Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football, where the aptly named Shady's (1) has been christened the official bar of the Offseason from Hell:
Before we get to the blocking and tackling of 2011, The Dash must bid goodbye and good riddance to a putrid, pestilential offseason. Time to give it a proper burial. Closed casket required.
How bad was it? So bad that the combatants in last year's BCS Championship Game (Auburn and Oregon) both enter this season under NCAA investigation. So bad that scandals cost two elite coaches (Jim Tressel and Butch Davis) their jobs. So bad that even little old Boise State got Bus-ted for a compilation of misdemeanors. So bad that sunny Bill Stewart got run out of West Virginia for alleged character assassination of his successor-in-waiting. So bad that the SEC West summer chatter centered not on the division's excellence, but on a brawl (two LSU players charged with felonies, one of them starting quarterback Jordan Jefferson) and a mall (where T-Town Menswear apparently had an uncomfortably cozy relationship with Alabama players). So bad that all of those things are minor brush fires compared to the Three Mile Island meltdown at Miami.
All things considered, this was the worst January-to-September run The Dash has ever seen.
Five freaks we met in the Offseason from Hell
Harvey Updyke (2). Also known as Al from Dadeville, the radio handle of the wackjob Alabama fan accused of poisoning the landmark oaks at Toomer's Corner in Auburn. This rivalry has long teetered on the edge of a sort of "Apocalypse Now" moral breakdown, and Updyke allegedly crossed over to the Colonel Kurtz side with his assault upon tradition, institutional identity, common sense and sanity. Naturally, this landed him a starring role on the "Paul Finebaum Show," which exists to inflame and embolden the basest trolls on both sides of the rivalry. Fortunately, there were some good things to come out of the Auburn-Alabama hatefest: Alabama fans donated to a fund to save the trees; and Auburn fans donated to the recovery effort from the spring tornadoes that waylaid Tuscaloosa. But Harvey Updyke was the face of the offseason in Alabama, and that's a sad face indeed.
Roy Miracle (3). The deceased 80-year-old Ohio State fan's final act above ground was to be the letter "I" in this macabre "O-H-I-O" cheer from Roy's funeral (see photo). According to media reports, this was the brainstorm of Miracle's daughter, Juli. Her mother and brother were creeped out enough that they refused to participate, so Juli Miracle recruited some other family members to fill out the spelling bee. What people do at the funeral of their kin is their own business, but sending out pictures of ghoulish rituals performed with wild grins on their faces strikes The Dash as flippin' weird.
Jeffrey Landrigan (4). The convicted murderer in Arizona whose last words before lethal injection were, "Boomer Sooner." What a way to go. Bob Stoops must have been so proud.
Will Lyles (5). The most overpaid talent evaluator in college football history. Lyles got $25,000 from Oregon in exchange for game film that was every bit as useful to the Ducks as an Akira Kurosawa film without subtitles. He got another $6,000 from LSU for game film of questionable quality and usefulness. The strong suspicion is that Lyles was really selling his influence with a number of high-level recruits. For those who paid him, probation might only be a few months away.
Nevin Shapiro (6). The felonious ponzi schemer brought the curtain down on the Offseason from Hell from a New Jersey prison, drowning Miami in salacious allegations of rules-breaking over an eight-year period. He's a charmer, allegedly having once looked into the possibility of installing a stripper pole in his luxury suite at Hurricanes home games. But he and his checkbook were valued enough by Miami that he led the team out of the tunnel at two different home games. Quite the closing act.
Unfortunately, the offseason purgatory has put a perverse twist on three prominent September games.
Oregon vs. LSU (7), Saturday in Dallas. Presumably they'll still have enough players suited up to play this thing, but you never know. Oregon defensive back Cliff Harris is suspended after his Dario Franchitti offseason moment, getting clocked at 118 mph in a car he didn't own and didn't pay to rent and that smelled like pot. LSU wide receiver Russell Shepard is suspended after compromising an NCAA inquiry. Oregon running back Lache Seastrunk, one of Lyles' guys, has transferred amid the ongoing investigation of the Ducks. Jefferson and his 49 pairs of sneakers are suspended after he was charged with assault. Might as well let Lyles administer the pregame coin toss, then have NCAA enforcement officials outside the locker rooms distributing postgame Letters of Inquiry.
Ohio State at Miami (8), Sept. 17. The Buckeyes are missing leading rusher Dan Herron, leading receiver DeVier Posey, star left tackle Mike Adams and defensive lineman Solomon Thomas -- that doesn't even count Terrelle Pryor and Jim Tressel. The Hurricanes could be missing eight or more key players and their dignity. Scratch this one off the list of marquee non-conference games in 2011.
North Carolina at Georgia Tech (9), Sept. 24. In July, the Yellow Jackets were stripped of their 2009 ACC title and put on four years' probation. In October, the Tar Heels face the NCAA Committee on Infractions for a litany of alleged violations that already cost the 2010 team its shot at an ACC title.
OK, enough complaining
College football is supposed to be fun, right? Sometimes that gets lost amid all the vitriol that passion provokes. Over summer cocktails in Tahiti with Dashette Jessica Lowndes (10), The Dash devised a five-point plan for all of us to have a more enjoyable season.
1. Quit screaming about the officiating (11). The Dash had a conversation with former SEC commissioner Roy Kramer during the summer, and he said something profoundly true: "It's amazing how much better the officiating is when you don't care who wins." When we do care, we start seeing ghosts -- bad calls against Our Team, which turn into agendas against Our Team, which turn into a vast league-wide conspiracy to bring Our Team down. The Dash is going to go out on a limb here and declare that regardless of who your team is, the refs aren't out to get them. And the calls really do tend to even out.
2. Quit screaming about the NCAA (12). An offseason full of scandals has produced an offseason full of persecution complexes. Everyone under investigation is convinced the NCAA is out to get their team while ignoring the abject lawlessness at Nearby Rival U. Our Team's charges are trumped up, while Their Team's rampant rule-breaking is being swept under the rug because the NCAA is in bed with them. Dash's suggestion: Worry about your own school, and take your medicine if you've done something wrong.
3. Quit screaming about conspiracy theories (13). In a lot of cases you can swap out the word "NCAA" above and replace it with "the conference office" or "the media." In a spillover from political discourse, many college football fans seem to be ignoring the substance of stories, instead spending an unhealthy amount of time inventing motives that indicate -- aha! -- obvious bias against Our Team. The media (ESPN included) is an imperfect entity and not above criticism, but this has been the whiniest offseason The Dash can remember. Give it a rest.
4. Quit screaming about the play calling (14). Yeah, some of it will be bad, no doubt about it. But for the most part, the trained professionals drawing up the game plans and dialing up the plays know more than we do. And if you think it's easy, try it at home or in the stands: give yourself 15-20 seconds between every play to digest the down and distance, come up with something brilliant and rattle off the complicated verbiage. By the end of the game your day job will seem a lot less stressful.
5. Quit screaming at your quarterback (15). He's a young adult doing the best he can, with a paper due Tuesday and a diva girlfriend and a receiver who broke off the route early to create that game-changing pick-six. Now it's also true that quarterbacks get more than their share of glory -- and sometimes get an inflated grade on the paper due Tuesday and attract the most girls and get bailed out of bad throws by heroic catches. But let's set the expectation bar somewhere south of perfect.
Ten things The Dash can't wait to see in 2011
Andrew Luck (16) dealing. Watching the Stanford quarterback shred Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl, The Dash was convinced that Luck is the game's next great QB, on his way to a ridiculously successful NFL career. The fact that he was willing to delay that career for one more year is a lavish gift to college football.
Les Miles (17) eating grass. What will the game's greatest eccentric have in store for us this fall? Part shaman, part showman, part charlatan, Le Chapeau is zero parts boring. LSU fans, keep your nitroglycerin pills handy.
Nebraska at Wisconsin (18). The Big Ten's new era kicks off for real Oct. 1, when the Cornhuskers (favorites to win whichever lamely named division they're in) visit the Badgers (favorites to win the other lamely named division). Don't be shocked if they play a rematch in Lucas Oil Stadium in December for the league title.
Lights at the Big House (19). The Michigan Wolverines have played home games at Michigan Stadium since 1927. But not once have they played there at night. That will change Sept. 10, when Notre Dame visits. Prepare for true madness.
Boise State (20) in Dixie. The most humorous aspect of the 2010 season was listening to Southeastern Conference fans lose their collective minds every time your friendly neighborhood columnist suggested the Broncos could play with anyone in America's toughest conference. Flag burning might have been a more acceptable premise to the snobs in the South. Saturday, Boise takes on Georgia in Atlanta. How you feeling, SEC fans?
Justin Blackmon (21) going deep. The Oklahoma State receiver was easily America's best player at that position last year, racking up 111 catches for 1,782 yards and 20 touchdowns despite sitting out one game. He scored at least one touchdown and had at least one catch of 38 yards or longer in every game, which should terrify every cornerback in the Big 12.
Alabama (22) flying to the football. The Crimson Tide's national championship defense of 2009 allowed just 11.7 points and 244 yards per game. Some people think this unit (with 10 returning starters) could be better.
The weekly donnybrooks in the SEC West (23). How good is this division? So good that Auburn might go from No. 1 in the nation to No. 6 in the West. At least three teams have national title aspirations (Alabama, LSU, Arkansas). Mississippi State returns 16 starters from a nine-win team and gets both Alabama and LSU at home. Ole Miss has its entire offensive line back and expects to be markedly improved. Scary.
The Holgorsen Effect (24) at West Virginia. Wherever Dana Holgorsen goes, offensive improvement follows. In his first year as coordinator at Texas Tech (2005), the Red Raiders bumped up their scoring average from 36.2 to 39.4 points per game with only four returning starters. In his first year as coordinator at Houston (2008), the Cougars jumped from 34.5 points and 502 yards per game to 40.6 points and 563 yards per game. In his only year as coordinator at Oklahoma State, the Cowboys morphed from 28.4 points and 367 yards a game to 44.2 and 520. A similar improvement this year might make the Mountaineers a national dark horse.
Greg Reid (25) making more plays per square inch than anyone. The Florida State cornerback isn't much to look at -- just 5-foot-8, 186 pounds. But he plays like a giant: breaking up passes (14 alone last year); making interceptions (three last season); making tackles (54 solo last year, a lot for a cornerback); returning kicks (two career punts returned for touchdowns, dangerous on kickoffs, too); delivering surprisingly big hits (three forced fumbles last season, one on a lick that knocked out South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore in the Chick-fil-A Bowl). He may have some lapses in consistency, but Reid knows how to get on the highlight reel.
Scheduled for success
Michigan (26). If the Wolverines start fast, you'll see a lot of hosannas directed at new coach Brady Hoke. He may deserve them -- but a fast start could also be a product of a user-friendly opening schedule. Michigan plays its first five games at home and leaves the state just once before November. This is very similar to the schedule dynamic Michigan State rode to an 8-0 start last year.
Virginia Tech (27). The Hokies broke their recent tradition of playing at least one barbed-wire nonconference opponent, instead lining up a diet of relatively soft foods: Appalachian State, East Carolina, Arkansas State and Marshall. Average 2010 Sagarin Rating of that crew: 98. But the Hokies might want to keep in mind the perils of a September game against an FCS opponent. (James Madison, anyone?)
Georgia (28). The Bulldogs hit the interdivisional lottery, drawing the bottom three teams in the SEC West (Mississippi State, Mississippi and Auburn) and skipping the top three (Alabama, LSU and Arkansas). They also get SEC East favorite South Carolina between the hedges and close the season with a neutral-field game and four games in-state.
Connecticut (29). The Huskies could conceivably be both very average and 5-0 heading into Big East play. Toughest game in the first five is either home against Iowa State or at Vanderbilt.
Idaho (30). For the first time in 20 years, the Vandals open with two straight home games. Not coincidentally, they haven't opened 2-0 since 1998. With Bowling Green on Thursday and North Dakota on Sept. 10, they might do it this year.
Scheduled for failure
Tulsa (31). The Golden Hurricane open at Oklahoma, at Tulane, home against Oklahoma State, at Boise State. That's three top-10 teams and three road games. Maybe that's why Todd Graham beat it for Pittsburgh.
Miami (32). Al Golden wasn't crazy about opening the season with a Labor Day conference game on the road (at Maryland) -- and that was before Shapirogate exploded. Now that showcase game will be salted with discussion of the Hurricanes' problems, and possibly with multiple Hurricanes suspensions. Then they play Ohio State. Miami could easily lose all its road games (Maryland, Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Florida State, South Florida) this season.
Colorado (33). Jon Embree is another new coach walking into a buzz saw. He inherits a program that has lost 17 straight road games -- then will play seven of 13 contests on the road this year, plus one at a neutral site (rival Colorado State in Denver). Colorado fans can go ahead and make plans to spend bowl season skiing.
Nevada (34). Life after the best season in school history begins with four straight road games, three of them against 2010 bowl teams (Oregon, Texas Tech, Boise State). First home game is Oct. 8.
Marshall (35). The Thundering Herd open against six straight 2010 bowl teams, four of them on the road. All told they play seven road games.
A couple of bold opening-week predictions sure to go wrong:
Minnesota (36) will shock USC. Yes, even in the Coliseum. The Dash is a believer in new Gophers coach Jerry Kill, and he will rev up the running game behind dual-threat quarterback MarQueis Gray. The Trojans were soft last year against the run (141 yards per game and a fat 4.4 yards per carry). Kickoff is early Los Angeles time (12:30 p.m.). If Minnesota gets off to a fast start and controls the ball, look out.
The Big East (37) will have at least two bad losses. The schedule is set up for opening success: seven of the eight teams at home, and all seven of those are favored. But Syracuse will be taken down by visiting Wake Forest, and Louisville will be stunned by Murray State. The Orange and the Cardinals are both positioned to backslide a bit after significant improvements last season and look vulnerable in their openers.
Syracuse was fortunate in 2010 (few injuries, 4-0 in games decided by seven points or less) and has six new defensive starters who combined to do very little in 2010. They will be facing Jim Grobe's most experienced Wake team in several years. Louisville is frightfully inexperienced at cornerback (not a single corner on the depth chart has made a D-I interception) and will be facing a veteran, aerial-centric Murray State team that threw for 314 yards and scored 36 points per game last season.
The Dash usually comes out of the offseason with a book recommendation or two, and this one is geared more for the female readership. "Gridiron Belles: A Guide to Saturdays in Dixie," written by Christie Leigh Mueller (38), is part football primer, part tailgate etiquette textbook, part SEC travelogue and all in good fun.
Her target audience?
"The Yankee transplant crossing the Mason-Dixon Line for the first time and trying to figure out football in the South," she said. "The sorority girl whose daddy never played football or taught her about the game. The recent grads looking for ideas for their tailgates. The women who host those massive, immaculate tailgates every home Saturday. Basically, for all the belles of the SEC."
Mueller earned her belle card without attending an SEC school. She played field hockey and got a political science degree at Rhodes College in Memphis, but grew up an Auburn fan and has tailgated and spectated at every stadium in the SEC. After working in politics in Washington, D.C., for a few years, she currently is a business etiquette consultant in Austin, Texas. But she'll be spending every Saturday but one in the 2011 season at an SEC game.
Her tentative schedule: Oregon vs. LSU in Dallas, Sept. 3; Mississippi State at Auburn, Sept. 10; Tennessee at Florida, Sept. 17; Florida at Kentucky, Sept. 24; Auburn at South Carolina, Oct. 1; Georgia at Tennessee, Oct. 8; Auburn at LSU, Oct. 22; Arkansas at Vanderbilt, Oct. 29; LSU at Alabama, Nov. 5; Auburn at Georgia, Nov. 12; LSU at Ole Miss, Nov. 19; Alabama at Auburn, Nov. 26; SEC Championship in Atlanta, Dec. 3.
The book is packed with tailgating and spectating do's and don'ts, but Mueller puts one piece of advice above all else: "If you show up at a tailgate empty-handed, you might as well cheer for the other team."
For more information on the book: www.Gridironbelles.com.
Putting out an APB for
Joe Washington (39). The dazzling Oklahoma tailback from the early 1970s remains the No. 2 rusher in Sooners history. Anyone with information on the whereabouts of a guy who seemed to spend as much time running in mid-air as on the ground, please apprise The Dash.
It's not exactly a college football mecca -- maybe when Appalachian State, roughly 85 miles south, upgrades to FBS -- but there is some ridiculously good eating to be done in the scenic burg of Asheville, N.C. Most prominently, The Dash recommends a visit to Tupelo Honey Café (40) downtown, where the New South cooking is just silly. Have the Appalachian egg rolls and fried green tomatoes for appetizers, the shrimp and grits for a main course and a locally brewed Pisgah Pale Ale to accompany both. Thank The Dash later.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.