For the past five weeks, while teams below them squared off in high-profile games and/or suffered early-season setbacks, Florida and Texas have quietly held on to the Nos. 1 and 2 rankings bequeathed to them since nearly the day last season ended.
At last, judgment time has arrived -- at least for the Gators.
Florida's long-anticipated trip to LSU on Saturday will pit the owners of the past three BCS championships and mark the first matchup this season between top-five teams. Between now and Saturday night, you can expect around-the-clock speculation about Tim Tebow's status -- will he or won't he trot onto the field at Tiger Stadium?
Some will say it doesn't really matter. If Florida's defense is as advertised, it should have little trouble stopping LSU's woeful offense (ranked 99th nationally at 321.6 yards per game). And even if Tebow doesn't go, the Gators have a more capable backup than most in John Brantley, right?
It's not that simple.
As my colleague Andy Staplesrecently wrote, Florida's entire offensive approach would change with the pro-style Brantley. You can throw out those 25 quarterback draws we would have seen with Tebow. Instead, Florida would likely lean heavily on its tailback stable of Jeff Demps, Chris Rainey and Emmanuel Moody, which isn't necessarily a bad thing -- the trio is averaging 188.2 yards per game and 9.8 yards per carry.
But it's awfully hard to win an SEC game one-dimensionally, and the prospect of Brantley making his first career start in Death Valley is made more daunting by the lack of productivity thus far from Florida's depleted receiving corps.
As for that LSU offense, I'll reiterate what I wrote Saturday after the Georgia game: the Tigers won't stand a chance if their offensive line is as powerless as it looked for three-plus quarters in Athens (and for several games before that). But LSU gave its fans cause for hope in the fourth quarter when quarterback Jordan Jefferson led the Tigers on a 13-play, 88-yard touchdown drive, and running back Charles Scott, after being held in check for most of the day, broke free for the game-winning 33-yard score.
If Florida's worst nightmare comes true -- Tebow doesn't play and Urban Meyer loses his third straight game in Baton Rouge -- it would not necessarily be devastating. For one thing, the Gators aren't likely to fall far in the polls for losing to the No. 4 team. They'll be a prohibitive favorite in their remaining games (remarkably, neither No. 3 Alabama, No. 17 Auburn or No. 20 Ole Miss appear on their schedule). And regardless of Saturday's outcome, their BCS title hopes ultimately ride on the Dec. 5 SEC championship game.
Still, even a single defeat would take the Gators' fate out of their hands. They'd have to hope the national-title race devolves into another jumble of one-loss teams, and they'd have to hope the voters still consider them the best of the bunch -- particularly if Texas runs the table.
The Longhorns' first red-letter date long figured to be the Oct. 17 Red River Shootout, but suddenly that Oklahoma showdown has lost its sizzle. With the one-time No. 3 Sooners suffering their second defeat Saturday night at Miami, the Dallas game has gone from a "must-win" to a "should-win" for Texas.
Whether or not Heisman winner Sam Bradford returns by then, Bob Stoops' team has other issues. Just like BYU in the opener, the Hurricanes overpowered Oklahoma's inexperienced offensive line, and Miami had a surprising amount of success simply running up the gut against the Sooners' defense. (Javarris James ran for a career-high 150 yards.) Meanwhile, receiver Ryan Broyles fractured his shoulder, joining Bradford and tight end Jermaine Gresham on the sideline.
Even with all that adversity, Oklahoma has suffered a pair of one-point, non-conference losses, and Stoops said afterward, "I still really believe in my team." His team, however, fell to 19th in this week's AP poll, which means Texas won't face its first Top 10 opponent until at least Oct. 31 when it visits Oklahoma State (currently 15th). It's possible they won't face one at all.
After spending much of last season in the national spotlight, the Big 12 has endured a nightmarish non-conference slate. Following Oklahoma's loss, Arkansas' 47-19 shellacking of Texas A&M and Colorado's 35-24 loss to West Virginia, the league finished 4-7 against BCS-conference foes. Oklahoma State and Texas Tech both lost to Houston. Kansas and Missouri are the league's only other remaining undefeated teams.
Much more so than Florida, the 'Horns may not be able to afford a single blemish, because one-loss teams like Virginia Tech and USC will be breathing down their necks.
But perhaps this is all presumptuous. After all, the past three Florida-LSU winners have all sustained defeats (in LSU's case, in 2007, two) and still gone on to claim the crystal trophy. There could be at least one thing different about this matchup, however: Tebow, who played a key role in all three editions, might not be present.
They don't account for that in the BCS standings.
The next two weeks could also go a long way toward determining this season's Heisman pecking order. Tebow, the prohibitive favorite, could either enhance his considerable legacy with a big night at LSU or fall considerably behind if forced to miss one of Florida's biggest games of the year. Texas' Colt McCoy, who lost some ground early on, gets a chance to win back the spotlight a week later against Oklahoma.
And then there's the increasingly intriguing case of Jimmy Clausen, whose make-or-break date with stiff-arm destiny comes that same day against No. 7 USC.
The Notre Dame junior put on yet another spectacular and dramatic performance Saturday against Washington, throwing for 422 yards and two touchdowns, including a go-ahead score to Kyle Rudolph with 1:20 remaining. After Washington came back to tie, Clausen threw a 22-yard completion to Golden Tate (who himself had a staggering 244 yards on nine catches) on the first play of overtime to set up the Irish's eventual game-winning TD. He constantly avoided pressure to make long throws downfield.
"[Clausen] has taken it to a whole different level about moving in the pocket and moving from the pocket and keeping his eyes downfield," said coach Charlie Weis. "He'll run it when he needs to, but his eyes are downfield, he remembers where the receivers are, and that gives him an opportunity to make a play.
Clausen now leads the nation in pass efficiency, completing 67.6 percent of his passes for 1,544 yards, 12 touchdowns and two interceptions. However, it's been hard to take the Irish too seriously what with their weekly habit of needing a furious last-second rally to fend off an inferior foe. AP voters clearly have little respect for Notre Dame's competition; the 4-1 Irish received just nine poll votes this week.
Nonetheless, it's hard to find fault with Clausen, who is posting all those big numbers despite getting almost no help. He lost his most dangerous receiver, Michael Floyd, early in the Michigan State game. Running back Armando Allen has been hobbled by an ankle injury, contributing to the Irish's red-zone woes (settling for four field goals from inside the 20) against Washington. And with the notable exception of those three goal-line stands Saturday, the Irish defense has been porous.
But gone are the days when a Notre Dame player could win the Heisman without beating anyone of merit, which is why Clausen's next game (the Irish have a bye this week) will serve as his defining opportunity. Thus far the Irish have offered little sign they can play with a team that's throttled them seven of the past eight years. The Trojans' defense suffocated Cal on Saturday and is sitting in their customary spot among the nation's top-five teams in total defense (238.6 yards per game).
"We don't have to underestimate that we have a top opponent on deck," said Weis. "But the way this quarterback is playing and the way he's acting and the way he's leading the team, the confidence the team has in him, you've got a chance to win every time you play."
The one time this rivalry was competitive any time recently was 2005, the famous "Bush Push" game. Even in defeat, Brady Quinn emerged from that game as a Heisman contender (he finished fourth). Clausen will need to do something similar -- but he's going to need a whole lot more help than he's currently getting.
My reaction to the latest AP and coaches polls.
Overrated: Iowa (AP: No. 12. Coaches: No. 14)
The Hawkeyes moved up one spot in the AP poll and three spots in the coaches poll despite letting 1-3 Arkansas State take them to the wire. The Red Wolves drove 68 yards on 17 plays to cut the score to 24-21 with 2:01 left before running out of time. For whatever reason, Iowa has looked more dominant when facing teams like Penn State and Arizona than Northern Iowa and Arkansas State.
Underrated: Nebraska (AP: No. 21. Coaches: No. 22).
The 3-1 Huskers' resume is admittedly light: All they have are three lopsided wins over Sun Belt foes. But I know this much: On Sept. 19, I watched Nebraska play Virginia Tech toe-to-toe in Blacksburg before falling at the last second. The Hokies are currently ranked fifth. Miami -- whom Virginia Tech walloped last week -- is 11th. Something tells me the Huskers are closer to their class.
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: Kansas vs. Boise State
Sugar: Florida vs. Cincinnati
Orange: Virginia Tech vs. Iowa
In looking for a team to replace Oklahoma as the Fiesta Bowl's first at-large choice, the most logical choice at first appeared to be Oregon. But Glendale is almost certainly where Boise State will play if it goes undefeated, and no one's going to let "Oregon-Boise State II" happen. For lack of a better option, I chose Kansas, whose schedule lends itself to a possible 10-win season.
• Credit UTEP for the most staggering one-week turnaround you'll ever see. Seven days after notching 53 yards of offense in a 64-7 drubbing by Texas, the Miners turned around and gained 581 yards in a 58-41 upset of No. 12 Houston, ending the Cougars' BCS-busting hopes. Running back Donald Buckram's astounding stat line on the night: 32 carries for 262 yards and four touchdowns.
Remarkably, star Cougars quarterback Case Keenum delivered his most prolific performance to date -- 51-of-76 for 536 yards, five TD and no interceptions -- and Houston still gained 664 yards of offense. But a week after making several fourth-quarter stops against Texas Tech, Kevin Sumlin's admittedly thin defense couldn't keep up in a relentless shootout, giving up six second-half touchdowns.
• You could see Saturday just how much USC missed quarterback Matt Barkley and safety Taylor Mays in that Washington loss. Mays crushed Cal's spirits early when he intercepted a Kevin Riley pass in the end zone on the Bears' first series. He finished with 10 tackles, while Barkley went 20-of-35 for 283 yards, his lone interception coming in the fourth quarter when the 30-3 win was well in hand.
• There should be few remaining skeptics of Auburn's retooled offense after Gus Malzahn's crew racked up 459 yards against Tennessee's eighth-ranked defense in a 26-22 win. The 5-0 Tigers were incredibly balanced (235 yards passing, 224 rushing). Meanwhile, beleaguered Vols quarterback Jonathan Crompton "managed to miss his receivers in every way possible," according to the Associated Press.
• It's hard to believe how far Florida State has sunk in the two weeks since its 54-28 win at BYU. Following a 28-21 loss at Boston College, the 'Noles are 2-3 for the first time since 1976 (Bobby Bowden's first season) and 0-2 in the ACC for the first time, period. Bowden says he'll "wait to the end of the year" to evaluate his future. Sadly, we've been hearing that line annually for about five years.
• It's so much fun to watch Stanford running back Toby Gerhart. At 6-1, 235 pounds, you'd expect the senior to lumber through the line of scrimmage --- but then he breaks outside and turns on the jets. Though he won't be beating Jahvid Best in any track meets, he's supplanted the Cal star as the Pac-10's most productive runner, averaging 130 yards per game to rank No. 4 nationally.
• Coming into the season, Wisconsin fans were starting to throw around the words "hot seat" regarding fourth-year coach Bret Bielema. Here's guessing they're back on the Bielema bandwagon now that the Badgers are off to their fourth 5-0 start in six years. Wisconsin used its classic formula to beat Minnesota, running the ball with John Clay (184 yards, three TDs) and forcing key turnovers.
• Cincinnati has won 26 games since 2007, yet Saturday's 37-13 win over Miami (Ohio) marked the first time since the '07 opener that the Bearcats produced a 100-yard rusher (Jacob Ramsey, 103). Brian Kelly's quick-strike offense isn't much into ball control: His 5-0 team held the ball for just 19 minutes against the RedHawks and ranks dead-last nationally in average time of possession (23:47).
• North Carolina has been one of the season's biggest disappointments. The Tar Heels have scored 10 combined points in their first two ACC games, bottoming out with a 16-3 home loss to 0-3 Virginia in which UNC managed 174 total yards. Down two starting offensive linemen and tight end, the Tar Heels can't protect quarterback T.J. Yates, who clearly misses departed playmaker Hakeem Nicks.
• It seems like sometimes West Virginia forgets that it has one of the most explosive players in the country in its backfield. After an ugly first half against Colorado in which the Mountaineers lost four fumbles, coach Bill Stewart decided, "let's put the ball in No. 7's hands and win the football game." Noel Devine wound up running 22 times -- his most carries in a year -- for 220 yards.
• It's tough being an Iowa State fan these days. The Cyclones appeared set to send Saturday's game against Kansas State to overtime following Austen Arnaud's 23-yard touchdown pass with 32 seconds left, but the Wildcats blocked the extra point. Meanwhile, reviled ex-coach Gene Chizik has already won as many games at Auburn (five) as he did during his in two seasons in Ames.
• Here's one way to break out of an early-season slump. Nevada, 0-3 heading into its annual rivalry date with UNLV, rolled up 773 total yards -- including 559 rushing -- to beat the Rebels 63-28. Freshman Mike Ball, who entered the game with one rushing attempt, ran 15 times for 184 yards and five touchdowns.
• After averaging just 127.3 yards on the ground its first four games, Penn State rolled up 338 rushing yards against suddenly hapless Illinois. "Our offensive line played real confident today," said Joe Paterno. Who wouldn't against the Illini?
• Idaho, which hasn't won more than four games in a season since 2000, improved to 4-1 with a 31-29 win over Colorado State. Could it be that Boise State's toughest WAC competitor this year is in its own state?
Ball State coach Stan Parrish just can't win. Literally.
When Toledo's Aaron Opelt threw a game-wining 51-yard touchdown with 27 seconds left, it didn't just drop the Cardinals to 0-5. It marked Parrish's 33rd straight winless game as head coach, a drought that's now approaching 23 years.
Parrish rose from offensive coordinator to become Ball State's head coach when Brady Hoke left for San Diego State prior to last year's GMAC Bowl. The Cardinals, as you may recall, were 12-1 at the time. They lost that game 45-13 and have not won since.
Perhaps Ball State fans should have seen this coming. Prior to his current gig, Parrish had last served as head coach 20 years earlier at Kansas State, where the Wildcats lost the last their five games in 1986, then went winless (with one tie) during Parrish's last two seasons.
It's not like the guy can't coach. The 63-year-old went 42-3-1 at Wabash from 1979 to '82, won a national title in 1997 as Lloyd Carr's quarterbacks coach at Michigan (where, incidentally, he served as Tom Brady's position coach) and earned a Super Bowl ring with the Tampa Bay Bucs in 2002. But he did have the misfortune of taking over Ball State the year afterNate Davis turned pro.
As you may have heard, Oregon has established a process by which suspended running back LeGarrette Blount could be reinstated, though no sooner than Nov. 7. You can criticize Oregon administrators if you'd like for softening their original stance of a yearlong suspension, but you can't say Blount hasn't paid a price for his ghastly sucker-punch that night in Boise.
The same consequences apparently don't apply, however, to fist-wielding coaches. It's been two weeks since New Mexico's Mike Locksley allegedly punched assistant coach J.B. Gerald following a heated argument in a staff meeting, and the only repercussion to date has been a "reprimand" for Locksley. (Locksley acknowledged an altercation took place but denied he punched Gerald; whatever happened resulted in a split lip for Gerald, according to the police report.)
The university opened an investigation into the incident last week, but only after facing public pressure. While a suspension or dismissal are possible, FanHouse writer Terrance Harrisreported from Albuquerque that, "It is likely, however, that it will be determined that the athletic department handled things appropriately."
Athletic Director Paul Krebs said last week: "I think [Locksley's situation] is compounded by the fact we are 0-4. If we were 3-1, I think people would look at it much differently."
Seriously? That's the issue? Just be honest about it: Coaches aren't held accountable for their behavior to nearly the same degree as players, which is ironic, considering they're supposedly the adults.
With just over a minute left against LSU, Georgia's star receiver made a touchdown catch even the pros would envy. Then he drew an absurd celebration flag that helped set up the Tigers' winning drive. See them both (shown at the 0:54 mark).
Miami freshman safety Ray Ray Armstrong has been drawing comparisons to the late Sean Taylor since the day he arrived on campus. Here's why.
Mini-previews for three of this week's big games
Florida at LSU, Saturday (8 p.m. ET): One of the loudest crowds I've ever heard was at this game two years ago. LSU won 28-24 that night in large part by converting five fourth-down attempts. This could be another hard-hitting grinder just like that one ... or the Gators could win 51-21 like they did last year.
Alabama at Ole Miss, Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET): Oh yeah -- the nation's No. 3 team faces a big conference road test as well. Rebels quarterback Jevan Snead, coming off a three-interception night against Vanderbilt, has struggled much of the season. He must now turn things around against a top-10 pass defense.
Wisconsin at Ohio State, Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET): The last time the Badgers made it to 6-0, in 2004, their sixth win came at ... yep, Ohio State. Wisconsin quarterback Scott Tolzien, a surprise standout so far, will have to make some big plays, because the Buckeyes aren't likely to give up many yards on the ground.