During the latter stages of No. 1 Alabama's near-unraveling against Tennessee, someone asked me the following question on Twitter: "Is this the least impressive set of BCS title contenders you have ever seen?"
That's one way of looking at it. Florida certainly added to that perception Saturday night against Mississippi State. But I've seen enough unglamorous national champions this decade (2000 Oklahoma, 2002 Ohio State, 2003 LSU, 2006 Florida) to know it's unwise to doubt anyone with a dominant defense. And this year we happen to be seeing a whole bunch of them.
It's hardly surprising to see Florida, Texas, Penn State, Alabama and TCU sitting in the top five nationally in total defense. We've come to expect it from those programs. Iowa's best teams have also usually been of the blue-collar variety.
But Oregon? Seriously? Where did this come from?
While teams like the Gators and Crimson Tide struggled to put away inferior opponents Saturday, the resurgent, 10th-ranked Ducks (6-1) plastered Washington 43-19 to improve to 4-0 in the Pac-10. In those contests, they've allowed an average of 9.5 points. Heading into next weekend's gargantuan showdown with No. 4 USC (the winner will take control of the Pac-10 driver's seat), a program better known for its garish uniforms and high-octane offense has reinvented itself with opportunistic defense and special teams. Frankly, it defies logic.
"I didn't see it coming," admitted Ducks defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti.
Consider: Oregon has not finished in the top 40 nationally in total defense since 2004. This year, it ranks 19th. Four starters from last year's defense, including All-Americas Patrick Chung and Nick Reed, were drafted last spring. And since the season began, Oregon has lost both its top cornerback (Walter Thurmond) and his replacement (Willie Glasper) to season-ending injuries. Another corner, Talmadge Jackson, suffered back spasms against Washington. Safety T.J. Ward went down in the season-opener against Boise State and only returned Saturday.
Yet last Saturday in Seattle, the Ducks sacked Huskies quarterback Jake Locker four times. They intercepted him twice, one coming from a freshman cornerback, Cliff Harris, who didn't join the team until late August due to NCAA clearinghouse issues. The Ducks didn't allow a touchdown until the fourth quarter, after they'd already gone up 36-6.
For the most part, Oregon is generating pressure with a front four comprised largely of undersized career backups, most notably 6-foot-3, 232-pound defensive end Kenny Rowe, who has a team-leading seven sacks.
"I am extremely proud of our front four. They have played beyond what I thought they could be due to lack of experience," said Aliotti. "It's kind of an unsung-hero defense. There isn't any real star. You wish you could bottle up this type of attitude and chemistry."
Against Washington, Oregon also blocked a punt for a touchdown, set up another with a fake field goal and once again rode freshman tailback LaMichael James, who, since stepping in for the suspended LeGarrette Blount, has posted three games of 150-plus yards (including 154 on 15 carries Saturday). Quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, returning from a knee injury that cost him a game, had 211 total yards.
But it's the defense more than the offense that gives Oregon a shot at pulling off a potential landmark win this weekend against the Trojans.
While it's true USC's normally stout defense has played poorly in the second halves of its past two games (the Trojans allowed a staggering 482 yards in Saturday's 42-36 win over Oregon State), Pete Carroll's defenses have traditionally fared well against Oregon's spread. In the teams' 2007 meeting in Autzen Stadium, played under a similar buildup, USC held sizzling Ducks quarterback Dennis Dixon to 233 yards of total offense. But Oregon's defense secured the 24-17 victory by twice picking off Mark Sanchez.
At the time, that game put Oregon in position to end the Trojans' run of Pac-10 supremacy, but Dixon suffered an ACL injury the following week and the Ducks wound up losing their last three conference games. Now, they get another shot. A victory Saturday would give Oregon (4-0) a two-game lead in the standings over seven-time defending champion USC (3-1), a feat that would be all the more remarkable considering just how disastrously the Ducks season began that infamous night in Boise.
"They're solid," Washington defensive coordinator Nick Holt, formerly of USC, said of the Ducks. "I think it will be a great game. The thing Oregon has going for 'em is they're playing at their place. They're really good at home."
Perhaps it's asking too much. Perhaps the Trojans' veteran offensive line will impose its will against Rowe and Co. Perhaps quarterback Matt Barkley will pick apart Oregon's depleted secondary. ("We're still a little nervous at corner," admitted Aliotti.) Perhaps Ducks linebacker Casey Matthews (son of former USC star Clay Matthews, brother of recent USC draft pick Clay Matthews Jr.) will remember his lineage and get caught giving the Victory Sign.
Either way, this figures to be one of the season's most intriguing games to date because of the multitude of ramifications. A Trojans win will put them squarely at the front of the BCS one-loss pack. An Oregon win will put the Ducks in the Rose Bowl driver's seat, push USC to the cusp of rare BCS oblivion -- and, interestingly, further help Boise State's cause.
The Sept. 3 Oregon-Boise State game was an eventful way to begin the year. At the time, the low-scoring 19-8 contest was almost an afterthought to the Blount melee that followed. Who would have guessed it would actually set the tone for this defensive-dominated season -- both at Oregon and across the country?
Theoretically, Oregon's continued success should be boosting Boise State in its quest for a BCS berth. However, as of Sunday night, the Broncos are no longer the highest-ranked non-BCS team -- and I can't say I disagree.
If you watched TCU's game Saturday night at BYU, you saw a team that is capable of playing with anyone. In what was purported to be one of their toughest remaining tests, the Horned Frogs walked into LaVell Edwards Stadium and plastered the Cougars, 38-7. Gary Patterson's lightning-fast defense is no secret by now, but it outdid even itself by sacking BYU quarterback Max Hall five times and holding the nation's sixth-rated passer to 162 yards, his lowest total in more than two years.
"That defense is the best defense that I've faced," said Hall, who, you may recall, faced Oklahoma's D in the season opener.
The guy who impressed me most, however, lined up on offense. Previous Patterson quarterbacks have largely been caretakers who take a backseat to the Frogs' defenses and running game. But junior Andy Dalton has taken his game to another level this year. Against BYU, Dalton completed 13-of-24 passes for 241 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions and now ranks eighth nationally in pass efficiency.
"We've always known if we put the three phases of the game together we felt like we could beat anyone," offensive lineman Marshall Newhouse told the Fort Worth Star Telegram. "Today was one of those days that it all was clicking for us. We came out firing and played up to our ability."
If both win out, the TCU/Boise race figures to become a BCS controversy-within-a-controversy. In the latest standings released Sunday night, the Horned Frogs jumped from eighth to sixth, while the Broncos inexplicably dropped from fourth to seventh. It wasn't the voters but the computers, which improved TCU's average rank from eighth to fourth while downgrading Boise from fifth to eighth. The Broncos may well wind up with the single most impressive win (Oregon), but the Frogs will boast a more successful all-around slate (road wins at Virginia, Clemson and BYU, and a looming home date with No. 19 Utah).
Personally, I'd like to see both play in BCS games, because I believe they're both legitimate top 10 teams. If I had to choose one, however, I'd love the opportunity to see TCU put its speed up against Florida or USC.
My reaction to the latest BCS standings.
The BCS computer formulas don't care about style points. They do care about schedule strength, though. That's why 8-0 Iowa, despite sitting just eighth in the coaches poll, currently stands next in line behind Florida/Alabama/Texas in the BCS race.
Say what you want about the Hawkeyes' decidedly ugly brand of football -- they've beaten more BCS-conference opponents with winning records (7-1 Penn State, 5-2 Wisconsin, 5-2 Arizona, 5-3 Iowa State and 5-3 Michigan) than any undefeated team and their opponents' combined record of 38-22 (.633) is far better than that of any other top 10 team.
Hence, five of the six BCS computer polls currently rank Iowa No. 1, placing the Hawkeyes solidly in fourth in the overall standings.
Each week, I'll update my projected BCS lineup (as necessary) based on the latest week's games.
Title game: Alabama vs. Texas
Rose: Iowa vs. USC
Fiesta: Oregon vs. Cincinnati
Sugar: Florida vs. TCU
Orange: Georgia Tech vs. Penn State
A week after downgrading Texas due to Colt McCoy's continued struggles, the Longhorns star (buoyed in part by a change to the 'Horns receiving lineup) finally returned to 2008 form against Missouri (26-of-31, 269 yards, three TDs). Now I feel more confident in Texas than I do Florida or Alabama.
• Championship Saturday (Dec. 5) may include a new setting this year: Pittsburgh. The Panthers (7-1, 4-0 Big East), who routed USF 41-14 on Saturday, and Cincinnati (7-0, 3-0), which torched Louisville 41-10 behind a near-perfect day from backup quarterback Zach Collaros (15-of-17, 253 yards, three TDs), appear headed toward a season-ending, winner-takes-all BCS showdown.
West Virginia (6-1, 2-0), which faces both teams before then, will have a say in the Big East race as well, but the Mountaineers haven't been nearly as dominant as the Bearcats and Panthers. While Cincinnati's offense has received no shortage of pub, Pittsburgh has quietly produced quite the balanced attack. The Panthers boast both the nation's No. 3 passer (Bill Stull) and No. 4 rusher (Dion Lewis).
• Les Miles apparently performed a makeover on LSU's previously struggling offense during the Tigers' bye week. In a 31-10 rout of Auburn, quarterback Jordan Jefferson looked the sharpest of his career. He completed 21-of-31 passes for 242 yards and two TDs and spent less time looking to the sideline for help. And mega-recruit Russell Shepard, playing running back for the first time, broke a 69-yard score.
• Terrelle Pryor said last week's Purdue debacle and ensuing firestorm served as a wake-up call for him. Time will tell, but he did deliver his biggest performance of the season against Minnesota -- 343 total yards, three TDs. Most notably, he seemed to be more comfortable tucking the ball and running when receivers weren't open. He carried 15 times for 104 yards and was sacked just once.
• Does anyone want to win the Big 12 North? Apparently, not Nebraska, whose woeful offense committed eight -- yes, eight -- turnovers in a 9-7 home loss to Iowa State. Congratulations to the Cyclones, who posted their first win in Lincoln since 1977 and improved to 2-2 in the conference, which, in the North, makes them a contender. The six teams are a combined 8-12 in league play.
• Remarkably, Iowa State-Nebraska wasn't even the strangest Big 12 result Saturday. That would be Texas A&M's 52-30 beatdown of Texas Tech. Only a week earlier, the Aggies were on the wrong end of a 62-14 loss to Kansas State -- which itself lost 66-14 a week earlier to ... Texas Tech. Don't even try to wrap your head around that chain of events. You'll go cross-eyed.
• As I wrote Saturday, Clemson running back C.J. Spiller delivered a Heisman-esque performance in the Tigers' 40-37 overtime win against Miami, racking up a school-record 310 all-purpose yards. Here's a truly amazing stat about Spiller, who now leads the nation in all-purpose yards (207.9 per game): He's had at least one play of 60-plus yards in all seven of the Tigers' games this season.
• Amidst an otherwise miserable season for Florida State, quarterback Christian Ponder has been sensational. The junior, who was 33-of-40 for 395 yards and three TDs in Thursday night's comeback win at North Carolina, has completed 70 percent of his passes for 2,176 yards, 12 TDs and just one pick. Amazingly, it took the 'Noles nine years to find a decent quarterback -- and now that they have, they're 3-4.
• Georgia Tech (7-1, 5-1 ACC) is about as close as a team can come this early to locking up a division. Following a 34-9 win at Virginia and Miami's 40-37 loss to Clemson, the Jackets are tied for first in the loss column in the ACC Coastal with two teams (Virginia Tech and Virginia) they've already beaten and another (Duke) they really should beat. Their only other league foe: Wake Forest.
• By the way, that wasn't a misprint about Duke (4-3, 2-1 ACC). With a 17-13 win Saturday over 2-6 Maryland, the Blue Devils won consecutive conference games for the first time since 1994. (They previously routed N.C. State). Quarterback Thad Lewis had another huge game, throwing for 371 yards on 30-of-43 passing. Don't get too excited yet, though -- Duke rushed for a combined 66 yards in those wins.
• Previously torrid Arizona quarterback Nick Foles cooled off considerably against UCLA, throwing three interceptions (two to national co-leader Rahim Moore) and losing a fumble that the Bruins' Tony Dye returned for a touchdown. Still, the Wildcats (5-2, 3-1 Pac-10) held on to win 27-13 and on Sunday moved into the AP and coaches polls for the first time in nine years.
• Ole Miss' offense finally got its groove back in a 30-17 win over Arkansas. Quarterback Jevan Snead threw for a career-high 332 yards (albeit with two interceptions), and the Rebels finally got the most out of all-purpose weapon Dexter McCluster. He notched career-highs in both receiving (137 yards) and rushing (123), and his 29 touches far exceeded his previous season high of 15.
• Northwestern (5-3, 2-2 Big Ten) is making a habit of gigantic comebacks. The Wildcats fell behind 28-3 in the second quarter against Indiana before gradually chipping away (and withstanding three Mike Kafka interceptions) to win 29-28 on a last-second field goal. It marked the biggest rally in school history. Three weeks earlier, they similarly turned a 21-3 deficit against Purdue into a 27-21 win.
• Idaho (6-2), whose bandwagon had been growing considerably in recent weeks, suffered a humbling 70-45 defeat at Nevada (4-3). Wolf Pack quarterback Colin Kaepernick accounted for 408 total yards (230 rushing) and six touchdowns.
• In a battle of previously winless squads, Ball State (1-7) beat Eastern Michigan (0-7), 29-27, on Cory Sykes' 37-yard touchdown run with 1:47 left. The Eagles may have blown their best shot; they don't get to face 0-8 Miami (Ohio).
You remember Troy Walters, don't you? The pint-sized Stanford receiver won the 1999 Biletnikoff Award before going on to play eight years with four different NFL teams.
The 32-year-old has a far less glamorous job now: offensive coordinator at Indiana State. On Saturday, though, he helped the Sycamores make history -- or, perhaps more accurately, avoid making history -- with a 17-14 win over Western Illinois that snapped a 33-game losing streak, the longest in the nation.
Indiana State, which had last won on Oct. 21, 2006, was one more loss away from tying Northwestern for the third-longest losing streak in Division I history. But sophomore quarterback Ryan Roberts broke a 91-yard touchdown run in the second quarter and engineered a go-ahead 80-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter to upend the 1-6 Leathernecks and avoid further indignity.
"Troy Walters called a great game on offense," Indiana State coach Trent Miles said afterward. " Our coaching staff will be able to relax more tonight and see our name in yellow at the bottom of the TV screen."
Still, I can't get over the fact that Walters -- who had no previous coaching experience -- is the Sycamores' offensive coordinator. Ironically, the connection between Walters and Miles is none other than Tyrone Willingham (Walters played for him at Stanford, Miles coached under him there and at Notre Dame and Washington.) Their shared mentor hasn't won a college game since 2007, when Walters was still playing for the Detroit Lions.
Tim Tebow's 2008 season was defined by "The Speech." Saturday night, after what was unquestionably the worst performance of his Florida career, the Gators star had nothing to say. It marked the first time as a starter (besides the Kentucky concussion game) that Tebow was not available to the media.
I'm not one of those writers who feels an athlete is morally obligated to help fill reporters' notebooks, and it's hard to criticize a guy who's never once complained about his highly public existence. But Tebow's rare bout as a recluse speaks volumes about the level of frustration he's undoubtedly feeling right now.
Saturday night at Mississippi State, the former Heisman winner threw not one, but two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns (both on tipped passes, both by Bulldogs freshman safety Jonathan Banks). The first, just before halftime, came on a third-and-goal at the eight and let Mississippi State back in the game. The second, after Florida had pulled away 29-13, came when Tebow tried to throw out of his own end zone late in the game.
Tebow finished just 12-of-22 for 127 yards on the night, his lone highlight coming on a 26-yard touchdown run.
"He's very frustrated," Gators coach Urban Meyer said Sunday. "He's used to playing at a certain level."
Tebow is hardly the only one to blame for Florida's continued offensive woes. The offensive line has allowed 10 sacks in the past two games. Receiver Riley Cooper and tight end Aaron Hernandez continue to be the only pass-catchers of note. And the Gators have been downright horrendous in the red zone, scoring just two touchdowns in 15 tries over the past three games.
Still, Tebow is the one with the "Superman" label, the guy who television announcers talk about "willing his team to win" at least 10 times per broadcast. So far this season, that image has been shattered. He's thrown eight touchdowns in seven games. He's been held below 200 yards passing in all but one game. He remained on most Heisman Watch lists coming into the week, but after Saturday night's display, I don't see how that could possibly continue.
We came into the year debating whether Tebow might become the best college quarterback in history. Right now, he's not even on the short list of best quarterbacks this season.
Here's one way to save your 8-0 season.
Mini-previews for three of this week's big games
• USC at Oregon, Saturday (8 p.m. ET): The Trojans have lost their last three games in the state of Oregon. On the other hand, freshman quarterback Matt Barkley has been at his best on the road, leading a game-winning drive at Ohio State and throwing for an average 331.5 yards in wins at Cal and Notre Dame.
• Texas at Oklahoma State, Saturday (8 p.m. ET): The 'Horns have exhibited a penchant for drama lately whenever they visit Stillwater, rallying from deficits of 28-9 (2005) and 35-14 (2007). The good news: They have a better defense than they did either of those years. The bad news: Oklahoma State has a better team.
• Florida vs. Georgia, Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET): During a thus-far disappointing 3-3 season, nothing would bring Dawgs fans more delight than ruining their arch-rival's perfect season. Certainly, the Gators appear vulnerable. Then again, Georgia's 90th-ranked pass defense might be the perfect remedy for Tebow.