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Forde-Yard Dash: Navigating the home stretch could prove difficult for BCS title contenders

Pat Forde
Yahoo Sports
Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (crutches – and noise-canceling headphones – sold separately in Knoxville):

THE PERFECT YEAR (SO FAR) FOR A FOUR-TEAM PLAYOFF

These things have a way of working themselves out – you know that, and The Dash knows that, too. But if the teams at the top of the BCS rankings continue to win, college football will have a Fantastic Four – plus one more. And wouldn’t that make for some fun debating down the stretch?

Too bad we have to wait two more seasons for that four-team playoff (1) to start. Because this looks like a great season for it: a top-seeded SEC champion vs. Oregon in one semifinal and Kansas State vs. either the SEC runner-up or Notre Dame. Could we work with that?

Right now, this looks a little like 2004 all over again. That year, the champions of the Southeastern Conference (Auburn), Pac-10 (USC) and Big 12 (Oklahoma) all finished unbeaten. Auburn was the team that got squeezed out of title contention – the last time the SEC has ever lost a BCS title fight.

This year the top of the rankings again features unbeatens from the SEC (Alabama and Florida), the Pac-12 (Oregon) and Big 12 (Kansas State). You could almost plug Notre Dame into the spot occupied eight years ago by Utah – the Other Unbeaten striving to match resumes and get the same opportunity as the kids from the power conferences.

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Nick Saban

Nick Saban

There are challenges ahead for all the top teams, but it’s possible that all five will be 12-0 (pending conference championship games in the SEC and Pac-12). The Dash assesses what it will take for the Fantastic Four to maintain that status quo from now until Selection Sunday, Dec. 2.

Alabama (2). Remaining games, in order of difficulty: at LSU on Nov. 3; potential SEC championship game, Dec. 1; home against Mississippi State on Saturday; home against Texas A&M on Nov. 10; home against Auburn on Nov. 24; home against Western Carolina on Nov. 17. Predicted finish: 13-0. Reading the BCS tea leaves: The Crimson Tide slipped from third to fourth in the computer rankings, thanks to the mediocrity of Tennessee. The next three weeks should fix that – although there will be an abnormal drag later from playing Iron Bowl rival Auburn. Regardless, it’s unlikely that the humans will drop Alabama from the No. 1 spot as long as it keeps winning. Dominant stat: The Tide has allowed more than 14 points only once in its last 21 games. The one team able to score more? Georgia Southern, of course, which put 21 on the board last November. Other dominant stat: Alabama leads the nation in both pass efficiency and pass-efficiency defense.

Florida (3). Remaining games, in order of difficulty: potential SEC championship game; at Florida State on Nov. 24; vs. Georgia in Jacksonville on Saturday; home against Missouri on Nov. 3; home against Louisiana-Lafayette on Nov. 10; home against Jacksonville State on Nov. 17. Predicted finish: 12-1. Reading the BCS tea leaves: The Gators need to be undefeated heading to Atlanta for the SEC title game, plus rooting for losses by Kansas State, Oregon/Oregon State and Notre Dame somewhere along the way. That could lead to the ultimate American nausea scenario: Gators lose a close game in the Georgia Dome to the Crimson Tide and get a rematch five weeks later for the national championship. Dominant stat: In two games against Top 10 teams, Florida has not allowed a touchdown.

Kansas State (4). Remaining games, in order of difficulty: home against Texas Tech on Saturday; at TCU on Nov. 10; home against Texas on Dec. 1; at Baylor on Nov. 17; home against Oklahoma State on Nov. 3. Predicted finish: 12-0. Reading the BCS tea leaves: There are no easy games remaining for the Wildcats, but they should be favored in all of them. The lack of a conference title game should work in K-State’s favor as well. Bill Snyder’s team should root for Oklahoma to beat Notre Dame on Saturday and for Oregon/Oregon State to drop a game somewhere as well. If it comes down to a battle for No. 2, a 12-0 Big 12 champ would almost certainly get the BCS nod over a one-loss SEC team. Dominant stat: In four Big 12 games, Kansas State has one turnover and quarterback Collin Klein has zero interceptions.

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Kenjon Barner

Kenjon Barner

Oregon (5). Remaining games, in order of difficulty: at USC on Nov. 3; potential Pac-12 championship game; at Oregon State on Nov. 24; at home against Stanford on Nov. 17; at California on Nov. 10; at home against Colorado on Saturday. Predicted finish: 12-1. With the potential for four games left against BCS top 17 opponents, at least half of them on the road, the Ducks could get plucked somewhere. Reading the BCS tea leaves: If Oregon does lose a game, better that it comes Nov. 3 in Los Angeles to USC. That would not prevent the Ducks from winning the Pac-12 North, and if they could beat the Trojans in a conference title rematch they’d still be in the national title mix – with some help from others. Kansas State and Notre Dame would have to lose, and Oregon may have to win a beauty contest among one-loss teams at that point. Dominant stat: Ducks have led for at least 50 minutes in every game this season.

[Also: Penn State proving it’s bigger than just one bad guy]

On the outside looking in: Notre Dame (6). If anyone should be madder than Jim Delany at the flop by the Big Ten, it’s the Fighting Irish. Wins over Michigan, Purdue and Michigan State have been devalued, and slipping past BYU didn’t impress anyone. But there is one big way for Notre Dame to begin matching resumes with the other unbeatens: win at Oklahoma (7) Saturday.

Kansas State has already done that – but Kansas State also has gotten considerably better quarterback play than Notre Dame has. Coach Brian Kelly has said inconsistent sophomore Everett Golson will start after missing the BYU game while coming back from a concussion. The Irish are all defense, all the time, but likely will need to get more offensive production than they’ve had in a few weeks to match points with the Sooners.

WEIRDEST HEISMAN RACE EVER?

Raise your hand if, in August, you had the Heisman Trophy outlook as a late-October match race between a linebacker and an under-recruited quarterback who started his college career playing wide receiver.

Not many hands up out there in Dashland.

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Manti Te'o

Manti Te'o

Somehow, a race that belonged for a while to the USC glamour boy quarterback and then to the QB from the Star Wars offense has evolved into Collin Klein (8) vs. Manti Te’o (9). At least for this week.

Klein, who somehow managed to turn down late recruiting interest from Colorado State and sign with Kansas State, had the best passing performance of his career Saturday in Kansas State’s mauling of West Virginia: 19 of 21 for 323 yards. But it was such a statistical outlier for a modest passer that the Mountaineers’ awful defense should get at least as much blame as Klein gets credit.

Still, the fifth-year senior is second nationally in efficiency and 32nd in total offense. And his team is undefeated. There are a lot of five-star recruits out there who would love to trade places with him.

Te’o was one of those five-star guys, and the decision of a Mormon from Hawaii to attend a Catholic school in the upper Midwest has been a bit of a program-changer for Notre Dame. But not even the rosiest recruiting pitching by then-coach Charlie Weis and his staff could have included telling Te’o he’d be a serious Heisman candidate. That just doesn’t happen for linebackers.

You cannot question Te’o’s impact on a great defense – he’s averaging nearly 10 tackles per game and has four interceptions, which ties him for sixth nationally in picks. But you still can wonder whether he’s even the best linebacker in America. What about tackling machine Kevin Minter (10) of LSU? He had 20 tackles against Florida, then came back with a dozen more against Texas A&M, including a sack and an interception.

As fluid as the situation is, the two guys who once led by open lengths can still play their way back into it. That would be Matt Barkley (11) of USC and Geno Smith (12) of West Virginia.

[Also: Mack Brown complains Longhorn Network is negatively impacting Texas … really]

Barkley basically cheated last week – he played Colorado, the worst team in a big-six conference, completing 19 of 20 passes for 298 yards and six touchdowns. That continued Barkley’s trend of playing great against bad opponents. What he needs is a big game against a good opponent – and with five straight games against likely bowl teams on tap, he’ll get his chances.

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Geno Smith

Geno Smith

Smith will always get opportunities to put up big numbers, because that’s what West Virginia does. And what it needs to do, given the deplorable defense. Last year, Robert Griffin III was not derailed by a couple of blowout losses – he and Baylor regrouped for some dramatic victories that helped him win the trophy. So stay tuned on Smith, too.

Meanwhile, there are a couple of other lurkers from Top 5 teams: A.J. McCarron (13) of Alabama and Kenjon Barner (14) of Oregon.

McCarron throws it just a little more often than Klein and doesn’t have the running numbers, but he’s yet to throw an interception (see below) and leads the nation in efficiency. ‘Bama is defense first, but McCarron is playing at a high level for a proficient offense.

Barner was overshadowed last year by LaMichael James and earlier this year by DeAnthony Thomas, but he’s been the primary weapon in the Ducks’ powerful offense. He’s 10th nationally in rushing and has produced 460 yards and six touchdowns the past three games.

BEAT YOUR NEMESIS, CHANGE EVERYTHING

Two teams in the SEC have the chance to alter the trajectory of their seasons and insert themselves into the thick of the national championship chase Saturday. All they have to do is beat the teams that have bedeviled them like nobody else.

Mississippi State (15) has lost to Alabama more than any other team in its history – 74 times, with just 18 victories against the Crimson Tide. The current losing streak is four, dating back to when Nick Saban got his feet under him in his second season in Tuscaloosa. Since then, the Bulldogs have failed to score more than 10 points against Alabama, which puts them in line with most of the rest of America.

Mississippi State has been living on turnovers, with 21 takeaways and only four giveaways. That’s nice, but Alabama isn’t far behind at plus-14 in the turnover department. So it isn’t likely that the Bulldogs can count on ‘Bama beating itself. Hard to see State finding enough ways to score to beat the nation’s No. 1 team, or probably even keep it close.

[Also: Wyoming coach suspended one week, fined $50K for expletive-laden postgame rant]

Since Steve Spurrier got to Gainesville and changed Florida football, Georgia (16) is a miserable 4-18 against the Gators. The Bulldogs did win last year’s meeting, but are underdogs this time after consecutive uninspiring performances: a blowout loss to South Carolina and a shaky five-point victory over a lousy Kentucky team.

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Mike Gillislee

Mike Gillislee

Georgia needs to be much more stout against the run Saturday than it was against the Gamecocks and Wildcats – they gave up 436 yards on the ground in those games. Mike Gillislee and the Florida offensive line can’t wait to test the toughness of the Bulldogs, who would certainly welcome back injured linebacker Jarvis Jones.

BIG TEN GAME OF THE YEAR*

It happens in Happy Valley on Saturday, with absolutely nothing tangible on the line but intangible bragging rights. It’s Ohio State (17) at Penn State (18) in a battle to decide the best on-probation team in the Leaders Division.

The Buckeyes gambled with the NCAA and lost, opting not to include a postseason ban of last year’s 6-6 team in their self-imposed sanctions. It was the last in a series of miscalculations by an administration that never did seem to understand the predicament it was in. When the NCAA came back with a 2012 bowl ban, it capped the potential of this 8-0 season.

Penn State, meanwhile, is fashioning as much of a feel-good season as is possible in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky horror. The Nittany Lions have played successively better after a 0-2 start, including three straight double-digit Big Ten victories. The latest was a 38-14 road beatdown on former nemesis Iowa, with the Hawkeyes scoring the final 14 points for cosmetic purposes.

[Also: Tennessee coach Derek Dooley laughs off report that he offered to resign]

Both schools should feel great about their first-year coaches – Urban Meyer being the known quantity at Ohio State and Bill O’Brien the rising star at Penn State. The future is bright in Columbus, whereas O’Brien’s future may be brighter than his school’s should he decide against staying and enduring the staggering four years of NCAA sanctions.

It should be a great game Saturday between the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions. Too bad it doesn’t mean anything.

JUNK WINS

Every school has them, tucked away deep in the media guides that chronicle the history of a football program. They’re victories from the early days against opponents no self-respecting school would schedule today – opponents beneath even the FCS and low-level FBS cupcakes that are brought in for a beating and a paycheck.

They’re the athletic clubs, the naval bases, the alumni teams and the local high schools. Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when travel was more arduous and budgets were smaller, they were scheduling staples in a lot of places.

Michigan had games in 1896 and 1904 against something called Physicians and Surgeons of Illinois. Combined score of the two games: 100-0.

Texas beat Daniel Baker – presumably a school, and not just a guy – 40-0, 92-0 and 26-0 between 1906 and 1932.

USC played teams from the USS Arizona, USS Colorado, USS Mississippi and USS New York, and it was boss all four times in the early 20th century by a combined score of 133-4.

Nebraska burst the balloon of Fort Omaha Balloon School 19-0 in 1918.

The breakdown of stat-padding junk victories by the 10 winningest programs in college football history:

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Bo Schembechler

Bo Schembechler

Michigan (19). Total wins: 900. Junk wins: 57 (at least). Percentage of all-time wins that are junk: 6.3. Persistent pigeon: Case Institute of Technology (Ohio), 26-0-1 record. Scheduled junk win that turned into a bad loss: Cleveland AA 8, Michigan 4. What, you were expecting Appalachian State? (Since the game was played in 1891, the AA is not believed to be Alcoholics Anonymous.)

Texas (20). Total wins: 863. Junk wins: 70 (at least). Percentage of all-time wins that are junk: 8.1. Persistent pigeon: Longhorns beat the San Antonio Town Team eight times in the 1890s by a combined 221-4. Scheduled junk win that turned into a bad loss: In the second game of what was a three-game, one-week road trip to the Midwest in November 1901, Texas lost 48-0 to Kirksville (Mo.) Osteopath. Texas was undefeated going into that game, but apparently you don’t just walk into Kirksville thinking you’re going to walk over a bunch of doctors. Really.

Nebraska (21). Total wins: 861. Junk wins: 68 (at least). Percentage of all-time wins that are junk: 7.9. Persistent pigeon: Nebraska beat Doane (Neb.) 16 times in 18 meetings from 1891-1912, by a combined 540-41. The first win was on Valentine’s Day in 1891, a date that hasn’t seen a whole lot of football traffic since. Scheduled junk win that turned into a bad loss: Nebraska won only one of five meetings with Kansas City Medical between 1896-1900.

Notre Dame. Total wins: 860. Junk wins: 83 (at least). Percentage of all-time wins that are junk: 9.7. Persistent pigeon: The Fighting Irish beat Kalamazoo seven times between 1893 and 1923 by a combined 318-0. Scheduled junk win that turned into a bad loss: The Indianapolis Light Artillery apparently came out firing in an 18-0 victory over Notre Dame in 1895.

Ohio State. Total wins: 833. Junk wins: 79 (at least). Percentage of all-time wins that are junk: 9.5. Persistent pigeon: Ohio State was 26-2-1 against Ohio Wesleyan from 1890-1932. Scheduled junk win that turned into a bad loss: Centre 18, Ohio State 0, 1895.

[Also: UNC defender delivers cheap shot on Duke’s best player]

Oklahoma. Total wins: 824. Junk wins: 70 (at least). Percentage of all-time wins that are junk: 8.5. Persistent pigeon: The Sooners speared Kingfisher College 19 times, with no defeats and three ties, between 1897 and 1919. The last two were 179-0 and 157-0, showing that Oklahoma was running up scores well before Barry Switzer came around. Scheduled junk win that turned into a bad loss: On Christmas Day 1931, the Sooners lost to the Hawaii All-Stars 39-20. They bounced back on New Year’s Day 1932 to beat the team 7-0.

Alabama. Total wins: 821. Junk wins: 62 (at least). Percentage of all-time wins that are junk: 7.6. Persistent pigeon: Crimson Tide beat Marion Military Institute nine straight times from 1902-22 by a combined 482-0. Scheduled junk win that turned into a bad loss: The New Orleans Athletic Club blanked ‘Bama 21-0 in 1899.

Tennessee (22). Total wins: 797. Junk wins: 68 (at least). Percentage of all-time wins that are junk: 8.5. Persistent pigeon: The Volunteers were 25-1-1 against Maryville from 1892-1936, with 25 of the games played in Knoxville. Scheduled junk win that turned into a bad loss: Tying American Temperance 5-5 in 1906 probably had the radio talk-show callers hitting the roof.

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Trojan warrior

Trojan warrior

USC (23). Total wins: 785. Junk wins: 102 (at least). Percentage of all-time wins that are junk: 13.5. Persistent pigeon: The Trojans were 12-1-1 against Cal Tech from 1893-1927. Scheduled junk win that turned into a bad loss: USC lost to the Olive Club 16-12 in 1891. If anyone has any idea what the Olive Club was or is, holler.

Georgia. Total wins: 754. Junk wins: 39 (at least). Percentage of all-time wins that are junk: 5.2. Persistent pigeon: Mercer, 22-0 record from 1892-1941. Scheduled junk win that turned into a bad loss: Daniel Field 18, Georgia 7, in 1943. Presumably World War II had a lot to do with the scheduling – and the outcome – of the game.

COMING FROM AHEAD

Teams that have had a hard time holding onto late leads this season:

Northwestern (24). Led Syracuse in the season opener by 22 in the third quarter, surrendered 28 points in less than 15 minutes, then rallied to win in the final minute. Led Penn State 28-17 with 10 minutes to play, surrendered 22 points the rest of the way and lost. Led Nebraska by 12 with six minutes to play, lost by one. Biggest problem: porous secondary.

Texas A&M (25). Led Florida by 10 late in the third quarter of inaugural SEC game, lost by three. Led LSU 12-0, surrendered 24 unanswered points, lost 24-19. Both at home. Biggest problem: Elite defenses adjusting to Aggies’ offensive tempo and strategy. Five turnovers against the Tigers didn’t help, either.

Georgia Tech (26). Led Virginia Tech in final minute, gave up tying field goal on last play, lost in overtime. Trailed Miami 19-0, scored 36 straight to take a 17-point lead, surrendered final 23 points to lose. Led Clemson 31-30 in the fourth quarter, lost 47-31. Biggest problem: Can’t tackle, can’t cover, can’t scheme up a way to stop anybody.

THAT ONE MAGIC SEASON

At the outpost programs, where the budgets and fan bases are smaller, success can come rarely and go quickly. Sometimes it’s a single autumn where everything goes right and a season barely even dreamed of takes shape – and then it’s gone before it’s even fully appreciated. Naturally, The Dash has a list of five low-major schools that recently caught lightning in a bottle – then reality returned:

[Week 8 Winners and Losers: Kansas State is in business]

Idaho (27). The year: 2009. The record: 8-5, breaking a streak of nine straight losing seasons. The high point: a 43-42 victory over Bowling Green in the Humanitarian Bowl, capped by a touchdown and two-point conversion with four seconds left. The epilogue: The Vandals have won only nine of 33 games since, including a 1-7 record this year. It’s resulted in coach Robb Akey being fired this week – the first coaching casualty of the season.

Miami (Ohio) (28). The year: 2010. The record: 10-4, breaking a streak of four straight losing seasons. The high point: The Redhawks beat Middle Tennessee State 35-21 in the GoDaddy.com Bowl, their sixth straight victory to end the season and third-straight upset win. The epilogue: Coach Mike Haywood left for Pittsburgh, only to be fired shortly after taking the job when he was involved in a domestic incident. Successor Don Treadwell is 7-12 since.

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Turner Gill

Turner Gill

Middle Tennessee State (29). The year: 2009. The record: 10-3, best in the last 20 years, dating to the program’s time in FCS. The high point: The Blue Raiders upset Southern Miss in the New Orleans Bowl 42-32, ending the season on a seven-game winning streak. The epilogue: Middle Tennessee is 12-20 since then, and coach Rick Stockstill’s future could be in doubt after this season.

Buffalo (30). The year: 2008. The record: 8-6, the Bulls’ only winning record since 1996 as an FCS program. The high point: Buffalo stunned undefeated, 12th-ranked Ball State in the Mid-American Conference championship game and went on to play in its first and only bowl game, the International Bowl in Toronto. The epilogue: Coach Turner Gill coached one more year before leaving for Kansas, which hasn’t worked out for him or the school. Gill was fired after two years, and the Bulls are 6-25 since he left.

Ball State (31). The year: 2008. The record: 12-2, a school record for wins and just the second time in program history that the Cardinals had double-digit victories. The high point: Fans stormed the field after Ball State completed an undefeated regular season, moving as high as No. 12 in the rankings. The epilogue: Coach Brady Hoke left for San Diego State and then Michigan. Ball State promoted offensive coordinator Stan Parrish with disastrous results, watching him go 6-18 in two seasons. He was replaced last year by Pete Lembo.

TRENDSPOTTING

Syracuse (32) is pretty awesome on Friday nights this fall, and pretty awful on Saturdays. The Orange are 2-0 at home in the Dome on Fridays, upsetting Pittsburgh and routing Connecticut. They’re 1-4 on Saturdays. The bad news: The next four games are all on Saturdays before the season finale on a Friday against Temple.

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[Related: Oregon falls to No. 4 in BCS standings]

• Dashette Tonia Sotiropoulou (33) is dominant every day of the week.

• Navy is undefeated when actor Kevin Spacey (34) shows up to cheer for the Midshipmen and sits with the students. The most unusual suspect was on hand last week to see the Middies beat Indiana.

• The Cardiac Wolfpack (35) of North Carolina State is addicted to ACC drama. In three league games, N.C. State has lost to Miami on a 62-yard bomb with 19 seconds to play, shocked Florida State on a touchdown pass and conversion with 16 seconds to play, and beaten Maryland on a field goal with 32 seconds to play. In the last one, the Terrapins had a field goal of their own for the win hit the upright with two seconds left. Lord knows what will happen this week against hated rival North Carolina.

LAST INTERCEPTION POOL UPDATE

We have trimmed the field to two. Geno Smith has left the competition, but not before setting an NCAA record for most passes in a season without an interception – he got it to 273 before being picked by Kansas State. Then that record was broken by one of the men listed below.

AJ McCarron is still rolling, with zero picks in 154 attempts this year. Up next is the ball-hawking defense of Mississippi State, which has 12 interceptions and has picked off 5.15 percent of opponents' attempts.

Colby Cameron (36) of Louisiana Tech is still rolling as well. He broke Smith’s record shortly after it was set, extending it to 275 pick-less passes heading into Tech’s game Saturday against New Mexico State. The Aggies have intercepted only two of the 225 passes thrown against them this year. Advantage: Cameron.

COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK

David Cutcliffe (37), Duke. In his fifth year on a very tough job, Cutcliffe finally has the Blue Devils bowl-eligible for the first time since 1994. The fact that they got their sixth win over archrival North Carolina in a thriller only makes it sweeter for a guy who should never have been fired by Mississippi.

COACH WHO SHOULD TAKE THE BUS TO WORK

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Kevin Wilson

Kevin Wilson

Kevin Wilson (38), Indiana. He got Hoosiers fans excited by scoring 49 points on Ohio State. But his team also gave up 52 in that game, and that’s the problem. Indiana has been horrid on defense in Wilson’s 19 games on the job, giving up 31 or more points in 12 straight games against full-fledged FBS competition. That includes eight games of 40 or more points allowed and four of 50 or more. Indiana brought its fans back to earth quickly after that Ohio State game by losing to Navy Saturday, 31-30, dropping Wilson to 3-16 on the job.

PUTTING OUT AN APB FOR …

… Former Iowa State running back Troy Davis (39). The little guy put up huge numbers in the mid-'90s: 4,382 career rushing yards, 378 yards in a single game, 53 carries in another. Anyone with information on the whereabouts of the Cyclones’ all-time leading rusher, please apprise The Dash.

Meanwhile, The Dash is pleased to report that last week’s APB subject, former Nebraska I-back and walk-on hero I.M. Hipp, is apparently is alive and well in living in Virginia Beach, Va. Information is sketchy, so if the Dash Spies know more, please pass it along.

POINT AFTER

When hungry for barbecue in The Dash’s town of Louisville, stop by Frankfort Avenue Beer Depot (40) for an unpretentious but delicious meal and stellar beer selection. You’ll know you’ve arrived when you see and smell the smokers out front. While waiting for your food you can play Beerhalla, the miniature golf course in the back. Get the ribs and thank The Dash later.

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