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Forde-Yard Dash: College football's proving ground is upon us

Pat Forde
Yahoo Sports

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Will Famous Jameis inch closer to the Heisman in November? (USA Today)

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (fan pants sold separately – literally):

NOVEMBER TO REMEMBER

We are heading into the defining month of the season – and even by November standards, this should be a doozy. There are still eight undefeated teams, including at least one from each of the five most powerful conferences. There is a lot of sorting out to do as the stakes rise.

This is a month for contenders to rise and pretenders to fall. For jarring plot twists. For unknown heroes and unexpected goats. For temperatures to cool down and coaching gossip to heat up. For controversies great and small. And for another 1,000 Ticket Oak commercials.

The top 10 storylines of November, in something approaching chronological order:

Miami’s reality check (1). When: Saturday. After a charmed 7-0 start, the Hurricanes visit Florida State – which should be the end of this ride. Some have compared Miami 2013 to Notre Dame 2012, and while there is at least one similarity – finding a way to win ugly against bad opponents – there also is a key difference: the 'Canes don’t have anything on par with the Fighting Irish victories over Stanford and Oklahoma last year. But this is the exact same spot on the schedule where Notre Dame silenced a lot of doubters by going to Norman and routing the Sooners. So Miami has its opportunity. Win in Tallahassee and The Dash will believe.

The best Thursday night ever (2). When: Nov. 7. At 7:30 p.m. ET, Oklahoma takes on Baylor in a game that will go a long way toward deciding the Big 12 champion – and if the Bears win, possibly establishing a new hierarchy within the league. Last time the Sooners went to Waco, Robert Griffin III all but locked up the Heisman Trophy at their expense. Then at 9 p.m. ET on that Thursday, Oregon visits Stanford in a matchup that will go a long way toward deciding the Pac-12 North champion – and will have a big impact on whether the league has a team in the BCS title game. The past two years, the visitor has handed the home team its only loss of the season.

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Lache Seastrunk. (Credit: AP)

Baylor’s big chance (3). When: All month. For the historically inept Bears, this is the grand opportunity. Their No. 5 ranking in the AP and USA Today polls has been earned with spectacular offensive numbers against shoddy competition. Now comes a step up in class: No. 10 Oklahoma on Nov. 7; No. 15 Texas Tech on Nov. 16; at No. 18 Oklahoma State on Nov. 23. Win all three and Baylor will have a case for inclusion in the national title discussion. And running back Lache Seastrunk and his 9.1 yards-per-carry average may make a backdoor run into Heisman contention (if he gets enough carries).

Alabama or bust (4) for the SEC. When: All month. For all the SEC chest-thumpers, here’s the reality: this is now less about a dominant league than about a single dominant program. The Crimson Tide has won three of the SEC’s seven straight national titles, but three of the last four. And Alabama is the only realistic candidate to extend that streak this season. If the Tide takes a loss somewhere along the way, the SEC could well be on the outside of the BCS title game looking in. Check commissioner Mike Slive to see if he’s wearing houndstooth boxer shorts all November.

Ohio State’s argument (5). When: Daily. The Buckeyes need help from multiple teams to get into the BCS title debate. Rest assured they will be rooting for a Miami miracle Saturday, and would love to see Alabama and Oregon stumble at some point as well. But there will be a significant faction that believes a one-loss team from the SEC or Pac-12 would be a better championship representative than Ohio State. Which is why the Buckeyes will be hungry for style points and doing things like they did Saturday night: challenging the officials’ spot with a 56-7 lead in the third quarter against Penn State. Know this: if Ohio State runs its winning streak to 25 games and is out of title contention, it will be a repudiation of the Big Ten as a whole.

At least one staggering upset (6). When: Who knows? On the same November night last year, BCS leaders Oregon and Kansas State lost – the Ducks as 20 ½-point favorites to Stanford, the Wildcats as 12 ½-point favorites to Baylor. In November 2011, Oklahoma State coughed up a November hairball against Iowa State as a 27 ½-point favorite to lose a shot at the title. In 2010, Boise State lost a BCS bowl bid in a 34-31 loss to two-touchdown underdog Nevada. Potential trap games against unranked teams this month: Oregon at Arizona on Nov. 23; Florida State at Wake Forest on Nov. 9; Baylor at TCU on Nov. 30. Sure, they sound ridiculous now, but you never know when the ridiculous will happen.

High-profile coaches on the griddle (7). When: Weekly. Any and every loss suffered by Bo Pelini at Nebraska and Mack Brown at Texas will intensify the calls for change at those big-time programs. Pelini reignited the fan discontent of September when the Cornhuskers were beaten by head coach-less Minnesota on Saturday, which means his team still has not beaten a team currently in the Sagarin top 75. Brown has calmed the waters some with four straight victories after an ugly 1-2 start, but he surely is one bad Saturday away from renewed calls for his ouster. (Anything short of 10-2 and the Big 12 title may leave Brown vulnerable.) If those two programs join USC on the hiring market, expect the jockeying for the jobs to be intense – and the domino effect throughout FBS to be significant.

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Johnny Manziel. (Credit: AP)

Heisman home stretch (8). When: Another month-long engagement. It's an intriguing three-man race at this point: Marcus Mariota of Oregon; Jameis Winston of Florida State; Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M. The first two haven’t done a thing wrong. Manziel will be discounted by some for the Aggies’ two losses, but it’s not his fault the team is terrible defensively. (Other voters may hold his somewhat dubious escape from NCAA jail in August against him.) The longer all three excel, the harder it will be to make a choice – and the more scrutiny will be placed on every big play or mistake. Heisman voting has gotten a lot smarter over the years, but even the smart guys will have a difficult time differentiating between these three quarterbacks.

Unbalanced divisional races (9). When: All month. Better enjoy November, because the first weekend of December is setting up to be a dud. In every major conference, one division looks far superior to the other, creating the potential for a bunch of mismatches in title games: SEC West over East; Pac-12 North over South; ACC Atlantic over Coastal; Big Ten Leaders over Legends. These games will be promoted by the leagues and their respective media propagandists as big deals, but don’t believe the hype. They’re setting up to be bad games that are only significant if a favorite gets upset.

A potentially epic Thanksgiving weekend (10). When: Nov. 29 and 30. The top four teams in the current BCS standings all play bitter rivals. Three are on the road on the 30th: Alabama at Auburn, Florida State at Florida, Ohio State at Michigan. Only Oregon is at home, hosting Oregon State on the 29th. An upset or two in those games could change everything at the 11th hour. The pressure figures to be immense on the favorites, and there is nothing the underdogs would love to do more than ruin the national title aspirations of their fiercest rivals.

DUES PAID, REWARD EARNED

Five guys enjoying a well-deserved moment in the college football sun, after some hard labor to get there:

Jayson Carter (11), Rice. If you haven’t seen the video yet, see it now. If you’ve seen it already, watch it again. Carter is a 4-foot-9, 135-pound walk-on running back who is certainly the smallest player in Division I football and one of the smallest ever. But after three years of hard work on the scout team, the Houston Kipp High School product got his first collegiate carry late in the Owls’ blowout of UTEP on Saturday. Like a lot of people who do something remarkable, Carter saw nothing remarkable about it at the time.

“My thought was, ‘Read the defense, remember the play schematics and listen to the snap count,’ “ Carter told The Dash. “And then go with it.”

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Jayson Carter. (Getty)

He didn’t go far, gaining a yard. But the symbolic distance traveled is immeasurable. For every kid who was ever told he’s too small to play, Jayson Carter is your proof to the contrary.

“It’s like Michael Jordan said, ‘You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take,’ “ Carter said. “The true failure is to not keep going until you run out of time.”

Carter played both ways in high school, rushing for more than 1,000 yards and making more than 150 tackles. But a kid whose growth was stunted by a genetic defect had no offers to play college football. He enrolled at Rice on a full, need-based scholarship to study computer science, but he also approached coach David Bailiff about walking on.

Bailiff encouraged Carter to go for it. And after years of paying dues he got his chance to play Saturday. The result was a video that’s gone viral and more attention than he’s ever gotten in his life.

“It felt great to be in there,” Carter said. “The only thing I did wrong is that I didn’t score.”

Art Briles (12), Baylor. Spent the first 22 years of his coaching career at the high school level. Didn’t get into college coaching until age 44, and didn’t get a head-coaching job until age 47. Now look where the 57-year-old’s no-huddle, spread offense has taken him – to the BCS top five … and beyond? After coaching ground-bound, option football for much of his high school career, Briles embraced the spread in the late 1990s and helped it proliferate in Texas. Given that grass-roots tactical change that has made the Lone Star State a teeming hotbed of quarterbacks, Briles deserves consideration as one of the most influential football figures of the 21st century.

David Cutcliffe (13), Duke. After being stupidly fired at Mississippi in 2004, Cutcliffe took the long way back to prominence. He was hired in ’05 as Charlie Weis’ offensive coordinator at Notre Dame but had to step down due to health problems, undergoing triple bypass surgery and sitting out the season before returning to Phil Fulmer’s side as an assistant coach at Tennessee. Cutcliffe got back into the head-coaching ranks in ’08, but it was a graveyard job at Duke – or so it seemed. After four years of painstaking, incremental progress, Cutcliffe broke through last year, taking the Blue Devils to their first bowl game since 1994. This year he has performed another miracle, getting a school that has never gone bowling in consecutive years back to six wins – with four games still to go.

Khalil Mack (14), Buffalo. He accepted his only scholarship offer from then-Bulls coach Turner Gill, coming north from Fort Pierce, Fla., in 2009. At the end of his redshirt season, the coach he came to play for fled to Kansas – and the Bulls program crashed. For three seasons, Mack was an all-Mid American Conference linebacker, setting career school records for tackles for loss and forced fumbles – but he was starring in anonymity on bad Buffalo teams that went a combined 9-27. This year has been the breakthough: the Bulls are 6-2, 4-0 in the MAC, and Mack leads the team in tackles (54), tackles for loss (11), sacks (seven) and is tied for the team lead in interceptions (three).

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Michael Sam. (Credit: USA Today)

Michael Sam (15), Missouri. He was a two-star recruit out of Texas who was ignored by the Big 12 schools in his home state. After redshirting in 2009, Sam was an impact freshman as an outside linebacker/rush end, but his production hit a plateau over the next two seasons. This year he’s been a dominant rusher – leading the nation with 10 sacks – and he was the best defensive player on Faurot Field on Saturday night against South Carolina and Jadeveon Clowney.

MYTHBUSTERS

Myth: Coach X’s wife was seen house-shopping in College Town Y (16). This year’s version: The Internet blew up last week with breathless reports that Nick Saban’s wife, Terry, was spotted in Austin doing the real estate thing. There has been plenty of smoke regarding Saban and the not-open Texas job, including the phone conversation last January between two burnt-orange power brokers and Saban’s agent. But The Dash will bet a big, fat barbecue dinner at The Salt Lick that this report has no long-term legs.

This may be the most trite – not to mention reliably false – annual rumor out there. If Jon Gruden’s wife had bought all the real estate she was allegedly looking at in college towns across America, she’d own more land than the federal government. The fact that a decent percentage of Texas fans believe this proves that Saban is coming signifies that they A) have not been in the coaching market for a long time and B) must really be desperate to believe it. If you fall for this one, the Nigerian spam emailers would love to get a shot at your gullible soul.

Myth: Player Z was shaving points (17) to pay off gambling debts. This year’s version: Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd was the subject of a completely anonymous Internet “report” the day of the Clemson-Florida State game saying Boyd had built up $80,000 in debt betting on NFL games. By the next day, after Boyd’s bad showing against the Seminoles, some folks were running wild with speculation that it was the result of a point-shaving scheme. While there have been college players who shaved points – seemingly more so in basketball, where one player can more directly affect the outcome of a game – Boyd and others at Clemson have convincingly shot down this report. But you can count on hearing a variation of this rumor just about every year, when a prominent player has a prominently poor performance.

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Natasha Henstridge. (Credit: Getty)

Myth: Player A hooked up with Player B’s girlfriend (18) and poisoned the locker room. This year’s version: none yet that The Dash has heard. But it’s surely coming to a struggling team near you.

Myth: Dashette Natasha Henstridge (19) will come to your tailgate. That ain’t happening.

HALF-HEARTED RIVALRY GAMES

Miami at Florida State offers a welcome return to relevance for one of the great grudge-match series in college football history. The rest of the weekend’s rivalry matchups? Not so much.

North Carolina at North Carolina State (20). What it lacks historically: neither school has been nationally relevant very often, especially compared to their basketball programs. What it lacks this year: neither team is any good at all, with a combined record of 5-9. Who’s going to win: Tar Heels.

Michigan at Michigan State (21). What it lacks historically: the full attention and enmity of the Wolverines, who save the good stuff for Ohio State. What it lacks this year: a team ranked in the top 20. Prime position in the Big Ten Leaders Division will be at stake, but neither team looks like a serious threat to beat Ohio State and win the league championship. Who wins: Spartans.

Georgia vs. Florida (22) in Jacksonville. What it lacks historically: not much. When the teams are good, this is a great game. The 50-50 crowd split amps up the atmosphere significantly. What it lacks this year: healthy bodies. Both teams are riddled with key injuries, and the winner of this game will need some help to get back into the SEC East race. Who wins: Bulldogs.

Army at Air Force (23). What it lacks historically: the cachet and tradition of Army-Navy. What it lacks this year: at least one quality team. At 1-7 and with the lone victory over Colgate, this is the worst Air Force team since 1980. Army (3-5) is the only team to lose to Temple this year. Who wins: Cadets.

THE BATTLE TO AVOID THE BAGEL

There are five winless teams remaining in the FBS ranks. The Dash evaluates which ones have a chance of stopping the sadness and winning and game, and which ones are hopeless:

Connecticut (24). Record: 0-7 overall, 0-3 Big East. Road ahead: Louisville, at SMU, at Temple, Rutgers, Memphis. The Huskies should have a chance against Temple, although they are an awful road team (0-3 with an average losing margin of 33 points). Failing that, Memphis (1-5) provides a decent last opportunity – if UConn hasn’t packed it in by then. Dash prediction: 1-11.

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Southern Miss mascot Seymour d'Campus. (Credit: USA Today)

Southern Mississippi (25). Record: 0-7 overall, 0-3 Conference USA. Road ahead: at Marshall, at Louisiana Tech, Florida Atlantic, Middle Tennessee, at UAB. If the Golden Eagles can lose at home to Florida International, they can lose to anyone and everyone. Despite that, the dregs of C-USA do offer a couple of puncher’s chances: namely FAU at home Nov. 16 and at UAB on Nov. 30. Dash prediction: 0-12, for the second consecutive season.

Hawaii (26). Record: 0-7 overall, 0-5 Mountain West. Road ahead: at Utah State, at Navy, San Diego State, at Wyoming, Army. The Warriors have lost 10 straight road games, so let’s go ahead and cross off the three remaining games on the mainland. But Hawaii has been competitive most of the season and could win both home games. Dash prediction: 2-10.

Miami Ohio (27). Record: 0-8, 0-4 Mid-American. Road ahead: Bowling Green, at Kent State, Buffalo, at Ball State. Three of the remaining games are against three of the better teams in the MAC (Bowling Green, Buffalo, Ball State). That leaves the game at 2-7 Kent State, but the RedHawks have lost 14 of their last 15 road games. Dash prediction: 0-12, which would be a school record for losses and just the fourth winless season since the 19th century.

Georgia State (28). Record: 0-8, 0-3 Sun Belt. Road ahead: Western Kentucky, Louisiana-Lafayette, at Arkansas State, South Alabama. The Panthers are close – they have led or been tied in the fourth quarter of four games this year. Given the random nature of the Sun Belt this year (and most every year), there has to be a victory out there with Georgia State’s name on it. Dash prediction: 1-11.

THE WORST OF THE BIGGEST

The candidates for worst team from the five major conferences:

ACC rep: North Carolina State (29). The Wolfpack have three victories, but look who they were against: Louisiana Tech (No. 135 Sagarin), Richmond (No. 153) and Central Michigan (No. 133). And it took a field goal with 33 seconds left to beat the Spiders. All four conference losses have come by double digits.

Big 12 rep: Kansas (30). Victories over good old reliable Louisiana Tech (No. 135) and South Dakota (No. 161) – and the Tech victory required a Bulldogs fumble at the Kansas 5-yard line in the final two minutes and a 52-yard field goal to win at the final gun. Despite their decided schematic advantage, the Jayhawks have not scored more than 19 points against an FBS opponent this season.

Big Ten rep: Purdue (31). The lone victory was by six points over Indiana State (No. 174). The Boilermakers have not yet lost to a bad team, but those days may be coming: the final two games are against Illinois and Indiana. Hiring Danny Hope and hanging on to him for four years may burden the Boilers for years to come.

Pac-12 rep: California (32). If it weren’t for a seven-point win against Portland State (No. 155), the Bears would be winless in their first season under Sonny Dykes. This is a tough year to be bad in the Pac-12, and the results show it: Cal has lost league games by 39, 22, 27, 32 and 24 points. The only remaining winnable game may be Colorado on Nov. 16, and that’s in Boulder.

SEC rep: Kentucky (33). For one shining Saturday, the Wildcats were dominant. They beat Miami of Ohio (No. 193), 41-7. Everything else has ended in defeat. Most of them have been respectable in terms of margin, but know this: Kentucky has not led for a single minute in any of its six losses. Not even against Western Kentucky.

THINK BEFORE YOU …

… Brawl at your kid’s game. Nathan Creer (34), father of Illinois starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, was charged with resisting arrest after police broke up an altercation involving about 10 fans at the Illini’s 42-3 home loss to Michigan State on Saturday.

… Let Johnny Manziel (35) name his dream party buddies on the Jumbotron during a home game. While most of his teammates named people like LeBron James, Johnny Football said, “I’m going to have to go with Charlie Sheen, Rob Gronkowski, and we’ll add Tiger Woods to the mix.” Naturally, Manziel named three celebs with, shall we say, controversial private lives. Credit the kid for a cheeky sense of humor, but The Dash is going to take a wild guess that he may have given more ammunition to some Heisman voters already predisposed to vote against college football’s premier party boy. Manziel clearly doesn’t care, but either the folks at A&M are utterly clueless, or they’re secretly tickled by the eyebrow-raising attention their star quarterback provokes outside of football.

… Implement something as controversial as the targeting rule (36). So the SEC and others want to re-examine the new rule for 2013 that calls for ejection for targeting a defenseless player. From the minute this was introduced last winter, The Dash could see the problems coming from space: a severe penalty for a bang-bang judgment call. Even with the aid of replay to uphold or overturn ejections, this was a ticking time bomb – yet everyone signed off on it and went along with it, and it was fine. Right up until the first important player was tossed on a borderline call. The fact that coaches and administrators are up in arms over it now is hilarious. The only thing more predictable was that Nick Saban would be crabby at a press conference at some point in 2013.

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Center: Andrew Baggett. (Credit: Getty)

… Bully the kicker on Twitter. Missouri’s Andrew Baggett (37) was barraged with hateful tweets after yanking a 24-yard field goal into the upright in double overtime, ending the Tigers’ ghastly, come-from-ahead loss to South Carolina. Fortunately, Baggett appears to have pretty thick skin: “Nobody’s comment will ever make me feel worse than I did on that field.” But everyone who felt entitled to abuse the guy should seriously reevaluate his/her life.

COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK

Minnesota staff (38). Yes, the entire coaching staff, hopefully all of which drives comp cars. And if not, then athletic director Norwood Teague should get them comp cars for this week. The Gophers reached bowl eligibility by beating Nebraska for the first time since 1960, which followed a road win over Northwestern. And that’s with Jerry Kill away from head-coaching duties while dealing with epileptic seizures. Kill has been in the press box recently, but interim coach Tracy Claeys has been the man in charge on the sidelines – and appears to be doing an excellent job. Minnesota’s success without a consistent, leading voice is one of the better stories of the season to date.

COACH WHO SHOULD TAKE THE BUS TO WORK

Mike London (39), Virginia. Since going 8-5 in 2011, his second year at the school, London’s record is 6-14, just 2-10 in ACC play. The only remaining chance for this 2-6 team to win may be Nov. 9 at North Carolina. London is catching plenty of heat, but some recruiting coups in the class of 2014 may be enough to give him another season. Maybe.

POINT AFTER

When hungry and thirsty in Columbia, Mo., The Dash recommends a stop at Flat Branch Pub & Brewing (40). Try the sausage and chicken bayou pasta, which is good enough to make you think you’re in Baton Rouge, and a Katy Trail Pale Ale brewed there on the premises. Thank The Dash later.

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