-by Braden Gall (@BradenGall on twitter)
LSU and Alabama played for the national championship last night, and congratulations are in order for the Crimson Tide on adding a sixth straight BCS title to the SEC’s trophy case.
Like any championship in any sport, it took thousands of hours of preparation, scouting, film study, weight work and recruiting to earn the Crystal Ball. It also takes a bit of luck, as was the case for this season’s BCS National Championship game.
LSU clearly earned its way into the title game with an unblemished record, but Alabama needed a little help to get there. Here is a week-by-week look at the college football season and how each Saturday shaped the national championship picture.
Week 1: (4) LSU 40, (2) Oregon 27
The Oregon Ducks entered the season as a slight favorite to defeat the Tigers in Cowboys Stadium in Arlington. But the Honey Badger was having none of it, as Tyrann Mathieu and the physical LSU rushing attack (175 yards) handled the defending national runners-up with relative ease. Had the Ducks not committed four turnovers – which became 20 LSU points – who knows how the season would have played out? Instead, LSU moved to No. 2 in the polls. Runner-Up: (5) Boise State 35, (19) Georgia 21
Week 2: (3) Alabama 27, (23) Penn State 11
Other than LSU, the Nittany Lions might have been the best defense Alabama played all season long. Until a late TD by Penn State, this game was well in hand and was easily Alabama’s toughest non-conference test of the year. Trent Richardson rushed 26 times for 106 yards and two scores as the Tide controlled the game from the opening kickoff. They passed with flying colors. In the SEC East, the Gamecocks won a key road test over Georgia. However, the game actually played little role in the outcome of the East division. Runner-Up: (12) South Carolina 45, Georgia 42
Week 3: (1) Oklahoma 23, (5) Florida State 13
A second top-five team was handed its first loss and essentially eliminated from the national title race when Oklahoma’s defense beat up on E.J. Manuel in Tallahassee. The Sooners staked their claim to the BCS with a convincing road win while Manuel’s injury set a bad tone for what would turn out to be a disappointing season for the Noles. Meanwhile, after two terrible losses to start the season, Notre Dame dominated Michigan State, giving the Spartans one of two regular-season losses. LSU, behind a key fourth-quarter Jarrett Lee TD pass to Rueben Randle, squeaked past Mississippi State on the road on Thursday night. Runner-Up: Notre Dame 31, (15) Michigan State 13 / (3) LSU 19, (25) Mississippi State 6
Week 4: (3) Alabama 38, (14) Arkansas 14
This was a big weekend for the BCS national title landscape. Arkansas came into Tuscaloosa unbeaten with eyes on the big upset. But with 10:47 to go in the third, Bama was up 31-7 on the Hogs and eventually out-rushed Arkansas 197 to 17 that afternoon. Meanwhile in College Station, the No. 8-ranked Texas A&M Aggies were choking away their first second-half lead of the season to Oklahoma State. Brandon Weeden and the Pokes vaulted the Cowboys into the top five nationally. Up in Morgantown, LSU was in the process of allowing 533 total yards to West Virginia. But with the help of corners Mathieu and Morris Claiborne (and his 99-yard kickoff return), the Tigers held on for another huge non-conference win. Later that night, USC was upset by Arizona State in what would be one of only two losses for the ineligible Trojans. Runner-Up: (7) Oklahoma State 30, (7) Texas A&M 29 / (2) LSU 47, (16) West Virginia 21
Week 5: Auburn 16, (10) South Carolina 13
South Carolina will look back on Week 5 and realize that their SEC title hopes fell apart against Auburn. The unbeaten Cocks could not stop the Tigers rushing attack as since-dismissed tailback Michael Dyer carried 41 times for 141 yards and a touchdown. And there was much rejoicing in Athens, Ga. In Jerry’s World, Arkansas bounced back from the Bama loss — and a terrible first half against Texas A&M — to defeat the Aggies in a shootout to keep their own title hopes alive. Tyler Wilson threw for 510 yards. In Blacksburg, the Clemson Tigers continued their magical early season run by ending the undefeated Hokies' national title dreams in dominating fashion. The Tigers were eighth in the nation following the win and were making a serious case as a national title contender. But more on that in a second. Runner-Up: (18) Arkansas 42, (14) Texas A&M 38 / (13) Clemson 23, (11) Virginia Tech 3
Week 6: (3) Oklahoma 55, (11) Texas 17
This weekend left fans likely wanting more. Top match-ups like the Red River Shootout turned out to be completely one-sided – much like LSU’s blowout win over Florida, Arkansas’ win over Auburn, Alabama’s win over Vanderbilt, Oklahoma State’s win over Kansas. The unbeaten Sooners’ win over rival Texas made Oklahoma look, at the time, like the preseason No. 1 team in the nation. Little did we know… Runner-Up: (20) Kansas State 24, Missouri 17
Week 7: (23) Michigan State 28, (11) Michigan 14
First-year head man Brady Hoke had Michigan undefeated and knocking on the top ten when the Wolverines headed into East Lansing to take on the Spartans. Mark Dantonio’s bunch did a fantastic job on Denard Robinson, holding him to 42 yards rushing on 18 attempts and only 123 yards passing. Michigan went on to lose only one other game en route to the Sugar Bowl title, leaving Maize and Blue fans to wonder what might have been had they beaten Sparty that afternoon. Elsewhere, the Cowboys of Oklahoma State made another huge road statement with a win in Austin, and the Ducks repositioned themselves for a title run by destroying the ranked Sun Devils at home. Runner-Up: (8) Oklahoma State 38, (22) Texas 26 / (9) Oregon 41, (18) Arizona State 27
Week 8: (15) Michigan St 37, (4) Wisconsin 31 / Texas Tech 41, (3) Oklahoma 38
One that Alabama likely had to have in order to make it to New Orleans (among many others) turned out to be the top game of the 2011 regular season. The back-and-forth affair saw undefeated Wisconsin rally in the fourth-quarter to tie the game at 31 with 1:39 left in the game. At home, senior quarterback Kirk Cousins drove the Spartans to the 44 yard line with one play left on the clock. His historic tipped Hail Mary landed in Keith Nichol’s hands just before he inched across the goal-line to give the Badgers their first loss of the season. Wisconsin went on to win the Big Ten and play in the Rose Bowl, but had that pass fallen incomplete (and UW won in overtime), who knows where Big Red would have ended the year.
As the No. 3 team in the nation, the Sooners completely failed to show up on October 22. The Red Raiders eventually took a 31-7 third quarter lead in Norman before Oklahoma finally realized it was playing for its national title. It was too little, too late and OU dropped outside of the top ten. Out west in Palo Alto, Andrew Luck and Stanford passed their first real test of the season in impressive fashion over the 5-1 Huskies, pushing the Cardinal to fourth in the polls. Runner-Up: (7) Stanford 65, (22) Washington 21
Week 9: Georgia Tech 31, (6) Clemson 17 / (4) Stanford 56, (20) USC 48
The Tigers were 8-0 and staring a national title berth square in the face when they headed to Atlanta. And did what Clemson does best: completely baffle the mind. Costly turnovers, porous rush defense and the inability to get off the field on third down gave the Tigers their first loss of the season. Clemson would go on to lose four of its last six games. In the Little Apple, another undefeated team fell from the ranks of the unblemished. Oklahoma, fresh off its title-crushing defeat to Texas Tech, obliterated the over-matched Wildcats of Kansas State. Additionally, Stanford won one of the great games of the ’11 campaign when it recovered a USC fumble in triple-overtime to keep itself undefeated. Another top ten team, Michigan State, was upset on the road by Nebraska in what turned out to be an incredibly eventful weekend in college football. Runner-Up: (4) Stanford 56, (20) USC 48 / (11) Oklahoma 58, (10) Kansas State 17 / (13) Nebraska 24, (9) Michigan State 3
Week 10: (1) LSU 9, (2) Alabama 6
This one needs no explanation, although the outcome had little effect on the BCS national title game. After five straight weeks with LSU and Alabama atop the polls, the “Game of the Century” came to fruition at the Capstone. Alabama committed uncharacteristic penalties, could not convert on special teams and was on the losing end of one controversial interception call that likely decided the game’s outcome. Jordan Jefferson sparked the LSU offense just enough by giving the Bayou Bengals an option attack off the edge. The overtime win by LSU kept the Tigers unbeaten and all but locked into the BCS National Championship game. Alabama would need some help. Runner-Up: (3) Oklahoma State 52, (17) Kansas State 45
Week 11: TCU 36, (5) Boise State 35 / (6) Oregon 53, (3) Stanford 30
Another year, another kick heard round the Pacific Northwest. Boise State lined up for a 39-yard game-winning field goal with only seconds left on the clock against TCU. With the national and conference championship on the line, Dan Goodale sailed the attempt wide right as time expired. A trip to the BCS National Championship game was, for a second consecutive year, dashed by a missed field goal. In Palo Alto, a second top five team would fall, as Stanford, for a second consecutive year, could not stop the high-powered Oregon offense. Stanford has lost two regular games over the two seasons and both have come at the hands of Chip Kelly. The loss knocked Stanford out of the national title picture for good, while officially pushing a one-loss Oregon back into the mix. Runner-Up: None
Week 12: Iowa State 37, (2) Oklahoma State 31
Where to begin? Seven ranked teams, including four of the top ten, fell to lesser-ranked opponents this mid-November weekend. On Friday night, a missed 37-yard field goal by Quinn Sharp with 1:17 to go in regulation likely cost the No. 2 Oklahoma State Cowboys a chance at the national championship when Iowa State pulled off the unlikely overtime upset. Baylor’s Robert Griffin III not only beat Oklahoma with his final play touchdown pass, but he also won himself the Heisman Trophy when he topped the No. 5 Sooners for the first time in school history. Another kicker, this time it was Oregon’s Alejandro Maldonadado, also impacted the national title when No. 4 Oregon lost to USC. His 37-yard field goal went wide left as time expired. And No. 7 Clemson once again laid a giant egg, as it got housed by an unranked NC State team. The Crimson Tide merely sat back and enjoyed the charred landscape of college football. Runner-Up: (18) USC 38, (4) Oregon 35 / (25) Baylor 45, (5) Oklahoma 38 / NC State 37, (7) Clemson 13
Week 13: (1) LSU 41, (3) Arkansas 17
Entering Week 13, Razorbacks fans not only still had a chance at an SEC title, but were excited about a potential national championship berth. The Tigers quickly quashed those dreams by dominating the game 41-3 after serving up a 14-0 lead to the Hogs. The win clinched the SEC West and essentially a BCS National Championship berth for the Tigers. Alabama meanwhile, crushed rival Auburn 42-14 and basically secured its own spot in the title game. Runner-Up: None
Week 14: (1) LSU 42, (12) Georgia 10
The outcome may not have impacted the National Championship game, but Les Miles didn’t want to leave anything to question. After falling behind for the second straight week, the Tigers completely dominated the second half by outscoring the Bulldogs 35-0. Miles claimed his second SEC championship and officially earned his second career BCS National Championship game berth. Runner-Up: None
January 9: (2) Alabama 21, (1) LSU 0
It was absolute domination. The Crimson Tide walked into a hostile pseudo-road environment and completely whitewashed the No. 1 team in the nation. LSU managed five first downs, 92 total yards of offense, converted on 2-of-12 third downs and turned the ball over twice. In the first meeting, Alabama had the better offense and the better defense but were outplayed by a wide margin on special teams. Fool Nick Saban once, shame on you. Fool him twice? Never gonna happen. Special teams, with a little help from an incredibly poised A.J. McCarron and stifling defense, actually won Alabama the game as one big punt return and five made field goals were the difference. Alabama needed plenty of help to get to NOLA — see Weeks 11 and 12 of the regular season — but proved once they got there that they were clearly the better football team. The words "greatest ever" might have been just a big premature.
But what if Oklahoma State held on to beat Iowa State? What is Stanford could actually slow down Oregon? What if Wisconsin hadn't been beaten by two Hail Marys? And if Boise State could only make a clutch field goal? Saban and the Tide are deserving of the BCS Championship through hours, days, weeks and months of hard gut-wrenching sweat and tears, but it also took a little bit luck to land the 2011 BCS National Championship.