Friday November 16th, 2007

The cleats snagged, the knee gave, now Dennis Dixon is done. Oregon is a less interesting team, the Pac-10 a less interesting conference, college football is a less interesting sport today than it was yesterday. The Ducks senior quarterback was that transcendent this season.

Regarding his Heisman prospects, Dixon went from Hillary to Mike Gravel in the desert on Thursday night. What happened in Arizona Stadium after Dixon's injury early in Oregon's 34-24 loss to the unranked Wildcats made his case for the Heisman Trophy just as dramatically as his portfolio of mind-bending plays from a brilliant, truncated season.

The Heisman, that most irritatingly inexact of prizes, goes to the nation's "most outstanding" player. That elastic, opaque phrase has meant, down through the years, "Notre Dame quarterback having a pretty good season" and "best running back or quarterback on a team in the national title hunt." And it has served as an Irving Thalberg Lifetime Achievement Award (where you have gone, Eric Crouch?).

If the Heisman goes, as some feel it should, to the most valuable player on a national title contender, than Dixon earned it in absentia last night. Backup Brady Leaf proved several things in his excruciating stint as a long reliever:

• He's got grit. Hobbled by a bad ankle, absorbing one ferocious shot after another, Leaf continued to battle, throwing a multitude of errant passes, yes; but also leading the coyote ugly, 17-play scoring drive that brought the Ducks to within a touchdown with 4:30 remaining. (Kudos to the ESPN crew for nailing down a sideline interview with Ryan Leaf, whose trademark misanthropy was nowhere to be found as he covered his little brother's back, talking about how the kid was battling, and how proud he was of him.)

• Leaf, a drop-back passer whose mobility calls to mind the twilight years of George Blanda, is a miserable match with offensive coordinator Chip Kelly's free-wheeling spread option system.

• Wildcats corner Antoine Cason should probably win the Thorpe Award as the nation's best defensive back. That guy won't last long in the first round.

• For two-and-a-half months, until he left last night's game after collapsing without being touched, Dixon was the most valuable player on a national title contender. He won't win the Heisman now, but he deserves, at the least, a trip to New York.

Ripples from the latest upset in a season so crammed with them that, as I point out in this week's SI, the word has begun to lose its meaning:

Tim Tebow, time to start giving serious reflection to what you'll say when your name is called at the Nokia Theater in Times Square on the second weekend in December.

• USC, loser to Stanford and Oregon, welcome back to the race for the Pac-10 title!

• West Virginia, which declined to go in the tank following its Sept. 28 loss to South Florida, now stands to reap some serious dividends. The Ducks dispatched, the Mountaineers will bump up to No. 5 -- behind a trio of Big 12 teams who will soon be taking whacks at each other.

Dream scenario for Pat White, Steve Slaton, et al.: Missouri loses to Kansas State on Saturday. (Not likely, but not completely farfetched: Remember, the Tigers haven't won in Manhattan since 1989.) Mizzou rallies to knock off bitter rival Kansas in Arrowhead Stadium on Nov. 24 and Oklahoma a week later in the Big 12 title game, clearing a path to the No. 2 spot for the Mountaineers ... who won't be able to seize it, of course, unless they take care of business on Saturday in suddenly imposing (though still faintly ridiculous sounding) Nippert Stadium, lair of the Cincinnati Bearcats.

The fevered musings of the preceding passage are based on the presumption that LSU will win out, a shaky presumption this season.

I was in Lawrence, Kan., as the Ducks went down. Took in a Jayhawks hoops game -- the Rock Chalks roughed up Division II Washburn, 92-60 -- while in town to fill the notebook for the Apocalypse on the Plains: KU vs. Missouri at Arrowhead Stadium the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Lost most years amid accounts of other, better known rivalry games, this year's Border Showdown will pit the No. 2 Jayhawks against the No. 4 Tigers.

Meanwhile, that hissing sound you hear is the steam escaping from The Game, which kicks off at noon in Ann Arbor.

Just don't tell Bo Biafra (not his real name) that Ohio State-Michigan has hemorrhaged much of its national significance. Biafra is the front man for The Bastard Sons of Woody Hayes. The self-described "Best damn punk band in the land" performed for years as the Dead Schembechlers, but changed their name following the death of Bo a year ago. (The passing of the legend was not enough to prevent the band from performing at a Hate Michigan rally later that night, a show I attended, thoroughly enjoyed, and chronicle in Saturday Rules, my book on college football, right down to descriptions of my favorite songs, Bomb Ann Arbor Now; Wide Left: the Ballad of Mike Lantry, Michigan Stadium Is A Pile of S---, and Biafra's eloquent distillation of the beauty of college football: "Who ever thought we would all love to hate so much?")

If Biafra's name is popping up in sports sections, it must be Michigan-Ohio State week. "Illinois is meaningless," he recently told the Detroit News. "The only important thing is to bomb Michigan back to the Stone Age, which for you Neanderthals up there is only about 10 years."

On the possibility of Lloyd Carr retiring after this season: "Lloyd Carr retiring? Is that what they call it up there when someone gets fired? How quaint. We don't care who they send against us. We will use their bones for toothpicks and belch forth the Wolverine flesh we dine upon."

It's all most entertaining. But honestly, I think the bile runs deeper beneath the Kansas-Mizzou set-to, a rivalry with roots reaching back to an actual guerrilla war. This week, Mizzou students have been sporting T-shirts depicting the depredations of William Quantrill, who once led a band of pro-slavery irregulars on a raid of Lawrence, killing an estimated 150 citizens. The shirt, which I haven't seen, is said to depict that murderous raid, along with the word, "Scoreboard."

Wow. Kind of makes that old Jayhawk staple, "Muck Fizzou," seem tasteful by comparison.

A few years ago, officials at both Kansas and Mizzou decided to rename the rivalry known for decades as The Border War. "Showdown my ass," growls ex-Jayhawks football coach Don Fambrough, still vigorous and profane at 85. Coach Fam speaks for many Kansas fans when he continues, "It's a goddam war. And they started it!"

They started it! What is this, pre-school? Emotions are running high before the most significant Border Showdown/War ever. As Daily Kansan sports editor Travis Robinett told me, "I wouldn't be surprised if there are multiple arrests in the parking lot before the game."

Who would have thought we would all love to hate so much?

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