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Tuesday, October 4, 2011
Solving the sport's psychological issues

By Pat Forde
ESPN.com

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (where it sure is a good thing that the 11-day internal investigation at Ohio State (1) last winter got to the bottom of everything):

These are stressful times we live in. The economy is shaky. Politics is divisive. Educational statistics are depressing.

The last thing you need on top of life's larger troubles is a dysfunctional team to root for. It could push a fan over the edge.

So come in and hit the couch; The Dash is here to save your mental health. Bring your id, your ego, your superego and your superconference realignment fears with you. You unburden, The Dash takes notes.

Hopefully in the end, we avert another Harvey Updyke (2) situation.

In launching college football on its journey of personal and spiritual discovery, it is time to psychoanalyze the sport and identify those most in need of help. Remember, we cannot treat the problem until we diagnose it. These are the most acute cases to date:

Shame spiral

These teams keep lapsing into patterns self-destructive behavior:

The Gaggies (3). That would be Texas A&M and Utah State. They share a nickname, and they share a pitiful personality trait -- they cannot close out a big game.

Luke Joeckel
Texas A&M has suffered last-minute lossess in back-to-back weeks -- but there's another Aggies team that might have it worse.

In successive weeks, Texas A&M (2-2) has blown large second-half leads in big games. At home against Oklahoma State on Sept. 24, the Aggies were up 20-3 at halftime before surrendering 27 unanswered points in a 30-29 loss. In a neutral-field setting against Arkansas on Saturday, the Aggies were up 18 before being outscored 25-3 in the second half and losing 42-38.

"It's a travesty that we didn't win this football game," A&M coach Mike Sherman said Saturday. Though he could have said it the previous week as well.

Against the Cowboys, Sherman abandoned his productive running game in the second half. He didn't do that against Arkansas, but conservative decisions to punt on two fourth-and-short situations wound up backfiring when the Razorbacks drove for scores after both punts.

The one common theme in both collapses has been an inability to produce turnovers. The Southwest Aggies have forced just three on the year, and one of those was a gift -- Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon's unforced fumble through the end zone.

The only team in America that has been worse at playing with a lead is Utah State (1-3). The Rocky Mountain Aggies have found masochistic ways to lose late to Auburn, Colorado State and Brigham Young.

There was the onside kick they failed to field against Auburn, helping the Tigers score 10 points in the final couple of minutes and win 42-38. There was the fumbled punt that set up CSU at the Utah State 15-yard line with just more than two minutes left, helping the Rams score the tying touchdown and two-point conversion on the way to a 35-34 overtime victory. And then there was the karmic shiv to the ribs from ancient rival BYU.

Utah State led 24-13 in the final quarter, then watched an excitable backup quarterback lead the Cougars on two touchdown drives. The last one covered 96 yards and culminated in a tipped-ball touchdown pass with 11 seconds left. That completed a trilogy of gut-busters in which the Aggies trailed for only 12 minutes and 45 seconds.

Paul Pasqualoni
Paul Pasqualoni has struggled in his first season at UConn.

Connecticut (4). The Huskies are following the grand Big East tradition of going from BCS bowl to futility in consecutive years. (Pittsburgh: Fiesta Bowl in 2004, 5-6 in '05. Louisville: Orange Bowl in 2006, 6-6 in '07. Cincinnati: Sugar Bowl in 2009, 4-8 in '10.) UConn's victories are humble (Buffalo and Fordham) and its losses are humbling (Vanderbilt, Iowa State, Western Michigan). And now the Atlantic Coast Conference may be applying the brakes to expansion after UConn announced its interest in joining the Big East migration to that league.

TCU (5). A program that broke down BCS barriers with its defense is now a broken-down shell of its former self on that side of the ball. The Horned Frogs have allowed 139 points in five games -- after surrendering 156 all of last year. They've given up 40 or more points twice already, something that hadn't happened even once since 2005. Twice the Frogs have made near-miracle rallies in the fourth quarter, only to see the defense surrender the winning points.

Ohio State (6). Jim Tressel and Terrelle Pryor are never walking back through that Horseshoe door -- but the Buckeyes desperately hoped receiver DeVier Posey and running back Dan "Boom" Herron would be back this week to help resuscitate a dying offense. Instead, athletic director Gene "Everything Is Under Control" Smith announced Monday that, um, no, Posey and Herron are still suspended. The new infraction: receiving excessive payment for summer jobs. With the nation's 108th-ranked offense still unwatchable for at least one more Saturday, Ohio State fans can console themselves by going to look at that Sugar Bowl trophy that was so honorably won to end last season.

Relationship issues

Lack of harmony between coaches and quarterbacks has kept these teams from finding true inner peace:

Tom O'Brien, Mike Glennon
Tom O'Brien picked Mike Glennon over Russell Wilson and fans aren't happy.

North Carolina State (7). Every time Russell Wilson throws a touchdown pass for Wisconsin, Wolfpack fans feel their sanity slip a little more. That's 13 steps toward the nuthouse so far this season, with plenty more to come. When coach Tom O'Brien took a stand over spring practice -- demanding that his minor league baseball player/quarterback attend spring ball or not compete for the starting position -- he wound up making the Badgers national title contenders. And even though the 2-3 Wolfpack's biggest problem has not been quarterback play -- Mike Glennon has a robust 154 passer rating -- they'd still be better with Wilson than without him. And facing the possibility of a fourth losing season in five years at NC State, O'Brien doesn't need to give his critics any additional ammunition.

South Carolina (8). One of the enduring mysteries of modern college football has been that Steve Spurrier, of all coaches, has not been able to find and/or develop a star quarterback in seven seasons with the Gamecocks. The proof of that is the continued presence of ragingly inconsistent Stephen Garcia as the starter. It's been a four-year coach-player melodrama, filled with suspensions and benchings and more victories than defeats. But Garcia's play through three SEC games in a season full of promise has been poor: 36-of-78 for 530 yards, three touchdowns and eight interceptions. Can Spurrier and Garcia hug it out and make it work the rest of the year?

Nebraska (9). Cornhuskers QB Taylor Martinez and coach Bo Pelini seem to be on better terms this season than last -- but you wonder whether first-year offensive coordinator Tim Beck has a full handle yet on what Martinez can and cannot do. The sophomore is not an accurate passer or a brilliant decision-maker throwing the ball -- yet Martinez aired it out 22 times against Wisconsin with occasionally disastrous results. The second of his three interceptions against the Badgers ended a string of five straight passing plays, which is out of character.

Penn State (10). In Matt McGloin and Rob Bolden, the Nittany Lions' choices at quarterback are not exactly Montana and Young -- but the refusal to make a choice isn't working. With both men playing extensively every game, Penn State is 103rd in pass efficiency and 81st in total offense. McGloin's stats are significantly better than Bolden's, so give him the affirmation of a full game under center.

SMU (11). This breakup is actually working out. Coach June Jones began the season with a quarterback who produced 3,828 yards and 31 touchdowns in 2010 -- but when Kyle Padron threw interceptions in the first two series against Texas A&M in the season opener, Jones benched him. And has surprisingly kept him there. Backup J.J. McDermott has played well in leading SMU to four straight victories since that opening loss, and by all accounts Padron has handled his demotion without disrupting team chemistry. No need for group therapy in Dallas.

Anger management

For many fans of the following teams, letting the season play out is simply not as fun as screaming for your embattled coach to be fired RIGHT THIS INSTANT. Unless your coach has pulled a Locksley -- absolutely failed to compete and had a raft of problems off the field -- The Dash suggests calming down and seeing what happens.

Georgia (12). Plenty of people didn't even want to see Mark Richt start the 2011 season on the sidelines, and after an 0-2 start they were convinced he was done. They didn't care that those two losses came to ranked teams. Now the Bulldogs are 3-2 and possess a decent chance to win the SEC East, which has caused some backpedaling.

Nutt/Boone
Ole Miss fans are calling for the firings of Pete Boone and Houston Nutt.

Ole Miss (13). The agitation has overflowed past going after Houston Nutt; now they want athletic director Pete Boone's head on a platter, too. An anonymous (read: cowardly) group has taken out a series of ads in Mississippi papers pressuring the school to whack Boone. He may well deserve it, but that isn't the best way to go about precipitating change.

UCLA (14). Rick Neuheisel is the West Coast Spurrier -- a former star quarterback with a reputation for building proficient offenses who has failed in that respect at his current school. But then again, Spurrier has at least managed to win far more than he's lost at South Carolina, whereas Neuheisel is 17-25 with the Bruins. Still, the combined record of the three teams that have beaten UCLA this season is 13-0. The rest of the October schedule (Washington State, at Arizona, California) at least presents the opportunity for success.

Kentucky (15). It's only Joker Phillips' second season, but fans have been giving up on him from the opening week. The latest unpardonable sin was losing at LSU 35-7 on Saturday -- only two points worse than West Virginia's margin of defeat versus LSU. The Mountaineers are a ranked team, as is Oregon, which lost to LSU by 13 points. In the ongoing Rich Brooks amnesia attack in the commonwealth -- wherein Brooks seemingly had the Cats on the cusp of the Sugar Bowl -- UK backers seem to have forgotten that a better Brooks team was crushed 49-0 by a weaker LSU team in 2006.

Arizona (16). This is Mike Stoops' eighth season in Tucson. He's a screamer who is producing diminishing returns. He's lost nine of his last 10 games, with the only victory in that time over Northern Arizona. In other words, fire him already, right? Not so fast, my quick-triggered friend. Look at who the losses are to: Stanford twice, Oregon twice, Oklahoma State twice, USC twice, Arizona State once. In other words, last year's schedule was back-loaded and this year's is front-loaded with brutal opposition. If Stoops can't make hay the rest of the way this year against middling competition, by all means fire him. But at least give him a chance.

Esteem issues

The Dash is worried about the self-image of one player in college football: Philip Lutzenkirchen (17) of Auburn. The tight end apparently cannot get a single opposing defense to believe he's any good.

Philip Lutzenkirchen
Philip Lutzenkirchen is Auburn's go-to guy for game-winning scores.

Lutzenkirchen has caught 21 passes in his career. Ten are for touchdowns, and several of those have been crucial. On almost all of those 10 TD catches, the junior has slipped away so totally uncovered that you'd swear he was invisible.

Forget last year, when he beat Alabama for the winning score. This year alone, it happened in the fourth quarter against Utah State. It happened in the fourth quarter against Mississippi State. And it happened in the fourth quarter Saturday against South Carolina, when he caught the game winner.

And so The Dash wonders: How do teams so routinely fail to cover the most obvious red zone target Auburn has?

Credit offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn with some great misdirection plays to free the polysyllabic terror. But condemn the opposing teams that so regularly forget about him, too.

If it's a passing down in scoring territory, The Dash would cover Lutzenkirchen with two defenders, three student managers and four members of the marching band. The Dash would be on him so hard, local authorities could file stalking charges. The Dash would invite any other player with an "AU" on his helmet to get open, but would not be beaten by Philip Lutzenkirchen.

Dissociative disorders

They're characterized as "disruptions or breakdowns of memory, awareness, identity and/or perception." The following five schools clearly are struggling with their memory and identity.

Syracuse (18). Has forgotten that it was a founding member of the Big East. Now sees itself as kindred spirit with such logical partners as Clemson and Florida State.

Pittsburgh (19). See above. Pitt has drifted from the Backyard Brawl with West Virginia to a natural rivalry with Georgia Tech.

Texas A&M. Cannot wait to flee Texas' shadow for the shadows of LSU, Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia and others.

Missouri (20). School's board of curators meets Tuesday in St. Louis, where it may empower the president to seek admission to the SEC. Perhaps it's all a diabolical scheme by the Big Ten to finally make teams from the Deep South play a November game in the snow.

BYU (21). Who are you, Cougars? Independents? Big 12 members? Wistful about the Mountain West? Time for some self-awareness, please.

Rainey
Bobby Rainey has been the bright spot in an otherwise gloomy Western Kentucky season.

Delusions of grandeur

Western Kentucky (22) decided a few years back that despite being a basketball school located in a small state which lacks a surplus of local football talent, it would upgrade from FCS to FBS. The result has been a harsh reality check.

The Hilltoppers have lost 34 of their last 36 games and are winless in 2011, including a 28-point loss to FCS member Indiana State. That's despite not yet playing a true road game, and despite having one of the best players in school history in running back Bobby Rainey. Even playing in the Sun Belt Conference, Western Kentucky may go winless for the second time in the last three seasons.

Schadenfreude

It might not be a sign of emotional health and maturity to rejoice in the misfortune of others, but that doesn't stop college football fans from doing so on a regular basis. And, as it turns out, some college football players, too.

Check this tweet from Oklahoma linebacker Travis Lewis (23) toward a former league rival after it was squashed in a big game Saturday night: "I feel bad for Nebraska. Couldn't win in the Big 12, then go to the Big 10 and can't win. Maybe Conference USA would be a better fit."

Conflict avoidance

Everyone who tries to tackle Alabama running back Trent Richardson (24) winds up experiencing this by the fourth quarter. Actually, The Dash finds this a perfectly healthy response.

Daddy issues

USC fans are free to wonder why a defense coordinated by the renowned Monte Kiffin (25) has been lit up by consecutive Pac-12 opponents for more than 40 points. Son and head coach Lane Kiffin (26) is free to wonder as well.

Nadia Bjorlin
Dashette Nadia Bjorlin is here to help.

Here's to happiness

Let's end this therapy session on an up note. First, Dashette Nadia Bjorlin (27) and her healthy self-esteem are here to make everyone feel better.

Then let's give a Dash salute to this Arkansas fan (28) who, upon beating Texas A&M on Saturday, showed how comfortable he is in his own skin.

And that's a lot of skin to take comfort in.

This is no time for that game

The Dash feels for fans who have to become more flexible than Olympic gymnasts in dealing with variable kickoff times. Most of the time the changes for TV make sense -- but The Dash has identified three Week 6 start times that will alter the fan experience:

Oklahoma-Texas (29). Kickoff: noon ET, 11 a.m. local. If you have seen these two fan bases party Friday night in Dallas, you know a morning kickoff is cruel and unusual. It's made all the more cruel when you factor in the hideous traffic getting to the Cotton Bowl.

Florida-LSU (30). Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. ET, 2:30 local. After LSU played Kentucky on Saturday at 11 a.m., a second consecutive day game at Tiger Stadium should be against SEC rules. It goes against everything LSU stands for. Or passes out for. It's like staging a vampire festival for midday.

Michigan-Northwestern (31). Kickoff: 7 p.m. ET, 6 local. There is nothing inherently wrong about playing this game at that time, but consider this: It's the first of three straight prime-time games for the Wildcats, two of them at home. Meanwhile Penn State, which might have the best night-game atmosphere in the Big Ten, probably will not host a night game this season.

The LIP is back

It's that time again, when The Dash hosts its Eighth Annual (Unless Maybe We Skipped A Year) Last Interception Pool.

It's pretty straightforward: These are the last five FBS quarterbacks ranked in the top 100 nationally in pass efficiency who have not thrown a pick this season. Feel free to make your pick (for entertainment purposes only) on who will be the last to throw the ball to the other team. Winner gets a selection of pillow chocolates from The Dash's recent hotel stays.

(Aside: Interesting group this year. Three of the QBs have been maligned by fans and/or benched by coaches, proving that failing to make bad plays is not the same as succeeding at making good ones.)

Carroll
Wesley Carroll is the odds-on favorite to go pick-free the longest.

Wesley Carroll (32), Florida International. Passes without a pick: 114. Next up: Akron, one of three teams without an interception this season. Chances of winning the pool: strong favorite. Not only does he face a bad secondary this week, but FIU then has 10 days off until an Oct. 18 game against Arkansas State.

Richard Brehaut (33), UCLA. Passes without a pick: 112. Next up: Washington State, which has three interceptions this season. Chances of winning: decent. The schedule gets easier, so theoretically Brehaut will have to take fewer chances passing to help the Bruins win. Then again, he probably should have taken more chances before now.

Chuckie Keeton (34), Utah State. Passes without a pick: 85. Next up: Wyoming, which has four interceptions this season. Chances of winning: not good. The Dash loves the poise the true freshman has displayed this year, and the Aggies have put him in a low-risk passing game on purpose. But he's overdue to throw one to the other team.

Matt McGloin (35), Penn State. Passes without a pick: 76. Next up: Iowa, which has four interceptions this season. Chances of winning: not great. If Penn State's coaches are smart, they'll quit having McGloin share the job with Bolden, which will increase his attempts and thus his chances of throwing an interception.

Joe Bauserman (36), Ohio State. Passes without a pick: 76. Next up: Nebraska, which has four interceptions this season. Chances of winning: almost nonexistent. The NCAA minimum to remain in the pass efficiency ratings is 15 attempts per game, and Bauserman is only one attempt over that threshold. Now that he's lost his starting job to Braxton Miller, he might fall out of contention in the next week without even throwing a pick.

Coach who earned his comp car this week

Dabo Swinney (37). The Dash has had doubts about Dabo, but it's time to give him credit. This is the first time in school history that Clemson has produced three straight victories over ranked opponents, and the most recent was the most impressive. Beating Virginia Tech in Blacksburg by 20 is strong, even if this doesn't prove to be a great Hokies team.

And it's not just a Chad Morris offensive thing with Clemson, either. The first-year offensive coordinator and Malzahn protégé has certainly jazzed up the attack, but the Tigers held Virginia Tech without a touchdown Saturday. Swinney is developing a total team.

Coach who should take the bus to work

Frank Spaziani (38), Boston College. Spaz was dealt a bad hand when running back and preseason ACC Offensive Player of the Year Montel Harris got hurt and missed the first three games. But still, the offensive ineptitude in Chestnut Hill has been sobering.

In Spaziani's first year as head coach, the Eagles averaged 24.8 points per game and went 8-5. Last year the scoring dipped to 18.5 points and the record to 7-6. This year BC is 1-4 and averaging 20.6 points -- but just 14.5 against FBS competition. And after playing four at home in the first five, the next three are on the road.

Putting out an APB for …

… Former Tennessee wide receiver Peerless Price (39). If anyone has information on the whereabouts of the alliterative deep threat who caught the deciding touchdown pass in the Fiesta Bowl to help the Volunteers to the national title, please apprise The Dash.

Meanwhile, The Dash is pleased to report that last week's APB subject, former Purdue quarterback Mark Herrmann, is alive and well and living in Indianapolis. He sent an email to Dash Headquarters updating his existence:

"I have been forwarded your request for my whereabouts by several people and I thought I would answer you myself, before you hear something crazy or outlandish! I am living in Indianapolis. I am working for St. Vincent Health and Peyton Manning Children's Hospital at St. Vincent in Community Affairs and Marketing. I specifically work on a program called Project 18, which is named after Peyton Manning's jersey number. It is an initiative that battles childhood obesity in the state of Indiana. We currently have over 460 schools around the state participating in our curriculum.

"I am also involved with the Indianapolis Colts. I serve as the color analyst for the televised preseason games. I also co-host a pregame radio show.

"This past summer, I was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in South Bend. What a tremendous thrill! I have been married to my wife, Susie, for 30 years. We have three great kids, Brady, 25, living in Denver, Whitney, 22, living in Houston and Tory, 18, will be going to Purdue next year to play soccer. We are all Boilermakers!"

Point after

When hungry and thirsty in Gainesville, The Dash recommends a visit to the reliable Gainesville Ale House (40), which is away from campus but still packs plenty of energy on a football weekend. Have a Drifter Pale Ale on tap and/or one of the Ale House's prodigious desserts and thank The Dash later.

The Dash also received a solid tip on a downtown bar called Tall Paul's, but didn't exit the Ben Hill Griffin Stadium press box Saturday night until after closing hour. It will be up to someone else to confirm or refute the excellence of Tall Paul's to The Dash.

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