Time for contenders to do battle, weeding out process to begin
Title race will take shape after Florida-'Bama, Stanford-Oregon in Week 5
Mark Richt is facing a certifiable crisis after Georgia's 0-3 start in SEC
Big East teams are a staggering 1-10 against BCS-conference opponents
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.
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