Dash of reviews and previews
Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (asbestos-lined silver breeches sold separately in Athens, Ga., where the seat is heating up beneath Mark Richt ):
As is often the case in college football, we spend a good portion of the offseason discussing the wrong stuff. We overlook players and teams that come out of nowhere. We overhype players and teams that end up busting. We make bad predictions.
So with a month of evidence now in the books, it's time to look back at September and see where we missed. Then The Dash will move on to predicting how October will shape the season -- thus giving us more prognostications to laugh at another month from now.
Team we're talking about now that we weren't when September began: Stanford (2). The Cardinal were unranked before the season and were picked to finish fourth in the Pac-10 in July. Today the Cardinal are ninth in the AP poll and 13th in the USA Today poll, and they have trailed for a total of 4 minutes, 34 seconds all season. Stanford is 19th nationally in rushing, even without 2009 Heisman Trophy finalist Toby Gerhart, but the biggest surprise has been the defensive improvement. Coach Jim Harbaugh shuffled his defensive staff in the offseason and has gotten results. Stanford is fourth nationally in pass-efficiency defense after finishing 98th in that category last year; sixth in sacks after finishing 78th last year; and 11th in total defense after finishing 90th last year.
Player we're talking about now that we weren't when September began: Denard Robinson (3), Michigan. He wasn't on any Heisman lists before the season started, in no small part because we weren't sure whether he'd even be the Wolverines' starting quarterback until the day of Michigan's opener against Connecticut. More than 1,400 yards of total offense and four victories later, it's pretty safe to say Shoelace is on our radar.
Coach we're talking about now that we weren't when September began: Mark Dantonio (4), Michigan State. Dantonio had done well at Cincinnati and in his first two years in East Lansing, but the 2009 Spartans flopped a bit under big expectations and we kind of forgot about him. This year they're 4-0, but the true talking point came Sept. 18 when Dantonio made the Call of the Month, ordering up a brazen fake field goal to beat Notre Dame in overtime. Then, just to make sure he hogged the headlines, the coach had a mild heart attack several hours after that thriller. (He's expected to make a full recovery.) Dantonio missed the Spartans' pounding of Northern Colorado, but he will coach from the press box in Saturday's big home game against Wisconsin.
(Honorable mention in this category goes to Nevada's Chris Ault, now on his third stint as coach of the Wolf Pack after retiring and unretiring twice, becoming the school's athletic director for a spell, and perhaps being the pit boss at a Reno casino. Ault's team is in the Top 25 for the first time since 1948 -- not a misprint, not a joke -- and his pistol offense has become the hottest trend in college football.)
Conference we're talking about now that we weren't when September began: Pac-10 (5). There wasn't a single Pac-10 school ranked in the AP top 10 to start the season. Now there are two (Oregon is fourth, Stanford ninth). Arizona is lurking at No. 14. USC is still hanging around at No. 18. UCLA has found new life after a rough start. Oregon State has played the two toughest road games of anyone in America. Arizona State is more competitive than most expected. Good league.
Team we talked about too much: Texas (6). The Longhorns had proved recession-proof for so long that most of us automatically assumed that would continue. Apparently, losing the winningest quarterback in college football history (Colt McCoy), the all-time Texas receptions leader (Jordan Shipley) and three top-45 draft picks from the defense (Earl Thomas, Sergio Kindle and Lamarr Houston) can set a team back after all. The Horns' offense is anemic, ranking 77th nationally, and they're turning the ball over at an uncharacteristic rate.
Player we talked about too much: Jake Locker (7), Washington. He's 68th nationally in pass efficiency while leading a 1-2 team. End of hype.
Coach we talked about too much: Butch Davis (8), North Carolina. Then again, all the talk was bad. And deserved to be bad. And remains bad. The Tar Heels' most promising season since the Mack Brown days continues to be scuttled by the twin scandals of alleged agent-related benefits and alleged academic fraud. What remains to be seen is whether Davis will continue to keep his job when all the smoke has cleared.
Conference we talked about too much: The Big East (9). What little preseason buzz the league generated was too much in retrospect, given the wreckage of a 1-11 record against opponents from other BCS conferences. (The ACC continues to run a competitive second in the race for Worst Big-Time League.) Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Connecticut have been the most disappointing to date, owning a combined one victory over FBS opponents -- and the skin on the wall is Buffalo's, which is a pretty shabby skin.
Team we're not paying enough attention to: Florida (10). Hard as it is to believe, the usually intensely covered Gators are actually flying under the radar a bit now. There is far less star power on this team, and its struggles offensively the first three weeks left Florida as unsexy as it has been since the Ron Zook era. (Said era reached Mark Mangino-in-drag levels of unsexy.) But after all that time in the spotlight, you get the feeling Urban Meyer's group has warmed up to being doubted. The Gators crushed Kentucky on Saturday, jazzing up the attack with multitalented freshman quarterback Trey Burton, and now travel to Tuscaloosa as an underdog for the first time in 40 games. Will they respond with a pressure-free performance?
Player we're not paying enough attention to: Jordan Culbreath (11), Princeton. The Dash wrote about Culbreath last season, which he missed most of after being diagnosed with a life-threatening case of aplastic anemia. But the Ivy League's 2008 rushing leader received a medical redshirt, came back this season and ranks right alongside Boston College's Mark Herzlich on the inspirational player list. The running back took his comeback to a new level by scoring the winning touchdown in double overtime Saturday as the Tigers topped Lafayette 36-33. Awesome.
Trend of the Month: First-year starting quarterbacks who can throw and run. The list starts with Robinson at Michigan, of course. But don't forget Cam Newton (12) at Auburn, Taylor Martinez (13) at Nebraska, Darron Thomas (14) at Oregon and Dan Persa (15) at Northwestern.
Game of the Month: Boise State 33, Virginia Tech 30 (16). Game had great drama, huge stakes, a huge television audience -- and produced a huge hangover effect for the Hokies.
Missing Ingredient of the Month: Upsets. There were a few gems from the FCS schools, but only one that cleared space in the stampede toward the national title. That was last Saturday: UCLA 34, Texas 12 (17). Now that most of the pushover nonconference games have been cleared from the docket, The Dash expects to see some more surprising results and some more ranked teams going down.
Dumbest Dash Move of the Month: Getting suckered into the new-coach, new-beginning hype at chronically overrated Notre Dame (18) and Florida State (19). The Dash put both in the preseason Top 25. Both still have a chance to regroup and save seasons -- they've combined for four losses to four undefeated teams, not exactly a disaster -- but neither was ready to start the season ranked.
Smartest Dash Move of the Month: Enlisting Dania Ramirez (20) in the Dashette army. You're welcome, readers.
Now on to October ...... And the 10 games next month that will most directly shape the national championship chase:
Florida at Alabama (21), Oct. 2.
Why it's big: You mean beyond the fact that they're both ranked in the top 10? Well, there's this: The winner of the past two meetings between these schools has gone on to win the national championship.
Why it's interesting: Nick Saban versus Urban Meyer is the current gold standard of coaching rivalries. Since 2001, they've combined to win four national titles and taken four different schools to eight BCS bowls. And they'd rather chug a pitcher of molten lava than lose.
Who will win: Alabama, 23-17.
Stanford at Oregon (22), Oct. 2.
Why it's big: Another top-10 matchup that will establish a firm favorite to win a conference. It also could significantly impact two Heisman candidacies (Stanford's Andrew Luck, Oregon's LaMichael James).
Why it's interesting: If Saban and Meyer are two of the established coaching stars in college football, Jim Harbaugh and Chip Kelly are two of the rising ones. Which one is ready to step into the post-Pete Carroll coaching void atop the Pac-10?
Who will win: Oregon, 35-31.
Oklahoma vs. Texas (23), Oct. 2.
Why it's big: The Red River Rivalry is always big, but this one lost some serious steam when the Longhorns were smashed by UCLA. Still, Oklahoma is a legitimate national championship aspirant. Texas can severely damage those aspirations while also getting a long leg up in the Big 12 South race.
Why it's interesting: Texas' sluggish offense is 77th nationally. Oklahoma's lax defense is 97th nationally. Which disappointing unit steps up in a big-time atmosphere?
Who will win: Oklahoma, 24-20.
Virginia Tech at NC State (24), Oct. 2.
Why it's big: Wolfpack are the last unbeaten team in the ACC, and thus carry whatever spindly national championship hopes that exist for the league. Hokies continue to carry part of Boise State's banner with them, making this another big game the Broncos don't play in. (More on the Boise bus later.)
Why it's interesting: Matchup of the two best quarterbacks in the ACC. Tech's Tyrod Taylor is 15th nationally in pass efficiency; State's Russell Wilson is 14th nationally in total offense. Both seemingly have been at their respective schools since the pre-face mask days.
Who will win: Virginia Tech, 21-19.
LSU at Florida (25), Oct. 9.
Why it's big: If the Gators win in Tuscaloosa this week and the Tigers beat Tennessee in Baton Rouge, this elevates to something near huge status. If one of the two wins, it's still very big. If neither wins, never mind.
Why it's interesting: Simply to see how long LSU can continue winning with an absolute mess of an offense. The Tigers are mesmerizingly bad in the passing game, ranking 115th nationally despite having all manner of five-star recruits out there running routes. Starting QB Jordan Jefferson hasn't thrown a touchdown since the opener against The Remains of North Carolina, and hasn't thrown for 100 yards in a game since then either -- but backup Jarrett Lee is a scary option after constantly throwing the ball to the wrong team two years ago. Alleged game-breaker Russell Shepherd had three touches from scrimmage Saturday against West Virginia, for a total of 6 yards. Defensive back/kick returner Patrick Peterson is LSU's best offense at this point.
Who will win: Florida, 16-6.
Michigan State at Michigan (26), Oct. 9.
Why it's big: One or both could still be undefeated, and rather unexpectedly so given preseason expectations. If that team is the Spartans, their Big Ten title aspirations rise with a victory over Michigan, since there is no Ohio State on the schedule. If that team is the Wolverines, Rich Rodriguez's job security rises with a victory over the in-state rivals, since he's 0-2 against Sparty while at Michigan.
Why it's interesting: The Dash wants to see Michigan State middle linebacker and playmaker Greg Jones against the skittering feet of Denard Robinson. The 235-pound Jones can put a hurt on the 190-pound Robinson -- if he can catch him.
Who will win: Michigan, 30-24.
Ohio State at Wisconsin (27), Oct. 16.
Why it's big: Buckeyes have an inside path to the national title game if they keep winning. Badgers, who haven't yet played up to their preseason hype, could vault into that mix rather quickly with a victory here.
Why it's interesting: By that point, the Buckeyes will have played just one road game -- and that's at Illinois, which barely counts. They're a veteran bunch, but it still will present a significant challenge. Jim Tressel is only 4-3 against the Badgers while at Ohio State, and the Bucks have averaged just 16.3 points in their past three trips to Camp Randall.
Who will win: Ohio State, 24-14.
Texas at Nebraska (28), Oct. 16.
Why it's big: Cornhuskers should be undefeated heading into what could be their only game of the regular season against a ranked opponent -- unless Texas keeps losing and drops out of the Top 25, rendering Nebraska's long-awaited Game of the Year a huge anticlimax.
Why it's interesting: See the aforementioned Game of the Year mention. And see the original Red Out Around the World video and logo from the summer. And see the way the 2009 Big 12 championship game ended. Nebraskans like to maintain that they're much too polite to be out for blood -- but rest assured, they're out for blood.
Who will win: Texas, 13-12.
Air Force at TCU (29), Oct. 23.
Why it's big: Falcons look like the only legitimate hurdle for the Horned Frogs between now and the Nov. 6 trip to Utah.
Why it's interesting: Air Force has made life difficult for TCU two of the past three years, winning 20-17 in 2007 and losing by that same score last year in horrid Colorado Springs weather. If the Falcons could play Oklahoma to within three points in Norman, they should be capable of hanging with the Horned Frogs.
Who will win: TCU, 23-16.
Oregon at USC (30), Oct. 30.
Why it's big: Ducks' drive toward a Pac-10 title and potential national championship berth must go through a stadium (the L.A. Coliseum) where they've lost their past two visits by a combined 59 points. And just in case USC upgrades its uninspiring play of the opening month and is still unbeaten, threatening to throw a rogue wrench into the championship proceedings? Then we'd really have something.
Why it's interesting: Kelly's go-go spread versus Monte Kiffin's I've-seen-every-offense-ever-devised defense.
Who will win: Oregon, 35-21.
And if all the above comes to pass, the lead pack in the national championship chase will be whittled down to Alabama, Ohio State, Boise State, Oregon and TCU. And the arguing will really heat up. Speaking of which ...
Bus vs. gods
The Dash's Boise Bus (31) added spinning rims and mud flaps that read "BCS" and "Buster" after defeating Oregon State on Saturday night. The Broncos are now riding in greater style toward a potential Establishment-enraging bid to the BCS National Championship Game.
In the ongoing battle to buttress their strength of schedule, they got some help over the weekend from previous opponent Virginia Tech (beat Boston College 19-0 on the road) and two future opponents: Nevada (beat BYU 27-13 on the road) and Toledo (upset Purdue 31-20 on the road). The Broncos were not helped by Idaho (lost to previously winless Colorado State), Fresno State (blown out at Ole Miss), Utah State (blown out at San Diego State) or Louisiana Tech (lost by a point to Southern Miss). So a mixed bag -- but Sagarin's computer lists Boise's strength of schedule to date as No. 19 in the nation, which is topped in his Top 25 by only Virginia Tech (No. 10) and LSU (No. 13).
But with Boise now approaching an October of what should be cruise-control victories, The Dash suspects that the Establishment has beseeched the gridiron gods for vengeful intervention.
All around us, there are signs.
Look at this freaky photo from the Central Florida-Kansas State (32) game Saturday. Is that not an End of Days sky? Is it not possible that the gods were prepared to remove Manhattan, Kan. -- a place where the program was built from humble origins by beating low-profile opponents -- from the face of the Earth as a warning shot to the Broncos?
That game was delayed because of the weather. So were games in the South -- including the one at Florida State, another program that made a famous up-by-the-bootstraps rise under another trickeration-favoring coach, Bobby Bowden.
In the Northeast, permanent underdog Temple (33) was flirting with what would have been its first victory over Penn State since before America entered World War II. Then star running back Bernard Pierce was struck down with an ankle injury, and the Nittany Lions rallied to win. Coincidence? The Dash thinks not.
So while the Boise Bus rolls on, it does so with heightened awareness. Trap setters are everywhere. Next stop for the Broncos is Saturday at New Mexico State. They'd best not get crosswise in Las Cruces with the angry gridiron gods.
In The Dash's ongoing series of football book recommendations, it's time to tout the anti-Establishment manifesto "Death to the BCS (34)," by Yahoo writers Dan Wetzel, Josh Peter and Jeff Passan. What the book lacks in subtlety it makes up for in ferocity, attacking the BCS from the opening page and never letting up on the theme that the college football bowl system is a terrible way to crown a champion of a great sport.
The book smartly offers a compelling alternative -- a 16-team playoff -- early in the narrative. Then it gets back to skewering the system, using financial statements from schools to point out that many schools lose more money than they make -- even on the high-dollar bowls. (Virginia Tech's expense summary from the 2009 Orange Bowl shows more than $3.8 million in expenses, including $1.77 million in a shortfall of selling tickets the school and ACC agreed to buy as the price of playing in the game.)
The book comes out in mid-October, timed for release with the first BCS standings of the year. That will only add to what could be one of the most contentious seasons in BCS history.
Last interception pool
It's time once again for The Dash's annual Last Interception Pool, wherein we identify the final quarterbacks in the NCAA's top 100 in pass efficiency who haven't thrown a pick. The field is down to four:
Terrance Cain (35), Utah. Zero interceptions in 49 passes. Cain and the Utes head into a bye week, which might be the ticket to L.I.P. victory. But Cain also is a backup, which means that if the competition extends past this week, he might fall out of the top 100 by not having enough attempts to qualify. Next game: at Iowa State Oct. 9. The Cyclones have seven interceptions.
Ben Chappell (36), Indiana. Zero interceptions in 98 attempts. Chappell has thrown the most passes of anyone still alive in the L.I.P., but he's also played against soft competition (Towson, Western Kentucky, Akron). That will end this week. Next game: home against Michigan on Saturday. The Wolverines have six interceptions.
Omar Clayton (37), UNLV. Zero interceptions in 81 attempts. Clayton hasn't thrown any passes to the opposition, but he hasn't thrown many to his own teammates, either. (Just 41 of 81 for the season.) Next game: home against in-state rival Nevada, which has five interceptions.
Ryan Katz (38), Oregon State. Zero interceptions in 77 attempts. Katz is another low-accuracy, no-interception passer (36 of 77 on the season). But he's also survived playing two top-five teams, so you have to like his chances of keeping the streak alive. Next game: home against Arizona State, which has five interceptions.
Putting out an APB for ...... The only quarterback to take Mississippi State to the SEC championship game, Wayne Madkin (39). Anyone with information on the whereabouts of the Bulldogs' career leader in passing yards and completions, please apprise The Dash.
Meanwhile, The Dash thanks readers for the voluminous responses to last week's APB subject, the inventor of the high-bounce onside kick. Turns out that nailing that down is about like nailing down the inventor of the jump shot -- there are plenty of people claiming to be first.
The kicker who was mentioned most by readers is former NFL star Morten Andersen, with Olindo Mare in second. On the college level, one cited former Miami Hurricanes kicker Carlos Huerta for executing a high-bounce masterpiece in a comeback victory at Michigan in 1988 (The Dash was there; it was a beauty).
And then there were several other interesting claims to fame.
One guy said he kicked high-bounce onsiders to himself at Emmettsburg Catholic Middle School in 1996.
A fellow named Eric George said he kicked them in 1973 at Long Beach State.
One reader who is the former radio play-by-play announcer for Baldwin-Wallace College in Ohio said the school executed the high-bounce kick in the late 1960s. The coach at the time: Lee Tressel (Jim's dad).
And in the oldest claim to the art, the son of coach Tom West said his dad employed the high-bounce kick at Midview High School in Elyria, Ohio, in the mid-'60s. He said his dad, who is still coaching in West Virginia, loves to tell stories about recovering three straight onside kicks in one game.
When thirsty in Fayetteville, The Dash recommends a visit to Farrell's Lounge (40) on the excellently festive Dickson Street. Tons of good beer on draft, plenty of TVs, and you're a short walk to a lot of other cool spots. Only recommendation for improvement would be a little more pep in the step of the bartenders on a busy football weekend. Thank The Dash later.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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