Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football, where lessons on defending the Hail Mary need to be re-learned:
THE MOST INTERESTING CITY IN COLLEGE FOOTBALL
Take a bow, Los Angeles (1). You are often the most interesting city in America, but not that often lately in college football. This week, however, you win the prize.
Thanks to a coach and a player absolutely nobody was talking about when the season began.
Start with the most interesting coach in college football, Ed Orgeron (2). He has worked interim magic at USC, winning five of six games after taking over a 3-2, going-nowhere team that was drowning in negative vibes. The capper was the Trojans' Saturday night upset of Stanford, which scrambled the entire Pac-12 outlook and keeps USC in the running for the South Division title.
This shows two things: what a colossally lousy job Lane Kiffin was doing, and how much Orgeron has learned after a disastrous tenure at Mississippi.
Now the big question is what Trojans athletic director Pat Haden should do with Coach O: Thank him for his service and send him on his way, or hire him full-time?
The smart answer is the former, not the latter. Orgeron has done great work and deserves another chance at being a head coach somewhere – but the 21st century history of hiring interim coaches after a feel-good run suggests that's a bad idea. The list:
Bobby Williams (3), Michigan State. Took over for Nick Saban and coached the Spartans to a surprising 37-34 victory over Florida in the 2000 Florida Citrus Bowl. It was downhill from there. In three full seasons, Williams won 15 games and lost 17 before he was himself replaced by an interim coach for the final three games of the 2002 season. Fill-in Morris Watts went 1-2 – and, no, he was not promoted after that.
Larry Coker (4), Miami. Inherited the job on an interim basis in late January 2001 when Butch Davis unexpectedly bolted for the Cleveland Browns, then was given the full-time position in early February. With one of the most talented rosters in history, Coker won his first 24 games, including a national title his first season. But when the Hurricanes were shocked by a less-talented Ohio State team in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl, it marked the beginning of a four-year decline that ultimately saw Coker dismissed in 2006 after a 7-6 season.
Bill Stewart (5), West Virginia. Much like Williams at Michigan State, Stewart replaced a very successful coach and was hired full-time after leading the team to a big bowl victory. In this instance, Rich Rodriguez left for Michigan and the Stewart-led Mountaineers upset Oklahoma in the 2008 Fiesta Bowl. Stewart's three consecutive 9-4 seasons didn't live up to the expectations RichRod left behind – but they look pretty good now in comparison to what Dana Holgorsen has done in the three years since.
And if you want a couple of basketball examples from schools with similar tradition and prestige as USC football, here you go:
Steve Lavin (6), UCLA. Was given the interim job when Jim Harrick was fired before the start of the 1996-97 season for lying about a recruiting dinner. Lavin was hired full-time in February, in the midst of guiding the Bruins to a Pac-10 championship and NCAA tournament Elite Eight run. For the next five years, Lavin won just enough big games at key times to keep the job. Then it fell apart and he was fired after a 10-19 season in 2002-03, UCLA's first losing season in 52 years.
Mike Davis (7), Indiana. Took over on interim basis when Bob Knight's temper got the best of him in September 2000. Got the job full-time after a 21-13 season in 2000-01 – and then looked like the right guy after guiding the Hoosiers to the national title game in 2002. But Indiana never approached that high point again under Davis, who announced his resignation in February of 2006.
In every above instance, players lobbied to keep the interim guy – the good-cop assistant coach who recruited many of them. Several of the players at USC are saying the same thing now about Orgeron.
It is smart for an AD to listen respectfully to the players. Then it is smart for the AD to forget everything the players told him and hire the right guy. The players are focused on right here, right now. The AD has to focus on hiring someone who will be a winner for 10 years or longer.
The interim coach is rarely – if ever – that guy.
And even if Orgeron has learned from his previous mistakes, it's hard to ignore the record: He was 10-25 in three years at Ole Miss. In the previous three years, the Rebels were 21-16 under David Cutcliffe; in the three years after Orgeron, they were 22-16 under Houston Nutt.
The Dash hopes the very likeable Coach O gets another head-coaching job this winter. But it shouldn't be at USC.
Now for the most interesting player in college football, Myles Jack (8). On a UCLA team that already has an offensive star (quarterback Brett Hundley) and a defensive star (linebacker Anthony Barr), he's eclipsed them by becoming both.
The true freshman is a Jack of all trades for UCLA, playing both running back and linebacker for the Bruins. He's started all season at linebacker, racking up 69 total tackles, one interception and nine passes defended. But the past two games Jim Mora has used him at running back as well, with extraordinary results: 179 yards and five touchdowns on 19 carries.
If Jack had been turned loose on offense earlier in the season, he'd probably be a leading Heisman Trophy candidate. Instead, he'll probably have to settle for being the rarest player in the game in 2013.
The few two-way players in modern college football are almost invariably wide receiver/defensive back types. The closer you get to the ball, in terms of formation, the less likely you are to find someone playing both ways. There are occasional defensive linemen who appear as extra muscle in short-yardage situations, but that's about it.
Jack looks like he's truly capable of playing every down, if his body could take it and the Bruins needed it. Kudos to UCLA for the willingness to showcase his versatility – which will only help Mora in recruiting multi-position stars.
THE MOST INTERESTING STATE IN COLLEGE FOOTBALL
Alabama (9), of course. They need to eat better, ranking as the fourth-most obese state in America (behind only Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas). But they take a backseat to no one in football.
The state has won four consecutive national titles. It still has two contenders alive to make it a fifth straight.
You know about the Crimson Tide, which has been ranked No. 1 every week of the season and has been ranked No. 1 or 2 in 40 of the last 43 Associated Press polls. Alabama's victory at Mississippi State was its 18th straight away from Tuscaloosa, an incredible run considering the conference the Tide plays in.
Of course, Alabama's next road game is at Auburn (10), the other half of the Most Interesting State in College Football. Fresh off what AL.com columnist Kevin Scarbinsky termed "The Prayer at Jordan-Hare," a 73-yard deflected bomb that broke Georgia's heart, the Tigers still have a chance to win everything: the SEC West, the SEC as a whole and the national championship.
Over the past four years, no program has had wild mood swings like Auburn: from the 14-0 national championship season of 2010 to the 3-9 debacle of 2012 to this extraordinary turnaround season. The Tigers are 10-1 in their first season under Gus Malzahn, replaying the script from '10 to make their comeback.
That year, Auburn plugged in a one-year junior-college star quarterback who had been in the SEC until leaving a school amid controversy. His name was Cam Newton, and his prior location was Florida. Newton was arrested at Florida for stealing a laptop from another student; charges were dropped after he completed a pre-trial diversion program.
This year, Auburn has Nick Marshall playing the role of Cam Lite. Marshall also was a one-year JUCO guy, at Garden City (Kan.) Community College, who originally was in the SEC. Marshall started out playing defensive back at Georgia, the team he beat with the fluke bomb Saturday. After his freshman season he and two teammates were dismissed, reportedly for stealing money from another teammate's dorm room. No charges were filed.
Marshall is nowhere near the passer Newton was, and is not a leading Heisman candidate. (Newton won the award in his only year at Auburn, which was not without controversy either after it came out that his father, Cecil, solicited $180,000 from Mississippi State coming out of junior college. An NCAA investigation never pinned anything on Cam Newton.) But Marshall is a dynamic and dangerous runner and has been a team leader and clutch player.
His desperation bomb to Ricardo Louis – a fluke play that was bungled by two Georgia defensive backs – now sets up one of the juiciest Iron Bowls of all-time. The nation's most intense – and insane – rivalry could reach a new peak Nov. 30 on The Plains.
THE MOST CONTROVERSIAL SITUATION IN COLLEGE FOOTBALL
It is hovering over Florida State quarterback and leading Heisman Trophy candidate Jameis Winston (11). While we wait for Florida State Attorney Willie Meggs to decide whether to charge Winston in relation to a sexual battery investigation, we are left to ponder the stakes.
This is more important legally than athletically. But in football terms, the stakes are as big as they get.
The Heisman is just one component. If Winston is not charged or in any way implicated in connection to the alleged incident that happened in 2012 in Tallahassee, his candidacy for the award will be unchanged. But if he is charged or implicated, that would put voter qualms over whether a certain quarterback in College Station got paid for signing autographs in perspective, wouldn't it?
The other component is Florida State's position in the national championship race. Right now, the Seminoles are in the BCS title game and should remain there if they win their remaining three games. But what if Winston is charged between now and Dec. 8, when the final BCS standings are released?
Under the Florida State athletic department code of student conduct, an athlete charged with a felony is immediately put on indefinite suspension. If Winston is suspended, could the Seminoles be upset by Florida on Nov. 30 or in the ACC championship game on Dec. 7? And even if the 'Noles won without Winston, would voters in the USA Today and Harris Polls judge Florida State differently as a national title contender if its star quarterback is suspended?
If the Seminoles kept winning, the computer polls would not be altered by a Winston suspension. But if there is any doubt whether Winston could play in the national title game, would voters move FSU down and move either Ohio State or Baylor up?
This hypothetical decision would be better left to a selection committee, which would be the case next year. In college basketball, the absence of key players factors into seeding decisions – something which could be called the Kenyon Martin Precedent, when the committee downgraded No. 1-ranked Cincinnati to a No. 2 seed because star player Martin broke his leg before the NCAA tournament.
But we don't have a selection committee. Or a playoff.
What we have is an unresolved situation that, in a worst-case scenario, could lead to unprecedented decisions for Heisman and poll voters.
EXPANDING HEISMAN RADAR
The line of candidates behind Winston has been pretty short in recent weeks, but now it may be time to consider some new names in trying to come up with a top three for the most coveted individual award in sports.
One thing to consider: not everyone can go to New York as a Heisman finalist. This has become the equivalent of Dick Vitale inviting 77 teams to the NCAA tournament every year – analysts and pundits can come up with an endless list of players who "deserve to get to New York." It's not that simple.
As Chris Huston of HeismanPundit.com told The Dash, the number of players who are invited to the ceremony varies from year to year – from a minimum of three to as many as six one year, according to Huston. Normally the high end is six. The number of invitees is based on receiving a certain percentage of the vote.
The list as it exists beyond Winston:
Johnny Manziel (12), Texas A&M. Throwing it better than last year, rushing it slightly worse. But the overall takeaway is that Manziel is playing even better than when he won the award in 2012. The drawbacks are these: better quarterback competition for the Heisman; the "pleasant surprise" dynamic that accompanied the Aggies' success last year has been replaced by "slight disappointment" this year – which is more a factor of lousy defense than anything, but still reflects on Manziel; potentially turning off some voters with the offseason folderol and NCAA autograph inquiry; a gut reluctance by some voters to put Manziel in the same category with the only two-time winner of the award, Archie Griffin. (Which is another column for another day.)
Marcus Mariota (13), Oregon. Still hasn't thrown an interception this season, and has set the Pac-12 record with 353 passes without a pick. But Mariota's rushing numbers have plummeted the last three games – 17 carries for minus-16 yards – as he's endured a knee sprain. And his passing totals have been good but not outrageous during that time as well. The Stanford loss hurts, too.
AJ McCarron (14), Alabama. The McCarron debate is a tricky one, with team success and playing style weighing heavily into the pro-AJ argument. There's no doubt McCarron is the perfect extension of what Nick Saban wants at quarterback: smart, tough, team-oriented and perfectly happy to hand off if that's what will win games. He could have bigger numbers in a different system – but at the same time he also benefits from playing behind a great line and rarely having to play from behind. He's thrown the exact same number of passes as Winston this year (261, or 26 per game), but for 700 fewer yards and seven fewer touchdowns.
Bryce Petty (15), Baylor. The national leader in pass efficiency (206.2) is on pace to break Russell Wilson's single-season FBS record of 191.8. But that chore will get tougher Saturday facing the No. 10 pass-efficiency defense in the country of Oklahoma State. The doubt with Petty is whether he's a just a "system guy" – the latest cog in the Art Briles no-huddle spread machine – or the best player in college football. Expect him to get a lot of scrutiny from Heisman voters over the final three weeks of the season.
Derek Carr (16), Fresno State. Leads an undefeated team, and has thrown the ball more times per game (nearly 52) than all but one player in the FBS top 110 in efficiency. Carr has been prolific, but is only 22nd nationally in efficiency in large part because he's averaging a career-low 7.36 yards per attempt. Playing off-radar in the Mountain West and lacking the stats of a Winston, Manziel or Petty, he's fighting an uphill battle.
Jordan Lynch (17), Northern Illinois. He's the premier dual-threat QB in the nation this year, rushing for 1,273 yards and passing for 2,216. He's accounted for 35 touchdowns. His team is working on its 23rd consecutive regular season win. But playing in the Mid-American Conference guarantees less exposure and less competition – and voters who saw Lynch look rather pedestrian in the Orange Bowl last year against Florida State will remember that.
Andre Williams (18), Boston College. How about a non-quarterback? Williams has no chance of winning, but deserves to be noticed and considered. The 227-pound senior running back leads the nation in rushing (1,810 yards in 10 games) and has just trampled North Carolina State and New Mexico State in consecutive weeks – 339 rushing yards against the Wolfpack, 295 against the Aggies. The Eagles have returned to bowl eligibility largely on Williams' legs. In an era of dainty running backs who platoon and rarely get 20 carries in a game, he's had five games of 30 or more.
A report card on how the major programs that changed leagues in the last three years are doing in their new locales:
Texas A&M (19). Old league: Big 12. New league: SEC. Years in: Two. Record: 19-4. Record previous two seasons in Big 12: 16-10. Grade: A. Hiring Kevin Sumlin and playing Manziel sure has made things look easy in the big, bad SEC.
Missouri (20). Old league: Big 12. New league: SEC. Years in: Two. Record: 14-8. Record previous two seasons in Big 12: 18-8. Grade: A-minus. Last year was an injury-plagued bust, but this year the Tigers lead the SEC East – despite starting a freshman backup quarterback for one-third of the season.
TCU (21). Old league: Mountain West. New league: Big 12. Years in: Two. Record: 11-13. Record previous two seasons in MWC: 24-2. Grade: D-plus. Horned Frogs hated being labeled a mid-major in the old league, but have played like a mid-major in the new one.
West Virginia (22). Old league: Big East. New league: Big 12. Years in: Two. Record: 11-13. Record previous two seasons in Big East: 19-7. Grade: C-minus. Nothing about the WVU-Big 12 shotgun marriage has been a good fit.
Colorado (23). Old league: Big 12. New league: Pac-12. Years in: Three. Record: 8-27. Record previous three seasons in Big 12: 13-23. Grade: C-minus. Buffaloes were crippled by the Jon Embree hire but now are on the road to recovery under first-year coach Mike MacIntyre.
Utah (24). Old league: Mountain West. New league: Pac-12. Years in: Three. Record: 17-18. Record previous three seasons in MWC: 33-6. Grade: D. After years of dominating weaker competition, Utes have stepped back, not up.
Nebraska (25). Old league: Big 12. New league: Big Ten. Years in: Three. Record: 26-11. Record previous three seasons in Big 12: 29-12. Grade: B-minus. Cornhuskers are about the same program now that they were in their last conference. And that may get Bo Pelini fired.
Syracuse (26). Old league: Big East. New league: ACC. Years in: One. Record: 5-5. Record previous season in Big East: 8-5. Grade: Incomplete. If the Orange win at least one of their last two games against Pittsburgh or Boston College, this season was OK. But the three league losses to date have been ugly, coming by a total of 147 points.
Pittsburgh (27). Old league: Big East. New league: ACC. Years in: One. Record: 5-5. Record previous season in Big East: 6-7. Grade: Incomplete. Like the Orange, reaching bowl eligibility will make everyone feel OK about the season. As long as the Panthers avoid a fourth straight trip to the BBVA Compass Bowl.
CHRONICLER OF MISERY IN MISSISSIPPI
The emails arrive consistently and without missing a beat: the weekly football release; the press conference transcript; the game stats; the recap.
And every time The Dash sees the name in the inbox, there is a wince. Jack Duggan (28) is doing his job, the toughest job in athletic media relations, without public complaint or lament.
Duggan is the assistant athletic director for media relations at Southern Mississippi. It is his job to deliver publicity about the saddest football program in the country, the winless Golden Eagles, their losing streak now at 22 games and counting.
There was a time when Duggan was a purveyor of good news: after being promoted to SID in 2007, Southern Miss reeled off five straight winning seasons, extending the program's streak to 17 straight years. That's a remarkable accomplishment at a mid-major school.
But when Larry Fedora left, the program collapsed. And now there seems to be no end to the gloom. USM's last game was a 41-7 home loss to Florida Atlantic, in which the Golden Eagles trailed 27-0 at halftime and 41-0 after three.
Despite the avalanche of bad news, Jack Duggan plods on. The releases arrive on time. They note the smallest of achievements ("Although the Golden Eagles scored just one touchdown against Florida Atlantic, freshman Nick Mullens directed the team's longest scoring drive of the year … "). They point out the difficulties encountered ("Including the season opener, six of USM's opponents have had more than a full week to prepare for the Golden Eagles …").
He is a pro. And for that The Dash salutes him. Maybe Dashette Martha Hunt (29) can be convinced to drop in on Hattiesburg and lighten the mood.
Eight games that will answer some important questions this week:
Baylor-Oklahoma State (30). Question: Can the Bears stay in the national title hunt, or will this be the third straight November that a Big 12 team sees a perfect season and national title bid ruined on the road in late November? The Cowboys were the victims two years ago at Iowa State. Baylor was the perpetrator last year against Kansas State. Dash pick: Baylor 38, Oklahoma State 31.
Arizona State-UCLA (31). Question: Can the Sun Devils win their first Pac-12 South title and stay in the mix for their first outright conference title since 1996? Beating the Bruins would be ASU's seventh straight conference win, something it has not achieved since that '96 team went to the Rose Bowl. Can they slow down a UCLA team that has scored at least 37 points in every home game? Dash pick: UCLA 41, Arizona State 35.
Missouri-Mississippi (32). Question: Can Mizzou take another big step toward the SEC East title? The Tigers are 4-0 on the road this season, with each win by a minimum of 15 points. And injured QB James Franklin is expected back in the starting lineup. But Ole Miss will be the Tigers' toughest opponent since their epic fold-up late against South Carolina on Oct. 26 – and that game proved Mizzou cannot count on its kicker in a close game. Dash pick: Missouri 35, Mississippi 34.
Duke-Wake Forest (33). Question: Can the Blue Devils take another step toward a highly improbable ACC Coastal championship? The Demon Deacons would not seem like the most imposing impediment, but until last year they had beaten Duke 12 straight times. This seems like the Year of the Cutcliffe, though. Dash pick: Duke 28, Wake Forest 21.
Wisconsin-Minnesota (34). Question: Can the feel-good Gophers story continue in its toughest test yet? With four straight victories under interim coach Tracy Claeys and with recovering head coach Jerry Kill in the press box, Minnesota has soared to 8-2 and remains in contention in the Big Ten Legends Division. But the Badgers are on an absolute roll. Dash pick: Wisconsin 41, Minnesota 17.
BYU-Notre Dame (35). Question: Who is the best independent team in the country? The Cougars and Fighting Irish are both 7-3. They both have a Big Ten loss (Michigan over Notre Dame, Wisconsin over BYU) and a disappointing ACC loss (Pitt over Notre Dame, Virginia over BYU). They both have been hard to predict – but predict we must. Dash pick: Notre Dame 23, BYU 21.
Boise State-San Diego State (36). Question: Can the rebounding Aztecs upset the Broncos again and send them to their worst season since 2005? Last year, San Diego State pulled off a shocker on the blue turf. This year, San Diego State staggered out of the gate with a blowout loss to Eastern Illinois and was 0-3 before regrouping. Now the Aztecs are 6-4, 5-1 in their Mountain West division, and trying to hand Boise State its fourth loss – something that hasn't happened in eight years, since before Chris Petersen took over. Dash pick: Boise State 29, San Diego State 24.
Illinois-Purdue (37). Question: Who is the bottom of the barrel in a bad Big Ten? Is it the Illini, who have lost a staggering 20 straight conference games? Or is it the Boilermakers, who are No. 169 in the Sagarin ratings – by far the lowest of any team from an FBS power conference? The world is dying to know. Dash pick: Illinois 34, Purdue 20.
COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK
Mark Dantonio (38), Michigan State. As well-coached teams are supposed to do, the Spartans have evolved and improved as the season has progressed. Once wholly dependent upon their lights-out defense to win games for them, they showed some offensive balance and punch in a big 41-28 victory Saturday at Nebraska. Yes, the Cornhuskers provided several short fields with five turnovers, but Michigan State did piece together scoring drives of 67, 74 and 75 yards – two of them in the fourth quarter to put the game away. Mark it down, the Spartans will give Ohio State all the Buckeyes want in the Big Ten title game – if they get there.
COACH WHO SHOULD TAKE THE BUS TO WORK
Mack Brown (39), Texas. With the 38-13 loss to Oklahoma State on Saturday, this is the first time in 20 years that the Longhorns have lost three games in one season by 19 or more points: 19 to BYU, 21 to Ole Miss and now 25 to the Cowboys. Last time was 1993, when John Mackovic was going 5-5-1 and losing to Colorado by 22, Louisville by 31 and Oklahoma by 21.
A Texas coach never wants to be mentioned in the same paragraph with Mackovic. Which is why Brown is back on the hot seat in Austin after six straight victories quieted some of the fan vitriol.
When thirsty at a late hour in downtown Chicago, The Dash recommends a stop at Timothy O'Toole's Pub (40). The beer selection is excellent and the wait staff was good to The Dash and friends after covering the Champions Classic at the United Center.