Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (clean urine for passing drug tests sold separately):
WHY WE CAN’T QUIT THE GAME
College football is back, and for that The Dash is both thankful and freshly amazed at the sport’s enduring allure.
It is scandal-proof. It is idiot-proof. It is bigger than the coaches who have been disgraced, bigger than the players who have been suspended, bigger than the rampant greed and hypocrisy that cling to the game’s bloated underbelly.
We know this now more than ever. Because in the aftermath of the most tragic scandal of them all, at Penn State, and despite football’s myriad and increasingly obvious flaws, we still breathlessly count the minutes to kickoff.
Why? Because the seasons are too compelling and the games are too good. It’s that simple.
The sensory overload is part of it as well: the visual, auditory, olfactory and taste bombardment of game day is overwhelming and satisfying. Huge stadiums, bright colors, deafening noise, gluttonous food and drink – they all make the spectacle surrounding the sport a compelling accompaniment.
So is the spacing and relative rarity of the games. Once a week, just 12 weeks a year. The emotional investment for each game – by players, coaches and fans – is far greater in football than any other major sport.
But to quote William Shakespeare (the playwright, not the 1930s Notre Dame All-American halfback) the play’s the thing. Every week is steeped in anticipation of witnessing something astonishing and thrilling.
Because you never know when a national championship race months in the shaping is going to veer off the rails in an unlikely place. See: Iowa State-Oklahoma State (1), 2011.
Because you never know when a mundane punt will morph into an 89-yard touchdown return through seven tacklers, a play that people talk about for more than half a century. See: the Halloween run of Billy Cannon (2), 1959.
Because you never know when a 24-point first-half deficit will turn into a 31-point victory. See: USC 55, Notre Dame 24 (3), 1974.
THE 10 PLAYS THAT MAKE FOOTBALL GREAT
There are 10 ways – 10 kinds of plays – that form the building blocks of football’s greatness. They’re why we watch, what we wait for, what we hope we’ll see on any given Saturday:
The Collision. It is the DNA of football, part of every single play. The most basic premise of the sport is the ability of one man to exert his physical superiority over another when they collide. Some collisions are more memorable than others. The example: Georgia’s Herschel Walker (4), in his first college game in 1980, dump-trucking Tennessee all-SEC safety and future Dallas Cowboys special-teams star Bill Bates on his way to the end zone. "My God," remarked legendary Georgia announcer Larry Munson after the play, "a freshman."
The Breakaway. Alongside strength, the other hallmark of the game is speed. Who can run away from 11 men? Who can turn a small play into a huge one, bringing tens of thousands of fans to their feet – in euphoria or horror, depending on allegiance – as he sprints into daylight and open grass? The example: Notre Dame’s Rocket Ismail (5) flashing through Michigan twice for kickoff return touchdowns in 1989 and causing everyone to wonder why Bo Schembechler would possibly give Ismail a chance (let alone two) to humiliate the Wolverines with his speed.
The Perfect Call. What happens when a coach’s calculated risk catches the opposition completely off guard? Sometimes, it’s something magical. The example: Huge underdog Texas (6) was clinging to a three-point lead against No. 3 Nebraska in the 1996 Big 12 championship game when coach John Mackovic decided to go for a fourth-and-1 on his own 28-yard line. With the Cornhuskers stacked at the line of scrimmage, quarterback James Brown shocked everyone by throwing a pass to backup tight end Derek Lewis, who was so wide open he ran for 61 yards. Texas then scored the insurance touchdown to pull the upset, 37-27.
The Perfect Execution. Even the most inspired play call is useless unless the players do their jobs right. The example: Rarely, if ever, has anyone executed better in a tougher spot than Boise State (7) on the hook-and-lateral in the final seconds of regulation in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. Trailing Oklahoma by a touchdown and facing a fourth-and-18 from midfield, Boise coach Chris Petersen called the gadget play and watched his players execute perfectly. Quarterback Jared Zabransky fired a 15-yard pass to Drisan James, who caught it and lateraled to streaking Jerard Rabb. He caught it in stride and raced untouched down the sidelines for the tying score with seven seconds left, and then the Broncos won in similarly preposterous fashion in overtime.
The Goal Line Stand. There is nothing else like it in sports – the desperate moment, more a test of will than skill, when a defense refuses to bend another inch and stops an offense repeatedly just short of the end zone. The example: Alabama (8) rising up to stonewall Penn State in the 1979 Sugar Bowl. Holding a 14-7 lead in the fourth quarter, the Crimson Tide made three straight tackles inside the 1-yard line to keep the No. 1-ranked Nittany Lions out and win the ’78 national title.
The Blocked Kick. The Dash isn’t the first one to say it: a blocked kick can be the biggest momentum changer in football. Two blocked kicks, in a single quarter, can end up becoming part of the sport’s lore. The example: Auburn (9) trailed undefeated, No. 2 Alabama 16-3 with less than 10 minutes remaining when Tiger Bill Newton broke through to block Greg Gantt’s punt, which teammate David Langner scooped up and returned 25 yards for a touchdown. A few minutes later, in what has to be the all-time case of gridiron déjà vu, Newton again blocked a Gantt punt and Langner again returned it for a touchdown. Auburn won 17-16 in a game that has been known since as "Punt Bama Punt."
The Hail Mary. The last-gasp long pass is aptly named for a prayer. They’re rarely answered – but when they are, we remember it forever. The example: Flutie to Phelan (10). Boston College trailed Miami 45-41 on Thanksgiving weekend 1984. On the last play, quarterback Doug Flutie took the snap at the Miami 48, was pressured all the way back inside his own 40, then uncorked a 65-yard screamer that eluded two Hurricanes defensive backs and landed in the stomach of Gerard Phelan for the winning touchdown. The play helped propel Flutie to the Heisman Trophy.
The Trick Play. When you cannot win enough collisions, compile enough breakaways or find the perfect execution, sometimes you must resort to trickery. With sufficient daring and timing, the result can be glorious. The example: Florida State’s Puntrooskie (11) in 1988. In a tie game at Clemson with just 93 seconds left and backed up inside his own 20, coach Bobby Bowden sent in a fake punt: the ball was snapped to the blocking back, who slipped it between the legs of Leroy Butler, the back in front of him. While everyone else sprinted to the right, Butler darted out to the left and ran all the way to the Clemson 1-yard line. The Seminoles kicked a field goal and won, 24-21.
The Gaffe. Not all games are won, of course. Some are lost, and they can be just as compelling in their own sad way. The example: the 1984 Cotton Bowl (12). Undefeated, second-ranked Texas was leading Georgia 9-3 thanks to a defense that throttled the Bulldogs all day. Facing a fourth-and-17 with 4:44 left, Georgia punted. Fearing a possible fake, Texas left most of its regular defense on the field and inserted only return man Jitter Fields. When the punt came up short, Fields called for Craig Curry – a defensive back not normally on the punt return team – to field it. It slipped through Curry’s arms at the 29-yard line, and then Fields failed to secure the loose ball at the 24. Georgia recovered at the 23 and scored the winning touchdown shortly thereafter. Making matters exponentially worse, No. 5 Miami shocked No. 1 Nebraska that night. If Texas had handled the punt and won the game, it likely would have won the national title.
The Fluke. Then there are the plays that defy all logic. The plays that decide games by dumb luck, a capricious bounce – or, in at least one case, the fickle force of nature. The example: In the 1983 Egg Bowl (13), the annual rivalry game between Mississippi and Mississippi State, the Bulldogs attempted a 27-yard field goal to win the game with 23 seconds left. Kicker Artie Cosby had his attempt on line, but media and eyewitness reports say a 40-mph gust of wind blew through Jackson’s Memorial Stadium at that precise time, stopping the ball’s progress inches from the crossbar. It fell short and Ole Miss won, 24-23.
The game will move on without these major figures:
Joe Paterno (14). Gone from the sidelines and gone from this earth, and nobody can feel good about either fact. What once was the most gloriously simple legacy in all of college football became horribly twisted and complicated in the end. The final epitaph is tersely tragic: He stayed too long and did too little.
Bobby Petrino (15). Another feel-bad exit. Wrecked a motorcycle and his career on an Arkansas country road, and now a talented Arkansas team will try to win big with a stopgap coach. Petrino probably will be back, but after classlessly leaving two jobs to get to Fayetteville, he blew the best job he’s had.
The Knuckleheads (16). The roll call of potential All-Americans who will not play big-time football this fall is long and disturbing: LSU defensive back/kick returner Tyrann Mathieu, Georgia running back Isaiah Crowell, Auburn/Arkansas State running back Michael Dyer, Florida State defensive back/kick returner Greg Reid, Tennessee wide receiver Da’Rick Rogers, Miami safety Ray-Ray Armstrong. Adios to a bunch of guys who couldn’t follow either team rules or the law.
Some entities we’ll be seeing more of in 2012 than in recent seasons:
. Four years and some major sanctions removed from its last contention for a national title, much is expected of USC. The Trojans might have the best offense in the country, led by Heisman Trophy favorite Matt Barkley and receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee. The hanging question: Can the depth-depleted Trojans avoid a Pac-12 loss? They’ve had at least one in September or October each of the last five seasons.
The Broadcast Exiles (18). After spending a year (or 10) analyzing football, these three guys are back coaching it: Urban Meyer at Ohio State, Rich Rodriguez at Arizona and Bob Davie at New Mexico. All come into jobs where the expectations were lowered by recent failures and/or probation, so there is a chance for immediate improvement that sets the tone for bigger things in the years to come.
The Pirate (19). Mike Leach spent the last two years writing a book, doing radio and suing people. Now he gets back to the business of flummoxing defenses with his wide-open passing attack. Having relocated from the remoteness of Lubbock to the even more remote Pullman, Wash. (just a few miles south of the moon), he is ideally situated to resume attacking the college football establishment.
Garrett Gilbert (20). At this time in 2010, he was the heir to Vince Young and Colt McCoy at quarterback for Texas. Seventeen interceptions and 10 touchdowns and a gruesome 5-7 record later, Gilbert was thrown into competition for the starting job in 2011. He won it again, but was pulled after two shaky starts, had shoulder surgery and abruptly transferred to SMU. Now he’s the starter in June Jones’ QB-friendly offense, with less pressure on his shoulders. We’ll see whether the fit is better there.
Dayne Crist (21). See above, with minor plot alterations. Crist was a hotshot recruit at Notre Dame under Charlie Weis, but Weis was canned after Crist’s redshirt freshman season in 2009. He started in 2010 for new coach Brian Kelly, but ruptured his patella tendon late in the season. Last year Crist held onto the job for one half, losing it in a flurry of turnovers in the opener against South Florida. Crist transferred to Kansas to reunite with Weis and is immediately eligible as a fifth-year graduate.
Natalia Vodianova (22). Dashette put herself on the marital waiver wire in 2011 and was a key off-season acquisition for The Dash’s tailgate parties.
GRUDGE MATCHES, ’12 STYLE
Five games that should have a little extra heat this season:
North Carolina State at North Carolina (23)
, Oct. 27. Thanks in large part to those helpful Wolfpack fans who populate the message boards at Packpride.com, the academic scandal in Chapel Hill has continued to worsen this summer. With them sticking their noses into every available cybernook and cranny, we got to see Julius Peppers’ sketchy transcript, among other revelations. This naturally has overjoyed the Tar Heels fans. They finally got their own reason to point fingers Monday when N.C. State announced that starting cornerback C.J. Wilson is not on the depth chart because of an "eligibility issue" the NCAA is working on. Given the simmering bad blood and the fact that both teams should be pretty good this year, the meeting in Chapel Hill could ratchet up the rivalry to basketball levels.
USC at UCLA (24), Nov. 17. After losing the last five and 12 of the last 13, it’s time to hope, once again, that a coaching change will make the Bruins more competitive in this once-great rivalry. At the very least, Jim Mora Jr. made some crosstown enemies with a comment on a radio show this summer. He noted that UCLA "doesn't have murders a block from campus" a few months after two USC students were killed near its campus. When asked about the comment by the Los Angeles Times, Mora said, "If anybody, whether USC or Cal State San Bernardino, is offended by the statement, then that's their insecurity, not mine." He finally apologized to anyone he might have offended – probably a bit too late for some Trojans backers.
Alabama vs. LSU (25), Nov. 3. They played the two biggest games of last season and split, with the Crimson Tide taking the bigger one for the national title. As if being shut out in the championship game by Nick Saban weren’t bad enough for LSU, there was some excessive (OK, disgusting) celebration by one Alabama fan at the Krystal in the French Quarter. (Yahoo! search the details; The Dash won’t reprint them here.) With the SEC West and worldwide domination again potential stakes, the world will be watching this game again.
Michigan State at Michigan (26), Oct. 20. For the first time since 1959-62, the Wolverines have lost four straight to the Spartans. They’ve never lost five straight. That, plus potential primacy in the Big Ten Legends Division, will be on the line in the Big House. And in case you didn’t know, the fans already hate each other anyway.
TCU at Texas (27), Nov. 24. The Dash guesses that in exchange for the Longhorns’ grudging acceptance of the Horned Frogs back into their conference, there was zero percent chance of this reunion happening in Fort Worth. Texas fans have resolutely dismissed or diminished TCU’s recent advances as a football program – they played in a weak conference, went the party line, and now that line no longer applies. TCU fans have been a bit chirpy about their standing vis a vis the Longhorns, and now it’s put up or shut up time. Texas has won 28 of the last 29 meetings dating to 1967.
Sure, you can call a Trap Game a week ahead of time. But who has the stones to call them a month or more ahead? The Dash, that’s who. The following five games could be season-altering upsets:
Florida State at South Florida (28), Sept. 29. The Seminoles will visit the Bulls between big ACC games – Clemson the week before and at North Carolina State the week after. USF, on the other hand, is coming off what should be a low-stress game against Ball State – and some analysts believe USF is the best team in the Big East in 2012. The Seminoles haven’t started 5-0 since 2005, and this is the fifth game of the year.
USC at Utah (29), Oct. 4. Thursday night game, at altitude, wearing a massive bull's-eye, against a sneaky-good opponent. And the Trojans should already know that last part about the Utes. Last year in Los Angeles, the Trojans had to block a 41-yard Utah field goal to win the game on the final play.
Wisconsin at Purdue (30), Oct. 13. The Boilermakers have a lot of returning experience and a user-friendly schedule that could help build confidence – their first six games are in-state and five are at home, the last being this one. If Purdue has gotten tougher against the run after surrendering 364 yards on the ground to the Badgers last year, it should have a chance in this game.
Alabama at Tennessee (31), Oct. 20. Just a hunch: After five straight losses in this fiercely contested rivalry, the Volunteers might be able to catch the Crimson Tide slightly off-guard while simultaneously playing their best game of the season. After 11 straight losses to ranked opponents, The Dash thinks Tennessee is simply due for a big moment sometime this year. If not, Derek Dooley will need a realtor.
Oklahoma at Iowa State (32), Nov. 3. Paul Rhoads, on the other hand, has a big moment every year. In three seasons at Iowa State, Rhoads has shocked Nebraska as a 20-point underdog, shocked Texas as a 20½-point underdog, and shocked Oklahoma State as a 27½-point underdog. Sooners, you have been warned.
(As an added bonus, The Dash is putting both South Carolina and Texas A&M on upset alert Thursday night – the Gamecocks at Vanderbilt and the Aggies against Louisiana Tech in Shreveport.)
THE MOST WORRISOME POSITIONS IN AMERICA
LSU quarterback (33)
. High-quality QB play has been missing in Baton Rouge since JaMarcus Russell left in 2007. Since then, their average passing yards per game have been in steady decline: 201 in ’08, then 182, then 156, and 153 last year. A capable QB was the main thing separating the Tigers from the 2011 national championship – they failed to throw for even 100 yards in either of two games against Alabama, or in the SEC championship game, or in the season opener against Oregon. In comes touted junior-college transfer Zach Mettenberger, plus Penn State transfer Rob Bolden. If they perform up to expectations, LSU can win it all – but it’s been a while since a Les Miles quarterback performed up to expectations.
Boise State kicker (34). Chris Petersen has become the modern-day Bobby Bowden: If he had a quality kicker, his résumé would be ridiculous. In the past four years, Petersen is 40-3 – with the three losses coming by a total of five points. In all three losses, Boise missed a field goal of makeable length that could have been the difference. This year, competition is ongoing between Michael Frisina and sophomore Dan Goodale. Both missed multiple extra points last year and neither made a field goal longer than 32 yards.
Oklahoma receivers (35). The Sooners’ starting wideout trio of Kenny Stills, Trey Metoyer and Justin Brown, plus starting tight end Geneo Grissom, caught a total of 61 passes last year – all by Stills. He is the lone guy who has been there and done that in crimson and cream. Metoyer looks like a possible star, but it's all wishful thinking at this point. Given how far Oklahoma’s passing productivity plummeted when Ryan Broyles got hurt last year, there is a lot for this unit to prove.
Michigan defensive line (36). The Wolverines are replacing three starters up front. Among those who left were the two most productive and disruptive linemen they had in 2011, Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergren. The replacements may well be fine – but they have to be fine immediately. Michigan faces the best offensive line in America in the opener against Alabama.
Virginia Tech offensive line (37). An inexperienced set of running backs will be running behind a line with four new starters. Only center Andrew Miller started last season, and the Hokies are still waiting for a starter to emerge at right guard. Tech has a pair of huge, fifth-year tackles who are expected to play well, but the proof will be on the field at Georgia Tech Labor Day night.
If perusing The Dash does not fill your recommended weekly football reading requirement, there are quality alternatives in the book world. The Dash is happy to recommend "Soldiers First: Duty, Honor, Country, and Football at West Point." The author is New York Times writer and F.O.D. Joe Drape (38). Drape normally provides some of the finest thoroughbred racing coverage on the planet, but he’s been known to moonlight as a fine football writer. His acclaimed book, "Our Boys," profiled a juggernaut small-town high school program in Kansas. In his current work on Army, Drape might have found the only group of football players more laudable than the Smith Center Redmen.
PUTTING OUT AN APB FOR …
… Jack Thompson (39), the Throwin’ Samoan for Washington State from 1975-78. Thompson was successful enough with the Cougars that he was the third overall pick in the 1979 NFL draft, but did little in five seasons with Cincinnati and Tampa Bay. Anyone with information on the man born in Tutuwila, American Samoa, please apprise The Dash.
When hungry and thirsty in Greensboro – not exactly a football mecca, but The Dash wound up there this summer – by all means reserve a table at Lucky 32 (40). Try the pan-fried pork cutlets, the killer heirloom tomatoes and the banana pudding, washed down with a Sweetwater 420. Or two. Thank The Dash later.
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