Commentary

Coaches, conferences feeling the heat

Originally Published: September 20, 2011
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football, which worked the third shift Saturday at Tulsa (1):

We'll deal with foolhardy conference realignment issues in a minute. First, let's talk some actual football.

Coach-O-Meter

This is a zero-sum game. While half the nation rejoices, the other half suffers. What's good for one tribe of fans is bad for another. That translates to the players and coaches, too. This past weekend, The Dash found half a dozen matched pairs of coaches who had mirror-opposite experiences. The breakdown:

The Excitable Guy
One saw his team come from way behind. One saw his team come from way ahead.

[+] EnlargeTodd Graham
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallTodd Graham was in pain after Pitt's collapse in the fourth quarter.

Winner: Dabo Swinney (2), Clemson. The Tigers rallied from a two-touchdown deficit to beat Auburn, something nobody had done since November 2009. The 3-0 Tigers now host Florida State (which has not won in Clemson since 2001) in what could be a very big Atlantic Coast Conference game. But before turning his thoughts to the Seminoles, Swinney got a little intense in his postgame interview with ESPN's Quint Kessenich. "I couldn't think of a better place to end this streak than Death Valley, South Carolina, baby! Death Valley!" Swinney shouted at Kessenich, fortunately stopping short of head-butting him on the spot. Given the relative paucity of previous highlights in Swinney's Clemson tenure, some excessive celebration is understandable.

Loser: Todd Graham (3), Pittsburgh. Early in the fourth quarter of what would be a monumental collapse at Iowa, Graham sprinted about 30 yards to get an official's attention and call a timeout -- and came up seriously limping from the effort with a pulled hammy. Coincidentally or not, nothing went right thereafter for the Panthers. Coming out of the timeout, Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri was dropped for a loss that stalled a drive and forced a field goal for a 27-10 lead. Then Iowa scored 21 points in the final 10 minutes to win. Graham's assessment to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette of his injury-inducing sprint: "Stupid."

The Interim Guy
One is thriving. One is writhing.

Winner: Everett Withers (4), North Carolina. Shoved into the head-coaching job when Butch Davis was fired just days before the start of fall camp, Withers has kept the Tar Heels on task. In one of those stats that seems hard to believe, Carolina is 1-0 in the ACC for the first time since 2000 after beating Virginia 28-17 on Saturday.

Loser: Luke Fickell (5), Ohio State. Since Jim Tressel resigned Memorial Day, Fickell had two more months of interim prep time than Withers -- but five fewer key players. Those are the suspended Buckeyes (and Terrelle Pryor) who must miss the first five games of the season for NCAA rules violations. Without them, Ohio State looks as bad as it has looked in a decade, maybe longer. In the 24-6 loss to Miami on Saturday, the Buckeyes completed a Cro-Magnon four forward passes. This is about the time some Wacky Morning Radio Personality decides to live on a billboard until Urban Meyer is hired.

The Hot Seat Guy
One has the masses off his back for now. The other needs earplugs for the next home game.

[+] EnlargeRon Zook
Damen Jackson/Icon SMIA 3-0 start has helped cool off fans looking for Ron Zook to be fired.

Winner: Ron Zook (6), Illinois. The Zooker is tougher to kill than Rasputin. His 3-0 Illini have developed an identity that succeeds in football at any level: Run the ball, stop the run, rush the passer. They are 22nd nationally in rushing at 224 yards per game, with 145 rushing attempts and just 58 passes through three games. And they are seventh nationally in rushing defense, allowing just 64 yards per game on the ground and averaging 3.7 sacks.

Loser: Houston Nutt (7), Ole Miss. Notre Dame fans will call what's happening in Oxford the Charlie Weis Effect. Nutt went 18-8 his first two years with the talented players Ed Orgeron left behind. Since then he is 5-10, including consecutive double-digit losses to Vanderbilt -- most recently a 30-7 pasting in Nashville on Saturday. Ole Miss has been notoriously quick-triggered with its coaches, firing David Cutcliffe one year after going 10-3 and canning Orgeron after three seasons. This is Year 4 for Nutt, and the hardest part of the schedule is to come.

The Legend-In-Residence Guy
One is feeling the love again. The other is not.

Winner: Bob Stoops (8), Oklahoma. He won a big game, and he won it on the road, and he won it with the pressure squarely on his team in the fourth quarter. That cleared up a lot of issues in a single Saturday in Tallahassee. His Sooners are No. 1 and have the inside track to play in their fifth BCS title game since 2000, and whatever conference shenanigans his school is considering are out of his hands. It's good to be Bob right now.

Unimpressive winner: Joe Paterno (9), Penn State. When the Nittany Lions followed their emphatic home loss to Alabama with a sketchy victory over Temple, the simmering dissatisfaction of the fan base returned to a boil. But don't take The Dash's word for it; let's just quote directly from the alumni association's weekly football letter. It began: "Penn State's Nittany Lions came home from Philadelphia Saturday with a win they didn't deserve. Despite making just about every mistake in the book -- fumbles, an interception, dropped passes, a blocked punt, a 52-yard touchdown nullified by a holding penalty, missed tackles, missed blocks and missed field goals -- the Lions eked out a 14-10 victory over a tough Temple team in the last three minutes of the game …" If that's the mood in the alumni newsletter, what are they saying on the message boards and talk radio?

The Fifth-Year-At-A-Fixer-Upper Guy
One is on his way to a bigger job if he wants it. The other is on his way to a pink slip.

Winner: Mario Cristobal (10), Florida International. The Golden Panthers are 3-0. If you don't think that's a big deal, consider that their all-time Division I record is 31-74, and last year was the first winning record in school history. This year they've beaten their first big-six conference opponent (Louisville) on the road, and followed that up with a victory over unbeaten Central Florida on Saturday. And if you thought this was only a T.Y. Hilton production, think again. Hilton missed most of the UCF game with an injury, but FIU still was able to win. And don't look now, but by current Sagarin ratings FIU will be favored in every remaining game. Golden Panthers undefeated? Start the backup bus.

Loser: Neil Callaway (11), UAB. The most stunning score of the season so far was this one from Saturday: Tulane 49, UAB 10. For the Green Wave -- 21-53 since Hurricane Katrina set the program back in 2005 -- to beat anyone by 39 points seemed impossible. To do it on the road against a fellow Conference USA member made it clear that the Blazers must be horrible. They've been outscored 88-10 in two games this year, and Callaway's record now is 15-35. With home games left against Mississippi State, UCF, Houston and Southern Miss, the Blazers might not win in Birmingham all year.

The First-Year-In-A-Tough-Job Guy
One is seeing immediate improvement. The other is taking some lumps.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyJames Franklin has Vanderbilt in an unfamiliar position: undefeated.

Winner: James Franklin (12), Vanderbilt. He's won his first three games as coach of the Commodores, which hasn't happened since 1943. (E.H. Alley went 5-0 that year and did the right thing -- quit while on top.) And Franklin has had some startling recruiting successes for 2012. Keep an eye on him.

Unimpressive winner: Kevin Wilson (13), Indiana. He got his first head-coaching victory Saturday, beating FCS South Carolina State 38-21 after an 0-2 start that included a loss to Ball State. Wilson, too, has recruited well for 2012 -- but the rest of this year could be a struggle.

Somebody has to lose

There are 33 unbeaten teams left, and the clock is ticking on many of them. At least eight, in fact, will lose the next game they play. Here are the upcoming matchups of unbeatens, seven of them Saturday:

Arkansas-Alabama (14). A classic strength-on-strength matchup in the ridiculously tough SEC West. The Razorbacks are eighth nationally in scoring at 47 points per game. The Crimson Tide is second nationally in scoring defense at six points per game. Arkansas had the Tide on the ropes last year in Fayetteville, leading by double digits in the second half, before capitulating. Dash pick: Alabama 24, Arkansas 22.

Oklahoma State-Texas A&M (15). The leading Big 12 challenger to Oklahoma should emerge from this pyrotechnic showdown in College Station. The Cowboys are the No. 1 passing team in America. The Aggies are one of only three teams that rank in the top 20 nationally in both total offense and total defense. Slight advantage to the home team. Dash pick: Texas A&M 44, Oklahoma State 38.

LSU-West Virginia (16). The atmosphere will be at its couch-burning best in Morgantown for the arrival of the Tigers and the first-ever visit from "College GameDay." But the Mountaineers have to show up for a full 60 minutes to have a chance. They've scored in sprees so far: 20 points in 18½ minutes against Marshall; 45 points in 25 minutes against Norfolk State; 34 points in 21½ minutes against Maryland. Good numbers, but it also means there were long stretches of those games when West Virginia was self-destructing or failing to get its defense off the field. Won't work against LSU. Dash pick: LSU 28, West Virginia 17.

[+] EnlargePaul Johnson
Kevin Liles/US PresswirePaul Johnson's Yellow Jackets are lighting up scoreboards.

North Carolina-Georgia Tech (17). The Yellow Jackets have been one of the most interesting teams of 2011, exploding on offense in three routs. They lead the nation in rushing offense, total offense and scoring offense, and quarterback Tevin Washington is averaging a crazy 37.5 yards per completion. As a unit, the Tech offense is racking up a freakish 10.3 yards per play -- well above the NCAA single-season record of 8.6 per play set by Hawaii in 2006. That juggernaut butts up against the No. 16 rushing defense in the country, which should make things interesting. Dash pick: Georgia Tech 31, North Carolina 24.

Vanderbilt-South Carolina (18). Steve Spurrier has beaten the Commodores 14 out of 16 times as an SEC coach, but the going has been much tougher as coach of the Gamecocks than the Gators. He's 4-2 against Vandy there with a winning margin of only 4.2 points. This could be another close one. Dash pick: South Carolina 23, Vanderbilt 17.

San Diego State-Michigan (19). Brady Hoke coaches against his old team, which is led by underrated running back Ronnie Hillman (165.7 yards per game rushing, second nationally). If the Aztecs can keep Denard Robinson from going nuts (not easy), they've got a shot at the upset. Dash pick: San Diego State 28, Michigan 27.

Nebraska-Wyoming (20). Cowboys are at home. Cowboys also are the weakest of the 33 remaining unbeatens. Should be a lot of red in the stands and a lot of points on the visitors' side of the scoreboard. Dash pick: Nebraska 55, Wyoming 31.

Texas-Iowa State (21). Both have a bye week Saturday before they meet in Ames on Oct. 1. The Cyclones beat the Longhorns in Austin last year but are on borrowed time this year -- they've won three games by a total of eight points. Great story so far, but the jig is up. Dash pick: Texas 28, Iowa State 16.

Home is where the wins are

Following a trail blazed by Michigan State in 2010 and countless other teams in previous years, several teams are using home-field advantage to enable their hot starts:

Illinois (22). Think it's helped to get that annual neutral-site game against Missouri off the schedule? The Illini lost that four straight seasons; without it they're undefeated. They've played three straight at home with two more to come (Western Michigan and Northwestern) before finally hitting the road Oct. 8 -- to nearby Indiana. A 6-0 record seems entirely possible before hosting a replenished Ohio State on Oct. 15.

Michigan (23). Another unbeaten team opening with five straight at home: Western Michigan, Notre Dame, Eastern Michigan, San Diego State, Minnesota. Home cooking works well with a group adjusting to a new coaching staff.

Texas A&M (24). The Aggies (2-0) don't play a true road game until Oct. 8 at Texas Tech, and don't leave the state of Texas until Oct. 22 at Iowa State. The next two games are rugged -- Oklahoma State and Arkansas in JerryWorld -- but they're in reassuring locations.

USC (25). The Trojans (3-0) hadn't opened with three straight in Los Angeles since 1998. They haven't played any chumps (Minnesota, Utah, Syracuse) and only the last game against the Orange was an easy win. If the first two had been on the road, USC might well be 2-1 or even 1-2.

On the other end of the spectrum is Boise State (26), the only unbeaten that hasn't played a home game yet this season. Everyone loves taking shots at the Broncos' schedule, but you don't see any other big boys willing to wait until Sept. 24 to play at home. Bus.

Conference chaos -- your questions answered

In an attempt to make sense of the latest in realignment lunacy, The Dash is here to answer questions. Fire away.

"So, Pittsburgh (27) and Syracuse (28) are going to the ACC. Does that actually help the league as a football entity?"

"Hate to answer a question with a question, but here are two of them: Which school has been the biggest underachiever in the Big East since it reconstituted itself in 2005? That would be Syracuse. The Orange are 24-52 in that time. And which school has fired or forced out its last six head coaches? That would be Pittsburgh. And that number doesn't count Mike Haywood, who was hired and then dropped two weeks later last winter after being charged with domestic violence. So yeah, Virginia Tech and Florida State are quaking with fear."

"And now there's talk about Connecticut (29) to the ACC. What do the Huskies bring to the table?

"After watching Randy Edsall win the Big East and then flee for mediocre Maryland, UConn brilliantly positioned itself for the future by hiring a 62-year-old who hadn't been a college coach since 2004 -- when he was fired by none other than Syracuse."

[+] EnlargePaul Pasqualoni
AP Photo/Jessica HillPaul Pasqualoni and UConn are hoping to follow Syracuse and Pitt to greener pastures in the ACC.

"Right, Paul Pasqualoni. Thought he looked vaguely familiar. How's that working out so far?"

"The Huskies have lost to Vanderbilt and Iowa State, annually among the worst teams in the SEC and Big 12, respectively. But, hey, they did beat Fordham!"

"Not good. Well, at least those Big East exports will bring decent fan bases to the table, right?"

"Syracuse made its first bowl game since 2004 last year and still didn't come close to selling out the 49,262-seat Carrier Dome once. Pitt usually does pretty well at the turnstiles but after two home games with a new coach and a viewer-friendly offense -- two things normally guaranteed to sell tickets -- the Panthers are averaging more than 20,000 empty seats in Heinz Field. And UConn fans will turn out if there isn't a women's basketball game at the same time. Or if they don't have to leave the state. Check the number of unsold UConn seats for last year's Fiesta Bowl for details."

"Well, isn't that a problem? Wouldn't it be embarrassing if those teams make the ACC championship game and don't bring any fans?"

"You mean like Boston College (30) in 2007 and '08? Guess the ACC is already accustomed to zero road support from its northeastern imports. Getting half-hearted football fans to travel to Charlotte or other places in the South hasn't been easy."

"What about the Big East schools that have actually been good in recent years? West Virginia (31) has won at least nine games six straight years, Cincinnati (32) won 33 games from 2007-09, Louisville (33) won a BCS bowl five years ago. Why doesn't the ACC want them?"

"Academics."

"Academics?"

"Academics. At least that's what they say. Commissioners and school presidents like talking about that stuff while they're busy behind the scenes grasping for bigger TV contracts."

"How come academics matter on the East Coast but not on the West Coast? Because I see that the Pac-12 is thinking about adding Texas Tech (34) and Oklahoma State (35). What do they have in common academically with Stanford, Cal, USC and UCLA?"

[+] EnlargeAlexa Flutie
AP Photo/Charles KrupaDashette Alexa Flutie knows conference expansion isn't a good idea.

"Well, nothing, when you consider that U.S. News & World Report's 2012 college rankings puts those four schools among the top 25 national universities, while Oklahoma State is No. 132 and Texas Tech No. 160. But the Red Raiders and Cowboys do keep good football company in Texas and Oklahoma. They'd be the annoying little brothers who have to go wherever their big brothers go."

"So is adding them really a good idea?"

"None of the moves being made this fall are really a good idea. They're all greedy ideas. Depeche Mode's 1980s song 'Everything Counts' seems rather apropos:

"The grabbing hands
Grab all they can
All for themselves
After all
It's a competitive world
Everything counts in large amounts."

"Now you're depressing me."

"Sorry. Have a Dashette. Let Pats cheerleader (and daughter of Boston College legend Doug Flutie) Alexa Flutie (36) take your mind off this mess for a while."

Coach who earned his comp car this week

Charlie Strong (37), Louisville. Neither side has lost five straight games in the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry, but the Cardinals were facing that humbling distinction as a road underdog Saturday night. Despite that, and losing starting quarterback Will Stein to injury in the first half, Louisville scored a 24-17 victory behind true freshman QB Teddy Bridgewater. Strong's key decision in the week leading up to the game was to move athletic sophomore backup quarterback Dominique Brown to running back. Brown responded with 91 rushing yards on 14 carries.

Coach who should take the bus to work

Rick Neuheisel (38), UCLA. After a 29-point home beatdown against Texas, the Bruins are 3-8 since upsetting the Longhorns last year. They've won just one of their last six games, and that was against San Jose State. Even with USC vulnerable, UCLA has made up no ground on its crosstown rival.

Putting out an APB for …

Errict Rhett (39), the ground-based portion of Steve Spurrier's early Fun 'n' Gun offenses at Florida. Anyone with information on the whereabouts of the Gators' all-time leading rusher, please apprise The Dash.

Meanwhile, The Dash is pleased to report that last week's APB subject, former Stanford wide receiver Ken Margerum, is reportedly alive and well and living in the Bay Area, where he is an assistant coach at Scotts Valley High School. Previously Margerum had coached extensively at the college level, most recently at San Jose State -- where his bio said his daughters' names are Sunny and Windy. The Dash thanks all spies who passed along tips.

Point after

When hungry and thirsty and in need of football viewing in Tallahassee, The Dash recommends a visit to Tomahawk Sports Bar & Grill (40) on the main drag near campus. Solid beer selection, good burgers, enough TVs to catch all the action. Check it out and thank The Dash later.

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