Commentary

Dash of lessons, forecasts and fibs

Originally Published: September 29, 2009
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (the new book "From High Octane to Low Comedy: The Illinois [1] Offense Story" sold separately):

Seems like just yesterday it was August and the whole season lay in front of us, a blank canvas awaiting brush strokes. Then somebody grabbed a can of spray paint and graffiti'd the sucker. Now what do we make of the artwork?

In a month's time, the top five has gone from being the penthouse to a condemned building. Tim Tebow has gone to the hospital, and Sam Bradford has gone to the shoulder specialist. Michigan has gone from unstable to undefeated. Oregon has gone from humiliation to elation. And Florida State has just plain gone insane.

So it's time to take a deep breath and sort out the messy month behind, then examine the mesmerizing month to come.

Lessons Learned From September

Ten things we can take away from the first four weeks of play:

Lesson One: Keep your headgear on until you enter the locker room.

Ask Boise State's Byron Hout (2) and the three Houston (3) players who lost their helmets Saturday amid the student stampede onto the Robertson Stadium turf following the Cougars' thrilling 29-28 victory over Texas Tech.

Hout was jacked in the jaw and leveled after talking smack to Oregon running back LeGarrette Blount on the opening night of the season. If Hout had been wearing his helmet, he might not have been punched -- and he definitely wouldn't have been dropped. And Blount might have gotten out of Boise with just a broken hand instead of a broken reputation and a full-season suspension.

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
Thomas B. Shea/Getty ImagesKevin Sumlin and the Cougars found some big September wins, but they are looking a few helmets.

As for the Cougars? Impressive second-year coach Kevin Sumlin (4) dispatched this humorous note on Twitter on Monday: "Saturday night was fun, but it will be hard for 3 of our guys to play this week without their helmets. Please return, NO QUESTIONS ASKED."

(Houston is not Florida, Texas or Ohio State, where they have enough money to buy helmets for every man, woman and child in attendance on game day. Or Oregon, where they change helmets more often than the dance team changes eye shadow. As we speak, the Cougars' brass is checking for change under the couch cushions in the athletic department to pay for three more hats.)

Houston associate athletic director Chris Burkhalter told The Dash on Monday that two of the Cougars had their helmets snatched right out of their hands amid the merry melee on the field.

"It was elbows to elbows and butts to butts down there," Burkhalter said, making a strong bid for Dash Quote of the Month.

Lesson Two: It's all fun and games until your star player gets concussed.

[+] EnlargeTim Tebow
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesA hard hit Saturday sent Tim Tebow to the hospital with a concussion.

Style points and stats padding have become accepted parts of college football. Nobody much questions it until the risk involved results in a superstar's being hurt at a time when he could have been safely tucked away on the sideline. Then the coach is ripe for second guessing.

Last season's case in point was Ohio State running back Chris Wells, injured in the third quarter of the Buckeyes' season-opening, 43-0 romp over Youngstown State. This season's case in point is Florida quarterback Tim Tebow (5), who suffered a concussion in a scary double-shot sequence Saturday at Kentucky.

The score was 31-7 at the time, after Florida led 31-0 in the first quarter. The game was over.

Urban Meyer (6) has suffered a measly 17 career defeats as a college head coach. None came after blowing a 24-point lead. Near as The Dash can find after looking at box scores going back to his first season at Bowling Green in 2001, Meyer has never lost a game after leading by more than 10 points. Give him a two-touchdown edge, and the man is money.

So why was Tebow still in the game? After being sick all week? Certainly, the most intense competitor in college football wanted to play, and the Gators' sputtering passing game needs some fine-tuning. But beyond strategic concerns and competitive instincts, there were two other goals in mind in Commonwealth Stadium:

• A national championship race in part predicated on point spreads.

• A Heisman Trophy race in part predicated on massive statistics.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesUrban Meyer and the Gators are concerned about Tim Tebow's health.

For the ops guy on the West Coast who fills out a top-25 ballot in the USA Today coaches' poll and saw none of this game, 31-7 isn't nearly as impressive as, say, 51-7. For the Heisman voter in Wisconsin who was busy covering some other game, 226 yards of total offense for Tebow isn't nearly as impressive as, say, 326. So you go for big numbers and hope it doesn't backfire.

And in the back of Meyer's mind (maybe in the front) had to be the mild backlash Florida encountered after not blowing out heavy underdog Tennessee in Week 3.

So Meyer did what he's always done with Tebow, and what every other coach does with his Heisman-candidate players (Bob Stoops with Sam Bradford and Mack Brown with Colt McCoy included): let him play after the outcome was decided, in pursuit of an outcome that was overwhelming.

Last season against Kentucky, Tebow played until it was 56-3. In other games in 2008 and '09, he played until the score was 49-3, 49-6, 42-0, 42-3 and 35-0 twice. Everything worked out great. National championship great in '08.

This time, it didn't.

Hopefully, Tebow is fine for the rest of the season and his battering-ram running style does not become a health risk. But his coach took an unnecessary chance with him, and it bit the Gators.

Lesson Three: Your backup quarterback had better be worth his scholarship.

[+] EnlargeB.J. Daniels
Cliff Welch/Icon SMI B.J. Daniels ran the Bulls past the Seminoles.

High-profile QBs are dropping faster than ranked teams. Down went Tebow and Baylor's Robert Griffin III this past weekend. Down went Big East career total offense leader Matt Grothe of South Florida the week before. Down went Matt Barkley of USC after beating Ohio State on Sept. 12. Down went Bradford in the season opener -- perhaps to return this week against Miami, perhaps not.

Clearly, the Bulls fared a little better with backup B.J. Daniels (7) at Florida State (215 yards passing, 126 yards rushing in a major upset) than the Trojans did with backup Aaron Corp (8) at Washington (110 yards passing, 9 yards rushing in a crushing loss).

Notre Dame also could appreciate backup Dayne Crist (9), who helped keep it afloat Saturday at Purdue with 61 yards running and passing while starter Jimmy Clausen was benched with turf toe. Clausen came back to lead the winning drive, but the Fighting Irish should have confidence in Crist if he's needed again.

Lesson Four: The quarterbacks in Alabama are just fine. Better than fine, actually.

Those Alabama fans who worried that Greg McElroy (10) would have a hard time replacing John Parker Wilson stopped worrying Sept. 5. McElroy is third nationally in pass efficiency and might be throwing it better than Wilson ever did.

Those Auburn fans who derided Chris Todd (11) last season as an overmatched SEC quarterback who was little more than doomed offensive coordinator Tony Franklin's pet have presumably changed their tune. Todd has flourished in Gus Malzahn's version of the spread and ranks sixth nationally in pass efficiency, with 11 touchdowns and one interception.

Lesson Five: Flavor of the Month teams tend to turn sour.

[+] EnlargeHouston Nutt
AP Photo/Mary Ann ChastainPreseason darlings Houston Nutt and the Rebels left South Carolina deflated.

What happens when the uninitiated are overhyped (including, yes, some overhyping from The Dash)? They often return to their roots rather quickly.

Ole Miss (12) was ranked as high as fourth for the first time since 1970. Oklahoma State (13) made it to No. 5. California (14) was as high as sixth. All failed to reach October before plotzing. BYU (15) was seventh until being atomized at home by bipolar Florida State. Once and future powerhouse Miami (16) rose from unranked to No. 9 but couldn't sustain its high level of play for a third straight game against ranked opposition.

Houston, watch out.

Lesson Six: Caretaker coaches aren't cutting it.

That's you, Joe Paterno (17) and Bobby Bowden (18).

Penn State's first opportunity to show something after opening with three cream puffs started with a 79-yard touchdown on the Nittany Lions' first offensive play. The next 64 snaps against Iowa produced three points. Penn State has played four home games with only 24 second-half points to show for it.

And annually overrated Florida State defies explanation. The Seminoles averaged 44 points per game against rival Miami and ranked BYU, and 13 points per game against Football Championship Subdivision school Jacksonville State and Grothe-less South Florida. Oh, and seven points against Jax State were scored by the defense.

Seriously, can we firm up the exit strategies here?

Lesson Seven: It's a bad year for Notre Dame (19) fans to try to beat the traffic. And a bad year for Charlie Weis to exhale.

The Fighting Irish have played three straight games that were tighter than Terrence Cody in a Mini Cooper. Michigan beat the Irish on a touchdown pass with 11 seconds to play. The Irish survived Michigan State with a red zone interception with a minute to play. Then they beat Purdue on a touchdown pass with 25 seconds to play.

This is no way for a guy whose job is on the line to go through the season, but that's what Weis is doing.

Lesson Eight: A lousy season opener is not a death sentence.

[+] EnlargeVirginia Tech
AP Photo Don PetersenThe Hokies have jumped back into the title conversation with a win over Miami.

See: Oklahoma, Oregon, Virginia Tech, NC State, Georgia and Rutgers. All lost their first games in dispiriting fashion. None has lost since.

Include Iowa in this group. The Hawkeyes gasped past FCS Northern Iowa in the opener on the strength of two blocked field goals in the final seconds, looking very vulnerable. Since then, they're 3-0 and looking better with each passing Saturday. They are surrendering just 11.5 points per game and, with Arkansas State up next, should have their first 5-0 start since 1995.

(Lesson Eight Caveat: A lousy season opener can still augur a lousy season. Virginia, Maryland, Colorado and UTEP got off on the wrong foot and kept hopping on it until falling down a manhole. Perhaps taking their coaches' employment with them.)

Lesson Nine: State of Idaho represents!

We all know about unbeaten, fifth-ranked Boise State. But what about the perennially miserable Idaho Vandals (20)? Their 3-1 record is the school's best four-game start since 4-0 in 1994, when the coach was John L. Smith and the program was I-AA.

The cheerleaders -- presumably wearing chaste uniforms this year -- have had a surplus of stuff to scream, high-kick and spirit-finger about in Moscow.

Lesson 10: Twitter can and will be used against you.

Especially if you're silly enough to tweak your walk-the-plank coach, as at least one Texas Tech (21) player apparently did.

The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal reported that linebacker Marlon Williams asked on his Twitter account why he was still in a meeting room when "the head coach can't even be on time." That tweet has been deleted.

Offensive lineman Brandon Carter also had a Twitter page. His postgame tweet after the Houston loss: "This is not how I saw our season."

On Sunday, Carter was suspended indefinitely for violating team rules, and his Twitter page has vanished.

[+] EnlargeOlivia Wilde
Jason Merritt/Getty ImagesThe October forecast bring a smile to the face of Dashette Olivia Wilde.

The October Forecast

After consultation with Dashette and football prognostication expert Olivia Wilde (22), The Dash suggests 10 season-shaping games that will further thin the list of BCS championship contenders by November:

Florida at LSU (23), Oct. 10 -- Recent history says this game will have a direct bearing on the national championship. In 2006, Florida won 23-10 on its way to the crystal football. Last time these two played in Tiger Stadium, in 2007, it was one of the most intense, wicked-hitting games The Dash has ever seen in person. LSU won with a series of fourth-down gambles on its way to the national title. Last year in Gainesville, the Gators had their first true show of force, a 51-21 crushing of LSU on their way to the title. But the Tigers have to get past Georgia between the hedges this week to ensure that this game has maximum payload.

Alabama at Mississippi (24), Oct. 10 -- Back in the preseason, this game was circled as the scintillating sidekick to Gators-Tigers on an SEC showcase Saturday. The matchup lost considerable luster with the Rebels' flustered flop at South Carolina on Sept. 24 -- but this still figures to be the Crimson Tide's toughest test of the month. Alabama has won five straight in the series, but the past four have been decided by a total of 13 points.

Michigan at Iowa (25), Oct. 10 -- Not exactly the Big Ten showdown game anyone was talking about in August, but it could be the last meeting of unbeatens in the league this season. The Wolverines are averaging a league-best 37.5 points per game, and the Hawkeyes are allowing just 11.5 per game.

Houston at Mississippi State (26), Oct. 10 -- Speaking of unforeseen impact games. In Starkville, the Cougars will be trying to go 3-0 against teams from the two strongest leagues in the country, the SEC and the Big 12. If Houston wins, it could be a 13-0 team come BCS Selection Sunday -- but the Bulldogs pushed LSU to the limit this past Saturday and have been an improved team in Year 1 under Dan Mullen.

Cincinnati at USF (27), Oct. 15 -- If the Big East is going to have a say in the championship chase, its delegate will be the winner of this Thursday nighter in Tampa. This will be another clash of strengths, with the nation's No. 2 scoring defense (South Florida at 6.8 points per game) battling the nation's No. 5 scoring offense (Cincinnati at 43.3 points per game).

[+] EnlargeMack Brown & Bob Stoops
James D. Smith/Icon SMIMack Brown and Bob Stoops will have a lot on the line in their annual meeting in Dallas.

Oklahoma-Texas (28) in Dallas, Oct. 17 -- Not the cataclysm it was anticipated to be before Bradford got hurt and the Sooners lost their opener, but still the probable game of the year in the Big 12 -- as it has been for more of this decade. If the Sooners are serious about getting back in the national championship chase, they have to win here.

USC at Notre Dame (29), Oct. 17 -- If both teams have one loss coming into South Bend, there will be plenty of implications. If not, disregard. This rivalry has been a colossal mismatch since the Bush Push game in 2005. Should the Trojans maul the Irish again, "The Intern" will have a hard time earning a sixth year.

TCU at BYU (30), Oct. 24 -- Sets up to be a sizable BCS buster showdown. If they survive a tricky trip to Air Force, the Horned Frogs will be 6-0 going to Provo. And the Cougars should be 6-1.

Texas at Oklahoma State (31), Oct. 31 -- The Dash is operating under the assumption here that the Cowboys will be 6-1 overall and undefeated in the Big 12, while the Longhorns should be unbeaten overall and in the league.

USC at Oregon (32), Oct. 31 -- Inside track to the Pacific-10 title could well be on the line. If the Trojans reach this point with one loss, they'll have a chance for a fourth major road victory (at Ohio State, at California, at Notre Dame being the others). Win this one, and it would greatly enhance their candidacy to be a one-loss national-title contender.

They Only Fib When They Are Moving Their Lips

When the calendar turns to October, embattled coaches start getting nervous and ambitious coaches start bugging their agents to get them better jobs. This was the month last year when Tony Franklin was whacked as offensive coordinator at Auburn and Tommy Bowden was trap-doored as head coach at Clemson.

So it seems like a good time to remind the reader not to blindly believe every protestation of loyalty you hear from the hot coaches out there. For proof, The Dash found a story on the Bowling Green (33) athletic Web site dated Dec. 6, 2002, when a young coach named Urban Meyer was shooting down rumors he was leaving.

The key excerpt from the story:

"We are nowhere near what we can do here. That's what's driving me right now," Meyer said Tuesday afternoon. "Everybody's worried about those other places; nothing's going on.

"I was contacted by one, but I'm not interested. I love it here. We have a lot of work to do. That's the bottom line."

Meyer said the talk of his leaving started when he took the Bowling Green job. Coaches from other schools tell recruits Meyer is not going to stay with the Falcons.

"With recruits, that's been for two years, even before we won," he said. "[They say] 'That guy's not going to be there very long'; that's silly … The future is fantastic here … I'm proud to be the football coach here.

"Once they get to know me, know my family, know how important it is to have continuity, my kids going to school somewhere."

On Dec. 12, 2002, Meyer was hired as the new coach at Utah (34). Less than two years after that, he was off to that little fixer-upper at Florida.

[+] EnlargeChip Kelly
Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesChip Kelly and the Ducks rebounded from their season-opening loss.

Coach Who Earned His Comp Car This Week

Oregon's Chip Kelly (35), who has patched things up remarkably well after that Hindenburg beginning to his head-coaching tenure in Eugene. The Ducks capped their three-game revival from the horrific opening loss to Boise State by mauling fraudulent California 42-3. Along the way, Kelly looked smart for sticking with senior quarterback Jeremiah Masoli (36) as his starter. Masoli was uglier than Oregon's uniforms for the first three games, completing fewer than 50 percent of his passes with zero touchdowns and two interceptions. But with Kelly's confidence behind him, Masoli responded by shredding Cal's talented secondary, completing 21 of 25 passes for 253 yards and three touchdowns with no picks. At this point, Kelly could conduct an entire offseason clinic on his first month as a head coach.

Coach Who Should Take The Bus To Work

But first, he should take the bus to anger management counseling. That would be first-year New Mexico coach Mike Locksley (37), who on Sept. 20 punched assistant coach J.B. Gerald during a heated staff meeting. This comes after Locksley was accused this past spring of sexual harassment, age discrimination and retaliation in an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint filed by a former football administrative assistant. (Athletic director Paul Krebs told The Associated Press that the harassment case is "close to resolution.")

Oh, and New Mexico is winless and ranks 100th or worse in 14 statistical categories among 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams. All things considered, Locksley is somewhat fortunate to get a second month on the job.

Rivalry Totem Of The Week

It's the Old Hickory Stick (38), which on Saturday went to Northwest Missouri State after it mauled old rival Truman State 70-0. The NCAA Web site touted it as the 75th battle for the Old Hickory Stick, quite literally a 30-inch piece of wood the president of Northwest Missouri found on farm property in 1930 and decided it was worth fighting over, football-wise.

The schools began playing for its possession in 1931. It is allegedly the oldest traveling trophy in NCAA Division II, and it outdates even the celebrated porcine hero Floyd of Rosedale by several years.

Putting Out An APB For …

… Former nose guard Tony Casillas (39), the unblockable middle man and 1985 Lombardi Award winner for the national champion Sooners. Anyone with information on the whereabouts of the second overall pick of the 1986 NFL draft, please apprise The Dash.

Point After

When thirsty in the bucolic burgh of Bowling Green, Ohio, The Dash recommends a beer at Campus Quarters (40), an energetic joint across the street from Doyt Perry Stadium and the Bowling Green campus in general. The excessive country music in the place is offset nicely by a good beer selection, and it has indoor corn toss.

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