<
>

Bizarre ballots, coach's corner and bowl scenarios

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football ("Virginia Tech Chokies" T-shirts sold separately):

Latest Reason Why College Football Beats The NFL
To the best of The Dash's knowledge, the cheerleaders don't get arrested for brawling -- among other activities -- in bar bathrooms. From Carolina's TopCats to Minnesota's Love Boat and with T.O. eternally in between, it has been quite a year of bimbo eruptions for Tags.

Remember when "Playmakers" supposedly was presenting an inaccurate, over-the-top negative image of the league? The Dash didn't see any of this year's tabloid material -- much less the Original Whizzinator (1) -- in that show.

Then Again …
… At least the NFL has a playoff system to determine its champion. You know what major college football has, and you know it stinks.

The latest example of a lame system in action comes in the form of a Harris Poll ballot by a Mr. Dick Harmon (2) of the Deseret News in Salt Lake City. Let The Dash say this up front: Harmon has more cojones than the 62 cowardly coaches who vote anonymously in the USA Today poll, or most of the 112 other voters in the Harris Poll.

He publishes his ballot every week in his paper. You have to respect that accountability.

He also published a preseason column saying he doesn't like the BCS and hopes to see it die a painful death. But that hasn't stopped him from joining the Dark Side.

And unfortunately, Harmon's latest published ballot shows that he, apparently, has been watching a different college football season than the rest of us. He has 9-1 Penn State (3) ranked 17th this week.

Not only that, he has the Nittany Lions ranked two places behind Wisconsin (4), a two-loss team The Dash witnessed being throttled by three touchdowns in Beaver Stadium on Saturday. (It only seemed like a five-touchdown spread.) If they played 10 more times this year, Penn State would win all 10. In Madison or anywhere else.

Not only that, Harmon has the Nittany Lions three spots behind twice-beaten Ohio State (5). Wouldn't you know it, one of the Buckeyes' losses came against Penn State, too.

And not only that, he has TCU (6) ranked 11th. Although it's swell that the Horned Frogs are 8-1, let's compare losses with Penn State. TCU lost by 11 to SMU, which is rumored to play Division I football. Penn State lost by two at Michigan on a last-play touchdown after a controversial ruling added time to the clock.

The good thing about the Harris Poll is that, with 113 voters, the random lunatic ballot generally is canceled out by the more rational group voting. But there have been so many dumb votes in this stopgap contrivance of a poll the BCS created to fill the void left when the AP pulled out. Every week, something spectacularly stupid pops up in the Harris Poll's small print.

This was the poll that gave us votes for then-winless and still hopeless Idaho. And this is the poll that, this week, included a point for 3-6 Arizona (7) and six points for 4-4 North Carolina State (8).

Guys: Get your eyes off the dog-racing agate long enough to take in the records of the teams you're voting for each week. Either that, or put down the ballot and slowly walk away.

Clearly, the Harris Poll's cone of cluelessness extends beyond Harmon. He's going to catch heat this week for being accountable enough to put his bizarre ballot in the paper. The heat truly belongs to the system.

Comeback Coach Of The Year: George O'Leary
After a long stay in football purgatory, George O'Leary (9) doesn't have to flinch anymore when he sees his name in the newspaper or hears it on TV or the radio. If he's being mentioned this fall, it's probably in the course of a Coach of the Year conversation.

The second-year coach at Division I-A young'un Central Florida (10) has his Golden Knights bowl-eligible (6-3) and still in the thick of the Conference USA title race (5-1 in league play and leading the East Division). This comes one year after UCF was the only team to go 0-11, and less than four years after O'Leary blew the opportunity of a coaching lifetime.

The Dash recalls a 15-minute window between Bob Davie (11) and Ty Willingham (12) when O'Leary was coach at Notre Dame. His dream job fell apart before it began when we found out that O'Leary's résumé said he was a former Cy Young award winner, ambassador to Dubai and the inventor of the cotton gin.

OK, those are untrue exaggerations of O'Leary's untrue exaggerations. But it was enough to force the former Georgia Tech coach to resign in embarrassment and effectively blackball himself with college ADs for a couple of years.

O'Leary went off to work as an assistant coach in the NFL, then turned up at bottom-feeder UCF -- where he went 0-11 in his first season. Talk about a free-fall from grace.

But it turns out the fluffed-up résumé wasn't career suicide after all. More than a flesh wound, but less than lethal.

UCF began this season with a 15-game losing streak, but O'Leary set a preseason goal of going to the program's first bowl game.

"At that time, a lot of [people] were … looking at me like I had four heads," he said.

At least. Had O'Leary even seen the schedule? UCF was playing seven road games. Nobody does that and earns a bowl bid.

Going bowling looked even less likely when UCF started the season by losing at South Carolina and South Florida. But the Knights turned it around by beating Marshall on Sept. 17, and have lost just once since then. And they're playing just a handful of seniors.

How much better have they gotten? Their six-win turnaround from last season is best in the nation -- one better than Penn State, which has seven home games this year.

From last year, UCF has improved a minimum of 33 spots in the NCAA national statistical rankings in rushing, passing, pass efficiency, total offense and scoring offense, as well as in rushing defense and scoring defense.

Thundering Herd coach Mark Snyder (13) said he knew UCF was due to break through "when I walked on the field. I looked at my defensive coordinator and said, 'That's the best-looking 0-17 team I've ever seen.' … With coach O'Leary, it was just a matter of time."

Now that the time has come, O'Leary isn't going to volunteer much on his personal redemption season: "I've enjoyed coaching a lot of young kids. I see a lot of improvement. … Coaching is coaching, whether it's at Georgia Tech or the Minnesota Vikings. When you see kids taking coaching and getting better, I think that's what it's all about."

O'Leary's Company
These guys join O'Leary on The Dash's top-10 list of national Coach of the Year candidates (with the caveat that there is still plenty of time for these guys to fall on their faces):

Charlie Weis, Notre Dame (14): We all know what kind of job Weis has done in his first year under the Dome, so there's no need to recite the particulars once again. Just remember this: If Matt Leinart doesn't fumble -- or the fumble stays inbounds -- a team nobody had in a preseason Top 25 could be ranked No. 2 right now and looking at a Rose Bowl matchup with Texas.

Mike Shula, Alabama (15): The post-probation nuclear winter that was supposed to cripple the Crimson Tide for four or five years was cut in half by the young head coach with the magic football surname. He has gotten better every year, from a 4-9 struggle in year one to 6-6 last year to a by-any-means-necessary 9-0 right now. Sure, it has helped having senior quarterback Brodie Croyle to rebuild around, but this team is more about defense and special teams and all-around toughness than anything else. Not sure Dad could have done it any better than Mike has.

Pete Carroll, USC (16): Yeah, sure, every coach would love to try to scrape by with Leinart, Reggie Bush and six dozen other studs on the roster. But part of coaching is recruiting those guys, and getting them to enjoy your school so much that they stick around. And seriously: 31 wins in a row? In this day and age? With this much attention? Carroll is doing a phenomenal job keeping his team both loose under pressure and focused on the big prize.

Joe Paterno, Penn State (17): You don't see many old coaches loosening the reins and inviting a change of philosophy late in their careers -- which is why you see a lot of old coaches leave the game in a diminished state. Paterno has freshened the playbook, given more offensive authority to coordinator Galen Hall and used his freshman playmakers liberally and creatively. Add that to a classic hard-nosed Penn State defense and you have a stunning 9-1 surprise.

Rich Rodriguez, West Virginia (18): No coach in the Top 25 had more holes to fill than Rodriguez. He lost his top two rushers from 2004. His top five receivers. His top two tacklers and best pass defender. He didn't have a single quarterback who had thrown a college pass. He's taken eight returning starters and gone 7-1. That's strong.

Gary Barnett, Colorado (19): Nobody has worked through more criticism, scrutiny and external hysteria for the past 18 months. Nobody has recruited under tighter, more puritanical restrictions. And still, the guy's record in that time is 15-7 -- including 11-3 in his last 14 games. The only losses this year are against the Nos. 2 and 3 teams in the BCS, Texas and Miami. Get that man a contract extension, stat.

Mike Bellotti, Oregon (20): This is one success story The Dash saw coming. (Don't mention the fact that The Dash also thought Texas A&M was ready to break through.) With a senior quarterback and a new offensive coordinator, the Ducks were due to bounce back from last year's 5-6 disappointment. But even after Kellen Clemens went down with a broken ankle, Oregon managed to beat California, improve to 8-1 and keep its BCS hopes alive.

Mack Brown, Texas (21): If Mack Daddy didn't loosen up, enjoy himself more and curtail Vince Young less, none of this is happening right now. As with Paterno, it takes some work for a successful older coach to alter his outlook even a little. Brown has done that, and look at the results.

Steve Spurrier, South Carolina (22): He took over a team with nine returning starters and a rotten attitude, and look at the bowl-bound Gamecocks now. Once again, the Head Ball Coach is sticking it to Phil Fulmer and scaring the rest of the SEC to death. Seems like old times. You've got to love it -- unless you live in Gainesville, Fla., and your team is traveling to face the former program patriarch with a whole lot on the line.

(Honorable mention goes to TCU coach Gary Patterson (23). His Horned Frogs are a stout 8-1, which is no small feat. But it might also say something about the sketchy quality of TCU's new league, the Mountain West. The Frogs were 5-6 last year in Conference USA but have dominated a league that still has only one bowl-eligible team.)

Firing Season
(Wait, Make That Stay Of Execution Season)

By now, the gossip wire is usually bursting with buzz about coaching changes in college football. This year, the buzz is about the coaches who appear to be keeping their jobs:

Rich Brooks (24) at Kentucky. Despite an 8-23 overall record, a 3-18 SEC record, a 1-12 road record and just a single win as an underdog (against Vanderbilt, no less), the school announced Tuesday that Brooks is welcome back for a fourth season in Lexington. Why? The aftereffects of probation, a plague of injuries this fall … and right now, the Wildcats might have a hard time finding a good candidate who wants the job. As one Kentucky official put it, "This is not going to be fixed with a microwave. It's going to be with a Crock-Pot."

Gary Pinkel (25) at Missouri. Despite squandering the Brad Smith (26) Era (Mizzou is 23-22 since lavishly talented Smith started suiting up, despite playing in the utterly mediocre Big 12 North), Pinkel most likely will get a sixth season with the Tigers. Beating either Baylor or Kansas State in the final two weeks would give Missouri its second bowl bid under Pinkel, which would be just the fourth bowl for the school in the last 22 years. Mizzou is also high on freshman QB Chase Daniel.

Chuck Amato (27) at North Carolina State. After requesting and receiving tens of millions of dollars in facility upgrades, the Wolfpack have downgraded their competitiveness the past two years. Amato is 9-10 in that time and was feeling heat at 2-4 this year, but a comeback win over Southern Mississippi and a huge upset of Florida State have injected hope into the season. With two of its last three at home, State has a shot at a fifth bowl in Amato's six years.

John Bunting (28) at North Carolina. It took a late rally last year, capped by an upset of Miami, to stave off the Steve Spurrier talk in Chapel Hill. When the Tar Heels dropped to 2-3 this season, giving up 69 points to Louisville along the way, the Jim Donnan talk fired up. But upsetting Virginia and Boston College has Carolina thinking bowl game again -- and given the toughness of this schedule, that would be a nice season.

Houston Nutt (29) at Arkansas. At 2-6, the Razorbacks are not going bowling for the second straight year. Along the way, they've lost at home to Vanderbilt and South Carolina and surrendered 70 to USC. Despite all that, Nutt seems safe (though you never know what a six-game losing streak to end the year might do). He has played a whopping 17 freshmen; AD Frank Broyles came out in support of him a few weeks ago; and he's under contract through 2011. Nutt also has been productive in recruiting, locking up hotshot QB Mitch Mustain for 2006. Look for staff changes that could include Nutt surrendering some of his control of the offense.

After the tumult of last year, which saw turnover at Florida, Notre Dame, LSU, Pittsburgh, South Carolina, Mississippi, Syracuse, Utah, Oklahoma State and others, this could be a quiet winter. Most of the movement could come at the low end of Division I-A. Despite fan outrage at powerhouses Nebraska, Texas A&M and Tennessee, it would be a shock to see anything more than a shakeup of assistant coaches at those schools.

Bowl Scenarios
Dashette Sofia Vergara (30) was planning The Dash's holiday party schedule -- she has us flitting from one supermodel soiree to another, it's so hectic -- when she remembered to ask the key question: How are the bowl games shaping up? Knowing that The Dash is likely to skip a bash if the New Orleans Bowl is on, she wanted to plan ahead. So The Dash gave her the following conferences to watch closely as the bowl picture untangles:

ACC (31): Five teams are already eligible (Miami, Virginia Tech, Florida State, Boston College and Georgia Tech), and five others remain in the hunt (Virginia at 5-3; Clemson at 5-4; and Maryland, NC State and North Carolina at 4-4). Thing is, the two teams with five wins might have the toughest schedules left: Virginia has Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and at Miami; Clemson has Florida State and at South Carolina. The league has six tie-ins, which means the ACC could farm out a seventh team to a bowl with an open slot. The Liberty Bowl (32) might be interested in grabbing an ACC team to play opposite the first choice from Conference USA.

Big 12 (33): Nobody has been mathematically eliminated from bowl contention yet. With four teams already bowl eligible, that leaves eight to fight for the other four berths. Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas A&M need just one win to get there -- with the collapsing Aggies looking like a long shot, finishing up at Oklahoma and hosting Texas. Baylor, Kansas State and Oklahoma State all would have to pull off significant upsets to reach six wins. The Alamo Bowl would love to match the Sooners with Michigan.

SEC (34): South Carolina's sixth win caused much rejoicing in Dixie. Some bowl (Peach?) could welcome 40,000 Gamecocks fans to its game, and national curiosity would be aroused by a potential matchup of Spurrier against old nemesis Bobby Bowden's Florida State team. But the real winner could be the Music City Bowl in Nashville. Imagine this possible scenario: Tennessee plays Vanderbilt Nov. 19 … with a Music City berth on the line. Stranger things have certainly happened, but The Dash cannot think of any right now.

C-USA (35): Two teams have reached the requisite win total, and both are newcomers: UTEP and Central Florida. Seven other teams are brawling for three bowl tie-ins. Key games down the stretch include: Memphis (4-4) at Southern Miss (4-3), Nov. 19; East Carolina (3-5) at Tulsa (5-4), Nov. 12; and UCF (6-3) at UAB (4-4), Nov. 12. The Dash's best guess as to the three that come out of this with bowl bids: Houston, Tulsa and Southern Miss.

Mountain West (36): This should be interesting. After runaway leader TCU come four teams at 5-4 -- Colorado State, BYU, Utah and New Mexico -- and Wyoming at 4-5. The league has three bids, and word has it the Las Vegas Bowl, which has first selection, would love the Cougars or Utes. If the MWC can get at least four teams eligible for its bowls (Las Vegas, Emerald and Poinsettia), don't be surprised to see it shopping the Horned Frogs to a higher-profile game. With games at Wyoming on Nov. 12 and at home against Utah on Nov. 19, BYU could hold the key to the way it all shakes down.

Coach Who Earned His Comp Car This Week
Arizona's Mike Stoops (37), who scored what could be the program-turning victory he has been looking for in his second year in Tucson. The Wildcats undressed unbeaten UCLA 52-14, which almost assuredly has to be the worst beatdown a 2-6 team has put on an 8-0 team. Four of Arizona's losses had come by a total of 21 points. Now, with a two-game winning streak and Washington and hobbled Arizona State coming up, the Wildcats could end on a solid roll.

Coach Who Should Take The Bus To Work
Tennessee's Phil Fulmer (38). Not only did the Volunteers' fourth straight loss, at Notre Dame, let down an entire state, it let down an entire conference. SEC loyalists were stubbornly insisting that the league's low scores were less a product of inept offense than of superior defense. The Fighting Irish scored 27 offensive points and 41 all told on the Vols, pretty much terminating defense as a defense for the stultifying play in the SEC. (And by the way, Phil: Your quarterback situation is still a mess.)

Putting Out An APB For …
… Former Miami Hurricanes running back Cleveland Gary (39), the pass-catching bruiser back from Jimmy Johnson's heyday in Coral Gables. Gary went on to have one 1,000-yard season in the NFL but was pretty well done after about five seasons with the Rams. Anyone with information on Gary's whereabouts, please apprise The Dash.

Point After
If you're hungry in State College, Pa., The Dash recommends the chicken wings at Legends Bar (40) in the Penn Stater hotel. They're smoked first, then doused in hot sauce. Good combination. Wash 'em down with a Blue Moon Ale while paying homage to the JoePa monument on the wall.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.