Get SI's Duke Championship Package Free  Subscribe to SI Give the Gift of SI
Posted: Sunday October 4, 2009 8:55PM; Updated: Monday October 5, 2009 1:42PM
Stewart Mandel Stewart Mandel >

Gators' test, Clausen's Heisman chances, polls, bowls and more

Story Highlights

The Florida-LSU showdown will be this season's first Top 5 matchup

Jimmy Clausen has become an intriguing Heisman Trophy candidate

New Mexico is dragging its feet on punishing coach Mike Locksley

Tim Tebow's status against LSU will be much discussed this week.
Tim Larson/Icon SMI
Stewart Mandel's Mailbag
Submit a question or an opinion to Stewart.

Football Insiders: Check out Peter King's Monday Morning Quarterback.

For the past five weeks, while teams below them squared off in high-profile games and/or suffered early-season setbacks, Florida and Texas have quietly held on to the Nos. 1 and 2 rankings bequeathed to them since nearly the day last season ended.

At last, judgment time has arrived -- at least for the Gators.

Florida's long-anticipated trip to LSU on Saturday will pit the owners of the past three BCS championships and mark the first matchup this season between top-five teams. Between now and Saturday night, you can expect around-the-clock speculation about Tim Tebow's status -- will he or won't he trot onto the field at Tiger Stadium?

Some will say it doesn't really matter. If Florida's defense is as advertised, it should have little trouble stopping LSU's woeful offense (ranked 99th nationally at 321.6 yards per game). And even if Tebow doesn't go, the Gators have a more capable backup than most in John Brantley, right?

It's not that simple.

As my colleague Andy Staples recently wrote, Florida's entire offensive approach would change with the pro-style Brantley. You can throw out those 25 quarterback draws we would have seen with Tebow. Instead, Florida would likely lean heavily on its tailback stable of Jeff Demps, Chris Rainey and Emmanuel Moody, which isn't necessarily a bad thing -- the trio is averaging 188.2 yards per game and 9.8 yards per carry.

But it's awfully hard to win an SEC game one-dimensionally, and the prospect of Brantley making his first career start in Death Valley is made more daunting by the lack of productivity thus far from Florida's depleted receiving corps.

As for that LSU offense, I'll reiterate what I wrote Saturday after the Georgia game: the Tigers won't stand a chance if their offensive line is as powerless as it looked for three-plus quarters in Athens (and for several games before that). But LSU gave its fans cause for hope in the fourth quarter when quarterback Jordan Jefferson led the Tigers on a 13-play, 88-yard touchdown drive, and running back Charles Scott, after being held in check for most of the day, broke free for the game-winning 33-yard score.

If Florida's worst nightmare comes true -- Tebow doesn't play and Urban Meyer loses his third straight game in Baton Rouge -- it would not necessarily be devastating. For one thing, the Gators aren't likely to fall far in the polls for losing to the No. 4 team. They'll be a prohibitive favorite in their remaining games (remarkably, neither No. 3 Alabama, No. 17 Auburn or No. 20 Ole Miss appear on their schedule). And regardless of Saturday's outcome, their BCS title hopes ultimately ride on the Dec. 5 SEC championship game.

Still, even a single defeat would take the Gators' fate out of their hands. They'd have to hope the national-title race devolves into another jumble of one-loss teams, and they'd have to hope the voters still consider them the best of the bunch -- particularly if Texas runs the table.

The Longhorns' first red-letter date long figured to be the Oct. 17 Red River Shootout, but suddenly that Oklahoma showdown has lost its sizzle. With the one-time No. 3 Sooners suffering their second defeat Saturday night at Miami, the Dallas game has gone from a "must-win" to a "should-win" for Texas.

Whether or not Heisman winner Sam Bradford returns by then, Bob Stoops' team has other issues. Just like BYU in the opener, the Hurricanes overpowered Oklahoma's inexperienced offensive line, and Miami had a surprising amount of success simply running up the gut against the Sooners' defense. (Javarris James ran for a career-high 150 yards.) Meanwhile, receiver Ryan Broyles fractured his shoulder, joining Bradford and tight end Jermaine Gresham on the sideline.

Even with all that adversity, Oklahoma has suffered a pair of one-point, non-conference losses, and Stoops said afterward, "I still really believe in my team." His team, however, fell to 19th in this week's AP poll, which means Texas won't face its first Top 10 opponent until at least Oct. 31 when it visits Oklahoma State (currently 15th). It's possible they won't face one at all.

After spending much of last season in the national spotlight, the Big 12 has endured a nightmarish non-conference slate. Following Oklahoma's loss, Arkansas' 47-19 shellacking of Texas A&M and Colorado's 35-24 loss to West Virginia, the league finished 4-7 against BCS-conference foes. Oklahoma State and Texas Tech both lost to Houston. Kansas and Missouri are the league's only other remaining undefeated teams.

Much more so than Florida, the 'Horns may not be able to afford a single blemish, because one-loss teams like Virginia Tech and USC will be breathing down their necks.

But perhaps this is all presumptuous. After all, the past three Florida-LSU winners have all sustained defeats (in LSU's case, in 2007, two) and still gone on to claim the crystal trophy. There could be at least one thing different about this matchup, however: Tebow, who played a key role in all three editions, might not be present.

They don't account for that in the BCS standings.

Clausen keeps rolling, but USC isn't Purdue

The next two weeks could also go a long way toward determining this season's Heisman pecking order. Tebow, the prohibitive favorite, could either enhance his considerable legacy with a big night at LSU or fall considerably behind if forced to miss one of Florida's biggest games of the year. Texas' Colt McCoy, who lost some ground early on, gets a chance to win back the spotlight a week later against Oklahoma.

And then there's the increasingly intriguing case of Jimmy Clausen, whose make-or-break date with stiff-arm destiny comes that same day against No. 7 USC.

The Notre Dame junior put on yet another spectacular and dramatic performance Saturday against Washington, throwing for 422 yards and two touchdowns, including a go-ahead score to Kyle Rudolph with 1:20 remaining. After Washington came back to tie, Clausen threw a 22-yard completion to Golden Tate (who himself had a staggering 244 yards on nine catches) on the first play of overtime to set up the Irish's eventual game-winning TD. He constantly avoided pressure to make long throws downfield.

1 2 3
Hot Topics: NBA Playoffs NHL Playoffs Golden State Warriors Bryce Harper Paul Pierce Masai Ujiri
TM & © 2013 Time Inc. A Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved. Terms under which this service is provided to you. Read our privacy guidelines and ad choices.
SI CoverRead All ArticlesBuy Cover Reprint