It's hard to believe, but a good chunk of FBS teams are now halfway through the season. Meanwhile, three of the top five teams in AP Poll lost Saturday, the first such occurrence since 2008. For the first time this season, it feels like the national title race is taking shape. Really.
The first BCS standings will be released next weekend, but we already have a pretty good idea of what to expect. Beyond the obvious -- No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Oregon will meet in Miami if both go undefeated -- here are a few things we learned this week about the way things should unfold from here.
• Florida State is out. In 1998, the Seminoles -- which at the time had lost one ACC game in seven years -- suffered a stunning 24-7 defeat at NC State. The Chris Weinke-led 'Noles won out and played in the first BCS Championship Game. On Saturday, No. 3 Florida State suffered a similarly stunning 17-16 defeat in Raleigh. But even if the 'Noles rebound and win out (and who knows if Jimbo Fisher's squad is even capable of that), this team -- unlike that team -- cannot get back into the national title race.
In 1998, Florida State played nonconference games against Texas A&M, USC, Miami and Florida and faced two ranked foes in ACC play. In 2012, the 'Noles faced Murray State, Savannah State and USF and notched a top-15 win over Clemson, but they likely won't face another ranked team until the Gators come to town Nov. 24. "We still control our own destiny in the ACC," Fisher said (incorrectly) with a straight face Saturday night. In that sense, the 'Noles could still finish the season in Miami. The ACC champ automatically goes to the Orange Bowl.
• South Carolina is now Alabama's lone SEC threat. The Gamecocks put on a clinic Saturday night against No. 5 Georgia. Throw out the Chicken Curse. As I wrote following the 35-7 rout, Steve Spurrier's team has all the pieces -- a near-flawless quarterback, an elite tailback and a terrifying defensive line -- to be a national title contender. "If we play like this," he said, "we may have a chance for a real big year. Maybe."
That being said, it wouldn't be the least bit surprising if South Carolina turns around and loses at LSU next weekend. A hangover after Saturday night's win in Columbia can be expected, and the Gamecocks haven't played nearly as well on the road as they have at home. But that game is really just a precursor to their Oct. 20 trip to resurgent Florida, a matchup which could decide the SEC East. If either team can make it to Atlanta with one loss and knock off the Crimson Tide, they're going to play in Miami. That's almost a given.
Except Florida isn't making it through with one loss. Congratulations are in order for Will Muschamp following his first signature win in Gainesville, as is recognition that Florida is already 4-0 in the SEC. But the notion that Florida is now the fourth-best team in the country is laughable. Yes, the Gators showed off their physical dominance in running the ball 24 straight times to close out a 14-6 win over then No. 4 LSU, but they could only get away with that because they were facing an inept Tigers' offense that could barely complete a forward pass. Les Miles' team won't be playing any Games of the Century this year. It's in trouble. Florida has much more reason for optimism, but Jeff Driskel will need to pass for more than 61 yards to take down South Carolina or Florida State.
• Notre Dame must be taken seriously. You could retroactively downplay the Irish's defensive dominance against Michigan State and Michigan given how the Spartans and Wolverines' offenses have fared against other upper-echelon foes. But Saturday night, Notre Dame held an explosive Miami group that came in averaging 35.6 points per game to a mere field goal. The Irish also produced two 100-yard rushers (Cierre Wood and George Atkinson III) for the first time in a decade. "We felt like if we could keep them from getting the big plays, and we could run the football, that was going on our recipe for success," said coach Brian Kelly.
Mind you, the Irish aren't all that different from Florida: There's little evidence to suggest Everett Golson could pick apart an elite opponent. The thing is, every big-name opponent left on Notre Dame's schedule (Stanford, Oklahoma and USC) has already proven vulnerable. The Irish may not be able to win all three, but they'll remain in the conversation until that defense -- ranked second behind Alabama in points allowed (7.8 per game) -- gives reason to suggest otherwise.
• West Virginia is the ultimate wild-card. We know Geno Smith can't throw for 600 yards and eight touchdowns every week. Surely, the Mountaineers can't expect to keep winning with such a one-dimensional offense and porous defense. But here's what happened Saturday at Texas: The Longhorns came after Smith, who threw for a more modest 268 yards and four touchdowns (and lost two fumbles). But lo and behold, running back Andrew Buie stepped up and rushed for 207 yards on 31 carries, while West Virginia's defense held Texas to just 135 yards on the ground. "We just lined up and ran it right at them," said Mountaineers coach Dana Holgorsen.
And so, another week, another wild win for West Virginia, which now enters the top five in the AP Poll. Football purists will suffer a collective heart attack if the Mountaineers ride a season full of 48-45 victories to the BCS Championship Game. History and common sense says they'll eventually run into a team they can't outscore (Kansas State comes to mind). But who are we to question Holgorsen right now? As Pete Thamel wrote Saturday night, the guy's no one-trick pony. He knows how to beat you both running and passing. And that's more than we can say about several of the expected contenders down South.
With 50 seconds remaining in the third quarter of Saturday's game in Happy Valley, Northwestern's Venric Mark broke a 75-yard punt return to give the No. 24 Wildcats a 28-17 lead over Penn State. This was the part of the game when the attrition-ravaged, NCAA-pummeled Nittany Lions were supposed to crawl back in a hole and recommence their inevitable plunge toward the bottom of the Big Ten.
Only that's not what happened. Instead, quarterback Matt McGloin -- the same Matt McGloin who ranked 89th nationally in pass efficiency last season -- calmly led his team on consecutive fourth-quarter touchdown drives. He was patient. He made all the right checks. He completed 6-of-7 passes for 49 yards on the go-ahead series, and on third-and-four from the Northwestern five-yard line, he tucked and ran for a score with less than three minutes to go. Penn State prevailed 39-28, notching its fourth consecutive victory after an 0-2 start.
"There's no quit in that locker room," said first-year Nittany Lions coach Bill O'Brien. "I don't know what's going to happen the rest of the year, but there will be no quit in that locker room."
O'Brien, who only inherited the most daunting coaching job since Forrest Gregg took over SMU post-Death Penalty in the late '80s, is already being lauded for the resilience he's instilled in the Nittany Lions. They play aggressively, much like their coach, who opted to go for it on six fourth downs Saturday and converted five. That's all well and good, but the most tangible mark made by the former Patriots offensive coordinator so far is the transformation of new pupil McGloin. The former walk-on is completing 61.5 percent of his passes (up from 54.1) with 12 touchdowns and just two interceptions (compared with an 8-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio last season).
"He's grown up a lot," said O'Brien. "I can't say enough about Matt McGloin."
As with all things Penn State these days, the fun from Saturday will be overshadowed by darkness Tuesday, when media once again descends on State College for the sentencing of Jerry Sandusky. An AP story Sunday on his likely life as an inmate included a section entitled "Will He Be Watching Penn State Football?" (The answer: Yes, he'll have access to a TV.) There are still plenty of people who feel this year's Penn State team should not even be playing football, much less on national television every week.
But for those who are able to separate individuals like O'Brien (who arrived in January) and McGloin (who is 22) from Sandusky's atrocities and the alleged institutional cover-up that took place during the late Joe Paterno's tenure, Penn State is simply a 4-2 football team looking to surprise some more folks in this year's downtrodden Big Ten. They already have one pleasant surprise under center.
This was supposed to be a celebratory year for TCU with its move to the Big 12 and the unveiling the newly renovated Amon G. Carter Stadium. The first damper came in February when a campus drug bust resulted in the arrests and dismissal of four players, including star linebacker Tanner Brock. It was reported at the time that several other players failed an ensuing drug test.
Coach Gary Patterson's program managed to weather that storm, as well as the unrelated offseason departure of top running back Ed Wesley and a season-ending injury to replacement Waymon James, to start 4-0 and begin its familiar climb up the polls. But last week, the dam finally broke.
At 1 a.m. last Thursday, police arrested star Horned Frogs quarterback Casey Pachall for DWI. Pachall, the nation's fourth-rated passer, had previously admitted to using marijuana and failing the February drug test (he was Brock's roommate). But he received no discernible punishment despite Patterson's insistence at the time that "drugs and drug use by TCU's student-athletes will not be tolerated by me. ... Period."
This time, Patterson suspended Pachall indefinitely, and the Fort Worth Star Telegram reported Sunday that Patterson is facing "intense pressure from the top [of the university]" to make it a season-long suspension.
It was not entirely surprising, then, that in their first game without Pachall, the No. 15 Horned Frogs (4-1) suffered a 37-23 home loss to Iowa State (4-1). Pachall's replacement, redshirt freshman Trevone Boykin, threw three interceptions, and TCU lost two fumbles.
"You're talking about [going from] a guy that was a veteran who won 15 games to a redshirt freshman," Patterson said afterward.
Patterson was already coaching one of the youngest teams in the country (15 true freshmen have played). Pachall was the glue. But the coach is now dealing with bigger problems than how to beat Baylor next week. A program less than two years removed from a 13-0 season and bubbly Cinderella status is in a major conference now -- and dealing with some major disciplinary issues.
"I'm disappointed because of everything we've gone through," Patterson said last week. "Whether it's the situation that happened [Thursday] or something else ... I picked up the paper this morning and bad things were happening everywhere. So how do you focus and keep doing what I'm supposed to be doing, which is lead a team and be one of the faces of this university and handle things in the right way?"
Good question. We're eager to find out.
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: [Vacated] vs. USCFiesta: Kansas State vs. Notre DameSugar: South Carolina vs. West VirginiaOrange: Florida State vs. Louisville
For the first time in the history of the Coaches' Poll, the Big Ten does not have a single ranked team this week. (Ohio State is ineligible.) Until that changes, I will not dignify the conference by anointing any of its teams as Rose Bowl worthy.
Actually, this is just an excuse to avoid having to make a wild guess on a Big Ten team for at least another week.
To refresh, this is a real-time top three Heisman ballot in which the only consideration is the players' performances to date. Neither preseason buzz nor the likelihood of a player actually winning will come into play, but the quality of competition so far will.
1. Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia. The numbers (81.4 percent completion percentage, 1,996 passing yards, 24 touchdowns, no interceptions) speak for themselves, and now he's come through on the road against a top-15 team.
2. Manti Te'o, LB, Notre Dame. Tack on another 10 tackles (vs. Miami) for the heart and soul of a defense that's now gone nearly a month without allowing a touchdown.
3. Collin Klein, QB, Kansas State. He's a top-10 passer and recorded his first 100-yard rushing day of the season in a 56-16 rout of rival Kansas.
A note on Braxton Miller: The Ohio State quarterback turned in his most electrifying rushing effort to date (16 carries, 186 yards) in the Buckeyes' 63-38 beat down of Nebraska. But a Heisman quarterback should, in theory, be a premier passer. Miller, the nation's 38th-rated passer, is not quite there yet.
• John L. Smith earned a one-week reprieve from his season-long nightmare at Arkansas. Perhaps he can share some advice for the soon-to-be-crucified Gene Chizik. The Razorbacks' (2-4) previously woeful defense sacked Auburn's hapless quarterbacks eight times for 80 yards in a 24-7 win that officially ends whatever honeymoon period BCS title-winning coach Chizik was still enjoying on the Plains.
Chizik called his 1-4 team's offensive showing "one of the most poor performances I have seen in a long time," but it was somewhat par for the course for the nation's 113th-ranked attack. Only this time the struggles came against the nation's 110th-ranked defense. "I'm never concerned about my job security," said Chizik, and the fact that he has to say that shows just how ugly the situation has become. "I plan on being at Auburn next year," he added. So did Terry Bowden.
• Remember when Stanford purportedly dashed USC's national title hopes in the third week of the season? Will we ever learn? Just three weeks later, the Trojans (4-1) are back up to No. 9 in the Coaches' Poll. After a bizarre start (two botched center-snap exchanges that led to two Utah touchdowns), USC's offense rediscovered its groove in a 38-28 win in Salt Lake City last Thursday. Matt Barkley finished 23-of-30 for 303 yards, three touchdowns and no picks.
• Despite USC's turnaround, No. 2 Oregon (6-0) remains the prohibitive Pac-12 favorite. The Ducks notched their ninth straight win over rival Washington, 52-21, and have now scored at least 43 points in five of the past six meetings. Tight end Colt Lyerla has emerged as a valuable piece of the offense. With two touchdown catches against the Huskies, the sophomore now has 10 touchdowns on 31 career touches. "It is nice to know that we have him as a weapon," said quarterback Marcus Mariota.
• Louisiana Tech (5-0) cracked the AP Poll Sunday for the first time since 1999 following a 58-31 win over UNLV -- the fourth time in five games coach Sonny Dykes' offense has cracked the 50-point mark. Now comes the crucial week if the No. 23 Bulldogs hope to become this year's BCS buster. They face No. 22 Texas A&M (4-1) in Shreveport in a matchup of similar up-tempo offenses. Louisiana Tech, off to its best start since 1975, ran 97 plays against the Rebels.
• Either a bye week did Oklahoma's offense some good, or Texas Tech's No. 1 defensive ranking was a mirage. Quarterback Landry Jones bounced back from his bad night against Kansas State to go 25-of-40 for 259 yards, two touchdowns and no picks in a 41-20 rout of the Red Raiders (4-1). Remarkably, it was the Sooners' (3-1) first win in Lubbock since 2003. Even more astounding: That's also the last year Bob Stoops' team lost two games in a row.
• No. 19 Mississippi State is currently sitting on the quietest imaginable 5-0 record for an SEC team. Perhaps that's because the Bulldogs have beaten two SEC foes (Auburn and Kentucky) with a combined 2-9 record. Quarterback Tyler Russell looked sharp again in Saturday's 27-14 win over the Wildcats, but we'll get a better feel for Dan Mullen's squad when it hosts Tennessee (3-2) this week. Mississippi State won't play its first ranked opponent until Oct. 27 at Alabama.
• No. 20 Rutgers is off to an even quieter 5-0 start, presumably because it plays in the Big East. But the Scarlet Knights can play some defense. After a 19-3 win over Connecticut, coach Kyle Flood's team is allowing 10.8 points per game, fifth-best in the nation. "If you could bottle today's game, you'd have Rutgers football," Flood said after the Scarlet Knight edged the Huskies 280-244 in total yardage. The Big East is the only league outside the SEC with three undefeated teams.
• At this point, we can safely surmise that Virginia Tech is not off to a typically slow start. The Hokies' (3-3) streak of eight straight 10-win seasons is in jeopardy. North Carolina running back Gio Bernard burst for a career-high 262 yards, the most ever against a Frank Beamer-coached team, in the Tar Heels' (4-2) 38-24 victory Saturday. "It's very frustrating," said defensive end James Gale. "I came to Virginia Tech because we know how to play great defense. I feel like today we let the team down."
• The luster is gone from UCLA's once-torrid offense following an embarrassing 43-17 loss at Cal (2-4). Quarterback Brett Hundley threw four interceptions, while perennially erratic Bears counterpart Zach Maynard threw for four touchdowns against the Bruins (4-2). "It was much needed, no doubt about it," said embattled Cal coach Jeff Tedford. "It's been a tough few weeks. That's definitely going to give us a boost."
• Michigan's Denard Robinson passed former Indiana star Antwaan Randle El as the Big Ten's all-time leading rusher among quarterbacks (3,905) with a 235-yard outburst in a 41-13 rout of Purdue.
• Missouri (3-3) fell to 0-3 in SEC play with a 19-15 home loss to Vanderbilt. Even worse, quarterback James Franklin will miss several weeks with a sprained MCL.
• No. 10 Oregon State's (4-0) offense cooled off in a 19-6 win over Washington State. But cornerback Jordan Poyer stepped in with three interceptions.
• It probably sounds like a broken record, but 6-0 Ohio's march to the BCS continues after yet another scare. The Bobcats rallied to beat Buffalo (1-4), 38-31.
• Congratulations to Army (1-4) for snapping an eight-game losing streak. The Black Knights embarrassed Boston College (1-4) on a 29-yard Trent Steelman touchdown run with 45 seconds left.
• Congrats also to Navy (2-3) for its 28-21 overtime win over Air Force (2-3). The victory avenged last year's overtime defeat.
Like any coach, David Cutcliffe wants his team to take things "one game at a time." But when his team is Duke, and it hasn't been to a bowl game since 1994, and it's suddenly 5-1 and just one tantalizing victory away from ending that drought -- well, his players can focus on the next game (Saturday at Virginia Tech) AND start dreaming of that elusive postseason reward.
"I heard them chirping about it in the weight room today," Cutcliffe said Sunday afternoon. "I'm not going to be able to take their minds off [getting to] six wins. They're kids. Good for them. They've put themselves in this position."
Following a runaway 42-17 win over Virginia (2-4) Saturday, the Blue Devils are off to their best start since a 1994 Hall of Fame Bowl season. Both Saturday's victory and a 34-27 win over Wake Forest the week before illustrated the program's biggest area of improvement during Cutliffe's five years at the helm: depth. "It's not even in the same breath," said the former Ole Miss coach.
In years past, fans could count on Duke to put a scare into ACC foes for two or three quarters before wilting. However, when the Demon Deacons erased a 20-10 deficit late in the third quarter, the Blue Devils responded by forcing a pair of turnovers and reclaiming control. Against Virginia, Duke trailed 17-14 at halftime before outscoring the Cavaliers 28-0 in the second half. And this happened despite the fact that sophomore quarterback Anthony Boone, filling in for injured veteran Sean Renfree, was making his first career start (he threw for four touchdowns) and that an injury-ravaged defense was playing without five preseason starters.
"That's something with this particular team that we hadn't completely mastered prior to this season," Cutcliffe said of the second-half resilience. "This team has got a lot of guys that have been in a lot of wars, they've invested a lot in this program, and they're not going to give it up."
Cutcliffe's program has come close to bowl eligibility before. In 2009, his second season in Durham, Duke started 5-3 before losing its last four games. But this more seasoned team, which features dynamic playmakers like receiver Conner Vernon (he became the ACC's all-time receptions leader Saturday with 239) and talented defensive backs like senior safety Walt Canty (53 tackles) and junior cornerback Ross Cockrell (four interceptions, 13 passes defended), seems better equipped to handle the stretch run. "We're still at a point where every game we play will be a physical challenge," Cutcliffe said.
Bowl eligibility is the obvious milestone, but Cutcliffe isn't ready to stop there. The Blue Devils are one of only two ACC Costal Division teams that don't yet have a conference loss (the other is Miami) and they're the only one with fewer than two losses on the season. "I think we can win the division," he said. "... I want them to stay hungry for more than [six wins.]"
Inside the locker room after a comeback win over Ole Miss, Texas A&M's coach hops his way through celebration alley.
Inside the locker room after upsetting LSU, Florida's triumphant coach jumps into the arms of his celebrating players.
Mini-previews for three of Week 7's big games:
• Oklahoma vs. Texas, Saturday (Noon ET): It's not like the old days when the Red River Rivalry often determined the eventual Big 12 South champion. In fact, with both teams already saddled with a conference loss, it may serve as a de facto elimination game for the round-robin league title.
• Stanford at Notre Dame, Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET): Stanford quarterback Josh Nunes struggled in his first career road start at Washington, which doesn't bode well for the Cardinal's trip to South Bend to face a defense averse to allowing touchdowns. But Stanford's front seven will challenge Notre Dame's offense.
• South Carolina at LSU, Saturday (8 p.m. ET): At this point, Steve Spurrier has exorcised nearly all of South Carolina's century-old demons. But there's still one left. It's time to find out whether the Gamecocks can shed their recent pattern of following up momentous wins with clunkers, especially on the road.