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    Aug 28ᵗʰ 3:00 PM
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Forde-Yard Dash: Big games, big anxiety for BCS title hopefuls

Pat Forde
Yahoo Sports
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THREE GAMES, 48 HOURS, LOTS ON THE LINE

Are you ready for the best Thursday night of television since the Friends-Frasier-Seinfield heyday of the mid-1990s? Of course you are, because we've been talking about it for weeks. Now it's here, and the circle-the-date doubleheader has somehow held up.

The college football world turns its attention to a pair of 50,000-seat stadiums that are rarely full (see below): Floyd Casey Stadium in Waco, Texas, and Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, Calif. We will see two undefeated teams built on gaudy offense, gasp-inducing tempo and garish uniforms against stylistic near-opposites.

Oregon and Baylor are valedictorians of New School football. Oklahoma (uniforms that never vary) and Stanford (smashmouth style) represent the Old School.

And then there is a Saturday game that merely ranks as the most important rivalry in college football this century: LSU at Alabama. For the sixth straight year, one or both teams is ranked in the top five, and for the fourth time in the last six years one of the teams is ranked No. 1.

[Heisman Watch: Northern Illinois QB Jordan Lynch gaining ground]

So, yeah, there is a lot for the teams to play for. And a lot for the fans to watch. And a lot of pressing questions to answer.

Does this three-game test of champions trim the list of national title contenders? Oregon and Alabama are specifically in jeopardy, holding the top two spots in the BCS standings and facing their best competition of the year (for the Ducks) or in many weeks (for the Tide).

Or do we add to the list of contenders? If Baylor wins big, it may expand the national title discussion from four to five teams.

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Art Briles (L) and Bob Stoops. (AP)

Speaking of that fourth team: what do you do if you're Ohio State? Mostly you sit and watch and hope, because the national title race is out of your hands at the moment and you need help. The Buckeyes are big fans of Oklahoma, Stanford and LSU this week. But they probably don't want Stanford to win by too much, because a one-loss Pac-12 champion ultimately may have an argument ahead of Ohio State.

The Dash takes a look at this week's trio of showdowns: 

Five fascinating sidelights to Oklahoma-Baylor (1):

As of Monday, the game was not sold out (2). Which is incredible until you remember that this is Baylor.

"We're going tarpless," quipped Bears coach Art Briles, reacting to the news that his school is removing the tarp that covers the South end of creaky old Floyd Casey Stadium. That will allow about 3,500 general admission tickets to be sold, for the first time in a long time.

Still, this will be one of the smallest crowds Oklahoma plays in front of all season.

Baylor's lack of success over time is manifested in the school's traditionally small fan base – Floyd Casey has been filled up to or in excess of its listed capacity of 50,000 fans just five times since the stadium opened in 1950. Four of those came against Texas A&M and the fifth against Texas, all games in which fans of the visiting team undoubtedly ate up many of the tickets.

Despite the upturn in program success and the exciting style of play, Baylor home attendance hasn't even topped 47,000 since 2006. Not even Robert Griffin III's Heisman Trophy season of 2011 could sell out the joint. Even once.

Baylor is building a new stadium that is set to open next year. But with an enrollment of only 12,575 and a history of empty seats, the school is wisely reducing initial capacity to 45,000.

Anything that comes with "Biggest Home Game in School History (3)" attached is doomed this season.

Texas A&M's game against Alabama was billed as the biggest ever at Kyle Field. The Aggies lost, giving up 35 consecutive points in one stretch.

Northwestern's game against Ohio State was billed as the biggest ever at Ryan Field. The Wildcats lost. And haven't stopped losing since.

Washington's game against Oregon was billed as the biggest ever at Husky Stadium. The Huskies lost by three touchdowns.

Clemson's game against Florida State was billed as the biggest ever at Death Valley. The Tigers lost and gave up 51 points, most ever at home.

And Missouri's game against South Carolina was billed as at least one of the biggest ever at Faurot Field. The Tigers blew a 17-point lead in the fourth quarter and lost in overtime.

Another factor to consider: The Dash was present for all those pratfalls – and will be in Waco on Thursday.

Just so you know, Baylor fans. Just so you know.

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Oklahoma QB Blake Bell. (AP)

Oklahoma is a near-record underdog (4). Since winning the national title in 2000, the Sooners have only been a two-touchdown underdog once – in 2005, when an injury-riddled team took on eventual national champion Texas.

Until now. Baylor is a fat, 14-point favorite. Seeing that big of a spread for the lordly Sooners against a historical pauper is a stunner, but Las Vegas rarely lets tradition get in the way of making a proper line.

Until now, the Bears have blitzed largely outmanned teams in expected routs. This time, there will be pressure that comes with the favorite tag – and Oklahoma assuredly is playing up the Vegas insult to the hilt behind closed doors. Only three times in the last 62 games against Big 12 opponents have the Sooners been an underdog – twice against Oklahoma State, once against Texas – and none of those spreads was larger than 3 ½ points. Oklahoma was 1-2 in those games.

Art Briles (5) has a chance to join select coaching company. The longtime former high school coach can join Mack Brown, Mike Leach, Bill Snyder and Les Miles as the only coaches to beat Bob Stoops more than once in Stoops' stellar career. Brown has beaten Stoops six times, Leach thrice, Snyder and Miles twice each.

Briles got it done the first time two years ago in Waco, when RGIII led a game-winning drive in the final minute of play – it actually was Baylor's first win over Oklahoma, in 22 meetings. Briles has lost his other four meetings with Stoops by a combined 95 points.

Watch out for Baylor's 12th man (6). Literally. According to Baylor lore – yes, there is such a thing – the Baptist school is not above a little football flimflammery.

In 1923, the Bears played Arkansas in a driving rainstorm in Fayetteville, Ark. Using poor visibility as a cloak, coach Frank Bridges allegedly played 12 men on defense the entire game without being detected. Baylor won the game 14-0, on its way to a 5-1-2 season.

This would be slightly more difficult to pull off in the modern era, with or without a driving rainstorm. But Stoops' troops should count the number of Bears on the field, just in case.

Dash prediction: Baylor 49, Oklahoma 31.

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Oregon QB Marcus Mariota. (Getty)

Five fascinating sidelights to Oregon-Stanford (7):

Pace of play (8) could scarcely be more divergent. There are so many teams mimicking the Ducks' hurry-up offense that one of the pioneers of that style is not in the national top 10 in most offensive snaps per game at 78.1. But that still qualifies as breakneck compared to what Stanford prefers.

The Cardinal plod along at 63.6 plays per game, 123rd out of 125 FBS teams. In their last game, against Oregon State, they dithered their way to just 56 snaps. If Bo Ryan coached football, he would be David Shaw.

Last year in Eugene, Stanford pulled the upset in part by controlling the ball and eating the clock and keeping Oregon off the field. The Cardinal ran 82 plays in the overtime game to 77 for the Ducks. Shaw would love to see similar numbers this time around.

Accuse the Cardinal of faking injuries (9) at your own risk. Washington's Steve Sarkisian did it a few weeks ago, and Shaw responded with a stentorian statement on the Pac-12 teleconference denying any such thing. And two of his players took to Twitter to protest as well.

All of which is well and good, standing up for character and integrity and well-conditioned defenders. But Stanford defensive players have been known to take at least one obvious dive against the Ducks, in 2010. Jim Harbaugh was Stanford's head coach then, but Shaw was on the staff.

The Cardinal's defensive challenge will be heightened this week with the loss of senior end Ben Gardner, whose college career is over after tearing a pectoral muscle against Oregon State. He's not only a key player, but it reduces the quality line depth the Cardinal can rotate against Oregon's no-huddle. The good news up front is that end Henry Anderson will play for the first time since September.

Can the road team keep it rolling (10) in this series? Stanford won last year in Eugene, stopping Oregon's drive to the BCS title game. Oregon won the previous year in Palo Alto, giving the 2011 Cardinal its only regular-season loss and roadblocking any potential championship-game berth. Can it happen a third time in a row?

The last time a visiting team won three in a row in this series was 1993-95, when the Cardinal sandwiched two wins in Eugene around the Ducks' 1994 victory in Palo Alto. That was on Oregon's way to a fairy-tale Rose Bowl appearance, which was pretty much the birth of the power program we've seen since.

Can either team make a clutch kick (11)? There is reason to doubt.

Shaw said Monday that Stanford senior kicker Jordan Williamson is probably available for placements after missing the last two games because of injury – but even at 100 percent, he's not exactly a sure thing. Williamson has missed 19 field goals in his career, including a late pair that cost the Cardinal the Fiesta Bowl two seasons ago and a 38-yarder this year in a six-point loss at Utah.

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Stanford's Jordan Williamson. (AP)

But Williamson did make the winner in overtime last year in Eugene, and he's money compared to the Ducks' kickers. They are rarely called upon and largely unreliable when they do get a chance – perhaps due to lack of use. Alejandro Maldonado, whose OT miss ended the game last year, and Matt Wogan are a combined 4-6 this season, but both misses have come from 37 yards. Wogan also has yanked seven kickoffs out of bounds this year.

Who would Ken Kesey (12) root for? The late novelist earned an undergraduate degree from Oregon and did some graduate work at Stanford. Although he started the manuscript of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" during his time at Stanford, The Dash believes Kesey would favor the Ducks. His zeal for LSD and other psychotropic drugs is a natural fit with some of Oregon's uniform combinations.

Dash prediction: Oregon 34, Stanford 21.

Five fascinating sidelights to LSU-Alabama (13):

The Tigers aren't underdogs (14) often – unless the opponent is the Crimson Tide. They've been favored in 32 of their last 36 games. Other than last month at Georgia, the rest have been against Alabama: an 8 ½-point 'dog last year in Baton Rouge; 2 ½ points in the BCS title game to end 2011; and 4 ½ points in the '11 regular-season meeting in Tuscaloosa, Ala. LSU won one of those three, but also beat 'Bama as an underdog in 2010.

LSU hasn't been favored against former coach Nick Saban since his first season at Alabama, in 2007.

Les Miles (15) isn't scared of Saban, which seems to matter. He'd beaten the Godfather of the SEC three of the first five meetings until losing the last two – and still, 3-4 is a pretty good record against Saban. Miles is cocky enough that you can almost imagine him dropping a short-man joke on Saban on the field before the game.

This is consistent with a guy who took great pleasure in beating the big dog at his last stop, Oklahoma State. Miles beat Bob Stoops and Oklahoma the first two years he coached the Cowboys, and has a 2-2 record against Stoops.

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LSU's Zach Mettenberger. (USA Today)

Among current SEC coaches, Kevin Sumlin may be the only other guy who won't flinch when facing Saban. And it remains to be seen whether that still will be true after Johnny Manziel departs College Station.

Is Zach Mettenberger (16) backsliding? The LSU quarterback was fantastic the first six games of the season, racking up 15 touchdowns and only two interceptions. In the last three games had four TDs and five picks, and a decreased completion percentage.

Which would make the Alabama assignment seem inopportune. But this was the game last year where Mettenberger first backed up all his hype, with big-time throws and clutch play in guiding the Tigers to a late 17-14 lead. They lost on an even more clutch drive led by AJ McCarron (see below) but that was the breakthrough moment for Mettenberger – which carried over to the first half of this season.

[Related: Miami radio host fired over tweet]

It's worth noting on Mettenberger that his 2013 stats have been somewhat inflated by monster games against bad teams. He's had pass-efficiency ratings in excess of 200 against UAB, Kent State, Mississippi State and Furman this year. The numbers were very good against Georgia (173.4) and pretty good against Auburn (157), but his completion percentage dipped into the 50s against TCU, Florida and Ole Miss.

Are we criminally underrating AJ McCarron (17) again? The overall Alabama machine is so ruthlessly effective that it becomes hard to single out great individual play. And given the regularity with which the Tide plays with a lead, games often don't lend themselves to hero play by their quarterback.

But McCarron is certainly capable when called upon. He was great when he had to be at Texas A&M (334 yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions, 211.2 efficiency rating). And since the season-opening offensive struggles against Virginia Tech – caused mostly by a line lacking cohesion – McCarron has completed a minimum of 60 percent of his throws in every game.

Know this: LSU fans are acutely aware of what he can do, having been burned last year and in the 2011 BCS title game by McCarron. If he has to throw it 40 times Saturday, he'll do it. If he has to throw it 15 times and hand off the rest of the night, he'll do that, too.

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Bobby Hebert. (USA Today)

Where is Bobby Hebert (18) when we need him? The Cajun character and New Orleans radio host has managed to embarrass himself the last two times these teams have played – accosting Miles in the postgame interview session after the BCS title loss, and getting kicked out of the LSU press box during last year's game for cheering like a drunken fan. (Which he probably was.)

Hebert is a long shot to show in Tuscaloosa, and should have no shot at securing a press credential. That's probably a good thing – but if the game gets boring, we might need him to rush the field or create some other absurd scene.

Dash prediction: Alabama 23, LSU 16.

THIRD-YEAR COACHES: SOME HOT, SOME DEFINITELY NOT

In modern college football, year three is when a lot of fans (and some administrators) start to make concrete judgments on their coaches. It used to be four years, but we also used to wait for today’s news to be dropped on the doorstep tomorrow morning. For better or worse, we’re a more impatient society.

So it’s time to start applying the three-year yardstick to a large group of coaches who took over programs in 2011. There is time still for this season to take further shape, but the results are pretty well defined in a lot of places.

Two third-year coaches have been trap-doored already this season after winless starters: Paul Pasqualoni at Connecticut and Don Treadwell at Miami (Ohio). Some others may follow in the weeks to come. The guys doing well could be headed for contract extensions – or be wooed for other jobs.

A Dash rundown of 12 third-year guys:

David Shaw (19), Stanford. Trending: steady, pending the huge game Thursday. Record by season: 11-2, 12-2, 7-1. Shaw has sustained success in the post-Harbaugh, post-Andrew Luck world – something not everyone was sure he could do. Given the recruiting, this golden run in program history may not fade, either. Shaw has more than earned the long-term backing and trust of the school and its fans.

Brady Hoke (20), Michigan. Trending: down. Record by season: 11-2, 8-5, 6-2. After embarrassing escapes against Akron and Connecticut and an outright punking from rival Michigan State, the Wolverines may be the worst 6-2 team in the country and headed to several more losses. To his credit and with an eye on the future, Hoke has resisted shoving several talented freshmen into the fray to salvage a terrible offensive line. But with the exception of a wild home victory over Notre Dame in September, there hasn’t been anything to galvanize the fan base since his first season.

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Florida's Will Muschamp. (AP)

Will Muschamp (21), Florida. Trending: down. Record by season: 7-6, 11-2, 4-4. It sure is a good thing Muschamp has last year on the resume, because years one and three have been Zookeresque – and athletic director Jeremy Foley whacked him around this same point in his tenure. Since beating Florida State in Tallahassee last year, nothing has gone well for Florida – and it will almost certainly lead to significant staff changes come December. This Gators team has been ravaged by injury – but when it comes to an injury plague, much better to have it happen in your 13th season on the job (Mark Richt) or your eighth season (Pat Fitzgerald) than your third.

James Franklin (22), Vanderbilt. Trending: down. Record by season: 6-7, 9-4, 4-4. A couple of weeks ago, Vandy launched an aggressive campaign to remind the media of Franklin’s successes in Nashville, the purpose of which was unclear. To sway recruits? To remind fans what they have, and could lose to another school? To stave off any movement to make a change at a school dealing with a very nasty off-field development on Franklin’s watch? Vandy won’t duplicate last year’s miracle season, but remains far better and more competitive than at any time in decades. The biggest question is whether Franklin sees the challenge of sustainability at Vanderbilt and tries like crazy to get out.

Jerry Kill (23), Minnesota. Trending: up on the field, down in the doctor’s office. Record by season: 3-9, 6-7, 7-2. There is no denying the upgrade in the Gophers on Kill’s watch – but that’s just it. Is he simply watching, or actively involved as Minnesota has reeled off three straight impressive victories? Kill’s fingerprints are on the program, but he has been on indefinite leave due to repeated epileptic seizures while maintaining a press-box presence at games. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys is doing great work as the acting head coach; can Kill return and continue to do this demanding job without further risk to his health?

Dana Holgorsen (24), West Virginia. Trending: down. Record by season: 10-3, 7-6, 4-5. Holgorsen won 15 of his first 18 games with the Mountaineers, but since then it's been bleak. And without Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, this year’s team has lost the offensive explosiveness Holgo was known for. A lot of West Virginia fans couldn’t wait to get rid of Bill Stewart, but his three-year record (27-12) will be better than Holgorsen’s.

Randy Edsall (25), Maryland. Trending: up, ever so slightly. Record by season: 2-10, 4-8, 5-3. Since winning his debut game over Miami in 2011, Edsall has only one win that got people energized: the 37-0 blowout of West Virginia in September. But as the above paragraph shows, that victory has been downgraded by the Mountaineers’ struggles. An injury-ravaged Maryland team should go to its first bowl since 2010 this season, at least. That would continue the gradual-growth trend.

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Miami coach Al Golden. (AP)

Al Golden (26), Miami. Trending: up. Record by season: 6-6, 7-5, 7-1. The Hurricanes were exposed but not completely embarrassed Saturday night by Florida State – not a Top 10 team, but far better than recent Miami teams. The broken ankle suffered by star running back Duke Johnson could hamper an already inconsistent offense, but the mediocre Coastal Division of the ACC remains Miami’s for the taking. Golden is under contract through 2019, but that may not stop some suitors from going after him if this season continues on its successful path.

Rocky Long (27), San Diego State. Trending: down. Record by season: 8-5, 9-4, 4-4. The Aztecs won seven straight games to close the 2012 regular season, highlighted by an upset win at Boise State. But the excitement evaporated after a blowout bowl loss to BYU to end last year and a shocking rout at the hands of FCS Eastern Illinois to open this year. After two years of benefitting from predecessor Hoke’s momentum, this SDSU team looks a lot like Long’s New Mexico teams: competitive on a weekly basis but not capable of hitting any high notes. He has coached 168 games and is four games above .500 for his career.

Bill Blankenship (28), Tulsa. Trending: down. Record by season: 8-5, 11-3, 2-6. Few teams have had more puzzling collapses in 2013 than the Golden Hurricane. An explosive offense that returned seven starters from a team that averaged nearly 35 points per game has failed to score that many even once this year – the average is a puny 20.1. Last year’s Conference USA titlists are sixth in the Western Division in a watered down version of the league.

Pete Lembo (29), Ball State. Trending: up. Record by season: 6-6, 9-4, 8-1. He’s on something of a Brian Kelly career track, winning at every stop up the ladder: first at Lehigh, then at Elon, now at Ball State. The only loss this season came at North Texas, when the Cardinals blew an 18-point lead in the second half. This team looks destined to win at least 10 games and is headed to a major MAC showdown at undefeated Northern Illinois on Nov. 13.

Mark Hudspeth (30), Louisiana-Lafayette. Trending: up. Record by season: 9-4, 9-4, 6-2. The Ragin’ Cajuns opened the year with losses to Arkansas and Kansas State but have rolled to six straight wins since then. League championship could be decided Nov. 30 when Louisiana-Monroe visits. If a bigger program doesn’t grab up Hudspeth this year it would be a surprise.

GAME OF INCHES IN THE BIG TEN

Aside from Ohio State at the top and Purdue at the bottom, almost every team in the Big Ten can point to a play here or there that meant the difference between a victory or defeat – some of them more important victories or defeats than others. Four teams and two games felt the impact of that narrow margin of separation Saturday. The list:

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Nebraska's Bo Pelini (C) and John Papuchis (L) talk with Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald. (AP)

Northwestern (31). The Wildcats are a surprising and depressing 0-5 in the league after the latest coin-flip play went against them: the Nebraska Hail Mary. It works about once a season in college football, and this time it was at the expense of a Northwestern team that aided in its own demise by have no defensive players in the end zone on the final play and allowing receiver Jordan Westerkamp to get behind everyone and cleanly catch a deflected (not batted down) bomb. Combine that fluke with an overtime loss to Iowa and a three-point loss to Minnesota, and Northwestern has lost its last three games by a total of 13 points. And then there was the loss that started the tailspin, against Ohio State: if quarterback Kain Colter doesn’t drop the snap and fail by inches to convert a fourth-and-1, Northwestern might have won that game and been 5-0. But that seems a long time ago now.

Nebraska (32). If the Hail Mary pass doesn’t go through and the Cornhuskers lose, coach Bo Pelini might have joined brother Carl in being unemployed within the same week. Even with the victory, Pelini is sledding uphill against public opinion following defeats against UCLA and Minnesota, and some unimpressive wins. But the sudden victory keeps Nebraska in contention to win the Big Ten Legends Division, and keeps the wolves at bay for another week.

Indiana (33). Trailing Minnesota 42-39 but in the red zone in the final half-minute, Hoosiers quarterback Nate Sudfeld threw a swing pass to running back Tevin Coleman. But this was a slightly backward pass, so when Coleman failed to make the catch it was a live ball. Coleman was knocked down, and then made no play to recover the ball. Minnesota linebacker Aaron Hill scooped it to end the game. If the pass is another yard or two forward, it’s a simple incompletion and the Hoosiers can play to tie or win. That may make the difference between a bowl bid or staying home for Indiana, which now will have to win three of its four remaining games against Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Purdue to reach six victories.

Minnesota (34). For the Gophers, the backward pass prevented them from blowing a 22-point, second-half lead and halting the momentum built in consecutive victories over Northwestern and Nebraska. Although the remaining schedule is difficult (Penn State, Wisconsin, at Michigan State), the Gophers remain in contention to win the Legends.

THREE ENDURING MYSTERIES

That The Dash cannot figure out. Anyone with explanations, drop a line:

What has happened to Cincinnati (35)? Year one under Tommy Tuberville has been tragic (one player was killed and another seriously injured in an auto accident) and underachieving. The Bearcats are 6-2 but have the most threadbare collection of victories imaginable: Purdue, FCS Northwestern State, Miami of Ohio, Temple, Connecticut and Memphis. The best of that bunch, according to the Sagarin Ratings: 1-6 Memphis, which is ranked No. 102. And the losses have been ugly: to a South Florida team that was winless at the time, and by 28 points to an Illinois team that is now 3-5. Given the ease of the schedule, a decent Cincinnati team would be 8-0.

How in the world did Virginia (36) beat BYU? It goes down as the weirdest result of the season to date. The Cavaliers, now 2-7 and probably the worst team in the ACC, opened the year with a 19-16 victory over the Cougars, now 6-2 and on a five-game winning streak. And Virginia somehow won despite being a minus-1 in the turnover department and being outgained by 139 yards. The Cavs benefitted from a blocked punt, a 53-yard field goal, a downpour and some horrible quarterback play by BYU’s Taysom Hill – who now is having an outstanding season, but on that day was 13 of 40 and threw the ball for 175 yards.

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Paula Patton. (AP)

How did it take this long to make Paula Patton (37) a Dashette? A clear oversight. The Dash is most apologetic.

COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK

He probably doesn’t have a comp car, but he should. Dennis “Dirt” Winston (38) led Grambling to its first victory in more than a year Saturday, 47-40, over Mississippi Valley State. Winston is the third coach of the Tigers this season, replacing interim coach George Ragsdale, who replaced fired head coach Doug Williams. Ragsdale was ousted in the much-publicized player strike last month, in which the Grambling players refused to practice or play on the road against Jackson State in protest of substandard facilities and overall treatment. Winston stepped in and helped calm the situation, then oversaw a close loss to Texas Southern and the end of a 19-game losing streak. Well done.

COACH WHO SHOULD TAKE THE BUS TO WORK

Frank Beamer (39), Virginia Tech. Beamer’s team has conducted a clinic on how not to handle a bye week, dropping consecutive games after a week off. The Hokies were upset first by Duke, then by Boston College, committing eight turnovers in the two games. The only people who should be madder than Virginia Tech fans are Alabama fans, who saw their season-opening victory diminished by this two-week blunderfest from Beamer’s team.

POINT AFTER

When hungry in Indianapolis – as Big Ten fans figure to be in another month, while attending the league championship game – hunker down in downtown at Adobo Grill (40). Get the guacamole, the carne asada tacos and a righteous margarita. Watch football on the projection screen. Thank The Dash later.

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