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The College Football Report: Rainbow Warriors, Lonesome Polecats and Carl Spackler

Welcome back to our multi-part season preview. The Associated Press poll has gone live since our last installment and congratulations are in order for . . . no one.

Not a single one of our Other 25 teams thus far cracked the AP Top 25. In fact, a few of our Other 25 teams didn't even make the list of "Other teams receiving votes," meaning they weren't even Other enough for AP. We weren't surprised.

Teams like Oregon State (#46 in the USA Today coaches poll) and Georgia Tech (#50) fall into the margins among coaches. And sportswriters in the Associated Press' poll left out North Carolina (#36), South Florida (#38) and Clemson (#40). As it happens, part three of our preview focuses on Other 25 teams ranked between #40 - #37 and there may be a few clues as to why AP voters omitted each below.

40. The Clemson Tigers (6-7, 4-4 in the ACC, L vs. South Florida: Meineke Car Care Bowl)

Comment: Two years removed from an ACC division title and a berth in the ACC championship game, coach Dabo Swinney finds himself under pressure to produce (more) results. But should Clemson fans be this demanding? Keep in mind that the Tigers have not won a conference championship since 1999 and that was before the league expanded to include Miami and Virginia Tech in '04.

To offset the discontent, Swinney took the traditional route of threatened head coaches everywhere - fire everybody! The offseason shake-up cut all but two of his offensive assistants including former offensive coordinator Billy Napier. Clemson gave Napier all of one season after elevating from the assistant ranks in 2010. At the time, Napier (age 31) was the youngest offensive coordinator in Division I. Napier faced a significant challenge as the team struggled to replace all-everything C.J. Spiller. In the wake of Spiller's departure, the Tigers' offense posted mediocre numbers in 2010. Consider for example that Spiller won ACC Player of the Year (Clemson's first since '87) in his senior season and finished his career with 7,000 all-purpose yards - only the fifth player in history to hit that mark. Clemson retired Spiller's #28 after he helped the Tigers defeat Kentucky in the 2009 Music City Bowl - the program's first bowl win since 2005. We wonder how anyone could have replaced such a weapon in one season.

Despite the gaping hole in his roster, Napier managed to help Clemson reach a postseason bowl and may have done far more. We'll never know, because Spiller's replacement (if such a thing can be said) - sophomore running back Andre Ellington - suffered a season-ending injury against Boston College, forcing him to miss the five remaining games of 2010 including the Car Care Bowl. We imagine results would have been far better with Ellington on the field, who was averaging 5.8 yards per carry and had scored 10 TDs before going down. But Swinney had seen enough and Napier found himself out on the street.

Upset Potential: Apart from two layups (against Troy and Wofford), two manageable games (Boston College, Wake Forest), and three tossups (vs. Other 25 teams UNC, NC State and Georgia) the Tigers must face a murderer's row this year - #5 Florida State, #13 Virginia Tech, #12 South Carolina and #19 Auburn. Toss in Maryland, picked by the USA Today to win the conference, and Clemson could end 2011 in similar fashion as last season. And you know what they say - karma is a bitch.


39. The Hawai'i Warriors (10-4, 7-1 in the WAC, L vs. Tulsa: Hawaii Bowl)

Comment: When did Hawaii become Hawai'i? Well, we don't mean that exactly, but when did we change the spelling? We're confused. Oddly enough, we have seen "Hawai'i" in print but rarely online. We didn't mind when the football program, after 77 years, opted to drop "Rainbow" from the team name in favor of just "Warriors". But this is too much.

Upset Potential: This one is easy - the Warriors will beat anyone who can't defend the pass. The program returns only three starters on offense, but as long as senior (and Hawai'i native) Bryant Moniz can suit up at quarterback, we like their chances.


38. The South Florida Bulls (8-5, 3-4 in the Big East, W vs. South Florida: Meineke Car Care Bowl)

Comment: The break-out potential for quarterback B.J. Daniels of South Florida seems to have piqued the interest among commentators during the offseason. We can see why: the junior has a cannon for an arm, a sturdy frame (listed at 223 lbs. and standing just 6') and posts a 4.5 time in the 40-yard dash. He is, in short, one hell of an athlete. But he may not be a great quarterback. Last season, Daniels threw just 11 TDs versus 13 INTs and the Bulls were forced to rely on the defensive unit (rated at 17th in the country) to win several games. No surprise then that the "under" fared well in South Florida games - the point total fell under the Vegas line eight times last season.

Upset Potential: South Florida faces Notre Dame (#16 AP, #18 USA Today) right out of the chute on Saturday, September 3rd. A number of other winnable games follow until Big East season kicks off at Pittsburgh on Thursday, September 29th. The Bulls might enter that game with a 3-1 record, and any shot at a Big East championship likely rests on that outcome, along with home games against Miami and West Virginia at the end of the season.


37. The Houston Cougars (5-7, 4-4 in Conference USA)

Comment: We had a hard time coming up with both the nickname and the conference for the Houston Cougars. Whereas we could name the conference affiliation for nearly all of The Other 25, and the nickname for every team, somehow Houston eluded us. After some head-scratching (not the Texans . . . or Cowboys . . . Mustangs . . . Roadrunners . . . Tumbleweeds . . . ) we had to give in and resort to Google. Our bad, Cougars. For reasons we'll explain below, we want to nominate "Lonesome Polecats" as Houston's new nickname. No one would ever forget that one.

Upset Potential: The 2010 season hit the fan for the "Cougs" in a mid-September game against UCLA. Starting QB and Heisman hopeful Case Keenum (torn ACL) and backup Cotton Turner (broken collarbone) were lost for the season in a 31-13 loss at the Rose Bowl. Fortunately for Houston, the NCAA granted Keenum's "medical hardship" request for a sixth season of eligibility. The star quarterback - who has compiled 13,586 career passing yards - will again direct Houston's high-powered offense. Keenum may earn an honorable mention in the 2011 Heisman race, but Houston's conference affiliation (Conference USA is non-AQ) and low strength of schedule (in the 70s) figure to hold him back. Further, the QB has struggled to shed the "system quarterback" label throughout his career.

The system in question is the so-called "spread option" installed by offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen in 2008. A number of coaches have been credited with fathering the spread offense, but most point to Darell "Mouse" Davis as one of the first to adopt a pass-first approach to the run-and-shoot offense. Davis adapted the run-and-shoot based on a scheme pioneered by Ohio high school football coaching legend Glenn "Tiger" Ellison. After starting the 1958 season at Middletown High at 1-4-1, Ellison developed what he called The Lonesome Polecat offense. Ellison designed the Polecat to spread the offense across the line of scrimmage, positioning the center and quarterback in the middle, the offensive line at far left and two backs far right. (Under this system, a play might look like this.) He envisioned an offense that would "throw passes at will, put the football on display, give the fans something to cheer about, and have fun doing it." Ellison borrowed the run-and-shoot term from Paul Walker, his coaching counterpart for Middletown's basketball team (birthing the football cliche "basketball on turf") and eventually penned Run-and-Shoot Football: Offense of the Future, a bible for coaches and offensive coordinators.

Although the "Middies" did throw the ball, the run-and-shoot initially focused on running plays. It wasn't until Darrell Davis created a hybrid pass-first version that the "spread" system we know today began to emerge. Davis spent 15 years coaching high school ball in Oregon, eventually winning the state championship in 1973. Portland State took notice and offered Davis the head coaching job in 1975. From there, the run-and-shoot virus and all its derivatives began to spread throughout high school and college football. Davis's version also shifted play-calling from the quarterback to the head coach. His scheme still called for the offense to "read" the defense but the sidelines would send in a play after seeing the defensive alignment.

Over time, early adopters of the spread saw much success but the competition quickly caught up. For example, former Purdue coach Joe Tiller brought the spread to the Big Ten in 1997 and raised the Boilermakers to the league's top team by the 2000 season. Yet fast followers such as Jim Tressel (formerly of Ohio State), Ron Zook (Illinois), and the late Randy Walker (Northwestern) also implemented varieties of the system and Purdue finished all but one of Tiller's remaining eight seasons at fourth (or worse) in the Big Ten.

As for Holgorsen, he began his coaching career as the quarterback and running back coach under Hal Mumme at Valdosta State. Mumme modeled his style of the spread offense after BYU's LaVell Edwards. Edwards influenced a number of other spread devotees as well, such as Mike Leach (formerly of Texas Tech), Steve Sarkisian (Washington) and Norm Chow (offensive coordinator at BYU under Edwards, followed by stops at USC, UCLA and now Utah). Holgorsen spent from 2000-2007 under Leach at Texas Tech followed by a stint at Houston and a stop at Oklahoma State. Holgorsen took the head coaching job at West Virginia in 2011, a spot vacated by Rich Rodriguez (another spread coach!) in 2007.

The spread is the perfect offense for the modern game: it results in a high-scoring, high-energy game with plenty of excitement (as Ellison first noted) for the fans. The spread creates a significant advantage for offenses by stretching out the field, accelerating the pace, exposing overmatched corners and linebackers and exhausting the defense. Thus playmakers at the skill positions, and heady quarterbacks, can post gaudy numbers while overwhelming opponents who have prepared for a week at most.

We also can't help but point out that the spread (and all its variants) reinforces the myth of the genius head coach. Chip Kelly, the most recent example of this phenomenon, led the Oregon Ducks to the 2010 BCS National Championship game by installing a version of the spread that stressed lightning-fast playcalling. Much to the delight of commentators, fans and sportswriters, Kelly's system also employed enormous placards to signal plays to the offense. Kelly introduced the wrinkle, at least in part, after losing the 2009 Rose Bowl to Ohio State. Reflecting on the loss, Kelly suspected the Buckeyes were stealing signs. He developed a code of sorts using poster-boards, each separted into quadrants, containing a bizarre combination of images such as Lee Corso, a gopher and Carl Spackler. The combination of this unique system, Oregon's success on the field, and BCS berths has created an image for Kelly as a coach nearing the "pantheon of all-time creative geniuses."

Not for nothing, but the Ducks also field some exceptional talent to play in Kelly's system - talent that Kelly and Oregon may have bought by paying for access and influence through a shady recruiting middleman. Why, then, do players like Case Keenum end up at schools like Houston? What separates Keenum from a shot at a national championship and a Heisman trophy - a check for $25,000?


Coming Friday: The next installment.


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