Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (petition to never play Wisconsin again circulating separately in Lincoln, Neb.):
THE FIVE BIGGEST DUMPSTER FIRES IN COLLEGE FOOTBALL
It’s not all sweetness and light in college football. For every feel-good story, some program feels lousy. For every pleasant surprise, someone is an unpleasant disappointment. For every well-disciplined, cohesive, high-achieving team, there is a dysfunctional, backbiting, underachiever balancing it out. During this quiet week that serves mostly as a prelude to the rivalry games and championship showdowns to come, The Dash sprays an extinguisher on the most prominent dumpster fires that have raged in 2014:
Michigan (1). Things started wretchedly enough on the field – a 2-4 stagger through the first half of the season that included a torrent of turnovers and the same general offensive malaise that plagued last year’s team (and led to the hiring of a high-priced new coordinator). Then the other issues kicked in – coach Brady Hoke was strongly questioned on-air during the loss to Minnesota about keeping quarterback Shane Morris in when he appeared to be knocked silly and limping badly. That situation got worse in the following days, commensurate with Hoke’s sorry answers on the issue, and ultimately led to a 1 a.m. statement release by athletic director Dave Brandon and an apology from the school president for mishandling Morris’ health. After that came the planted stake at Spartan Stadium, which gave Michigan State one more reason to run up the score on the Wolverines in a 35-11 loss. And the publishing of snotty emails from Brandon to unhappy fans. And then Brandon was forced to resign. Now, this week, with the Wolverines riding a meager two-game winning streak, came the arrest and rapid dismissal of defensive end Frank Clark – the team leader in tackles for loss – after a domestic dispute with his girlfriend in an Ohio hotel. Two years ago, Hoke suspended Clark all of one game for felony theft of a laptop from a dorm room. The inevitable final act in this epically disastrous season should come in two weeks, when Hoke is fired. The only thing that could be worse would be keeping him.
Florida (2). From the opening Saturday, we should have known. The Gators’ season opener against Idaho was called after the opening kickoff due to electrical storms. A few days later it was announced that the game would not be rescheduled – but coach Will Muschamp unsuspended a couple of players who were being held out of the opener. That was followed by a continuation of the staggering offensive ineptitude that has gripped the program for several years. There was the extremely awkward week when quarterback Treon Harris – after providing the first hint of a spark in a sketchy win over Tennessee – was accused of rape and suspended for a game, then reinstated after being cleared. There was a 29-point loss to a Missouri team that produced 119 yards of offense – a near-impossibility. There was a Saturday in Nashville when Muschamp put a malcontent defensive lineman on a Greyhound bus back to Gainesville (actually a pretty awesome, old-school gangster coach move). And then the Muschamp Era came to a fittingly inglorious, snatch-defeat-from-the-jaws-of-victory moment against South Carolina on Saturday: a blocked punt in the final minute that set up the Gamecocks for the tying touchdown and an eventual overtime win. Looking ahead, the fitting conclusion would be Florida giving away a massive upset of Florida State late in the game Nov. 29, thanks to one last spasm of offensive incompetence.
Texas Tech (3). A season that began with largely baseless hype started to unravel quickly. After two shaky wins against overmatched opponents, the Red Raiders were gutted by Arkansas for 49 points and 438 rushing yards. Five days after that debacle, defensive coordinator Matt Wallerstedt abruptly resigned – after ESPN.com reported via a source that Wallerstedt had been suspected of being on campus under the influence of an unknown substance. The Red Raiders' defense has gotten no better without Wallerstedt – in fact, it gave up 82 points to TCU – but on Monday, Texas Tech offered a possible reason why: it accused Wallerstedt of giving Tech’s defensive signals to opponents. “They have been passed around,” interim defensive coordinator Matt Smith told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. “I know other coaches have called and our signals have been passed around the whole time. All I know is karma’s a bad deal.” Later Monday, Wallerstedt denied the assertion through his attorney, saying, ““I have not shared with anyone the Red Raiders' defensive signals. I respect the players at Texas Tech and would never do such a thing. … It sounds like something that’s done in the political arena – blaming someone else for what you now control. Coach Kingsbury and Smith would do well to simply execute their own game plan instead of trying to blame others for what may be their own shortcomings.” The nation’s No. 126 scoring defense ends its season Nov. 29 in Arlington against the nation’s No. 1 scoring offense of Baylor, which could be motivated to put an outrageous number on the scoreboard to impress the College Football Playoff selection committee. That could turn the dumpster fire into an inferno.
North Carolina (4). The season started with four defensive players suspended for a game after a training-camp altercation with a reserve wide receiver. But even after those players returned, the Tar Heels haven’t stopped a soul. They’ve surrendered at least 27 points in every game, and 50 in three different games – including the humiliating 70-point bomb dropped on them by East Carolina. Thus for the 10th consecutive season, North Carolina will not play in the ACC championship game, in a season when many thought it was possible. And it seems like there was one other embarrassing development that slips The Dash’s mind – oh yeah, the small matter of the 18-year academic scandal that enveloped more than 1,000 North Carolina athletes, including a ton of football players. Nice autumn in Chapel Hill.
South Carolina (5). This dumpster fire has been largely contained to the football field – but it may be the biggest of those anywhere. The Gamecocks played their way out of the preseason top 10 immediately, being mauled at home for 31 first-half points, 52 for the game and a school-record 680 yards by Texas A&M in the season opener. That set a tone for a defense that hasn’t stopped much of anyone all season. South Carolina has blown fourth-quarter leads against Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee – the last of those so galling that Steve Spurrier left his postgame press conference before even taking any questions. Gamecocks fans have been wanting formerly well-respected defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward fired since the opener; we’ll see if they get their wish after the season.
THE DUMPSTER FIRE THAT WINS
And then there is Florida State (6), a program that has embarrassed itself in just about every conceivable way except for on the field. The Seminoles are undefeated but widely unloved due to an endless succession of controversies that have been endured, evaded, minimized or simply ignored by the university, its athletic department, a kool-aid-chugging fan base and even the Tallahassee and campus police departments. We’re now almost a year removed from the first revelation of a 2012 rape accusation against star quarterback Jameis Winston, and a student code of conduct hearing into the incident remains two weeks away. In between there have been half a dozen other eye-rolling episodes and media reports regarding the Seminoles, most recently this one last Friday from The New York Times. Florida State’s ability to win throughout the constant maelstrom is impressive, even if the rest of the school’s handling of said maelstrom is not.
RECONSIDERING THE HEISMAN RACE
As is often the case, something big happens in November that rejiggers our collective thinking about the Heisman Trophy race. It happened to two people Saturday – ushering one player to near the front of the pack, and pushing another back into said pack.
Start with the fast riser: Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon (7), who broke the FBS record for single-game rushing yards with a preposterous 408 against Nebraska in just three quarters of work.
Let’s accent a couple of parts of that: against Nebraska, not some overmatched schmo from a small conference or lower subdivision of football; and three quarters of work.
It’s an insane performance.
“That was something special,” Wisconsin offensive tackle Rob Havenstein told The Dash. “Melvin’s the best back in football right now. He can turn a 7-yard gain into a 60-yard, 80-yard gain. All we do is set him up to get to the unblocked defender, and then he makes them miss. I don’t think that record is going to be broken for a long time.
“He came up to us and said, ‘Thank you, guys.’ We said thank you right back. He’s such a selfless guy. … He did that against a real, real good defense, too. Those numbers don’t lie.”
Gordon is one of the great breakaway threats in college football history. His explosive play totals this season dwarf anyone else’s: 27 rushes over 20 yards; 19 over 30; 15 over 40; 8 over 50. The next-highest totals in FBS are 16 rushes over 20 yards (Matt Breida of Georgia Southern); 14 rushes over 30 (Breida and Tevin Coleman of Indiana); 11 over 40 (Coleman) and seven over 50 (Coleman).
With at least three games remaining and perhaps four, Gordon is pace to break some all-time FBS yards-per-carry records. He is averaging 8.56 yards per carry on 223 attempts, better than 1983 Heisman winner Mike Rozier’s record for a minimum of 215 rushes (7.81). He also could take down Barry Sanders’ mark for a minimum of 280 rushes (7.64).
Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said Gordon’s understanding of angles and increased strength have helped him improve from a very good back (1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns last year) to a monster (1,909 yards and 23 touchdowns in 10 games).
“The arm tackles, he's breaking many more of those at the line of scrimmage and, quite frankly, the head-up tackles he's dealing with in those situations, you see a lot of guys bouncing off him in the holes,” Andersen said Monday. “… Whether I've watched it on TV or I see it firsthand on the sidelines as a coach, there is nobody that has the ability to play with that explosiveness and to just all of the sudden … away he goes. It's amazing to see what he does.”
While Gordon’s stock soared Saturday, Dak Prescott (8) saw his take a hit in Tuscaloosa with a three-interception performance against Alabama. The Mississippi State quarterback carried the Cinderella Bulldogs to the first 9-0 record and undefeated ranking in school history, but he couldn’t carry the day against the Crimson Tide’s excellent defense. All three interceptions ended drives inside the Alabama 30-yard line, and they increased Prescott’s interception total to eight in his last five games compared to seven touchdowns. The charismatic junior will have to finish well against Vanderbilt and Mississippi – especially the latter, in which a CFP bid could be at stake.
Despite Gordon’s eruption, the Heisman favorite likely remains Marcus Mariota (9) of Oregon. The splendid quarterback remains the national leader in pass efficiency by a wide margin; in touchdown-interception ratio (29-2); and in yards per pass attempt (10.0). Doesn’t hurt that his team is in great position to make the playoffs, too.
Three others on The Dash’s radar:
Amari Cooper (10). Other than a two-catch, 22-yard blip at Arkansas, the Alabama wide receiver has been dynamite – he’s had a minimum of eight receptions and 83 yards in each of the Crimson Tide’s nine other games. He’s third nationally in receptions with 87, first in receiving yards with 1,303 and tied for third in touchdowns with 11. His leaping catch of a long bomb helped break open the game against Mississippi State on Saturday.
J.T. Barrett (11). Few players have gone from doubted to celebrated as dramatically as Barrett, who began the season as an emergency freshman fill-in for injured star quarterback Braxton Miller and could end it in New York City. He’s gotten better in Beamon-esque leaps and bounds, and has been at his best the past two weeks in road victories over Michigan State and Minnesota: 775 yards of total offense and nine touchdowns running and throwing. If nothing else, he’s the breakout star of 2014.
Shaq Thompson (12). The Dash favorite should be a favorite of everyone else who appreciates a true all-around player. The Washington linebacker/running back has the most unique stat line in the nation, and it’s not close: 456 rushing yards, averaging 7.5 yards per carry; six touchdowns – four defensively on returns of fumbles or interceptions, two on offense; 60 total tackles; three passes broken up; and one sack. After playing the previous three games solely at running back, Thompson was back on defense Saturday against Arizona, where he had three solo tackles and a fumble recovery.
WHY IT’S HARDER FOR RUNNING BACKS
Only one running back has won the Heisman in the last 14 years – Mark Ingram of Alabama, in 2009. That continues the steady diminishment of the running back as a glamour position – four RBs won the Heisman the 1990s, six won in the 1980s, eight in the 1970s.
In a game that annually skews more to passing and has returned quarterbacks to a significant rushing load in the spread option, there are fewer carries for running backs. And even the teams that like to run the ball rarely ask one back to carry the load the way they did 30 or 40 years ago.
Boise State’s Jay Ajayi (13) is the national leader in carries per game at 26. If that holds, it would be the lowest average for the FBS leader since Ray Rice averaged 25.8 carries per game in 2006 at Rutgers. Running the ball less often may reduce the wear and tear on backs, but it also reduces their production and their chances to win the sport’s most coveted individual award.
If it’s any consolation to the marginalized running backs of America, Dashette Maria Menounos (14) still thinks you guys are cool.
SEC (15). Which way it tilts: West, heavily. Head-to-head is West 9, East 3. Jeff Sagarin ranks six of the top seven SEC schools from the West. Caveat: the top two teams in the East, Georgia and Missouri, are a combined 3-0 against the West with the Tigers hosting Arkansas on Nov. 29. Which division will win the championship game: West.
Pac-12 (16). Which way it tilts: South, heavily. Head-to-head is South 14, North 7, and three of the North’s victories have come over a Colorado team that is winless in the league. Sagarin ranks North champion Oregon the best in the league, but the next four teams in his rankings (USC, UCLA, Arizona State and Utah) all are from the South. Which division will win the championship game: North.
ACC (17). Which way it tilts: Atlantic at the top, Coastal at the bottom. Head-to-head is tied at five, with Georgia Tech striking a mighty blow for the Coastal on Saturday by routing Clemson. Sagarin ranks the top two teams in the league from the Atlantic (Florida State and Clemson) but also the bottom three (North Carolina State, Syracuse and Wake Forest). Which division will win the championship game: Atlantic.
Big Ten (18). Which way it tilts: East, but not as much as most of us thought it would going into the season. Head-to-head is tied at six, with Illinois hosting Penn State on Saturday and Purdue at Indiana on Nov. 29. Per Sagarin Ratings, East-West teams almost are matched pairs throughout the standings: Ohio State 10, Wisconsin 12; Michigan State 11, Nebraska 19; Maryland 44, Minnesota 40; Penn State 46, Iowa 42; Michigan 55, Northwestern 59; Rutgers 71, Purdue 81; Indiana 93, Illinois 96. Which division will win the championship game: East.
Mountain West (19). Which way it tilts: Mountain, heavily. Head-to-head is Mountain 12, West 4. Sagarin rates the top three teams all from the Mountain (Boise State, Colorado State and Utah State), and you could make an argument for fourth-place Air Force ahead of anyone in the West as well. Which division will win the championship game: Mountain.
Conference USA (20). Which way it tilts: Nobody really knows, since this disjointed, stitched-together league has seven teams in one division and six in the other. Some teams play six divisional opponents, some play five. Perfect. Head-to-head is East 7, West 6. Sagarin rates undefeated, East-leading Marshall well ahead of everyone else, but the only two other teams in double digits hail from the West (Louisiana Tech and Rice). Which division will win the championship game: East.
MAC (21). Which way it tilts: This is another league with seven on one side and six on the other, but the West clearly is the stronger division. Head-to-head is West 12, East 3. The top three teams (Toledo, Western Michigan, Northern Illinois) all are from the West, per Sagarin, and five of the top six. Which division will win the championship: West.
GO BOWLING OR GO HOME
A number of 5-5 teams have big games this weekend that could earn them a bowl bid, or keep them scrambling into the last weekend of the season. The partial list:
California-Stanford (22). Big rivalry, and both teams are 5-5. That’s great news for the Golden Bears, coming off a 1-11 season in 2013. It’s terrible news for the Cardinal, coming off four straight seasons that ended with BCS bowl bids. Nothing is guaranteed the next week, either, with the Bears playing BYU and the Cardinal playing UCLA. Stanford is averaging its fewest points per game since 2007, Jim Harbaugh’s first year in Palo Alto. Meeting up with a defense giving up 40 points per game should be a welcome relief. Dash pick: Stanford 31, Cal 24.
Michigan-Maryland (23). The 5-5 Wolverines need the win – like, really need it, since they end the season at Ohio State. Maryland is on the road but comfortable in that setting, having won four of five road games this year and six of its last seven. Being at home may not be worth much anyway for Michigan, since the atmosphere around the program has become so negative this season. Dash pick: Maryland 24, Michigan 21.
North Carolina-Duke (24), Thursday night. The Blue Devils have secured their bowl bid. The Tar Heels are still searching, and Larry Fedora is still searching for his first victory over Duke as coach at Carolina. The previous two losses were gut busters, by a total of five points. Dash pick: Duke 44, North Carolina 41.
Oklahoma State-Baylor (25). The Cowboys are 5-5 and playing awful football, losers of four straight by a total of 112 points. To reach a bowl, they must beat either 8-1 Baylor on Saturday or rival and nemesis Oklahoma on Dec. 6. Good luck with that. And let’s just say that coach Mike Gundy’s approval rating with the Most Important Poke doesn’t seem too high – billionaire booster T. Boone Pickens was asked last week about his support for Gundy: “My response to that is I’m certainly supportive of Oklahoma State University. I’m always going to be for OSU, I don’t care who coaches 'em.” Gundy’s look-on-the-bright-side response Monday: “That's awesome. I happen to be the coach so that means he's supporting me." That’s one way of looking at it. Dash pick: Baylor 52, Oklahoma State 14.
Arkansas-Mississippi (26). The Razorbacks finally broke through in SEC play Saturday, beating LSU for their first league win since 2011. Now they need one more victory to go bowling for the first time since that same year. Expect a defensive battle – the Hogs have steadily gotten better on that side of the ball as the season has progressed, and the Rebels have been tough defensively throughout. Expect an upset, too. Dash pick: Arkansas 19, Mississippi 17.
Oregon State-Washington (27). The visiting Beavers are 5-5. The Huskies are 6-5 but playing 13 regular-season games, which means they need a victory as well. The Beavers are coming off their biggest victory of the year, upsetting Arizona State, while Washington’s only win in the last five games was against moribund Colorado. Dash pick: Washington 23, Oregon State 19.
#COLLEGEKICKERS – A REDEMPTION STORY
Due to a painful level of inconsistency, especially in pressure situations, #collegekickers has become a thing on Twitter. When a young man misses a crunch-time kick, you’ll see that proliferate.
That was the case Oct. 11, when Arizona’s Casey Skowron (28) missed a pair of field goals after being iced by USC coach Steve Sarkisian – one at the end of the first half, one at the end of the game – in a two-point loss. Skowron took a lot of heat after the game from over-the-top fans, which prompted Daily Wildcat columnist Roberto Payne to write a column in his defense. The column ended thusly: “Give Skowron a break, because Arizona is going to need him the rest of the way.”
Payne proved prophetic. Skowron bounced back Saturday to kick the game-winner against Washington – and he also scored a touchdown on a fake field goal earlier.
Maybe Skorwron’s tale can provide inspiration for Miami’s Michael Badgley (29) and Duke’s Ross Martin (30), both of whom had crucial missed kicks over the weekend. Badgley missed a 29-yard field goal and had a PAT blocked in a four-point loss, after only missing one field goal all season prior to that game. Martin missed a 40-yard field goal with 2:26 left against Virginia Tech, with Duke trailing by a point. Martin came into the game 13-of-13 but missed two against the Hokies. The previous year Martin made two from 50-plus in a three-point victory over Virginia Tech.
There is time for both kickers to make good, like Skowron. Their teams are going to need them the rest of the way.
RUNNING THE LEAGUE TABLE
Six teams remain unbeaten in conference play. Assessing each one’s chance of finishing that way:
Florida State (31). Conference: ACC. Record: 7-0, clinched ACC Atlantic title. Last time a team went unbeaten in the ACC: Florida State last year. What’s left: at Boston College in a matchup with trap-game circumstances, if only the Eagles had trap-game talent; the ACC championship game is in Charlotte on Dec. 6. Chance of staying unbeaten in the league: Excellent.
Ohio State (32). Conference: Big Ten. Record: 6-0. Last time a team went unbeaten in the Big Ten: Michigan State last season, although the Buckeyes did it in 2012 but could not play in the conference title game because of NCAA sanctions. What’s left: Indiana on Saturday in what should be a fearful beatdown; Michigan in the annual rivalry game that also could be a fearful beatdown; probably a return to the Big Ten championship game to play the West winner (likely Wisconsin). Chance of staying unbeaten in the league: Prohibitive until getting to Indianapolis. The Buckeyes still should win there, but a matchup with the Badgers would be intriguing.
Marshall (33). Conference: C-USA. Record: 6-0, clinched C-USA East title. Last time a team went unbeaten in C-USA: 2004 (Louisville). What’s left: at UAB on Saturday; home against Western Kentucky on Nov. 28; C-USA title game. Chance of staying unbeaten in the league: Very strong.
Louisiana Tech (34). Conference: C-USA. Record: 6-0. Last time a team went unbeaten in C-USA: 2004 (Louisville). What’s left: at Old Dominion on Saturday in a game that could clinch the C-USA West; Rice on Nov. 29; possibly the C-USA title game. Chance of staying unbeaten in the league: Tech could be undefeated going to the league championship game, but if it’s at Marshall, that will be a tough one.
Georgia Southern (35). Conference: Sun Belt. Record: 7-0. Last time a team went unbeaten in the Sun Belt: 2011 (Arkansas State). What’s left: Louisiana-Monroe on Nov. 29. Chance of staying unbeaten in the league: Prohibitive. The Eagles have won every home game by at least 20 points and have two weeks to prep for UL-M. They’ll be ready.
Louisiana-Lafayette (36). Conference: Sun Belt. Record: 6-0. Last time a team went unbeaten in the Sun Belt: 2011 (Arkansas State). What’s left: home against Appalachian State on Saturday; at Troy on Nov. 29 in the final game in Larry Blakeney’s 24 years as coach of the Trojans. Chance of staying unbeaten in the league: Good. Ragin’ Cajuns have won six straight, and their three losses all are to quality teams. Expect the Sun Belt to be stuck with two 8-0 teams that didn’t play each other, and no conference championship game to settle it on the field.
COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK
Gary Pinkel (37), Missouri. The Tigers’ hang-tough win at Texas A&M was their ninth straight victory in true road games, which ties a school record set from 1978-80. They have an opportunity to break the record at Tennessee in Knoxville on Saturday, against a team that just suspended its best player amid a rape investigation. Mizzou’s road winning streak is the third-longest active streak in the nation, behind Ohio State’s 13 and Florida State’s 12. Given all the personnel Missouri lost from last year’s surprising SEC East champs, being back in position to repeat is remarkable work by Pinkel.
COACH WHO SHOULD TAKE THE BUS TO WORK
Bo Pelini (38), Nebraska. When Pelini goes to sleep, he must see rampaging red W's in his nightmares. They’re on the sides of the Wisconsin helmets, and the Badgers have made trampling the Cornhuskers a brutal art form. Since joining the Big Ten, Pelini is 1-3 against Wisconsin. The victory, by three points in 2012, was in Lincoln. In the three games played outside of Memorial Stadium, Nebraska’s average points allowed to the Badgers is 59. Average margin of defeat: 35. Average rushing yards allowed: 450. And that includes the 408 yards Melvin Gordon tattooed into Nebraska’s soul Saturday. Faux Pelini could do a better job drawing up a defense for Wisconsin than Bo.
Dishonorable mention to Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly (39), whose team has collapsed defensively and whose decision to try a two-point conversion in the fourth quarter against Northwestern backfired badly. Leading 40-29 and needing only an extra point to force the Wildcats to score two touchdowns in the final 10:30, Kelly instead went for a two-point conversion. It failed, and Northwestern scored 11 points (a touchdown, a two-pointer and a field goal) to send the game into overtime. Where the Wildcats won, in a shocker. Kelly threw the kicking team under the bus after the game, citing problems with holds and two missed field goals by Kyle Brindza as deciding factors in going for two. If you can’t trust your team to make a PAT, you’ve done a poor job with your special teams.
When hungry and in need of multiple televisions in Tuscaloosa, The Dash recommends a visit to Bob’s Victory Grille (40). It’s part of former Alabama and Miami Dolphins linebacker Bob Baumhower’s array of restaurants, and it’s a well-appointed sports bar for college football Saturdays. Try the wings and one of the offerings on a quirky beer list and thank The Dash later.