Tuesday, September 1, 2009
Dashing on the brink of an epic year
By Pat Forde
Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football, where allegedly excessive practice sure doesn't make perfect at Michigan (1):
The start of the season is always an intoxicating moment -- but to The Dash, this one is packing extra payload. A freshman is starting at quarterback at USC. A virgin is starting at quarterback at Florida. Coaches are crying at the podium in Honolulu and Ann Arbor.
So many storylines, so much potential for mayhem. It seems like we're on the brink of an epic year.
This feels like the rooftop scene in "The Hangover," minus the lone wolf speech. We're about to toast ourselves with Jagermeister and begin an adventure that hopefully does not end with missing teeth, a stolen squad car or a tiger in the bathroom. Well, maybe Mike the Tiger (2) in Stanford's new $50,000 to $70,000 bathroom for Jim Harbaugh (3). That would be cool.
So join Dashette Audrina Patridge (4) in raising a shot glass, kids. To a season none of us will ever forget.
|Audrina Patridge and The Dash are looking forward to the season.|
The biggest lifestyle change in America between last football season and this football season? The explosion of Twitter, of course. And college coaches and players are prominently included among those riding the newest social networking wave.
But most of what you hear from coaches is a lot of sunshine, spin and one-sentence philosophy stuff probably filched from a desk calendar. Examples range from literal sales pitches:
"Nick Gray just purchased season tickets. He'll be there Sept. 6th when we take on CSU. Will you? Buy your tickets today at CUBuffs.com!" -- Colorado coach Dan Hawkins (5).
To the banal:
"Purdue enrolls the largest student body of any university in Indiana. Boiler Up!!" -- Danny Hope (6), first-year head coach of the Boilermakers.
To my-job-is-on-the-line-and-Twitter-isn't-going-to-save-it standoffishness:
"Back to work. Thanks for following me and I'll talk to you again after the season. Go Irish!" -- Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis (7), Aug. 3.
So The Dash proposes a little Twitter Truth. If we could only make people in college football tweet what they really were thinking:
"Country road, take me home
" -- Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez (8)
"What was it Seinfeld said? 'Not that there's anything wrong with that'? It worked for him, why not me?" -- Hawaii coach Greg McMackin (9)
"Forget the Dos Equis guy. I am The Most Interesting Man in the World." -- Texas Tech coach Mike Leach (10)
|Mike Leach is the most interesting man in the world.|
"I am the Least Interesting Man in the World." -- Ohio State coach Jim Tressel (11)
"You have no idea how uptight high rankings make me." -- California coach Jeff Tedford (12) and Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt (13)
"I'm going to be 58 in two weeks. How much longer can I work the 29-year-old, pseudo-surfer act?" -- USC coach Pete Carroll (14)
"Is it Sept. 19th yet?" -- Florida coach Urban Meyer (15), while sharpening a machete
"Can I call in sick Sept. 19th? Just let Orgeron and Dad handle it?" -- Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin (16)
"You want me do to what? Tweet? What the hell is that? Jay, get in here and do this! It's past my nap time!" -- Penn State coach Joe Paterno (17)
"If Paterno is gonna tweet, you're dadgum right I'm gonna tweet. How many times that ol' buzzard tweet today? Four? I'll do five." -- Florida State coach Bobby Bowden (18)
And this really is an honest-to-goodness, 100 percent true tweet Sunday from Ball State offensive line coach Jason Eck (19): "Players off today
Punching The Clock
Rich Rodriguez in tears is not exactly the rally-the-fan-base visual they were hoping for to start the season in Ann Arbor. (And thank goodness Bo Schembechler  wasn't around to see it; he would've choked on his gum.)
Then again, the fan base -- and more than a few current and former Wolverines -- might be more interested in turning the rally into a lynch mob at this point.
The latest and second-most damaging in a litany of problems for Rodriguez since going to Michigan last year is the allegation from players, both anonymous and named, that the current coaching staff has made a mockery of time restrictions on practices and workouts. (The most damaging problem, of course, was that 3-9 stink bomb last season.) The school is investigating. The NCAA assuredly will, as well. And a school that is rather arrogantly proud of doing things the right way has a mess on its hands at precisely the wrong time.
The Dash knows this much: The 20-hour weekly practice limit and the prohibition on coaches' monitoring offseason workouts might be the two most-broken rules in college sports. That's not just football and basketball; that's all of them.
|Rich Rodriguez is facing tough times in Ann Arbor.|
Coaches can call weight workouts and conditioning "optional," but everyone knows the deal. You miss and you'll pay, either losing your place on the depth chart or being assigned additional punishment work.
And how many modern facilities are built in which the head coach's office has either a balcony or picture windows overlooking the stadium/practice field/court? You think that's coincidence? Just because those windows have blinds on them, it doesn't mean they're drawn when the team is out there during the summer, working on seven-on-seven in football or running full-court scrimmages in basketball.
That doesn't mean the rule-breakers shouldn't be penalized when caught -- especially if the rule was completely flouted, as is alleged at Michigan. The rules have a purpose and a merit: to keep athletes from becoming unpaid, full-time laborers at the complete expense of academics or any other vestige of a college experience; and to prevent schools that cheat from gaining a competitive advantage over those practicing by the book.
But to catch all the cheaters, the NCAA will have to expand its enforcement staff to roughly 38,000.
Mostly, this means that the atmosphere in Ann Arbor is even more toxic than we knew, with Rodriguez detractors seemingly everywhere -- the locker room prominently included. Closest thing The Dash has seen to a welcome worn out this quickly at a Cadillac program was Billy Gillispie as basketball coach at Kentucky.
Gillispie lasted two miserable years and was fired.
Rodriguez is starting Year 2. Under a cloud.
Conference Credibility Watch
For years, The Dash has disliked the fruitless, pointless, endless debates over which conference is best in college football. But the debates never subside -- so if you can't stop 'em, join 'em. This is The Dash's preseason conference power ratings, worst to best, and the Week 1 nonleague breakdown as we start proving who plays the best ball:
Sun Belt (21). Projected Week 1 record: 3-5. Home games: two. Road games: six. FCS opponents: two. Best game: Troy at Bowling Green on Thursday night. Best chance to pull an upset: North Texas at Ball State on Thursday night. Best chance to be upset: Troy at Bowling Green.
Mid-American (22). Projected Week 1 record: 4-9. Home games: six. Road games: six. Neutral site: one. FCS opponents: two. Best game: Central Michigan at Arizona. Best chance to pull an upset: Ohio at home over Connecticut. Best chance to be upset: Ball State hosting North Texas on Thursday night.
WAC (23). Projected Week 1 record: 2-5 (not counting Idaho-New Mexico State league game). Home games: three. Road games: four. FCS opponents: two. Best game: Oregon at Boise State on Thursday night. Best chance to pull an upset: Louisiana Tech at Auburn. Best chance to be upset: Boise State hosting Oregon.
C-USA (24). Projected Week 1 record: 7-1 (not counting Tulsa-Tulane and UAB-Rice league games). Home games: eight, as the league goes with a cupcake-intensive diet to start the season. Road games: zero. FCS opponents: six. Best game: Ole Miss at Memphis on Sunday. Best chance to pull an upset: Memphis over Ole Miss. Best chance to be upset: East Carolina at home against Appalachian State.
Big East (25). Projected Week 1 record: 5-1 (not counting Monday's Rutgers-Cincinnati league game). Home games: five. Road games: one. FCS opponents: four. Best game: UConn at Ohio. Best chance to pull an upset: Syracuse at home over Minnesota. Best chance to be upset: UConn at Ohio.
Mountain West (26). Projected Week 1 record: 4-4. Home games: four. Road games: three. Neutral site: one. FCS opponents: three. Best game: BYU versus Oklahoma in Dallas. Best chance to pull an upset: San Diego State over UCLA. Best chance to be upset: Wyoming at home versus Weber State.
ACC (27). Projected Week 1 record: 7-3 (not counting Monday's Miami-Florida State league game. Home games: eight. Road games: one. Neutral site: one. FCS opponents: five. Best game: Alabama-Virginia Tech in Atlanta. Best chance to pull an upset: Virginia Tech over Alabama. Best chance to be upset: Wake Forest at home against Baylor.
|Chris Petersen and the Broncos will have their hands full against Oregon.|
Big Ten (28). Projected Week 1 record: 10-1. Home games: nine. Road games: one. Neutral site: one. FCS opponents: four. Best game: Missouri-Illinois in St. Louis. Best chance to pull an upset: none (the Big Ten is favored in every game). Best chance to be upset: Purdue at home against Toledo.
|Robert Griffin III and the Bears will test Wake Forest.|
Pac-10 (29). Projected Week 1 record: 7-1 (not counting Stanford-Washington State league game). Home games: seven. Road games: one. FCS opponents: two. Best game: Oregon at Boise State on Thursday night. Best chance to pull an upset: Oregon at Boise State. Best chance to be upset: Arizona hosting Central Michigan.
Big 12 (30). Projected Week 1 record: 11-1. Home games: nine. Road games: one. Neutral site: two. FCS opponents: four. Best game: Georgia at Oklahoma State. Best chance for an upset: Baylor at Wake Forest. Best chance to be upset: Oklahoma State hosting Georgia.
SEC (31). Projected Week 1 record: 10-2. Home games: six. Road games: four. Neutral site: two. FCS opponents: four. Best game: Alabama-Virginia Tech in Atlanta. Best chance for an upset: Georgia at Oklahoma State. Best chance to be upset: Alabama by Virginia Tech.
The above information makes it pretty clear that power teams do their dead-level best to avoid strenuous conflict in the first week of the season. The larger question is, who tries to avoid it all year long?
The answers are in this link. It's a list of the number of nonconference, AP Top 25 opponents that each FBS team played in the past five regular seasons.
There is some luck involved here; you schedule Notre Dame and think the Fighting Irish will be ranked, but they've been unranked more often since 2003. You schedule Boise State a decade ago, and you had no idea you'd play a team ranked in 34 of the past 59 polls.
Still, there are some deductions to be made. Namely: Play too many tough opponents and you might get fired. Syracuse's Greg Robinson (32), Washington's Ty Willingham (33) and North Carolina's John Bunting (34) are former head coaches who know the feeling. The Orange played eight ranked nonconference opponents the past five years, while the Huskies and Tar Heels each played seven.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, you might be able to figure out how programs such as Rutgers (zero nonconference ranked opponents), Kansas (one) and Missouri (one) have made a move up in recent years.
Just Shut Up Offseason Fan Award
This one goes to the fans at Central Florida (35), who simply cannot believe that their school will no longer allow them to commence getting liquored up on campus at 7 a.m. on game days. UCF has prohibited campus tailgating until the intolerably late hour of 8 a.m. for games that kick off before 6 p.m. (there are three of them this year), and until noon for games that kick off at 6 or later (four of those).
The university decision has so enraged some fans you'd think the school had just gone Mormon on them.
According to the Orlando Sentinel, some Knights backers have threatened to drop their season tickets or stop giving to the university. UCF coach George O'Leary reportedly commiserated with the fans, telling them, "I'm on your side."
Nobody is telling UCF fans they can't crack the seals on their whiskey bottles at 7 a.m. They just can't do it on campus. If that's worth canceling your season tickets, you might be better off at the Betty Ford Clinic than the lyrically named Bright House Networks Stadium.
Do The Right Thing
Hats off to Mississippi State (36), which managed to schedule an easy victory to open the Dan Mullen Era and break an overdue barrier at the same time. When the Bulldogs host Jackson State on Saturday, it will be the first-ever meeting between a Southeastern Conference team and a Southwestern Athletic Conference team.
Somehow, the SEC has avoided scheduling a SWAC opponent for all these years. The last big-six league to hire an African-American football coach certainly has not avoided scheduling plenty of I-AA teams in the past, but somehow never saw fit to give an opportunity (and a big check) to one of the historically black colleges in its own backyard.
It's shameful that the 12 members of the most powerful league in the country have dotted their schedules with likes of Georgia Southern, Charleston Southern, Western Carolina, Appalachian State, Chattanooga, Texas State, Tennessee Tech and many others while ignoring their other Southern neighbors. There is ample opportunity to fill some of those spots with Jackson State, Grambling, Southern, Alabama A&M, Alabama State, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Prairie View A&M, Mississippi Valley State, Texas Southern and Alcorn State.
|Tyrone Willingham faced a tough schedule during his Washington tenure.|
(It should be noted that there have been some recent games by SEC teams against other HBCU teams from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. South Carolina played South Carolina State in 2007, and Kentucky played Norfolk State last year.)
Leave it to Mississippi State -- a school that broke the coaching color barrier with Sylvester Croom (37) and dared play against African-American basketball players against the governor's wishes in 1963 -- to be the progressive party in this area.
"I'm shocked it hadn't happened before," Mullen told The Dash. "I'm thrilled we're the first ones doing it.
The SWAC has a strong tradition, and this could be a great in-state rival. Hopefully, we'll make a yearly deal of it and play some other schools as well [Alcorn State and Mississippi Valley State]."
It should be a proud moment in Starkville on Saturday afternoon when Jackson State, alma mater of Walter Payton, takes the field to represent the SWAC against an SEC team. A moment that deserves to be replicated across the SEC in the coming years.
The Dash gets books in the mail pretty regularly, but a recent football book stood out from the crowd. "Our Boys: A Perfect Season on the Plains with the Smith Center Redmen," by New York Times writer Joe Drape (38), is a skillful capture of a true national treasure: small-town gridiron Americana.
For the 2008 football season, Drape relocated his family to the literal middle of America, Smith Center, Kan., population 1,931. He followed the Smith Center Redmen as they pushed their record winning streak to 67 games and won a fifth straight state title. Mostly, he followed the lives of the players, their families and their coaches as they maintained the values and mores that have become passé in other parts of the country.
"What we do around here real well," legendary Smith Center coach Roger Barta told Drape, "is raise kids."
Drape is the best writer alive when it comes to thoroughbred racing, but this book reinforces the fact that he's more than just a one-trick pony. (Ba-bing.) This is a compelling story expertly told.
Putting Out An APB For ...
... Former Pittsburgh defensive end Hugh Green (39). Actually, The Dash has a good idea where the 1980 Heisman Trophy runner-up is -- living in his hometown of Natchez, Miss. The better question is this: Where was Green on the night he was inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame this summer?
He wasn't at the ceremony in Jackson. Instead, according to media reports, Green hung out in his hometown with former Pitt and Miami Dolphin teammate Dan Marino and former Dolphin teammate Mark Duper. They flew in for the induction and played golf in Natchez -- then never went to the ceremony and never called to say they were skipping the ceremony.
That left a lot of people chapped in Jackson, where the banquet went on without its star attraction. Green then issued a "press release" through a Jackson lawyer saying he apologized for missing the ceremony due to a miscommunication -- a law-enforcement officer designated to drive Green and his party to and from the event got the date wrong and did not show up.
None of which makes Green any less of a turbo stud during his playing days as a Panther. But it did for a time make him an almost literal APB subject in his home state.
When hungry and thirsty in the football-steeped town of Birmingham (40), The Dash recommends dinner at The Fish Market, where the seafood comes with a Greek flair and the char-grilled oysters are so good you won't even regret passing on the Dreamland ribs (for one night). After dinner, head to the distinctly gritty-but-fun Iron Horse Saloon, where it might be live MMA fight night. Or biker night. But it's always college football night.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.