Posted: Sunday October 7, 2012 8:39PM ; Updated: Monday October 8, 2012 11:22AM
Stewart Mandel

BCS picture begins to take shape after upsets to Florida State, LSU

Story Highlights

Florida State has fallen out of BCS race; South Carolina looks like a real contender

Notre Dame, West Virginia are silencing doubters with their early-season showings

Plus: Penn St.'s resilience, TCU's issues, BCS forecast, Duke's bowl chances, more

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NC State's Quintin Payton
Quintin Payton's 12-yard catch on fourth-and-10 spurred NC State's stunning upset win over Florida State.
Raleigh News & Observer/McClatchy-Tribune/Getty Images

It's hard to believe, but a good chunk of FBS teams are now halfway through the season. Meanwhile, three of the top five teams in AP Poll lost Saturday, the first such occurrence since 2008. For the first time this season, it feels like the national title race is taking shape. Really.

The first BCS standings will be released next weekend, but we already have a pretty good idea of what to expect. Beyond the obvious -- No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Oregon will meet in Miami if both go undefeated -- here are a few things we learned this week about the way things should unfold from here.

Florida State is out. In 1998, the Seminoles -- which at the time had lost one ACC game in seven years -- suffered a stunning 24-7 defeat at NC State. The Chris Weinke-led 'Noles won out and played in the first BCS Championship Game. On Saturday, No. 3 Florida State suffered a similarly stunning 17-16 defeat in Raleigh. But even if the 'Noles rebound and win out (and who knows if Jimbo Fisher's squad is even capable of that), this team -- unlike that team -- cannot get back into the national title race.

In 1998, Florida State played nonconference games against Texas A&M, USC, Miami and Florida and faced two ranked foes in ACC play. In 2012, the 'Noles faced Murray State, Savannah State and USF and notched a top-15 win over Clemson, but they likely won't face another ranked team until the Gators come to town Nov. 24. "We still control our own destiny in the ACC," Fisher said (incorrectly) with a straight face Saturday night. In that sense, the 'Noles could still finish the season in Miami. The ACC champ automatically goes to the Orange Bowl.

South Carolina is now Alabama's lone SEC threat. The Gamecocks put on a clinic Saturday night against No. 5 Georgia. Throw out the Chicken Curse. As I wrote following the 35-7 rout, Steve Spurrier's team has all the pieces -- a near-flawless quarterback, an elite tailback and a terrifying defensive line -- to be a national title contender. "If we play like this," he said, "we may have a chance for a real big year. Maybe."

That being said, it wouldn't be the least bit surprising if South Carolina turns around and loses at LSU next weekend. A hangover after Saturday night's win in Columbia can be expected, and the Gamecocks haven't played nearly as well on the road as they have at home. But that game is really just a precursor to their Oct. 20 trip to resurgent Florida, a matchup which could decide the SEC East. If either team can make it to Atlanta with one loss and knock off the Crimson Tide, they're going to play in Miami. That's almost a given.

Except Florida isn't making it through with one loss. Congratulations are in order for Will Muschamp following his first signature win in Gainesville, as is recognition that Florida is already 4-0 in the SEC. But the notion that Florida is now the fourth-best team in the country is laughable. Yes, the Gators showed off their physical dominance in running the ball 24 straight times to close out a 14-6 win over then No. 4 LSU, but they could only get away with that because they were facing an inept Tigers' offense that could barely complete a forward pass. Les Miles' team won't be playing any Games of the Century this year. It's in trouble. Florida has much more reason for optimism, but Jeff Driskel will need to pass for more than 61 yards to take down South Carolina or Florida State.

Notre Dame must be taken seriously. You could retroactively downplay the Irish's defensive dominance against Michigan State and Michigan given how the Spartans and Wolverines' offenses have fared against other upper-echelon foes. But Saturday night, Notre Dame held an explosive Miami group that came in averaging 35.6 points per game to a mere field goal. The Irish also produced two 100-yard rushers (Cierre Wood and George Atkinson III) for the first time in a decade. "We felt like if we could keep them from getting the big plays, and we could run the football, that was going on our recipe for success," said coach Brian Kelly.

SI VideoTim Brown: Tough road ahead for Fighting Irish

Mind you, the Irish aren't all that different from Florida: There's little evidence to suggest Everett Golson could pick apart an elite opponent. The thing is, every big-name opponent left on Notre Dame's schedule (Stanford, Oklahoma and USC) has already proven vulnerable. The Irish may not be able to win all three, but they'll remain in the conversation until that defense -- ranked second behind Alabama in points allowed (7.8 per game) -- gives reason to suggest otherwise.

West Virginia is the ultimate wild-card. We know Geno Smith can't throw for 600 yards and eight touchdowns every week. Surely, the Mountaineers can't expect to keep winning with such a one-dimensional offense and porous defense. But here's what happened Saturday at Texas: The Longhorns came after Smith, who threw for a more modest 268 yards and four touchdowns (and lost two fumbles). But lo and behold, running back Andrew Buie stepped up and rushed for 207 yards on 31 carries, while West Virginia's defense held Texas to just 135 yards on the ground. "We just lined up and ran it right at them," said Mountaineers coach Dana Holgorsen.

And so, another week, another wild win for West Virginia, which now enters the top five in the AP Poll. Football purists will suffer a collective heart attack if the Mountaineers ride a season full of 48-45 victories to the BCS Championship Game. History and common sense says they'll eventually run into a team they can't outscore (Kansas State comes to mind). But who are we to question Holgorsen right now? As Pete Thamel wrote Saturday night, the guy's no one-trick pony. He knows how to beat you both running and passing. And that's more than we can say about several of the expected contenders down South.

Penn State shows its resilience

With 50 seconds remaining in the third quarter of Saturday's game in Happy Valley, Northwestern's Venric Mark broke a 75-yard punt return to give the No. 24 Wildcats a 28-17 lead over Penn State. This was the part of the game when the attrition-ravaged, NCAA-pummeled Nittany Lions were supposed to crawl back in a hole and recommence their inevitable plunge toward the bottom of the Big Ten.

Only that's not what happened. Instead, quarterback Matt McGloin -- the same Matt McGloin who ranked 89th nationally in pass efficiency last season -- calmly led his team on consecutive fourth-quarter touchdown drives. He was patient. He made all the right checks. He completed 6-of-7 passes for 49 yards on the go-ahead series, and on third-and-four from the Northwestern five-yard line, he tucked and ran for a score with less than three minutes to go. Penn State prevailed 39-28, notching its fourth consecutive victory after an 0-2 start.

"There's no quit in that locker room," said first-year Nittany Lions coach Bill O'Brien. "I don't know what's going to happen the rest of the year, but there will be no quit in that locker room."

O'Brien, who only inherited the most daunting coaching job since Forrest Gregg took over SMU post-Death Penalty in the late '80s, is already being lauded for the resilience he's instilled in the Nittany Lions. They play aggressively, much like their coach, who opted to go for it on six fourth downs Saturday and converted five. That's all well and good, but the most tangible mark made by the former Patriots offensive coordinator so far is the transformation of new pupil McGloin. The former walk-on is completing 61.5 percent of his passes (up from 54.1) with 12 touchdowns and just two interceptions (compared with an 8-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio last season).

"He's grown up a lot," said O'Brien. "I can't say enough about Matt McGloin."

As with all things Penn State these days, the fun from Saturday will be overshadowed by darkness Tuesday, when media once again descends on State College for the sentencing of Jerry Sandusky. An AP story Sunday on his likely life as an inmate included a section entitled "Will He Be Watching Penn State Football?" (The answer: Yes, he'll have access to a TV.) There are still plenty of people who feel this year's Penn State team should not even be playing football, much less on national television every week.

But for those who are able to separate individuals like O'Brien (who arrived in January) and McGloin (who is 22) from Sandusky's atrocities and the alleged institutional cover-up that took place during the late Joe Paterno's tenure, Penn State is simply a 4-2 football team looking to surprise some more folks in this year's downtrodden Big Ten. They already have one pleasant surprise under center.
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