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Notre Dame, Florida State have a shot to prove they're finally 'back'

Well, you knew this was coming. After a late night at Stanford Stadium recounting the Cardinal's takedown of preseason national title favorite USC, I woke up this morning to a bevy of e-mails and tweets like this one from @NikkiFree:

I FULLY expected #USC to fall. You guys in the media ram teams like USC down our throats because you WANT them to be relevant.

Hey, now. Don't go lumping me in with the masses. I did my part to warn people that the NCAA-impacted Trojans were no shoo-in to even win their own conference.

But if Nikki (if that's her real name) is right about one thing, it's this: We in the media do tend to get overexcited when a fallen power appears poised to return to glory. And by now, we all know the two annual champions of undue hype/subsequent on-field disappointment: Notre Dame and Florida State.

After eyebrow-raising performances by both, and with each facing a high-profile opponent this weekend, you might as well prepare now for a rash of "[Notre Dame or Florida State] is back" headlines should either or both prevail next Saturday.

So is this the year the buzz is actually merited? Or is this merely a prelude to slapping ourselves in the face for the umpteenth straight season?

At least for this week, the Irish deserve plenty of acclaim for their defensive clinic in a 20-3 win at No. 10 Michigan State. Notre Dame has had its share of offensive stars (Brady Quinn, Jimmy Clausen, Golden Tate, Michael Floyd) in recent years, but it hasn't fielded a truly elite defense since before some of its current players were born. Its first win in seven years over a top-10 team offered a strong case that may finally be changing.

"It's a big leap," said Irish coach Brian Kelly. "It's a signature win."

Starting with a heroic performance by senior linebacker Manti Te'o (12 tackles, two pass breakups, a sack and a fumble recovery), who tragically lost both his girlfriend (to leukemia) and his grandmother within a 24-hour span last week, the Irish limited Spartans star Le'Veon Bell to 77 yards on 19 carries and allowed just 237 total yards. The game marked Michigan State's worst scoring output at home in 21 years.

While Kelly was hired largely for his Cincinnati teams' offensive prowess, the third-year coach made defense his top recruiting priority upon his arrival -- and it shows. Even after touted freshman defensive end Aaron Lynch transferred to USF during the offseason, Notre Dame finally boasts the type of disruptive defensive linemen (defensive ends Stephon Tuitt and Sheldon Day, nose guard Louis Nix) that were few and far between under Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis.

"Our defense continues to be the group that we committed to in building when we started this process," said Kelly. "They're starting to get to that level that can play against anybody."

Now, the requisite caveats. Michigan State did not come in as an offensive juggernaut, as first-year starting quarterback Andrew Maxwell also struggled in the opener against Boise State. The Spartans' hallmark was their defense, and outside of an early 36-yard touchdown pass to John Goodman, Irish quarterback Everett Golson largely struggled (14-of-32 for 178 yards). And Notre Dame's inexperienced secondary suffered a significant blow when senior safety Jamoris Slaughter went down with a season-ending Achilles injury Saturday night.

The Irish -- which jumped from No. 20 to No. 11 in Sunday's AP poll -- play another primetime showcase against Michigan on Saturday night. After three straight last-second heartbreakers at the hands of Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson, Kelly's program would take another important step by beating the Wolverines. But in light of Alabama's season-opening rout of Michigan, a win should not merit national adulation. Those chances will come later this season, when the Irish take on No. 9 Stanford (Oct. 13) and No. 6 Oklahoma (Oct. 27).

No. 4 Florida State, on the other hand, requires no such patience. Its toughest test to date -- and possibly the highest-ranked opponent it will face all season -- comes Saturday when No. 10 Clemson visits Tallahassee.

Following a pair of tuneups against Murray State and Savannah State, the 'Noles finally faced a legitimate opponent last weekend in Wake Forest. Florida State proceeded to treat the Demon Deacons just the same as Murray State and Savannah State in a 52-0 whitewashing.

Wake Forest, mind you, had won four of its last six meetings with FSU and was coming off a 28-27 win over North Carolina. Deacons quarterback Tanner Price went 27-of-38 for 327 yards in that game against the Tar Heels. On Saturday, however, FSU's touted defense was even better than advertised. Relentless pressure from 'Noles defensive ends Tank Carradine (2.5 sacks) and Bjoern Werner (1.5 sacks) helped hold Price to 8-of-22 for 82 yards, and Wake managed just 126 total yards on the day.

Meanwhile, running back Chris Thompson -- who suffered a season-ending injury in the same game last year, breaking two vertebrae -- made a dazzling return, breaking second-quarter touchdown runs of 74 and 80 yards.

"It was impressive watching them play today," Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe said of the 'Noles. "This is a really, really special football team."

On Saturday, Florida State's loaded defense will look to shut down Clemson's explosive offense, which has now regained the services of suspended star Sammy Watkins (he had a 58-yard run against Furman). But the real intrigue may be whether quarterback E.J. Manuel, whose services have barely been required thus far, can play a consistent game against a BCS bowl-caliber opponent.

From a national standpoint, beating Clemson doesn't hold the same water as beating Alabama or LSU, but thanks to those ever-generous preseason rankings, the 'Noles are already within two poll spots of Les Miles' Tigers. If FSU wins Saturday, it may essentially be "back" before we know for certain whether that's accurate.

If nothing else, perhaps the 'Noles will manage to ride that momentum longer than USC did.

The last time we saw Stanford face a top-10 opponent before Saturday, Oklahoma State quarterback Brandon Weeden and receiver Justin Blackmon shredded the Cardinal's secondary in last January's Fiesta Bowl. Under Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw, Stanford has produced NFL-caliber talent at almost every position, but defensive back remained its notable Achilles' heel.

That being the case, the most impressive aspect of the Cardinal's 21-14 upset of USC was the spectacular job their new-look secondary did containing Marqise Lee and Robert Woods.

"Our defensive backs played as well tonight as they ever have since I've been here," said Shaw. "Those are the two best wide receivers in the nation and we held them to 254 [passing] yards."

Stanford lost three starters from last year's unit, including veteran safeties Michael Thomas and Delano Howell. Their replacements are less experienced but more athletic. Save for a 49-yard first-quarter catch and run by USC freshman Nelson Agholor, cornerbacks Terrence Brown, Barry Browning and Wayne Lyons, safeties Jordan Richards and Ed Reynolds and nickelbacks Usua Amanam and Ronnie Harris did a nice job keeping Lee and Woods in front of them. While it certainly helped that Matt Barkley was frequently under duress and was relegated to mostly short-yardage throws, Lee and Woods have broken more than a few of those for touchdowns. For the most part, Stanford's defensive backs wrapped up USC's receiving corps.

"We tried to make them one-dimensional and throw the ball," said Shaw. "That sounds crazy to put it in the hands of that quarterback and those receivers, but we knew we could play smart, sound football and keep those receivers in front of us."

With quarterback Josh Nunes still growing into his role, Stanford may need to win more games behind the strength of its defense than during the Andrew Luck era. Saturday's performance should give the Cardinal confidence as they prep for a season-long gauntlet of facing Pac-12 aerial offenses, a slate that continues a week from Thursday at Washington and quarterback Keith Price.

In April, Arkansas' John L. Smith experiment had the makings of a potentially fascinating season-long storyline. After just three weeks, it's already an unmitigated disaster -- and the blame falls squarely on the Razorbacks' one-year rent-a-coach.

Alabama's 52-0 rout in Fayetteville Saturday will go down as one of the lowest moments in Arkansas football history -- arguably more humiliating than the previous week's home loss to Louisiana-Monroe. No, the Razorbacks weren't expected to hang with the nation's No. 1 team. But you would have thought they'd at least put up a fight in front of their fans. Injured quarterback Tyler Wilson said as much when he marched into the postgame press conference and excoriated his teammates.

"Do I feel that we, at times, gave up out there? Yeah, absolutely," he said. "As a leader, it sucks to see people not do their jobs and things go wrong."

It's not Wilson's fault he couldn't suit up. He suffered an apparent concussion in last week's game, and concussions -- as you may have heard -- are a pretty serious issue these days. Smith, however, spent the week milking Wilson's injury as part of a ridiculous ruse. The coach admitted afterward that Wilson was ruled out Thursday, but Smith still went so far as having the concussed star suit up and throw passes with the first-team offense before kickoff.

Shockingly, Nick Saban was not fooled.

Going forward, however, Smith's biggest challenge won't be managing Wilson's health. It'll be keeping a team together that's preseason goals are all but shot and that already knows its coach won't be back next year. AD Jeff Long had no choice but to fire Bobby Petrino last spring, but he took quite an unorthodox route by replacing him with Smith, a former BCS-conference washout, and labeling him with a pre-emptive expiration date. Smith endured his share of low moments at Michigan State, but nothing he went through was nearly as embarrassing as what has transpired over the past two weeks at Arkansas.

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

Title game: Alabama vs. OregonRose: USC vs. Michigan StateFiesta: Oklahoma vs. ClemsonSugar: LSU vs. TexasOrange: Florida State vs. Louisville

This week marks my first real shake-up -- though interestingly, it did not involve dropping either USC or Michigan State from their previous perches. For one, I had to flip Alabama and LSU. The Tigers have done absolutely nothing wrong, but after the clinics the Tide put on against both Michigan and Arkansas, I'd be outsmarting myself to not have them in the title game right now.

Meanwhile, the two-teams-per-conference limit, combined with the Big Ten's league-wide struggles, is making it awfully hard to fill that last at-large spot. A week after I slotted Virginia Tech there, the Hokies went and lost to Pitt. Yes, Pitt. BYU, my non-BCS dark horse, fell to Utah. Clemson gets the nod for now, even though it may well lose this weekend. However, even if that happens, Dabo Swinney's Tigers would still have ample opportunity to rise back into the top 14.

To refresh, this is a real-time top three Heisman ballot in which the only consideration is the players' performance to date. Neither preseason buzz nor the likelihood of a player actually of winning will come into play, but the quality of competition so far will.

This week's ballot:

1. Johnathan Franklin, RB, UCLA: The nation's leading rusher posted consecutive 200-yard games before racking up 125 rushing yards last week against Houston.

2. Jarvis Jones, LB, Georgia: Though he didn't play last week, the star of Georgia's Week 2 win at Missouri has 3.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, an interception and 11 quarterback hurries on the season.

3. Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville: The sophomore has completed a ridiculous 81.8 percent of his passes for 855 yards, five touchdowns and no picks.

Note: My preseason favorite, Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas, sprang for another 220 yards on 10 touches against Tennessee Tech, but he's played three cupcakes. West Virginia's Geno Smith gets dinged for the same reason.

• Tennessee's best hope of ending Florida's eight-year winning streak over the Vols went up in smoke during the final 3:15 of the third quarter Saturday. First, Trey Burton tied the game 20-20 with an 80-yard touchdown run. Then Jeff Driskel -- in a breakout performance -- hit Jordan Reed for a 23-yard score. The Gators (3-0) scored the last 24 points of a 37-20 victory that gives a boost to second-year coach Will Muschamp while reigniting the flame under Derek Dooley's orange pants.

• Louisiana-Monroe's quest to take down back-to-back SEC West foes fell just short, as Auburn edged the Warhawks, 31-28, in overtime. Quarterback Kolton Browning was sensational again (28-of-46 for 237 yards, three touchdowns and no picks) and threw the game-tying touchdown with 1:18 left. But ULM couldn't stop the Tigers' running backs (42 carries, 255 yards). Browning and the Warhawks now have one more shot against the big boys: They host Baylor Friday.

• Apparently losing to Sacramento State did not fully expose the depths of Colorado's ineptitude. On Saturday the Buffs (0-3) traveled to Fresno State, where the Bulldogs racked up 55 points and 516 yards in the first half of a 69-14 rout. Mind you, Fresno was blown out by Oregon the week before. FX will air the Buffs' Pac-12 opener next week at Washington State. The network must be getting a head start on the new season of American Horror Story.

• Nebraska coach Bo Pelini returned to work Sunday a day after giving everyone a scare when he left the Huskers' game against Arkansas State with reported flu-like symptoms. A team doctor had checked Pelini's pulse on the sideline, and Pelini was later transported by ambulance to a hospital for precautionary tests. "Everything checked out fine," he said in a statement. Defensive coordinator John Papuchis filled in during the second half of the Huskers' 42-13 win.

• Welcome to the ACC, Pittsburgh. After opening with losses to FCS Youngstown State (31-17) and Cincinnati (34-10), the Panthers turned around and throttled No. 13 Virginia Tech, 35-17. Oft-maligned quarterback Tino Suneri delivered one of his finest performances (19-of-28, 283 yards, three touchdowns, one interception), while Hokies counterpart Logan Thomas tossed three picks. "We definitely went out there and made noise today," said Pitt running back Ray Graham.

• The Big Ten is down to just two undefeated teams with postseason eligibility: Minnesota and Northwestern. While the Gophers have played three non-AQ foes, the Wildcats' 23-13 win over Boston College Saturday made them the lone team in the country with three wins over BCS-conference opponents (the others: Syracuse and Vanderbilt). Northwestern's next four games are against South Dakota, Indiana, Penn State and Minnesota. Could Pat Fitzgerald's team start 7-0?

• Cal (1-2) put a scare into Ohio State (3-0) before falling late, 35-28. One major reason: It gave Brendan Bigelow the ball. The sophomore speedster has spent two years recovering from a pair of ACL injuries and has served primarily as a kick returner. Cal didn't play the tailback until the third quarter, but he didn't take long to make an impact. Bigelow promptly busted an 81-yard touchdown on his first carry, broke a 59-yard score to tie the game with just over eight minutes remaining and finished with 160 yards on four carries.

• Wisconsin: What the heck? Apparently firing the offensive line coach was not a cure-all for Bret Bielema's squad, which eked out a 16-14 home win over Utah State to improve to 2-1. On the positive side, Monteé Ball ran for 139 yards. However, it took him 37 carries to do so, a pedestrian 3.8 yards per carry average. Meanwhile, Bielema benched quarterback Danny O'Brien at halftime in favor of Joel Stave. Lest you think he ignited Wisconsin's comeback from a 14-3 deficit, Stave completed two passes.

• The one notable bright spot thus far for rebuilding Miami (2-1) has been freshman sensation Duke Johnson. The running back notched 246 all-purpose yards against Bethune-Cookman Saturday and scored touchdowns in three different ways: A 95-yard kick return, a 50-yard reception and two touchdown runs, from one and 28 yards out. He is believed to be the first player to pull off that feat (two rushing, one receiving and one return touchdown) since East Carolina's Chris Johnson in 2007.

• Connecticut fans had to take particular glee Saturday in the Huskies' 24-21 win over Maryland (2-1) and its head coach, Randy Edsall -- the man who left Storrs two years ago to pursue his purported "dream job." Edsall had tears in his eyes when talking about seeing his former players. "I have emotions," he said. "You aren't human if you don't have emotions. It was good to see some of those guys and wish them well." Either that or he desperately wishes he could go back.

• Few would have expected Texas' David Ash to be ranked among the top five nationally in pass efficiency. After shredding Ole Miss (19-of-23, 326 yards, four touchdowns) in Saturday's 66-31 blowout, Ash has completed 76.4 percent of his attempts for seven touchdowns and no picks. Of course, he's faced three dreadful opponents so far. (One of them, Wyoming, lost to Cal Poly on Saturday.) Texas has a bye before opening Big 12 play at defending conference champ Oklahoma State.

• Speaking of Oklahoma State, the Cowboys' starting quarterback, true freshman Wes Lunt, may not be available against Texas. Lunt injured his knee in the first quarter of Saturday's 65-24 win over Louisiana-Lafayette. Coach Mike Gundy did not elaborate, but Fox Sports reported during its broadcast that Lunt suffered a dislocated kneecap. It might not matter who plays quarterback in Gundy's offense. Lunt's replacement, redshirt freshman J.W. Walsh, went 21-of-30 for 347 yards and four touchdowns.

• While the SEC made a spectacle of Missouri and Texas A&M's conference debuts last week, TCU quietly played its first Big 12 game Saturday at Kansas. The Horned Frogs (2-0) prevailed, 20-6, behind deadly accurate quarterback Casey Pachall (24-of-30, 335 yards, two touchdowns). Counting its last three seasons in the Mountain West, coach Gary Patterson's team has now won 25 consecutive conference games.

• A week after throwing for 580 yards in a loss to Louisiana Tech, Houston quarterback David Piland threw five interceptions in Saturday's 37-6 blowout loss to UCLA. But the Cougars' six points came on an 86-yard Piland touchdown run.

• Georgia racked up a school-record 713 yards of total offense against Florida Atlantic -- on just 63 plays. That means the Bulldogs averaged a first down (and more) on every snap.

• Never fear: Ohio's (3-0) march to the BCS remains alive. Matt Weller's 37-yard field goal with 1:37 remaining lifted the Bobcats over Marshall, 27-24.

• Ball State, which knocked off Indiana 41-39 Saturday, is 3-49 against BCS schools all-time. All three wins have come against the Hoosiers since 2008.

Western Kentucky coach Willie Taggart has done wonders in just three seasons at his alma mater. Last year, the Hilltoppers -- which only moved up to the FBS in 2009 and endured a 26-game losing streak from 2008-10 -- leapt from 2-10 to 7-5 (though they received no bowl invitation). If that didn't get blood pumping down in Bowling Green, then beating that school in Lexington most certainly will.

After scoring a touchdown to pull within one point of SEC foe Kentucky in overtime Saturday, Taggart not only called for a two-point conversion, but he dialed up a trick play. Quarterback Kawaun Jakes threw a lateral to tailback Antonio Andrews, who then threw back across the field to Jakes for the score that clinched a 32-31 Western Kentucky victory.

"The entire game, our guys were saying, 'Coach, call the play! Coach, call the play!'" said Taggart, whose team blew a 24-10 lead. "At the end, I said, 'Well, I'm going to run the play. You all make this happen."

A former Hilltoppers quarterback and most recently Stanford's running backs coach under Jim Harbaugh, Taggart, 36, did not hesitate to stoke the flames of a heretofore non-existent in-state rivalry last week. His first attempt was admittedly regrettable. Irked about Western Kentucky students wearing Kentucky apparel on campus, Taggart said: "The reason they're at WKU is probably they couldn't get into UK."

Whoops. He apologized.

After the victory, however, the triumphant coach declared: "WKU red is the new blue in Kentucky, baby. How 'bout that?" The teams are scheduled to meet again next year in Nashville.

Words cannot properly describe the bizarre and incredible ending to Utah's 24-21 win over BYU -- but Lloyd Christmas comes pretty darn close.

Mini-previews for three of Week 4's big games:

Clemson at Florida State, Saturday (8 p.m. ET): Clemson's first step toward an ACC title last season was a 35-30 win over Florida State. The 'Noles defense is notably more seasoned -- in fact, it's allowing just one point per game -- but it's no small task shutting down Andre Ellington, Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins.

Kansas State at Oklahoma, Saturday (7:50 p.m. ET): With five teams ranked between No. 6 and No. 17 in the latest AP Poll, this will be the first of many crucial games that determine the Big 12. Will the Wildcats fare better than they did in last year's 58-17 Sooners rout in Manhattan?

Michigan at Notre Dame, Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET): Denard Robinson has racked up a combined 948 yards of offense against the Irish the past two seasons while producing two game-winning scores, with 27 and two seconds left, respectively. There's hardly a surer bet for annual late-game craziness than this matchup.

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