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New reality in SEC means new reality for all of college football

On Sunday morning, SEC fans awoke to a new, unexpected reality. For the first time since November 1, 2008, neither Alabama nor Florida is the No. 1 team in the country. For the first time since September 20 of that year, neither team sits atop its respective division, having been replaced by LSU in the West and South Carolina in the East.

The defending champion Crimson Tide, the nation's undisputed No. 1 team as of Friday, now sits No. 8 in the polls and No. 3 in their own division. The offensively-challenged Gators remain in second despite two losses, a pretty telling sign of how far the East has fallen behind the West.

As has been proven repeatedly in recent years, one loss doesn't usually disqualify the SEC champ from the BCS Championship Game. 'Bama, despite its 35-21 loss in Columbia on Saturday, still has ample time to climb back into the top two. If we've leaned anything about college football, it's that nearly all the other major-conference champs will eventually sustain a loss as well. As Football Outsiders pointed out Saturday night, the stupefying rash of upsets to No. 1 or 2 teams in 2007 did not begin until Week 6. At least one top two team went down eight of the nine weeks after that.

At this point, however, there are two things about which we're much less certain. For one, is Alabama a title-contender that merely stubbed its toe on the road against a top 20 team, or a team whose weaknesses are only now being exposed? It may well be the latter.

The problem with early-season college football is that we're reading a whole lot into results against teams whose rankings are still largely based on what they did the year before. In hindsight, Alabama's 24-3 win over then No. 18 Penn State on Sept. 11 didn't tell us a darn thing; the Nittany Lions are now 3-3, with the Big Ten's worst offense. Similarly, the Tide's 31-6 gem against then No. 7 Florida just a week ago came against a Gators offense ranked 96th nationally. Alabama's signature victory to date is a 24-20 comeback at Arkansas, in which its rebuilt defense showed the first signs of cracks.

Saturday, South Carolina turned those cracks into craters. While quarterback Stephen Garcia played the game of his life (thanks in part to 6-foot-4, Velcro-handed receiver Alshon Jeffery), the story was how Gamecocks running back Marcus Lattimore rumbled right through the middle of the Alabama defense. Backs aren't supposed to be able to do that against the Tide, just like defenses aren't supposed to be able to sack Greg McElroy seven times or shut down Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson.

Perhaps six weeks from now Alabama's performance Saturday will seem like an aberration, but there was nothing fluky about South Carolina's physical superiority. This was a far more decisive result than past SEC/BCS champs' slip-ups. Florida's 2008 team lost to Ole Miss when Tim Tebow got stopped on a fourth-and-short run. The '06 Gators lost at Auburn on a Chris Leak fumble that probably shouldn't have been ruled a fumble. And as Les Miles famously said, LSU's 2007 team was "undefeated in regulation."

Alabama flat-out got beat. Apparently even Nick Saban can't replace nine defensive starters without missing a beat. And apparently Steve Spurrier can, in fact, build an elite team at South Carolina, even if it took six years.

Of course, all of this might be irrelevant if No. 7 Auburn (6-0) or No. 9 LSU (6-0) runs the table. If either does, it'll be playing in Glendale. But does anyone really believe that will happen? Three of Auburn's four wins against BCS foes have come by three points, including Saturday night's 37-34 escape against Kentucky, in which every one of quarterback Cameron Newton's 198 rushing yards were needed. As for LSU ... well, anything's possible with The Mad Hatter, but realistically -- c'mon.

More plausible is the possibility that someone -- Alabama, South Carolina, Auburn -- will go into the SEC Championship Game with a chance to finish 12-1, which in almost any year would assure it a spot in the Even Bigger Game -- and a shot at the league's fifth straight national championship.

Which brings us to that second question: Does this year's SEC deserve the benefit of the doubt?

Only the most staunch SEC apologist (and there are millions of them) would argue that the league isn't "down" this year. In recent years one could legitimately argue that the conference's eighth- or ninth-place team would finish third in a league like the Big Ten, but this year the SEC sports at least five mediocre-to-bad teams (Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Ole Miss). The Pac-10, which has seven teams ranked in the top 40 of CollegeBCS.com's simulated BCS standings, is a deeper league.

But the SEC does have five teams (Auburn, Alabama, LSU, South Carolina and Arkansas) ranked in the top 12 of the latest AP poll, and while some may slip a little, it's a good bet all five will stay in or around the top 20 all year. Come December, voters won't be analyzing "depth" -- they'll be drooling over the fact that whichever team hoists the trophy in Atlanta will have beaten five ranked teams.

If the Pac-10, Big Ten and Big 12 produce two undefeated champions between them, the SEC's BCS reign will end. Undefeated TCU or Utah would likely get the nod, too. (Boise State should, but probably wouldn't.) But if the nation's undefeated teams start dropping like flies, an SEC team would still likely emerge first from the one-loss group.

I'm just no longer as confident that team will be Alabama.

Seeing as I devoted the entire lead of last week's column to mocking Les Miles (and followed it up with a few Mailbag wisecracks), it's only fair to give the man his due one week later.

Remember, LSU's one-of-a-kind coach originally earned the nickname Mad Hatter not because of his recent time-management woes, but because of his extreme penchant for risk-taking. Unlike most of his generally conservative peers, Miles seems either immune or oblivious to the fear of failure -- perhaps because his gambles always seem to pay off.

The fake field-goal call against Florida was a stroke of genius, though you would think the Gators might have been more prepared for it. Miles has run the play before (most notably at South Carolina in 2007), and was he really going to try a 53-yard field goal?

Even then, it took another bout of good fortune (doesn't it always?) for Miles' miracle to pay off. No one could possibly look at the replay and tell for sure whether holder Derek Helton's bounce pass was or wasn't a lateral. That's why replay officials didn't overturn it. But it was a matter of inches one way or the other. Meanwhile, Miles apparently knows his rule book better than the rest of us. Disgruntled Florida fans bombed me with e-mails about rules (one real, one imagined) LSU supposedly violated. To clarify: Yes, the holder was allowed to have his knee on the ground when he made the pass. And while rule 7.2-2-2 states that on fourth down, a second player cannot advance a first player's fumble, a backwards pass -- though a live ball -- is not considered a fumble.

Of course, nowhere in the rules does it say that an angel should hover over Miles' hat at all times, either.

In her postgame interview, Holly Rowe asked Miles how he feels about his ubiquitous nickname. "I understand it's the hat I wear," he said. "But there's nothing mad underneath it." Oh, yes there is. And our Saturdays are infinitely more entertaining for it.

A lot of coaches (or their SIDs) must have been watching Nebraska's 48-13 rout of Kansas State last Thursday, because the Huskers inexplicably jumped over TCU for the No. 4 spot in the coaches' poll. (They're No. 5 in AP.) They, like the rest of us, watched quarterback Taylor "T-Magic" Martinez put on one of the most electrifying performances of the season, rushing for 242 yards and four touchdowns on just 15 attempts (including scores of 80, 41 and 35 yards).

"I think Taylor and [Eric] Crouch are similar in speed," Nebraska AD Tom Osborne said Friday. "But Taylor hits full speed faster probably than anyone I think I've ever seen. I think in three steps he's going full-speed."

As the game was going on, Twitter was abuzz with fans wondering whether Martinez may in fact be faster than touted Michigan counterpart Denard Robinson. It's a tough call. But just as Robinson got a reality check Saturday upon facing his first truly tough defense of the season, Martinez isn't likely to find the same gaping holes Saturday when the Huskers host Texas.

Much of the luster over that long-anticipated grudge-fest (due partially to Nebraska's Big 12 title loss to Texas, partially to ill feelings over the conference realignment madness) has vanished with Texas plummeting out of the national rankings. However, Will Muschamp's defense remains by far the most athletic Martinez and the Huskers have faced -- and may be the closest thing to a "marquee" game Nebraska plays the rest of the regular season. (Its highest-ranked remaining opponents as of now: No. 20 Oklahoma State and No. 21 Missouri.)

The difference between Michigan and Nebraska, of course, is that the Huskers have a dominant defense to boot, and one that figures to cause major problems for Texas' struggling offense. While Martinez stole the show against K-State, the Huskers have another breakout newcomer, juco linebacker Lavonte David. The junior already has 60 tackles, including 16 in Thursday's game. Ndamukong Suh might not be around anymore to stuff ballcarriers in the backfield, but David makes sure they don't get much farther.

Each week, I'll update my projected BCS lineup (as necessary) based on the latest week's games:

Title game: Ohio State vs. Oregon

Rose: Michigan State vs. Boise State

Fiesta: Oklahoma vs. West Virginia

Orange: Florida State vs. Auburn

Sugar: Alabama vs. Nebraska

Something tells me this will be the first of several changes to the projected title-game matchup over the next several weeks, because, as mentioned earlier, it's hard to imagine the current leaders all making it through unscathed. Oregon will have a particularly tough time running the table in the Pac-10. But I'm not ready to start betting on anyone else yet, either.

One interesting note: A Big Ten-Pac-10 title matchup like the one above would change the rest of the lineup considerably. The Rose Bowl would obviously replace one of the two with a Big Ten or Pac-10 team. (I went with Sparty, but it could just as easily be Iowa or Stanford.) If an SEC team makes the title game, however, a spot could open up in the Sugar or Orange bowls for undefeated TCU or Utah.

My reaction to the latest AP and coaches' polls (or BCS standings):

Underrated: Oregon State (AP: No. 24; coaches': NR)

The Beavers went on the road and knocked off No. 9 Arizona on Saturday. Their two losses have both come to top five teams (Boise State and TCU). There are really 24 teams that have done better?

Overrated: Florida (AP and coaches': No. 22)

Much like Oregon State, the Gators' two losses have both come to top 10 teams. Unlike Oregon State, Florida's best win was against ... Kentucky? Out you go, fellas.

• Utah trailed Iowa State 14-10 at the start of the second quarter Saturday. By halftime the Utes led 41-14. They wound up winning 68-27 against a team that beat Texas Tech the week before, and, in doing so, amassed one of the most remarkable stats I've seen. Between total offense (593 yards), kick returns (168), punt returns (156) and interception returns (109), Utah ball-handlers amassed a combined 1,026 yards. Naturally, the Utes dropped a spot in the AP poll.

• Meanwhile, fellow Mountain West (for now) power TCU beat Wyoming, 45-0, to notch back-to-back shutouts for the first time in 55 years. As mentioned earlier, the Horned Frogs dropped a spot in the coaches' poll.

• If the Florida State-Miami game is a measuring stick for the two rebuilding rivals' progress, fourth-year 'Canes coach Randy Shannon has some explaining to do. Jimbo Fisher's Seminoles manhandled Miami, 45-17, with the kind of relentless rushing attack (298 yards) Miami's been lacking throughout Shannon's tenure. "It's my fault as a coach at the University of Miami," Shannon said. "I don't blame the kids. I didn't get them ready for the situation of playing in a game like this."

• The Big Ten loves its co-champions, but this year could be particularly awkward because undefeated Ohio State and Michigan State don't play each other. (The Rose Bowl tiebreaker is highest BCS ranking, though it might not matter.) The Spartans (6-0) showed ideal balance in their 34-17 win over Michigan, running 49 times for 249 yards while quarterback Kirk Cousins threw for 287. "We showcased to everybody in the world that we're gonna run the ball," said tailback Edwin Baker.

• Oregon's 43-23 win at Washington State wasn't all rosy. Punt returner Kenjon Barner was knocked unconscious and hospitalized (thankfully, he was released Sunday) following a vicious helmet-on-helmet hit. Meanwhile, quarterback Darron Thomas went out with a sprained shoulder. Veteran backup Nate Costa didn't miss a beat, completing 13-of-15 passes and running for 84 yards. Thomas has a bye week to recover, but the Ducks' offense may be fine with either quarterback.

• Oregon State's win at Arizona came with a price, too. Star receiver James Rodgers went down with a gruesome knee injury in the second quarter and spent the second half on crutches. Those covering the game surmised he's probably out for the year, pending an MRI result. Amazingly, the senior (who could still qualify for a medical redshirt) caught seven balls for 102 yards in 18 minutes of game action before the injury (which came on a touchdown that was nullified).

• Texas Tech earned a dubious distinction Saturday: For the second straight week, its opponent (this time Baylor) returned an onside kick for a touchdown. This one, a surprise attempt in the first quarter, came when Tech's entire kick unit had a collective brain fart and stood watching the ball. Fortunately for the Red Raiders, quarterback Taylor Potts (42-of-59, 462 yards, four TDs, one INT) outdueled Baylor's Robert Griffin (31-of-42, 384 yards, two TDs) for a 42-35, defense-optional win.

• To those who wondered whether Lane Kiffin would be able to keep bowl-banned USC motivated once its season started to sour -- we're about to find out. Stanford dealt the Trojans their second straight loss on a last-second field goal, 37-35, laying waste to huge performances by quarterback Matt Barkley (28-of-45, 385 yards, three TDs) and freshman receiver Robert Woods (12 catches, 219 yards, three TDs). "We're at the lowest of the lows," said Barkley. I don't know about that.

• Oklahoma State sophomore receiver Justin Blackmon is having a monstrous season. His 13 catches for 190 yards against Louisiana-Lafayette were both career-highs, yet it marked his third game with at least 10 catches, and he's had at least 100 yards in all five contests this season. Offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen, who coached Michael Crabtree at Texas Tech, said Blackmon "is no different ... There hasn't been too many times we've thrown it to him, it hasn't worked out."

• When does Boise State work on all the trick plays it pulls out in big games? In its other games. The first play I saw upon turning on the Broncos' 57-14 rout of Toledo was a wicked fake punt in which Kyle Brotzman pitched a shovel pass to Tyler Shoemaker for a 60-yard gain. Alas, it was wiped out by holding. But the Broncos' starters still managed to rack up 50 points in two-and-a-half quarters.

• You have to admire N.C. State quarterback Russell Wilson's consistency. Over the past four games (Cincinnati, at Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, Boston College), he's racked up between 328 and 368 yards while attempting 40, 41, 49 and 51 passes. The only blight: six interceptions in his past three games, though his two Saturday didn't stop the Wolfpack (5-1) from cruising to a 44-17 win over Boston College. The game of the year in the ACC Atlantic figures to come on Oct. 28, when Florida State visits Raleigh.

• Rutgers may have found its quarterback of the future -- and it's not two-year starter Tom Savage. True freshman Chas Todd, replacing the injured and long-struggling Savage, threw a game-tying 45-yard touchdown with 3:53 left, then a 45-yard pass to set up a game-winning field goal against Connecticut. He finished 18-of-29 for 322 yards, two TDs and no INTs. Now, Greg Schiano faces a tough but inevitable decision. "I'm going to hold off on all that stuff," he said.

• Despite having lost its top quarterback, running back and receiver to ACL injuries -- and despite having lost to Toledo -- Purdue (3-2) went on the road and knocked off 5-0 Northwestern, 20-17, behind redshirt freshman quarterback Rob Henry's 132 rushing yards. Henry, who ran the option at times, completed just six passes, but hard-luck coach Danny Hope will take it. "There's still going to be some rough sledding," he said, "but we're going to be a heck of a football team in time."

• UCLA continues to be the nation's most baffling team. After averaging 322 rushing yards in consecutive wins over Houston, Texas and Washington State, the Bruins (3-3) went to Berkeley and ran for ... 26 yards in a 35-7 loss to Cal.

• Navy quarterback Ricky Dobbs has struggled on the ground all season, but he got some redemption through the air Saturday, completing three passes for 49 yards on a game-winning 64-yard drive to beat Wake Forest, 28-27.

• In two crucial battles to avoid finishing No. 120, 0-4 New Mexico State edged 0-5 New Mexico 16-14, while 0-4 Florida International topped 0-4 Western Kentucky 28-21. Now if only we could have a New Mexico-WKU "plus one."

• Pity Wyoming. The Cowboys, 2-4, have lost to then fifth-ranked Texas (34-7), third-ranked Boise State (51-6) and fifth-ranked TCU (45-0) as well as now No. 23 Air Force (20-14). What's up next? No. 11 Utah comes to Laramie.

Minnesota coach Tim Brewster and Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema will not be breaking bread this Christmas. In fact, it's a minor miracle Brewster didn't grab Paul Bunyan's Axe and come after Bielema following Saturday's 41-23 Badgers win.

Brewster was livid that Wisconsin went for two following a touchdown to go up 25 points (41-16) with 6:39 remaining. Cameras captured a heated exchange between the two at midfield afterward ("I probably shouldn't say [what he said]," said Bielema), but Brewster didn't stop there, launching a tirade against Bielema in his postgame press conference.

"I thought it was a poor decision for a head football coach," said Brewster. "He'll have to live with it. It was wrong. Everybody in here knows it and everybody in college football knows it. It was wrong."

Easy there, Timmy. Admittedly, Bielema's call seemed unnecessary (he used "the chart" as his excuse), and sportsmanship sticklers would undoubtedly call it classless. Personally, I'm not a fan of running-up-the-score whiners. Wisconsin wasn't playing an FCS team, or even a MAC team. This was a Big Ten game between longstanding rivals. You don't get to invoke the mercy rule.

The fact is, Brewster has more important things to worry about than a meaningless two-point conversion. Perhaps he was trying to divert attention from the fact that his team is 1-5. Maybe he was peeved over his impending pink slip. Really, all he did was add self-inflicted ammo to the perception that the Gophers are weaklings.

Mini-previews for three of this week's big games:

Ohio State at Wisconsin, Saturday (7 p.m. ET): Upset potential? You better believe it. Jim Tressel's three previous trips to Madison have been decided by an average of five points, including a Wisconsin upset of 5-0 Ohio State in 2003. Will Tressel play it close to the Vest again in a road game or let Terrelle Pryor attack?

Arkansas at Auburn, Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET): The Tigers are seventh in the AP poll, the Razorbacks 12th, yet either could just as easily finish fourth in the SEC West. This game will be a key determiner. Also, we'll get to answer a key question: Which is more lethal, Newton's feet or Ryan Mallett's arm?

Texas at Nebraska, Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET): Bad news, Huskers fans: Martinez may have to pass in order to keep Texas' defense honest. Good news, Huskers fans: Garrett Gilbert will have to pass for the 'Horns to have any shot of moving the ball on Nebraska. Ask Jake Locker how that worked out for him.

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