Forde-Yard Dash: Where everyone's optimistic ... for now
Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (creative denials of NCAA wrongdoing sold separately at Miami, which always seems to need them):
The Dash has great news for you. All of you. Your favorite team had its best offseason ever – we know because your coaches and players said so. There was greater unity and commitment to winter workouts. There was superior focus and performance in spring ball. The “voluntary” summer program could not have voluntarily gone any better – and all of it on a volunteer basis. The team GPA has never been higher.
What is the team GPA, you ask? It’s high. No need to go into specifics, just know that’s it’s very, very high.
Yes, we factored in all the walk-ons.
Any arrests, transfers, flunk-outs or NCAA issues you have read about are blown out of proportion. There may be a suspension or two, but they’re good kids who have made a mistake and learned from it. Wouldn’t you want your own child to be given a second chance? Of course you would.
Now, the antisocial behavior and brazen cheating at your rival school is another matter. Those outlaws are only getting a second chance because they play for win-at-all-costs programs bereft of class and perspective. The rival coach clearly has lost control and exposed himself as a soulless power addict.
They cut corners. Your program takes the high road.
But again, the good news: your team is taking the high road all the way. To the College Football Playoff. To the national title. It’s August, and your team is undefeated. Bathe in the optimism. Drink the championship Kool-Aid. Do it now. Because in a few days half of you will be losers who want to fire your coach and bench your quarterback.
THE GREAT EIGHT GRUDGE MATCHES OF 2016
The matchups The Dash most wants to see, based on recent history and current payload:
Clemson-Florida State (1), Oct. 29. Where: Tallahassee. Why it matters: Winner of this matchup of the two most SEC-like non-SEC programs has gone on to capture the last five Atlantic Coast Conference titles, and the last three winners have either taken the national title or made the College Football Playoff. This year’s edition: Clemson starts the season No. 2 in the AP poll and Florida State No. 4, the first time the ACC has put two in the preseason top five. Clemson returns the Heisman runner-up in quarterback Deshaun Watson, plus an array of supporting playmakers on what could be the nation’s best offense. Florida State returns everyone on its own offense, minus currently injured QB Sean Maguire. We’ll see which recruiting powerhouse filled the defensive holes best. If they avoid slip-ups – both play dangerous Louisville in September – this could be the Game of the Year nationally.
Ohio State-Michigan State (2), Nov. 19. Where: East Lansing. Why it matters: The two teams have taken turns inflicting crippling blows on one another over the last three seasons, with much on the line. The Spartans derailed Ohio State’s national title hopes in 2013 and ’15, and the Buckeyes did the same in 2014 to the Spartans. In all three instances, the underdog won, which has been the case in the past five meetings. Average margin of victory in those last five games: 5.8 points. This year’s edition: May not have the same high stakes, given massive losses to the NFL by both teams. But it would be foolish to discount either as a Big Ten East contender.
Alabama-Mississippi (3), Sept. 17. Where: Oxford. Why it matters: The Crimson Tide has three losses in its last 29 games, and two of them are to the upstart Rebels in consecutive major upsets. Alabama has recovered from both to reach the College Football Playoff – and won it all last season – but significant emotional distress was visited upon the Tide faithful by the program’s first back-to-back losses to Ole Miss. If it happens a third straight time, heaven help the houndstooth wearers. This year’s edition: Major personnel losses for both teams, but they’ve also both recruited well enough to overcome them. Law of averages says it cannot happen again – but that was what most people said last year before Alabama fumbled the game away on its home field.
TCU-Baylor (4), Nov. 5. Where: Waco. Why it matters: Football hate grows quickly in Texas, and this has turned into a nasty little rivalry in a hurry. Gary Patterson and Art Briles had scant love for each other as both programs blossomed into somewhat unlikely Big 12 contenders. The last two meetings have been memorable: Baylor winning an epic, 61-58 thriller in 2014; TCU taking a two-overtime battle of backup quarterbacks in 2015. This year’s edition: Briles is gone from Baylor, while TCU is without its all-time leading passer (Trevone Boykin) and receiver (Josh Doctson). Still, both are ranked preseason and considered the top two conference contenders to Oklahoma.
Oklahoma-Texas (5), Oct. 8. Where: Dallas. Why it matters: The Red River Shootout always matters, and this year it may matter immensely to Longhorns coach Charlie Strong as he tries to solidify his job status. Shocking the Sooners last year was huge, but he might need to do it again to see 2017 in Austin. Bob Stoops shored up his eroding popularity in Oklahoma by making the CFP last year – but he’s also lost two of the last three to Texas in major upsets, which certainly is a trend he doesn’t want to continue. This year’s edition: The Sooners again would appear better on paper, but a presumptive – and long-awaited – improvement in quarterback play may boost Texas significantly. If Strong starts freshman Shane Buechele, he could endure any potential growing pains in the opener Sunday against Notre Dame – quality opponent, first game, not a conference game. But by October, he’ll need to be ready to perform in a big-time game.
Stanford-Notre Dame (6), Oct. 15. Where: South Bend. Why it matters: For five straight years, both teams have been ranked when they’ve met. For four straight years, the outcome has been decided by a touchdown or less – including last year’s classic that was won by two points on a walk-off Stanford field goal. And for five of the last six years, one or both went on to win at least 10 games. This year’s edition: Both should be ranked again this time around, despite rigorous opening schedules (10 of 11 opponents leading into this game are from Power 5 leagues). If things break right, the winner could come out of the game as a prime playoff contender.
Tennessee-Georgia (7), Oct. 1. Where: Athens. Why it matters: For two fan bases that have simmered in dissatisfaction for several years, they have at least taken great satisfaction in beating each other. The last five meetings have been decided by eight points or fewer, and the Volunteers snapped a five-year losing streak in the series last season by rallying from 21 down to win 38-31. That was the game that convinced Tennessee fans that Butch Jones really might get it done on Rocky Top. This year’s edition: Jones needs to get it done now on Rocky Top, and winning between the hedges in the first true road game of 2016 would be a vital part of that. On the flip side, beating the preseason Eastern Division favorite could be a major coup for new Georgia coach Kirby Smart.
Michigan-Michigan State (8), Oct. 29. Where: East Lansing. Why it matters: If you saw last year’s game, you know. The miracle win for the Spartans vaulted them toward the playoff and stole some magic from the Harbaugh Resurrection Project. It was Michigan State’s seventh win in the last eight games against its bitter rival, a stat that gnaws at the insides of every haughty Michigan fan. This year’s edition: The Wolverines should be favored in all seven games leading up to this one. A 7-0 mark would put them in playoff contention and also squarely in the crosshairs of a Michigan State team that would love to dish out a little more heartburn. For the Wolverines, keeping the players from looking ahead at Ohio State probably won’t be nearly as big a challenge as keeping them from looking ahead at Michigan State.
GO NORTH, YOUNG SEC MEN
The Dash adores the idea of LSU traveling to Green Bay this week to play Wisconsin on the decidedly un-frozen non-tundra of Lambeau Field. It’s about time the Southeastern Conference schools see more of the country, and LSU is the modern leader in that area. Last year the Tigers went to Syracuse, this year to Wisconsin.
That may not satisfy the tired Big Ten whine about wanting to play southern schools on their turf in winter weather, but that’s their own fault. The league was among those resistant to on-campus College Football Playoff semifinals, preferring to keep the cozy bowl relationships – and attending warm-weather junkets – in place. That was the choice over, say, Ohio State hosting a New Year’s game in the Horseshoe.
But that doesn’t mean there can’t be season-opening showdowns between SEC schools and Midwestern powers that are played in places other than Dallas and Atlanta. Using the LSU-Wisconsin at Lambeau model, here are a few interesting but unlikely intersectional games The Dash would like to see in Midwestern cities:
Alabama vs. Notre Dame at Soldier Field (9). Alabama’s last trip north of the SEC footprint: 2011, at Penn State. Not that long ago. Also worth remembering that the Tide has been this way before, visiting South Bend in 1975 and ’87. But why not bring together the No. 1 (Notre Dame) and No. 5 (Alabama) teams in terms of winning percentage in college football history?
Florida vs. Ohio State at Paul Brown Stadium (10). Florida’s last trip north of the SEC footprint: 1991, at Syracuse. Yes, it would be fun to arrange a reunion of Urban Meyer and the school where he won two national titles and “retired” twice. The two programs have only met twice, both in bowl games.
Georgia vs. Penn State at Heinz Field (11). Georgia’s last trip north of the SEC footprint: 2010, at Colorado. The Bulldogs have played 14 games in history against Big Ten opponents, and 12 of them were bowl games. The two exceptions: at Michigan in 1957 and ’65. Give it a try, ‘Dawgs. You might just enjoy it.
Auburn vs. Michigan at Ford Field (12). Auburn’s last trip north of the SEC footprint: 2014, at Kansas State. You might have thought the Tigers have never been to the Motor City, but you’d be wrong. Who could forget Auburn 6, Detroit 0, in 1936? OK, everyone. But every 80 years or so it seems OK to play a game in the state of Michigan.
Mississippi vs. Michigan State at Ford Field (13). Ole Miss’ last trip north of the SEC footprint: 2006, at Missouri, then of the Big 12. Prior to that: 2004, at Wyoming. (Ole Miss played at Fresno State in 2011, but that’s south of Lexington, Ky.) The Rebels certainly haven’t spent much time in the upper Midwest, so this would be a nice change of scenery.
Tennessee vs. Nebraska at Arrowhead Stadium (14). Tennessee’s last trip north of the SEC footprint: 2013, at Oregon. The Volunteers have been one of the more ambitious traveling schools in the SEC, but they’ve never played the Cornhuskers in a regular-season game. This would be a chance change that, and to visit Joe’s Kansas City Barbecue while they’re at it.
THE NCAA’S IMMUNITY WORMHOLE
Yahoo Sports reported last week that the NCAA’s investigation of Mississippi (15) has broadened in scope within the last month, with Enforcement representatives visiting SEC West rivals Auburn (16) and Mississippi State (17) – and possibly at least one other school – to interview players there who were recruited by the Rebels.
Sources told Yahoo that those players were offered immunity from potential sanctions in exchange for telling the truth about their recruitment at Ole Miss. While that’s become a more standard investigative tool for the NCAA – and one used frequently in the American judicial system – it also poses some potential issues.
For one thing, immunity does not equal anonymity. Those players could face backlash from Ole Miss fans. For another, if they took inducements from Mississippi but signed or transferred elsewhere, what did they receive from their current schools? And would that immunity transfer to dropping a dime on their own program? Thirdly, would there be any institutional pressure on those players to embellish what happened, in order to hammer a vulnerable rival?
The NCAA and SEC both have a lot at stake in the Ole Miss investigation. If it weren’t for two aggrieved parties fragging star Rebels offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil (18), the NCAA would have whiffed on a slew of violations involving one of the high-profile recruits it allegedly monitors with special vigor. Now the organization needs to show it can identify a shady deal on its own. And if Mississippi escapes serious sanctions – which seems less and less likely – the response around the SEC could lead to an escalation of recruiting that throws the league back into the old, anything-goes days.
The NCAA needs to get this one right. If granting immunity helps that happen, fine. But there are some land mines to navigate along the way.
WHAT IF WE HAD A COLLEGE KAEPERNICK?
You might have heard that San Francisco 49ers quarterback and former Nevada star Colin Kaepernick created a star-spangled furor this preseason by refusing to stand for the national anthem prior to exhibition games. If you didn’t hear about it, you need to pay better attention.
But it got The Dash to thinking, what would happen if a college Kaepernick should step forward? The school in question would have quite the political hot potato on its hands.
Ask Missouri (19), which last year had a brief football team boycott and threatened not to play in response to campus racial unrest. The aftermath of that was a near-total change in leadership at the school, from the president and chancellor level to the athletic department and the football coach. It was a tsunami that played a part in a major decline in enrollment and has left the university scrambling to re-establish a welcoming reputation to students of all kinds.
But beyond the university repercussions would be the threat to the player himself who took such a stand. Especially if he took it alone or in small numbers, as opposed to the Missouri movement.
The Dash believes a college player who did what Kaepernick has done would face even more backlash. These are collegians who lack the clout of a seven-figure pay check and national recognition; they are beholden to the university for their scholarships; and controversial African-American athlete statements in major metropolitan markets likely would be greeted with greater tolerance than, say, Fayetteville or Blacksburg or Champaign.
Campus protests are part of the college culture, and they’ve included plenty of flag burning over the years. But in the last 15 years we as a nation have become more aggressively patriotic – almost to a McCarthy-esque degree at times – which has had a chilling effect on “acceptable” forms of protest. Combine that post-9/11 mentality with our constantly conflating the flag with military conflict – as opposed to linking it to the statesmen who crafted a brilliant Constitution – and there are a lot of danger zones facing a potential college protest of the anthem. In a culture addicted to symbolism, we sometimes tend to be more concerned with how American talismans like a flag or a song are treated than how actual human beings are treated.
RETURN OF THE RUNNING BACK
Everyone says running backs are becoming spare parts, but that’s not the case right now in college football. Not last year, and not this year.
In 2015, Derrick Henry was the first non-QB Heisman winner since 2009 (Mark Ingram, also of Alabama). Now, unless DeShaun Watson runs away from the field, we could be looking at consecutive RB winners for the first time since 1998-99 (Ricky Williams-Ron Dayne). The top candidates in a massive year for RBs:
Christian McCaffrey (20), Stanford. Mr. All-Purpose. Ask the Iowa players about him – presuming they’re out of therapy from the trauma McCaffrey inflicted on them in the Rose Bowl. He hit the Hawkeyes for a Rose Bowl-record 368 all-purpose yards, two-thirds of it in the first half, including a 75-yard receiving touchdown and a 66-yard punt return TD. McCaffrey can do anything with the football, including throw it – he had two touchdown passes last year.
Leonard Fournette (21), LSU. The most physically gifted back in the nation, the 6-foot-1, 235-pound junior can splatter tacklers with his size and run away from them with his speed. Fournette ran for 1,953 yards and 22 touchdowns in only 12 games last year, with defenses all but ignoring LSU’s facile passing attack and focusing on him. Only Alabama was capable of holding him to fewer than 4.3 yards per carry and 127 yards from scrimmage.
Dalvin Cook (22), Florida State. Got a little bit lost in the running back shuffle last year, but as long as he’s healthy he will be on the radar in 2016. Despite being slowed by leg injuries at a couple of points last year, Cook produced nearly 1,700 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns, and had four TD runs of 72 yards or longer. His 7.4 yards per carry was second in the nation and first among backs from Power 5 conferences.
Royce Freeman (23), Oregon. The junior has piled up 3,200 rushing yards, 3,700 yards from scrimmage and 38 touchdowns in two seasons – and he’s never had a 30-carry game. In fact, he’s had seven games of 14 or fewer carries. So imagine what he might do if he gets a Derrick Henry 2015 workload, which he might in this year’s Ducks offense. Look out.
Samaje Perine (24), Oklahoma. The 235-pound tank’s feats of strength are legendary in Norman, ranging from 100 reps benching 225 pounds to allegedly picking up a car. Tackling him is painful enough that Kansas simply quit trying in 2014, unleashing Perine for an NCAA-record 427 yards. When the Sooners needed him at his best in the 2015 closing stretch against TCU, Baylor and Oklahoma State, Perine produced 485 rushing yards and five touchdowns, with a run of 55 yards or longer in each game.
Nick Chubb (25), Georgia. It’s all about the comeback for Chubb. Before blowing an ACL against Tennessee last year, Chubb was averaging a ridiculous 8.1 yards per carry. From midway through his freshman year through the Alabama game in 2015, he produced 13 straight 100-yard games – tying a school record set by Herschel Walker. Georgia should be able to ease Chubb back into things, given the presence of solid-gold backup Sony Michel (1,100 rushing yards last season).
Wayne Gallman (26), Clemson. A pounder who will keep on pounding until the defense cracks. Gallman helped get the Tigers to the CFP championship game by wearing out Oklahoma in the semifinals (150 rushing yards and two touchdowns) and North Carolina in the ACC title game (187 rushing yards and one score). He’s also an adept receiver, with 45 catches over two seasons.
Plus a few more you need to know more about:
Matt Breida (27), Georgia Southern. Crazy stats: 1,608 yards rushing, 17 touchdowns – but even more impressive, 7.9 yards per carry. He was a constant threat to break something big.
Bo Scarbrough (28), Alabama. Inherits one of the marquee positions in all of college football. The Crimson Tide might spread the carries around more than it did last year with Henry, but anytime a running back named Bo is on the field in the state of Alabama, it bears watching.
Jeremy McNichols (29), Boise State. If the Broncos are going to make another run at an undefeated season and another push for inclusion in the major-bowl picture, McNichols probably will be the guy leading them there. He compiled nearly 1,900 yards from scrimmage and 26 touchdowns last year after becoming the focal point of the offense in October.
Myles Gaskin (30), Washington. Only started six games as a true freshman, but made his presence felt immediately with 1,300 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns. Gaskin had 100-yard rushing games against six Pac-12 opponents, and capped off his season with 181 against Southern Mississippi in the bowl game. If the Huskies are a title contender this year as many expect, Gaskin could be the most important piece of the offense.
Shock Linwood (31), Baylor. Before the Friday night opener against Northwestern State is over, Linwood might break a 35-year-old school record and become the Bears’ career leading rusher. He’s got 3,462 yards already, and his return for his senior season will balance out an offense that can throw it quite well.
Jalen Hurd (32), Tennessee. Including Alvin Kamara and quarterback Josh Dobbs, the Volunteers have three dangerous runners. But the most dangerous is the 6-foot-4, 240-pound Hurd, a physically imposing player who finished the season with 400 rushing yards in Tennessee’s final three games. He will be key to the Vols’ expected upward mobility in the SEC.
Elijah Hood (33), North Carolina. If they give Hood the ball enough, he’ll have a breakout season on the national scene. Despite never getting more than 21 carries in a game last year, Hood compiled 1,463 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns. He should be the feature weapon for the defending Coastal Division champions.
But no matter what happens, no running back deserves more respect than James Conner (34) of Pittsburgh. All Conner is doing is coming back from cancer to play this season with the Panthers, having endured chemotherapy and bouncing back with an inspirational fearlessness. Every yard he gains will be a triumph – and if he doesn’t gain any, then his mere presence on the sideline in uniform will be victory enough.
And three more from outside the Power 5 worth monitoring: Marlon Mack of South Florida; Jahad Thomas of Temple; and Donnel Pumphrey of San Diego State, who is poised to surpass Marshall Faulk as the all-time rushing leader at SDSU.
THE HBC COMES HOME
“I’m back, and so is The Swamp,” says none other than the man who gave The Swamp its name, Steve Spurrier (35). The Head Ball Coach is not a head ball coach for the first time since 1986, which means the game is a little less lively than it’s been, but he’s not leaving the stage altogether.
Spurrier has returned to Florida (36), the scene of his greatest triumphs as both a player and coach, as an ambassador and consultant to the athletic department. The return coincides with the 50th anniversary of his Heisman Trophy, 25th anniversary of his first SEC title and 20th anniversary of Florida’s first national title.
Saturday, they’ll add Spurrier’s name to the stadium, making it the longest moniker in America: Steve Spurrier-Florida Field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. And the HBC will sell some copies of his autobiography, “Head Ball Coach.” Massachusetts will serve as the on-field cannon fodder, and perhaps in Spurrier’s honor, Jim McElwain will run up the score with a flea-flicker in the closing minutes.
RECORDS ARE MADE TO BE BROKEN – EXCEPT THESE
In a sport where offensive numbers continue to explode – particularly in the passing game – some school records just stubbornly refuse to be knocked from the books. The oldest marks in three categories for current FBS schools:
Career passing yards: Chuck Hixson of SMU (37) with 7,179, set from 1968-70. Hard to believe that a program led by chuck-it-around June Jones for seven seasons didn’t produce anyone capable of breaking that record, but nobody has. Of course, SMU football was either nonexistent or irredeemably awful from 1987-2008, so that has something to do with Hixson’s staying power atop the passing charts.
Career rushing yards: Richie Woit of Arkansas State (38) with 3,947, set from 1950-53. This ancient artifact dates to the time when ASU was first a junior college and then a member of the NCAA small-college division. Woit wore No. 83 and somehow matriculated from Chicago to Jonesboro, where he became a four-year star. Fifty-six years later, Reggie Arnold came within 14 yards of breaking Woit’s record, but it still stands.
Career receiving yards: Howard Twilley of Tulsa (39) with 3,343 from 1963-65. This is less an indictment of everyone who followed than an affirmation of Twilley and the system he played in. Teaming with quarterback Jerry Rhome, Tulsa in those days was the original aerial circus – literally decades ahead of its time. All the more impressive: Twilley piled up those numbers in just three seasons, because freshmen were ineligible back then.
When hungry and thirsty in Rio de Janeiro – maybe not a hotbed of football, but certainly of futbol – The Dash has the ultimate carnivore destination. Visit Praticita (40) and be amazed. It’s part-butcher shop, part-beer store, part-restaurant – all wonderful. The concept is brilliant: select your packaged cuts of meat and your bottles of excellent imported beer and throw them in a bucket; pay for them; then go out and sit in the open-air restaurant and wait for the magic. A waiter will take your meat to the grill masters, who will season it and cook it to perfection. It will be delivered in slices for your entire group to eat with little wooden forks.
As much meat as you want to buy, they’ll keep cooking it until the early hours of the morning. In a city with some sparse food options during the Olympics, Praticita produced two of the most pleasing meat comas ever. It’s a concept that seems can’t-miss in the United States. If The Dash suddenly ceases writing this column, it’s probably to open Praticita America in a city near you.