Plenty of quarterbacks were throwing against air Saturday (see Griffin's 20-of-22 stat line against Stephen F. Austin), but it became clear this weekend that the games that matter most will not be defined by a player like Cam Newton or an offense like Oregon's. If anything, the definitive, albeit gruesome, image from Week 3 was Florida State receiver Kenny Shaw getting leveled by cornerback Javon Harris and linebacker Tom Wort while trying to snag a possible touchdown catch. (Harris was flagged for a personal foul.)
Thankfully, "Kenny is fine," 'Noles coach Jimbo Fisher said after Shaw returned from a local hospital and walked along the sideline. But by game's end, the top-ranked Sooners had delivered both a 23-13 victory over the No. 5 Seminoles and a message that their defense is every bit as scary as Landry Jones and their offense.
Buoyed by the surprise return of star linebacker Travis Lewis, Oklahoma held FSU (which lost quarterback E.J. Manuel to a shoulder injury in the third quarter) to 246 total yards, notched six sacks and forced three turnovers. FSU's touted defense lived up to its billing, too, holding Jones to his lowest passing night (199 yards) in nearly two years. But after the 'Noles tied the game with 9:32 left on a 56-yard Clint Trickett touchdown pass to Rashad Greene -- one of OU's few defensive breakdowns all night -- Jones immediately responded with a 37-yard scoring strike of his own to the acrobatic Kenny Stills, and Harris notched his second pick shortly thereafter.
"We won ugly, but that's OK," said Jones. "That's what No. 1 teams do."
The Sooners weren't alone in winning ugly. No. 2 LSU is turning it into an art. Les Miles' Tigers followed up their impressive defensive showing against then third-ranked Oregon with a terrifyingly dominant performance against normally productive Mississippi State. Five days after rushing for 333 yards against Auburn, the Bulldogs -- who have lost two starting offensive linemen the past two games -- managed just 52 in a 19-6 loss to the Bayou Bengals. Quarterback Chris Relf became so sloppy amid the relentless onslaught of LSU defenders like Bennie Logan (3.5 tackles for loss) and Michael Brockers (three TFLs) that coach Dan Mullen eventually pulled him for sophomore Tyler Russell. On Russell's second series, LSU sacked him for a 10-yard loss on first down before Morris Claiborne intercepted him.
Meanwhile, oft-maligned quarterback Jarrett Lee threw one interception but was otherwise solid enough (21-of-27 for 213 yards and a pretty 19-yard touchdown pass to Reuben Randle) given how his defense was dominating. Though according to Brockers, the Tigers weren't dominant enough. "It's scary to think what we could do if we run stuff right and play with better technique," he said -- and it is indeed a frightening possibility.
Elsewhere Saturday, Will Muschamp's Florida Gators showed a national audience that their defense is quickly regaining its swagger in holding Tyler Bray and Tennessee to 279 total yards -- including minus-nine rushing yards -- in a 33-23 win. Miami, helped by the return of suspended stars such as linebacker Sean Spence, held Ohio State to four -- yes, four -- completed passes in a 24-6 win. And lest you think defensive dominance was limited to the obvious parties, Illinois turned in one of the day's most impressive showings in sacking Arizona State quarterback Brock Osweiler six times and intercepting him twice in a 17-14 win over the No. 22 Sun Devils.
As we turn our attention to Week 4, two intriguing matchups could help settle which team has the best defense in the country.
Right now the popular pick is LSU, and understandably so after the Tigers shut down two potent offenses in the first three weeks. But we've yet to see the first real test for another logical candidate, No. 3 Alabama. (If you thought Penn State was a test, you didn't suffer through the Nittany Lions' 14-10 win over Temple on Saturday.) That changes this weekend when Courtney Upshaw and the Tide host No. 14 Arkansas, which has averaged 517.3 yards per game against three patsies. Meanwhile it's no rest for the Tigers, who visit No. 16 West Virginia. Geno Smith, who threw for 388 yards against Maryland on Saturday, may be the best passer LSU faces all season.
Prefer high-scoring offenses? I recommend Oklahoma State-Texas A&M. The winner of this week's lone matchup of Top 10 teams will score no fewer than five touchdowns. Prefer bone-crushing sacks and gravity-defying interceptions? The nation's current top three teams will keep delivering plenty of both.
Somewhere out there is a Pitt or Syracuse alum who took a weekend jaunt to Europe, turned off his phone, turned it back on upon returning Sunday night and found out his school was now a member of the ACC.
In sharp contrast to the painfully prolonged SEC-Texas A&M courtship, the ACC's move to 14 happened so quickly and secretly -- Pete Thamel of TheNew York Times first reported the possibility Friday night, and it was official by Sunday morning -- that it caught the college football world completely off guard. Embarrassingly, Big East commissioner John Marinatto was among those in the dark; he found out Saturday morning that two of his oldest members had applied elsewhere.
In a teleconference Sunday morning, ACC commissioner John Swofford said a committee of league presidents, athletic directors and faculty reps have been "evaluating the landscape" for a year-and-a-half, but decided only last week to pursue expansion. "Up to this point, our conclusions had been to continue to stay at 12," he said. He also claimed the move was not a "reaction" to events elsewhere, but are we really to believe it's a coincidence the conference suddenly decided to add two marginally relevant football programs at the same time its neighbors in the SEC are looking to expand?
In fact, the on-field ramifications of the Pitt and Syracuse moves are so inconsequential to anyone but the Pinstripe Bowl selection committee that it's far more interesting to contemplate the possible effects on two bigger fish: Texas and Notre Dame.
Before this weekend's developments, I was told that Texas to the ACC "was not dead," as AD DeLoss Dodds searched frantically for a post-Big 12 landing spot that would allow his Longhorn Network to continue. When I first heard the Pitt/Syracuse news, I figured it must be part of some bigger package deal to entice UT.
Not so. According to Chip Brown of Orangebloods.com -- the ultimate authority on all things Texas realignment -- the school was as stunned by the news as the rest of us because discussions with the ACC had apparently broken down. Judging by Swofford's apathetic comments Sunday in answering a question about a hypothetical school with its own television network, it seems the ACC balked at a school-sponsored channel, too.
So now it appears Dodds and Co. may reluctantly head west after all, even if it means folding LHN into the Pac-12's regional network model. Assuming Oklahoma's regents decide Monday to green light their own move to the Pac-12 (along with Oklahoma State) as expected, the Pac-16 could come to fruition some 15 months after Larry Scott's dream plan first went public, and the Big 12 will officially cease to be salvageable.
If anything, all signs point to some sort of merger between the Big East and the Big 12 leftovers. And that's where Notre Dame's status becomes a question.
Irish AD Jack Swarbrick has said repeatedly that the school's priority is to remain a football independent, but first conceded in March 2010 that "seismic change" could "force its hand." Translation: The school needs the Big East to remain a viable home for its other sports.
As of today, the Big East does not yet seem in imminent danger. If anything, it now makes more sense than ever for that conference to pursue Kansas, Kansas State and Missouri to replace its two departing basketball powers. The problem is, no one believes the ACC will stay at 14 for long. Maryland AD Kevin Anderson indicated as much in a statement Sunday, saying he "look[s] forward to discussions about the future of the league and would encourage a future expansion." Swofford, meanwhile, said: "We're not philosophically opposed to 16."
Two more Big East schools, Connecticut and Rutgers, now appear to be jockeying for those 15th and 16th ACC spots as that league continues its newfound quest to own the entire Eastern Seaboard. If they leave, too, the questions become: At what point will the Big East no longer be palatable to Notre Dame? And would Swarbrick place his first call to the Big Ten's Jim Delany (the one commissioner who's continually maintained ambivalence about the latest expansion mania and in fact spent Saturday golfing) or to Swofford, whose league quietly held discussions with Notre Dame back in 2003 about the possibility of joining as a partial member.
Anything and everything is possible in this endlessly puzzling game of musical chairs. On Sunday, Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark Nordenberg put on his academic hat and tried to claim the school's ACC move was somehow related to tissue engineering and Alzheimer's research. I'll believe almost anything at this point, but not that.
Paul Johnson has spent most of his coaching career laughing off skeptics who swear his triple-option offense can't work at the highest level. Even after Tech won the 2009 ACC title, some wondered whether defenses were "catching up" to the Yellow Jackets after they slipped back to 6-7 last year.
Ask Kansas about that.
On Saturday, Tech avenged a 28-25 loss in Lawrence last season by blistering the Jayhawks for school records of 786 total yards and 604 rushing yards -- at an FBS-record clip of 12.1 yards per carry -- in a 66-24 rout. Orwin Smith broke a school-record 95-yard touchdown on the Jackets' first offensive play, marking the third straight week they've done that.
"When we're making our blocks," said A-back Embry Peeples, "it's like a video game."
Reached Sunday, Johnson was characteristically nonchalant about the eye-popping numbers, pointing out he's notched 600 rushing yards before -- including 639 in his 1999 Georgia Southern team's Division I-AA national championship win over Jim Tressel's Youngstown State squad.
"We've been doing this for a long time," Johnson said. "There isn't anything magical about what we do. If you execute, you'll be successful. If you don't, you won't."
Tech is averaging a nation's best 59.3 points and 675.3 yards per game, but the pass has arguably been a bigger factor than the run in its first three games. Johnson's teams don't pass often, but when they do, it's generally for big gains. Junior quarterback Tevin Washington, who took over as starter late last season for the injured Joshua Nesbitt, has gone 17-of-28 (60.7 percent) and is averaging a staggering 37.5 yards per completion. He has more 70-plus yard completions (four) than any other conference.
That's a sharp improvement from last season, when Nesbitt and Washington combined to complete just 38.1 percent of their throws. Again, Johnson said there's a simple explanation.
"When guys are open, we're hitting them," he said, "rather than overthrowing them or dropping them."
This week brings a steep rise in competition when Tech hosts 3-0 North Carolina. Led by future pro defensive end Quinton Coples, the Tar Heels' defense is fast and athletic. But as Johnson points out, they were pretty fast and athletic the past two years, too, when the Jackets won 24-7 and 30-24, respectively.
"We've just got to do what we do and take care of the ball," said Johnson. "Hopefully hit a big pass play or two during the game."
Simple as that.
My reaction to the latest AP and Coaches' polls:
Overrated: Michigan (Coaches': No. 21; AP: No. 22)
Congrats, Wolverines, on returning to the polls -- and on the same week Ohio State fell out for the first time since 2004, no less. But sorry, I'm not buying yet. We've been down this road before.
Underrated: Florida State (AP: No. 11; Coaches': No. 14)
If Oklahoma is the No. 1 team in the country, there's no earthly reason FSU should have plummeted nine spots in the Coaches' poll for losing to OU in the fourth quarter. This is yet another example of why there's so little incentive for teams to schedule tough opponents.
Each week, I'll update my projected BCS lineup (as necessary) based on the latest week's games. Here's this week's edition:
Title game: Alabama vs. OklahomaRose: Stanford vs. WisconsinFiesta: Nebraska vs. Boise StateSugar: LSU vs. Florida StateOrange: Virginia Tech vs. USF
There's no resisting the LSU bandwagon anymore. After this weekend's Arkansas-Alabama and LSU-West Virginia games, I'll reconsider whether to elevate the Tigers to the title game and/or substitute the Mountaineers for USF. West Virginia nearly blew a 34-10 lead at Maryland, prevailing 37-31 thanks to three interceptions, while USF pounded Florida A&M, 70-14.
• Clemson has found the explosive playmaker it's been missing since C.J. Spiller. Freshman receiver Sammy Watkins caught 10 passes for 155 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 44 more as the Tigers ended Auburn's 17-game winning streak, 38-24. Quarterback Tajh Boyd had a huge day as well (30-of-42, 386 yards, four TDs) as Clemson racked up 624 total yards. Granted, everyone's putting up 600 yards on Auburn's defense this year, but this was undoubtedly still "a big, big win," as Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said.
• Somehow, despite losing stalwart receivers Austin Pettis and Titus Young, Boise State's Kellen Moore has become an even more lethal passer. Through two games Moore's completion percentage is up from 71.3 percent to 78.9, and he hooked up with nine different receivers in last Friday's 40-15 win at Toledo. "If he was playing someone else," said Rockets running back Adonis Thomas, "I would say I'm a fan of Kellen Moore."
• No. 5 Stanford broke open what was a close game at halftime to win 37-10 at Arizona, and did so without the services of three key players for much of the night. Receiver Chris Owusu (shoulder), tight end Coby Fleener (concussion-like symptoms) and linebacker Shayne Skov (knee) all suffered injures. Owusu (who returned) and Fleener should be fine, but Skov's injury appears serious. A diagnosis is expected Monday. Losing the heart of the defense would be devastating for the Cardinal.
• Florida running back/receiver Chris Rainey wasn't kidding when he said Charlie Weis' pro-style offense was "the best thing that ever happened to me." The speedster racked up 233 all-purpose yards against Tennessee (and also notched his fifth career blocked punt). He's accounted for at least 162 yards in all three of Florida's games thus far. "For me it was an emotional game," said Rainey, who was suspended five games last year following his aggravated stalking arrest.
• With the caveat that UCLA is apparently very, very bad (again): Texas has itself a quarterback. Case McCoy was a Colt McCoy-like 12-of-15 for 168 yards and two touchdowns in the Longhorns' 49-20 rout at the Rose Bowl. I watched Texas' spring game and it was clear to me McCoy was the best Texas quarterback. But I'm not being paid $5 million to make decisions like who to start at quarterback, so surely Mack Brown had a good reason to stick with Garrett Gilbert for so long.
• South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore rushed for 246 yards and three touchdowns Saturday. So how is it that the Gamecocks wound up needing an interception with a minute left to survive Navy 24-21? Steve Spurrier's team is 3-0 and unquestionably talented, yet continually does little to inspire confidence. "I'm embracing it," Spurrier said of his team's penchant for late-game drama. "This is the kind of game you lose." We do appreciate the HBC's honesty.
• Nebraska's defense, playing without injured cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, had a second straight disappointing outing Saturday, allowing 420 total yards and three fourth-quarter touchdowns in a 51-38 win over Washington. An inexperienced secondary is one thing, but the Huskers' seemingly loaded defensive front has generated just five sacks in three games. "The sky isn't falling on defense," said a measured Bo Pelini. Nebraska plays Wisconsin in two weeks.
• Notre Dame found out Saturday it is actually possible to keep turning the ball over and still beat a respectable foe. The Irish added three more giveaways to their national-worst 13 on the season, but a suffocating rush defense held Michigan State to just 29 yards in a 31-13 rout of the then 15th-ranked Spartans. Touted freshman defensive end Aaron Lynch, who never saw the field last week against Michigan, played a key role with five tackles, a sack and a forced fumble.
• A move to September turned the usually tight Utah-BYU Holy War into a slopfest, with the Utes pouncing on seven Cougars turnovers en route to a 54-10 blowout. With quarterback Jordan Wynn still visibly affected by last year's shoulder surgery, the Utes got their running game going, as juco transfer John White rushed for 174 yards and three scores on 22 carries. White and the defense should be Utah's formula going forward.
• James Franklin became the first Vanderbilt coach since 1943 to start 3-0. The Commodores are following their precocious coach's lead and playing with a certain ... swagger? "We expect to come out every week and win," said cornerback Trey Wilson, whose pick-six was one of five Vandy interceptions in a 30-7 beatdown of Ole Miss. Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop has turned the 'Dores into an aggressive, blitzing outfit that's had a pick-six in all three games.
• Guess who else is a surprising 3-0? Iowa State. The Cyclones followed up their dramatic overtime win against Iowa with a road win Friday night at Connecticut. When he wasn't throwing three interceptions, "Man of" Steele Jantz connected with receiver Darius Reynolds for 128 yards on four receptions, including a go-ahead 20-yarder with 9:08 left in which Reynolds leapfrogged two defenders on his way to the end zone. Up next following a bye week: Texas, which ISU beat last year.
• Following a three-hour lightning delay, Oklahoma State and Tulsa kicked off at 12:15 a.m. local time Sunday morning. The No. 8 Cowboys seemed unaffected, winning 59-33, but coach Mike Gundy was not thrilled. "Whether young people stay up late at night or not, they don't exert themselves at 2 and 3 in the morning," he said. "I had concerns about injuries on both teams." And indeed, Tulsa lost prized quarterback G.J. Kinne to a potentially serious knee injury.
• It was good to see Minnesota coach Jerry Kill back on the sideline a week after suffering a seizure late in a loss to New Mexico State. He and his team both rebounded, with the Gophers topping Miami (Ohio), 29-23.
• A week after nearly knocking off San Diego State, Army pulled out a 21-14 win over Northwestern, racking up 381 rushing yards with its option attack.
• Ridiculous stat line I: Texas Tech quarterback Seth Doege completed 40-of-44 passes -- an FBS-record 90.9 percent for 40-plus attempts -- for 401 yards and five touchdowns against New Mexico.
• Ridiculous stat line II: Missouri running back Henry Josey rushed 14 times for 263 yards and three touchdowns against Western Illinois -- all in the first half.
• I can't imagine a crueler way to lose than what happened to Boston College, which saw Nate Freese's 23-yard chip shot with 43 seconds left bounce off the left upright, sealing a 20-19 Duke victory.
• Never mind, I can. With three seconds remaining, Wyoming blocked Bowling Green's game-tying extra point attempt to win 28-27.
If you missed the news that Oregon received its NCAA Letter of Inquiry (apparently by phone) in the Willie Lyles saga ... well, that's exactly what the school intended. As the Oregonian's Rachel Bachman noted, Oregon strategically planted the release "after the airing of ... GameDay, and well into a day crowded with games," even though it got the call several days earlier.
The LOI is a formality in an NCAA investigation, though it almost certainly guarantees that the more serious Notice of Allegations is forthcoming. It remains to be seen what those allegations will be regarding the infamous $25,000 payment to purported talent scout/mentor Lyles. But amid the ongoing investigation, school president Richard Lariviere offered a notably strong endorsement of Chip Kelly.
"Chip's job is quite safe," Lariviere said Saturday. "We've cooperated with the NCAA very extensively and looked at this really, really carefully internally, and I have very high confidence in this group of people. Very high confidence."
I'm going to the same well twice in two weeks because, quite frankly, it's that good of a story.
On Saturday, 3-0 Florida International followed up last week's historic win over Louisville (its first over a BCS-conference team) with a 17-10 upset of in-state foe UCF, a team that nearly cracked the Top 25 a week earlier. This despite the fact that star receiver T.Y. Hilton, whom I extolled in this same space last week, missed most of the game after suffering an apparent hamstring injury. The Panthers did it with defense instead, sacking Knights star Jeff Godfrey six times -- one of which forced a fumble that Isame Faciane returned 51 yards for a touchdown.
So a Sun Belt team beat a Conference USA team; who cares, right? Not if you know the context. FIU's program did not exist prior to 2002. When coach Mario Cristobal took over in '07, it was unquestionably 119th out of 119 FBS teams, coming off an 0-12 season and an ugly bench-clearing brawl against Miami.
We'll let Cristobal take it from there.
"It started last year with a conference championship and then it went with a bowl bid and then a bowl win against a great MAC team [Toledo]. Then we started the season against North Texas and proving it was no fluke. Then going up to a BCS school last week and winning on their turf and then hosting Central Florida, which I say is a Top 25 team. When you have a victory like this, the eyes continue to open and open wide.
"That [north side of FIU's] stadium is going to be closed in as soon as this season is over. The facilities are going to expand even more. Our school is going to explode to 62,000 students. If you are building a football program and you ask for a list of ingredients, the list has already been taken care of here."
The man is a dreamer. But so far, his dream is coming true.
Mini-previews for three of this week's big games:
• LSU at West Virginia, Saturday (8 p.m. ET): It is simply not possible to get two more eccentric personalities in the same stadium at the same time than Dana Holgorsen and Les Miles. And thanks to West Virginia's in-stadium beer sales, you couldn't conjure up a more liquored-up atmosphere come kickoff.
• Arkansas at Alabama, Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET): Bobby Petrino's high-powered offense will provide the first real test for Nick Saban's defense, but an equally intriguing storyline will be whether Arkansas' improving defense can slow down Tide star Trent Richardson, who is coming off a 167-yard day against North Texas.
• Oklahoma State at Texas A&M, Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET): As of today it's a crucial Big 12 showdown. By game time it could be a future SEC-Pac-12 intersectional matchup. Whatever the case, in 2011, it's a key game in determining who will be Oklahoma's main challenger the rest of the way.