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College Football

Stanford, Notre Dame, Florida rise, but how do they fit in big picture?

I feel comfortable speaking for the other voters in the AP Poll -- at least the ones who tell the truth -- when I say this: We're still just guessing.

The most challenging part of ranking teams this weekend was finding new landing spots for the big winners. Stanford, Notre Dame and Florida celebrated huge victories, but it's still difficult to figure out where they fit into the bigger picture.

Stanford seems the easiest to place. The Cardinal beat a USC team that boasts a great quarterback, solid running backs and world-class receivers by exploiting the Trojans' weaknesses along the offensive line. Few teams in the Pac-12 have the front-seven talent to exploit those weaknesses so well, so it's difficult to imagine any of USC's non-Oregon opponents putting together as complete a game as Stanford. Meanwhile, the Cardinal play an upset-resistant style of offense -- maul defenders in the running game, eat clock -- and only three upcoming opponents (UCLA, Oregon and the team we'll get to in the next paragraph) seem to have the horses to compete. Given those circumstances, a top-10 ranking seems justified.

Notre Dame is more mysterious. The Fighting Irish seem more dynamic on offense with Everett Golson at the helm, and the Manti Te'o-led defense stoned Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell Saturday. But with the Big Ten falling flat in its biggest nonconference games, nothing Michigan State does the rest of the way will reflect positively on the Irish. This is where Notre Dame's hairy schedule this year helps. The Irish still have to play Michigan, Stanford, Oklahoma and USC. They probably won't pass through that gauntlet unscathed, but even if they split those games, they'll probably deserve to be within striking distance of the top 10.

Florida is the biggest enigma of all. The Gators looked fantastic Saturday in Knoxville, and they played a lights-out second half in their win at Texas A&M a week earlier. But let's take a look at Florida's ranking at this point in 2010 and 2011. Two years ago, Florida was 3-0 and ranked No. 9. The Gators finished 7-5. Last year, Florida was 3-0 and ranked No. 15. The Gators finished 6-6. Since Tennessee fell from the ranks of the elite, Florida's September schedule has generally been easy, and its October schedule has generally been brutal. It doesn't get easier in the SEC than Florida's next opponent (Kentucky), but on Oct. 6, Les Miles is coming to The Swamp, and he's bringing hell with him. After that game, we probably won't have to guess with the Gators anymore.

NCAA Football Power Rankings
1<a href=Alabama Crimson Tide" title="Alabama Crimson Tide">
Last week: 1
Nick Saban wasn't pleased with how some of his players prepared for the Crimson Tide's pasting of Arkansas. Which players? The backups. Perhaps the second-teamers didn't think they'd see much playing time against a team that started the year in the top 10, but The Process accepts no excuses. Besides, Alabama's backups should probably expect to play plenty in the coming weeks. With Florida Atlantic and Ole Miss coming to Tuscaloosa, Alabama's second-stringers are going to get a workout. "You've got young guys that have to learn by doing it, and, hopefully, they'll learn," Saban told reporters Saturday. "It does them good when they get their butt chewed out a little bit, too."

Last game: Beat Arkansas, 52-0
Next game: Saturday vs. Florida Atlantic
 
2<a href=LSU Tigers" title="LSU Tigers">
Last week: 2
Alex Cassara, an LSU football beat writer for student paper the Daily Reveille, posted this photo Monday -- shortly after authorities cleared the entire LSU campus because of a bomb threat. This pretty much explains everything you need to know about the school that almost annually produces a football team loaded with mutant swamp people who feast on opponents' souls. Did we mention Auburn needed overtime to beat Louisiana-Monroe Saturday? This weekend's game telecast deserves an R rating.

Last game: Beat Idaho, 63-14
Next game: Saturday at Auburn
 
3Oregon Ducks
Last week: 4
One of the best features of Luke Winn's College Basketball Power Rankings last season was the Aaron Craft Turnometer, which measured how often Ohio State's point guard forced opponents to cough up the ball. I always give credit when I blatantly rip off someone, so thank you, Mr. Winn, for inspiring the De'Anthony Thomas Yards-Per-Touch-O-Meter. When we evaluate running backs, we tend to look at rushing stats only. Such a narrow measure would be grossly unfair to Thomas, the most exciting player in college football. While he has rushed for 228 yards in Oregon's first three games, that doesn't even begin to tell the story. First, those 228 yards came on only 13 carries. Now that you're done cramming your eyeballs back into their sockets, consider this: Thomas also leads the Ducks in receiving yardage. Basically, if your punt-return numbers bring your yards-per-touch average down, you are a bad mamma jamma. We'll see if Thomas can keep up his Ludicrous Speed-pace -- uniform idea: plaid jerseys to simulate Thomas' hyperspace jumps -- against Pac-12 competition, but at the moment, the numbers are nothing short of astounding.



Last game: Beat Tennessee Tech, 63-14
Next game: Saturday vs. Arizona
 
4Florida St. Seminoles
Last week: 8
No, Wake Forest is not an elite team. Not even close. So why did the Seminoles get the big bump after pounding the Demon Deacons? Because in the past few years, this was the type of game Florida State wouldn't have taken seriously. The Seminoles would have struggled early, and they might have won or they might not. Saturday, Florida State was dialed in completely. The defense will have to maintain that level this week against Clemson, which has more playmakers than any other team on Florida State's schedule.

Last game: Beat Wake Forest, 52-0
Next game: Saturday vs. Clemson
 
5<a href=Georgia Bulldogs" title="Georgia Bulldogs">
Last week: 7
Vanderbilt coach James Franklin made nice Monday, joking that he and Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham vacationed together over the summer. But don't be surprised if some lingering animosity remains after the two screamed it out at the end of last year's meeting in Nashville. Georgia enters a critical stretch here. With one SEC East win (Missouri) under their belts, the Bulldogs face a three-week run of division opponents (Vanderbilt, Tennessee, South Carolina). Each is better than the last, but the Dawgs can't afford to look ahead at any point. The first two have the talent to pull the upset if Georgia gets sloppy.



Last game: Beat Florida Atlantic, 56-20
Next game: Saturday vs. Vanderbilt
 
6<a href=West Virginia Mountaineers" title="West Virginia Mountaineers">
Last week: 6
Do a Google News search on West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith, and the word Heisman pops up a lot. People, it's September. He's played Marshall and James Madison. Let's let Smith play a BCS AQ-conference opponent before we book his trip to New York. What? His first AQ-conference opponent is Maryland? Strike that. Let's let Smith play a Big 12 opponent before we book his trip to New York. That said, Smith looks awfully comfortable in his second season in coach Dana Holgorsen's offense. Smith's touchdown-to-incompletion ratio (currently 9:9) puts him in RGIII-in-2011 territory. If he can keep it up, he may be watching the skaters at Rockefeller Plaza in early December.

Last game: Beat James Madison, 42-12
Next game: Saturday vs. Maryland
 
7Stanford Cardinal
Last week: 20
The Cardinal get a week off, which probably eliminates the possibility of a post-USC letdown. Unlike a lot of people, I'm of the mind that we didn't overrate the Trojans so much as we underrated the Cardinal. Yes, Andrew Luck was a once-in-a-generation quarterback, but we neglected to look at the whole picture. This is a program that has played in two consecutive BCS bowls. This is a program that specializes in a bruising, clock-eating power running game. This is a program that gets after the opposing quarterback. Given those characteristics, we should have given the Cardinal the benefit of the doubt even after they lost Luck.

Last game: Beat USC, 21-14
Next game: Sept. 27 at Washington
 
8South Carolina Gamecocks
Last week: 9
The Gamecocks will play Saturday without safety D.J. Swearinger, who was suspended by the SEC Monday for a helmet-to-helmet hit on UAB's Patrick Hearn. "I thought it was a lot similar to the hit that [South Carolina tight end] Justice Cunningham took at Vanderbilt where the kid just ran in there and tried to break it up," Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier told reporters on a Sunday conference call. "That's sort of a new rule that came in this year. They're doing everything they can to protect against concussions." On Monday, the SEC released a statement to The State newspaper in Columbia saying Vanderbilt's Andre Hal was not suspended for that hit because, unlike the Swearinger hit, Hal did not appear to launch himself headfirst into the receiver. If leagues are going to retroactively suspend players for these hits, they had better get ready to explain every headshot that doesn't draw a suspension. The emphasis on safety is a good thing, but it needs to be applied fairly. Also, the leagues still aren't addressing a bigger issue. While cracking down on headshots is admirable, what about the repeated head-to-head collisions along the line that the research shows are just as dangerous over time as the highlight-reel slobberknockers in the secondary? When a 300-pound center and a 320-pound nose tackle playing a zero technique slam heads 75 times a game, that's a problem. But addressing that issue would require some serious conversations about the manner in which the sport will be played in the future, and it doesn't seem as if anyone in charge at any level of football is ready to have those conversations yet.



Last game: Beat UAB, 49-6
Next game: Saturday vs. Missouri
 
9Texas Longhorns
Last week: 11
Do not let the women in sundresses fool you, Longhorns. Ole Miss is not a representative SEC team. Scoring 66 points against the Rebels' defense does not mean you should expect to hang 50 on everyone in the Big 12. But it should give everyone in Austin confidence heading into the conference schedule that Mack Brown wasn't kidding when he said the offense had improved. For the first time since Colt McCoy left, Texas has a quarterback (David Ash) everyone can rally around, some legitimate playmakers and a line that can actually push a defense off the line of scrimmage. Add that to the Big 12's best defense, and the optimism is justified.

Last game: Beat Ole Miss, 66-31
Next game: Sept. 29 at Oklahoma State
 
10USC Trojans
Last week: 3
Maybe the Trojans didn't put one over on the NCAA, after all. Just when it seemed USC might field a national title contender in spite of Committee on Infractions-mandated scholarship reductions, a depth issue cost USC in a key conference game. The loss of center Khaled Holmes during the Syracuse game did serious damage to USC's line, and Stanford's pass rushers exploited that weakness all night, sacking Matt Barkley four times. It's unfair to blame Holmes' replacement, Cyrus Hobbi, for all the issues. But it is fair to wonder if things might have been different had USC been able to carry 85 players on scholarship. Some of the players USC declined to recruit because of the sanctions were undoubtedly offensive linemen. Those linemen -- now at other schools -- might have been good enough to win a job, or they might have pushed the starters to be better. This doesn't excuse USC's loss, but it does merit consideration.

Last game: Lost to Stanford, 21-14
Next game: Saturday vs. Cal
 
11Oklahoma Sooners
Last week: 10
Landry Jones threw for a school-record 505 yards, and the Sooners sacked Collin Klein seven times in last year's 58-17 win at Kansas State. It was a perfect-storm game for both teams: Oklahoma was never as good the rest of the way, and Kansas State was never as bad. The Sooners expect a more representative performance as each team opens Big 12 play. "I think they are as dangerous as anybody in the conference," senior defensive end R.J. Washington told SoonerSports.com. "You have a quarterback that rushes for 22 carries in one game. The first two games they averaged 51 points a game. We played them last year so I know how good they are. People can say what they want, but we know."

Last game: Beat Florida A&M, 69-13
Next game: Saturday vs. Kansas State
 
12Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Last week: 21
The most shocking thing about Notre Dame's win in East Lansing was how much more athletic the Fighting Irish seemed than the Spartans -- a team that is extremely athletic in its own right. This week, Notre Dame will face a premier athlete in Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson. If the Fighting Irish are indeed faster, then this should be an easier game to win than last week's. Containing Robinson on the ground and forcing him to throw should create turnovers. I realize that last year this created touchdowns for Michigan, but it's difficult to imagine Notre Dame's coverage being any worse than it was when Robinson spent the fourth quarter playing the world's most-watched game of 500.



Last game: Beat Michigan State, 20-3
Next game: Saturday vs. Michigan
 
13Kansas St. Wildcats
Last week: 12
Though Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops joked Monday that he had scrapped the package, Kansas State defenders should know exactly what to do if the Sooners send in backup quarterback Blake Bell near the goal line. Oklahoma used the Belldozer package late last season to punch in touchdowns, and Stoops' staff got the idea from Stoops' former boss, Bill Snyder. Stoops admitted as much to Klein during Big 12 media days. "I said, 'I saw you running all those plays, and I got a guy just like that ... we started running all your plays,'" Stoops told The Oklahoman. "He started laughing and he said, 'I saw all those plays. They looked just like ours.'"

Last game: Beat North Texas, 35-21
Next game: Saturday at Oklahoma
 
14Clemson Tigers
Last week: 16
Receiver Sammy Watkins returned from suspension with 110 yards on five offensive touches, including a 52-yard touchdown run. Before I break out the graphic design skills and create a Sammy Watkins Yards-Per-Touch-O-Meter, let's see how he performs against Florida State's filthy-good defense. Last year, Watkins torched the Seminoles for 141 receiving yards and two touchdowns. Watkins, fellow receiver Nuke Hopkins and tailback Andre Ellington will all need to play their best if the Tigers want to beat Florida State for the seventh time in 10 seasons and take command of the ACC Atlantic Division race.

Last game: Beat Furman, 41-7
Next game: Saturday at Florida State
 
15Florida Gators
Last week: NR
Where did that come from? For the first time since Tim Tebow graduated, Florida appeared to have playmakers on offense. Watching receiver Frankie Hammond Jr. -- who also delivered a critical block to help seal the Gators' win the previous Saturday at Texas A&M -- wind his way through the Tennessee defense for a 75-yard touchdown felt like a flashback to the Steve Spurrier era. Florida definitely seems better than last season, but heed this warning: We won't really know anything about the Gators until LSU comes to Gainesville Oct. 6. The Aggies and Volunteers are also unknowns, so it's difficult to judge what those two wins mean. An October that includes LSU, South Carolina and Georgia will define Florida's season. Destroying Kentucky on Saturday might be fun, but it won't provide much clarity.

Last game: Beat Tennessee, 37-20
Next game: Saturday vs. Kentucky
 
16<a href=Baylor Bears" title="Baylor Bears">
Last week: 13
The Bears trailed Sam Houston State by 10 points at halftime. If they start that slowly against Louisiana-Monroe, the Warhawks might step on their throats. Louisiana-Monroe is a national darling after upsetting Arkansas on Sept. 8 and taking Auburn to overtime at Jordan-Hare Stadium Saturday. The Warhawks aren't afraid of anyone, and a home game in front of a national television audience on a Friday night offers the perfect conditions for an upset. "It will give us a chance to bond as a team and to grow together, to get into a hostile environment and rely on each other," Baylor coach Art Briles said on Monday's Big 12 teleconference. "It will help prepare us down the road as we get into Big 12 play." Typically, power conference coaches are just saying that as they prepare to play a Sun Belt opponent. Briles meant every word.

Last game: Beat Sam Houston State, 48-23
Next game: Friday at Louisiana-Monroe
 
17Ohio St. Buckeyes
Last Week: 15
The Buckeyes might be the class of the Big Ten, which isn't saying much at the moment. Ohio State coach Urban Meyer was mortified watching his defense Saturday against Cal. This season, the Buckeyes have allowed 20 or more yards on 13 separate plays. Considering the quality of the competition -- remember, Cal lost to Nevada earlier -- that's particularly troubling. "That is the most alarming thing," Meyer told reporters Monday. "I've watched Ohio State's defense for a long time, and I can't remember a defense I've been around that's given up this many [big plays]. We've got to stop, or we'll lose a game." Fortunately for Ohio State, quarterback Braxton Miller continues to shine. Miller threw for 249 yards and four touchdowns and rushed for 75 more and a score against the Bears.

Last game: Beat Cal, 35-28
Next game: Saturday vs. UAB
 
18<a href=TCU Horned Frogs" title="TCU Horned Frogs">
Last week: 14
Horned Frogs coach Gary Patterson is treating his team's gaffes at Kansas as a particularly ugly set of anomalies. TCU left a ton of points on the board by committing three red-zone turnovers, but Patterson has elected not to dwell on those miscues. He considers them uncharacteristic and best forgotten. "I felt fortunate that we had won a ballgame, but I'm not making a big deal out of it. Those guys have played a lot of football," Patterson told The Dallas Morning News. "They have never showed that it's been a recurring thing. It happened in one ballgame. For us, sometimes if you keep talking about those kinds of things, they keep happening." The good news? Those mistakes happened against Kansas and not against any of the Frogs' other Big 12 foes. Any of the other eight would have handed TCU a loss under those circumstances. Instead, TCU is 1-0 in its new league.

Last game: Beat Kansas, 20-6
Next game: Saturday vs. Virginia
 
19Michigan St. Spartans
Last week: 5
The Spartans are my reach of the year. I misjudged them badly. I thought they could win the Big Ten and potentially challenge for a national title. Instead, they got outplayed at home by Notre Dame. Even if the Fighting Irish turn out to be very good, that doesn't bode well for the rest of the season. Of course, somebody still has to win the Big Ten title, and Ohio State isn't eligible.

Last game: Lost to Notre Dame, 20-3
Next game: Saturday vs. Eastern Michigan
 
20Michigan Wolverines
Last week: 19
Before the season, this seemed like the point where Notre Dame might succumb to the rigors of a tough schedule. Instead, it's Michigan that could be staring at the possibility of needing to win a Big Ten title to play in a BCS bowl. Michigan got whipped on both lines of scrimmage against Alabama, and while no one except LSU is as good as the Crimson Tide in the trenches, the fact that the Fighting Irish pushed around Michigan State's lines should give the Wolverines pause. Brady Hoke said forcing turnovers will be a point of emphasis this week, and it should be. The Wolverines might not be able to go toe-to-toe with the Irish and win, so they'll have to make their own breaks.

Last game: Beat UMass, 63-13
Next game: Saturday at Notre Dame
 
21Arizona Wildcats
Last week: 22
Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez makes the genesis of the zone-read concept -- which happened when he coached at tiny Glenville State -- sound like a happy accident. He doesn't give himself enough credit. Rodriguez is the godfather of a schematic tweak that provided the foundation for the offenses run by some of the nation's best coaches. One of those is Oregon's Chip Kelly, who has taken the basic tenets of Rodriguez's offense and elevated them to an ethereal plane. Saturday will feel like Obi-wan Kenobi versus Luke Skywalker. Not Star Wars Luke, but Return of the Jedi Luke.



Last game: Beat South Carolina State, 56-0
Next game: Saturday at Oregon
 
22<a href=Louisville Cardinals" title="Louisville Cardinals">
Last Week: 24
Why is Louisville visiting Florida International? Take a look at the Cardinals' two-deep depth chart, and the answer is obvious. Sixteen players on the first or second team are from Florida. Most of that group comes from South Florida, which has been a goldmine for Louisville coach Charlie Strong since he took over prior to the 2010 season. The group includes quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (Miami Northwestern), receiver Eli Rogers (Miami Northwestern) and cornerback Andrew Johnson (Miami Southridge). This gives a lot of potential Louisville recruits a chance to see the Cardinals play without having to board a plane.

Last game: Beat North Carolina, 39-34
Next game: Saturday at Florida International
 
23UCLA Bruins
Last week: 25
It's odd that a hurricane that originated in the Atlantic Ocean would affect the Oregon State-UCLA game, but Isaac, the storm that made landfall in Louisiana earlier this month, will do just that. The hurricane kept Nicholls State from preparing for its season opener against Oregon State and forced the postponement of the game. Oregon State beat Wisconsin the following week and then had a bye. So Bruins coach Jim Mora has only one Beavers game from this season to study, while Oregon State coach Mike Riley has three games worth of UCLA film to use while formulating a gameplan. UCLA has shown most of its cards, but Mora won't know until kickoff whether the Beavers did anything specifically for Wisconsin or whether the win against the Badgers was representative of how this group will play. Mora hopes the latter isn't the case. "I don't know if I want to see more than one game tape the way they played against Wisconsin," Mora joked to the Los Angeles Times.

Last game: Beat Houston, 37-6
Next game: Saturday vs. Oregon State
 
24Northwestern Wildcats
Last week: NR
Congratulations to the Wildcats for being the only team in the six BCS automatic qualifying conferences to beat three fellow AQ opponents in the first three weeks. Of course, those opponents were Syracuse, Vanderbilt and Boston College, but the very thought of an AQ-conference team scheduling this way is commendable. Now, on to South Dakota week.

Last game: Beat Boston College, 22-13
Next game: Saturday vs. South Dakota
 
25Missouri Tigers
Last week: NR
It's difficult to rank a team with a loss this early in the season, but Missouri's win against Arizona State -- while playing backup quarterback Corbin Berkstresser -- combined with the way the Tigers played Georgia for three quarters is enough to merit cracking the Top 25. If the Gamecocks are anywhere near as good as I've suggested they are here, they should beat Missouri. But if the Tigers learned anything about playing in the SEC from their debut against the Bulldogs, they should be able to put it to use this weekend in the conference's original Columbia. A win against South Carolina would put Missouri in the thick of the SEC East race. A loss probably means the Tigers can forget a trip to Atlanta in their first year in the league.

Last game: Beat Arizona State, 24-20
Next game: Saturday at South Carolina

Next five: Oregon State, Mississippi State, Rutgers, Cincinnati, Ohio

Andy Staples' Power Rankings also serve as his ballot in the Associated Press Top 25 poll.

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