As the college football season comes to an end, Gridiron Nation finds itself in a position similar to the beginning of fall, when teams were in their final stages of preparation for four grinding months in hopes of winning conference titles and BCS bowl games.

The 2011 season was supposed to be a reprieve from all the negative storylines that filled the summer months with as much heat from NCAA investigations as the sun itself. At the time, 14 teams were under investigation for either recruitment or improper benefit violations, LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson was in jail and, after being poisoned, Toomer’s Corner – site of Auburn’s historic oak trees – had prayers flying at it like an Alabama defense.

Instead, one gigantic headline has forced all the great football of 2011 and all the exciting possibilities of 2012 to take a back seat.

The release of the grand jury report regarding Jerry Sandusky and the Penn State child sexual abuse scandal on Nov. 4 turned the world of college football on its head, where it still remains. Joe Paterno is gone, other child sexual abuse cases around the country have risen in the aftermath and the future of Penn State is clouded indefinitely. Unfortunately, when people look back on 2011, the first thing they will remember is Paterno’s fall from grace and the horrifying deeds Sandusky is accused of.

The case is far from over. Sandusky’s trial will likely demand headlines for quite some time, but good things did happen during the college football regular season, and there figures to be more to come in 2012.

Robert Griffin III and the Baylor Bears will not play in a BCS bowl game, but the spectacle that was RGIII certainly brought a national audience to a long-since-heard-from program. 2011 marked the first time since 1986 the Bears have finished the regular season ranked in the Associated Press or Coaches Poll, and Griffin became the first-ever Baylor player to win the Heisman Trophy and just the third to finish in the final voting. The last Bear to be considered for the Heisman was Don Trull, who finished fourth in the voting in 1963.

The addition of Nebraska to the Big Ten conference certainly made running the table to a national championship difficult for any Big Ten team, but it also made for a wildly entertaining finish to the season. Races to attain the top spot in each division became tighter and more exciting as the season went on. Although the Legends and Leaders divisions have questionable titles, the guarantee of an outright Big Ten champion and a championship game itself should have been a welcome sight to Big Ten followers. In 2010, three teams shared the conference title; in 2011, there was an epic battle down to the final minute to determine a single champion. How can it possibly get any better than that?

It is debatable whether the initial Nov. 5 matchup of No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Alabama was worthy of the title “Game of the Century,” but who cares? No one who watched that game will soon forget the defensive intensity and absolute skill displayed by defensive players of both teams. Overtime, 15 total points, neither team gaining 300 total yards and four Alabama missed field goals were just a few of the highlights. The only people in the country who will forget the first game will be Alabama fans if the Crimson Tide are able to flip the script on LSU in the BCS Championship Game.

We should all be looking forward to the new year filled with parties, resolutions and, oh yeah, some great football. Twelve different bowl games will still have yet to be played when the ball drops in Times Square at midnight on Jan. 1. Seven appetizer bowls are scheduled to get everyone ready to watch the best of the best compete in the five BCS bowls, the most prestigious bowls in college football.

And how about the 2012 college football campaign? Head coaching changes have already begun taking place – Rich-Rod to Arizona, former Green Bay Packers head coach Mike Sherman out at Texas A&M and Kevin Sumlin, current head coach of the 12-1 Houston Cougars, in.

Once described as an offensive genius in the NFL before failing as head coach at Notre Dame from 2005-09, Charlie Weis will now take over last-place Big 12 finisher Kansas. Urban Meyer is the new czar of Ohio State, Jim Mora has agreed to coach UCLA and Mike Leach should bring an exciting offense to Washington State.

Just a few of the most exciting head coaching moves so far, and odds are more will come, but at least one or more of those programs are likely to see a dramatic turnaround from 2011. Ohio State and Washington State seem most likely.

It’s not just coaches changing teams that will give a new look to the landscape of college football in 2012, but that teams are changing conferences, too. TCU will replace SEC-bound Missouri in the Big 12 and should be immediately competitive. Boise State will finally have an automatic bid opportunity by moving its football program to the Big East, assuming the BCS is still running things this time next year, though the loss of quarterback Kellen Moore will certainly pitch a new learning curve to the blue-turf Broncos.

As wrong, sad and unfortunate as the events at Penn State are, don’t let them overshadow the greatness of 2011 or the excitement to come in 2012. Hopefully, the victims in the Penn State case will be provided as much justice as can be given, but let’s also hope that those who have accomplished great things this season and those with potential for great things next year aren’t forgotten in the process.

Brett is a senior majoring in journalism. What was your favorite moment from the 2011 season, or what are you most looking forward to about college football in 2012? Let Brett know at [email protected] or send him a tweet @BAsportswriter.

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