By Stewart Mandel
September 26, 2010

Au revoir, September. We had a good run. You introduced us to some bright new stars (here's to you, Mr. Robinson). You gave us some indelible moments (ah, "Little Giants"). Our one complaint: You really didn't do much to start shaping the national-title race.

Four weeks in, the top of the polls look very much like they did four weeks earlier: Alabama, Ohio State, Boise State, TCU. On Saturday, Texas became the first shortlist contender to bite the dust, but for the most part the big boys have taken care of business just the way they should.

So you'll have to forgive us, September, if we're more than ready to turn the calendar. Because starting Saturday, contenders start facing contenders. The stakes rise a little higher. The weeding out begins.

Florida at Alabama. Stanford at Oregon. Oklahoma vs. (diminished) Texas. By day's end, the SEC and Pac-10 will each have a decided front-runner, as will the Big 12 South. And the intrigue is only intensified by the fact that none of these teams have looked immortal.

A week ago, Alabama-Florida looked like it would be more lopsided than their SEC championship meeting last December. And maybe it still will be. But after dominating their first three foes, the defending champs were fortunate to escape Fayetteville on Saturday after the Tide's rebuilt defense finally showed its youth. Ryan Mallett spent the first half firing at will to open receivers, but the most disturbing blight for 'Bama wasn't its young secondary (sophomore DBs Robert Lester and Dre Kirkpatrick saved the game with their interceptions), but its inability to generate a pass rush -- unheard of for a Nick Saban-coached team. The Tide have just four sacks through four games, tied for 103rd nationally.

"Most of our guys on offense have been in games like this before," a visibly perturbed Saban said afterward. "Most of our guys on defense have not."

Fortunately for Saban, Florida doesn't have Ryan Mallett. In fact, if you watched Florida's offense in its first three games, you would assume 'Bama could play its second-team defense and do just fine. But the Gators may have found their missing spark Saturday night against Kentucky. Playing nearly the exact same "relief pitcher" role as Tim Tebow circa 2006, freshman quarterback Trey Burton scored a school-record six touchdowns, including on all five of his rushes from the Wildcat formation. He also caught an 11-yard touchdown from John Brantley and threw a 42-yard pass himself.

"I thought he was a good player when we recruited him," said Urban Meyer. "But we had no idea what we had until we figured it out during training camp. Versatility, intelligence and competitiveness, those are things you just don't know until you get your hands on a player. He really did well."

The newly energized Gators still aren't going to run all over Alabama's defense -- but Florida's defense is one of the few capable of slowing Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson. It's a big-boy matchup for sure, but not the only one Saturday will bring.

We circled Florida-'Bama before the season began, but who would have guessed Oregon-Stanford might hold similar ramifications? The Ducks entered the season with relatively high expectations, then upped them several notches with three straight blowouts to move into the top five.

But then the defending Pac-10 champs played an utterly bizarre game in Tempe, Ariz., giving up 597 yards, but forcing seven turnovers, in a 42-31 win at Arizona State. The Sun Devils also slowed down Oregon's previously torrid rushing offense, holding the Ducks to 145 yards on the ground, though quarterback Darron Thomas made up for it with 260 yards through the air.

"We kind of weathered the storm," said Oregon coach Chip Kelly.

Enter Stanford, one of the nation's biggest surprises to date. Expected by most to regress after star Toby Gerhart's departure, the Cardinal have done the opposite. Having routed UCLA 35-0 earlier this season, Jim Harbaugh's team went to South Bend on Saturday and beat up on the Irish, 37-14, rising from 16th to ninth in the AP poll in the process. While star quarterback Andrew Luck grabs the headlines, Stanford's physical defense (which spent Saturday teeing off on Notre Dame quarterback Dayne Crist) has been a revelation -- and makes for a fascinating matchup against Oregon's spread.

Autzen Stadium will be rocking, and it's tough to get too concerned over a team that's yet to score fewer than 42 points. But either the Ducks will further legitimize themselves by becoming the first to solve Luck, or we might have to start embracing the possibility that Stanford -- yes, Stanford -- is now a national factor.

It says something, in fact, that an early October Pac-10 game may now overshadow the Red River Shootout -- a result of a previously forgotten Pac-10 team (UCLA) going to Austin and annihilating the Longhorns (more on that in a bit).

Texas, which plummeted to 21st in the AP poll, was bound to stumble eventually due to an offense wrought with issues, and now the Longhorns' trip to the Cotton Bowl becomes more about playing spoiler to Oklahoma, which has plenty of questions of its own. It's been a strange start for the Sooners, who throttled Florida State but struggled to put away Utah State, Air Force and, on Saturday, 1-2 Cincinnati, which racked up 461 yards as the Sooners barely held on, 31-29.

"Good win, I'm happy, but we gotta play better," said Oklahoma defensive end Jeremy Beal, whose team currently possesses the nation's 97th-ranked total defense. If Texas quarterback Garrett Gilbert ever hopes to break out, this might be the week to do it.

The Big 12 is expected to produce at least one BCS title contender, but even Nebraska took a bizarre step backward Saturday following its eye-opening rout at Washington, posting a sluggish 17-3 win over South Dakota State.

About the only thing that's settled as of today: Third-ranked Boise State will remain a season-long factor after dispatching Oregon State, 37-24. The Broncos' heavy lifting is over for now, and perhaps until a Nov. 26 trip to new Top 25 entrant Nevada.

Until then, Boise and No. 4 TCU must hope for as much carnage as possible in the major-conference showdowns. There are plenty of good teams above and around them, but they're all beatable. And at least a couple are guaranteed to go down on Saturday.

When I reached UCLA offensive coordinator Norm Chow on the phone Sunday morning, he was in the middle of watering his plants. Next up on his to-do list: cleaning the pool. A day earlier, he'd finally seen the fruits of a more daunting fix-it task when the Bruins (2-2) steamrolled Texas' second-ranked rushing defense for 264 rushing yards in a stunning 34-12 upset.

"I guess we finally made the news," said Chow.

After installing a version of Nevada's Pistol offense in the spring (Chow and his offensive staff visited Reno), UCLA showed flashes of an improved running game early on, but not enough to avoid season-opening losses to Kansas State (31-22) and Stanford. Despite the slow start, Chow remained confident.

"I always thought we had a chance to be halfway decent," he said. "The Kansas State and Stanford games weren't indicative of the score. We turned the ball over [seven] times. [Texas] had stopped everyone they'd played, but it was all spread stuff. We felt we could get a little physical."

Sophomore tailback Jonathan Franklin, now averaging 102.5 yards per game, ran 19 times for 118 yards, while junior Derrick Coleman added 94 yards on 16 carries. But the game's defining moment came when quarterback Kevin Prince -- doing his best Colin Kaepernick impression -- faked a handoff, then dashed 38 yards for a touchdown.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of UCLA's turnaround is the amount of attrition the Bruins have overcome on the offensive line. Returning center Kai Maiva fractured his ankle in the preseason while another of last year's starters, tackle Xavier Su'a-Filo, is serving a Mormon mission. Preseason projected starter Jeff Baca is academically ineligible.

"This is my third year, and each year we've started five different guys," said the former BYU, N.C. State and USC coordinator. "It's never been that way anywhere else. But this new run game, we've simplified a ton. These guys are blocking the same guy 90 percent of the time."

Against Texas, the Bruins ran the ball 86 percent of the time, with Prince attempting just eight passes. That's not going to work every week. But they're in a much better place than they were after the Stanford meltdown two weeks ago.

At the very least, Chow has certainly earned himself some time by the pool -- once it's clean, of course.

At most schools, a 91-30 record, two conference titles and three BCS bowls would earn a coach enough mileage to survive a couple down seasons. But not in the SEC, and certainly not at Georgia, where 10th-year coach Mark Richt is facing a crisis after Saturday's 24-12 loss at Mississippi State dropped the Bulldogs to 0-3 in the SEC for the first time since 1993.

"If you go by watching film down by down, you'd say we're not as far off as some people might think," said Richt. "But if you look at the record, then we are pretty far off where we want to be."

Richt's job isn't in danger yet. But it could be if Georgia doesn't right the ship in a hurry. Getting back suspended star receiver A.J. Green will help. But clearly the Dawgs have deeper personnel problems. Last season, Georgia fans made a scapegoat of defensive coordinator Willie Martinez, and now some are calling for offensive coordinator Mike Bobo's head. But Bobo was the same guy in charge back when Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno were doing their thing in the Sugar Bowl. At some point it comes down to the guys in the jerseys.

It also doesn't help Richt's cause that 10 of the guys who wear those jerseys have been arrested this calendar year, the most recent coming Saturday night when freshman linebacker Demetre Baker (who did not travel to Starkville) was arrested for DUI. Mind you, this is the same school where athletic director Damon Evans lost his job last summer following his own DUI blunder, putting Richt's future in the hands of newly hired Greg McGarity, a UGA grad and longtime associate to Florida AD Jeremy Foley.

Green returns in time for a soft streak on Georgia's schedule -- its next four games are against Colorado, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Kentucky. After that: Florida. It's not inconceivable Georgia could win all four heading into the Cocktail Party, which could become Richt's ultimate judgment day.

For all his other success, Richt is just 2-7 against Florida. His program has also suffered a noticeable decline since Meyer arrived in Gainesville. From 2001-05, Georgia went 30-10 in the SEC and won two league titles. Starting in '06 -- the year Meyer won the first of two BCS titles -- the Dawgs have slipped to 20-15.

It could be that Richt has fallen too far behind his divisional rival (not to mention Alabama and LSU) to recover. It could also become a classic case of be careful what you wish for, however, if McGarity runs him off. Georgia went 20 years without an SEC title before Richt's arrival. It wants to be Florida -- but it could just as easily become Tennessee.

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

Title game: Alabama vs. Ohio State

Rose: Oregon vs. Boise State

Fiesta: Nebraska vs. Stanford

Orange: Miami vs. West Virginia

Sugar: Florida vs. Iowa

Miami strengthened its case as the ACC's team to beat by going on the road last Thursday and destroying Pittsburgh, 31-3. But don't count out Virginia Tech (which blanked Boston College, 19-0, on the road), Clemson or even streaking dark horse N.C. State, which improved to 4-0 for the first time since 2002 with a 45-28 win at Georgia Tech. Wolfpack quarterback Russell Wilson (28-of-41, 368 yards, three TDs) deserves to start showing up on some Heisman lists.

Meanwhile, I continue to waffle on my projected Big 12 champ, so much so that Nebraska gets the nod this week despite a horrific performance against South Dakota State. Freshman quarterback Taylor Martinez showed no magic in a 6-of-14, two-interception performance, but at least I can trust the Huskers' defense.

My reaction to the latest AP and coaches' polls (or BCS standings):

Overrated: LSU (AP: No. 12; coaches': No. 10)

Yes, the Tigers are 4-0, and yes, they just beat a ranked opponent (West Virginia). However, no one who watched quarterback Jordan Jefferson in the second half of the game against the Mountaineers would possibly mistake the Tigers for a top 10 team.

Underrated: Nevada (AP: No. 25; coaches': No. 25)

In Week 3, the Wolf Pack blasted a previously stout Cal defense for a 52-31 win. A week later, while Nevada won at BYU, that same Bears defense nearly made it the entire game without allowing Arizona to score a touchdown. Nevada's pretty good.

• Two-way Stanford star Owen Marecic -- featured in last week's Sports Illustrated -- pulled off one of the most remarkable sequences of the season against Notre Dame. In the span of 13 seconds, the Cardinal's starting fullback/linebacker ran in a touchdown from one yard out, then, on Notre Dame's first play back, intercepted a Dayne Crist pass and ran it back 20 yards for another score. "He's the perfect football player," raved coach Jim Harbaugh.

• LSU's standout cornerback Patrick Peterson also ensured his spot on SportsCenter's Top 10 when, in the second quarter against West Virginia, he returned a punt 60 yards for a touchdown, stopping at the end to deliver a Desmond Howard-style Heisman pose. Peterson's precursor is actually another Wolverine, Charles Woodson. Through four games, the Tigers star has two interceptions, two punt-return touchdowns and a blocked kick.

• For the second consecutive week, Arizona quarterback Nick Foles led a game-winning touchdown drive in the final minutes. After Cal kicker Giorgio Tavecchio missed a 40-yard field goal with 2:37 left, Foles drove the Wildcats 77 yards in seven plays -- including a 51-yard pass and subsequent three-yard score to Juron Criner with 1:11 left -- to give Arizona a 10-9 victory. The Wildcats may be 4-0, but they've committed 22 penalties and five turnovers the past two weeks.

• Auburn quarterback Cameron Newton is getting better by the week -- and that's scary for SEC defensive coordinators. The former Florida backup racked up 176 yards and three touchdowns with his feet and went 16-of-21 for 158 yards through the air as the Tigers rallied from 20-7 and 27-21 deficits to survive South Carolina, 35-27. It marked the third straight hard-earned victory for Auburn (4-0), which rose to 10th in the latest AP poll. Is it too soon to start looking ahead to the Iron Bowl?

• On the opposite end of the SEC spectrum is Tennessee, which needed overtime to survive UAB, 32-29, and was fortunate to even get there, considering Blazers kicker Josh Zahn missed all five of his field-goal attempts in regulation. Has the SEC East ever been weaker than it is this season? Aside from 4-0 Florida, the other five league teams are a combined 10-9.

• Boise State played far from its best game against Oregon State, committing "boneheaded" (defensive end Ryan Winterswyk's word) plays on special teams and defense (multiple personal fouls). But once again, the Broncos shut down the opponent's top offensive playmakers. Jacquizz Rodgers rushed for just 46 yards on 18 carries and brother James had just two catches for 11 yards (though he did return a punt for a touchdown) in the Broncos' 37-24 win.

• Something tells me the Denard Robinson-injury watch is going to become a weekly subplot the rest of the season. For the third time in four weeks, Michigan's fleet-footed quarterback went out of a game, this time sitting the last three quarters against Bowling Green with a knee strain. (He still managed to rush five times for 129 yards and two scores.) Both he and coach Rich Rodriguez said the quarterback is "fine" and will be back against Indiana. Rinse and repeat.

• The Big Ten's cupcake weekend made for all sorts of gaudy scores. Michigan's 65 points were its most since 1986. Wisconsin put up a school-record 70 on Austin Peay, while Ohio State's 73 points against Eastern Michigan (which included six Terrelle Pryor TDs) marked its most in 60 years. Providing some salvation for the MAC: Northern Illinois, which knocked off Minnesota behind 223 yards from running back Chad Spann, and Toledo, which beat Purdue, 31-20.

• The Toledo loss was extra costly for the hard-luck Boilers, who lost starting quarterback Robert Marve, who reinjured the knee in which he tore his ACL last year. He'll get an MRI on Monday, but it doesn't look good. Mind you, Purdue has already lost top running back Robert Bolden and top receiver Keith Smith to ACL injuries. Minnesota and Illinois may have some competition for the Big Ten basement.

• No one should be more excited about October's arrival than Big East fans, because it means we're that much closer to basketball season. Following losses by Rutgers (to North Carolina), Cincinnati (to Oklahoma), West Virginia (to LSU) and Pittsburgh (to Miami), the league fell to a staggering 1-10 against BCS-conference foes and 6-13 against FBS competition. For the first time since Oct. 25, 1995, there isn't a single Big East team left in the AP Top 25.

• Speaking of the Big East ... if Mark Richt is on the hot seat, shouldn't Dave Wannstedt's fanny be burning? In this, his sixth year at the helm of his alma mater, the Panthers have regressed from almost reaching the BCS to getting absolutely embarrassed by Miami on national TV last Thursday. Pitt ran off Walt Harris in 2004 after going 39-23 in his last five seasons. Wannstedt went 35-25 in his five seasons prior to this one. The Panthers are currently 1-2.

• One of the reasons the Big East stinks so badly is the massive turnover it's endured in the head coaching ranks, losing guys like Bobby Petrino, Rich Rodriguez and, most recently, Brian Kelly. Never would I have guessed that Kelly would start his Notre Dame tenure 1-3. "Some [1-3] teams are going to finish 1-11, some are going to be 8- or 9-3," Kelly said. "It's what you decide to do from here on out." Perhaps the Irish will decide to sweep Boston College and Pitt the next two weeks.

• There's nothing like a trip to Pullman to get an inconsistent offense on track. USC racked up 613 yards, with fullback Stanley Havili producing a combined 187 rushing/receiving yards on just nine touches in a 50-16 rout. The Trojans even converted their lone two-point conversion attempt to improve to 3-of-8 on the year. "This is the closest we have played to a complete game," said Lane Kiffin, harping on three first-half turnovers.

• Located: Evan Royster. The feared-missing Penn State tailback rushed for a career-high 187 yards on 25 carries in the Nittany Lions' 22-13 win over Temple.

• Also located: Ole Miss' pulse. The 1-2 Rebels took out the frustration of losing to Jacksonville State and Vandy with a 55-38 rout of visiting Fresno State.

• Back in hiding: Duke football, which, after making positive strides in David Cutcliffe's first two seasons, lost 35-21 to Army on Saturday to fall to 1-3.

I'm sure there have been more disastrous coaching hires in the last decade than New Mexico's Mike Locksley. I just can't think of any.

Locksley, formerly Ron Zook's offensive coordinator and ace recruiter at Illinois, took over a program that was down but hardly broken. The Lobos went 4-8 in predecessor Rocky Long's last season, but posted at least six wins seven straight seasons before that. To say Locksley has since run the program into the ground does not even do the situation justice.

On Saturday, New Mexico fell to 0-4 with a 45-10 loss to previously winless UNLV. Opponents have now outscored the Lobos by a combined score of 225-41, dropping Locksley's New Mexico record to 1-15. Mind you, this is the same guy who decked an assistant coach last season. It's truly bewildering that he still has a job.

Apparently a faction of the New Mexico faithful feels the same way, because they've taken to starting wild rumors to undermine Locksley's job security. Last week, a former executive producer for Lobos' sportscasts (and subsequently the school's flagship radio network) "reported" that Locksley would be fired -- but not until Oct. 9 -- and replaced by none other than Mike Leach. Those details are so absurdly preposterous (for one thing, when Leach goes back into coaching, it won't be at New Mexico) they could only have been leaked by someone who desperately wants Locksley gone.

I'm sure that someone won't have to wait too much longer.

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

Florida at Alabama, Saturday (8 p.m. ET): This one feels reminiscent of the 2007 Florida-LSU game, when a rebuilding Gators squad went into Baton Rouge and took the eventual BCS champ to the wire. Florida will definitely come in jacked after what happened in Atlanta last December, but it will take more than that.

Stanford at Oregon, Saturday (8 p.m. ET): Speaking of revenge-minded teams, you've got to think Chip Kelly will be bringing up the Ducks' 51-42 loss in Palo Alto last season, their lone Pac-10 defeat. Stanford's defense has gotten much better since then. But it's not like LaMichael James has gotten worse.

Oklahoma vs. Texas, Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET): After winning five straight from 2000-04, Bob Stoops has lost four of the last five Shootouts. His team figures to be a heavy favorite due to Texas' offensive woes, but the pressure's on Sooners quarterback Landry Jones to avoid mistakes against the Longhorns' secondary.

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