September studs, duds and surprises
It seems like the season just started, but now that September is all but over, The Dash looks back at the early season surprises, studs and duds.
Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (Louisville Rose Bowl T-shirts sold separately -- at discount prices):
Seems like it was just Labor Day weekend, and Adriana Lima was our resident Dash Groupie. But four football weeks and four whirlwind romances with Eva Longoria, Laetitia Casta and Jessica Alba have led us quickly to the doorstep of October. So much football, so many groupies, so little time.
So let's huddle with fab fifth Dashette Rhona Mitra (1) -- who likes Iowa State to break a 28-year losing streak in Lincoln Saturday -- to dole out some September awards.
Game of the Month (2): Tennessee 30, LSU 27. The most energizing pregame atmosphere The Dash has ever witnessed triggered a 21-0 Tigers lead, and the feel-good columns commenced in the press box. When serially underappreciated Rick Clausen was done leading an incredible Volunteers rally, the feel-good subject had changed from Louisiana to the Tennessee quarterback. Either way, it was an epic contest.
Player of the Month (3): For those expecting a default vote for USC quarterback Matt Leinart you're right. Sorry to be so predictable, but there really is no other choice. Vince Young had a bangup month. So did Reggie Bush. And Laurence Maroney. And so on and so forth. But like his team, Leinart rules college football until proven otherwise.
Coach of the Month (4): The Dash is saving its ratings of first-year coaches for later in this column, so Charlie Weis is hereby excused from the discussion. Instead we salute Cal's Jeff Tedford. He came into this season having lost one of the five best quarterbacks in the nation (Aaron Rodgers) and one of the five best running backs (J.J. Arrington) -- and then their replacements (Nate Longshore and Marshawn Lynch) both got hurt. Tedford has patched it all up and produced four authoritative victories against admittedly light competition.
Conference of the Month (5): The ACC has three teams in the top 10, six in the Top 25 and a couple others who have had their moments. A league rife with quarterback questions heading into the season is finding largely satisfactory answers at that position.
Hit of the Month (6): Purdue didn't win the game against Minnesota Saturday, but it did produce the highlight play: safety Bernard Pollard's body-slam of running back Gary Russell. Rarely do form tackling and spectacular violence reach such a harmonic convergence.
Catch of the Month (7): How amazing was Alabama wideout Tyrone Prothro's touchdown grab over, around and against the back of a Southern Mississippi defensive back? Alabama artist Daniel A. Moore, the unofficial painter-historian of Crimson Tide football, has already announced that he'll recreate the play on canvas and produce a limited-edition print.
Other September Studs
The Big Ten second tier (8): Turns out there's a whole lot more to the league than preseason faves Ohio State, Michigan, Iowa and Purdue. All those schools lost this month. Wisconsin, Minnesota, Penn State, Michigan State and Indiana did not. Ted Ginn Jr., Drew Tate and the Michigan troika of Steve Breaston/Chad Henne/Michael Hart all fizzled as Heisman Trophy candidates. Drew Stanton, Laurence Maroney and Brian Calhoun did not. Example No. 765 of how much August predictions are worth.
Lone Star freshman RBs (10): They didn't quit churning out runners when Adrian Peterson left the state. Four freshman running backs are making immediate impacts in Texas: Longhorns true freshman Jamaal Charles has 444 yards on 48 touches from scrimmage; Texas Christian true frosh Aaron Brown is averaging 8.9 yards per touch in just two games of action; Tech redshirt freshman Shannon Woods has 183 yards on 19 touches; and 270-pound Texas thunderback Henry Melton has 142 yards on 22 carries. None other than Dallas Cowboys coach Bill Parcells watched TCU's Brown in his college debut against Utah and remarked to reporters, "Tell the kid to gain 10-15 pounds and we'll see him in four years."
Little Brother programs (11): Michigan State, not Michigan, is the buzz team in the state. UCLA is demanding attention, not derision, opposite kingpin USC. Iowa State, Oklahoma State and Vanderbilt are undefeated, Iowa, Oklahoma and Tennessee are not.
Penn State's skill guys (12): An offense that went nowhere last year is now inhaling yardage in huge gulps. Eight different players have had at least one 30-yard run or reception, and six have at least one play of 45 yards or longer.
Elvis Dumervil (13): South Florida held The King without a sack Saturday, but he did force another fumble. Dumervil easily leads the nation in sacks (nine) and forced fumbles (four).
Brodie Croyle (14): Still healthy. Crimson Tide, not coincidentally, still undefeated.
Tulane (15): The Green Wave overcame more adversity than any team has faced in decades -- maybe ever -- to walk out of September 1-1. (Too bad the victory had to come at the expense of SMU, the school that graciously took in Tulane for 13 days after Hurricane Katrina.) The latest for the eternal road warriors: the Wave will camp out Friday night on air mattresses in the clubhouse at English Turn Golf and Country Club on New Orleans' relatively unscathed West Bank, then play Southeastern Louisiana in Baton Rouge Saturday. It's the closest they've come to being home since late August. "At this point, there are no surprises," Green Wave defensive end Michael Purcell said. "This seems normal. As long as the field is 100 yards, I think we should be OK."
Florida State's salty D (16): The Dash was dumb enough to think the Seminoles would be 1-2 right now. Instead they're 3-0 and No. 8 in scoring defense nationally, despite playing two ranked teams. That has given freshman quarterback Drew Weatherford the latitude to grow on the job.
Virginia Tech's even saltier D (17): The Hokies rank no lower than 13th in the five major defensive statistical categories (rushing defense, passing defense, pass efficiency defense, scoring defense and total defense). This is BeamerBall: smack 'em in the mouth, block a few kicks and let a Vick make things happen on offense. It works.
UCLA's good hands (18): The Bruins are the last team in the nation without a turnover. Not coincidentally, they're 3-0.
The Harris Poll (19): Say this for the Old Folks Poll that has become part of the BCS formula -- it got the Top 25 largely right in its first effort, released this week. But check the small print and you'll see that at least one voter is living in his own private Idaho: the Vandals, 0-4 and outscored 58-6 in their last two games, got five points in the poll. And that's not the only idiocy. Illinois, 2-2 and fresh from surrendering 61 points to Michigan State, got 13 points. Bowling Green, 1-2 and surrendering 45 points per game, got five points. Of course, we don't know who the football geniuses are who made those votes, because it's all done in secret. Anonymous voting breeds irresponsible voting. And in the case of Idaho, flatly subversive voting.
Oklahoma's quarterbacks (21): Nobody said replacing Jason White would be easy, but nobody said it would be impossible, either. With the Sooners 1-2, season starter Paul Thompson now moved to receiver, and Rhett Bomar 99th nationally in passing efficiency and still searching for his first collegiate touchdown pass, it's ugly in Norman. Bomar will get better, but how many losses will the Sooners incur before that happens?
Louisville's program maturity (22): The Cardinals' defrocking at South Florida showed that, as far as they've come in recent years, they're not ready to handle wearing the bull's eye on a weekly basis. An undisciplined defense, horrific special teams and a surprisingly porous offensive line showed up in Tampa, and the result was a 31-point loss. The Big East's last big hope is now West Virginia.
Iowa's running game (23): The Hawkeyes stunk running the ball last year, but that was supposed to be injury-related -- and much improved this time around. But in a wipeout loss to Ohio State Saturday that officially terminated any Rose Bowl hopes, Iowa ran just 18 times, had one rushing first down and produced negative yardage on the ground. The Buckeyes are good, but that's ridiculous.
Rating The Rookie Coaches
The Dash's Dozen coaches in new places, ranked from best first month on the job to worst:
2. Urban Meyer (25): It's a big job at Florida, and Meyer has proven himself big enough to fill it -- and fill it well. The Gators are still feeling their way into his offense, although the offensive stats through four games at Florida are better than they were through Meyer's first four games at Bowling Green or Utah. The biggest change in Gainesville has come in toughness, which showed up in the big victory over Tennessee.
3. Kyle Whittingham (26): True, the guy who took Meyer's place at Utah presided over the first Utes' loss since October 2003, but the program hasn't fallen off a cliff as some had expected. (And even the loss, in overtime to TCU, came with some controversy attached: the Horned Frogs' scored the winning touchdown on a blatant pick play at the goal line.) Utah is 3-1, but three of the next four are on the road.
4. Mike Gundy (27): The new Oklahoma State coach hasn't proven much so far, going 3-0 against the dregs of D-I. But he's made several strong disciplinary stands, and is intent on avoiding a two-quarterback quandary. That should help heading into Big 12 play.
5. Steve Spurrier (28): A pyrotechnic opening few minutes on Sept. 1 against Central Florida quickly gave way to a month's worth of sobering reality in Columbia: the Spurrier Reformation isn't going to be easy, or immediate. He nearly pulled a monumental upset at Georgia, but followed that by being flattened at home by Alabama. At 2-2, it's difficult seeing this team making a bowl -- and no Spurrier-coached team has fallen short of the postseason since his initial Florida team was on probation.
6. Ron Zook (29): The Zooker could not have opened his Illinois career more dramatically, coming from 20 points down to beat Rutgers in overtime. Following that up by whipping San Jose State was nice. Losing at Cal was no sin. But giving up 61 points to Michigan State sent the good feelings into hibernation. When they'll come back out, nobody knows.
7. Dick Tomey (30): The new captain of the Titanic (also known as San Jose State) won his opener over Eastern Washington. The following blowout losses to Illinois and San Diego State were not shocking. The Spartans rank 67th or lower in every offensive and defensive category nationally, but at least have been decent on special teams. Hey, it's a start.
8. Greg Robinson (31): Those expecting an immediate upgrade from the Pasqualoni Era have been put on standby. Syracuse is mediocre so far: 1-0 against winless teams and 0-2 against undefeated teams, with undefeated Florida State next. But in a bogus Big East, the Orange could finish about anywhere.
9. Bronco Mendenhall (32): The good news: BYU dominated Eastern Illinois, lost a 51-50 thriller to a good TCU team and was not swept off the field by Top 25 Boston College in a 20-3 loss. The bad news: all three games were at home. With five of the next seven on the road and then Utah at home to close the season, the Cougars will be hard-pressed to go from 1-2 to bowl eligible.
11. Walt Harris (34): When the head coach is issuing a public apology to the fans after losing to a I-AA school in his second game, the debut season has not gotten off to the ideal start. Harris was doing just that after being upset by Cal-Davis, which came to Palo Alto off losses to New Hampshire and Portland State. The 1-1 Cardinal could be an underdog in all nine of its remaining games.
12. Ed Orgeron (35): He came to Ole Miss as the emotional antidote to staid David Cutcliffe, but Orgeron was hired to do more than just win the press conferences and pep rallies. He's 1-2, with a loss to Vandy and a sound home whipping from Wyoming. And "Coach O" could easily be "Coach O and Three" if Memphis' starting quarterback hadn't broken his leg in the first quarter against Mississippi. With some program insiders tisk-tisking about Orgeron's confrontational comportment, you wonder whether the delusional Rebels regret firing a quiet, classy winner in Cutcliffe.
13. Dave Wannstedt (36): The good news for Miles, Harris, Orgeron and every other coach off to a rocky start: at least they're not as bad off as Wanny. Maybe beating up on I-AA Youngstown State and heading into a weak Big East will purge Pitt's pathetic 0-3 start. If not, some productive early recruiting will be the only positive for Wannstedt to cling to heading into 2006.
Coach Who Earned His Comp Car This Week
Congrats to Central Florida's George O'Leary (37), whose endless cycle of personal disappointment finally ended with his first victory as a head coach since 2001. That's when O'Leary saw his dream job at Notre Dame blow up over resume falsification. He got a second chance at UCF last year, only to go 0-11. The Knights beat Marshall last week to stop the sadness.
Coach Who Should Be Riding The Bus To Work
Louisville's Bobby Petrino (38). At least Petrino volunteered for the blame after the Cardinals' comeuppance against South Florida, and fans apparently are happy to give it to him. At one grocery store in Louisville, a cardboard cutout of the coach in the soft-drink aisle was nearly turned into Ichabod Petrino this week. The cutout had its head bent back, with the word "overrated" written on the neck in ball-point pen. This might be the work of a Kentucky fan -- or it might be the modern version of being hung in effigy by your own backers.
Putting Out An APB For
Michigan running back Harlan Huckleby (39). Anyone with information on the whereabouts of Rob Lytle's alliterative mid-'70s sidekick, please apprise The Dash.
Meanwhile, The Dash is pleased to report that LSU eternal starting quarterback Tommy Hodson is alive and well and living in Baton Rouge, where he's hanging out with his wife, twin daughters and a pair of fellow former Tigers QBs. Hodson is in business with Jamie Howard and helps coach the football team at St. Jude Elementary with Mickey Guidry.
When hungry in Baton Rouge there are a ton of places to go to eat -- unfortunately, travel mayhem prevented The Dash from sampling any of them this week. But kudos to the LSU sports information department (40) for a pregame spread that ran the gustatorial gamut -- highlighted by the jambalaya. Next trip, let's hope the under-construction press box has televisions so we can see replays.
Pat Forde is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.