Thursday, September 22, 2005
Contenders, pretenders, the hot seat and Jessica
By Pat Forde
Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football ("Weis Must Go" T-shirts sold separately):
College Football Gone Mad, Part I
Oklahoma (1), an inglorious 1-2, dropped out of the Top 25 this week. Nebraska (2) remains on the outside looking in after three utterly ugly victories. Right now, neither is even in the Also Receiving Votes category in the AP poll.
This, dear friends, is history in the making -- or unmaking.
Last time both were unranked? Try Oct. 26, 1969 -- Nixon's first term. Bob Stoops was 9 years old, Bill Callahan was 13.
Last time both the Sooners and Cornhuskers finished a season unranked? That would be 1961.
For the love of Switzer and Osborne, it's time for a rally from these two members of the upper crust. The masses on the flatlands -- not to mention Dash Groupie of the Week Jessica Alba (3), another ends-in-A all-star and a fan of the old-school Oklahoma wishbone -- cannot take much more of this.
College Football Gone Mad, Part II
|Jessica Alba won't be smiling if the Sooners lose again.|
While the old guard of the Heartland has let down its guard, the huddled masses of the underclass have fomented at least a temporary revolution. Consider the following information uncovered by the ESPN research dept.:
Vanderbilt (4), Indiana (5) and Baylor (6) -- traditional barnacles on the BCS luxury liner -- are all 3-0. That hasn't happened in concert since 1928, when Herbert Hoover wanted to put a chicken in every pot.
And if you throw 3-0 Kansas (7) into the mix, you have the unprecedented. The Commodores, Hoosiers, Bears and Jayhawks have never, since the birth of the game, all been 3-0 at the same time.
The question now is whether any of them can get to six victories. The Dash predicts that one of the four will get there. Just don't ask which one.
Unbeaten, Unranked, Unloved?
Speaking of unbeaten teams, The Dash has compiled a list of 10 teams off to perfect starts that remain unranked. Time to separate some of the pretenders and contenders in that group, as most of them enter a critical stretch on the schedule:
Penn State (8) -- Record: 3-0. Status: contender. The Nittany Lions haven't done anything momentous yet (strength of schedule: 114th, according to the Sagarin Ratings), but they've shown some of the offensive explosiveness that was notably lacking last year. Penn State has produced at least five plays longer than 50 yards this season, compared to one in all of 2004.
Prove-it game: Saturday at Northwestern. Penn State's first trip outside Happy Valley in '05 is an appropriate yardstick matchup. Nothing has been more emblematic of the Lions' recent demise than consecutive losses to the Wildcats, scoring a total of 14 points in those games.
Oklahoma State (9) -- Record: 3-0. Status: pretender. The Cowboys have an off-week to sharpen up their offense, and they'll need it. Despite a triple-cupcake start to the season (Montana State, Florida Atlantic, Arkansas State), OSU ranks 87th nationally in total offense. Rookie head coach Mike Gundy has committed to redshirt freshman Bobby Reid at quarterback, even though he's completing just 39 percent of his passes.
Prove-it game: Oct. 1 at home against Colorado. Pokes won by 28 in Boulder last year; should be much closer this time around in Stillwater.
New Mexico (10) -- Record: 3-0. Status: contender, at least in the wide-open Mountain West Conference. The Lobos are balanced on offense (201 yards per game rushing, 229 passing) and solid enough on defense. Coach Rocky Long has done an underappreciated job in Albuquerque, working on a fifth straight winning season.
Prove-it game: Saturday at fellow unbeaten UTEP. Winner comes out with an argument for inclusion in the Top 25.
West Virginia (11) -- Record: 3-0. Status: contender. While most teams are looking for feel-good home games in September, the smashmouth Mountaineers have recorded solid road wins over Syracuse and Maryland. Touted freshman running back Jason Gwaltney is starting to assert himself in an offense that ran it 64 times and passed it just 11 times against the Terrapins.
Prove-it game: Home against Virginia Tech, Oct. 1. A loss would not be fatal. A win would vault the Mountaineers into the national consciousness, and would officially make the Big East more than Louisville and a bunch of backup singers.
Indiana (12) -- Record: 3-0. Status: pretender. The Dash loves what Terry Hoeppner has done in a short time in Bloomington, challenging the institutional ennui toward football and routing Kentucky in the last scheduled game between the two border rivals. But the Hoosiers were life-and-death in wins against Central Michigan and Nicholls State the first two weeks, which doesn't bode well for Big Ten play.
Prove-it game: at Wisconsin, Oct. 1. Hoosiers have pulled upsets the last two times they met the Badgers. Do it this time and they'll have the Big Ten's undivided respect and attention.
|Freshman WR Derrick Williams leads Penn State with nine catches.|
Washington State (13) -- Record: 3-0. Status: pretender. Victories over Idaho, Nevada and Grambling qualify as the nation's 146th-toughest schedule to date, according to Sagarin, so the Cougars haven't done anything yet. But wide receiver Jason Hill has established himself as a touchdown machine, with two in every game this year after scoring a dozen times last year.
Prove-it game: Home against UCLA, Oct. 15. The Cougars have two weeks to prepare for a shell-shocked Oregon State team, then follow that up with shell-shocked Stanford. They could be 5-0 heading to Pasadena to begin a brutal five-game stretch.
Toledo (14) -- Record: 3-0. Status: contender. True, the Rockets have played a nothing schedule so far (Western Illinois, Western Michigan, Temple), but they've crushed everything in their path, averaging 53.3 points per game. Quarterback Bruce Gradkowski looks primed to give Bowling Green's Omar Jacobs a run for MAC Player of the Year.
Prove-it game: At Fresno State, Sept. 27. A victory in this mid-week special could propel the Rockets on their way to 9-0 before closing with MAC showdowns against Northern Illinois and Bowling Green.
Kansas State (15) -- Record: 2-0. Status: pretender. Put it this way: K-State beat Florida International by 14; Texas Tech beat FIU by 53. Then the Wildcats followed up with a flat-lucky victory over Marshall when the Thundering Herd's rookie head coach brain-locked in the final seconds. As usual, The Dash remains unimpressed by anything Bill Snyder does with his shameless nonconference schedule.
Prove-it game: At Oklahoma, Oct. 1. The Sooners might not be great, but they'll be K-State's best opponent to date. A victory in Norman would earn some validation.
Colorado (16) -- Record: 2-0. Status: contender? The Buffaloes' two opponents to date, Colorado State and New Mexico State, are both winless, so we don't know much. But they once again showed strong survival skills against the Rams and could be the chief challenger to Iowa State in the Big 12 North.
Prove-it game: Saturday at Miami. A win over the wobbly Hurricanes would be huge, the biggest under Gary Barnett since the Buffs decimated No. 1 Nebraska 62-36 in 2001. A competitive loss wouldn't be bad, either.
Nebraska (17) -- Record: 3-0. Status: pretender. The Cornhuskers have scraped through the nation's 153rd-toughest schedule with minimal impressiveness. They're 106th in total offense, still flailing with Bill Callahan's West Coast attack. Without significant improvement during this bye week, Nebraska is facing a long Big 12 season.
Prove-it game: Oct. 1 at home against Iowa State. The Huskers owned the Cyclones for decades before an upset loss in 2002 -- one of the nails in Frank Solich's Big Red coffin. Now Iowa State has won two of the last three. Callahan needs to start earning his salary with this game.
Because It's Never Too Early to Panic
|Jason Hill has caught six TD passes for the Cougars in 2005.|
Five coaches feeling the September heat, and potentially facing November dismissals:
Rich Brooks (18), Kentucky -- An unpopular hire to begin with, his 7-19 record since then has only made it worse. The victories have been against two I-AA teams and five I-A teams with losing records. After an ugly 1-2 start this year, the ultra-loyal fan base is sprinting for the lifeboats. Talk radio is melting down, and Louisville Courier-Journal columnist Rick Bozich began soliciting readers this week for their choices for the next coach of the Cats. Responses ranged from Gregg Brandon of Bowling Green to UK alums Howard Schnellenberger, Mike Cassity and, ahem, Ashley Judd. The basic sentiment: anybody but Brooks.
Houston Nutt (19), Arkansas -- Nutt has had some great moments as coach of the Razorbacks, but he's also expended a lot of political capital by talking to Nebraska and LSU about their job openings the past two years -- not to mention going 5-6 last season. He followed that up this month by losing at home to Vanderbilt and surrendering 70 to USC. Pardon the cliché, but Houston, you have a problem.
Gary Pinkel (20), Missouri -- He appeared to have the Tigers turned around in 2003 with their first winning season in five years, then backslid amid high expectations last year to 5-6. The death of a player during summer conditioning and an early upset loss to New Mexico haven't helped the atmosphere. Mizzou fans won't easily forgive him for squandering quarterback Brad Smith's prodigious talents. This could end with a Pinkel slip.
Tom Craft (21), San Diego State -- A tough early schedule has meant an 0-3 start, which has only intensified the pressure on the fourth-year coach. The Aztecs haven't had a winning record since 1998, and anything short of that this year could render Craft Unemployed Floyd.
Greg Schiano (22), Rutgers -- Every year is supposed to be the turnaround year for the Scarlet Knights, and it never happens. Schiano, 12-34 entering this season, had the chance for a statement win at Illinois to open the season and it turned into an epic choke. Beating Villanova and Buffalo hasn't made that loss go away. It might take six wins to convince anyone he deserves a sixth year.
The Dash will make a case for patience with North Carolina coach John Bunting (23), who simply was handed the hardest schedule in the nation and told to survive it with a first-year starting quarterback. Six of the 11 opponents are currently ranked, and three others are also receiving votes. Combined opponents' record to date: 22-8.
Carolina is a perfectly understandable 0-2, and it should only get worse. With every game looking brutal until Maryland in mid-November, the Tar Heels' basketball team might win before the football team does. You can't judge Bunting by this schedule.
Coach Who Earned His Comp Car This Week
|The UK sideline would certainly look better if Ashley Judd donned the headset.|
Michigan State's John L. Smith (24), who for some reason has been catching flak in East Lansing. The guy was Big Ten Coach of the Year in 2003, slipped to 5-7 last year when quarterback Drew Stanton got hurt, and now is 3-0 this year, after upsetting Notre Dame in South Bend. One of the founding fathers of the spread offense, Smith has his Spartans averaging 45 points per game.
Coach Who Should Ride The Bus To Work
Tennessee's Phillip Fulmer (25) came into this season with loads of talent at quarterback, a 1,000-yard rusher in Gerald Riggs and at least five experienced wide receivers. Through two games, the Volunteers have scored a total of 24 points. Their seven-point effort at Florida was just the third time a Fulmer-coached team scored in single digits, and it only intensified the chronic fan bashing of coordinator Randy Sanders. Yo, Phil: pick a quarterback and stay with him.
He's Got It All Backward -- And It's Working Just Fine
Study the accompanying picture of Texas Tech quarterback Cody Hodges (26) for a moment. If you see what The Dash saw when ESPN.com ran the picture earlier this week, you win the prize: the nation's leading passer throws the ball without gripping the laces.
This flagrant violation of Quarterbacking 101 prompted a call from The Dash to Lubbock for the scoop on the kid who throws the ball backward.
"It's old habit," Hodges said. "In my sophomore year of high school, we put in the spread formation. The O-line wasn't very good that year, so I had to get rid of it quick, and I got comfortable holding it without the laces. I can't stand holding the ball with the laces now."
Bill Walsh just fainted. Steve Spurrier threw down his visor. Jeff Tedford is speechless. There isn't a quarterback guru in America who would countenance such a thing.
Well, yes there is. Famed Red Raiders nonconformist Mike Leach (27) would let Hodges throw the ball like a discus if it got where it was supposed to go.
"No one has ever tried to change me," Hodges said, adding that he knows of no other quarterback who throws bareback, for lack of a better term.
The question now: If Hodges continues his ballistic start -- 890 passing yards in two games, 74 percent completions, zero picks in 74 throws -- will he start a laces-free revolution?
"If somebody wants to learn to throw that way, I will teach them," he said with a laugh.
Big & Tall Shop
|Despite the unique grip, Cody Hodges has thrown for 890 yards in two games.|
Tall wide receivers aren't a new phenomenon in football (anyone remember Harold Carmichael?) but they seem to be more popular and productive than ever this fall in the college game. Five big men making a big impact this September:
Matt Trannon (28), Michigan State. The 6-foot-6, 227-pounder, who also plays for Tom Izzo's basketball team, has 11 catches for 226 yards and three touchdowns in three games.
James Hardy (29), Indiana. Another hoopster, the 6-7, 215-pound redshirt freshman has 17 catches for 266 yards and three TDs in three games.
Dwayne Jarrett (30), USC. The 6-5, 210-pound sophomore makes a mockery of single coverage, with 11 catches for 167 yards and five touchdowns in two games. (He's backed up by 6-5, 220-pound true freshman Patrick Turner, who made the first two catches of his college career last Saturday against Arkansas -- one for a touchdown. At USC, they have a Noah's Ark team: two of everything.)
Jeff Samardzija (31), Notre Dame. The 6-5, 216-pounder is becoming Brady Quinn's go-to guy, especially in the Red Zone. He has 13 catches for 182 yards and five TDs.
Mario Urrutia (32), Louisville. The 6-6, 220-pound redshirt freshman was a preseason sensation, but didn't catch a pass in the Cardinals' season opener. Then he made seven for 175 yards and two touchdowns last week against Oregon State, including a one-handed grab under tight coverage.
|Dwayne Jarrett did not answer questions about his speed. |
TCU beat Utah in a dramatic overtime game last week when Michael DePriest caught a 4-yard touchdown pass. First-year Utes coach Kyle Whittingham (33) called the play what it was:
"A little pick play," the Dallas Morning News quoted him as saying. "They picked off our defender. It was a great call by them, and we didn't execute."
A pick play is, of course, illegal, but enforcement of the offensive interference that makes it work is erratic. Nevertheless, Horned Frogs coach Gary Patterson (34) apparently couldn't handle the truth as spoken by the losing coach.
"We don't pick in our definition of how we run routes," Patterson told the Morning News. "I don't know why they would think we would do that."
Maybe because the defensive back assigned to cover DePriest was laid out flat on his back at the goal line by one of your receivers, Gary. Just a guess.
The controversy took attention away from a spectacular debut by TCU freshman running back Aaron Brown (35) (no apparent relation to the idiosyncratic CNN anchor). In his first college game, Brown ran with verve and tenacity for 163 yards on 17 carries. The Dash counsels Gridworld: Keep an eye on this kid.
Putting Out An APB For
Former LSU quarterback Tommy Hodson (36), who only seemed to be the Tigers' starter for about nine years in the late 1980s/early '90s. Information on Hodson's whereabouts is appreciated.
Meanwhile, The Dash is pleased to report that last week's subject, former Vanderbilt quarterbacking hero Whit Taylor (37), is alive and well coaching high school football at Shelbyville Central High in Tennessee. Unfortunately, Taylor's team is on a Vandy-like losing streak, having dropped 11 in a row, dating back to last year.
When thirsty in the sprawl that is greater Los Angeles, The Dash recommends a stop at unpretentious Manhattan Beach bar Harry O's (38), just a couple blocks off the rolling Pacific surf. The Dash hit the spot with Mag man and dotcom blogger Bruce Feldman (39) last week and wound up having a drink with Super Bowl XV hero Rod Martin (40).
The former Oakland linebacker, who intercepted three Ron Jaworski passes in New Orleans, wasn't too hard to identify, given his Raiders shirt and Super Bowl ring. Martin is in obnoxiously good shape, down a good 30 pounds from his playing weight and looking 15 years younger than he has a right to. Maybe that's what the SoCal beach life can do for you.
Pat Forde is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.