May 03, 2010
If there was any one aspect of 2009 that made it one of the dullest seasons in recent memory, it was the absence of any really compelling underdog story to break up the inevitable march to a Texas-Alabama/Florida championship game. Even with the unlikely runs to perfect regular seasons by Boise State, Cincinnati and TCU, there was never any threat to the hold of the "Big Three" on the top three spots, and for that matter, no notable upsets by the Broncos, Bearcats or Horned Frogs en route to their respective conference championships. The season had an inevitable feel that drained most of the drama until the postseason. (Unless, of course, you're really captivated by petty officiating "scandals.")
Don't take my word for it: Check out Daniel Engber's lengthy examination of underdog economics in Slate.com for a persuasive case that casual fandom thrives overwhelmingly on the suspense of the upset, the comeback and the sense of community and shared experience that derives from witnessing the wholly unexpected (which, unfortunately, a lot of people these days may experience only through sports). Outside of our more longstanding, emotional attachments to specific teams, we need underdogs. And the best seasons give them to use with gusto. Such as 2007, when Appalachian State upset Michigan, Stanford knocked off USC, 11 different teams lost with the No. 1 or No. 2 ranking after Oct. 1 and the LSU-Ohio State matchup in the BCS Championship wasn't decided until literally the final seconds of the final Saturday of the regular season. We love the underdog so much that pundits of a certain political persuasion are repurposing the human tendency toward "underdogma" for their own purposes.
By the end of Engber's piece, it's still not clear whether the instinctive affinity for the underdog is really an affection for the little guy or a reaction against the hubris of bullying Goliaths. (Were you rooting for Butler last month or against Duke?) For our purposes, we'll assume the former and humbly present the most eminently rootable 'dogs of the 2010 season:
• Boise State. Or TCU. Or Houston ... Or whoever emerges as the resident "BCS Buster," with the added intrigue of Boise State's bid to become the most serious small-fry contender for the national championship since BYU won the polls in 1984. Along with three undefeated regular seasons and a pair of BCS wins in the last five years, the startling continuity from last season's Fiesta Bowl winner has assured Boise of the preseason visibility and early poll cachet it needs to plausibly storm the gates of the BCS title game. TCU is in a similarly lofty position itself after a solid decade of success (eight 11-win seasons in the last ten years), but the pole position for America's heartstrings in January clearly belongs to the Broncos, courtesy of their win in Glendale.
• Dan Hawkins. Hawk was hired in large part to rebuild Colorado's reputation from the smoking rubble of the Neuheisel/Barnett era scandals, which he's largely achieved: Going into his fifth year, CU hasn't had to respond to a hint of impropriety. And Hawkins remains as doggedly un-cynical as ever – especially for a guy who probably would have been fired last November if it wouldn't have cost the university too much money to let him go after another losing campaign. He has one more shot to deliver as the likable eccentric whose teams actually perform on the level they did when Hawkins was initially turning Boise into a WAC power (59-11 with four conference championships from 2001-05), or fall victim to the pendulum swinging back toward wins and losses.
• Mitch Mustain. Five-star Parade All-Americans aren't really underdogs, except when they're virtually run out of their home state by vitriolic "fans" who were somehow blind to a perfectly respectable effort by a true freshman with an 8-0 record as a starting quarterback. Mustain hasn't taken a significant snap at USC since escaping the poisonous soap opera at Arkansas. He was quickly relegated to yesterday's news in L.A. by another golden-armed up-and-comer, Matt Barkley. But he stuck with the Trojans through consecutive disappointments on the depth chart – first losing out to Mark Sanchez in 2008, then to Barkley last spring – and a sudden coaching change without saying the wrong thing with a microphone in his face. Now a fifth-year senior, Mustain might get a crack this fall as the top backup, off the most promising practice reports of his career.
• Tennessee. On one hand, the Vols can be cast as victims of their own hubris, reaping over the winter what they sowed by letting Rocky Top lifer Phil Fulmer go for young mercenary Lane Kiffin. A year later, the situation looks even worse than the one Kiffin inherited from the miserable 5-7 squad in 2008: UT will open the season with an unproven coach, Derek Dooley, who was no higher than fourth on their list during a hasty search in January; with a completely unproven quarterback who was either headed for career backup status at Louisville (transfer Matt Simms) or is a true freshman (Tyler Bray); and without the two most promising young offensive starters on the team, sophomores Bryce Brown and Aaron Douglas, who both quit at the start of spring practice for mysterious personal reasons. From the outside, the program is at its lowest ebb in at least 30 years, nice-guy Dooley could step out of the dual shadows of his famous father and mentor Nick Saban right quick if the manages to guide a reeling ship through an unusually wide-open East Division.
• Rick Neuheisel. It was only two years ago that Neuheisel was the brash newcomer in L.A. "Slick Rick" was burdened by a sketchy reputation, a program going in circles after five years under the most milquetoast coach in America, Karl Dorrell, and a swaggering advertising campaign – over which he had no control – that instantly cast him as the trash-talking upstart opposite the über-accomplished Pete Carroll machine at USC. Compared to his new counterpart, Lane Kiffin, Neuheisel seems like a hard-working entrenched ambassador at his alma mater, working steadily uphill on a slope with no summit in sight: With Oregon, Washington, Arizona and Stanford all clearly moving forward, UCLA is one of the few Pac-10 also-rans that still seems to be running in place.
• Paul Wulff. It's hard enough to go 3-21 over your first two years at your alma mater, especially when it's not even as close as that. Washington State has lost 17 Pac-10 games by an average of more than 30 points per game under Wulff, and hasn't come closer than two touchdowns in any of those games. Just listening to his online sales pitch (total YouTube views in three weeks: 43) is kind of depressing:
When you recall how much Wulff had already lost before ever taking the Wazzu job – his father was suspected of and later charged (though never convicted) with murdering Wulff's mother when Paul was 12, and his wife, Tammy, died of brain cancer in 2002 – it's hard to imagine any coach more deserving of a few triumphs.