It's a mad, mad season so far
Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (Bahamas excursions and diamond earrings available separately in Chapel Hill  -- if you've got the agent hook-up):
We've reached the midpoint of the 2010 regular season, and judging by what we saw this past weekend, the fun is just heating up. The upsets and wild finishes and odd decisions and poll-related outrage are intensifying now. The stakes are escalating. The sanity is slipping. Thus The Dash offers up a midterm laced with madness.
It's a mad (hatter), mad (men), mad (town), mad (cow) world
Mad Hatter: For the second straight week, The Dash is compelled to begin with beguiling LSU coach Les Miles (2). If you want further proof to back up last week's revelation that Miles made a deal with the devil to win above and beyond his coaching acumen, well, here it is:
According to NCAA statistics, FBS teams have played 666 games this season.
Coincidence? The Dash thinks not.
Among the most memorable of those games are the two most recent involving LSU. We covered the Tigers' ham-handed, error-ridden victory over Tennessee last week. Now we must address their much more inspired and well-earned -- but still lucky -- victory Saturday in The Swamp.
Feel free to attempt this at home: Get down on one knee, take a football and toss it blindly over your head. See how many times, out of 10, you can get the thing to bounce up as perfectly as it did Saturday night for holder Derek Helton (3). His errant fake-field-goal lateral somehow caromed to kicker Josh Jasper (4) in stride, on his way to one of the more shocking first downs of 2010. Four plays later, LSU scored the winning touchdown to beat Florida 33-29.
So Miles got that deal-with-the-devil bounce to make that play work. But it gets even more Les-like when you consider this: According to Louisiana media reports, neither Helton nor Jasper was in the huddle when Miles called the fake -- they were practicing kicking and holding. And neither knew the fake was on until they were back on the field.
Jasper said special-teams coordinator Joe Robinson "waved me down and told me." Jasper then relayed the call to Helton, whose response was, "Really?"
Hey, that's how Miles rolls. And at 6-0, he is rolling. Who would dare to bet against The Hat now?
Mad Men: Lester the Jester isn't the only coach willing to take a significant in-game risk these days. Wherever you look, coaches are making like Don Draper and going for the gusto in every direction. The Dash cannot recall a half-season with more gambles taken in tight situations. Among them:
Mark Dantonio (5) of Michigan State called that stunner of a fake field goal attempt to beat Notre Dame on Sept. 18. It remains the gold standard for successful coaching gambles of 2010. In his health-related absence against Wisconsin, the Spartans went for it on fourth down three times, including throwing a game-clinching 1-yard touchdown pass in the final minutes.
Nick Saban (6) of Alabama went for a fourth-and-inches in his own territory while clinging to a 24-20 lead over Arkansas. That one worked. He also dialed up a fake field goal attempt while trailing South Carolina 28-21. That one didn't work.
Steve Spurrier (7) of South Carolina went for a fourth-and-1 from his own 35 Saturday while holding a 28-21 lead. That one worked brilliantly. The Gamecocks got the first down and drove all the way for the clinching touchdown.
Even Joe Paterno (8), of all conservative thinkers, has thrown caution to the wind and gone for it on fourth down nine times already this season. Penn State went for it six times all last year. Of course, JoePa might know that, with his current punchless offense, it will take at least four downs (and possibly a defensive penalty) to grind out 10 yards.
Mad Town: That's the nickname given to Madison, Wis., site of this week's Ohio State-Wisconsin (9) showdown. If it was difficult for the previous No. 1 team to go on the road and play a ranked underdog, expect similar difficulty for the freshly elevated No. 1.
The Buckeyes have played just one road game this season. The result was a 24-13 stagger past Illinois.
They also have a history of close, low-scoring games under Jim Tressel in Camp Randall Stadium. Total score of those three meetings: Ohio State 49, Wisconsin 48.
Predicted score of this meeting: Badgers 21, Buckeyes 20.
Mad Cow: Among the other marquee locales Saturday is Lincoln, Neb. Texas-Nebraska (10) is not the game it appeared to be in August, but there is still plenty of intrigue.
One big question: Can the Longhorns match the simmering anger of their opponent? Nebraska has been spoiling for this particular fight ever since one second went back on the clock in the Big 12 championship game and Texas kicked the winning field goal to avoid a massive upset. The resentment only deepened when the Cornhuskers announced during the summer that they were leaving a league the Longhorns had come to control.
Yet there should be no small amount of bile in the belly of the Horns -- some toward Nebraska, but plenty toward themselves. They have made a mess of this season to date, and have had two weeks to stew in their back-to-back losses to UCLA and Oklahoma.
If we don't see Texas' best performance of the season Saturday, The Dash will be surprised. But if it's good enough to beat a Nebraska team that looked awfully good Thursday at Kansas State, The Dash will be even more surprised.
Predicted score: Nebraska 21, Texas 17.
Mad Dash: Every week, there is freshly annoying evidence that Snob America simply isn't ready for an outsider national championship contender. Consider this week's polls.
Boise State (11) is No. 3 in the USA Today coaches' poll and the Harris Interactive Poll. TCU (12) is No. 5 with USA Today and No. 4 with Harris.
Yet by BCS computer average, where laundry is not taken into account, these two schools rule. The Broncos are No. 1 with two computers (Sagarin, Massey), No. 2 with Billingsley, No. 5 with Colley and No. 6 with Anderson. (The sixth, Wolfe, has not yet released its rankings.) TCU is No. 2 with Sagarin and Massey, No. 3 with Colley, No. 4 with Billingsley and No. 7 with Anderson.
All five computers have both Boise and TCU ranked higher than the consensus 1-2 in the polls, Ohio State (which is anywhere from sixth to 15th) and Oregon (fourth to 10th).
The Dash understands that those computer numbers may well change, as strength of schedule ebbs for the Broncos and the Horned Frogs. But as of right now, they're both being dissed by voters in favor of Establishment teams.
Boise continued to lose ground to Ohio State and Oregon in the USA Today poll. The Broncos slipped from 101 points behind the Buckeyes to 120 behind and from 24 points behind the Ducks to 53 behind.
TCU suffered the same indignity. It slipped from 190 points behind Ohio State to 242 behind and from 113 points behind the Ducks to 175 points behind.
Based on what, you ask? Here's what:
Oregon beat Washington State by 20.
Ohio State beat Indiana by 28.
Boise beat Toledo by 43.
TCU beat Wyoming by 45.
The laundry loyalists either decided there simply was no way the sudden Alabama power vacuum at the top was going to be filled by outsiders or decided beating Washington State and Indiana was more impressive than beating Toledo and Wyoming.
The latter possibility overlooks the fact that neither Indiana nor Washington State has accomplished anything this year. Average computer rankings for those four, as of this week: Toledo 57.2, Wyoming 68, Indiana 83.2, Washington State 94.8.
Bottom line: Boise and TCU had more impressive victories than Oregon and Ohio State, but were penalized anyway. You cannot objectively dismiss the Broncos and Frogs for the schedules they've played so far, but objectivity isn't getting much run in the notoriously nonsensical coaches' poll.
(That can also be seen in the treatment accorded to Oregon State (13). The Beavers have played an incredible schedule to date -- at Boise, at TCU, at Arizona. They lost the first two in respectable fashion, by a combined 22 points. They beat then-No. 9 Arizona on Saturday. Their reward? No ranking, and fewer votes than a Texas team that has been a flaming disappointment so far.)
One last word on the matter: Bus.
Midnight Madness: It's coming this week in college basketball, but it's also continuing in college football. Namely in the form of one of the biggest wild card of the season, Nevada (14). The undefeated, 19th-ranked Wolf Pack plays at 11:30 p.m. ET Saturday at Hawaii -- their fifth kickoff at 10 p.m. or later so far.
Many voters are having to stay up (and hold their ballots) until well past midnight to keep tabs on what could be the last major hurdle Boise has left on its schedule.
Stop the Madness: The following stats are strange but true:
BYU (15), forever known as an offensive juggernaut, has failed to score 25 points in a game this year. Last time that happened through its first six games: 1970.
Michigan State (16), never known as an offensive juggernaut, has scored 30 or more points in every game this year. Last time that happened through six games: never.
The state of Pennsylvania (17), long revered as one of the great football hotbeds in America, is a combined 6-8 against FBS competition this year. Penn State is 2-3 (with victories over Kent State and in-state compatriot Temple); Pittsburgh is 1-3 (with a victory over Florida International); and Temple is 3-2 (with victories over Central Michigan, Connecticut and Army). In what now seems like a gross miscalculation, the Nittany Lions and Panthers were ranked when the season began.
The states of Texas (18) and California (19), where there are a combined 17 FBS programs and approximately a jillion great football players, have a combined two teams in the rankings. One is TCU, where the home fans were so excited about their team's top-five ranking that they left more than 5,000 seats empty in 44,358-seat Amon Carter Stadium for the Wyoming game. The other is Stanford, where the players are supposed to be too smart to be this good.
Mad About You: That would be Dashette Sara Paxton (20), who would class up any tailgate.
Midseason awards, trends and predictions
One Shining Moment Award: To UAB (21). The Blazers' only victory to date came via miracle finish -- trailing Troy 33-27, they drove 99 yards in 69 seconds with no timeouts, scoring the winning touchdown on a 44-yard Hail Mary from Corey Robinson to Jackie Williams on the final play. At one point, UAB trailed 23-0. If you're going to be 1-4, might as well make the one victory memorable.
Premature Pronouncement of the Half-Year: That defenses had caught up with the spread offense (22). That was a common preseason conclusion among a portion of the cognoscenti, and it has proved completely false -- at least with the run-centric versions of the offense. Oregon is torching opponents with the spread. Denard Robinson, Taylor Martinez and Cam Newton are zone-reading defenses to death. Just because the spread is on the shelf at Texas and in need of repairs at Florida, don't assume it's dead.
Upgrade of the Half-Year: The offense at Nebraska (23). Last year, the Cornhuskers had five games with one or fewer offensive touchdowns -- and most of the TDs they did have came at the end of plodding drives. Now, with the injection of Martinez's big-play ability, Nebraska's offense is a constant home run threat. The Huskers' 21 rushing touchdowns have covered an average of 31.8 yards per run, and their five TD passes have averaged 42.3 yards per pass.
Peasant Revolt Award: Will go to the Big East (24). Syracuse and Louisville combined to go 4-24 the past two years in conference play, finishing tied for last both seasons. This year, the Orange are off to a 1-0 league start after winning at South Florida and the Cardinals just crushed Memphis 56-0 to improve to 3-2. Given the marshmallow-soft nature of the league, both can finish in the top half and earn bowl bids.
Revelation of the Half-Year: Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon (25). He got a brief chance to strut his stuff last year after Dez Bryant was benched by the NCAA, catching 20 passes as a redshirt freshman. This year, he looks like Bryant's clone, leading the nation in receiving yards per game (149.6) and scoring (11 TDs) for the surprising 5-0 Cowboys.
Goner of the Year: North Carolina coach Butch Davis (26), whose troubles go far beyond on-field performance. There is absolutely no way he'll survive the deep and pervasive scandal in his program. Others heading into a stressful second half of the season: Tim Brewster at Minnesota; Dan Hawkins at Colorado; Dennis Erickson at Arizona State; Joe Paterno (if things really go south, and someone can tell him it's time to go); Rich Rodriguez at Michigan (if it goes south again); Ron Zook at Illinois (though he might be in salvage mode); Mark Richt (off-field problems might be worse than his 2-4 record); Dave Wannstedt at Pittsburgh; Ralph Friedgen at Maryland; Paul Wulff at Washington State; Mike Sherman at Texas A&M.
Hot Name of the Half-Year: Stanford's Jim Harbaugh (27). He had several potential suitors last season but decided to stay put on The Farm, in no small part because he wanted to coach dynamite quarterback Andrew Luck. Now that the Cardinal are ranked and Harbaugh is 3-1 against USC, there figure to be more offers this year -- college and pro. If Luck enters the draft, does Harbaugh enter a different phase of his coaching career?
Collapse Award: SEC East (28). What once was the toughest division in the nation is now a halfway house for programs in transition (Florida), in turmoil (Georgia) and resembling the Titanic (Tennessee). Plus a basketball school (Kentucky) and a serious school (Vanderbilt). If South Carolina doesn't win the East this season, the Chicken Curse is undeniable.
Overrated Result of the Half-Year, Part I: James Madison 21, Virginia Tech 16 (29). It hasn't ruined the season for the Hokies, who remain The Dash's pick to win the ACC. And it hasn't killed Boise State, given its current computer rankings.
Overrated Result of the Half-Year, Part II: Oklahoma 47, Florida State 17 (30). Neither team has played a game resembling that one before or since. The Sooners have won their other four games, but by a combined total of only 20 points while ranking a sketchy 90th in rushing offense and 93rd in total defense. The Seminoles are otherwise unbeaten and have triumphed in every win by a minimum of 20 points.
Underrated Result of the Half-Year, Part I: LSU 14, Tennessee 10 (31). If the Volunteers don't do the inexplicable and line up with 13 men on the final play, the SEC is further weakened at the top and Les Miles is on the hot seat even at 5-1. Instead, the league has three teams in the top 10 and Miles is hailed as a wacky genius.
Underrated Result of the Half-Year, Part II: Michigan State 34, Michigan 17 (32). Detoured the Denard Robinson Heisman bandwagon, and reinserted some doubt about Rodriguez -- but that's only half the story. With Ohio State off the schedule, the Spartans might be underdogs only once in the second half of the year (at Iowa, Oct. 30). They're starting to get that team-of-destiny feel about them; what if the Big Ten produces two unbeatens? (Odds might be better that it produces none.)
Subject Change of the Half-Year: By Minnesota coach Tim Brewster (33), who ripped Wisconsin's Bret Bielema to his face and in the media after the Badgers' 41-23 whipping of the Gophers to retain the Paul Bunyan Ax. Brewster's ax to grind was over Bielema's decision to go for two while leading 41-16. Although a gripe can be raised about that move, it seemed to be more a chance for Brewster to talk about something other than his own dwindling job support.
Streak in Jeopardy: Eleven straight winning seasons by Boston College (34). The Eagles are 2-3, with both wins over tomato cans and all three losses by at least 18 points. Even in a lackluster ACC, it's hard to find five more victories.
Streak in Jeopardy II: Eight straight nine-win seasons by USC (35). (Unless you discount the vacated victories from the Reggie Bush fiasco.) The Trojans are a wobbly 4-2 with no easy games remaining and three ranked opponents ahead. Monte Kiffin's defense is mysteriously porous, and you have to wonder about the motivation (or lack thereof) for a team with no bowl game at season's end.
The seven potential separation/elimination games (36) to come: Of the 13 remaining unbeaten teams, there is a chance for eight games between them. The list:
LSU at Auburn, Oct. 23. Odds both will still be unbeaten: Decent. The Tigers need only navigate past McNeese State, although Auburn has the much more difficult task of defeating Arkansas.
Nebraska at Oklahoma State, Oct. 23. Odds that both will still be unbeaten: Dicey. Cornhuskers must overcome Texas and the Cowboys must win at Texas Tech, something they haven't done since get this 1944. But this could be a trap-game spot for Nebraska if it invests everything in beating the Longhorns.
Missouri at Nebraska, Oct. 30. Odds both will still be unbeaten: Slim. Nebraska must handle Texas and Oklahoma State. Missouri must win at Texas A&M, then beat Oklahoma in the Tigers' homecoming game.
TCU at Utah, Nov. 6. Odds both will still be unbeaten: Strong. Both must beat Air Force first, but that's the only significant hurdle.
Boise State at Nevada, Nov. 26. Odds both will still be unbeaten: Prohibitive. Nevada must negotiate road games at Hawaii and Fresno State, but has the firepower to win both. Boise runs very little risk of losing before this game.
Oklahoma at Oklahoma State, Nov. 27. Odds both will still be unbeaten: Long. Far too many chances for the Cowboys to lose between now and then. And the Sooners have three road games to deal with before trip to Stillwater.
Oklahoma vs. Nebraska in the Big 12 championship game. Odds both will still be unbeaten: Feasible. Both could be favored in every remaining regular-season game -- but there's a lot of fish to fry between now and December.
Last interception pool we have a winnerOregon State's Ryan Katz (37) captures the coveted LIP on the same day he throws his first pick. Also on the day of his finest performance as a collegian. Katz had an interception against Arizona but wins because his last competitor standing, Utah backup Terrance Cain, did not throw enough passes to remain eligible for the NCAA top 100 passers. Katz shook off his first pick to complete 30 of 42 passes for 393 yards, all career highs, in the upset of the Wildcats.
Putting out an APB for
Former Oklahoma State 1980s defensive line star Leslie O'Neal (38). Anyone with information on arguably the Cowboys' best-ever defensive player, please apprise The Dash.
Meanwhile, The Dash is pleased to report that last week's APB subject, former Arizona defensive lineman Rob Waldrop (39), is reported to be alive and well and living in Los Angeles, where he works in law enforcement. Thanks to all the Dash spies -- including some of Waldrop's former teammates -- for helping locate the former Outland Trophy winner.
The Dash didn't leave town this past weekend, so the tip is local. When hungry and thirsty in Louisville, Ky., check out the newly opened Brick House Tavern (40). It has all a football fan's essentials: TVs everywhere, outdoor seating with fire pit, 60 beers on the menu and some intriguing food items (Dominant Red Meat Chili, Submissive Baked Potato Soup).
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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