Commentary

2010 season delivering unhappy notes

Originally Published: November 16, 2010
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (reality check sold separately at Utah [1], where the Utes have gone from unbeaten to retreatin' in two brutal weeks):

Year from hell

Although there have been many thrills, surprises and enjoyable adventures this college football season, there also has been an epidemic of scandal, strife and tragedy. All things considered, this season is less fun and more troubling than it should have been.

It started with a stripped Heisman Trophy and body-slam sanctions during the summer for Reggie Bush (2) and USC (3). Funny that we're now faced with similar potential circumstances five months later. Actually, it's not funny at all.

The issue now, of course, is the thundercloud hovering over Cameron Newton (4). How do we view the Auburn quarterback -- and, by extension, how do we view the Auburn team?

The NCAA is investigating multiple on-the-record sources alleging that in 2009, Newton's father solicited six figures for his son's commitment out of junior college, working through a man with ties to an agent. The FBI is investigating as well. An unprecedented situation is ongoing, jeopardizing the credibility of the entire sport as the season winds into its decisive final weeks.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesCam Newton has rumbled on the field and sparked rumblings off it.

When will the public -- especially the section of the public tasked with voting in a Top 25 poll or for the Heisman Trophy -- know what it needs to know? Before or after the season's most crucial decisions have been made?

If you're a voter in the USA Today or Harris polls, you have to be feeling some anxiety and indecision over what to do with your very important vote. If you're a voter for the Heisman Trophy, you have to be feeling the same way.

For the poll voters: If you keep Auburn in the top two, significantly increasing the Tigers' chances of playing in the BCS National Championship Game, what happens if it's later ruled that they played an ineligible player and their appearance is vacated? Then it's just tough luck for Boise State and/or TCU, huh? Sorry, you lost your once-in-a-lifetime chance to a team that played an ineligible player?

But what if you prematurely punish Auburn in the polls and the NCAA fails to find major violations tied to Newton or the school? Tough luck, Tigers?

For the Heisman voters: Are you ready for Reggie Bush Round 2? People who take their Heisman vote seriously -- and The Dash is one -- cast a meaningless one five years ago if they put Bush on top. Nobody wants to do that again.

From a Heisman standpoint, the concern with Newton goes beyond allegations of being bought -- it goes back to the messy situation he left behind at Florida. There is the 2008 arrest concerning a stolen laptop (charges were dropped when he completed a pretrial intervention program), and there was the FoxSports.com report that Newton was caught cheating three separate times and faced potential academic disciplinary action.

Newton would hardly be the first student to cheat in college -- he wouldn't even be the one millionth. But these allegations go beyond peeking at your neighbor's paper -- they involve allegedly writing your name on another student's paper and turning it in as your own, then compounding that error by turning in a paper bought off the Internet.

When Newton stood up last week to address that FoxSports report, he did not refute any of the allegations. He never said it wasn't true.

So voters must decide whether that's whom they want to see holding the stiff-arm trophy come Dec. 11. But if we're going to take off-the-field incidents into account -- and we certainly have in the past; ask Peter Warrick (5) -- then what about Oregon running back LaMichael James (6)?

He was sentenced to serve 10 days in jail and two years probation this past spring after pleading to a misdemeanor charge of harassing a former girlfriend. James also was suspended for the first game of this season. There may have been previous players who won the Heisman while on probation, but none springs readily to mind. If Newton is to be penalized for his off-the-field issues, you wonder whether James should be as well.

Several other viable Heisman candidates are neither on probation nor under NCAA investigation. Just something to keep in mind.

So the national championship and Heisman Trophy races have been kidnapped by ongoing investigations. But that's certainly not all that's plaguing the 2010 season.

Agent issues have been inescapable, from the Bush ruling to the Nick Saban "pimps" comment and right on through the season-spoiling scandal at North Carolina (7). Agent involvement with star players also impacted Georgia (8), South Carolina (9) and Alabama (10). And speaking of the SEC, Tennessee football is just one of a few sports at that school under NCAA investigation.

[+] EnlargeNick Bell patch
AP Photo/Butch DillMississippi State is paying tribute to Nick Bell with a patch on its uniforms.

Beyond that has been a steady succession of tragic and near-tragic developments.

The paralysis of Rutgers defensive lineman Eric LeGrand (11). The needless death of Notre Dame student video assistant Declan Sullivan (12). The sudden cancer-related death of Mississippi State's Nick Bell (13). Three Southern Mississippi (14) players were fortunate to have survived a shooting after a bar altercation in Hattiesburg early Sunday morning -- but the reported injuries are grave. According to the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, Martez Smith "almost surely will never walk again." Fellow linebacker Tim Green was shot in the neck, severing his vocal cords. Defensive end Deddrick Smith was shot in the chest.

There simply has been too much bad news clinging to college football this fall. Some of it is sheer bad luck, but not much. Most of it signals warped perspective or systemic problems within the sport.

This should be a call to arms for those who love college football to earnestly and candidly address the problems within it. Because nobody needs to go through a season like this again.

And now, five happier storylines

Because The Dash cannot subsist on doom and gloom alone.

[+] EnlargeSteve Spurrier
Kim Klement/US PresswireSteve Spurrier has the Gamecocks headed to Atlanta for the SEC title game.

Cody Hawkins (15). The Colorado senior has been in an impossible position for most of his college career as a moderately talented quarterback playing for his embattled dad, Dan. Many Buffaloes fans wanted Dan fired for years, and they finally got their wish last week. That left Cody in a ridiculous spot -- starting the final three games under an interim coach, including muddling through an all-time-awkward Senior Day coming Saturday against Kansas State. Cody made his father proud this past weekend against Iowa State, throwing for 266 yards and three touchdowns as Colorado snapped a five-game losing streak and walloped the Cyclones 34-14.

(Hawkins' situation reminds The Dash of an old coaching aphorism: If your son is going to play for you, he'd better be either the best player on the team or the worst. Anything in between will cause problems.)

Washington State (16). The Dash often has pointed out the ineptitude of the Cougars under third-year coach Paul Wulff, so it's only fair to point out the biggest victory of Wulff's tenure -- a 31-14 road stunner over Oregon State. It was Wazzu's first league victory since 2008, and it was the payoff moment after several weeks of creeping competitiveness. Go crazy, Pullman. If that's possible.

The Head Ball Coach (17). College football is a much more interesting place when Steve Spurrier is relevant -- and it's been a while since that's happened. But now Spurrier has taken South Carolina to where it has dreamed of being since he took the field as coach in 2005, the SEC championship game. Unless there is an eligibility earthquake at Auburn between now and Dec. 4, the Gamecocks will be an underdog in that game -- but they did push Auburn to the wire on the road back in September. Count out The Visor at your peril.

[+] EnlargeOlivia Munn
AP PhotoDashette Olivia Munn can brighten the day of any college football fan.

Western Kentucky (18). After ending the nation's longest FBS losing streak at 26 games last month, the Hilltoppers now have won for a second time in 2010. This one in absurd fashion. WKU was a plus-4 in turnovers and had a 2-to-1 advantage in time of possession yet somehow still trailed Arkansas State 28-21 in the final minute. But a bad punt snap gave WKU the ball at the Red Wolves' 22-yard line with 54 seconds left, and quarterback Kawaun Jakes threw the tying touchdown pass on the final play of regulation. After Arkansas State scored on the first possession of overtime, WKU countered with a touchdown of its own and then went for two. The Hilltoppers narrowly converted to pull out the victory.

Maranatha Baptist Bible College (19). Here's one you have to love, forwarded by senior quarterback Mark Green, who has missed the entire season with a torn ACL. The Division III school in Wisconsin had the nation's longest NCAA losing streak at 33 games until Saturday, when the Crusaders won for the first time since 2007, beating Rockford College (Ill.) 14-6. Leading 7-0 in the fourth quarter, Maranatha intercepted four Rockford passes in the red zone, returning one 90 yards for the clinching score. The postgame field storming was wholly appropriate. Congrats to the Crusaders, only four of whom had experienced the thrill of college victory before Saturday.

Plus, one more thing to make the readership smile. Dashette Olivia Munn (20).

[+] EnlargeKellen Moore
James Snook/US PresswireKellen Moore has thrown for 2,588 yards through nine games.

Boise State versus TCU: Advantage bus

The past two weeks, The Dash has watched the Broncos (21) and Horned Frogs (22) in person. They're both very good, and if both go undefeated yet one is left out of the BCS bowls, it will be the tainted cherry atop this sorry sundae of a season.

But if forced to choose which is better via both the eyeball test and on paper, The Dash is going with Boise. And not just because the Boise Bus has been in gear all year. A brief breakdown:

Boise State beat Hawaii 42-7. The Warriors are currently ranked 30th by Jeff Sagarin.

TCU beat San Diego State 40-35. The Aztecs are currently ranked 44th by Sagarin.

Bigger margin of victory versus tougher opponent makes that a no-brainer as to which was more impressive on those given Saturdays. But beyond that, The Dash would give Boise the edge at quarterback, wide receiver (although Jeremy Kerley is a stud) and both lines.

And the edge between the ears. Closest thing Boise has had to a letdown is a 29-point walloping of Louisiana Tech. The Broncos have been the most consistent team in the nation this season. Bus.

Teams The Dash cannot believe are bowl-eligible

Mississippi State (23). Record: 7-3. Last bowl game: 2007 Liberty. Games remaining: Arkansas, at Ole Miss. Projected record: 8-4, which, given the strength of the SEC West, would be phenomenal. What's gone right: The Bulldogs were No. 71 last season in scoring defense and No. 62 in rushing defense. This season they are No. 16 and No. 20, respectively. That's helped them hold four SEC opponents to 17 or fewer points.

[+] EnlargeRonnie Hillman
Boyd Ivey/Icon SMIRonnie Hillman's 1,098 rushing yards have sparked the Aztecs.

San Diego State (24). Record: 7-3. Last bowl game: 1998 Las Vegas. Games remaining: Utah, UNLV. Projected record: 9-3. What's gone right: Ranking 76th nationally in turnover margin might not sound great, but it beats 111th -- that's what the Aztecs were last season while going 4-8. SDSU also has dramatically upgraded its rushing attack, averaging 4.6 yards per carry after failing to average more than 3.5 since 2005.

Miami (Ohio) (25). Record: 6-4. Last bowl game: 2004 Independence. Games remaining: at winless Akron, Temple. Projected record: 7-5. What's gone right: The RedHawks are 4-0 in games decided by seven points or fewer after winning a total of three games the previous two seasons.

Army (26). Record: 6-4. Last bowl game: 1996 Independence. Games remaining: Notre Dame in Yankee Stadium, Navy in Philadelphia. Projected record: 6-6. What's gone right: The schedule has been, shall we say, lenient. The Cadets' victories are over Eastern Michigan (No. 186 in the Sagarin ratings), North Texas (No. 165), Duke (No. 97), Tulane (No. 126), VMI (No. 218) and Kent State (No. 121). But Army's return to a run-based offense also continues to pay dividends in its second season under coach Rich Ellerson.

Syracuse (27). Record: 7-3. Last bowl game: 2004 Champs Sports. Games remaining: Connecticut, Boston College. Projected record: 8-4. What's gone right: The Orange are surrendering just 17.8 points per game, more than 10 fewer than last season and the fewest Syracuse has allowed since 1997.

Baylor (28). Record: 7-4. Last bowl game: 1994 Alamo. Game remaining: Oklahoma. Projected record: 7-5. What's gone right: The Bears are ninth nationally in total offense and averaging 33.4 points per game, which, if it stands, would be a school record.

Teams The Dash cannot believe aren't bowl-eligible

Texas (29). Record: 4-6. Last year without a bowl: 1997. Games remaining: Florida Atlantic, Texas A&M. Projected record: 5-7. What's gone wrong: Pretty much everything. But specifically, this is the Longhorns' least productive offense since 1991, the last year under David McWilliams.

[+] EnlargeMark Richt
AP Photo/John AmisMark Richt and the Bulldogs need to beat rival Georgia Tech to become bowl eligible.

Georgia (30). Record: 5-6. Last year without a bowl: 1996. Game remaining: Georgia Tech. Projected record: 6-6. What's gone wrong: It started with A.J. Green sitting out four games and seemingly half the team getting arrested. And the defense has given up 29 or more points five times, proving that it wasn't all 2009 scapegoat Willie Martinez's fault.

Georgia Tech (31). Record: 5-5. Last year without a bowl: 1996. Games remaining: Duke, at Georgia. Projected record: 6-6. What's gone wrong: A traditionally solid run defense went soft last season (152 yards allowed per game) and is even softer this season (177). Tech's not getting to the quarterback very often, either (just 15 sacks so far, on pace for its lowest total in many years).

Pittsburgh (32). Record: 5-4. Last year without a bowl: 2007. Games remaining: at South Florida, West Virginia, at Cincinnati. Projected record: 7-5. What's gone wrong: Running back Dion Lewis entered the season as a prime Heisman Trophy candidate, coming off eight straight 100-yard rushing games. He's had just one this season, as the Panthers' offense has lacked consistency. Pitt also can't win the close ones, losing all three games decided by six points or fewer.

Cincinnati (33). Record: 3-6. Last year without a bowl: 2005. Games remaining: Rutgers, at Connecticut, Pittsburgh. Projected record: 4-8. What's gone wrong: The Bearcats have nine takeaways on the season, fewest in the nation, and they're a minus-10 in turnover margin after being a plus-9 last season. You wonder whether they've packed it in the past two games, being outscored 68-17.

Houston (34). Record: 5-5. Last year without a bowl: 2004. Games remaining: at Southern Miss, at Texas Tech. Projected record: 5-7. What's gone wrong: The season crumbled when the Cougars lost their top two quarterbacks for the season in the third game of the year, against UCLA. Without Heisman candidate Case Keenum, Houston has been far less productive offensively.

[+] EnlargeDan Persa
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhDan Persa delivered big for the Wildcats in '10.

Big Ten guy The Dash loves

That would be Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa (35), whose season ended on a triumphant but flukishly painful note Saturday against Iowa. Persa threw the winning touchdown pass to Demetrius Fields with 1:22 left to upset the Hawkeyes, rupturing his Achilles tendon during the play.

Persa probably had the best season of any first-year starting quarterback in the nation, Non-Cam Newton Division. The junior was the Northwestern offense, accounting for 75 percent of the Wildcats' yardage rushing and passing. Along the way he set a Big Ten single-season accuracy record, completing 73.5 percent of his passes -- highest in the nation this season.

If he comes back healthy, put Persa on your early 2011 Heisman list.

[+] EnlargeBret Bielema
AP Photo/Morry GashBret Bielema and the Badgers hung 83 points on the Hoosiers.

And Big Ten guy The Dash doesn't love

That would be Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema (36), who seems to enjoy piling up style points on the most defenseless of opponents.

You might recall last month when Bielema decided to go for two against 1-4 Minnesota while ahead 41-16. Tim Brewster, in the process of getting fired as coach of the Gophers, got in Bielema's face after that game.

Bielema rather lamely attributed the two-point decision to "the card," that infamous and mysterious calculator that coaches use to decide when to kick an extra point and when to go for two. The reality is this: If you're going to rub it in, don't make transparently weak excuses for it afterward.

Of course, the Badgers hung 70 on FCS weakling Austin Peay in September. That included a Montee Ball touchdown run with 4:15 to play and the Badgers up 63-3. Ball is no scrub -- he's Wisconsin's third-leading rusher and started this past weekend against Indiana, when Bielema accidentally ran it up again.

The Badgers hung 83 on the Hoosiers, quite possibly getting Bill Lynch (37) fired in the process. They threw a 74-yard touchdown pass midway through the fourth quarter while clinging to a 69-13 lead. And they scored their final touchdown in the last two minutes on a 17-yard bootleg by third-team QB Nate Tice. James White, who has rushed for more than 700 yards this season and splits time with normal starter John Clay, was in the game and getting carries on that drive.

The lame excuse from Bielema this time, on the final touchdown: He said he was going to have Tice take a knee on the next play.

OK, Bret. Whatever you say.

This week in Hatology

After The Dash reveled in LSU coach Les Miles (38) eating grass and kicking ass against Alabama last week, an alert reader pointed out another of The Hat's connections to the spiritual world. In the Bible in Daniel, Chapter 4, God causes King Nebuchadnezzar to lose his sanity and roam the fields, where he is "made to eat grass as oxen."

So there is at least biblical precedent for a madman eating grass. Miles has company.

Putting out an APB for …

… Former Illinois quarterback Jack Trudeau (39). If anyone has information on the whereabouts of the Illini's all-time leading passer, please apprise The Dash.

Meanwhile, The Dash is pleased to report that last week's APB subject, former Georgia quarterback David Greene, is alive and well and selling insurance in greater Atlanta with his former teammate and ESPNU expert, Matt Stinchcomb. Greene also does some radio work on Georgia football broadcasts. Thanks to all the spies who contributed info.

Point after

When thirsty in Fort Worth, The Dash recommends a Firemans #4 blonde ale (40) at Rock Bottom Bar and Grill. You're close enough to the TCU campus that someone there can teach you the Horned Frogs hand sign -- since every Texas school has to have a hand sign.

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