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Tuesday, October 24, 2006
The Dash sprints through the one-loss teams

By Pat Forde
ESPN.com

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (Spartie Schizophrenia (1) T-shirts sold separately):

Before we get started, The Dash has to say this much for old buddy John L. Smith (2): good (35-point comeback against Northwestern) or bad (blown 17-point lead against Notre Dame), his teams will make the fourth quarter interesting. The question is whether Michigan State's breathtaking comeback against the Wildcats is enough to keep Smith employed in East Lansing past this season.

The prediction: It's not enough, not yet. Maybe if the Spartans win out to close the regular season -- which isn't out of the question, given the competition.

One-Loss Wonders
Comeback Saturday did very little to clear the massive logjam that runs from the top five to the tail end of the Top 25. After Texas, California, Notre Dame and Tennessee all survived being pushed to the brink of defeat, we're still left with a surplus of one-loss teams still in the national title chase -- and we have no solid idea how to rank them.

Enter the ever-helpful Dash, here to provide a pecking order and predict how it might all sort out:

Arkansas Razorbacks (3)
Record: 6-1.

BCS rank: 13th. (14th in the Harris and USA Today Coaches' polls, 10 with the computers). Until the Razorbacks lose again, they're underrated in comparison to their SEC brethren.

Loss: 50-14 to USC.

Mitch Mustain
Mitch Mustain and the Hogs are 4-0 in SEC play.
Excuses: The Razorbacks hadn't yet turned the offense over to freshman quarterback Mitch Mustain. Star tailback Darren McFadden was not 100 percent recovered from a dislocated toe. Since when is losing to USC an indictment? Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn thought this was the Arkansas high school state finals.

Case for: Arkansas handed the only loss so far to Auburn, which handed the only loss so far to Florida, which handed the only loss so far to Tennessee. Ergo ipso facto, the Hogs (4-0 in SEC play) have proven the most so far in the nation's toughest conference.

Case against: A 36-point home loss cannot be shrugged off, no matter the opposition and no matter who started at quarterback for Arkansas. Razorbacks needed kicking-game gag jobs to beat Alabama by a point and Vanderbilt by two.

Big games ahead: at South Carolina Nov. 4, home against Tennessee Nov. 11, home against LSU Nov. 24. The Hogs' strength of schedule should rise in the final month of the regular season.

The Dash Predicts: Two more losses are in store for Houston Nutt's team, effectively dropping it from national title and SEC West title contention. Arkansas has built its resume almost solely on walloping Auburn. The rest of the body of work isn't that impressive.

Florida Gators (4)
Record: 6-1.

BCS rank: sixth (ninth in Harris Poll, eighth in USA Today Poll, fourth with the computers).

Loss: 27-17 at Auburn.

Urban Meyer
Urban Meyer and the Gators still have that South Carolina visit on the horizon.
Excuses: Key call on a Chris Leak fumble and subsequent review weirdly went against the Gators. Game was closer than the score, which was inflated by a fluke Auburn touchdown on the last play. Florida players saw all the orange and blue in the stands and thought they were playing in front of a home crowd; subsequent boos threw them off their game.

Case for: No other one-loss team has two better victories than the Gators' wins over Tennessee (in Knoxville) and LSU.

Case against: Florida has been good in every game and dazzling in none. Gators haven't scored more than 28 points in an SEC game since Nov. 5, 2005.

Big games ahead: Traditional late-season games against Georgia and Florida State are big, but won't pack the usual strength-of-schedule wallop with both the Bulldogs and Seminoles tanking. And there is the small matter of taking care of Steve Spurrier in The Swamp Nov. 11. That will be a pressure game for Urban Meyer.

The Dash Predicts: 11-1 heading into the SEC championship game, and very much in the fight for a BCS title berth.

Auburn Tigers (5)
Record: 7-1.

BCS rank: fifth (seventh in both polls, sixth with the computers).

Loss: 27-10 to Arkansas.

Tommy Tuberville
Tommy Tuberville and the Tigers need help to reach the SEC title game.
Excuse: Got caught looking ahead to Florida in a league that gouges your eyes out for looking ahead. And, uh, that's about it. There are no good excuses for losing at home by 17 to what was then an unranked team when you're in the top five.

Case for: Second-half shutouts of LSU and Florida show how strong the Tigers are on defense. The season-opening thumping of Washington State looks more impressive with each passing week.

Cast against: Hard to minimize a 17-point home loss as a solid favorite, especially when Auburn was outrushed by more than 200 yards. Questions remain about whether this team has championship-level offensive talent.

Big games ahead: The Tigers close by hosting Georgia Nov. 11 and visiting Alabama Nov. 18. On paper, neither should be nail-biters. In reality, both rivalry games probably will be.

The Dash Predicts: 11-1 and pointed toward a rematch with Florida in the SEC title game.

Tennessee Volunteers (6)
Record: 6-1.

BCS rank: 11th (eighth in Harris Poll, ninth in USA Today Poll, 11th with the computers).

Loss: 21-20 at home to Florida.

Erik Ainge
Erik Ainge and the Vols have some tough hurdles left on the schedule.
Excuses: Tennessee hadn't yet tapped into the potential of freshman running back LaMarcus Coker (zero carries for zero yards vs. Florida, 360 rushing yards since then); if Tim Tebow doesn't muscle out a fourth-and-1 run in the fourth quarter, Vols are still unbeaten. Smokey the blue-tick hound got hold of some bad Kal Kan the night before.

Case for: A single loss by a single point to a high-powered opponent. Vols absolutely owned California in the opener, and the Bears are unbeaten since. The Vols have won their two road games by a combined 52 points.

Case against: Beat Air Force by a point when Fisher DeBerry went for two at the end of regulation instead of going for the tie and playing overtime. Trailed almost all game against Alabama. Were statistically dominated by Florida. Beating Georgia doesn't mean as much when Vanderbilt does it, too.

Big games ahead: Three in a row, at South Carolina Saturday (and we all know how Phil Fulmer has fared against Steve Spurrier over the years); home against LSU Nov. 4; and at Arkansas Nov. 11.

The Dash Predicts: There is another loss out there with Tennessee's name on it. The Volunteers will land outside of the BCS bowls but can take 10-2 as a pretty fair bounce-back from 5-6 in 2005.

Texas Longhorns (7)
Record: 7-1.

BCS rank: seventh (fifth in both polls, 13th with the computers).

Loss: 24-7 at home to Ohio State.

Colt McCoy
Colt McCoy and the Horns have a clear path to the Big 12 title game.
Excuses: The Longhorns' lone loss was to the best team in the country, and nobody else has come any closer; Colt McCoy was a baby then and has grown up since; if Billy Pittman doesn't fumble near the Ohio State goal line in the first half, the game could have turned out much differently. Matthew McConaughey's histrionics behind the Texas bench did more harm than good.

Case for: With an authoritative neutral-field victory over one ranked team (Oklahoma) and a victory over another ranked team in a true road setting (no matter how touch-and-go it was at Nebraska Saturday), the Horns have re-established themselves as the dominant team in the Big 12.

Case against: You want to play the iffin' game with Pittman's fumble against Ohio State? How about the fumble by Nebraska's Terrence Nunn that turned a certain Cornhuskers victory into one last chance for the Longhorns? If Nunn holds on to the ball, Texas is out of this discussion.

Big games ahead: Not many. Texas Tech (Saturday) doesn't look like a threat. Looks like the last hurdle before the Big 12 title game is Texas A&M in Austin Nov. 24.

The Dash Predicts: Texas will be 11-1 and in the BCS title-game argument going to Kansas City on Dec. 2.

California Golden Bears(8)
Record: 7-1.

BCS rank: 10th (11th in Harris Poll, 12th in USA Today Poll, fifth with the computers).

Loss: 35-18 at Tennessee.

Nate Longshore
Nate Longshore and the Bears have not beaten a BCS contender in 2006.
Excuses: Quarterback Nate Longshore was making his second career start after sitting out almost all of 2005, and it showed. Starting cornerback Tim Mixon suffered a season-ending injury shortly before the Tennessee game, and his replacement couldn't tackle or cover Vols wideout Robert Meachem (five catches, 182 yards, two touchdowns). Incessant renditions of "Rocky Top" from the Tennessee band fried Cal's composure.

Case for: Dropped 42 points on then-No. 19 Arizona State and 45 on then-No. 11 Oregon. Hadn't even been threatened for six weeks until the Washington scare Saturday. Has won two Pac-10 road games by a combined 46 points.

Case against: Cal trailed Tennessee 35-3 before the Vols let up. Bears easily could have lost to the Huskies. Haven't beaten anyone still considered a BCS contender.

Big games ahead: Cal hosts UCLA Nov. 4 and plays at USC Nov. 18. Beating the Trojans could vault the Bears to the top of the one-loss class.

The Dash Predicts: Playing nine league games certainly helps the strength of schedule -- if you can win them all. The Dash sees a loss for the Bears in L.A. Coliseum.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish (9)
Record: 6-1.

BCS rank: ninth (10th in both polls, eighth with the computers).

Loss: 47-21 to Michigan.

Jeff Samardzija
Jeff Samardzija's game-winning catch vs. UCLA kept Notre Dame in the BCS hunt.
Excuses: The pass that went through tight end John Carlson's hands and was returned for six on the opening series inflated Michigan's confidence. Last Wolverines touchdown -- another defensive TD -- was a fluke that made the score look worse than it was. Leprechaun didn't bring his A game.

Case for: Nobody else on this list has played a schedule exclusively against opponents from the Big Six conferences to date. Nobody else has two comeback wins as dramatic as Notre Dame's. Irish's first five opponents all were undefeated at kickoff. Losing to Michigan is clearly not a sin.

Case against: Losing at home by 26 -- even to Michigan -- is at least a venial sin. Needing minor miracles to beat Michigan State and UCLA is borderline sinful.

Big games ahead: The Irish play USC in Los Angeles Nov. 25. Maybe you've heard about it. Prior to that, trips to play Navy in Baltimore and Air Force in Colorado Springs at least have the potential to be interesting.

The Dash Predicts: Still simmering from last year, Notre Dame turns USC game into a crusade and wins on a last-second Brady Quinn sneak, with a push from Darius Walker. Irish go 11-1 and throw the BCS Standings into complete chaos.

Clemson Tigers (10)
Record: 7-1.

BCS rank: 12th (12th in Harris Poll, 11th in USA Today Poll, 15th with the computers).

Loss: 34-33 in two overtimes at Boston College.

James Davis
James Davis and the Tigers have powered to six straight wins.
Excuses: Clemson dominated from scrimmage and let it get away in the kicking game. Fans' New England accents completely threw the Southern boys off their game.

Case for: How much can you penalize a team for losing on a blocked PAT on the road against what is now a Top 25 opponent? Average margin of victory in seven wins is 34 points. Nobody's come within single digits of the Tigers since Sept. 16.

Case against: "Quality win" over Florida State not looking so high-quality right now. Blowing out Florida Atlantic, North Carolina, Temple and Louisiana Tech impresses no one. It took a 66-yard, fourth-quarter fumble return touchdown by defensive end Gaines Adams to turn around Clemson's game against Wake Forest.

Big games ahead: At Virginia Tech Thursday and home against South Carolina Nov. 25 might be the last serious tests -- and neither of those is like climbing Everest. This year, the ACC is a succession of mole hills.

The Dash Predicts: Look for Clemson to be 11-1 heading into the ACC championship game -- either for a rematch with Georgia Tech or a matchup with Miami.

Boston College Eagles (11)
Record: 6-1.

BCS rank: 17th (17th in both polls, tied for 16th with the computers).

Loss: 17-15 at NC State.

Tom O'Brien
Tom O'Brien and the Eagles have wins over five I-A teams with winning records.
Excuses: Kicker error and a fluke 34-yard touchdown pass with five seconds left are to blame. And who among us can figure out the Wolfpack?

Case for: Victories over Clemson, Virginia Tech and Florida State officially stamp the Eagles as a success story in their second ACC season. All five wins over I-A opponents came against teams that currently own winning records.

Case against: Akron beat NC State. Southern Mississippi beat NC State -- by 20. Maryland beat NC State. How did BC lose to NC State?

Big games ahead: Remaining road games against Wake Forest (Nov. 4) and Miami (Nov. 23) will be tricky.

The Dash Predicts: The Eagles will lose one of those two games to wind up 10-2 and just miss a berth in the ACC title game. But at least they won't have to go bowling in Boise again this season.

Wisconsin Badgers (12)
Record: 7-1.

BCS rank: 18th (18th in both polls, tied for 16th with the computers).

Loss: 27-13 at Michigan.

P.J. Hill
P.J. Hill and the Badgers are 4-1 in the Big Ten.
Excuses: Average Wolverines scoring drive went all of 31 yards. Ask Penn State and Iowa how much easier it is playing Michigan without Mario Manningham than with him.

Case for: Badgers have won four straight Big Ten games by an average of 31 points, and have only allowed more than 17 points to the Wolverines. At age 36, rookie head coach Bret Bielema has done his job like a veteran. Running back P.J. Hill isn't just the best freshman in the country, the Wisconsin Winnebago also has the best nickname of any player.

Case against: Badgers haven't beaten anyone currently in the Sagarin top 40. And that band is nothing but trouble.

Big games ahead: Not many, with Ohio State off the schedule. Consecutive games against Penn State and Iowa look like the last hurdles.

The Dash Predicts: Wisconsin splits games against the Nittany Lions and Hawkeyes to finish 10-2. Unfortunately for Bucky, they do it in the same year when the Ohio State-Michigan loser looks like a lock for the Rose Bowl.

Texas A&M Aggies (13)
Record: 7-1.

BCS rank: 21st (23rd in Harris Poll, 22nd in USA Today Poll, tied for 21st with the computers).

Loss: 31-27 to Texas Tech.

Jorvorskie Lane
Jorvorskie Lane and the Aggies haven't played a tough schedule.
Excuses: Brainlock blitz call gave Red Raiders a gift-wrapped shot at a game-winning bomb in the final minute. Aggies had taken over the game prior to that. Mike Leach sold his soul to the devil for the chance to own this rivalry.

Case for: Aggies are 30 seconds short of undefeated.

Case against: Aggies have played a stay-puft schedule -- and are closer to two or three losses than they are to undefeated. They have four victories by six points or less, including slipping past the uninspiring likes of Army, Kansas and Oklahoma State by a combined eight points.

Big games ahead: A&M closes with Oklahoma, Nebraska and Texas. Time to hunker down.

The Dash Predicts: Texas A&M would be fortunate to split its last four. Three losses seems more likely, for an 8-4 record.

Missouri Tigers (14)
Record: 7-1.

BCS rank: 20th (21st in Harris Poll, 23rd in USA Today Poll, 19th with the computers).

Loss: 25-19 at Texas A&M.

Chase Daniel
Chase Daniel and the Tigers have posted seven double-digit wins.
Excuses: Three first-half Missouri fumbles -- including one into the A&M end zone on the first possession -- gave the Aggies the game. Being stopped on the Aggies' 6-yard line in the fourth didn't help. If you woke up in College Station on game day, you'd be uninspired, too.

Case for: Quarterback Chase Daniel might be the No. 1 revelation in college football. All seven Missouri wins have been by double digits.

Case against: None of those seven wins has come against a ranked opponent. Missouri lost star defensive end Brian Smith for the season with a broken hip against Kansas State. That will severely inhibit the Tigers' productive pass rush.

Big games ahead: The Tigers haven't beaten Oklahoma and Nebraska in the same season since 1969. They have that opportunity over the next two Saturdays.

The Dash Predicts: Without Smith, look for a split in those two games and a scare from rival Kansas. But Mizzou will gladly take 10-2, even if it means losing the Big 12 North at Nebraska Nov. 4.

Wake Forest Demon Deacons (15)
Record: 6-1.

BCS rank: Not in the BCS top 25.

Loss: 27-17 to Clemson.

Jim Grobe
Jim Grobe and Wake are a surprising 6-1.
Excuses: Two fumbles -- one on the first possession inside the Clemson 5, the other in the fourth quarter at the Clemson 34 -- turned a sure victory into an agonizing defeat. Wake simply had no idea how to act when it found itself 5-0 and up two touchdowns in the fourth.

Case for: Aside from the fact that Jim Grobe is the national coach of the year at this stage, cracking the AP Top 25 despite major injuries, there is no logical or compelling argument to make for Wake ahead of the other schools on this list.

Case against: Every Wake Forest victory has come against a team having a disappointing season: Syracuse, Duke, Connecticut, Liberty, Mississippi and North Carolina State.

Big games ahead: Boston College, Florida State and Virginia Tech on successive November Saturdays.

The Dash Predicts: Three more losses. But, hey, the Demon Deacons will take 8-4 and smile broadly.

Make Room On The Marquee For … The Big East?
The only thing that could make this fall any better for Mike Tranghese (16) would be tailgating with Dashette Marissa Miller (17).

Marissa Miller
Even Dashette Marissa Miller has figured out that the Big East is hot.
But the Tranghese Revenge Tour is just now reaching its peak over the final five weeks of the season. The Big East's masterfully back-loaded schedule brings the league fully to the forefront of the sport down the stretch.

Forget all the one-loss teams scattered across the land. The Big East has three undefeated teams: West Virginia (18), Louisville (19) and, yes, Rutgers (20). They'll all play each other -- and the Cardinals and Mountaineers will also face spoiler Pittsburgh -- in November and early December.

The calendar starts with three straight Thursday night games that will help decide the Big East champion -- and could thrust an undefeated but somewhat unloved team into the heart of the national championship debate:

• Nov. 2: West Virginia at Louisville. Biggest football game ever played in the state of Kentucky.

• Nov. 9: Louisville at Rutgers. Perfect setup for the Scarlet Knights: catch the Cardinals coming off the Mountaineers game in what might be Rutgers' biggest game since it started the sport with Princeton in 1869.

• Nov. 16: West Virginia at Pittsburgh. Backyard Brawl gives Panthers a chance for revenge after being ripped by WVU on a frozen field last year.

• Nov. 25: Louisville at Pittsburgh. Cards beware: Last home game for Tyler Palko and H.B. Blades.

• Dec. 2: Rutgers at West Virginia. Potentially the biggest Cinderella story since Northwestern 1995 vs. a team that could be playing for a spot in the national championship game.

Tranghese to John Swofford: What you got?

ACC: All Coaches Canned?
Here's what Swofford's got: a 12-team league in which as many as six coaches could change addresses.

North Carolina made the first firing of the season when it pink-slipped John Bunting (21) Sunday night. Larry Coker (22) looks to be on the way out at Miami. Chuck Amato (23) seems to slide back off the hot seat with every win and back onto the hot seat with every loss. Al Groh (24) hasn't won over anyone at Virginia. Ted Roof (25) seemingly hasn't beaten a I-A opponent at Duke since Mark Alarie was in school. The one guy The Dash doesn't think is going anywhere is Florida State's Bobby Bowden (26), no matter how many boosters write letters urging his retirement.

And then there's the chatter about Tom O'Brien (27) of Boston College, who could be in demand on the open market after another successful season at a place that does not reload.

Breaking Down The Best Backs
The Dash is lamenting the lack of great quarterback play this season, especially by anyone not wearing No. 10 (Troy Smith, Brady Quinn, Erik Ainge, Chase Daniel). But you sure can't say the same about running backs. It's a bull market for backs, even with the season-ending injuries to Michael Bush and Adrian Peterson.

The Dash scrutinized the work of the 10 best this season at toting the leather. It wouldn't mean enough just to look at production, so The Dash factored in the strength of the defenses the top backs have run against using NCAA statistics. (If a back played against a I-AA opponent, that team's I-AA rank was added to 119, which is the number of I-A schools.)

Assigning points for yards per game, yards per carry, total touchdowns and the average NCAA rank of each rushing defense, here are your top 10 backs to this point in 2006. The results might surprise you:

1. Ian Johnson (28)
Boise State
Yards per game: 147.6
Yards per carry: 6.99
Touchdowns: 18 (first nationally)
Average rush defense faced: 74th

2. Garrett Wolfe (29)
Northern Illinois
Yards per game: 176.6 (first nationally)
Yards per carry: 7.4 (first nationally)
Touchdowns: 14
Average rush defense faced: 94th

3. James Davis (30)
Clemson
Yards per game: 120.1
Yards per carry: 6.93
Touchdowns: 16
Average rush defense faced: 67th

4. Ray Rice (31)
Rutgers
Yards per game: 160.6
Yards per carry: 5.6
Touchdowns: 12
Average rush defense faced: 82nd

5. Steve Slaton (32)
West Virginia
Yards per game: 151.3
Yards per carry: 7.01
Touchdowns: 9
Average rush defense faced: 111th

6. (tie) Marshawn Lynch (33)
California
Yards per game: 113.4
Yards per carry: 6.87
Touchdowns: 11
Average rush defense faced: 71st

6. (tie) Jon Cornish (34)
Kansas
Yards per game: 120.1
Yards per carry: 6.91
Touchdowns: 5
Average rush defense faced: 58th

8. P.J. Hill (35)
Wisconsin
Yards per game: 146.5
Yards per carry: 5.80
Touchdowns: 14
Average rush defense faced: 98th

9. Mike Hart (36)
Michigan
Yards per game: 129.0
Yards per carry: 4.82
Touchdowns: 8
Average rush defense faced: 59th

10. Ahmad Bradshaw (37)
Marshall
Yards per game: 123.3
Yards per carry: 6.59
Touchdowns: 9
Average rush defense faced: 92nd

Honorable mention to Antonio Pittman of Ohio State, Darren McFadden of Arkansas and Yvenson Bernard of Oregon State, who just missed the list.

Putting Out An APB For …
… Rutgers running back J.J. Jennings (38), whose name is popping back up in news stories these days as Ray Rice joins him in the Scarlet Knights record books. Jennings had back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons in 1972 and '73. Anyone with information on one of the greats in State University of New Jersey history, please advise The Dash.

Meanwhile, The Dash is pleased to report that last week's APB subject, BYU quarterback Gary Sheide, is alive and well and teaching at Mountain Ridge Junior High School in Highland, Utah. The first of LaVell Edwards' great Cougars quarterbacks is also coaching ninth-grade basketball and is the co-offensive coordinator at Lone Peak High School, works as the color commentator on telecasts of all BYU home games and is the president of an international marina designing and building company. Thanks to Sheide for the e-mail informing The Dash.

Point After
When hungry in the charmingly collegiate Ann Arbor, The Dash recommends the square pizza at Cottage Inn Pizza (39), which is something of a Michigan tradition. As always, The Dash is big on local beer, so try the Mad Hatter India Pale Ale (40), made by the New Holland Brewery in Holland, Mich. Approximately 4 million hops in every pint glass.

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