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LSU and Alabama set for de facto national championship matchup

The sentiment started rippling through the Bryant-Denny Stadium press box during the third quarter of Alabama's 38-14 rout of Arkansas on Saturday. By the time LSU had finished with West Virginia later that night, all of the SEC and most of the nation were probably thinking the same thing.

October is going to be plenty of fun, but Nov. 5 can't get here soon enough.

On that day, the now top-ranked Tigers and third-ranked Crimson Tide will meet in Tuscaloosa for the national championship ... er, the SEC championship ... er, technically just an SEC West game. But with all due respect to former No. 1 Oklahoma, which hasn't done anything wrong, it's abundantly clear that Alabama and LSU are the most talented teams in the country --by a considerable margin. That reality doesn't guarantee anything, but considering the SEC's recent history it does probably mean that the winner of their showdown will be playing in New Orleans on Jan. 9.

Plenty of you are undoubtedly rolling your eyes at this conclusion. You remember when the media spent the bulk of 2006 building up the eventual No. 1 vs. No. 2 Ohio State-Michigan showdown. You got your fill of hyperbole during the march up to the 2009 Florida-Alabama SEC title game.

I understand your skepticism. Really. But have you watched these two teams play?

LSU just completed the most impressive September of any team in recent memory. While some of the nation's other top teams were cruising through schedules like this and this, the Tigers took on three ranked teams -- Oregon, Mississippi State (which is no longer ranked) and West Virginia -- and beat them all decisively. There was buzz before the season that this LSU defense might be as good as the one on the 2007 BCS title team, and after four games I feel confident saying this unit is actually much better.

No team has a better pair of cornerbacks than the Tigers' Tyrann Mathieu and Morris Claiborne, which is remarkable considering the nation's top corner last season was former Tiger Patrick Peterson. Mathieu and Claiborne accounted for LSU's two most important plays Saturday night: Mathieu's tipped ball and interception, which he returned to the 1-yard-line just before halftime, allowing the Tigers to open up a 20-point lead; and Claiborne's 99-yard kick return score to reclaim momentum in the second half after West Virginia had closed the gap to 27-21.

LSU's defensive line got uncharacteristically little pressure on Mountaineers quarterback Geno Smith, whose 463 yards seems like the furthest thing from a testimonial to Les Miles' defense. But that number is deceiving. For one thing, as SI.com's Holly Anderson pointed out, West Virginia had a lot of field to work with since Tigers punter Brad Wing landed six kicks inside the Mountaineers' 11-yard-line. Plus, Dana Holgorsen's offense is predicated in large part on dink-and-dunk passes, and the key for defenses is wrapping up WVU's receivers early. LSU's defense quite clearly did that, as Smith needed 62 attempts to get his yardage, equaling 7.1 yards per attempt. That combined with four turnovers helped the Tigers excel in the most important department: points allowed (21).

Add in the most solid performance to date from quarterback Jarrett Lee (16-of-28, 180 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions), and you've got a team that deservedly moved up to No. 1 on Sunday.

"We have a real strong road personality," said Miles. "No matter the environment we are capable of playing."

That's good to know, because on Nov. 5 the Tigers will play in front of 102,000 hostile spectators at Bryant-Denny, where there is no louder sound than the roar of Nick Saban's team running on to the field as AC/DC's Thunderstruck blares, and where on Saturday Alabama held a Bobby Petrino-orchestrated offense to 209 total yards.

"I'm telling you, that is hard," Saban said afterward. He was talking specifically about Alabama's execution of defensive coordinator Kirby Smart's gameplan, which involved a never-ending mix of disguised coverage with very little blitzing. Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson executed two nice touchdown drives --completing 8-of-9 passes on one of them -- but 'Bama rendered the Razorbacks utterly one-dimensional, allowing just 19 rushing yards on 17 attempts.

By now you know the names -- linebackers Courtney Upshaw and Dont'a Hightower, defensive backs Dre Kirkpatrick and Mark Barron -- that comprise Saban's NFL training-grounds defense, but seeing them in the flesh is another matter. These guys fly to the ball, rarely allowing preventable yardage. Arkansas had success early on screen passes, but by the second quarter Kirkpatrick was sprinting into the backfield to level receiver Joe Adams with a bone-rattling hit.

"A lot of people were labeling us as the best defense in the SEC," said Hightower, "so we wanted to go out and show people what we were capable of [going] with all cylinders turning."

Indeed, add in an efficient performance from quarterback AJ McCarron (15-of-20 for 200 yards) and a slew of big plays from Trent Richardson, and this looked every bit like the team many of us pegged as the nation's best coming into the season. Theoretically, the Tide face a significant road test this week at No. 12 Florida. In reality, those teams are as evenly matched as LSU and West Virginia were.

All signs point to Nov. 5 being a defining date for both the SEC and BCS races. Until then, we'll busy ourselves watching Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Boise State, Stanford et. al., jockey for position amid the rest of the field.

We knew entering the season that Oklahoma State had Big 12 title potential. There were two big obstacles, however: a questionable defense and a daunting conference road schedule.

There's nothing like overcoming a 17-point halftime deficit on the road against a Top 10 foe to squash those concerns.

Cowboys quarterback Brandon Weeden (47-of-60, 438 yards, two TDs, zero INTs) had his finest performance to date against Texas A&M, but the story of the game was Oklahoma State's second-half defensive dominance against Ryan Tannehill and the Aggies' offense. As Dr. Saturday detailed in his postgame breakdown: "In the span of 17 plays in a little under 17 minutes of game time, the Cowboys forced A&M into a fumble, two interceptions and two punts on five consecutive possessions. At one point, the Aggies went 14 minutes without a first down or even a completion by [Tannehill]." In turn, Oklahoma State went from down 20-3 to up 30-20 en route to a 30-29 victory.

And they did it during a week in which their co-defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer was mourning the loss of his wife, Angela, who died from heart issues last Saturday. His players would certainly have been excused for coming out flat.

"Win or lose, I told them that the way they handled that situation was beautiful," said Cowboys coach Mike Gundy. "The win makes it special, but the way they fought back as a group shows a lot about their character and who they are."

Oklahoma State's victory combined with Oklahoma's 38-28 win over Missouri (in which Landry Jones nearly replicated Weeden's stat line, throwing for 448 yards) may make some wonder whether the teams' Dec. 3 Bedlam date will be the Big 12 equivalent of LSU-Alabama. That's a long way away, with both teams facing several tests before then, including consecutive mid-October trips to Texas and Missouri for Oklahoma State.

But the road may not be such a scary place for the Cowboys after all. Weeden is now 8-0 on the road as a starter.

Any hangover in College Station from Saturday's disappointment likely vanished Sunday with the long-awaited news that Texas A&M's SEC invite is finally official -- the week the Aggies play an SEC foe (Arkansas), no less. With so much football to rehash, I'm keeping the realignment talk to a minimum in this column, but it's worth noting the statement Mike Slive released Sunday along with the A&M announcement.

"When Texas A&M joins our conference, we don't have immediate plans for a 14th member," Slive said. "We aren't thinking in terms of numbers."

Translation: If Missouri decides to remain in the Chuck Neinas-reformed Big 12, don't expect the SEC to rush out and pick any school to accompany A&M. We could be looking at a 13-team league for at least the 2012 season.

When Clemson's schedule was announced last spring, not many Tigers fans were pleased with the ACC office. Following a Sept. 17 date with defending national champion Auburn, the Tigers would begin conference play with the league's two consensus preseason favorites: Florida State and Virginia Tech.

Ever the upbeat optimist, however, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney not only embraced the challenge, but he also came up with a name for it.

"We called it the Schedule of Champions," Swinney said Sunday, noting his team's first five opponents -- Troy (Sun Belt), FCS Wofford (Southern Conference), Auburn (SEC and BCS), FSU (ACC Atlantic) and Virginia Tech (ACC overall) -- all laid claim to a title last season. "If you want to beat a champion, you've got to schedule for it. We have an opportunity if we take care of business to make ourselves relevant."

The Tigers are almost there. One of the season's few big surprises to date, they followed up a breakout 38-24 victory over then 21st-ranked Auburn two weeks ago with an even bigger 35-30 win over No. 11 Florida State on Saturday. Suddenly Clemson (4-0) is ranked 13th in the AP poll and has a leg up in the ACC's Atlantic Division, while the formerly fifth-ranked 'Noles fell to 2-2.

Saturday marked another huge game for first-year quarterback Tajh Boyd (23-of-37 for 344 yards, three TDs and one admittedly heinous INT), who made school history by notching his fourth straight game with at least three touchdown passes. It was one thing for Boyd and freshman sensation Sammy Watkins (eight catches, 141 yards, two TDs) to shred Auburn's porous defense, but quite another to make mincemeat of a respected Seminoles defense.

But Swinney said the Tigers' defense played its best game of the year against an FSU offense reeling without injured quarterback E.J. Manuel and a couple of key receivers. Clemson's secondary remains a work in progress, but its front four, led by defensive end Andre Branch, is a solid bunch.

With Clemson, we've learned over the years to temper expectations, and it's possible the fun will end with Saturday's trip to Lane Stadium in the Tigers' first road game of the season. The Hokies currently boast the nation's fourth-ranked defense. Swinney, who's gotten a lot of TV time the past couple of weeks, is good at both soaking in the attention and throwing out the proper caveats.

"September does not make a season," Swinney said. "It's good people are talking about Clemson. It means we've done something positive for a change. But we've still got all of October and November."

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

Title game: Alabama vs. OklahomaRose: Oregon vs. WisconsinFiesta: Oklahoma State vs. NebraskaSugar: LSU vs. Boise StateOrange: Virginia Tech vs. USF

There was much shuffling this week, including Oregon's return to the Rose Bowl. Not surprisingly, the Ducks' offense has kicked things into high-gear since the LSU loss, and when it's clicking ... wow. LaMichael James scorched Arizona for a school-record 288 yards on 23 carries in a 56-31 win over the 1-3 Wildcats. Meanwhile, Stanford just lost star linebacker Shayne Skov for the season.

• Like Clemson, Georgia Tech (4-0) showed it's a legit ACC contender Saturday, as the nation's top-rated offense (630.5 yards per game) piled up another 496 yards in a 35-28 win over North Carolina. Jackets quarterback Tevin Washington (10-of-14, 184 yards) continues to shine as a passer, making the triple option tough to stop. Whether Georgia Tech has the defense to win every week remains to be seen, but given the woes of Miami and others, Virginia Tech may be its lone worthy Coastal Division adversary.

• Baylor's Robert Griffin III continues to dazzle, and in so doing may be inventing a new "ratio." Forget touchdowns to interceptions. Following a 29-of-33, 338-yard, five-touchdown performance in a 56-31 win over Rice, Griffin has now thrown more touchdown passes (13) than incompletions (12). That's insane. He's bound to come back to earth at some point, but any Heisman straw poll that doesn't have Griffin in its top three right now is hard to take seriously.

• Lesson learned, Matt Barkley. Do not talk trash to Vontaze Burfict. First he will do this. Then he will jump up and intercept your red-zone pass at the line of scrimmage, one of four turnovers by the self-destructive Trojans (3-1) in a 43-22 loss to Arizona State. Lane Kiffin's team ranks 113th nationally in turnover margin (minus-six), 107th in penalties (31) and 99th in red-zone conversions (nine touchdowns on 17 tries). In other words, not much has changed from 2010.

• Michigan (4-0) finally got the breakthrough defensive performance it's been waiting for since before Rich Rodriguez's tenure in a 28-7 win over San Diego State. The Wolverines forced three fumbles, held the nation's second-leading rusher, Ronnie Hillman, to 109 yards and kept quarterback Ryan Lindley below 50 percent passing (23-of-48). Now it's time to see if coach Brady Hoke can reverse another recent trend: Michigan went unbeaten in September the past two years before crumbling down the stretch.

• The Big 12 may be even deeper than I thought last week. Kansas State (3-0) got its biggest nonconference win in years Saturday, beating Miami 28-24 when it stopped Jacory Harris just short of the goal line on fourth down with 49 seconds left. While touted transfer Bryce Brown continues riding the pine, Wildcats sophomore running back John Hubert had a breakout game (18 carries for 166 yards). "We wanted people to know we're not a pushover," said Hubert.

• Freshman quarterback Braxton Miller's first start for Ohio State was a mixed bag. He can certainly run, going for 83 yards on 17 carries in the Buckeyes' 37-17 win over Colorado. He was less inspiring through the air, going 5-of-13 for 83 yards, though two of those completions were 32- and 17-yard touchdowns to receiver Devin Smith. The Buckeyes' (3-1) best playmaker right now is junior running back Jordan Hall, who, after sitting out the first two games, has gone for 87 and 84 the past two weeks, and also had a 90-yard kick return Saturday.

• Steve Spurrier is putting on a good face, but behind closed doors he's got to be seething at his team's continued quarterback struggles. Stephen Garcia threw four interceptions Saturday against Vanderbilt (which now has 14 on the year). Fortunately for Garcia, the Gamecocks' (4-0) defense held the Commodores to 77 total yards in a 21-3 win. "I apologize to Gamecock fans for such a putrid offensive performance," said Spurrier, "But we won the game."

• Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly is also dealing with maddening quarterback inconsistency. Tommy Rees threw for just 216 yards on 41 attempts Saturday against Pittsburgh, finally leading the Irish (2-2) on an 85-yard go-ahead touchdown drive midway through the fourth quarter to pull out an ugly 15-12 win. "Right now Tommy is 6-1 as a starter," Kelly said Sunday. "... He's obviously not a finished product; nobody is. He'll continue to get better and better."

• Considering Jake Locker, Washington's starting quarterback the past four seasons, was the No. 8 pick in last spring's NFL draft, it's strange to say, but true: The Huskies (3-1) have made a significant upgrade at the position. Sophomore Keith Price, who coach Steve Sarkisian likened to Charlie Ward in the preseason, was 19-of-25 for 292 yards, three touchdowns and no picks in a 31-23 win over Cal. Price, the nation's ninth-rated passer, is completing 67 percent of his passes, up from Locker's 55.4.

• Temple (3-1) made its loudest statement to date in its continued resurgence with a stunning 38-7 rout of Maryland that left the Terps humiliated for more than just their uniforms. Bernard Pierce ran for 149 yards and a school-record five touchdowns. Note to the Big East: If you're looking for new teams, you might want to start with the one you kicked out seven years ago. Coach Steve Addazio, continuing the groundwork laid by Al Golden, certainly has things on the up.

• In hindsight, after seeing what both Alabama and Temple did this weekend, it's clear Penn State (3-1) must have a heck of a defense. Unfortunately, it suffered two tough blows Saturday: Linebacker Michael Mauti tore his ACL and is likely done for the year. Cornerback D'Anton Lynn suffered a scary injury after which he lay motionless and was taken to a hospital, where he was released shortly thereafter. His status for next week's game at Indiana is to be determined.

• Hawaii quarterback Bryant Moniz shredded UC Davis on Saturday for seven touchdowns ... in the first half. That tied an NCAA record last achieved by Florida's Doug Johnson in 1997. "It's something we've been working on a lot this week, throwing better deep balls," said Moniz. Presumably the Warriors (2-2) had a lot to work on coming off an inexplicable 40-20 loss at UNLV. The Rebels (1-3), followed up that performance with a 41-16 loss Saturday to Southern Utah.

• UCF boasts the nation's third-ranked defense, yet has just a 2-2 record to show for it thanks to some mind-numbing special teams gaffes. In a 24-17 loss to BYU last Friday, it gave up a 93-yard kick return, while freshman J.J. Worton muffed a punt at his own eight, setting up another Cougars score. Worton had replaced Josh Robinson, who himself had muffed three punt returns, including one the previous week that set up a short field for an FIU touchdown in another seven-point loss.

• Officially, Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson is leading the nation in rushing (168.7 yards per game). Ironically, that wouldn't be the case if the NCAA counted the statistics from his rain-shortened opener against Western Michigan.

• Remember Utah State coach Gary Andersen's ballsy fake field goal against Auburn? After scoring in double overtime against Colorado State on Saturday, Andersen was at it again: He went for two. He didn't get it, and the Rams won, 35-34.

• FIU must have been reading its press clippings (mostly in this column). Louisiana-Lafayette (3-1) knocked off the Panthers (3-1), 36-31.

• This is the first time Illinois has started 4-0 since 1951. I find that piece of trivia astonishing. Not once in 60 years? Not even with Dick Butkus (1962-64)?

A former administrative assistant filed a sexual harassment complaint against New Mexico coach Mike Locksley before he'd even coached his first game in 2009. During the first month of his first season he allegedly punched his receivers coach, resulting in a 10-day suspension. He once went to a bar to swipe surveillance tape of a heated exchange he'd had there with a student reporter. All the while, he went 2-26, repeatedly losing in lopsided fashion. Yet he managed to keep his job.

But after the events of this weekend, the school finally pulled the plug Sunday on one of the most disastrous coaching hires in recent history, according to a CBSSports.com report. Though based on the school's previous treatment of Locksley, it's hard to say what actually constituted the final straw: the fact that a self-professed Lobos recruit, Joshua Butts, was arrested for DWI while driving a car registered to Locksley (reportedly belonging to his son), or New Mexico's 48-45 loss to Sam Houston State.

Either way, the move was two years overdue. Locksley, formerly Ron Zook's top recruiter at Illinois who was known for his Washington D.C.-area ties, inherited a program that went to five bowl games under Rocky Long (now the coach at San Diego State) and drove it straight into the ground. The Lobos lost seven games by at least 20 points in Locksley's first season, lost their 2010 opener 72-0 to Oregon, and earlier this month lost 52-3 to Arkansas and 59-13 to Texas Tech.

"I don't read the paper I don't look at the news. ... I don't like negativity around me," Locksley said last week. Coach, sorry to break it to you, but you brought on all the negativity yourself. There's a huge sigh of relief in Albuquerque today, but it's unfortunate if it took a teenager's DWI for New Mexico to come to its senses. Though again, it was probably the Sam Houston State loss.

In the long history of controversial officiating errors, I can't remember a crew botching a crucial extra-point call. Either it went in or it didn't. How do you mess that up?

Well, the officials at Saturday's Toledo-Syracuse game did. The Big East acknowledged Saturday night that both the refs on the field and in the replay booth missed what anyone watching at home could have seen: This Orange extra point did not go through the uprights. Because the refs said it did, Syracuse went up 30-27, not 29-27, so Toledo's subsequent last-second field goal sent the game to overtime, where it lost.

Toledo is not happy.

On Sunday, the school held a news conference to announce it had petitioned the Big East to have the results of the game vacated. Note: It's not asking to be credited with the win. It just wants Syracuse's taken away.

"This can be looked upon in a variety of ways," said AD Mike O'Brien. "Whether it be sour grapes, that athletic director is a sore loser, or praised, I think it's important we show our football team that we truly support them, that we show our football coach and his staff we're here for them and support them and tell our fan base that it wasn't a situation where the University of Toledo just lays down."

Make no mistake, Toledo: You got robbed. But I'm going to go with the sour grapes/sore loser reaction. The call in question did not come on the final play of the game. There was still 2:07 remaining. Who knows, down two instead of three, what plays coach Tim Beckman might have called and whether they still would have led to a successful field goal. Even without all that, Toledo still had overtime.

But it's a moot point. There's about as much chance of the Big East vacating the result as there is of Syracuse deciding it was just kidding about that whole ACC thing.

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

Nebraska at Wisconsin, Saturday (8 p.m. ET): The preseason is over. It's time to find out whether Russell Wilson can keep up his torrid start against the Huskers' Blackshirts. And Nebraska's first Big Ten conference game will provide quite the hostile atmosphere to test Huskers enigma Taylor Martinez.

Alabama at Florida, Saturday (8 p.m. ET): Florida tailbacks Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey have been running away from people so far, but no one runs away from Alabama's defenders. The Gators' best hope is to produce an equally dominant defensive effort. Will Muschamp may spontaneously combust.

Clemson at Virginia Tech, Saturday (6 p.m. ET): The Hokies are another team we've yet to see against legit competition. Running back David Wilson is averaging 129 yards per game, but quarterback Logan Thomas will have to make some plays, and Tech's secondary will need to contain Clemson's explosive young receivers.

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