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Tuesday, November 2, 2010
Pressure, pigeons and playoff talk

By Pat Forde
ESPN.com

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (shame spiral in full effect at Texas (1)):

If basketball were football …

… What a miserable place March would be.

Consider where the 2009-10 Butler Bulldogs (2) would have been in a football-style system. Namely, the Liberty Bowl or something similarly unjust.

Stevens
Brad Stevens feels for the Broncos, who don't have the luxury of a playoff to show their skills.

Heading into the NCAA tournament, Butler was ranked No. 11 in the nation in the final AP poll and No. 8 in the USA Today coaches' poll. If you combined the poll numbers BCS-style, Butler was No. 9.

The computers thought less of the Bulldogs than the humans did. RPI ranked them No. 12, Jeff Sagarin No. 22 and Ken Pomeroy No. 26. Average rank: 20th.

And since the champions of the Horizon League certainly would not have an automatic berth in the BCS, you would not have seen Butler in a BCS bowl -- absolutely not in the BCS Championship Game.

Butler would not have had a chance to prove itself on the court. It would not have had a chance to overcome its seeding (the Bulldogs were a No. 5). It would not have had a chance to refute the dismissive Establishment remarks about strength of schedule, or only having to "get up" for a couple of marquee nonconference games a year, or enduring the weekly grind of a "real conference."

Butler would not have had the chance to beat No. 1 seed Syracuse of the Big East in the Sweet 16. Or No. 2 Kansas State of the Big 12 in the regional final. Or No. 5 Michigan State of the Big Ten in the Final Four. Or the chance to take No. 1 Duke of the ACC down to the very last shot for the national championship.

Can you see where The Dash is going with this? It doesn't take a Bus ride to follow the logic.

In a week when Boise State (3), TCU (4) and Utah (5) get a chance to occupy the national spotlight, they receive some empathy from a coach whose team at least got a chance to play for it all in his sport.

"There's certainly all kinds of ways to argue it, but if you don't have a playoff, you'll never know," said Butler coach Brad Stevens. "You've got 12 weeks of talking and never get to see what would happen. The best thing about the NCAA tournament is that the talking doesn't matter."

For the record, Stevens is on the Boise Bus.

"Our entire team has an affinity for Boise State football," Stevens said. "My guys talk about them and root for them all the time."

Moore
Kellen Moore has found a kindred spirit in Butler's basketball team.

It's actually a mutual bromance that started when Boise quarterback Kellen Moore (6) went to see Butler play in Salt Lake City in the NCAA tourney and became a fan. He bought a Butler T-shirt and wore it during Boise's spring practice.

Stevens knows what Boise -- and by extension TCU and Utah -- are facing. Butler went 20-0 in Horizon League play last season, and it wasn't as easy as it looked.

"The computer rankings and poll rankings don't take into account the fact that Boise is everyone's Super Bowl," he said. "The teams in their conference, their whole preseason is predicated on beating them. Every game on the road is the other team's biggest home game, and even at home, if you don't get up big early, you can feel the whole arena getting tense.

"The outside viewpoint of asking them to play perfectly is something nobody else is held to. There's incredible pressure that comes with that."

From Hinkle Fieldhouse to the blue turf, there is an unspoken kinship. And on the Butler end of things, there is sympathy for a team that never loses but might never get its chance to win it all.

"Every week Boise wins big," Stevens said, "and drops in the rankings."

Games of the month

The 10 most interesting November games, as we head into the final quarter of the season:

• TCU at Utah (7), Nov. 6. Why it matters: Easily the biggest game of the week nationally, marking the last regular-season matchup of unbeaten teams. Winner gets a huge strength-of-schedule bump in the BCS standings. Third straight meeting in which at least one of the two has been unbeaten and both have been ranked.

Nick Saban
Nick Saban's return to LSU in 2008 produced a closer-than-expected game.

• Alabama at LSU (8), Nov. 6. Why it matters: Does The Dash believe the Tigers can win? Not unless Mad Hatter Les Miles reactivates his deal with the devil and turns Greg McElroy into a pillar of salt during pregame warm-ups. That would at least reduce Alabama's advantage at quarterback to closer to even. But Nick Saban's previous return trip to Tiger Stadium was more arduous than expected, a 27-21 overtime thriller in 2008. And The Dash can think of half-dozen teams that will be watching intently and cheering, "Geaux Chapeau!" for Miles and against the Crimson Tide.

(The Hat's mystifying verbal skills were on display again at his news conference Monday. Among the syntactical hand grenades he tossed at the media was this response to a question about whether he was disappointed in his wide receivers' blocking: "I guess what I'm saying is I'm in the key piece of my season where the big plays have yet to have been made. As I go into the next game, I look for those plays to be more important than anything that we've done in the past, and to say that I have any opinion to this point that would be finite would not. Really, I'm expecting this receiving corps to do the things that they've done in the past, and that is rebound and play like hell and play well. If they do that, that's just what I want to see them do. In many instances there is some developing going on, and there are some guys, in my opinion, who are a little bit nicked and will probably be playing with greatest health this Saturday." That should clear it up, right?)

• South Carolina at Florida (9), Nov. 13. Winning the SEC East this year is kind of like battling to finish third in the WAC or the Mountain West -- not a huge accomplishment. But Steve Spurrier going to The Swamp with a chance to clinch South Carolina's first divisional title is a pretty compelling storyline.

• Oregon at California (10), Nov. 13. This should be another in a series of blowouts by the Ducks. But the Golden Bears have been one of the all-time split personality teams in college football history. Cal on the road: 0-4, with an average margin of defeat of 21 points. Cal at home: 4-0, with an average margin of victory of nearly 39 points.

• Ohio State at Iowa (11), Nov. 20. The league finally pushed its regular season back through Thanksgiving weekend in order to avoid ceding the final two weeks of the year to everyone else, but this is the only remaining matchup of top teams. Last year's 'Eye Bowl decided the Big Ten championship in thrilling overtime fashion. This year could do the same, although Wisconsin beat both head-to-head and Michigan State is in the mix as well. We might all be studying up on our Big Ten tiebreaking protocol by the time this game is played.

Baylor
Could Baylor's magical season continue with a win against the Sooners?

• Oklahoma at Baylor (12), Nov. 20. For the sheer preposterosity of it all, The Dash dearly hopes this game decides the Big 12 South championship. The sight of perpetually awful Baylor playing for something other than tattered pride might be enough to send the school's Baptist alumni base reaching for the hard stuff.

• Auburn at Alabama (13), Nov. 26. In a game that always matters deeply to everyone on either side, this one is shaping up to be an Iron Bowl for the ages. Winning team stands a great chance of advancing to the national title game. Last year's Heisman Trophy winner meets this year's Heisman front-runner. Gene Chizik tries to earn his stripes against the man who last held aloft the crystal football. If any of you miss this game to go Black Friday Christmas shopping, you are dead to The Dash.

• Arizona at Oregon (14), Nov. 26. It was a freak show last year -- a 44-41 double-overtime game that propelled the Ducks one step closer to Pasadena and kept the Wildcats 0-for-Rose Bowl in school history. Arizona still must navigate a trip to Stanford on Saturday and a home game against USC on Nov. 13, but the stakes could be similarly high this time around.

• Boise State at Nevada (15), Nov. 26. This will come as a cattle-prod shock to some folks, but Boise's schedule is pretty sticky this month. This Saturday the Broncos play Hawaii, which sits just outside the Top 25 in the major polls. There is a date with 5-2 Fresno State on Nov. 19. And then there is this trip to Reno to play the No. 23 team in the BCS standings. Win them all and at least Butler will be impressed. Bus.

• Michigan State at Penn State (16), Nov. 27. Could be little on the line, or could be a ton. Spartans playing for a BCS bowl? Joe Paterno's last game? You never know.

Pressure gauge

Nobody ever said it was easy being a college football coach at a high-level program -- that's why they get paid the big bucks. Here are eight men with good jobs who are embroiled in a variety of difficult circumstances:

Kelly
Brian Kelly's team has dealt with tragedies and injuries.

Brian Kelly (17), Notre Dame. Forget the wins and losses -- which is admittedly hard to do when you're 4-5 and coming off consecutive defeats to Navy and Tulsa, the latter of which Kelly botched with reckless play calling in the final minute. That's not why Kelly should be feeling pressure today. Kelly and his superiors at Notre Dame tried to offer a cogent explanation for the tragic circumstances at practice last week when Declan Sullivan died. What remained unconvincingly explained was why the Fighting Irish had to practice outdoors Wednesday amid high winds and had to have the practice filmed from a dangerous height given the weather. Given the tragic outcome, it's difficult to support Notre Dame in this situation. It should be noted that Sullivan's parents issued a statement that was very gracious toward the school, but there seems to have been a serious lack of perspective in the decisions made by Kelly and his staff.

(It also has been a surreal run of dark news for Notre Dame, dating to last spring when prize offensive line recruit Matt James died while on spring break in Florida. In addition to the two deaths, the severity of injuries sustained by the team has been brutal. Quarterback Dayne Crist has had a second straight season ended by a major knee injury. Star tight end Kyle Rudolph is lost for the season with a torn hamstring. Starting running back Armando Allen's college career is reportedly over with a hip injury, and the same has been speculated for nose guard Ian Williams, who suffered a knee injury. But walking around campus on crutches for months is far from the worst fate a young man can suffer. Notre Dame's players know that all too well right now.)

Rich Rodriguez (18), Michigan. While the Wolverines wait to hear the NCAA's ruling on an infractions case that occurred on Rodriguez's watch, his football team has resumed its losing ways. Michigan's dreadful defense gave up 41 points to previously impotent Penn State in its third straight defeat after a 5-0 start. In each of Rodriguez's first two years, the Wolves lost seven of their last eight, and he's now a stunning 3-17 in October and November.

Butch Davis (19), North Carolina. Davis' NCAA problems appear to be much more widespread and severe than Rodriguez's, and they have scuttled what looked to be one of the school's brightest seasons. The Tar Heels had to rally from 10 points down in the fourth quarter Saturday to beat FCS William & Mary and now face three straight ranked opponents. They could be facing a must-win season finale against rival Duke to become bowl-eligible.

Mark Richt
Mark Richt's squad has gotten into trouble on and off the field.

Mark Richt (20), Georgia. The Bulldogs lost the Desperation Bowl to Florida in overtime Saturday, dropping to 4-5. (And dropping Richt to 2-8 against the rival Gators.) With a trip to Auburn still on the schedule, chances of avoiding a Richt-record sixth loss look slim. This team's biggest impact has been made on the police blotter, with the spate of arrests and off-field issues adding to the fan unrest.

Randy Shannon (21), Miami. The Hurricanes fell behind Virginia 24-0 on Saturday and a late rally behind a backup quarterback fell short, dropping them to 5-3 on the season. More ominously for Shannon, it drops him to 14-15 in ACC play in his fourth season in charge in Coral Gables. When Miami moved into the expanded 12-team conference from the Big East, it was expected to be a fixture in the league title game. Now, two games behind Virginia Tech in the loss column in the Coastal Division, it's likely that the ACC will go a sixth straight season without Miami playing for a conference title.

Mike Sherman (22), Texas A&M. The good news is that Sherman and the Aggies whipped rival Texas Tech on Saturday 45-27. The bad news is that Sherman is 1-8 against ranked opponents -- and the next three are all ranked (Oklahoma, Baylor, Nebraska). This was hyped as a potential breakthrough team in the Big 12, but at 2-2 in league play, it hasn't happened so far. Sherman is 7-13 overall against Big 12 opponents.

(Colorado's Dan Hawkins is the more deserving Big 12 coach to be on this list. But we've been chronicling his tenuous job security for nearly two complete seasons now. The sight of buzzards circling Boulder is no longer interesting.)

Dennis Erickson (23), Arizona State. If he only got to play Washington and Washington State every week, Erickson would be golden -- he's 8-0 against them since taking over in Tempe. It's the rest of the league that's causing him problems -- he's 7-17 against the lower seven, and hasn't beaten a non-Washington Pac-10 opponent since 2008. And it didn't help that two Sun Devils were caught last month on surveillance video allegedly stealing electronics from teammates in their dorm. Players Lee Adams and Jamil Douglas were indefinitely suspended.

Bill Stewart (24), West Virginia. A portion of the Mountaineers fan base has never embraced the likable Stewart as a long-term replacement for Rodriguez, which is why his 18-8 record his first two seasons wasn't received with universal enthusiasm. After a 5-1 start this year, Stewart has now lost back-to-back games to Syracuse (on homecoming) and previously nose-diving Connecticut. Even in victory, his teams have been inconsistent and very rarely blow anyone out.

Superb second-year coaching jobs

If you judge by the Bob Stoops/Jim Tressel /Urban Meyer Nick Saban Theory of Compressed Program Recovery, a coach's second year is a payoff year. Get the right guy, let him get his feet on the ground and his program established for a year, then watch him blow up. Stoops won the national title at Oklahoma in 2000, his second year on the job. Tressel did the same in his second season at Ohio State. Ditto for Meyer in his second season at Florida, after going undefeated in his second season at Utah. Saban got Alabama to 12-2 in year two.

Hoke
Brady Hoke has San Diego State bowl-eligible.

Six current second-year coaches following a similar rapid buildup plan:

Gene Chizik (25), Auburn. The year before he got there: 5-7. His first year: 8-5. This year: 9-0 and currently second in the BCS standings. Chizik is doing an excellent job of making The Dash look silly for grading his hire an F. But not as silly as the Auburn fan who showed up to the airport to loudly heckle athletic director Jay Jacobs when he was in the process of hiring Chizik.

Chip Kelly (26), Oregon. The year before he got there: 10-3. His first year: 10-3. This year: 8-0 and ranked No. 1 in the BCS. Kelly already was at Oregon as offensive coordinator to highly successful Mike Bellotti; he didn't exactly have a major rebuilding job on his hands. But Kelly is taking the program to new heights right now, guiding the Ducks to their first No. 1 ranking in school history.

Brady Hoke (27), San Diego State. The year before he got there: 2-10. His first year: 4-8. This year: 6-2 and bowl-eligible for the first time since 1998. Hoke's ability can be measured not just by the upgrade at San Diego State, but by the precipitous collapse at the school he left, Ball State. In his final year there, the Cardinals were 12-2. Since then: 4-17.

Jessica White
Dashette Jessica White always has a very good year.

Dan Mullen (28), Mississippi State. The year before he got there: 4-8. His first year: 5-7. This year: 7-2 and bowl-eligible for the just the second time since 2000. Mullen is a former Meyer assistant who seems to have the second-year splash down cold, having been part of it at Utah and Florida previously. Mullen is so popular with the Bulldogs faithful that when he addressed them before the Kentucky game Saturday and asked them to abide by SEC rules regarding the ringing of their beloved cowbells, the fans listened. The man can coach good performance out of anyone, fans included.

Doug Marrone (29), Syracuse. Record before he got there: 3-9. Record his first year: 4-8. Record this year: 6-2. The Orange are on the verge of being bowl-eligible for the first time since 2004 and have a great chance for their first winning season since 2001.

Tim Beckman (30), Toledo. The year before he got there: 3-9. His first year: 5-7. This year: 6-3, including a 5-0 start in the Mid-American Conference. Beckman has two victories over big-six conference opposition in two years, beating Colorado last season and Purdue this season.

Mike Haywood (31), Miami (Ohio). The year before he got there: 2-10. His first year: 1-11. This year: 5-4. The RedHawks have won two road games in the same season for the first time since 2006.

Someone else having a very good year, every year: Dashette Jessica White (32).

Pigeons

Paterno
Joe Paterno and the Nittany Lions have walked all over Temple.

A certain bespectacled wearer of high-water pants in western Pennsylvania is on the verge of his 400th victory as a college head coach. It could come Saturday against Northwestern -- a school the old guy already has beaten 10 times in his career. But that's far from his most frequent victim. The five biggest winners in FBS coaching history, and their personal pigeons:

Joe Paterno (33). Total victories: 399. Pigeon: Temple. Record against the Owls: 27-0.

Bobby Bowden (34). Total victories: 377. Pigeon: Maryland. Record against the Terrapins: 17-2. (There has been no fear of the Turtle by the coaching giants. Paterno was 24-0-1 against the Terps.)

Bear Bryant (35). Total victories: 323. Pigeon: Mississippi State. Record against the Bulldogs: 27-2.

Lavell Edwards (36). Total victories: 257. Pigeon: New Mexico. Record against the Lobos: 27-2.

Tom Osborne (37). Total victories: 255. Pigeon: The state of Kansas. Record against the Jayhawks and Wildcats: a combined 50-0. Which is just about unbelievable.

Putting out an APB for …

Chuck Fusina (38), Penn State quarterback and 1978 Maxwell Award winner. If anyone has information on the old Nittany Lions signal-caller, please apprise The Dash.

Meanwhile, The Dash is pleased to report that last week's APB subject, former Florida running back Neal Anderson, is reported to be alive and well and living in Gainesville, where he and his wife have three children and a 2,000-acre peanut farm, and where he helped found a bank and plays a fair amount of tennis. Several readers/spies report that Anderson is active in the community, mentoring adolescent children and helping coach football, and that he has a daughter who is a talented soccer player.

Point after

When hungry in Jackson, Miss., The Dash recommends a meal at AJ's On the Lake (39), where the oysters, crawfish tails and crab dip are only the warm-up act for great seafood and steak entrees. And when thirsty anywhere in Mississippi, The Dash suggests a tasty bottle of Southern Pecan Nut Brown Ale from Lazy Magnolia Brewing Company. Lazy Magnolia is located in Brett Favre's hometown of Kiln, Miss.

Last words

Boomer Sooner (40).

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