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Forde-Yard Dash: Let the games begin?

Pat Forde
Yahoo Sports

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Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (autographed memorabilia sold – wait, not sold – separately):

Free at last, free at last. Thank God almighty, we are free at last from the tyrannical torpor of summer. It is football season and it is game week, and that means it is time for a few thousand words of light, fluffy, low-calorie Forde Yard Dash reading.

Welcome back. Let's play ball.

We must start with the hottest topic in the game, and that's Johnny Manziel (1). He's had a year unlike any in memory, going from off-radar to owning the whole damn radar screen. In the process the Texan's life has become a country song – a compilation of triumph and controversy and angst and misbehavior. Which is where The Lyrical Dash comes in.

The Dash is in negotiations with George Strait to record this ditty about Johnny. It's either George or this guy. And nobody wants that.

THE BALLAD OF JOHNNY FOOTBALL

He came out of Kerrville like a bat out of hell
A scrambling wildman name of Johnny Manziel
The Hill Country boy rose from nothing to glorious
But these days his name is mostly notorious

The high life and fast times of Johnny Football
Sheds a hard inner light on each of us all
Love him? Hate him?
Drink with him? Date him?
Do your feelings about ol' No. 2
Say more about him, or more about you?

Found trouble before he played his first game
Bar fight, fake ID – a season suspension came
But Kevin Sumlin (2) stepped in, as coaches will do
Wrote a letter, got him cleared, saved ol' No. 2

Johnny was free to light up the Southeast
Even took down 'Bama (3), the game's biggest beast
Kid won the Heisman; he was daring and brilliant

Now we'll find out if he's also resilient

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Johnny Manziel. (Credit: AP)

The high life and fast times of Johnny Football
Sheds a hard inner light on each of us all
Love him? Hate him?
Drink with him? Date him?
Do your feelings about ol' No. 2
Say more about him, or more about you?

The summer has been a Texas-sized mess
A smug party boy paid the price of success
But did he also get paid for signing his name?
And rule himself out of every A&M game?

The world waits and wonders, will John play or sit?
Either result will induce hissy fits
The fate of the kid has engrossed us all
In the high life and fast times of Johnny Football

The Dash will clear space on the calendar to attend the Country Music Awards and collect hardware for Best New Songwriter. Just forward the date.

[Check out Forde's BCS breakdowns here: Big 12 | Pac-12 | Big Ten | ACC | SEC]


RANKING THE SCHEDULES

At least two-thirds of a team's schedule is dictated to it. The conference lays it out, the conference members complain, and then they go play it. But the non-conference schedule is left in the hands of each individual school (with the assistance of some puppet-string pulling by TV execs).

Who teams choose to play greatly affects strength of schedule, which should greatly affect poll voting and computer rankings. Using the preseason Sagarin Ratings of both FBS and FCS schools – from No. 1 Alabama to No. 251 Mercer – as a measuring device, The Dash examines who among the top seven leagues is taking on the non-conference challenge this season … and who is ducking it.

The five toughest non-conference schedules:

Southern Methodist (4). Average non-conference opponent Sagarin rating: 35.5. The Mustangs loaded up on Texas toughies, playing Texas A&M (No. 3 according to Sagarin), TCU (No. 14), Texas Tech (No. 37) and FCS power Montana State (No. 88).

Oklahoma (5). Average non-conference opponent Sagarin rating: 48.3. The Sooners play nine league games but don't get much of a breather outside the Big 12, playing Notre Dame (No. 11), Tulsa (No. 45) and Louisiana-Monroe (No. 89).

Florida (6). Average non-conference opponent Sagarin rating: 51.8. The Gators pile Florida State (No. 18), Miami (No. 28), a dangerous Toledo (No. 76) and Georgia Southern (No. 85) on top of the SEC grind. Probably the toughest overall schedule in the nation.

Arizona State (7). Average non-conference opponent Sagarin rating: 53.7. The Sun Devils can at least give Florida an argument about toughest overall schedule, thanks to playing Notre Dame (No. 11), Wisconsin (No. 17) and Sacramento State (No. 139) on top of a rugged Pac-12 slate.

Hawaii (8). Average non-conference opponent Sagarin rating: 55.3. Warriors open against USC (No. 23), then follow with Oregon State (No. 25). Later non-league games are against Navy (No. 65) and Army (No. 108).

The five easiest non-conference schedules:

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Rich Rodriguez. (Credit: Getty)

Vanderbilt (9). Average non-conference opponent Sagarin rating: 146. The Commodores have buttressed their bowl hopes in recent years by playing kindred academic schools like Wake Forest (No. 70), FBS bottom dwellers like Massachusetts (No. 164) and UAB (No. 124), and the occasional FCS cadaver like Austin Peay (No. 226).

Arizona (10). Average non-conference opponent Sagarin rating: 143. Unlike rival Arizona State, the Wildcats are playing straight cupcakes outside the Pac-12 with Northern Arizona (No. 123), UNLV (No. 128) and UT-San Antonio (No. 181).

West Virginia (11). Average non-conference opponent Sagarin rating: 141. The Mountaineers are hurt by the demise of neighborhood rival Maryland (No. 63), coupled with two outright stiffs in William & Mary (No. 160) and Georgia State (No. 200).

Oklahoma State (12). Average non-conference opponent Sagarin rating: 139.7. Not quite the same scheduling philosophy as big brother Oklahoma. The Cowboys play one legit opponent in Mississippi State (No. 35) and two pushovers in UT-San Antonio (No. 181) and Lamar (No. 203).

Minnesota (13). Average non-conference opponent Sagarin rating: 137.8. The Gophers' bid for their first winning season since 2008 is enhanced by scheduling San Jose State (No. 77), UNLV (No. 128), New Mexico State (No. 165) and Western Illinois (No. 180).

Toughest and easiest non-conference schedules by league:

SEC (14). Toughest in the East: Florida, 51.8. Easiest in the East: Vanderbilt, 146. Toughest in the West: Texas A&M, 91. Easiest in the West: Auburn, 130.3.

Big Ten (15). Toughest in the Leaders: Wisconsin, 75.8. Easiest in the Leaders: Ohio State, 114.8. Toughest in the Legends: Michigan State, 74. Easiest in the Legends: Minnesota, 137.8.

Big 12 (16). Toughest: Oklahoma, 48.3. Easiest: West Virginia, 141.

ACC (17). Toughest in the Atlantic: Clemson, 90.3. Easiest in the Atlantic: Wake Forest, 116.8. Toughest in the Coastal: North Carolina, 85.8. Easiest in the Coastal: Duke, 131.3.

Pac-12 (18). Toughest in the North: Stanford, 65.3. Easiest in the North: Washington State, 115.7. Toughest in the South: Arizona State, 53.7. Easiest in the South: Arizona, 143.

American Athletic (19). Toughest: Connecticut, 81.3. Easiest: Houston, 126.5.

Mountain West (20). Toughest in the West: Hawaii, 55.3. Easiest in the West: Fresno State, 106.7. Toughest in the Mountain: Colorado State, 66.8. Easiest in the Mountain: New Mexico, 129.3.

A couple other scheduling observations:

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Nick Saban. (Credit: AP)

The SEC knows how to start a season. Six teams open against opponents from major conferences: LSU against TCU in Arlington, Texas; Mississippi State against Oklahoma State in Houston; Alabama against Virginia Tech in Atlanta; Georgia at Clemson; South Carolina hosts North Carolina; and Auburn hosts Washington State. Five of those six opponents had winning records in 2012, and half of them are ranked to start this season. Three more SEC teams play '12 bowl teams: Kentucky plays Western Kentucky in Nashville; Florida hosts Toledo; and Texas A&M hosts Rice. And there is one league game: Mississippi at Vanderbilt Thursday night. That's a really good opening weekend, and it gives other leagues a legitimate chance at sinking a ship or two in the SEC armada. 

The Big Ten does not know how to start a season. The league is in the process of bulking up future schedules, but the 2013 slate starts with a series of yawners. One team plays an opponent in Sagarin's preseason Top 50 (Purdue vs. No. 36 Cincinnati). Eight play opponents outside the Sagarin Top 100. There are five games against Mid-American Conference teams and two against FCS opponents. For a league with a lot to prove, it won't prove very much in the first weekend of play. 

On paper, the worst hide-the-children whippings of the year are Alabama-Georgia State (21) on Oct. 5 and Miami-Savannah State (22) on Sept. 21. In both cases, Sagarin projects a 60-point spread. Oregon-Nicholls State (23) on Saturday is projected as a 58-point nail-biter.

STRETCHING EXERCISES

For football fans, it's time to make like the players you cheer for and get in shape for the fall. That means brushing up on some key fundamentals of fandom.

Sudden change drills (24). If a player at your favorite school gets in trouble, your job is to quickly change the subject to the infinitely worse transgressions at Rival U. that nobody is talking about, for some mystifying reason. It helps to keep an updated spreadsheet of all transgressions committed around your league, in case they need to be recited on a moment's notice. If that doesn't work, complain about the overblown character assassination and rush to judgment your school is enduring due to simmering jealousy over your team's success. 

The logic leap (25). If your new coaching staff is killing it in recruiting, chalk it up to infectious enthusiasm and a galvanizing new message. If another new coaching staff in the league is killing it in recruiting, chalk it up to obvious cheating.

Conspiracy calisthenics (26). The working list of people/institutions that hate your program and are out to get it is as follows: the refs, the local media, the league office, the national media, the NCAA, the government, the military, one billion Chinese, alien invaders. Apply as needed. 

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Natasha Barnard. (Credit: Getty)

Class warfare crunches (27). Remember, your school exudes recognizable class at all times. Your rival does not, ever. Any evidence to the contrary is to be discredited quickly and aggressively, using any means necessary, only some of which may involve the truth. If all else fails, claim Dashette Natasha Barnard (28) is a personal friend and fan of your team. 

Spin class (29). If your favorite team gets into a close race for a coveted bowl spot, don't just sit there. Bombard the media with every positive statistic and attribute your team possesses, while besmirching the body of work of whatever team is competing with yours. Find email addresses. Get on Twitter (if you're feeling shy, make up a testosterone-laced handle like SoonerStud or GatorGusto and use the team logo as your avatar). Then recruit 10,000 fellow fans to all parrot the same talking points. This same exercise can be used if a player on your team wanders into Heisman Trophy contention. Even if it doesn't work, you can sleep at night knowing you did your part.

FIVE SEASON PREDICTIONS

The SEC will win an eighth straight title. And endure a lot of black eyes in the process. The league is as good as ever on the field – if Alabama doesn't win the title (and The Dash thinks it will) then it may be Georgia or Texas A&M or even South Carolina. But the league also is as dubious as ever off the field.

LSU coach Les Miles' finagling of the Jeremy Hill situation after the second guilty plea of his young life was a classic dodge – pass the buck to the players, who he had to know would vote to keep the team's best running back on the squad. Hill is suspended, but Miles says he "wouldn't be surprised" if Hill makes the trip to Arlington for the opener against TCU. The Dash wouldn't be surprised if Hill plays. And what a statement that would be about the kind of program Les Miles runs.

There are open NCAA investigations at Texas A&M and Ole Miss. You know about the one looking into Manziel and his alleged profiteering off autographs The response from A&M seems to be straight out of the Auburn Cam Newton playbook: prove it or we're playing him.

Mississippi coach Hugh Freeze dared critics on Twitter last winter to contact Ole Miss compliance if it had any dirt on the Rebels and their startling recruiting class. It's unclear whether anyone took Freeze up on his invitation, but NCAA investigators reportedly are looking into the school's recruiting tactics.

And then there is the school Ole Miss plays Thursday night, in the first SEC conference game of the year. That would be Vanderbilt, the place that once was the outlaw league's pillar of rectitude. Now the Commodores are in siege mode after the arrest of five players in connection with an alleged campus rape and cover-up. Four of the players have been dismissed from the team and the fifth is suspended. All have pleaded not guilty.

Last winter, a Vandy coach told The Dash that the rapidly improving football program has to steer clear of trouble or the administration will pull the plug on its increased financial support – that the school's exalted academic reputation far outweighs pursuing athletic glory. Now trouble of the most appalling kind has cast a pall over the season.

So cheer all you want for SEC glory. There will be plenty more to come. But keep in mind that it comes with a price in terms of reputation.

Oregon (30) will emerge as the team to challenge the SEC in the BCS Championship game. This would have been Chip Kelly's best team in Eugene. Losing Kelly will hurt, but not enough for the Ducks to miss out on a shot at the title. New coach Mark Helfrich will keep the same shock-and-awe offensive tempo, and Nick Aliotti should once again field an opportunistic defense. If there is no significant loss in terms of motivation and overall leadership without Kelly, expect the Ducks to play Alabama in Pasadena on Jan. 6. 

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T.J. Yeldon. (Credit: USA Today)

T.J. Yeldon (31) will win the Heisman Trophy. In the past four years, this has been a certainty at Alabama: if a running back gets 200 carries before a bowl game, he winds up in New York City as a Heisman finalist. It happened for Mark Ingram in 2009, and it happened for Trent Richardson in 2011. It should happen this year for Yeldon, who no longer is sharing carries with Eddie Lacy. Yeldon has Adrian Peterson size and athleticism – if he shows Petersonesque power this year as a sophomore, look out. He'll have a huge season and win the little stiff-armer.

But the good news for all Heisman contenders is that the voting has gotten better in recent years.

Nobody wins the trophy in August anymore based on pre-publicity – Manziel last year, Robert Griffin III in 2011 and Cam Newton in 2010 were not hyped during the preseason as strong Heisman candidates. (Darn near everyone has a shot.) Contrary to popular mythology, defensive players are stronger candidates than ever – Manti Te'o nearly won it last year, Tyrann Mathieu was a finalist in 2011 and so was Ndomakung Suh in '09. (Good news for Jadeveon Clowney.) And players from somewhat off-brand schools (like RG3) can indeed beat out players from traditional power programs. (Take heart, Teddy Bridgewater.)

But it will be tough to beat an Alabama running back if he has a big year.

The targeting rule (32) will lead to mass outrage, more missed tackles and more lower-body injuries. The Dash applauds all attempts to reduce head injuries in football, this one included. But it will come with some unintended consequences, and a whole lot of backlash the first time a key player gets ejected.

To recap the rule change: a flag for hitting a defenseless player above the shoulders triggers automatic ejection, though replay can be used to reverse a call. If the penalty happens during the first half, the player is done for that game. If it occurs during the second half, the player is done for the rest of that game and the first half of the next one.

Using replay is a good idea, given the potential for ejection. But the pressure on officials making those calls will be immense, and the outcry from fans of affected teams will be deafening.

For players trying to avoid those penalties, it means changing tackling trajectory on some plays. That likely will lead to more missed tackles. And it could lead to a lot of players going low, thus producing more knee injuries.

The good news is that knee injuries are not fatal, as repeated blows to the head can be. The bad news is that knee injuries can still jeopardize a career and end a season.

If there were a four-team playoff (33) this year, the quartet would be Alabama, Oregon, Georgia and Ohio State. With Louisville, Clemson and Texas hollering about being excluded.

COMEBACKS

Three names back in heavy circulation after being out of the limelight for a while: 

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Bobby Petrino. (Credit: AP)

Bobby Petrino (34). Last time we paid attention to him, he was: turning around Arkansas. What happened: a motorcycle accident, a fishy story, a sordid scandal, an abrupt firing. Petrino spent the 2012 season out of the sport. Now: He's the head coach at Western Kentucky, a major step down but back in the game. Word out of Bowling Green is that if the Hilltoppers can develop a quarterback, this could be a big season. Don't be shocked if Western Kentucky opens with victories over a pair of SEC schools that bypassed Petrino in the hiring process last winter, Kentucky and Tennessee. If that happens and WKU goes on to win nine or 10 games, Petrino could be on the move again and headed back to the high-rent end of college football.

Tommy Rees (35). Last time we paid attention to him, he was: making some key early-season relief appearances at quarterback for Notre Dame. What happened: starter Everett Golson blossomed, and Rees faded into the background. Now: Golson was dismissed from the Notre Dame team for the 2013 season, and Rees was elevated to starter for the first time since 2011. If he plays well, expect the Fighting Irish to be a Top 10 team again this year. If not, expect Brian Kelly to try several options at quarterback in hopes that someone can move the offense.

Michael Dyer (36). Last time we paid attention to him, he was: winning MVP honors in the BCS Championship game as a relentless running back for Auburn. What happened: Dyer was dismissed at Auburn, transferred to Arkansas State and was dismissed there as well. Now: Given a third chance, Dyer has transferred to Louisville, where he is expected to be one of three running backs rotating Sunday against Ohio. If he can make an immediate impact – and stay out of trouble – the Cardinals have an even better shot at going 12-0 against a soft schedule.

BIGGEST OPENING WEEK DEBUTS

There are plenty of coaches (and schools) in new places this fall. The ones with the most interesting storylines this weekend:

Purdue-Cincinnati (37). New Boilermakers coach Darrell Hazell takes his team to Nippert Stadium to face new Bearcats coach Tommy Tuberville. Hazell is a highly regarded up-and-comer who went 16-10 in two years at Kent State. Tuberville is an established brand name, which is pretty much a first in Cincinnati program history. For the much-pilloried American Athletic Conference, this game and Louisville-Ohio are pretty much must-win. 

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Sonny Dykes. (Credit: AP)

Sonny Dykes (38) at California. Texas native who last coached at Louisiana Tech makes the cultural leap to the Bay Area, where he tries to reinvigorate a program in decline. Just to add to the degree of difficulty, Dykes and offensive coordinator Tony Franklin have named a true freshman starter at quarterback. Jared Goff at least was enrolled last January and took part in spring practice, but his first college game comes against No. 22 Northwestern. That's not exactly easing into it.

Pittsburgh (39) in the ACC. The Panthers fled the Big East and jump right into the fire, hosting league kingpin Florida State on Monday night. It's a big national stage and a great opportunity if the Panthers are up to it, but they will start a number of unproven players at key positions on offense. We'll see how quickly second-year coach Paul Chryst can get them up to speed.

POINT AFTER

If you're headed to Georgia-Clemson on Saturday, chances are you're staying in surprisingly excellent Greenville, S.C., which is about 30 miles from Clemson's campus. And if you're hungry and thirsty in Greenville, The Dash recommends a visit to the Carolina Ale House (40). It's as good as sports bars get, especially the rooftop area with rows of TVs. The beer selection is strong and the chicken wings rank among the best in Dash eating history. There are a bunch of other quality places to eat and drink in Greenville, but for game watching this is the place. Check it out and thank The Dash later.

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