By Stewart Mandel
September 27, 2009

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Is it just me, or is this season beginning to feel a whole lot like 2007?

You remember 2007, a.k.a. the "Year of the Upset." The year Appalachian State beat Michigan, Stanford beat USC (though this one doesn't seem so shocking anymore), 10 teams ranked No. 1 or 2 lost over the course of the year and a two-loss team (LSU) won the national title.

In 2009, Nos. 1 and 2 (Florida and Texas) remain unscathed thus far -- but they're the exception. Nine different top 10 teams have lost in the season's first four weeks, including four (Ole Miss, Penn State, Cal and Miami) this past weekend. That's a lot of upheaval.

Consider: A year ago this time, 11 of the top 13 teams in the preseason AP poll were still undefeated. This year, only four are.

The instinctive reaction is to blame the pollsters and their admittedly arbitrary preseason ballots, which unduly lionized a whole bunch of "frauds." Oklahoma. Oklahoma State. Ole Miss. USC. Penn State. Cal. Frauds, all of them.

The truth, though, is they can't all be frauds. As the season plays out, we will find some were unquestionably overrated, but that others were good teams that simply suffered an early loss. As the polls continue to fluctuate, some will eventually find themselves right back where they started. USC and Oklahoma are already back in the top 10, and preseason darling Oregon has literally come full circle, falling from a preseason No. 16 position to unranked following its opening-week train wreck at Boise State, then throttling Cal 42-3 to return to ... No. 16.

As you may recall, that's precisely how the '07 season played out, with LSU bouncing back from not just one, but two defeats to wind up national champion. It turns out there's an explanatory parallel between '07 and this season: a staggering amount of injuries to key players.

With parity what it is today, it only takes a little attrition to level the playing field between two ostensibly disparate opponents. In '07, seemingly half the LSU defense, including star tackle Glenn Dorsey, missed time over the course of the season. USC suffered a rash of injuries to its offensive line, while quarterback John David Booty broke his finger against Stanford. Oklahoma lost Sam Bradford during a late-season loss to unranked Texas Tech. Oregon was cruising until Dennis Dixon tore his ACL. West Virginia lost Pat White during both of its losses.

Fast forward to '09, when the injury bug hit right from the opening Saturday. Reigning Heisman winner Bradford separated his shoulder in Oklahoma's loss to BYU. USC lost quarterback Matt Barkley and safety Taylor Mays the week of its stunning loss to Washington. Oklahoma State running back Kendall Hunter went down during the Cowboys' loss to Houston. Thirty-one Ole Miss players contracted the flu leading up to the Rebels' loss at South Carolina.

Of course, upset victims can't use injuries as an excuse; they're part of the game. But they do remind us what a tight rope even the most talented teams walk in this age of parity.

Saturday night, Florida fans witnessed the injury scare to end all injury scares. For eight months, the Gators had been hailed as the hands-down, no-brainer national title pick, with their loaded defense and their all-everything quarterback. But as Tim Tebow lay motionless on the turf at Kentucky's Commonwealth Stadium for those long, agonizing minutes Saturday night following a crushing sack by Wildcats defensive end Taylor Wyndham, nervous Gators fans presumably saw their dream season crashing before them. With all due respect to Tebow's backup, John Brantley, Florida would have gone from BCS favorite to upset-victim-waiting-to-happen with that one gruesome injury.

Thankfully for all involved, Tebow got up, walked off and has since been diagnosed with a concussion. "Tim's taken a lot of hits in his career. He's a tough nut," Gators coach Urban Meyer said after the game. Sunday morning, following the quarterback's release from a Lexington hospital, he confirmed: "Tim is doing fine."

Hopefully he's right, both for Tebow's sake and his own. Sure, the Gators throttled Kentucky 41-7 and have outscored their four opponents by a combined score of 182-29, but right now the once seemingly invincible Gators need Tebow to win.

Florida has taken its own share of hits to the roster, with receivers Andre Debose and Carl Moore likely out for the season and Deonte Thompson hobbled. Meyer admitted last week that the remaining receiving corps is "not at Florida standards."

To compensate for that, it seems the Gators have dusted off an old page from their playbook: "Run, Tebow, Run." Against Kentucky, the senior attempted just 10 passes prior to his third-quarter exit but ran 16 times for 123 yards and two scores. A week earlier against Tennessee, he notched 24 rushing attempts. The 40 combined carries mark his highest two-game total since Sept. '07.

While Tebow is long accustomed to having the ball in his hands, Florida's offense was at its sharpest last season when he spent more time distributing it. There is still plenty of time to develop new weapons, but as of now, Meyer is clearly counting on Tebow to carry the load.

Florida may well be the deepest team in the country, but as we saw Saturday night, even the Gators aren't immune to the injury bug. And as we've seen across the country, medical reports may be a more telling indicator these days than the polls.

Normally, visiting teams can't wait to get out of town after a road game, but South Florida quarterback B.J. Daniels spent the night in enemy territory following his team's 17-7 triumph over Florida State in Tallahassee.

Why wouldn't he? It's home.

Playing in the same stadium where he grew up rooting for the home team, Daniels lived out a dream-come-true fantasy Saturday. Making his first career start in place of USF star Matt Grothe, who suffered a season-ending ACL tear last week, the redshirt freshman threw two 70-plus yard touchdowns and racked up 341 yards of total offense for the biggest win in the history of his school's young program.

"I wasn't nervous at all," said Daniels, who played at Tallahassee's Lincoln High School. "I was familiar with my environment, seeing people in the stands I knew and playing in a stadium where I watched so many great players play."

Daniels was more than a little "familiar" with FSU. His father, Bruce, was a campus housing director, and, through the age of 7, B.J. and his family lived in a house next to one of the school's dorms, Smith Hall. His parents, grandparents and two younger sisters were all in attendance Saturday, as were countless hometown friends.

But while Daniels, an avowed Charlie Ward fan, watched "more than 10" Seminoles games from the stands of Doak Campbell Stadium growing up, he'd never previously stepped foot on the field. When did it sink in?

"After that first touchdown," he said. "The stadium was kind of quiet, and I remember just being happy for once that the stadium was quiet."

USF (4-0) has pulled off plenty of big wins before -- in fact, this marked the third straight year the Bulls have beaten a ranked nonconference foe -- but beating one of the state's Big Three for the first time marked a landmark moment for the program. "To me, it changes history," said USF's first and only coach, Jim Leavitt. "I don't think there's any question about it."

Now comes the hard part: continuing the momentum. The Bulls' recent pattern has been to start off strong and finish slow. In their four years in the Big East, they've yet to lose fewer than three conference games.

At least they know they've found their quarterback.

My reaction to the latest AP and coaches polls:

Overrated: No. 4 LSU

I don't mean to pile on the Tigers, who showed up in this same space just two weeks ago. But you'd have a hard time convincing me Les Miles' team -- which currently ranks 105th nationally in total offense and needed a late goal-line stand Saturday to survive Mississippi State -- is just a hair below No. 3 Alabama, which presently boasts both a top 10 offense and defense and just throttled Arkansas.

Underrated: South Carolina (unranked)

The Gamecocks (3-1) can play some defense. They've now bottled up two nationally renowned quarterbacks, NC State's Russell Wilson (12-of-23, 74 yards) and Ole Miss' Jevan Snead (7-of-21, 107 yards). Even in their lone defeat, a turnover-marred 41-37 heartbreaker at Georgia, they allowed just 308 yards. Yet they lag considerably behind the 3-1 Bulldogs, who the coaches rank 14th.

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

Title game: Alabama vs. Texas

Rose: USC vs. Ohio State

Fiesta: Oklahoma vs. Boise State

Sugar: Florida vs. Cincinnati

Orange: Virginia Tech vs. Iowa

If Florida and Alabama met today on a neutral field (like, say, the Georgia Dome), I'd take the Crimson Tide. Whether I'll still feel that way in two months (or even two weeks) remains to be seen, but for now, I adjusted my title-game matchup accordingly. Virginia Tech reclaimed the ACC's spot in resounding fashion. USC still raises doubts, but who in the Pac-10 doesn't? And after thatIowa-Penn State sludge fest, Ohio State looks like the Big Ten's most complete team, though the Hawkeyes could very well win 10 games and nab an at-large berth.

• It was bedlam at Robertson Stadium early Sunday morning after Case Keenum led Houston on a game-winning 95-yard drive to beat Texas Tech, 29-28. Keenum played outstanding yet again (38-for-58, 435 yards), but give the Cougars' defense credit for shutting out the Red Raiders over the game's final 21 minutes, including a fourth-and-goal stop and forced three-and-out to set up the winning drive.

"That's the biggest difference from last year," Houston coach Kevin Sumlin said. "Our defense has a feel that we're never out of the game, particularly with our offense and our quarterback. If we continue to get stops down the stretch, we're going to be pretty tough to beat."

• LSU safety Chad Jones turned in one of the most clutch individual performances to date against Mississippi State. His 93-yard punt return for a touchdown put the Tigers up 30-21 in the fourth quarter. Then, when the Bulldogs drove down to the goal line in the final minute, he made an astounding pass deflection on third down before stuffing Tyson Lee's fourth-down sneak.

• Same goes for Georgia receiver A.J. Green. The sophomore caught eight passes for 153 yards and a TD against Arizona State, but that only tells part of the story. With the game tied 17-17 late in the fourth quarter, Green first blocked ASU's 37-yard field goal attempt, then made a 36-yard catch with 2:10 left to help set up Blair Walsh's game-winning 37-yard kick for the Dawgs.

• OK, one more: With NC State trailing Pitt 31-17 late in the third quarter, Wilson took over, leading three straight touchdown drives and finishing the day with 322 passing yards, 91 rushing yards and four TD passes. "Russell is a very good under pressure," said receiver T.J. Graham, "whether it's from coach [Tom] O'Brien, pressure from the opponents or pressure playing PlayStation."

• USC's offense produced three first-quarter touchdowns (including two long Barkley throws) against overmatched Washington State ... but just one more the rest of the way en route to an uninspiring 27-6 win that included 13 penalties. "We've got a lot of work to do," coach Pete Carroll said. "Gosh, it's just not at all the kind of satisfying win we would've liked to have had."

• Meanwhile, Washington returned to reality post-USC with a 34-14 road drubbing at the hands of Stanford. Standout Cardinal running back Toby Gerhart shredded the Huskies for 200 rushing yards while Huskies QB Jake Locker struggled (16-of-31, 191 yards, one TD, two INTs). Washington is still very much in rebuilding mode, and Husky fans should expect plenty more ups and downs this fall.

• Illinois quarterback Juice Williams' senior season has not gone as planned. On the heels of a 37-9 loss to Missouri in Week 1, the four-year starter endured a 13-of-25, 77-yard, two-interception day in a 30-0 loss at Ohio State. The 1-2 Illini are inspiring little confidence, even from their own coach. "Everyone's written us off and that's fine," Ron Zook said. "I would, too, if I was in your shoes.''

• On the flip side, Ohio State basked in its second consecutive shutout, the Buckeyes' first such achievement in 13 years. Throw in a largely dominant, albeit losing effort against USC, and it seems like OSU has managed to upgrade its defense despite losing James Laurinaitis and Malcolm Jenkins. The Buckeyes' new star: linebacker Brian Rolle, who notched eight tackles and a pick Saturday.

• After giving up a scourge of big plays against Clemson and Miami, Georgia Tech scrapped its 4-2-5 defense in favor of a 4-3, chucked an estimated 75 percent of its playbook and promptly held North Carolina to 154 total yards in a 24-7 rout. "Instead of playing seven or eight coverages, you play two or three," coach Paul Johnson said. It didn't hurt that Tech's offense held the ball for 42:06.

• Oregon didn't touch its playbook, but it simplified its uniforms with similar results.

• Boston College quarterback Dave Shinskie is a 25-year-old freshman who, after six years toiling in minor-league baseball, showed up on the BC campus this summer. Now, he may be the Eagles' savior. A week after Justin Tuggle completed just four passes in a blowout loss to Clemson, Shinskie went 18-of-29 for 228 yards and three TDs in a 27-24 overtime win against Wake Forest.

• Officially, South Carolina receiver Tori Gurley has just one touchdown catch this season, but in an incredible bout of bad luck, the sophomore has had four other touchdown catches nullified by penalties (an offensive pass interference against NC State, ineligible receiver downfield against Georgia and Ole Miss, holding against Georgia). "I don't know if I've ever seen that before," Steve Spurrier said.

• Remember when Kentucky was ready to build a statue for Rich Brooks? Excluding Vanderbilt, the Wildcats' coach is now 1-24 against SEC East foes.

• Remember when Maryland was ready to build a statue for Ralph Friedgen? His team's lone win this year came against James Madison -- in overtime.

These were the lengths, in plays, yards and time, for Boise State's seven touchdown drives in its 49-14 win at Bowling Green on Saturday:

• Four plays, 59 yards (1:36)• Three plays, 78 yards (0:55)• One play, 25 yards (0:08)• Three plays, 55 yards (1:03)• Two plays, 74 yards (0:27)• Two plays, 11 yards (0:11)• Seven plays, 65 yards (3:07)

Interestingly, the Broncos' offense seemed to fare worse the more time it spent on the field. Its two longest drives (14 and eight plays) resulted in zero points.

More interestingly: Boise's ascension to No. 5 in the AP and coaches polls this week is the highest for any non-BCS team since the BCS' 1998 inception. In fact, no such team has finished higher than sixth in the final BCS standings. As I wrote in last week's Mailbag, it will be interesting to see if and when the Broncos hit a ceiling, seeing as they now stand only three spots from No. 2 with 10 more weeks of polls remaining.

If Notre Dame, now 3-1, winds up reaching the BCS promised land, affording Charlie Weis many more years of his $4 million salary, he should personally cut a check to his Purdue counterpart, who committed one of the all-time clock management blunders Saturday night.

With the Boilers leading 21-17, 37 seconds remaining and Notre Dame out of timeouts, Irish running back Robert Hughes was stopped at the Purdue two-yard line on second-and-goal. Weis was fully planning to have quarterback Jimmy Clausen spike the ball to stop the clock -- but Hope did it for them. He called time out, preserving third down for the Irish.

"That helped us out a little bit right there," Weis said.

You think? Following an incompletion, Clausen hit tight end Kyle Rudolph on fourth-and-goal for the game-winning score. Season saved, crisis averted.

"I just wanted to have enough time to run a couple of plays [after Notre Dame scored]," said Hope, apparently not a huge believer in his defense. "If I looked at the situation again maybe it wasn't a great idea."

You could watch the replay of Michigan's controversial, game-saving interception against Indiana a million times and still not be certain whether officials made the right call. But at least if you do that, you'd get to watch Indiana's steamed coach abruptly hurl the nearest object he could find: the chewing gum in his mouth. (Fast forward to 1:36.)

Generally speaking, you should probably wait until a week after your team's game to mock the opponent. This Oklahoma fan, however, was all too eager to offer his thoughts about the Hurricanes' 31-7 loss at Virginia Tech.

About once or twice a season, I like to go mingle with my fellow Northwestern alumni at Blondie's, the fabled Upper West Side establishment where New York City Wildcats fans (yes, they exist) gather on Saturdays. Sadly, the faithful went home disappointed following a 35-24 loss to Minnesota, but not before engaging in an appropriately nerdy, yet brilliant ritual.

In past years, the Blondie's contingent celebrated touchdowns by singing the school's fight song, downing purple shots and lifting someone in the air (in past years, a girl; this year, a baby) for each point on the scoreboard. They're still doing all those things -- but with an added twist. Whenever the score comes on a touchdown pass by quarterback Mike Kafka, one of the ringleaders at the bar ... reads a passage from Kafka.

There were several Florida State fans present at the same time watching their game. The only thing I saw them reading was the beer list.

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

Oklahoma at Miami, Saturday (8 p.m. ET): Oh, how big this game would have been had the 'Canes not gone belly up in Blacksburg. Still, this one will spark much national curiosity -- particularly if a certain decorated quarterback's shoulder heals in time -- and the winner could launch itself back into BCS consideration.

USC at Cal, Saturday (8 p.m. ET): Oh, how big this game would have been had both teams not gone belly up the past two weeks. Still, nobody in the Pac-10 is foolish enough to write off the Trojans' eight-peat chances, which means a win here will be critical for them. A Bears win, meanwhile, would erase that Oregon memory real quick.

LSU at Georgia, Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET): How many more nerve-wracking finishes can the Dawgs take? All four of their games have been decided in the final minutes, if not the final second. LSU, meanwhile, is coming off its own heart-stopping ending in Starkville. One of you, please, win 45-14, for your fans' sakes.

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