EUGENE, Ore. -- We all know that, though preseason polls are inherently arbitrary, they carry great weight over the course of a season. Following their respective blowout victories Saturday, No. 1 Florida (which dismantled Georgia) and No. 3 Texas (which hammered Oklahoma State) remain on course for a potential BCS Championship collision, but the reason they -- as opposed to, say, Iowa and Cincinnati -- occupy the driver's seat stems primarily from the fact that they started there.
It was for much the same reason that USC, despite an early-season loss at Washington, managed to rise back up to No. 4 in the polls prior to Saturday night's unmasking at Oregon. The Trojans' string of seven straight 11-win seasons has earned them considerable leeway with voters. Any other program in the country that lost a top five pick at quarterback, 10 defensive starters and both coordinators would not possibly have earned a preseason top five ranking. Voters would have penciled it in for a "rebuilding season." But no previous amount of staff or personnel turnover had ever steered Pete Carroll's teams off course.
For those of us in the press box at Autzen Stadium on Saturday, watching the rejuvenated Ducks so thoroughly dismantle the Trojans, 47-20, was certifiably surreal. Quite frankly, we'd never seen such a thing. USC hadn't lost by as much as 11 points since Carroll's first season in 2001. Since 2002, none of the Trojans' 10 losses had come by more than a touchdown. And no team had come remotely close to running up 391 rushing yards and 613 total yards against a Carroll-coached defense.
The Trojans seemed equally stunned.
"Before this season I never thought this could happen," said freshman quarterback Matt Barkley.
"You never expect something like that," said Carroll.
In hindsight, warning signs clearly existed. USC's defense, which tricked many of us into believing it had managed to reload yet again by delivering dominant early-season performances against Ohio State and Cal, had allowed 36 points and 482 yards the week before against Oregon State and three second-half touchdowns the week before that at Notre Dame.
But while plenty of fans and pundits picked the Ducks to win Saturday (regrettably, I was not one of them), most assumed it would be on the strength of Oregon's defense. Raise your hand if you envisioned Jeremiah Masoli and LaMichael James gashing the Trojans' defense as if it were an overmatched cellar-dweller.
"You could see the potential we played with at the beginning of the season," said USC safety Taylor Mays. "We've seen that we can be dominant, but that we're not dominant all the time."
Mays may well be the most frustrated Trojan of all. He could be making millions right in the NFL, but he returned for his senior season because he believed USC would make another championship run. Instead, he's now the most recognizable face on Carroll's worst defense. Mays and the Trojans were counting on a bevy of talented but unproven players to not only carry the torch for the defense, but possibly carry USC's offense as it broke in a new quarterback (and that was before injuries decimated the Trojans' running back and receiving corps). It hasn't happened.
While Oregon all but assured USC's string of seven straight Pac-10 championships is over (the Trojans would need the red-hot Ducks to inexplicably lose at least two of their last four), there's still ample opportunity for USC to finish with a typically USC-like record. Win out against Arizona State, Stanford, UCLA and Arizona (the last three all at home), and the Trojans will be 10-2 and likely returning to a BCS bowl with a chance to notch their eighth straight 11-win season.
In his postgame remarks, Carroll made comparisons to USC's last trip to Oregon two years ago, a 24-17 defeat that also left the Trojans with two losses and seemingly down for the count. "We went about our business and got back on the right track," he said. "That's what we're focused on right now."
But Saturday night's massacre was an entirely different type of event, and not just because the '07 loss only put USC one game back in the standings. All sorts of widely held perceptions about the Trojans that had proven true for seven years -- that Carroll's teams always reload, that they always rise up for big games, that they always play stingy run defense -- were obliterated on the aptly dubbed "Fright Night" in Eugene.
It's not that the USC program suddenly finds itself in shambles. Plenty of teams would kill to deal with the kind of "crisis" currently facing the 6-2 Trojans, who, while clearly beset by flaws on both sides of the ball, are still plenty talented. ("They were big, fast and strong," said Oregon's James. "A typical 'SC defense.") Even if the Trojans suffer another setback or two and wind up taking an uncharacteristic holiday trip to San Diego or El Paso, USC's future remains plenty bright.
But the fact that someone finally rendered the Trojans mortal -- fully capable of a drop-off just like nearly every other team in the country -- means the unparalleled leash media and poll voters have long held for them may not be there in the future. Washington-type losses won't be so easily dismissed. Top five rankings won't be considered a birthright.
USC will have to earn back its previously unmatched level of respect. Since that quest begins next week, I wouldn't want to be Arizona State.
I can't imagine anyone who watched Oregon's performance Saturday night didn't come away viewing the Ducks as national championship material. Masoli had the Ducks' spread-option clicking at the same high-octane rhythm Dennis Dixon once did, leaving many in the press box to openly salivate at the possibility of watching Oregon's offense go up against Alabama's, Florida's or Texas' defenses.
"We think we're a national championship caliber team," said Ducks safety T.J. Ward. "But that's not for us to decide."
As of now, the voters don't seem to agree. But that's probably more because of a unique dilemma they're facing when it comes to the Ducks. (It wouldn't be a college football season without a vexing new voting scenario.) If Oregon had lost to any other team on its schedule besides Boise State (like Purdue or Utah), there's no question in my mind the Ducks would be sitting solidly in fourth right now in every relevant poll. But most voters can't bring themselves to move Oregon ahead of an undefeated Boise team that beat the Ducks soundly in the teams' season opener -- and I don't blame them.
This was the debate as I left the stadium late Saturday with three other writers. Two of us believed strongly it would be a crime to ignore the teams' head-to-head result when deciding their rankings. The other two believed that Oregon's stronger body of work should trump Boise's one notable victory. The Ducks are a vastly better team than they were that Thursday night, they argued. I don't disagree. But what evidence is there that the Broncos have gotten worse?
If anything, Oregon's increasing dominance should be causing us to take a stronger look at Boise State's strength. Awful schedule or not, the fact is the Broncos' defense suffocated the same Ducks offense that shredded USC on Saturday. Boise held Oregon to 1.8 yards per rushing attempt; the Ducks averaged 8.0 against the Trojans. And it's not like this was a one-time thing: The Broncos are allowing less than 100 rushing yards per game.
TCU seems to be the unintended beneficiary of the Oregon-Boise poll conundrum. Most people believe the Horned Frogs are a more accomplished BCS buster than Boise based on their schedule. So if a voter believes strongly that the Broncos remain ahead of Oregon, then he or she must also keep TCU ahead of Boise. As a result, the Horned Frogs now sit at No. 4 in the coaches poll. Yet if I had to guess, I'd say 98 percent of the voters don't actually believe TCU is the fourth-best team in the country.
Of course, all of this will be rendered irrelevant if Texas and Florida or Alabama win out, sealing the BCS Championship matchup. As of now, the topic of Oregon's poll standing mostly makes for fun debate fodder, and if someone wants to rank the seven remaining undefeated teams one through seven (as the coaches did), it seems perfectly sensible.
However, should chaos descend on the sport between now and Dec. 5 (as it so often does) -- if, say, Texas, Iowa, TCU and Cincinnati all lose -- you better believe voters will do some reevaluation. It's one thing to say now that Boise deserves to stay ahead of Oregon; it's quite another to say so with a BCS Championship berth at stake. When it comes down to it, I highly doubt an undefeated WAC team would really get the nod over an 11-1 Pac-10 champion.
If it does come down to that, no one will be rooting harder for Oregon State in the Civil War than those BCS antitrust lawyers.
My reaction to the latest polls and BCS standings.
All the notable polls seem to agree the top three teams (in varying order) are Florida, Texas and Alabama. In the one poll that matters most at this point, the BCS standings, Iowa stands solidly in fourth followed by No. 5 Cincinnati, which holds a slim lead over No. 6 TCU and No. 7 Boise State. It marks the latest point in a season that the top seven spots have all been occupied by undefeated teams.
Last week, I discussed Iowa's lofty standing in the computers. This week, the team that intrigues me most is Cincinnati due largely to the unusual variance amongst the pollsters regarding the Bearcats. Cincinnati ranks fourth in the AP poll, fifth in the Harris Poll and seventh in the coaches. Despite that latter ranking, Cincy rose from No. 8 to No. 5 in the BCS, passing TCU and Boise. The Bearcats rank fifth among the computers, but not by much. Their .830 score barely tops those of TCU (.820) and one-loss Oregon (.810).
Personally, I believe the BCS has teams four through eight ranked in the exact right order -- Iowa, Cincinnati, TCU, Boise State, Oregon. But if the coaches don't get in the Bearcats' corner, the next three -- even the Ducks -- might usurp them.
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. Oregon
Fiesta: Penn State vs. Cincinnati
Sugar: Florida vs. TCU
Orange: Georgia Tech vs. USC
Tim Tebow and the Gators finally delivered a decisive victory Saturday against Georgia, but it's dangerous to read too much into that because the Dawgs flat-out stink. I'm waiting until after Saturday's LSU-Alabama game before deciding whether to reevaluate my SEC favorite. As for USC's presence in the Orange Bowl -- well, I had to pick someone for that last BCS at-large berth, and I'm slightly more confident in the Trojans' chances of winning out than my other leading candidates, Miami and Notre Dame.
• Connecticut players entered Rentschler Field on Saturday wearing No. 6 jerseys in honor of slain teammate Jasper Howard. They came incredibly close to delivering a victory in Howard's honor, taking the lead on Rutgers with 38 seconds remaining. But Scarlet Knights receiver Tim Brown dashed those hopes by breaking an 81-yard touchdown with 22 seconds remaining.
While the Huskies were understandably crushed, the winning player was overcome with emotion. Brown was a close friend of Howard's from Miami. Saturday, he wrote "RIP Jazz" (Howard's nickname) on his eye black, and he broke out in tears after his game-winning play. "I almost felt like his angel wings reached down and flew me to the end zone for a touchdown," said Brown.
• It's been more than two years since Appalachian State quarterback Armanti Edwards dazzled FBS watchers with his electrifying performance at Michigan, but the Walter Payton Award winner hasn't slowed down. With a 461-yard day against Furman on Saturday (355 passing, 106 rushing), Edwards became the first player in Division I history to throw for 9,000 yards and rush for 4,000.
• Lane Kiffin may be the butt of jokes around the SEC, but he's about to have the last laugh. The Vols improved to 4-4 with an impressive 31-13 win over South Carolina (6-3), and with games remaining against Memphis, Vanderbilt and Kentucky, they should get to at least 7-5, which, in this year's SEC, may well be good enough to garner a New Year's Day bowl berth (most likely the Outback).
• Just when Rich Rodriguez had started winning the favor of Michigan fans, the Wolverines' coach committed his most damning sin to date: losing to Ron Zook. Illinois, previously winless in the Big Ten, pounded the Wolverines 38-13. Michigan, once 4-0, has now lost four of its last five, and its once-promising offense has regressed. The Wolverines averaged 2.6 yards per rushing attempt in the loss.
• The Big Ten title race will likely be decided over the next two weeks when Ohio State (7-2, 4-1 Big Ten) visits Penn State (8-1, 4-1), then hosts first-place Iowa (9-0, 5-0). Terrelle Pryor and Co. -- who outgained New Mexico State 559 to 62 in a 45-0 win Saturday -- can send themselves to Pasadena with two wins. If the Nittany Lions beat the Buckeyes, Iowa can lose a game and still win the league.
• What more does Case Keenum have to do to impress Heisman voters? In a typical Houston-style shootout with Southern Miss, the Cougars quarterback went 44-of-54 for a career-high 559 yards and five touchdowns, including a 28-yard game-winner to Patrick Edwards with 21 seconds left to win 50-43. On the season, Keenum has 3,293 yards, 25 TDs and five INTs for No. 13 Houston.
• Following lopsided losses to Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, USF (6-2) righted itself with a 30-19 win over No. 20 West Virginia, holding Mountaineers star Noel Devine to just 42 yards. "A lot of people thought we were going to go down the same path we did the last two years,'' said Bulls quarterback B.J. Daniels, who amassed 336 yards of total offense. ''That was a lot of garbage we didn't listen to."
• It seems reports of Ole Miss' (5-3) resurgence were premature. So, too, were those of Auburn's (6-3) demise. The Tigers throttled the Rebels 33-20 as Ole Miss quarterback Jevan Snead turned in another clunker (16-of-35, 175 yards, two INTs). Ole Miss wasted another huge day from Dexter McCluster, who racked up 186 rushing yards on 22 carries. (He recorded 260 all-purpose yards last week.)
• Miami (6-2) doesn't look like the same, confident team that started the season with wins over Florida State, Georgia Tech and Oklahoma, but perhaps Saturday's last-minute comeback at Wake Forest will kick the 'Canes into gear. Jacory Harris completed passes of 29, 29, 16 and 14 yards on Miami's game-winning drive and finished with 330 yards and three TDs in a 28-27 win.
• Last week, Minnesota (5-4) received the seemingly devastating news that star receiver Eric Decker was lost for the season with a foot injury. So, predictably, Gophers quarterback Adam Weber went out and threw for 416 yards and five touchdowns without Decker in a 42-34 win over Michigan State. Decker's replacement, sophomore Da'Jon McKnight, caught four passes for 98 yards.
• Previously overshadowed by decorated teammate Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska defensive end Jared Crick delivered his own eye-popping performance Saturday against Baylor, notching 13 tackles, five sacks, seven tackles for loss and a fumble recovery. The Huskers (5-3) continue to need all the help they can get from their defense; the offense notched one TD and 273 yards in a 20-10 win.
• Cal (6-2) has quietly resuscitated itself following blowout losses to Oregon and USC with three straight victories, the latest a dramatic 23-21 win at Arizona State. Quarterback Kevin Riley went 5-of-7 for 85 yards to set up Giorgio Tavecchio's game-winning 24-yard field goal with 21 seconds remaining. "He showed what I know Kevin is really made of," said Cal coach Jeff Tedford.
• Florida State (4-4) won another wild shootout Saturday, 45-42 over N.C. State, but for the first time all season the Seminoles got a lift from their running game. Jermaine Thomas nearly doubled his previous production for the season with 20 carries for 186 yards and two touchdowns. It was the highest yardage total for an FSU running back since Leon Washington's 195 in the 2005 Gator Bowl.
• Mississippi State running back Anthony Dixon burst for a school-record 252 yards in a 31-24 win at Kentucky. He became just the second SEC running back since 1997 to go for 250 (the other: Arkansas' Darren McFadden in 2007).
• The Duke bowl watch continues. The Blue Devils (5-3, 3-1 ACC) won their third straight -- their first such streak in 15 years -- 28-17 at Virginia. Because they played N.C. Central (which is transitioning into the FCS), they need two more wins to become eligible.
• And don't look now, but master program rebuilder June Jones has SMU -- which went 1-11 a year ago -- at 4-4 following a 27-13 win at Tulsa. The Mustangs haven't played in a bowl since 1984, three years pre-NCAA Death Penalty.
Four years ago Al Golden took over at Temple, college football's most directionless program. Exiled from the Big East, playing a vagabond's schedule that included just four home games and toting a roster decimated by juco washouts and academic casualties, the Owls suffered through a 1-11 campaign in Golden's first season, the program's third 11-loss season in four years. A year later, the Philadelphia school joined the MAC.
Today, Temple (6-2, 4-0 MAC) sits alone atop the MAC's East division, riding its first six-game winning streak since 1974 and bowl eligible for the first time in a quarter-century. The Owls, who have improved their win total every year under Golden (going 4-8 in 2007, 5-7 last year), produced the most significant victory of Golden's tenure on Saturday: a 27-24 win at 6-3 Navy, the same team that's been to six straight bowl games and beat Wake Forest just a week earlier.
"This is the first year since I've been here that we're a Division I football team with a full 85 scholarships," said Golden, the 40-year-old former Penn State linebacker and Virginia defensive coordinator. "It feels good to not only be competitive but continue to win."
Golden takes pride in a senior class that began as part of the youngest team in the nation (in '06 and '07), but the undisputed star of Saturday's show was freshman running back Bernard Pierce, who ran for 267 yards, including a go-ahead 41-yard score with 2:41 left. It marked the second straight 200-yard game for the native of nearby Ardmore, Pa., who now ranks third nationally in rushing (129.1 yards per game, just above Pitt freshman Dion Lewis and Alabama's Mark Ingram).
"I've been around college football 21 years, and to see a back who can utilize the stiff arm, make people miss and run people over -- to do all three things is very rare," said Golden.
Temple is likely just one more win away from assuring its first bowl berth in 30 years, but Golden is adamant about avoiding the subject. The Owls, who opened the season by losing to I-AA Villanova, had admittedly feasted on light competition prior to Navy (their first five victims are a combined 11-31), and their next two games come against 1-8 Miami (Ohio) and 1-7 Akron.
"We have to challenge them to stay away from the poison -- the media and people who want to talk to them about bowl games and their success," said Golden. "We have to deal with handling prosperity. We've certainly rewritten the book on how to handle adversity."
While the SEC is presumably thrilled to be cashing CBS' and ESPN's checks (worth a combined $3 billion over the next 15 years), the conference is suddenly dealing with an unintended consequence: The networks' cameras catch everything.
By now, you've probably seen a YouTube clip of Florida linebacker Brandon Spikes' boorish attempt to eye-gouge Georgia running back Washaun Ealey. I concur with Andy Staples, who wrote Sunday that the SEC should suspend Spikes for a game. Spikes was apparently retaliating for something that happened to him earlier in the game, but it was still inexcusable.
That said, it's no secret that all sorts of unseemly shenanigans take place at the bottom of the pile. Only a select few offenders get caught on camera like Spikes. (Ohio State linebacker Robert Reynolds' 2003 throat-grab of Wisconsin quarterback Jim Sorgi comes to mind.) Watching the Spikes replay (of which he wasn't even the subject), it occurred to me that in almost any other college football telecast, his transgression probably never would have been seen.
It happened at the end of an otherwise innocuous second-and-goal handoff in a 31-10 game. But this being CBS' national game of the day, the network showed not one, but two replays afterward, including the extreme close-up that allowed astute viewers at home to pause and rewind their DVR, scurry to YouTube and Twitter and turn it into a national story within minutes.
Welcome to the SEC's new unintended headache. Whether it's a questionable celebration flag, a blown replay review or an otherwise hidden eye-gouge, the conference office seems to have a new p.r. fire to put out every week. The league wanted the maximum possible exposure for its games. It got what it wished for.
But here's the greatest irony: The SEC went to great lengths in its new deals (and took a boatload of criticism) to try to control digital rights to its broadcasts. Published polices explicitly prohibit non-rights holders from posting game footage online, and at one point even went so far as to banish spectators from using their cell-phone cameras or posting to social networking sites.
Yeah -- that's not happening.
Notre Dame's star receiver has made a lot of amazing catches this season -- but this one was something else entirely.
The look on the Connecticut player's face at the 0:31 mark says it all.
Mini-previews for three of this week's big games.
• Boise State at Louisiana Tech, Friday (8 p.m. ET): The biggest mistake the Mountain West ever made was ditching ESPN. The reason at the time was the desire for better time slots, but more fans around the country will see this seemingly mundane Boise game than any game TCU plays all season.
• LSU at Alabama, Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET): Not long ago, this seemed like a potential laugher, but the Tigers have looked much better their past two games, while the Tide's offense has struggled. Plus, the game's on CBS, so it's bound to produce some sort of officiating/player misconduct controversy.
• Ohio State at Penn State, Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET): Because of an arcane Big Ten rule prohibiting night games after October, this one will not be in prime time, which means the Beaver Stadium White Out won't be magnified. It will still be the most hostile venue Terrelle Pryor has played in so far in his career.