Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (Rutgers lineman/innovator Raiqwon O’Neal’s over-the-head lateral instructional video sold separately)

MORE DASH: Fourth Playoff Spot | Intriguing Nov. Matchups | Harbaugh or Orgeron?

FOURTH QUARTER: THE PAC (AND MAC) ARE BACK

The final two FBS conferences jump into action this week, bringing us to 127 out of 130 teams playing fall football. Given where we were in early August, with the potential for anywhere from zero to around 45, it’s been quite a comeback. We’ll see how it goes without open dates for the Pac-12 (trying to play a six-game slate plus a championship weekend) and the Mid-American (a six-game slate plus a single championship game).

A quick look at some storylines for both leagues:

PAC-12

Where did everyone go (30)? It wasn’t a banner year in 2019, and still the conference lost a lot of proven entities. That includes the only active head coach who had been to the College Football Playoff (Washington’s Chris Petersen); Washington State’s best coach, by winning percentage, since the Korean War (Mike Leach); the No. 6 pick in the NFL draft (Oregon’s Justin Herbert); 20 of the 22 first-team all-conference picks (lone holdovers are Colorado linebacker Nate Landman and Washington defensive back Elijah Molden); and the best offensive lineman in the nation (Oregon’s Penei Sewell), who led a sizable group of opt-outs, only a couple of whom opted back in.

That exodus increases the chances of a shakeup at the top (31). Two-time reigning South Division champion Utah looks vulnerable after losing almost its entire defense, Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year Zack Moss and first-team all-league quarterback Tyler Huntley. In the North, Oregon is replacing eight starters on offense and five on defense, including its top three tacklers.

Who steps forward? The Dash likes USC (32) in the South and California (33) in the North.

clay-helton-usc-pac-12-return

Embattled Clay Helton has a great chance to get everyone off his back in this shortened season. The Trojans have the league’s top returning quarterback in terms of efficiency in Kedon Slovis, and the top two returning receivers in Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns. Todd Orlando arrives as defensive coordinator and should improve a unit that surrendered 29.4 points per game last year—most at USC since 2000. And the schedule is favorable, with Washington State as the divisional crossover opponent. The referendum on Helton will start to form early—Arizona State, likely the second-best team in the South, is the opening opponent … and kickoff is at 9 a.m. PT.

Cal will have less overall talent than Oregon in the North, but considerably more experience. The Golden Bears bring back almost everyone from an 8–5 team that was the best in Berkeley since 2009. Justin Wilcox and coordinator Tim DeRuyter can coach up some defense; now Wilcox needs new offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave (a longtime NFL guy) to spark a pedestrian offense. Cal was last in the conference in pass efficiency last season. The other question here: Cal and Stanford were probably the most limited of any Pac-12 schools this fall in terms of practice and workouts—will they be ready to play this week?

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Are the league’s most proven coaches ready to bounce back? Now that Petersen is gone, that would be UCLA’s Chip Kelly (34) and Stanford’s David Shaw (35).

Kelly’s second college act has been a crashing disappointment to date, a 7–17 slog that featured an 0–5 start in 2018 and an 0–3 start in ’19. It seems inevitable that UCLA will improve under Kelly—but when, and how much? The offseason headlines weren’t great: recruits continue to be underwhelmed, with UCLA signing the No. 8 class in the conference; and the athletic department managed to spend $5.4 million on food for the football team in 2019. Eat like a champion, play like the ninth-best team in the Pac-12.

After eight straight winning records, Shaw saw the bottom fall out in a 4–8 2019 season. Pretty much everything was bad, with the injury-riddled Cardinal fielding both their worst offense and defense under Shaw. Stanford saw an exodus via the transfer portal during the offseason, then its two best players opted out in offensive tackle Walker Little and defensive back Paulson Adebo. Still, there is some talent and experience available to help Shaw try to mold a comeback season.

MAC

The Mid-American Conference gives the people what they want: midweek #MACtion, and lots of it, right away. The MAC opens with six games Wednesday night, in what should be mild Midwestern weather. The league’s first three weeks will all be played on weeknights before shifting to Saturdays the final three.

There is a glorious lack of consensus (36) about what will transpire in the MAC this season. The preseason coaches polls favored Miami in the East and Toledo in the West. The preseason media polls favored Buffalo in the East and Central Michigan in the West.

The Dash is taking Buffalo (37) and its tandem of 1,000-yard rushers, Jaret Patterson and Kevin Marks, to capture the MAC title over Toledo.

COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK

Mel Tucker (38), Michigan State. His Spartans tenure could not have started any worse—and then gotten any better. After a seven-turnover train wreck upset loss to Rutgers, Tucker turned it around and upset Michigan in the Big House. Inflicting emotional distress on so many Wolverines fans will endear Tucker to his new Michigan State fan base as much as anything else he can do—and doing it this unexpectedly is just an added benefit.

COACH WHO SHOULD TAKE THE BUS TO WORK

Dave Aranda (39), Baylor. Another new coach in a new place, but it has been a mounting mess for the former LSU defensive coordinator. After an opening blowout of Kansas (a feat that could be accomplished by every Power 5 team in America), the Bears have lost three straight, and dealt with major COVID issues. Saturday was a debacle: Baylor fell behind TCU 20–0 in 10 1/2 minutes, and was down 30–0 by the middle of the second quarter. The Bears scored the final 16 points to make it look respectable, but it wasn’t.

POINT AFTER

The Dash kept it local again last week but did have a great Louisville meal at Mesh, which has one of the best outdoor eating areas in town. Get the smoked salmon appetizer, a burger and an Astral Plane IPA from Gravely Brewing (40) and thank The Dash later.

MORE DASH: Fourth Playoff Spot | Intriguing Nov. Matchups | Harbaugh or Orgeron?