Commentary

Season's second act promises surprises

Originally Published: October 11, 2011
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (Meineke Car Care of Texas Bowl ticket pledges sold separately at, gulp, Ohio State (1)):

It only gets weirder from here

So this is the great cosmic joke the game has played upon the populace as we careen into the second half of the 2011 season:

Ron Zook
AP Photo/Seth PerlmanRon Zook is one of the most improbable success stories of the season.

Ron Zook (2) is a factor. A major factor.

Who else feels like we're starring in an episode of "Punk'd"? This is a guy with a 34-45 record as coach at Illinois … a guy who would have been fired at least twice by now in Champaign by most fully functioning athletic directors … a guy who was fired at Florida, where he's remembered as the 37-game mistake between Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer … a guy who is 0-4 against border rival Missouri, 0-2 against Fresno State and needed a fourth-quarter field goal last month to avoid going 0-2 against Western Michigan …

That guy now has Illinois 6-0 for the first time in 60 years and in charge of its own destiny in the Big Ten.

How's that for some noise in the system?

It will only get noisier if the Illini keep winning. They host tailspinning Ohio State on Saturday, then travel to Purdue and Penn State. (The matchup in State College might pit the two best coordinators in the Big Ten against each other: Illinois' OC Paul Petrino against Penn State's DC Tom Bradley.)

If the Illini are still undefeated after that, get ready for potentially huge home games against Michigan on Nov. 12 and Wisconsin on Nov. 19. Or even if the Illini are not undefeated, they can potentially play spoiler to teams that are. If a bewildered national media herd migrates to Champaign for those games, it would be the Zooker whoopee-cushion capper.

The Zooker has a little Mad Hatter in him -- not in terms of winning percentage, of course. Les Miles is far superior to Zook in that respect. No, it's more in terms of puzzling syntax and his apparent immersion in some invisible fog during games.

He pulled this sideline masterpiece Saturday against Indiana: Having scored to take a 20-13 lead in the second quarter, The Zooker called for a two-point conversion.

In heaven, Bill Walsh threw down his headset.

"We were down five, right?" The Zooker said postgame. "Up five, I mean. It was 20-13? Up seven?

"Maybe I didn't know what the score was. That's happened to me before. It's usually when we're behind. I have to go back and look at it. That will give you something to pound us about."

Yes. Yes it will.

But as counterintuitive as The Zooker's success is, he's not the only eccentric coach crashing the party as this season builds to a critical mass. The others:

Dabo Swinney
AP Photo/ Richard ShiroDabo Swinney has been embraced by the Clemson faithful after a perfect start to the season.

Dabo Swinney (3), Clemson. Like Zook, he began this season on the hot seat. Like Zook, he's transformed from fan pińata to campus hero in the span of six victories. Like Zook, you sometimes wonder whether all the synapses are firing the way they're supposed to. ("Death Valley, baby! Death Valley!") But at age 41, maybe that should be expected from the youngest head coach in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The youthful exuberance seems to be working for him. Ranking on the Zooker Goofball Scale from 1-10 (wherein Zook is a 10): 6. Next test: Clemson hosts 5-1 North Carolina on Oct. 22.

Mike Gundy (4), Oklahoma State. Another guy who's been known to go berserk behind a microphone. ("I'm a man! I'm 40!") Gundy also was sued by a contractor who alleged that the coach fired him on the spot for wearing an Oklahoma baseball T-shirt to do work on the Gundy house. According to the suit, Gundy was angry and profane in ordering the worker off his property. Gundy issued a statement denying the allegations. Regardless, Coach Hothead has the No. 1 scoring offense in America and an undefeated team. Ranking on the Zooker Goofball Scale: 7. Next test: at Texas on Saturday.

May all three members of the quirky cabal finish the year unbeaten. Just so we can see what they do next.

Of course, there are 10 other undefeated coaches out there in gridworld. For handy organizational purposes, The Dash has broken them down by category:

The kingpins

The guys who are at the top of the game:

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Ned Dishman/Getty ImagesNick Saban's teams are perennial powers in a conference full of them.

Nick Saban (5), Alabama. He's hoisted the crystal football twice, once with the Crimson Tide and once at LSU. He takes his football as seriously as open-heart surgery, wastes no time, suffers no fools, loses few games. Last public belly laugh: 1975. Ranking on the Zooker Goofball Scale: zero. Next test: LSU on Nov. 5.

Les Miles (6), LSU. Won the 2007 national title, started to fall out of favor in Baton Rouge in '08 and '09, rallied impressively last year and has cemented his credibility and popularity in 2011. A certifiably odd dude, but his players would skinny-dip in alligator-infested bayous for him. Ranking on the Zooker Goofball Scale: 8.5. Next test: Auburn on Oct. 22.

Bob Stoops (7), Oklahoma. Captured the national title in 2000, just his second year on the job, and has won relentlessly since then -- but never again won it all. BCS bowl pratfalls against LSU, USC, Boise State, West Virginia and Florida the only significant smudge on the résumé. Defense-first guy who has embraced a progressive offense that lights up scoreboards. Ranking on the Zooker Goofball Scale: 1.5. Next test: at Kansas State on Oct. 29.

Chris Petersen (8), Boise State. No national titles, but don't even think about questioning his place on this list. Merely 34-0 at home, 2-0 in BCS bowls, 7-1 against opponents from AQ conferences and riding a 16-game winning streak against nonconference opponents. Since losing acclaimed defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox to Tennessee, he is 17-1. Since losing acclaimed offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin to Texas, he is 5-0. Bus. Ranking on the Zooker Goofball scale: 1. Next test: TCU on Nov. 12.

The honeymooners

Coaches who are undefeated not just this year, but at their present school:

[+] EnlargeAndrew Luck
AP Photo/Jeff ChiuDavid Shaw has had the good fortune of having Andrew Luck at QB in his first year as head coach.

David Shaw (9), Stanford. Swaddled in the Andrew Luck security blanket, Shaw has started his head-coaching career 5-0. May not be the Jim Harbaugh charisma volcano, but he's got plenty of personality and is putting his stamp on the job. Now the only question is what happens when the Cardinal plays a decent team (average Sagarin rank of their opponents to date: 87th.) Ranking on the Zooker Goofball Scale: 2. Next test: Washington on Oct. 22.

Brady Hoke (10), Michigan. Hoke is the only bloke on the block who has gone 12-0 at a different address. That address is Ball State, in 2008, which means he has some experience in the miracle business. It won't take a miracle to keep winning at Michigan, although the victory over Notre Dame last month might classify as one. Ranking on the Zooker Goofball Scale: 1.5. Next test: at Michigan State on Saturday.

The elevators

Coaches who took over programs established as winners by their immediate predecessors, and have elevated them to a higher level:

Bret Bielema (11), Wisconsin. Predecessor: Barry Alvarez. Bielema has a sassy 54-16 record in Madison, and this year has a team that could potentially break through and compete for the school's first national championship. And of course, if running up the score will help make that happen, Bielema is not afraid to go there. Ranking on the Zooker Goofball Scale: 4. Next test: at Michigan State on Oct. 22.

Kevin Sumlin (12), Houston. Predecessor: Art Briles. Gifted with a sixth year of eligibility for quarterback Case Keenum and a schedule that would embarrass some Texas high schools, the Cougars are 6-0 and leading the nation in total offense. Sumlin's name has been bandied about in Hot Coach circles for a couple of years, and this might be the time to capitalize on that. Ranking on the Zooker Goofball Scale: 3. Next test: SMU on Nov. 19.

[+] EnlargePaul Johnson
John Rieger/US PresswireYou won't see Paul Johnson's teams airing it out any time soon.

The maverick

Paul Johnson (13), Georgia Tech. As the game becomes more aerial and spread-out, the master of the option keeps embracing the tight-formation ground attack. And keeps winning with it. He's 32-14 at Tech, and this year's team is his most explosive. The Yellow Jackets rank fourth nationally in rushing offense and second in passing efficiency, using the element of surprise -- just 80 passing attempts on the year, fewest of any non-service academy team -- to hit big plays through the air. They still lead the nation in yards per play at 8.04. Ranking on the Zooker Goofball Scale: 4.5. Next test: at Miami on Oct. 22.

The comeback codger

Bill Snyder (14), Kansas State. If Ron Zook can be undefeated at mid-year, so can a 72-year-old who was out of football from 2006-08. The Wildcats don't dominate, they just win -- four of their five victories are by a total of 15 points. Their defense is hard to score against and their offense is hard to watch. This can't go on much longer, but Snyder has only enhanced his hero status in Manhattan. Ranking on the Zooker Goofball Scale: 1. Next test: at Texas Tech on Saturday.

Players to watch in the season's second half

Ten guys (some obvious, some not) who will play a large part in determining their teams' fate in the coming weeks:

Dan Goodale (15), Boise State. Yeah, he's the kicker. But if you remember last year, you know how important a kicker can be when you're trying to go undefeated. Goodale has missed four extra points this season, and Petersen didn't even have the nerve to let him try a field goal until the fourth game. (He's 2-for-2 in that department, with a long of 32 yards.) The ghost of Kyle Brotzman is hovering over the Broncos.

[+] EnlargeLaMichael James
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesLaMichael James is averaging 9 yards per carry so far this season.

LaMichael James (16), Oregon. He might have been the hottest player in the country at the time he dislocated his elbow in a Thursday night game against California. How long he stays out will be critical to the Ducks' success. If he's back at anywhere near full speed when Oregon plays Stanford on Nov. 12, it could win the Pac-12 North and be favored to win the league championship game.

Jordan Jefferson (17), LSU. The Tigers have done just fine without their suspended starting quarterback, rocketing to No. 1 in the AP poll behind the reliable Jarrett Lee and a silly-good defense. Then the assault charges against Jefferson were reduced to a misdemeanor and he was reinstated to the team, booed in his first action back, and unapologetic when asked about the incident that landed him in trouble. Jefferson also said he wants to be the starter again -- undoubtedly a true sentiment, but probably not the best thing to broadcast. The last thing this team needs is a quarterback controversy. Miles will have to handle this with care.

Andrew Luck (18), Stanford. Against light competition this year, Luck has played with buttoned-down precision. He's averaged fewer than 30 pass attempts and three rushes per game. If the Cardinal can maintain great run-pass balance going forward, expect that to continue. But in the toughest games we might see Luck turn it loose more with both his arm and his legs.

Denard Robinson (19), Michigan. Arguably the most electrifying player in college football, Robinson's voltage has tended to dim as the season progresses and he gets beaten up by tacklers. In the final third of the 2009 and '10 seasons, Robinson's rushing dropped significantly. Will he be able to stay healthy and productive for a full 12 games this year?

[+] EnlargeCourtney Upshaw
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesCourtney Upshaw could be the difference in how far the Tide go this season.

Courtney Upshaw (20), Alabama. The Crimson Tide linebacker can haunt an offense apart -- ask Florida this year, and Auburn and Michigan State last year. But he can also disappear -- in half of his 46 career games, Upshaw has not registered a single solo tackle. That includes this year against Penn State and Arkansas -- and that runs counter to Saban's fixation with trying to win every snap of every game. If Upshaw cranks it up to that level, he's an All-American.

Tevin Washington (21), Georgia Tech. After starting the season with an absurd three straight passer ratings in the 300s, his numbers were destined to go down -- but the past two games have been pretty shaky. Washington has completed just 10 of 31 passes for 231 yards and two touchdowns and one interception. The good news is that he ran for 120 yards Saturday against Maryland -- but his yards per carry have dwindled the past three games. With the Yellow Jackets in surprise contention for a division title, can Washington maintain effectiveness?

Sammy Watkins (22), Clemson. The leading candidate for national freshman of the year had his third 100-yard receiving game of the season Saturday against Boston College. Can he keep it going all year, especially with quarterback Tajh Boyd dinged up?

Dominique Whaley (23), Oklahoma. Sooner or later, the Sooners will have to run the football to win a game. Might not be until January, but the time will come. Whaley is the guy who has risen to the top of a crowded depth chart at running back. He's had some good moments, but Oklahoma has spent most of its three biggest games to date -- Florida State, Missouri and Texas -- struggling to run.

Russell Wilson (24), Wisconsin. We all know what Wilson has done to turbo-charge the Badgers' offense. But here's what else you need to know: In his two previous years at North Carolina State, he was more productive in the first six games of the year than the last six. Wilson threw 33 touchdowns and nine interceptions in the first half of the 2009 and '10 seasons, then had 25 TDs and 16 picks in the second half of those seasons. He also ran for more yards (but fewer touchdowns) in those first-half games than in the second half. Wilson won't play his sixth game until this week (against Indiana); we'll see after that what a more difficult second half holds.

When the fish bait hits the fan

It's not all face paint and pompons out there. There's anger and apathy in the mix, too:

At West Virginia (25), coach Dana Holgorsen ripped the fans for leaving about 14,000 empty seats for the Mountaineers' home game against Bowling Green. There also were about 9,000 empties when they played Norfolk State. So heading into the game Saturday against Connecticut, Holgo challenged his fans.

"We have a conference game coming up this week," he said. "It's at noon. I can give you some excuses now: Playing a team that's 2-3. Well, they should be 5-0. Playing at noon. Well, who cares? Get up. Mantrip's at 9:45. Are we going to have a good crowd or are we going to have nobody there? Is the weather going to be 85 and sunny or 25 and snowing? It really doesn't matter because the coaches and players and trainers and everybody else is going to be there. That's what our job is. What's the support people's job?"

West Virginia drew 56,179 -- better, but still about 4,000 short of capacity.

At North Carolina (26) -- where many boosters were angry that chancellor Holden Thorp trap-doored coach Butch Davis just weeks before the start of the season -- the somewhat surprising 5-1 Tar Heels have yet to sell out any of four home games. Hard to know for sure whether that's a protest vote, but UNC sold out four of six home games last year.

[+] EnlargeRobert Griffin III
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezThe Dash doesn't understand why more people aren't clamoring to see the RG3 show.

At Baylor (27), where Top 25 rankings and 4-1 starts are rare things, the fan base remains unmoved. The Bears haven't sold out any of their four home games yet -- not even that thrilling opener against TCU -- and bottomed out with just 35,625 in their 50,000-seat stadium Saturday against Iowa State.

Then there's the raging indifference at Eastern Michigan (28), where the Eagles' first 3-2 start since 2005 did not move the needle at all. EMU is averaging fewer than 4,000 fans in three home games, which is simply sad.

But perhaps apathy is better than the tantrums in Texas, where Texas Tech (29) and Texas A&M (30) are at each other's throats.

It started when A&M athletic director Bill Byrne tweeted the following on the day the Aggies won at Tech on Saturday: "Someone vandalized our buses in Lubbock. Excrement inside and outside of buses plus spray painted vulgarities on outside. Classy."

Texas A&M assistant police chief Mike Ragan, who's in charge of security when the Aggies travel to away games, issued a statement saying that the buses were covered with Texas Tech logos in addition to profanities.

That precipitated the following statement from Tech on Monday:

"Many of you are aware of a tweet from a Texas A&M official that their team buses were spray painted and animal feces were spread inside of the buses early Saturday morning. The clear implication of the tweet was that this was the responsibility of Texas Tech fans or students. Texas Tech has conducted an investigation regarding this allegation, and has discovered the following:

"The buses were not spray painted. Instead, washable shoe polish was used on the windows of one of the buses.

"No feces were found either in or on the buses. Fish bait was dropped onto the floor of one of the buses.

"The alleged 'vandalism' was cleaned by the bus drivers and Holiday Inn staff before it was seen by the A&M official who tweeted the information.

"While incidents such as the ones alleged are inappropriate and strongly condemned by Texas Tech, it is no less wrong to condemn the entirety of our university, students and supporters by posting inaccurate information on the internet for the purpose of sensationalizing the actions of one or a very few. We are disturbed by the careless use of social media to share these inaccuracies."

Translation: C'mon, you Big 12-deserting pansies, can't you take a little shoe polish and fish bait sabotage without getting all whiny? It wasn't THAT bad!

A&M, don't expect bouquets on your farewell tour of the league. Tech, get over yourself with that ridiculous attempt at deflecting blame back at Byrne. Both sides: Grow up.

[+] EnlargeMarianela
John M. Heller/Getty ImagesDashette Marianela knows how hard it is to survive six weeks without throwing a pick.

LIP update

The Last Interception Pool had a wild weekend. We said goodbye to Penn State's Matt McGloin (intercepted by Iowa), Ohio State's Joe Bauserman (intercepted by Nebraska in a 1-for-10 nightmare performance) and Florida International's Wesley Carroll (the prohibitive favorite until serving up Akron's first interception of the season).

Who's left?

Chuckie Keeton (31) of Utah State is still rolling, pickless in the first 106 attempts of his college career. Next up: at Fresno State, which has three interceptions on the season.

Richard Brehaut (32) of UCLA stretched his streak to 119 passes without an interception before breaking his leg against Washington State. Brehaut will still have the NCAA minimum number of attempts to qualify for the national top 100 in efficiency for a while, so he might end up the winner by injury default.

We also had a new contestant in Gary Nova (33) of Rutgers, who has taken over as the Scarlet Knights' QB and avoided an interception in his first 68 passes as a collegian. Next up: Navy, which has four interceptions on the season.

Contest winner gets a chance to throw spirals to Dashette Marianela (34) at The Dash's next tailgate.

Coach who earned his comp car this week

Mark Hudspeth (35), Louisiana-Lafayette. The former Mississippi State assistant coach and Division II head coach at North Alabama took one of the toughest jobs in the country at ULL. In his first year, the Ragin' Cajuns are now 5-1 -- their best record through six games since 1988. Their victory over Troy on Saturday established them as the team to beat in the Sun Belt Conference, stoking hopes for the school's first bowl bid.

Coach who should take the bus to work

Mike Stoops (36) -- if, that is, he had a job to go to. Stoops was fired Monday with his program disintegrating around him at Arizona. The Wildcats have lost 10 of their last 11 games, bottoming out in a defeat against previously winless Oregon State. While The Dash is not a fan of midseason firings unless there are extenuating circumstances, it does give athletic director Greg Byrne early entry into the coach-shopping market. Keep an eye on Mike Leach in this one.

And special mention for an athletic director who should take the bus to work this week: Memphis' R.C. Johnson (37), who declared Monday that his school "deserved" to be in the Southeastern Conference. Sure. And The Dash deserves to be in Maui 26 weeks a year.

The biggest reason Memphis is of scant value to other leagues is because its football program is a dumpster fire. And the biggest reason it's a dumpster fire is because Johnson has hired poor football coaches and generally shown no vision or urgency for how to improve the product.

Putting out an APB for …

… Former Temple running back and school all-time leading rusher Paul Palmer (38). If anyone has any information on the whereabouts of the subject of one of the more novel Heisman Trophy campaigns ever -- Temple put out a comic book on Palmer in 1986 -- please apprise The Dash.

Meanwhile, The Dash has received only scant information on last week's APB subject, former Tennessee wide receiver Peerless Price. Two Dash spies reported seeing him recently in the Dacula/Braselton area of Georgia, northeast of Atlanta, but nothing concrete yet. The Dash will keep checking.

And in a Dash APB bonus, former Oklahoma linebacker Brian Bosworth was spotted in Dallas on Saturday night at the Ritz-Carlton with his girlfriend and son. It was the first time The Dash had seen the famed 1980s showman in more than 15 years, but he looked very good.

Point after

When hungry in Dallas, The Dash recommends a great meal at Terilli's (39) in Lower Greenville. Go for the crab claws appetizer and a steak, and thank The Dash later. And when thirsty in Big D, grab a Rio Blanco Pale Ale (40), one of the few good microbrews The Dash has found in a city that should be doing better in that department.

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