Rock-solid defenses separate Florida, Alabama from pretenders

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BATON ROUGE, La. -- As the clock wound down on No. 1 Florida's 13-3 win over No. 4 LSU on Saturday night, I stood on the Gators' sideline with several writers, one of whom -- Dave Curtis of the Sporting News -- used an adept basketball analogy to describe the current national landscape.

"You know how in the NCAA tournament you have those years where the Final Four has two No. 1 seeds on one side and a four and a six on the other?" he said. Well, if the Dec. 5 SEC Championship were a national semifinal, Florida and Alabama would be those dueling No. 1 seeds. The latest AP poll confirmed that sentiment Sunday by listing the two conference rivals No. 1 and 2 in the country.

By the end of the day Saturday, it had become abundantly clear the Gators and Crimson Tide stand head and shoulders above the rest of their conference peers. This year's SEC is hardly the ultra-deep league it's been the past few years, where no team was safe from one week to the next. It's more like the SEC of the mid-to-late '90s, when Florida and Tennessee staged an annual two-team race.

Both teams handled their much-anticipated road trips Saturday with relative ease thanks to another set of dominant defensive performances. Alabama rendered formerly ballyhooed Ole Miss quarterback Jevan Snead utterly helpless in a 22-3 bludgeoning in Oxford. The Gators quieted 93,129 revved-up LSU fans by sacking Jordan Jefferson five times and holding the Tigers to 12 first downs.

Take a look around the league. Who's going to beat these guys? Georgia? South Carolina? Auburn? Tennessee? Not in their current incarnations. Not when Florida and Alabama rank first and second, respectively, on the NCAA's total defense chart.

In Saturday's undercards, Auburn suffered its first defeat in humbling fashion, falling 44-23 to Arkansas. But that paled in comparison to the humiliation Tennessee laid on Georgia in a 45-19 butt-whipping. We knew the Dawgs' defense was subpar, but when Jonathan Crompton shreds you for 310 yards and four touchdowns, you've got problems.

Nearly every team in the SEC is plagued by a common element: They're utterly lacking on one side of the ball. All, that is, except Florida and Alabama.

Viewers expecting Tim Tebow to come back and lead the Gators to 40 points may have been unimpressed by Florida's performance Saturday. Yet despite leading by just one score for much of the second half, the outcome never seemed in doubt. If anything, the Gators did exactly what their coaches had set out to do.

"The game plan going in wasn't to spread it out," Tebow said. "It was that we were going to out-physical them, manage the ball" and let Florida's top-ranked defense take care of the rest.

With relentless running from Jeff Demps (16 carries for 86 yards), Emmanuel Moody (6 for 42) and, once he got his bearings, Tebow (17 for 38), the Gators shortened the game to just 17 combined possessions. They probably should have scored more points -- three drives inside the LSU 33 ended in a missed field goal, failed fourth-down conversion and a Tebow interception -- but the way their defense played, it didn't matter.

"The management of the game was dependent upon how the defense and special teams played, and those two phases were tremendous," Gators coach Urban Meyer said.

If the Gators have a hole, it's their receiving corps. Once again, tight end Aaron Hernandez (6 catches, 70 yards) and receiver Riley Cooper (a 24-yard touchdown) were Tebow's only reliable targets, which is troubling for an offense that constantly utilizes four-receiver sets. Florida's offense is unquestionably one-dimensional right now -- but there's only one team in its league with a defense capable of exploiting it.

That would be Alabama, which, despite what the poll order might say, has been the nation's most dominant team through six games. While it's now clear preseason darling Ole Miss isn't remotely what we expected, the Tide's defense had plenty to do with Snead throwing four interceptions and the Rebels managing just 19 yards in the first half.

"That's about as fine a defensive performance in the first half as I've been around in a while," said Alabama coach Nick Saban, who doesn't dish out compliments lightly.

Much like with the Florida-LSU game, the Alabama-Ole Miss outcome was never in doubt once Mark Ingram's 36-yard touchdown run put the Tide up 16-0 at halftime. Much like the Gators, Alabama's offense was hardly overpowering. Previously steady quarterback Greg McElroy (15-of-34, 147 yards) played his first bad game of the season. Based on his season stats to date (60.8 percent completions, nine touchdowns and just one interception), it seems safe to figure it an aberration.

Barring injuries or an unforeseen collapse, there aren't a whole lot of remaining potential potholes on either team's schedule.

Florida's toughest remaining test may actually come next week at home against 3-2 Arkansas, which has posted 40-plus points in four of its five games. Bobby Petrino's team has even flashed some defensive prowess the past two weeks, holding two previously prolific offensive teams (Texas A&M and Auburn) to an average of 21 points.

Then again, the Razorbacks have already had a shot at one of the SEC's pacesetters, and it didn't go particularly well; Alabama throttled Arkansas 35-7 on Sept. 26.

Alabama's next big game figured to comes Nov. 7 against Saban' former team, LSU. But the 5-1 Tigers' offense has been a mess nearly the entire season, which doesn't bode well going against the Tide's defense. The Nov. 28 Iron Bowl at Auburn could return to its former place as a high-stakes showdown, but that's a long ways away.

It may be that, for the first time in several seasons, the nation turns its attention away from the SEC for a while. While the Gators and Crimson Tide presumably continue on their collision course toward Atlanta, we'll be busy checking in on teams like Texas, Virginia Tech and USC, all of whom have critical games in the coming weeks.

You know, the other side of the bracket.

ESPN's Thursday night games rarely fail to disappoint, with last week's Nebraska-Missouri game providing the latest dramatic episode. Trailing 12-0 heading into the final quarter, the Huskers -- whose offense struggled miserably all night under a torrential downpour -- suddenly scored two touchdowns in a 57-second span to start the fourth quarter, then pulled away to win 27-12.

For viewers nationally, the game served as a showcase for the Huskers' powerful defensive front, led by prospective No. 1 draft pick Ndamukong Suh. The 6-foot-4, 300-pound tackle's batted interception to himself early in the fourth quarter set up Nebraska's go-ahead touchdown. He finished with six tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and several batted balls.

While Suh was the game's undisputed star -- prompting several columnists around the country, including's Andy Staples, to begin touting his Heisman candidacy -- the entire front four of Barry Turner, Jared Crick, Suh and Pierre Allen spent most of the night chasing Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert out of the pocket. The four combined for 21 tackles.

Second-year Nebraska coach Bo Pelini -- who returned to Lincoln (where he served as defensive coordinator in 2003) determined to restore the program's tradition of defensive dominance -- appears to be well on his way. The 4-1 Huskers rank 13th nationally in total defense (273.4 yards per game), up from 55th a year ago.

"We've made a lot of progress from where were last year," Pelini said Sunday. "You've got to be able to stop the run and rush the passer, and we've been able to do that very effectively this season."

In fact, the Huskers did much the same thing in their Sept. 19 game at Virginia Tech, controlling the line of scrimmage nearly the entire game and holding the Hokies to 190 total yards before quarterback Tyrod Taylor engineered a last-second, game-winning 88-yard drive. The Missouri game served as a reversal of sorts for the Huskers.

"We lost one earlier in the year where the tone changed real late," Pelini said. "This time we kind of made things happen in the fourth quarter. Hopefully it gives us some momentum and some confidence."

The Huskers may need it this weekend when they host Texas Tech, which has won the teams' past three meetings. It will be interesting to see whether Suh and the defense can disrupt the Red Raiders' precision-based passing attack as drastically as they did Missouri's.

My reaction to the latest AP and coaches polls:

Overrated: Oklahoma State (Coaches: No. 14. AP: No. 16)

With Dez Bryant in NCAA limbo, Kendall Hunter shelved with an ankle injury and a defense that wasn't all that good to begin with, the Cowboys were fortunate to escape Texas A&M with a 36-31 victory. Until their stars return, though, this is not a top 20 team. Certainly they're not seven to nine spots better than Houston, a fellow 4-1 team which happened to beat Oklahoma State in Stillwater.

Underrated: Oregon (Coaches: No. 16. AP: No. 13)

Even without starting quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, the Ducks handled UCLA on Saturday for their fifth straight victory thanks in no small part to a surprisingly stout defense. Despite an injury-depleted secondary, Oregon did not allow an offensive touchdown against the Bruins and have allowed a combined 19 points in three conference games to take sole possession of first place in the Pac-10.

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: Nebraska vs. Boise State

Sugar: Florida vs. Cincinnati

Orange: Virginia Tech vs. Iowa

Toward the end of the Nebraska-Missouri game I regrettably tweeted that Kansas remained my pick to win the Big 12 North. In the words of Gob Bluth: "I've made a huge mistake." The Huskers have a far more favorable remaining schedule -- and a much, much better defense. Even if they lost in the Big 12 title game, their famous traveling horde would be widely welcomed by any bowl committee.

• After toiling on the cusp for four years, Duke quarterback Thad Lewis finally got his moment in the sun Saturday. The four-year starter shredded N.C. State for 459 yards and five touchdowns on 40-of-50 passing for the Blue Devils' first ACC road win since 2003. On Sunday, he was named the Walter Camp Player of the Week.

"I will probably upset a couple of my former quarterbacks," said Duke coach David Cutcliffe, "but I believe that is the finest game that I have had a quarterback have in college."

You do know who his former quarterbacks include, right?

• Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez raised questions by pulling struggling quarterback Tate Forcier for Denard Robinson in the fourth quarter against Iowa. Perhaps Forcier is hurting more than Rodriguez is letting on, but it seems strange to have Robinson try to lead a game-winning drive at the end when Forcier has done just that three times already. While Forcier watched from the sidelines, Robinson threw a game-sealing pick.

Compounding matters, ABC reported during its broadcast that Forcier had "heated words" with Rodriguez on the sideline, a charge the coach vehemently denied. "Let's not create something that's [not] there, guys," he told reporters. "I put Denard in to get a spark, and we got a spark. And the spark was still lit."

And the Wolverines' summer-long quarterback question makes its ugly return.

• Oklahoma's Sam Bradford is usually quite reserved in public, but the reigning Heisman winner seemed positively giddy in his postgame press conference after throwing for 389 yards in a win over Baylor in his return performance. "It's extremely gratifying ... just to be out there with the guys," he said.As I wrote Saturday, he could have had an even bigger day with a little more help from his receivers.

• Virginia Tech's offense has really kicked it into gear these past few weeks. On Saturday against Boston College, running back Ryan Williams continued his season-long tear with 159 yards on 18 carries. And ever since that game-winning drive against Nebraska, Taylor has looked like a far more confident passer. He threw touchdowns of 41 and 24 yards in the Hokies' 48-14 rout.

• What a strange game in Columbus. Wisconsin held the ball for 42:47 to Ohio State's 17:13. Terrelle Pryor completed just 5-of-13 passes with an interception. Yet the Buckeyes won going away, 31-13, thanks to two pick-sixes (Kurt Coleman for 89 yards and Jermale Hines for 32) and an 86-yard kick return by Ray Small. Give credit to OSU's defense for weathering 89 Wisconsin plays.

• If ever a team was guilty of "looking ahead," it was Texas. The 'Horns trailed woeful Colorado 14-10 at halftime Saturday and scored more touchdowns on defense and special teams (three) than on offense (two) in their 38-14 win. Colt McCoy had two turnovers. "When everybody talks about how bad Colorado is all week, it's really hard to go out there and take them serious,'' Texas coach Mack Brown said.

• Georgia Tech quarterback Josh Nesbitt ran for 140 yards and scored four touchdowns against Florida State, but his biggest play Saturday came on defense. Neither team could stop the other all night, so the 'Noles appeared to catch a huge break when Nigel Carr scooped up an errant Nesbitt option pitch in the fourth quarter. That is, until Nesbitt snatched it right back. Tech won 49-44.

• Ole Miss quarterback Jevan Snead is being dubbed this season's biggest disappointment (the preseason Heisman candidate is competing 46.8 percent of his passes with nine interceptions), but to be fair, he's getting no protection. "Their big weakness on their team is their offensive line," Alabama defensive tackle Terrence Cody said. Snead looks panicked seemingly every time the ball is snapped.

• Undefeateds Cincinnati and South Florida meet Thursday night in a game many believe will decide the Big East title, but it might not be wise to dismiss Pittsburgh just yet. The 5-1 Panthers, down 21-6 to UConn late in the third quarter, pulled off an impressive rally to win on a last-second field goal. Freshman Dion Lewis (158 yards) now ranks fifth nationally in rushing.• This is why Texas Tech quarterbacks get branded with the "system" stigma. With Taylor Potts hurt (the first time in Mike Leach's 10-year tenure one of his quarterbacks missed a start), backup Steven Sheffield stepped in against Kansas State and threw for 490 yards and seven touchdowns in a 66-24 rout.

• How's this for a stat line: Bowling Green receiver Freddie Barnes had 22 catches (one shy of a record) for 278 yards and three TDs against Kent State. Barnes now has 75 receptions on the year, 28 more than any other player nationally.

• The Army "bowl watch" continues. After knocking off Vanderbilt in overtime, the Black Knights are 3-3, the latest they've been at least .500 since their last bowl season in 1996. Next week brings another winnable game at 3-2 Temple.

There are big doings in Moscow these days. (Not that Moscow.) Following a last-minute 29-25 win at San Jose State on Saturday, Idaho is 5-1, no small feat considering it hasn't won five games in a season since 2000.

Since moving from the Sun Belt to the WAC in 2005, the Vandals had been a perennial cellar-dweller. In the four seasons prior to this one, they'd won a combined six conference games. Coaching instability certainly didn't help. First, Nick Holt abruptly departed after just two seasons (2004 and '05) to return to Pete Carroll's USC staff (Holt is now at Washington). The school then rescued former coach Dennis Erickson from coaching exile only to watch him return the favor by bolting for Arizona State after just one season.

Enter Robb Akey, who spent the previous eight years just eight miles away on Washington State staff.

After enduring a nightmarish first two seasons (a combined 3-21 record), Akey has Idaho off to its best start since 1994, when the school was still in Division I-AA. The past three wins have all come against bowl-eligible teams from a year ago (Northern Illinois, Colorado State and San Jose State). It's too early to say how Idaho will ultimately stack up in the WAC (San Jose was the Vandals' second conference opponent), but just reaching a bowl for the first time since 1998 would be accomplishment enough.

What's interesting about Idaho is that, prior to this decade, the Idaho-Boise State rivalry had been fairly even, and in fact the Vandals won three straight lopsided games from 1996-98 when the two schools first moved up to I-A. Obviously, the two programs have gone in opposite directions since then. But is it really all that crazy to think a school that once churned out such coaches as Erickson and John L. Smith has found itself another unsung gem in Akey? We may soon find out.

Have you ever wondered what it's like to be the only remaining person in a 90,000-seat stadium? I can now tell you from experience: It's eerie.

After filing my story from LSU's Tiger Stadium late Saturday night, I returned to my hotel a little after 1 a.m. to make the horrifying discovery that, for the first time in 11 years of covering football games, I'd left the power cord to my laptop in the press box. With nightmare scenarios flashing through my head (I knew I'd be spending seven to eight hours the next day writing this column), I bolted back to the parking lot and hopped on I-10 in a mad dash back to Tiger Stadium, hoping like heck I'd be able to get back in.

The first good sign came when I found the stadium's closest parking lot wide open (only hours earlier, you probably needed a $10,000 annual donation to park there). So, too, was the press entrance. As I got on the elevator, a group of school employees were getting off. A woman who appeared to be in charge saw me and asked if I was going up to the press box. I shuddered.

"It's open," she said. "But I turned all the lights off."

Sure enough, I arrived to find the enormous press box -- which, when I'd left it 45 minutes earlier still had about 20 writers working -- dark and empty. So too, it appeared, was the entire stadium. I looked out into the bowl for any sign of clean-up workers or security guards and saw none. I was all alone inside previously jam-packed Tiger Stadium ... and, mercifully, reunited with my power cord.

All in all, it was a heck of a scare that made a late night even later, but I can't complain too much. It could have been much worse. I could have been covering soccer.

That's what they're calling it at Washington. With less than three minutes remaining, the Huskies' Mason Foster picked a pass off the foot of Arizona receiver Delashaun Dean and returned it 37 yards for what would prove to be the game-winning touchdown.

That's my own self-dubbed name for UCLA linebacker Akeem Ayers' "you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it" pick of Oregon's Nate Costa, in which the incoming rusher leaps up and grabs the ball within milliseconds of the quarterback's release. Oh, and he manages to gets his foot down just inside the back of the Ducks' end zone.

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

• Texas vs. Oklahoma, Saturday (Noon ET): Expect another aerial shootout between Bradford and Colt McCoy (especially since neither team has shown signs of a consistent running game). The Sooners' best hope is to somehow neutralize Jordan Shipley, the one true gamebreaker on either side.

• USC at Notre Dame, Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET): There will be plenty of comparisons to the classic 2005 game in South Bend. The difference: That Trojans defense was by far the worst of Pete Carroll's reign. If Jimmy Clausen can shred this year's sixth-ranked defense like Brady Quinn, hand him the Heisman right there.

• Virginia Tech at Georgia Tech, Saturday (6 p.m. ET): Having already beaten Miami, a win in Atlanta would put the Hokies firmly in the driver's seat in the ACC Coastal. A Jackets victory would set the stage for a potentially heated three-way race the rest of the way. (Or four-way if you include suddenly resurgent Virginia.)