Commentary

These schools put the student back in student-athlete

Originally Published: September 30, 2008
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football ("How Ya Like Me Now?" buttons featuring the smiling face of Houston Nutt [1] sold separately in Fayetteville, Ark.):

A September For The Record Books -- And The Book-Smart

One month down in this football season and it's starting to get a little kooky out there. The rash of upsets Saturday quickly shaved the number of unbeaten teams to 18 -- and don't be surprised if Ball State (2) is the last one standing. Honk if you had that pegged in August.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallPat Fitzgerald has his Wildcats at 5-0 for the first time in 46 years.
In recapping this September, what stands out to The Dash is the revenge of the nerds -- the success of elite academic schools. Apparently the phrase "student-athlete" is not an oxymoron after all: A six-pack of schools that rank in the top 20 -- that is, the top 20 national universities for 2009, according to U.S. News & World Report -- are winning on the field as well.

"Isn't that what we're supposed to be doing?" said Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald (3) with a laugh. "When did the 'student-athlete' term become lost? ... The term 'student-athlete' hasn't changed at our schools.

"At Northwestern we've had three Big Ten championships since 1995, and I kind of feel like we've been the flagship for those academic schools. The credit goes to our administration, for the support of football without sacrificing anything academically."

The other egghead schools have risen up to join the Wildcats. Check the list:

Northwestern (4). Record: 5-0 for the first time since 1962, including 1-0 in the Big Ten. Reason: A defense that has allowed just seven fourth-quarter points and hasn't allowed more than 20 points in a game. Football ranking: 24th, according to Sagarin; 26th, according to USA Today; 30th, according to AP. U.S. News & World Report academic ranking: tied for 12th. Most recent football score in the NCAA Academic Progress Report: 969, placing between the 80th and 90th percentile nationally for all divisions.

Vanderbilt (5). Record: 4-0 for the first time since 2005, including 2-0 in the SEC. Reason: The Commodores lead the nation in turnover margin at plus-9. Football ranking: 14th, according to Sagarin; 19th, according to AP and USA Today. U.S. News & World Report academic ranking: tied for 18th. Most recent football score in the NCAA Academic Progress Report: 959, placing between the 80th and 90th percentile nationally for all divisions.

Duke (6). Record: 3-1, its best start since 1994, including 1-0 in the ACC. Reason: Coaching change to David Cutcliffe paying immediate and dramatic dividends. Blue Devils have scored more than 30 points three times in four games, something not accomplished since the Head Ball Coach was in Durham 20 years ago. Football ranking: 38th, according to Sagarin; tied for 43rd, according to USA Today; no votes in AP poll. U.S. News & World Report academic ranking: tied for 8th. Most recent football score in the NCAA Academic Progress Report: 977, placing between the 90th and 100th percentile nationally for all divisions.

[+] EnlargeToby Gerhart
Kyle Terada/US PresswireToby Gerhart has been a spark in the Cardinal backfield.
Stanford (7). Record: 3-2, its best start since 2005, including 2-1 in the Pacific-10. Reason: Quality running backs and solid blocking. Toby Gerhart rushed for 147 yards in the victory over Oregon State and 148 against San Jose State; when he was injured last week against Washington, Anthony Kimble went for 157. Football ranking: 47th, according to Sagarin; no votes in either poll. U.S. News & World Report academic ranking: tied for 4th. Most recent football score in the NCAA Academic Progress Report: 986, placing between the 90th and 100th percentile nationally for all divisions.

Notre Dame (8). Record: 3-1, its best start since 2006. Reason: Outscoring opponents 31-10 in the fourth quarter and 52-26 after halftime. Football ranking: 35th, according to Sagarin; 41st, according to USA Today; no votes in AP poll. U.S. News & World Report academic ranking: tied for 18th. Most recent football score in the NCAA Academic Progress Report: 969, placing between the 80th and 90th percentile nationally for all divisions.

Rice (9). Record: 3-2, with losses to unbeaten Vandy and unbeaten Texas. Reason: The No. 11 passing offense in the country, averaging 300 yards per game through the air. Football ranking: 64th, according to Sagarin; no votes in either poll. U.S. News & World Report academic ranking: 17th. Most recent football score in the NCAA Academic Progress Report: 975, placing between the 90th and 100th percentile nationally for all divisions.

Top 25, With An Academic Twist

Most women prefer men with brains and brawn, and we're sure this week's Dashette, Gemma Atkinson (10), is no exception. Well, reasonably sure. Or at least hopeful. We do know she likes beer, which is always a positive.

Anyway, in her honor, The Dash re-ranked this week's AP Top 25 by 2008 APR score (which averages the academic progress of the classes during 2003-07). Results show that the SEC is either doing a great job with academic support, or its tutors are doing all the work. Results also show that Gemma would dig Uga:

[+] EnlargeGemma Atkinson
Phillip Massey/FilmMagicThe Dash can certainly appreciate a woman like Gemma Atkinson who enjoys a tasty beverage.
1. Georgia. APR score: 965.
2. (tie) Wake Forest. APR: 964.
2. (tie) Penn State. APR: 964.
4. Florida. APR: 962.
5. Vanderbilt. APR: 959.
6. (tie) Boise State. APR: 953.
6. (tie) Auburn. APR: 953.
8. Connecticut. APR: 950.
9. USC. APR: 948.
10. (tie) BYU. APR: 946.
10. (tie) LSU. APR: 946.
10. (tie) Fresno State. APR: 946.
13. (tie) Alabama. APR: 944.
13. (tie) Utah. APR: 944.
13. (tie) Wisconsin. APR: 944.
16. (tie) Oklahoma. APR: 942.
16. (tie) Texas. APR: 942.
16. (tie) Ohio State. APR: 942.
19. Missouri. APR: 939.
20. Oklahoma State. APR: 935.
21. Virginia Tech. APR: 929.
22. Texas Tech. APR: 928.
23. Oregon. APR: 921.
24. Kansas. APR: 919.
25. South Florida. APR: 917.

Other September Superlatives

[+] EnlargeAlabama Celebration
Dale Zanine/US PresswireOnce thought to be at least a year away from contention, the Crimson Tide are right in the thick of the BCS race.
Surprise of the month: Alabama (11). From unranked to No. 4 in the USA Today coaches' poll and No. 24 to No. 2 in the AP poll in a single September, the Crimson Tide have taken the season by red storm. Most impressive has been their work outside Bryant-Denny Stadium. Combined score in three games away from home: 124-54. First-half score in those games: 89-10. This is a team operating with total focus and near-flawless execution from the opening kickoff.

Dud of the month: Clemson (12). From preseason No. 9 to unranked and 3-2, the Tigers have cemented their reputation as serial underachievers. The season-opening rout against Alabama looks a bit more understandable now, given the way the Tide have played -- but to bookend the month with a home loss to Maryland is classic Tommy Bowden. Clemson must feel especially pleased with itself for giving Bowden a contract extension after he flirted with Arkansas in December. What will it be this year, Music City or Chick-fil-A?

Mind-blowing stat of the month: Clemson has been favored in each of its past 11 losses. In the Tigers' past 34 games, they have been underdogs only three times, all of them against Florida State and Tommy's dad, Bobby Bowden. Clemson won all three times. Start the family collusion investigation!

Most important stat of the month: Turnover margin (13). The combined record of the top 11 teams nationally in turnover margin: 37-11. The combined record of the bottom 10 teams nationally in turnover margin: 10-32. A quick scan of ACC and SEC box scores from Saturday showed that teams that won the turnover battle were 10-1. The lone exception was LSU, which struggled more than it should have against Mississippi State thanks to a minus-2 turnover margin.

Turnover team of the month: Wyoming (14) has committed three turnovers in two wins, 16 turnovers in three losses. According to the Laramie Boomerang (best newspaper name in America), Wyoming coaches were so riled about the giveaways that, heading into the Cowboys' game against Bowling Green last Saturday, they vowed to replace anyone who turned it over. That led to Wyoming's using four quarterbacks in a 29-point, five-turnover defeat. Maybe the football is a boomerang in Laramie, too.

[+] EnlargeTrimane Goddard
Joel Auerbach/US PresswireA great game got an exciting finish. Miami was thisclose to securing a last-second win.
Best game of the month: North Carolina 28, Miami 24 (15). Close, entertaining, hard-fought, back-and-forth contest that went down to the final play -- a Robert Marve pass into the end zone that looked like a Hurricanes touchdown, until Tar Heels safety Trimaine Goddard snatched it off the fingers of a lunging Kayne Farquharson. Neither team is winning a national title this year, but the future looks bright for both.

Worst game of the month: Auburn 3, Mississippi Sate 2 (16). Don't even try to sell The Dash a line about purists who enjoy a good defensive battle. Nobody enjoyed that affront to modern football.

Game-changing play of the month: Indiana quarterback Ben Chappell's 97-yard touchdown pass to Terrance Turner would have put the Hoosiers ahead of Michigan State 35-34 late in the third quarter -- if only guard Cody Faulkner (17) hadn't been called for holding in the end zone. Thus, the play turned from an astonishing Hoosiers touchdown into a sudden Spartans safety -- a nine-point swing -- on the way to a 42-29 Michigan State victory.

Shocker of the month: Oregon State 27, USC 21 (18). Losing in Corvallis to a program that won 19 games over the two previous seasons is not as stupefying as, say, losing in The Swamp to an Ole Miss program that hasn't been bowling since Eli Manning was in uniform. But it was the way the Trojans lost that left The Dash stunned -- they were dominated at the line of scrimmage. USC's defensive line was turned sideways, pushed back, suckered into overpursuit and generally embarrassed by an Oregon State team (and its 5-foot-6 freshman running back) that couldn't run for 100 yards against Stanford. Pete Carroll might be the best coach in college football, but this marks the fourth time in three seasons that he has failed to adequately prepare his team for a double-digit Pac-10 underdog.

Time zone of the month: Mountain (19). BYU (4-0) has risen from 16th preseason to eighth in the AP poll, and hasn't given up a point since Sept. 6. Utah (5-0) has risen from unranked to 15th, and its victory at Michigan to open the season will keep looking better if the Wolverines continue to come around. Boise State (3-0) has risen from unranked to 17th, with redshirt freshman quarterback Kellen Moore among the most impressive first-year performers in the country.

Greg Robinson
AP Photo/Kevin RivoliIt likely won't be long before Greg Robinson is unemployed.
Coaches working their way out of jobs (20) in September: Greg Robinson at Syracuse, Ty Willingham at Washington. Only an utter miracle could save either at this point.

Coaches who could really use a good October (21): Phillip Fulmer at Tennessee, Tommy Bowden at Clemson, Dave Wannstedt at Pittsburgh, Kirk Ferentz at Iowa, Ron Prince at Kansas State, Mike Stoops at Arizona. Some or none of them may get fired, but they're not the most popular guys in their respective towns right now.

End-of-September conference rankings: 1. Southeastern (22). Seven teams in the Sagarin top 30, and eight teams are among the top 50 toughest schedules played to date. 2. Big 12 (23). Five undefeated teams, but only one has played a top-75 schedule (Colorado, 50th). 3. Big Ten (24). Nothing to get too excited here beyond Penn State -- and the Nittany Lions have to prove it on the road first. But there are six teams in the Sagarin top 35.

End-of-September Heisman ballot: Pick a Big 12 quarterback. 1. Chase Daniel (25), Missouri. Averaging 353 passing yards and three touchdowns per game for the nation's No. 2 offense. 2. Sam Bradford (26), Oklahoma. Third nationally in efficiency after a career-high 411 yards against TCU. His string of 300-yard passing games is now three. 3. Colt McCoy (27), Texas. He has out-Tebowed Tim Tebow this year, throwing 14 touchdown passes and running for four more TDs (Tebow has just eight total TDs, as compared to 17 at this point last year). McCoy's stats are also very comparable to Vince Young's through four games of his junior year, and McCoy is leading the nation in accuracy with an 80 percent completion rate. (McCoy and Bradford square off Oct. 11, then Daniel and McCoy hook up a week later.)

What October Will Bring

Five biggest games:
[+] EnlargeColt McCoy
Brian Bahr/Getty ImagesColt McCoy has multiple showdowns on tap for October.
Oklahoma vs. Texas in Dallas (28), Oct. 11. For nine straight years, the higher-ranked team has won the Red River Rivalry. Unless the No. 1-ranked Sooners inexplicably lose at Baylor this week, they'll have history on their side. One of these two teams has represented the South in the Big 12 title game nine years in a row.

BYU at TCU (29), Oct. 16. Thursday night game could be the Cougars' last legitimate threat until they wrap up the season with trips to Air Force and Utah. An impressive BYU victory here could enliven debate about whether it can become the ultimate BCS buster and crash the BCS Championship Game -- especially if other unbeaten teams continue to fall by the wayside.

Missouri at Texas (30), Oct. 18. The Tigers have beaten the Longhorns once in the past 92 years. This time the Tigers will have to do it in Austin, where they haven't won since 1896. (See Beano Cook for details of that game.)

Georgia at LSU (31), Oct. 25. Last contest in a challenging three-game month for the Tigers, who are at Florida on Oct. 11 and at South Carolina on Oct. 18. If they're still undefeated after these three, only Alabama on Nov. 8 stands between LSU and 12-0. For the Bulldogs, meanwhile, this will be crucial in attempting to climb back into the championship chase after that devastating home loss to Alabama.

Penn State at Ohio State (32), Oct. 25. To make this game mean all it could mean, both the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions will have to win at Wisconsin, on Oct. 4 and Oct. 11, respectively -- and no visiting team has done that since Bret Bielema became coach of the Badgers in 2006. He's 16-0 in Camp Randall Stadium. But if they get it done, and if Ohio State is 7-1 and Penn State is 8-0, this game should have significant national championship/Big Ten championship implications.

Upset Alerts

It happened four times last weekend -- unranked teams beating unbeaten opponents. First to do it was Oregon State over USC, then Mississippi over Florida, then Navy over Wake Forest, then Michigan over Wisconsin. Four more chances for it to happen again this weekend:

[+] EnlargeRich Brooks
John Sommers/Icon SMICould Rich Brooks' Wildcats pull off the upset against Alabama?
Kentucky at Alabama (33). This is the LSU Opportunity all over again for the Wildcats -- who are undefeated themselves and lead the nation in scoring defense. A year ago they caught LSU coming off a hugely emotional and physical victory over Florida and upset the Tigers. Now they get the Crimson Tide coming off that statement game at Georgia. The big differences this time: Kentucky is on the road, offensively challenged and facing Nick Saban, not Les Miles.

Penn State at Purdue (34). The Boilermakers probably aren't up for this task, but the best time to be a home underdog is against an opponent that has not yet been challenged in a hostile setting. Penn State has played one road game -- at Syracuse, which doesn't count. This also qualifies as a trap game for the Nittany Lions -- a week after the White Out game against Illinois and a week before the road trip to Madison.

Texas Tech at Kansas State (35). The Wildcats would qualify as another team seemingly not up to pulling an upset, but consider: K-State has upset a Top 10 opponent two years in a row, both of them Texas. And the Red Raiders would qualify as another untested team, having yet to play an opponent ranked in Sagarin's top 65.

Oregon State at Utah (36). If you saw what the Beavers did to USC, you know what they can at least potentially do to the Utes.

Putting Out An APB For ...

... Former West Virginia running back Amos Zereoue (37), who went from A to Z fast enough in the late 1990s to rush for more than 4,000 yards in his Mountaineers career. Anyone with updated information on the No. 2 rusher in West Virginia history, please apprise The Dash.

Meanwhile, The Dash is pleased to report that last week's APB subject, former Texas star running back Steve Worster, is alive and well but scrambling in the wake of Hurricane Ike. Worster lives in Bridge City, Texas, which was just about removed from the coastline by Ike. His son, Scott, tells The Dash that his house was destroyed in the storm, but the old man is all right. Best wishes to one of the great wishbone running backs from the early glory days of that formation.

Point After

When hungry and thirsty in Athens, Ga., The Dash recommends dinner at The Last Resort (38), where the firecracker filet is especially tasty. The after-dinner scene is a cornucopia of cool college bars in an idyllic town square. If you have to pick one, The Dash is partial to The Globe (39), a funky spot that has a blue million good beers to choose from. To support the local economy, try a Terrapin Big Hoppy Monster (40). If you feel like being more worldly, follow it with a Chimay on tap.

Caveat: The Globe is not specifically wired for sports fans (no TVs) but has some appeal for people who type for a living. One wall is adorned with a poster of famous Irish writers. While The Dash was looking at it, a drunk frat boy slurred, "Oscar Wilde, James Joyce ... go Dawgs!" Woof.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.