Commentary

Games to go out with a bang

Originally Published: December 1, 2009
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (burning spears extinguished in Tallahassee [1]):

Bobby Bowden deserves all praise for one of the great careers in college football history, but the fact he's being pushed out at Florida State is his own fault. He should have jumped on his own initiative well before now -- before he was reduced to a feeble sideline spectator as his handmade program dwindled around him. A somewhat acrimonious ending could have been avoided if Bowden had a more realistic view of where his program was headed in the past couple of years.

But now that the reality check has been externally applied, it's time to salute a giant on his way into what hopefully will be a long and enjoyable retirement. It's been a dadgum glorious run.

And Now ... The Big Finish

A regular season that has at times been as boring as Penn State's nonconference schedule showed some finishing flair last week with a few rivalry upsets. Now, we arrive at four season-defining games that could provide a stirring pre-bowl crescendo. The Dash and Dashette Giuliana Rancic (2) will be watching:

[+] EnlargeE! News Correspondant Giuliana Rancic
Frazer Harrison/Getty ImagesGiuliana will take a break from the red carpet to watch these season-ending games.

Alabama-Florida (3). The Southeastern Conference championship game packs maximum payload: national title hopes on the line, Heisman Trophy hopes on the line, mauler defenses and alpha-male coaches facing off for the second straight year after playing a classic here last season. If both teams bring it to their fullest ability, this will be the Game of the Year in the entire nation.

Best matchup: Crimson Tide receiver Julio Jones against the Gators' secondary. Jones has broken out of a severe sophomore slump, catching 27 of his 40 passes in the past five games. Jones was particularly huge on Alabama's game-winning drive against Auburn last week, continually making catches for key first downs. He'll be facing the nation's No. 1 pass defense, paced by a secondary filled with fleet playmakers and sure tacklers.

Dash pick: Florida 20, Alabama 14.

Nebraska-Texas (4). The Big 12 championship game has been a crashing anticlimax for the past five years, as the North champion has played about as valiantly as an FCS opponent paid to take a beating. This year might be mildly different -- if the Cornhuskers' stout defense is up to the challenge of keeping this from becoming an utter rout. Don't count on Nebraska's getting much done against a Texas defense that is No. 1 nationally against the run and No. 5 overall.

Best matchup: Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh against the Texas offensive line. The Longhorns' line has only been decent this season -- the running game has been sporadic, and even a quick-release passing game has not kept quarterback Colt McCoy from being roughed up a bit. (Texas is 53rd nationally in sacks allowed at 1.8 per game.) Suh is the rarest of animals -- an interior-line playmaker, not just a run-clogger. Can he make enough plays to give the Huskers a glimmer of hope?

Dash pick: Texas 31, Nebraska 3.

[+] EnlargeTony Pike
Frank Victores/US PresswireTony Pike hardly gets sacked. Pitt piles them up. Something will give.

Cincinnati-Pittsburgh (5). Once again, the Big East proves to be the most prescient scheduling conference in the country, getting another huge matchup at season's end. The Bearcats are maintaining a shred of hope that a Texas loss and an emphatic victory here might vault them past TCU in the BCS standings and into the national title game. They might have to simply settle for 12-0 -- which, if you know Cincinnati's football history, is win-the-lottery wild.

Best matchup: Pittsburgh defensive line against Cincinnati quarterback Tony Pike. The Panthers lead the nation in sacks per game at 3.9. The Bearcats are fifth nationally in fewest sacks allowed per game at 0.8 -- and they have the added incentive of protecting a quarterback recently recovered from re-injuring the left arm he broke last year. If Pike stays clean, Cincy will be tough to stop.

Dash pick: Cincinnati 23, Pittsburgh 21.

Oregon-Oregon State (6). Last time the Civil War was bigger than this, it really was the Civil War -- Gettysburg, Antietam, etc. As it stands, this is the first time in 45 years that the Ducks and Beavers face off with the Rose Bowl awaiting the winner. That's big enough.

Best matchup: Oregon State running back Jacquizz Rodgers against Oregon running back LaMichael James. The two smallish Texans are the best backs in the Pac-10 not named Gerhart, and they're explosive. Rodgers (5-foot-7, 193) is ninth nationally in rushing. James (5-9, 180) is 10th. May the best back -- and his team -- win. Dash pick: Oregon State 31, Oregon 30.

Envelope, Please ... Time For The Dashies

The Dash dishes out the annual end-of-season awards, one conference at a time:

ACC

Season in a paragraph: The year started badly and ended worse. In Week 1, Duke and Virginia lost to FCS opponents, the league went 0-2 against the SEC, Wake Forest lost to Baylor and Maryland was mauled by California. Then the ACC closed the regular season with divisional champions Clemson and Georgia Tech being upset by mid-pack SEC rivals South Carolina and Georgia. That sound you hear getting louder? It's dribbling.

Game of the Year: Clemson 40, Miami 37. The Tigers trailed seven different times in the game but won it in thrill-seeking fashion on a 26-yard pass from Kyle Parker to Jacoby Ford in overtime. Quote from Tigers coach Dabo Swinney: "I have a birthday next month and I think I'm going to turn 50 instead of 40."

Player of the Year: Nobody in the nation was more versatile than Clemson's C.J. Spiller (7), who scored touchdowns returning kickoffs (four), punts (one), throwing a pass (one), receiving (four) and rushing (seven). But Spiller won't find a spot on The Dash's Heisman Trophy ballot.

Coach of the Year: Paul Johnson (8), Georgia Tech. The home flop against Georgia wasn't an ideal way to finish the year, but 10-2 was a strong statement that Johnson's offense can work at the highest level of the game -- if you get the right personnel and commit to it.

Bust of the Year: Florida State (9). Again. Honestly, the Seminoles have rivaled Notre Dame as the most annually overrated team this decade. Next August, slap anyone who wants to rank Florida State before it has proven anything. They were so thoroughly outclassed in Gainesville on Saturday that they were scarcely recognizable.

Big 12

[+] EnlargePaul Rhoads
John Rieger/US PresswireFirst-year coach Paul Rhoads guided Iowa State to its first bowl-eligible season since 2005.

Season in a paragraph: Oklahoma's season splintered before it started with the injuries to Jermaine Gresham and Sam Bradford -- and all the others that followed. Oklahoma State couldn't handle the heat of truly big expectations -- not exactly breaking news there. And the North was the North, embodying mediocrity. Translation: Thank God for Texas, or this place would be a dump.

Game of the Year: Missouri 41, Kansas 39 (10). When a major rivalry comes down to a last-minute drive and a winning field goal at the gun, you've got a good one.

Player of the Year: Colt McCoy, Texas (11). No surprise here. But props to Nebraska defensive tackle Suh for at least making The Dash think about it before going with the glamour-boy quarterback.

Coach of the Year: Paul Rhoads (12), Iowa State. The Dash thought about going with Bo Pelini -- then remembered that the Cyclones beat the Cornhuskers in Lincoln 9-7, producing one of the great postgame celebration scenes ever. Rhoads has the Clones bowl eligible in his first season after a miserable, 19-loss run over two years under Gene Chizik.

Bust of the Year: Oklahoma. Even with injuries factored in, the Sooners have no business going 7-5 and being held to fewer than 14 points four times in a single season.

Big East

Season in a paragraph: Cincinnati announced itself with authority on Labor Day, doing work on Rutgers in a 47-15 mauling that set the tone for a surprisingly dominant Bearcats season. Pittsburgh at least provided a solid supporting actor performance -- up until losing to West Virginia in a compelling Backyard Brawl game. And nobody really tanked the season other than the two expected weak links, Louisville and Syracuse.

Game of the Year: Connecticut 33, Notre Dame 30 (13). The Huskies had been through hell -- first the murder of starting defensive back Jasper Howard, then successive heartbreaking losses to West Virginia, Rutgers and Cincinnati. But their resilience helped them prevail after a late missed field goal and some brutal penalty flags. One of the true feel-good moments of the season, for everyone but Domers.

Player of the Year: The Cincinnati party starts with Mardy Gilyard (14). The senior wide receiver is third nationally in all-purpose running, seventh in kickoff returns, 12th in receiving yards, 16th in receptions and 19th in punt returns. Plus he wears cool shells in his braids. And says a lot of entertaining stuff.

Coach of the Year: Brian Kelly (15), Cincinnati. What, you were expecting Steve Kragthorpe?

Bust of the Year: Rutgers. Considering the pathetic nonconference schedule it played -- Howard, Florida International, Texas Southern, Maryland and Army -- an 8-3 record isn't very good. Especially when it includes an 18-point loss to Syracuse.

Big Ten

[+] EnlargeTyler Sash
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesTyler Sash finished the regular season No. 8 in the country in interceptions.

Season in a paragraph: This was a league that proved very little outside its own insular borders, ranking last of the big-six conferences according to Jeff Sagarin's computer, and putting no team in his top 10. By Sagarin's yardstick, the Big Ten has not scored a single nonconference victory over a top 20 team. Ohio State remains the best of an undistinguished lot.

Game of the Year: Ohio State 27, Iowa 24. The Hawkeyes validated their season by nearly pulling a stunning upset in the Horseshoe behind a freshman quarterback making his first start. But the Buckeyes held on in overtime, validating coach Jim Tressel's hyper-cautious coaching style. Winning points were scored by a 26-year-old backup kicker who was a former pro soccer player and who had scant experience playing football. Good story, good game, awful end to regulation as both teams sat on the ball.

Player of the Year: In a complete crapshoot, The Dash throws a dart and hits Iowa safety Tyler Sash (16), who produced 28 percent of the Hawkeyes' 29 takeaways on the season with six interceptions and two forced fumbles. He also made 84 total tackles and broke up another six passes.

Coach of the Year: Kirk Ferentz (17), Iowa. Did a lot with a little in a return-to-prominence season.

Bust of the Year: Illinois (18), under the astonishingly shoddy guidance of Ron Zook, edges out Michigan, which finished the season in a for-the-ages tailspin. With dishonorable mention to Michigan State, a presumed title contender in August that went 6-6.

Conference USA

Season in a paragraph: Houston gave the conference a team of relevance. SMU gave it a nice revival story. And as usual, nobody gave it much in the way of defense.

Game of the Year: Houston 46, Tulsa 45 (19). Cougars scored nine points in the final 21 seconds to win, with the final three coming on a mega-clutch 51-yard field goal on the final play.

Player of the Year: Case Keenum, Houston. The junior quarterback and onetime Heisman candidate has thrown for 4,922 yards, 38 touchdowns and only six interceptions, with the C-USA title game and a bowl game still to go.

Coach of the Year: June Jones (20), SMU. Mustangs paid him a good sum to come revive one of the deadest programs in America. After a 1-11 debut false start, Jones led SMU to a 7-5 season and its first bowl bid since 1984 -- three years before the program was sent to the NCAA electric chair.

Bust of the Year: Tulsa (21). After a 4-1 start, Golden Hurricane lost a heartbreaker to Boise State and never recovered. What followed were five straight league losses and a 5-7 final record. Since an 8-0 start last year, Tulsa has won only eight of its past 18 games, and it's fair to wonder whether the program is once again losing traction.

Mid-American Conference

[+] EnlargeDan LeFevour
Rick Osentoski/Icon SMIDan LeFevour has done everything for unblemished-in-conference-play Central Michigan.

Season in a paragraph: Central Michigan has been the class of the league, winning all eight conference games by an average of nearly 23 points. Tough season for first-year head coaches: Dave Clawson (Bowling Green), Tim Beckman (Toledo), Stan Parrish (Ball State), Michael Haywood (Miami) and Ron English (Eastern Michigan) went a combined 15-45. And 12 of those victories belong to Clawson and Beckman.

Game of the Year: Bowling Green 36, Kent State 35 (22). One of two one-point victories for the 7-5 Falcons. They scored the winning touchdown with five seconds to play, but that was only part of the story. The other part was Falcons receiver Freddie Barnes catching a freakish 22 passes for 278 yards and three touchdowns.

Player of the Year: Central Michigan quarterback Dan LeFevour (23) has accounted for 39 touchdowns and nearly 3,500 yards throwing and running. He's thrown only one interception in the past seven games.

Coach of the Year: Al Golden roused lifeless and seemingly hopeless Temple to a 9-3 record and its first bowl bid since the 1979 Garden State Bowl (yes, there really was such a thing as a bowl in New Jersey). In the process Golden might also have earned himself a job upgrade.

Bust of the Year: Nobody in America had a free fall like Ball State (24), which plummeted from 12-2 in 2008 to 2-10 in 2009. Welcome back to grim reality, Cardinals.

Mountain West Conference

Season in a paragraph: TCU broke the Beehive State stranglehold on the league, taking down Utah and BYU and going a dominant 12-0. And if Texas is upset by Nebraska on Saturday, the purple could wind up in Pasadena.

Game of the Year: BYU 26, Utah 23 (25). The Cougars earned second place in the league by beating the Utes in overtime, after blowing a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter. Then BYU quarterback Max Hall delivered this postgame love letter for the rival Utes: "I don't like Utah. In fact, I hate them. I hate everything about them. I hate their program, their fans. I hate everything."

Player of the Year: Horned Frogs defensive end Jerry Hughes (26), leader of a defense that ranks 23rd nationally in sacks, second in yards allowed and sixth in points allowed. Hughes has 11½ sacks and 15 tackles for loss in Gary Patterson's chaos-inducing defense.

Coach of the Year: Gary Patterson (27). Nobody else need apply. The question is whether Patterson applies for any other jobs or remains happy in Fort Worth.

Bust of the Year: Colorado State. Rams started 3-0 and never won again, with three of the losses by a total of five points.

Pacific-10

Toby Gerhart
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesToby Gerhart has been a battering ram all season for the Cardinal.

Season in a paragraph: Turns out the Pac-10 can still have a compelling year even without USC carrying all the freight. Oregon and Oregon State have regrouped and risen to the top of the league after disqualifying themselves from national title contender status early on. Everyone but Arizona State and Washington State had at least one highlight moment.

Game of the Year: Oregon 44, Arizona 41, OT. The Ducks came from 10 points down on the road in the fourth quarter, scoring the tying touchdown with six seconds left as Wildcats students ringed the field in hopes of taking down the goalposts.

Player of the Year: Toby Gerhart (28), Stanford. In a league that has some primo running backs, Gerhart stands head and thick shoulders above the rest. He's pounded for 1,736 yards and 26 touchdowns, and might have left some Notre Dame defenders permanently scarred by trampling them Saturday night.

Coach of the Year: Chip Kelly (29), Oregon. Rookie head coach did a brilliant job of rallying his team after season-opening disaster in Boise. And he's not responsible for Oregon's uniform crimes against fashion.

Bust of the Year: USC (30). Somehow, the Trojans became utterly ordinary: 49th nationally in total offense, 43rd in total defense, excelling at almost nothing. Shocking to see.

Southeastern Conference

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Kevin Liles/US PresswireNick Saban has produced back-to-back 12-0 regular seasons.

Season in a paragraph: When it ends with two teams unbeaten and playing for a berth in the national title game in the most anticipated game of the year, the league has done its job. Even with some notable flops from other teams, the SEC will play for a fourth straight BCS championship.

Game of the Year: Still to come.

Player of the Year: To be determined Saturday. But for now, The Dash gives a slight edge to Tim Tebow (31) over Mark Ingram. (This much The Dash knows: it's not Jevan Snead. Even Steve Spurrier's ops guy wouldn't put Snead on his all-league ballot after this season.)

Coach of the Year: Alabama's Nick Saban (32). The Dash was ready to go with Kentucky's Rich Brooks if he could have stopped the Wildcats' 24-year losing streak to Tennessee. But some things are asking too much. So the nod goes to Saban, who produced a second straight 12-0 regular season after having to replace his three-year starting quarterback, leading rusher, two All-America offensive linemen and an All-America safety.

Bust of the Year: Mississippi (33) locked up that dishonor by being housed in the Egg Bowl by underdog Mississippi State. Houston Nutt's job performance remains consistently inversely proportional to preseason expectations.

Sun Belt

Season in a paragraph: With two nine-win teams and two others at .500, this would have to qualify as a step forward for the Belt. A baby step, but that will do for a league still striving to be taken seriously.

Game of the Year: Louisiana-Lafayette 17, Kansas State 15 (34). The league's biggest win was secured on the first collegiate field goal by Tyler Albrecht from 48 yards out with 32 seconds to play. Not bad drama.

Player of the Year: Troy quarterback Levi Brown has thrown for 3,868 yards, more than 1,000 clear of the second-best passer in the league.

Coach of the Year: Rick Stockstill (35), Middle Tennessee. With new offensive coordinator Tony Franklin reviving the career of quarterback Dwight Dasher, the Blue Raiders jumped from 5-7 last year to 9-3 this year.

Bust of the Year: Arkansas State (36) had four-year starting quarterback Corey Leonard and plenty of other senior skill-position talent back, but has dropped to 3-8 -- its worst record since 2004.

Western Athletic

Season in a paragraph: Boise State is tremendous. The rest of the league is not.

Game of the Year: Idaho 35, Louisiana Tech 34 (37). Vandals scored 14 points in the final six minutes, including the winning TD in the final minute, then survived a missed Tech field goal at the gun to win.

Player of the Year: Kellen Moore (38), Boise State. He leads the nation in pass efficiency by a wide margin, and his 38-3 touchdown-interception ratio is crazy. He's toying with defenses, a perfect player extension of coach Chris Petersen's offensive mind.

Coach of the Year: Robb Akey (39), Idaho. Vandals are 7-5, equaling their win total from the previous three years combined. They're bowl eligible for the first time since 1998.

Bust of the Year: Louisiana Tech. Derek Dooley's status as a young coach on the rise has taken a hit as the Bulldogs have staggered to a 3-8 record. That includes three road losses by a total of five points.

Point After

When hungry and thirsty in Gainesville, Fla., The Dash recommends dropping in at Gator's Dockside (40) for wings and beer and roughly a million TVs showing football. They promise to stay open next year and soldier on in Year One A.T. (Don't even ask what A.T. stands for.)

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