- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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As required by the ESPN Constitution, we must report once a year upon the state of the game across this land, hereafter referred to as 'Ball State. That should not be confused with the MAC West school in Indiana, the state of which, with 20 starters returning to a team that started 1-6 and finished 4-7, is promising.
No, we shall report on the state of 'ball in 'Ball State, the union of schools that stretches from the redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters, from Alumni Stadium in the Northeast to Husky Stadium in the Northwest, from Starkville, Miss., on Aug. 31 to Cardinals Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., site of the BCS National Championship Game, on Jan. 8.
Just as the United States is E Pluribus Unum ("Out of Many, One"), 'Ball State consists of smaller, individual states. They are knitted together, loosely at some seams, tightly at others, to form this warm and woolly sport (and if that's not beating a metaphor to death in search of flowery political speak, I don't know what is).
As we embark on what President Reagan would have called Morning in 'Ball State, let us take a look at the states that form this union. They are as different as the spread is from the I, from the eager anticipation in Morgantown to the crossed fingers in Waco. Some states you might be unaware of. Others, as we shall see, have swapped identities. But all of them together form 'Ball State.
The Empire State
Throughout history, this moniker has belonged to New York. But any realist understands that the name better describes Texas, at least until Syracuse fights its way back to the top of college football. Former Texas quarterback Major Applewhite, after one season in the Carrier Dome as quarterback coach, fled that 1-10 team to become offensive coordinator at Rice. The Owls might have been 1-10, too, but they were 1-10 in Texas.
The fact is, until USC coach Pete Carroll finishes cleaning house after a scandalous offseason, the reigning empire in college football has moved, not to the West, but to the Southwest.
Mack Brown not only won the national championship but won with players who go to class, give or take a Ramonce Taylor, and stay out of trouble (see Ramonce Taylor).
The mysterious Mike Leach of Texas Tech has spread the gospel of the spread offense from West Texas across the nation, each season a little more successful for the Red Raiders than the last.
Gary Patterson has taken what Dennis Franchione began to build at TCU and added on, getting the Horned Frogs to the top of the resurgent Mountain West Conference and on the verge of one of the two new BCS bids. Mike Price has renovated not only his reputation but the entire UTEP football program, taking the Miners from contention in the WAC to contention in Conference USA.
The Depressed State
That would be defenses. Offenses stretch the field, forcing defenses to look like size 34 pants trying to cover a size 38 waist. The pressure forces the seams to split, and pretty soon those pants aren't covering anything at all.
Offenses attack the perimeter. The 12th Man is no longer the student section at Texas A&M (and judging by the Aggies' lawsuit against the Seattle Seahawks, surely I'll get slapped with a subpoena for writing this), but the 12th Man is the running quarterback. Scores are rising because defenses can't cope with the extra man, the quarterback who does more in the running game than hand the ball off.
The running quarterback lies dormant for slightly longer than the 17-year cicadas, and when he emerges, he makes just as much noise. A generation ago, the wishbone offense dominated the game by stretching the field and forcing defenses to account for the running quarterback. A generation before that, the single-wing did the same.
What the spread has done is marry the excitement of the passing game to the running quarterback. That's the difference. If football is cyclical, the game does not travel in a perfect 360-degree arc. It spins like a hurricane, with unpredictable jags and juts, less like a geometric force and more like, well, Reggie Bush.
The Centennial State
We have long identified Colorado by this nickname. But now it is Pennsylvania.
Fresh off an 11-1 season, a Big Ten Conference championship, and a thumb-nosing toward one and all who believed him too old to win again, Penn State coach Joe Paterno approaches his 80th birthday with renewed vigor. He spent more time at his Jersey Shore home this summer than he has in years, and he reported last week that his physician concluded Paterno's checkup by telling him he could coach 10 more years.
That would get JoePa to 90. Are you willing to predict he won't be coaching when he goes centennial? Me neither.
The Uninterrupted State
To truly assess 'Ball State in 2006, there should be no paragraphs in this speech. It should be one long, never-stopping tale from start to finish. Division I-A, in its infinite wisdom and insatiable grab for money, approved a 12th game for this season without approving legislation to extend the number of weeks in which the season might be played. Some coaches are adjusting their practice schedule. Auburn, for instance, will practice a couple of mornings per week (directed reading may be done at any time). Iowa plays 12 weeks without a bye. The last time the Hawkeyes had to do that, they shared the 2002 Big Ten title and went to the Orange Bowl.
The Lone Star State
It used to be that the Lone Star represented the sprawling, brawling state of Texas. Move that nickname across the Red River into Oklahoma.
With the unexpected, unambiguous, unbelievable departure of quarterback Rhett Bomar, it's obvious the Sooners' lone star on offense, junior tailback Adrian Peterson, is more alone than ever.
In the wake of Bomar's dismissal, Sooners coach Bob Stoops, who's faced with the prospect of quarterback-turned-receiver Paul Thompson turning back into a quarterback, said last week that Peterson might get as many as 35 carries per game.
By the way, the state motto of Oklahoma is Labor omnia vincit. Labor conquers all things. Unless it's overpaid labor.
The Police State
In no time at all last week, editors David Albright and David Duffey assembled a starting team made up solely of players who have been suspended or dismissed for their off-field transgressions. That team is a 27-point favorite over the All-Academic team. Are players in more trouble than they used to be?
No. In the age of the Internet, there are no secrets. Ask Mel Gibson. No longer can a player's transgression be handled with a phone call from coach to police chief. Coaches must deal with transgressions, and the upside of being a disciplinarian is enormous.
Transparency is in, although it should be pointed out that the more success on the field, the more transparent and swift the justice. It is no coincidence that the most successful coaches have the least tolerance. Texas coach Brown didn't wait long to cut tailback Taylor loose. He issued a press release thanking him and wishing him luck.
The Golden State
For the past eight months, the gold spun by USC has wrapped itself around those Trojan necks. Until the sun breaks through the clouds that have gathered over Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the Golden State now is Louisiana.
For years, coaches flung themselves at the LSU job as if they were Indiana Jones wannabes in the opening scene of "Raiders of the Lost Ark." They would come into Baton Rouge with bullwhip and swagger, utterly confident they could bring the theory to life. The theory? A talent-rich state with only one major state university could harness that talent and dominate college football.
The reality? The coaches came in with their swagger and tattered hat, the Mike Archers and Curley Hallmans and Gerry DiNardos, and most of them ended up impaled on a spike, their skeletal remains a warning to those who came after them.
All of that changed with Nick Saban, whose combination of discipline, hard work and defensive brilliance changed the Tigers. Under Saban, LSU built the proverbial fence around Louisiana recruits. LSU has won three SEC West titles in five seasons and, more important, the 2003 national championship, the school's first in 45 years.
Saban's successor, Les Miles, won the 2005 West Division with Saban's players. This is the season in which we begin to find out whether Louisiana remains the Golden State.
The Harried State
Only 11 Division I-A head coaches are new on the job this season. In the zero-sum game of college football, when every win produces a loss, that doesn't bode well for the end of this season.
Among the guys who need to win this season to fend off the complainers are some recently successful names: Chuck Amato of NC State, Gary Pinkel of Missouri, Joe Tiller of Purdue, John L. Smith of Michigan State, Houston Nutt of Arkansas and even Lloyd Carr of Michigan. Even coach Glen Mason of Minnesota, seeing Carr last week at the Big Ten preview in Chicago, remarked about how stressed he looked.
The Silver State
This name has belonged to Nevada ever since the miners first extracted the precious metal out of the desert. But if we are to be honest in our assessment of 'Ball State, there is no state more silver than Michigan.
Silver means second, which is how the Wolverines have come out in four of their last five games against archrival Ohio State. Silver means second, and the Wolverines didn't have a player drafted even as high as the second round this past April.
Michigan went 7-5 last season. Two of those victories came in overtime, and a third came on the final play against Penn State. In other words, Michigan came within three snaps of being 4-7.
As it is, coach Carr has two new coordinators. Solving the Wolverines' woes might be as simple as putting a healthy Mike Hart at tailback. Until further notice, however, Michigan is the state university of the Silver State.
The Confused State
For the first time since 1998, there is little consensus as to the preseason No. 1. Wire-to-wire national champions have included Florida State in 1999 and USC in 2004. The Trojans nearly duplicated that feat in 2005 before narrowly losing to Texas in the championship game. Miami held the top spot in 13 of 16 weeks when it won the title in 2001. Two others (Miami in 2002 and Oklahoma in 2003) were ranked No. 1 most of the season, then lost in the title game. Ohio State, Notre Dame, Texas, West Virginia and Auburn received first-place votes in the preseason ESPN.com Power 16. Uh, so did Oklahoma. At the end of last week, we revoted.
In closing, my fellow 'Ball Staters, may all your center snaps be clean, may the replay official rule in your favor and may the first-down chain of life stretch just short of the nose of your ball. God bless you and God bless 'Ball State.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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