The way last season ended was clearly a sign. This offseason wasn't going to be pretty.
After covering the final BCS Championship Game, The Dash walked out of the Rose Bowl at 1 a.m. Pacific Time to a non-existent rental car. It had been towed. After 90 minutes of wandering in consternation, The Dash and colleague Dan Wetzel wound up first in the back of a police van looking for the car through wire-reinforced windows, then as passengers in a taxi traversing from Pasadena, Calif., to Newport Beach. Arrival at hotel: 4 a.m. Cab fare: $254. Not including tip.
What followed was a slog through an unsettling spring and summer. Crabs were stolen. Union votes were taken. Women were assaulted. Courts were in session. Legalese became the favored language of the sport. (If you drank every time you heard the word "amateurism" this summer, I hope you're high up on the waiting list for a liver donor.) Nice guy Mack Brown was pushed out. The Prodigal Petrino was brought back to a power-five conference.
A lot of what happened was important. Not a lot of it was fun.
This week we had the final indignity – Iceland trying to butt in and screw up the proceedings. A volcano called Bardarbunga (1) – which ranks with Jumanji (RIP Robin Williams) and Tora Bora for provocative additions to the lexicon – is threatening to blow. A red-alert transoceanic travel advisory was issued. There was speculation that Saturday's Penn State-Central Florida game (2) in Ireland would be imperiled by a flight-stopping ash plume from Bardarbunga.
As of publication of this column, the volcano is cooperating with the football gods. Perhaps they tossed a few virgins from UCF off the caldera to appease them and get the first game of the first football Saturday played.
While all this has been going on, The Dash basically felt like the guy who camped out for days outside Bryant-Denny Stadium to be the first one in line for Fan Day. The Dash has seen video of Alabama fans – grown-ups, mind you – sprinting across the stadium grass to line up before Nick Saban His Own Self (3) and felt a mixture of awe, pity, revulsion … and now a little kinship.
It's time to sprint toward college football.
Yeah, the sport has a Sabanesque ability to not return our ardent love – to aloofly push us away with one hand while greedily reaching for our wallet with the other. It has become a crass money grab rife with hypocrisy and disingenuous leaders. It carries the unmistakable aroma of corruption. But we know that, and we embrace it anyway, in spite of our better judgment.
So let's get the eight-clap going at UCLA. Dot the "i" at Ohio State. Plant the spear at Florida State.
Touch the rock at Clemson. Touch the banner at Michigan. Touch the "Play Like A Champion" sign at Notre Dame. Touch something. (But not the person in the bleachers next to you. Unless this is Texas A&M and the Aggies have just scored, then go ahead and touch lips.)
Build a cheerleader pyramid. Build a bonfire. (No, not next to the cheerleader pyramid.) Build a shrine to Dashette Nadia Forde (4). (No relation. But has there ever been a more aptly named Dashette?)
Call the Hogs. Call into talk radio and cry like this guy. Call for the coach's head. (But at least wait until October.)
Pass the eye black. Tell the members of the marching band to stop hazing each other and put on their absurd outfits. Have the mascot chug a Red Bull. (Unless this is West Virginia and the mascot has a rifle. Not the guy you want overstimulated.)
THE PLAYOFF – WHO’S OUT?
Despite the relentless push by the power-five conferences to rig every aspect of the sport in their favor, there is one base the big boys failed to cover in implementing the College Football Playoff: there are four spots for five leagues. Which means (at least) one conference will walk away from this season feeling demonstrably inferior.
The Dash’s prediction for which league gets left out this season: the Big 12 (5). The best teams are just vulnerable enough, and some of the road trips just tricky enough (see Big 12 predictions below), that everyone will take at least one loss. While that’s also likely to happen in other leagues, the best teams in the Big 12 might not have the strength-of-schedule clout to win a beauty contest against the other top playoff aspirants.
Playing nine league games helps, but not playing a conference championship game can be a drawback. And the Big 12’s most likely champions face what looks like soft non-conference competition. Oklahoma plays Tulsa and Louisiana Tech (a combined 7-17 last year in a weak Conference USA) and a Tennessee team that may not be among the 10 best in the SEC. Baylor plays SMU, FCS Northwestern State and Buffalo – a slate that’s impossible to spin.
The Dash’s other top contenders for playoff position all play at least one better non-conference game than anything the Sooners or Bears have scheduled: Oregon and Michigan State play each other in a top-10 matchup; UCLA plays a de facto road game against Texas (plus a second road game against a power-five opponent); Florida State plays Florida (plus a neutral-site game against Oklahoma State); Auburn visits Kansas State. Champions of the Pac-12 and SEC figure to have demonstrably stronger schedule strength, especially after a high-level title game. The projected champions of the two leagues that appear weaker than the Big 12 – the Big Ten and ACC – both have major non-league challenges. Michigan State is at Oregon on Sept. 6, and we've discussed who Florida State faces.
Of course, the games will be played and there will be major plot twists along the way. But for now, the Big 12 is the most likely league to be left out of the Final Four.
The four schools that should start making New Year’s Eve plans for either Pasadena or New Orleans:
UCLA (6). The Bruins not only will get into the playoff, they’re going to win it. In fact, getting in might be the hardest part against a schedule that includes Texas, Oregon, Stanford and USC – but the latter three are home games. In addition to a star quarterback and a capable running game, UCLA has star-caliber players all over its defense – from Myles Jack to Eric Kendricks to Eddie Vanderdoes to several members of the secondary. Jim Mora is pulling a Pete Carroll, going from pro reject to college coaching star in a hurry.
Florida State (7). Despite losing a bunch of quality players, the defending national champions are still the most talented team in the country. There are no weak units. And the Seminoles are in a relatively weak conference. They could well stay No. 1 all year in the polls, but may not be able to afford a loss and still make the final four.
Auburn (8). This should actually say SEC Team To Be Named Later. No real idea who wins that league, but the suspicion is that Alabama is going to dip this year while LSU is too young at the skill positions and the East is still inferior to the West. The Tigers seemingly exhausted a lifetime’s supply of luck last year, but the guess here is that they somehow keep the roll going again in 2014.
Michigan State (9). Spartans have a blossoming star quarterback, a 1,400-yard rusher, a solid corps of receivers, about four stone-cold studs on defense and a user-friendly league schedule. If the line coalesces and some new guys step up defensively, they could be every bit as good as last year’s 13-1 team. Possibly better.
IF STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE REALLY MATTERS …
The playoff will be fun. Lots of fun. And lots better than the BCS it replaces. But there will still be plenty of controversy, and nothing is likely to create more debate than the selection committee’s appraisal of strength of schedule. If the committee keeps to its charge and makes schedule strength a key component, here are three elements to watch:
The Pac-12 (10) has the advantage in pure SOS terms. They play nine conference games – that’s a plus. They play a conference championship game – that’s a plus. And they schedule well out of conference – that’s a plus. The Pac-12 plays one more league game than the SEC and also schedules better non-league opponents. Thirty percent of its non-conference opponents are from power-five leagues or Notre Dame, compared to 20 percent in the SEC. Unless the Pac-12 is an absolute bloodbath of losses (not out of the question), The Dash believes its champion is a near-lock for the playoff.
The Big Ten (11) has some huge early games. A league battling an eight-year image problem needs to win some big intersectional games to regain respect. That starts on the opening weekend, with Wisconsin-LSU in Houston and Penn State-UCF in Ireland. Then there is Michigan State-Oregon, Ohio State-Virginia Tech and Michigan-Notre Dame on Sept. 6. We should have a good idea about this league pretty quickly.
Three leagues will be rooting for Notre Dame (12) to be good – but not so good that the Fighting Irish take a playoff spot. If the academic investigation at the school significantly compromises Notre Dame, it also diminishes the schedule strength of the ACC (four opponents from that league), Pac-12 (three) and Big Ten (three). A lot of people are counting on the Irish being a quality (but beatable) opponent in 2014.
CINDERELLA IS DEAD
Continuing the off-season theme of creating further separation between the Haves and Have Nots, the poll voters have collectively turned their backs on the little guys. There are zero teams ranked in the preseason Top 25s – either AP or USA Today poll – from outside the power-five/Notre Dame axis of worldwide domination and maximized revenue (13). This is the first time we’ve started a season like that since 1999. Voters are shoving them out of sight and out of mind from the get-go now.
Now that previous outlier programs like Louisville, TCU and Utah have been assimilated into the power-five/Notre Dame axis of worldwide domination and maximized revenue, the contender ranks are thinned. Slight downturns at Boise State and BYU, plus a complete collapse at Southern Mississippi, have some other reliable party crashers on the outside looking in.
The two unranked, non-power programs The Dash will be watching closest:
Marshall (14). The Thundering Herd plays the easiest schedule in the history of the sport – best opponent may be (cough) Rice and toughest road game may be (gag) at Akron – but that doesn’t mean the Herd is no good. A team that won 10 games last year returns career 10,000-yard QB Rakeem Cato and a solid defense that should be better this time around. There is a fair amount of high-major talent that wound up at Marshall, via transfer or other circumstances. The Herd will have to dominate every game to be taken seriously, but keep an open mind.
UCF (15). Blake Bortles was a special player. Still, losing him shouldn’t result in a classic trap-dooring of a mid-major team that went 12-1 and dominated the Fiesta Bowl. The Knights are good and get two immediate chances to show how good, opening against Penn State and then playing Missouri in Columbia on Sept. 13. They also have five weeknight games later on that provide a captive audience of fans, voters, media members and committee members to impress.
The list of important players who aren't suiting up – yet, or in some cases all year – is depressing.
Braxton Miller (16), Ohio State. A torn labrum ended the two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year’s season. Buckeyes have a Big Ten schedule that could allow them to overcome, but the offense was even more on Miller’s shoulders this year than in the previous two. Last time Urban Meyer didn’t have a really good quarterback, his last Florida team went 8-5, 4-4 in league play.
DeVante Parker (17), Louisville. Tall, skywalking receiver was a Red Zone star last year, jumping over defensive backs for 12 touchdown catches. But Parker suffered a broken toe during Friday night's practice and underwent surgery on Monday. Petrino announced the senior would miss 6-8 weeks due to the injury.
The Duke duo (18). Linebacker Kelby Brown was an All-America candidate. Tight end Braxton Deaver caught 46 passes for 600 yards last season. They’ll both miss this one after tearing ACLs.
The Notre Dame Four (19). You may have heard about them. Receiver DaVaris Daniels, cornerback KeiVarae Russell, defensive end Ishaq Williams (all starters) and reserve linebacker Kendall Moore are sitting out as the school investigates potential academic fraud. Their return is somewhere between Super Important and Outright Essential for the Irish to have a big year.
The Stronghorned Seven (20), Texas. Charlie Strong came in preaching accountability and discipline, and apparently a lot of players thought he was just kidding. They found out the hard way – seven have been dismissed and another three suspended. Most of them would fit under the heading of Non-Essential Personnel, but versatile running back Joe Bergeron will be missed.
Joe Mixon (21), Oklahoma. Definitely was expected to be Essential Personnel at a position of need in Norman. Five-star freshman running back got himself suspended for the year before ever wearing a Sooners uniform by allegedly punching a girl in a late-night bar incident.
Dorial Green-Beckham (22), Oklahoma. Sooners tried to get a guy who was kicked off Missouri’s team immediately eligible. NCAA threw a flag on that flimflammery and denied the appeal. Now the question is whether the giant receiver will go pro in January before ever playing for Oklahoma.
Venric Mark (23), Northwestern. Do-everything running back was suspended for the first two games, then unexpectedly transferred to West Texas A&M amid cloudy circumstances. Huge blow for a team that is trying to rebound after a brutal 2013 season.
Devonte Fields (24), TCU. He was adept at two things as a Horned Frog: rushing the passer and getting in trouble. Finally reached the trouble tipping point and was dismissed in August.
WHO IS NOT MISSING
Two very important players who screwed up in the offseason but haven't had their seasons seriously altered because of it:
MacGarrett Kings (25). Unbeknownst to anyone until recently, Michigan State's junior receiver/kick returner was arrested for DUI during the spring and currently is serving 13 months’ probation. He served a spring football suspension for undisclosed disciplinary reasons, but apparently will miss no game action.
Jameis Winston (26). Jimbo Fisher’s good fortune was Winston’s two-sport status. When he was cited for swiping crab legs in the spring, the Florida State baseball team suspended him. Fisher didn’t have to do anything but say, “tisk tisk” and proceed with the Heisman Trophy winner’s football status unchanged.
CONFERENCE PREDICTIONS SURE TO GO WRONG
The Dash sprints through all 10 FBS conferences and offers withering insight on who will win, who will surprise and who will bust out. For entertainment purposes only:
Notable additions: East Carolina, Tulsa, Tulane. Because nothing says “instant rivalry” quite like Tulane vs. Connecticut, schools that are a mere 1,450 miles apart. Believe it or not, tickets are still available for that Oct. 11 meeting in New Orleans.
Notable subtractions: Louisville, Rutgers. Predatory leagues have left just a few bare bones of the old Big East carcass.
Champ: Central Florida.
Dark horse: East Carolina (27). A lot of holes to fill from last year’s 10-3 team, and this is a step up in conference class. But the Pirates can build around the league’s best pass-and-catch combo in quarterback Shane Carden and wide receiver Justin Hardy.
Bust: SMU. Program has had a good restorative run under June Jones, but it is showing signs of losing momentum. Mustangs had their first losing season since 2008 last year, and could pretty easily start 0-6 this year.
Dumbest thing: UCF and Cincinnati, probably the two best teams this year and certainly the two most stable programs over recent years, don’t play each other. The league has robbed itself of a rare marquee matchup.
Notable additions: A national championship, and Louisville. Both welcome additions to a league that had previously underachieved for many years.
Notable subtractions: Maryland. The mourning period over the departure of a charter member has been brief.
Atlantic winner: Florida State.
Coastal winner: North Carolina.
Champ: Florida State.
Dark horse: Virginia. There is room for someone to surprise in the Coastal Division, and the Cavaliers have nowhere to go but up with an experienced team buttressed by some young recruiting coups. But the schedule is rugged and the quarterback play must be better than last year.
Bust: Clemson (28). Dabo Swinney has recruited well enough to survive some significant talent losses the past couple years, but the Tigers still should take a step back from last year’s 11-2 record and Orange Bowl victory. If new quarterbacks and a new kicker don’t come through, maybe a big step back.
Dumbest thing: The entire state of North Carolina (UNC, North Carolina State, Duke and Wake Forest) playing a total of one non-conference September game against a power-five conference opponent. And that’s being awfully kind to Kansas, which visits Duke on Sept. 13. The rest of the non-league slate in the first five weekends for the Fearful Four: Elon, Troy, Tulane, Liberty, San Diego State, East Carolina, Louisiana-Monroe, Gardner-Webb, Utah State, Army.
Notable addition: Charlie Strong.
Notable subtraction: Mack Brown.
Champ: Oklahoma (29). But the Sooners will not run the table. In fact, both they and Baylor could run into trap-game scenarios at Iowa State and West Virginia – both tough places to play. (And visit. And live.) The Sooners visit Morgantown on Sept. 20 and Ames on Nov. 1; the Bears visit Ames on Sept. 27 and Morgantown on Oct. 18. Mountaineers should throw it better this year than last. Cyclones will be much better offensively with Mark Mangino calling plays. You heard the crazy-upset alert siren here first.
Dark horse: Texas. Defense that was gashed the last two years should be a lot better. Offense needs to find some big-play capability. Schedule is rigorous, but there is only one true road game in the first seven and that’s at Kansas. Opportunity is there for Strong to make an immediate splash.
Bust: Kansas. Jayhawks were already going to be bad. Then their top two running backs suffered season-ending injuries. How long 'til Late Night in the Phog in Lawrence?
Dumbest thing: West Virginia’s membership in the league.
Notable additions: Rutgers, Maryland, James Franklin.
Notable subtractions: Bill O’Brien, Braxton Miller.
East: Michigan State.
Champ: Michigan State.
Dark horse: Nebraska (30). Has a strong chance of being 8-1 heading into November – if a young offensive line comes together and the Cornhuskers get some solid cornerback play. Nebraska has been appallingly bad in turnover margin the past two years, a minus-23. Get that abysmal stat back close to break-even and it could make a major difference.
Bust: Ohio State. Gone: top four rushers from 2013, top passer, top receiver, top offensive lineman, top three tacklers, most of secondary, place kicker. Time for Meyer’s successful recruiting to pay off. In a hurry.
Dumbest thing: Maryland’s uniforms. Just barely dumber than Maryland’s membership in the league. And Rutgers’.
Notable additions: Western Kentucky, Old Dominion. Although that may be stretching the definition of notable.
Notable subtractions: East Carolina, Tulsa, Tulane.
West: UT-San Antonio. Larry Coker lives!
Dark horse: Western Kentucky. Rookie head coach Jeff Brohm was promoted after serving as Bobby Petrino’s offensive coordinator, so his offense should be familiar and productive. Defense is a rebuilding job, but the Hilltoppers do have exquisitely named cornerback Wonderful Terry (31) as a potential starter in the secondary.
Bust: Middle Tennessee. Won a lot of close games and benefitted from a plus-12 turnover margin a year ago. If the breaks go the other way, Blue Raiders may need to win their last three games against bad alphabet competition (FIU, FAU, UTEP) to salvage a winning season.
Dumbest thing: Ron Turner. Florida International’s dubious decision to hire the retread resulted in a 1-11 debut season that was actually worse than the record indicates.
Notable additions: Home games against teams from every power conference. The MAC hosts the SEC (Missouri at Toledo, Sept. 6); the Big Ten (Indiana at Bowling Green, Sept. 13); the Big 12 (Baylor at Buffalo, Sept. 12); the ACC (Syracuse at Central Michigan, Sept. 13, and Boston College at Massachusetts, Aug. 30); and the Pac-12 (Colorado at UMass, Sept. 6). Plenty of opportunities to show something.
Notable subtractions: Dave Clawson, Jordan Lynch, Kahlil Mack. Two all-time great players and a pretty darn good coach.
East: Bowling Green.
Dark horse: Akron (32). Terry Bowden has revived the program, has experience on his side and avoids both Toledo and Northern Illinois from the West. Zips could post their first winning record since 2005.
Bust: Northern Illinois. Program is solidly built, but replacing Lynch is a huge chore. So is rebuilding the defensive line.
Dumbest thing: Massachusetts’ turnover margin over the past six seasons. It’s a combined minus-45. The really dumb thing is the very premise of UMass as an FBS program.
Notable additions: Craig Bohl (33). Star coach at the FCS level finally gets his shot at an FBS school, taking over at Wyoming.
Notable subtractions: A 5,000-yard passer (Derek Carr), a 1,700-yard rusher (Kapri Bibbs), a 1,700-yard receiver (Davante Adams) and by far the league’s best coach (Chris Petersen). That’s a lot.
Mountain: Boise State.
Champ: Boise State.
Dark horse: Wyoming. Cowboys have plenty of experienced players returning. Big questions are whether they fit into Bohl’s different schemes, and whether they have a quarterback who can do the job. Fifth-year senior Colby Kirkegaard (no relation to the Danish philosopher) gets first crack at it.
Bust: Fresno State. The above-mentioned 5,000-yard passer and 1,700-yard receiver were Bulldogs. Fresno better hope Duke transfer Brandon Connette plugs in quickly at QB, or the offensive downturn could be significant. And the schedule is a throwback to the Pat Hill days of playing anyone (USC, Utah, Nebraska), anywhere (first two on the road), anytime.
Dumbest thing: Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton coming back from a blown knee to play his senior year behind a totally rebuilt offensive line, with no proven running backs and a 5-foot-7 go-to receiver. Love Keeton, but hope he isn’t set up for a beating.
Notable additions: Chris Petersen, more early kickoffs, a neutral-site title game. All of these are good things for the league.
Notable subtractions: Kiffy, Nick Aliotti, Coach O. Pac-12 might be slightly less interesting without those three coaches.
Dark horse: Washington (34). Plenty of question marks on the Huskies’ two-deep, but not on either line – and that’s a good place to start. Chris Petersen should provide an immediate coaching upgrade that helps camouflage some weaknesses.
Bust: Arizona State. Defense is in total overhaul mode, which is why there are juco guys dotting the depth chart. If they come through, great. But if not, the Sun Devils are going to have to win a lot of shootouts.
Dumbest thing: This guy.
Notable additions: Leonard Fournette, Kiffy, Kurt Roper.
Notable subtractions: Johnny Manziel, Jadeveon Clowney and 26 other players who went pro with eligibility remaining. The number over the past two years: 60. Will that talent drain affect the league’s dominance on the field?
Dark horse: Mississippi State. Bulldogs ended the season on a three-game winning streak for the first time since 1975. Dan Mullen was 3 years old then. Keep Tebow Lite QB Dak Prescott healthy and that streak should easily extend to six before a huge three-game stretch: at LSU, home against Texas A&M, home against Auburn. That will be pivotal in deciding whether this is a good-not-great year, or something more.
Bust: Texas A&M (35). Johnny Football is gone. Kenny Backup is in. The awful defense of 2013 should be improved, but how much? Probably not enough to mitigate the loss of offensive star power in Manziel, Mike Evans and Jake Matthews. And the SEC road games are brutal (South Carolina on Thursday, Mississippi State on Oct. 4, Alabama on Oct. 18, Auburn on Nov. 8).
Dumbest thing: Anyone who doesn’t like the lyrical stylings of my man the Vol fan, John Cave Osborne.
Notable additions: Louisiana-Monroe quarterback Pete Thomas arrives from North Carolina State, and before that Colorado State. He’ll be the starter at three schools in one career. Also: Idaho, Georgia Southern, New Mexico State and Appalachian State.
Notable subtractions: Western Kentucky, Bryan Harsin.
Champ: Louisiana-Lafayette (36). As usual. Time for Mark Hudspeth to get a job upgrade if he takes the Ragin’ Cajuns to a fourth straight bowl game.
Dark horse: South Alabama. Fledgling program is growing up quickly and could be poised for its first-ever bowl bid.
Bust: Arkansas State. Crazy coaching turnover (Blake Anderson is the fifth head coach in five years) has to catch up with the Red Wolves eventually. This seems like the time.
Dumbest thing: UL-M’s season-opening game against Wake Forest is a “Camo-Out.”
THE LATEST ENDANGERED RIVALRY
The Holy War (37), as BYU vs. Utah is known, will not be played this year or next year. It is scheduled to resume in 2016, but cessation of the series is not good for football in the state and sets an ominous precedent. Since 1922, the only other event that has stopped the Cougars and Utes from playing was World War II, when BYU didn’t field a team from 1943-45. This time around, Utah opted for a two-year series with Michigan – which is nice and all, but shouldn’t come at the expense of the school’s biggest rivalry. And if it can be put on hold once, it can be put on hold more easily (or more permanently) the next time. Don’t let this join Texas-Texas A&M, Kansas-Missouri, Pittsburgh-West Virginia on the realignment-driven rivalry discard pile.
The Dash is honored and humbled to have a piece written on the 2007 Fiesta Bowl – Boise State’s immortal upset of Oklahoma – included in a wonderful new anthology. “Football: Great Writing about the National Sport (38),” was edited by John Schulian, an accomplished Hollywood screenwriter and recovered newspaper columnist of considerable renown. But there are plenty of better reasons for football fans to love the book. Namely, work from Grantland Rice, W.C. Heinz, Red Smith, Frank Deford, Gary Smith, Dan Jenkins, Jim Murray, Rick Reilly, Charles P. Pierce, George Plimpton, H.G Bissinger, John Ed Bradley, Michael Lewis, Wright Thompson and Schulian himself. Among others. It is a stunning collection. Buy it.
When hungry and thirsty in Atlanta, specifically the tony area of Buckhead, The Dash recommends a stop at King & Duke (39). The food menu looks fantastic, but this was a post-dinner spot on a recent visit where the mission was to blend in with the cool folk. Have a Terrapin Hi-5 IPA (40) and thank The Dash later.
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