated team left in the entire conference.
What happened? How could an entire conference be drained of talent almost overnight?
With the exception of Tulsa and East Carolina, there isn't a single C-USA team with more than three wins, and eight of 12 have two-or-fewer (with six having one or no wins).
With the recent rise of teams from the Sun Belt, and some solid play from WAC teams Louisiana Tech and Utah State, Conference USA is making a strong case for worst conference in the FBS this season.
Notre Dame Actually Living Up to Expectations
Notre Dame haters have long raised questions about Notre Dame's annual preseason ranking with little to no basis for such a vote of confidence.
Well, so far this season, it turns out that Notre Dame actually is pretty good.
At the midway point of 2012, the Irish are still unbeaten, and the Notre Dame defense is about as suffocating as it gets these days.
Notre Dame is ranked 11th in the FBS in total defense, and is second in scoring defense, giving up just 8.7 points per game—and more than a few of those points have come from offensive turnovers.
Notre Dame haters are running out of excuses to explain away the success of the Irish, and a BCS bowl at season's end now looks like a very real possibility.
Lou Holtz doesn't look so howl-at-the-moon crazy now, does he?
I stand by my word, Mayday… 11 wins for Notre Dame this season.— Lou Holtz (@ESPNDrLou) September 4, 2012
Alabama Is Even Better Than We Thought
Yes, we all knew Alabama was going to be good this season.
The defending BCS National Champions had every right to find themselves at or near the top of every preseason poll, and there was little reason to doubt the Crimson Tide would take their foot off the gas down in Tuscaloosa.
Two national titles in three seasons is an amazing accomplishment, but it takes a special kind of arrogance to remain unsatisfied.
Lucky for Alabama fans, that arrogance seems to once again be completely justified this season.
Alabama is the redwood in a forest of mighty oaks. It towers above all else in college football these days, and the Tide's performance on the field is far better than anything we've seen from any other college program this season—and even better than a swath of NFL programs.
Nick Saban has put together something very special at Alabama. Few programs in the history of college football can honestly claim what Alabama can with another national title: a bona fide dynasty.
Mississippi State Can Win in the SEC
It's almost amazing to think about it this way, but the last time Mississippi State won its SEC opener in football, Bill Clinton was president, unemployment was 4.2 percent and the newest video game console on the market was the Sega Dreamcast.
The Bulldogs are now 3-0 in conference play in 2012, and 6-0 overall.
So it turns out Mississippi State can compete in the SEC. While Alabama, Texas A&M and LSU are still ahead, winning just two of those games might catapult the Bulldogs all the way to the BCS this season.
USC Is Only Sort of Back
Southern California was all set to make a triumphant return to championship form this season.
The bowl ban was over, Matt Barkley was back and Lane Kiffin was as smug as ever.
What could possibly go wrong for the Trojans?
As it turns out: plenty. While the bowl ban is in the rear-view mirror for USC, there's still those pesky scholarship reductions. Combined with the lean, bowl-less years, it's becoming pretty evident that USC—while still talented up front—doesn't have the amazing depth it once boasted.
Will this downturn last forever?
Not likely. But for the foreseeable future, Trojans fans might need to get used to the word “thin.”
Stanford Doesn't Need Luck
How good can Stanford possibly be this season without Andrew Luck?
Not too shabby, as a matter of fact.
The Cardinal made headlines early in the season by knocking off preseason No. 1 USC again, this time without Luck.
A loss to Washington was certainly a setback, but Stanford put up a valiant fight against No. 5 Notre Dame before falling about a millimeter short in overtime.
We're probably not talking about a potential Pac-12 champion here, but the simple fact that we're still talking about a Top 25 Cardinal team at all is pretty surprising considering the offensive firepower that moved to Indianapolis after last season's Fiesta Bowl.
The Big Ten Is Even Worse
Just when Big Ten fans figured it couldn't get much worse.
The conference had to be on the upswing, right? After all, Rich Rodriguez had been sent packing, and Michigan was back in the BCS. Urban Meyer was taking over at Ohio State, and Wisconsin and Michigan State looked every bit the up-and-coming powerhouse programs.
So what happened?
Well, it looks like 2011 was a fluke for Michigan.
Michigan State graduated most of its offensive talent.
Wisconsin has no passing attack.
And it turns out nobody cares—nationally, anyway—about an undefeated Ohio State team that can't earn a conference title or bowl berth because of NCAA sanctions.
The Big Ten has been landing some blue chip recruits but it will take a few years before those particular fruits can ripen—if at all.
It's not going to be pleasant, but Big Ten fans are just going to have to hunker down and weather the storm of insults rolling in—especially after what is now expected to be another abysmal bowl season.
Did Anyone Pick Oregon State?
Seriously now, when the season began, was there anyone in the country—outside of Corvallis—that believed Oregon State was going to be an undefeated team ranked No. 11 in the nation come the middle of the season?
We sure didn't.
All the talk out west centered around USC and Oregon. This “little team that could,” once known to be the perennial spoiler of someone's season, now has a chance to be the heavy favorite for a change.
Oregon State was just 3-9 last season and has come out of absolutely nowhere to become a leading contender in the North Division. And without USC on the schedule, it's entirely possible the Civil War on Nov. 24 could be important outside of the state of Oregon—for a change.
That's if the Beavers can avoid that at which they themselves have become so adept: a season-spoiling upset.
Arkansas, Arkansas, Arkansas
What is left to say about Arkansas?
It takes an extraordinary effort to build up a program like Arkansas to a top 10 team, especially against foes like Alabama and LSU.
It apparently doesn't take a whole lot to tear that program back down again.
John L. Smith, true to form, has taken over a decent program and driven it straight into the ground. Even if it wasn't for his odd behavior and forgetting what state the University of Arkansas is in, there's still the little matter of a once No. 8 program now sitting at 3-4 after losses to Texas A&M, Alabama, Rutgers and Louisiana-Monroe.
We're not talking about a potential national champion Razorbacks team now. We're not even talking about a BCS berth or SEC title run.
Now, we're just waiting to see if the Hogs can make any bowl game this season.
If that isn't a surprise, we're not quite sure what is.
That's why the Arkansas faceplant tops our list of surprises after the first half of the 2012 college football season.