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SI.com college football writer Stewart Mandel shares his commentary, analysis and random tidbits on the latest developments around the country.
10/06/2007 10:07:00 PM

Saturday Observations Part III

Tim Tebow
Florida QB Tim Tebow finished with 67 yards and a touchdown on the ground.
Doug Benc/Getty Images
BATON ROUGE, La. -- In what was supposed to be a classic, SEC defensive struggle, the story of the Florida-LSU first half was both teams’ offenses -- particularly that of the Gators, which lead 17-7 at the break.

A week after struggling mightily to move the ball in their loss to Auburn, Florida came out with very much the same approach as last January’s Ohio State game: Starting five-wide and changing formations constantly from there. The result was Florida actually being able to run the ball effectively, with tailback Kestahn Moore getting twice as many carries in the first quarter (six for 33 yards) as he did all of last week. This in turn opened up the passing game for Tim Tebow, who made several big throws early before using his feet on the Gators’ two touchdowns (his 2-yard touchdown pass to Moore came after scrambling all the way to his left and buying time, and he ran for a 9-yard touchdown on a third and goal after initially dropping back to pass).

Meanwhile, an interception on a bobbled catch stalled LSU’s first drive after four plays, but the Tigers moved the ball methodically for much of the half. Les Miles rotated Matt Flynn and Ryan Perriloux with even more frequency than Florida did Chris Leak with Tebow last year. The result: Perrilloux picked up yardage with his feet running the spread-option, while Flynn has repeatedly connected with Brandon LaFell on quick-step passes, much like they did in the Virginia Tech game. LaFell has had several bad drops, however, and Florida got a big stop by holding the Tigers without a second score just before the half after they had driven all the way to the Gators 21.

It will be interesting to see what adjustments LSU’s defense makes in the second half.

• If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result ... than I must be certifiably insane. Why, oh why, do I keep making the mistake of putting faith in Clemson? Every year! Why?

Virginia Tech’s offense has sputtered all season -- so of course the Hokies would go to Clemson and jump to a 31-8 halftime lead, not necessarily because of some great offensive explosion (they actually got outgained 160 to 95) but in large part because of three Clemson turnovers (including one returned for a touchdown) and a Tech punt return for a touchdown. And of course I was stupid enough to drop the Hokies out of the top 25 ... the week they were about to play Clemson! Insanity!

They’ll be back after this blowout. Kudos to the Hokies for taking Clemson RBs James Davis and C.J. Spiller completely out of the game (a combined 12 carries for 12 yards).

• You’re allowed to lollygag for one week, USC, but against Stanford? You’ve got to be kidding me. The Trojans led the Cardinal just 9-7 and 16-14 in the third quarter Saturday night, thanks in part to two more John David Booty interceptions, before Booty rebounded to throw two long touchdowns. The Trojans have all the talent in the world, but they’ve got issues, people.

• Arizona State is 6-0, folks. Under Dirk Koetter, this was always the point of the season when the Sun Devils went on about a month-long losing streak, but somehow I don’t see that happening with Dennis Erickson.

• Lots of random sightings in the press box here tonight: Political operative/LSU diehard James Carville, former Georgia star David Pollack (working for CSTV) and former Northwestern and Colorado coach Gary Barnett (calling the game for syndicated radio).

• This will be the last Blog post for tonight. I’ll try to address Ohio State, Rutgers, Missouri and others in tomorrow’s “Five Things We Learned” post. Look for an Inside College Football Column off the Florida-LSU game later tonight.

UPDATE: Stanford just knocked off USC. I'm speechless. I know you've heard this twice already this season, but that is the biggest upset in college football history. The stunner of all stunners. The Cardinal was a 41-point underdog. They were playing with their backup quarterback, on the road, against a team that hadn't lost at home in six years. I need to turn my attention back to the game I'm at ... but wow.
posted by Stewart Mandel | View comments | Add a comment
10/06/2007 07:16:00 PM

Saturday Observations Part II

DeMarco Murray
Electric RB DeMarco Murray could help Oklahoma fans get over the loss of Adrian Peterson pretty quickly.
AP
BATON ROUGE, La. -- In Chapter 2 of Bowls, Polls and Tattered Souls, I explain the many reasons why sportswriters often find themselves in the worst possible position to be ranking football teams. Today is a perfect example for me.

While millions of you were sitting in the comfort of your homes watching Oklahoma-Texas and Georgia-Tennessee, I was sitting in an all-time traffic logjam (90 minutes to drive two miles) getting to Tiger Stadium. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining about getting to see one of the most anticipated games of the season live and in person. I’m just confessing that there any number of people this week more qualified to evaluate the Sooners’ and Longhorns’ performances and fill out a Top 25 ballot accordingly.

Here’s what I did see upon arriving at the press box: Oklahoma RB DeMarco Murray (16 carries, 127 yards, including a 65-yard touchdown) showing what all the hype’s been about. I’m sure Bob Stoops and his staff have had legitimate reasons for keeping the redshirt freshman behind Allen Patrick on the Sooners’ depth chart (a running back’s job consists of far more than just running), but it’s going to be tough to keep that guy off the field much longer. His explosiveness jumped off the screen and ultimately proved the difference in a shootout between two rivals, both apparently with savvy quarterbacks (how pretty is Sam Bradford’s touch, by the way?) and average defenses. Oklahoma has a solid running game, though; Texas does not.

• In last week’s Mailbag, I wrote about the varying degrees of upsets (stunners, surprises and just plan weird ones). Tennessee’s demolition of Georgia probably falls under the “surprise” category -- but I can’t say it actually surprised me. For one thing, the Bulldogs have been all over the map the past two years (yet again, we see that Matthew Stafford is not necessarily the Messiah after all). But more importantly, the past two weeks have been full of rumblings and speculative columns in Tennessee about Phillip Fulmer’s job security.

If anyone in college football has more than nine lives, it’s that guy. Time and time again over the past five years, it’s looked like the Vols were down for the count, and every time, they come exploding back, from their out-of-nowhere win at Miami in 2003 to last year’s season-opening blowout of Cal. It only makes sense Fulmer’s team -- fresh off a bye week -- would come out playing with their pants on fire against the Bulldogs.

I wouldn’t view Tennessee’s 35-14 win as any sort of seismic breakthrough, or a sign of the Vols’ impending SEC title run. No team that loses 59-20 to anyone is going to string together seven or eight straight SEC victories. But there’s no denying the Vols have talent, and I’m sure they’ll do just enough the rest of the way to continue to keep their coach out of hot water.

• South Florida has been held out lately as the poster program for college football’s new era of parity, and deservedly so. But what about Florida Atlantic? Howard Schnellenberger’s squad, which is even newer than Jim Leavitt’s (FAU’s program began play in 2001, USF’s in 1997) and which beat Minnesota earlier this season, gave the sixth-ranked Bulls everything they could handle Saturday and might have won if not for three missed field-goal attempts.

USF prevailed 35-23 in what had to be a classic “letdown” performance following its huge West Virginia win. My new favorite defensive Heisman candidate, Bulls sophomore George Selvie, notched another sack, raising his season total to 10.5.

• Finally, I'd just like to make the observation that every college football writer now has a blog. As I type this, on either side of me are the New York Times' Pete Thamel writing an entry for The Quad and my former colleague John Walters entering his latest musings for NBCSports.com. By all means, peruse them both. (And then, of course, come back here.)
posted by Stewart Mandel | View comments | Add a comment
10/06/2007 04:20:00 PM

Saturday Observations Part I

Ron Zook
In his third season at Illinois, Ron Zook has the Illini in the thick of the Big Ten race.
AP

BATON ROUGE, La. -- The Blog is coming to you live from Walk On’s Bistreaux and Grill, where Sports Illustrated is holding a huge promotional event for its “75 years of SEC football” special issue. They asked me to make an appearance -- but only after LSU legend Billy Cannon’s of course.

Speaking of SEC football ... you know you’re in an SEC town when three-fourths of the TVs are turned to the Auburn-Vanderbilt game. C’mon, guys. The “No. 5” team in the country is on the ropes.

I use quotation marks because, as we know, Wisconsin has not been a top-five team for some time, and it finally caught up to them Saturday in Champaign, where the resurgent Illini led the whole game. I give the Badgers credit: Despite playing on the road without top receiver Luke Swan, who was injured in the first half, and No. 2 tailback Lance Smith (among others), every time Illinois threatened to pull away, Wisconsin answered. But the Badgers’ defense had no answer for Rashard Mendenhall (19 carries, 160 yards, two touchdowns), who’s quietly putting up some of the best numbers of any running back in the country.

Hats off to Ron Zook, who’s taken a lot of crap (from me included) over the years but now has his 5-1 team in the thick of the Big Ten race. In fact, with Michigan State losing to Northwestern on Saturday, that “race” will likely be down to just three teams by the end of the day: The Illini, tonight’s Ohio State-Purdue winner and Michigan (though the Wolverines’ defense won’t keep them in it for long).

• The Big 12 North gets more interesting by the week. Kansas, previously America’s quietest undefeated team, announced their arrival Saturday with a 30-24 win at Kansas State (itself a week removed from drubbing Texas) to improve to 5-0. Sophomore QB Todd Reesing threw three TDs, including one to SI.com preseason All-American CB and two-way threat Aqib Talib. Now it appears that any of five teams -- KU, K-State, Missouri, Nebraska or Colorado – could win that division.

• Reports of Miami’s resurgence were apparently premature. Since their eye-opening rout of Texas A&M, the ‘Canes beat Duke 24-14 and, on Saturday, went to Chapel Hill and promptly dug themselves a 27-0 hole against former coach Butch Davis’ new team. Miami mounted a nice comeback but couldn’t overcome Kyle Wright’s four interceptions in falling 33-27.

That’s a great win for Davis’ Tar Heels (2-4), who, with the exception of a blowout loss to now top-10 team USF a few weeks ago, have played better than their record all season and have shown off a plethora of young talent, most notably redshirt freshman QB T.J. Yates. With Davis at the helm, don’t be surprised to see UNC contending for the ACC title as soon as next season.

• Maryland’s rise from what seemed like ashes just a couple of weeks ago continued Saturday with a dramatic 28-26 win over Georgia Tech. Who knew the answers to the Terps’ woes had been sitting on the bench this whole time in the form of backup quarterback/son-of-Ratt’s-drummer/Napolean Dynamite look-alike Chris Turner. He went 10-of-17 for 255 yards and a touchdown Saturday.

• Finally, hats off to Michigan’s Mike Hart, who became the school’s all-time leading rusher with his 22-carry, 215-yard, three-touchdown performance Saturday against Eastern Michigan. I’ve admittedly never jumped full-board on the Hart bandwagon -- I hesitate to put him in the same class as the Darren McFaddens and Steve Slatons because he simply doesn’t have breakaway speed. You don’t see too many highlight-reel runs from him.

However, there’s something to be said for having the durability and both the mental and physical strength to pound out tough runs carry after carry, break tackles and, most importantly, put his team on his shoulders, as he’s done every week since the Wolverines’ 0-2 start. He may not go on to NFL riches, but he’s certainly the epitome of a great college player.
posted by Stewart Mandel | View comments | Add a comment
10/04/2007 01:02:00 PM

Showcase: Woodson vs. No. 1 Pass Defense

Andre Woodson
Kentucky QB Andre Woodson threw for 289 yards and a touchdown in a 24-17 loss to South Carolina last season.
AP
When Steve Spurrier talks, people listen. The guy’s entertaining. When Steve Spurrier talks quarterbacks -- people listen and take notes. The guy knows a thing or two about that particular position. He’s also notoriously critical of his own QBs. So it’s got to mean something that he paid this ultimate compliment to the signal-caller his South Carolina team faces Thursday night:

"He's a beautiful passer," Spurrier said of Kentucky’s Andre Woodson. "I told somebody the other day he looks like Carson Palmer."

Palmer, as you know, won the Heisman Trophy as a senior at USC and became the No. 1 overall pick in the following spring’s draft. As unlikely as it would have sounded just a few months ago, both those prizes are suddenly in reach for Kentucky’s record-breaking, 6-foot-5, 230-pound QB. And the nation will get a perfect opportunity to decide for itself tonight, when the eighth-ranked Wildcats (5-0) play the first of three consecutive highly ranked opponents, No. 11 South Carolina.

After flying under the radar as a junior despite putting up huge numbers (3,515 yards, 31 touchdowns, seven interceptions) and leading Kentucky to its best record (8-5) since 1984, Woodson has shot to the top rung of every Heisman list in the country this season. The only caveat is that his impeccable numbers -- 67.1 percent completions, 1,309 yards, 16 touchdowns and just one interception (which ended an NCAA record streak of 325 attempts without a pick) -- have come against a schedule of Eastern Kentucky, Kent State, Florida Atlantic, Arkansas and Louisville. The latter two were nationally ranked at the time but have since fallen from the polls in large part due to their pass defenses, ranked 81st and 103rd nationally.

Where does Thursday night’s opponent rank in that category: First. That’s right -- numero uno. The Gamecocks, led by pass-rushers Eric Norwood and Casper Brinkley, safeties Emmanuel Cook and Darian Stewart and corners Carlos Thomas and Captain Munnerlyn, have allowed just 532 passing yards in five games. Opponents are completing just 46.2 percent of their passes, with two touchdowns and six interceptions.

If Woodson can conquer these guys, the sky’s the limit (though it won’t get any easier the following week when No. 1 LSU comes to town, followed by No. 9 Florida). That said, a major reason for the Wildcats’ early success has been their offensive balance. It’s possible the Wildcats could knock off South Carolina even without a big game from Woodson if running backs Rafael Little (109.4 yards per game) and Tony Dixon (nine carries for 78 yards against Arkansas) can slash through the Gamecocks’ defensive front the way LSU did two weeks ago (290 rushing yards in a 28-16 victory).

Woodson, when asked about the Heisman this week, issued the standard candidate’s line. "It’s a privilege and honor to be mentioned with some of those players ... honestly, I don’t care about winning the Heisman right now. We still feel like we have a lot to prove."

They can start tonight.
posted by Stewart Mandel | View comments | Add a comment
9/30/2007 05:19:00 PM

Five Things We Learned This Weekend

Cal celebrates
Cal's Robert Jordan celebrates with fans after the Golden Bears' wild win over Oregon.
AP

1) That them boys out West can play some football. In terms of excitement level, quality of play and the high rankings of both participants, Saturday's Cal-Oregon game was easily the season's most compelling to date. Unfortunately, almost no one east of the Rockies saw it thanks to ABC's regional coverage that split five different games (the others: Clemson-Georgia Tech, Michigan State-Wisconsin, Kansas State-Texas and Maryland-Rutgers) during its 3:30 p.m. EST broadcast window. The lucky 20 percent of you who could see it were treated to a back-and-forth thriller in which the score was tied on five different occasions, the stars for both sides (Cal's Nate Longshore and DeSean Jackson, Oregon's Dennis Dixon and Jonathan Stewart) shined bright, both defenses made big plays and the final, 31-24 outcome was not decided until a reply confirmed that Ducks receiver Cameron Colvin had indeed fumbled a yard shy of the game-tying touchdown.

Both teams' impressive performances, coupled with so many bad losses by other top-10 teams this weekend, caused me to do something unprecedented in six years of ranking teams: I moved up both teams. Cal's jump from No. 7 to No. 3 was a no-brainer what with Nos. 3-6 (Oklahoma, Florida, West Virginia and Texas) all losing. Conventional logic would say the Ducks, whom I previously had 11th, should drop at least a couple spots for losing, which is exactly what the majority of my fellow voters did in dropping Oregon to 14th in the new AP poll Sunday. To each his own, but ask yourself this: If "No. 5" Wisconsin and "No. 14" Oregon played on a neutral field right now -- who would you take? How about the Ducks against No. 8 Kentucky?

The one concern with Oregon is whether the Ducks are about to go into one of their customary swoons -- they started 4-0 last year, too, before losing to Cal (albeit in a much more lopsided fashion), and wound up finishing 7-6. But it's hard to see a team with that kind of offensive balance (Dixon threw for 306 yards, Stewart ran for 120) and a defense that can stuff the run (Cal averaged just 3.5 yards per attempt) losing too many more games. And the scary part is -- they were only the second-best team on the field Saturday.

2) That the Big 12 North is back! (Finally.) The Big 12 was formed in 1996, and for the first five years or so, the balance of power was clearly in the North, where Nebraska and Kansas State were the conference's dominant programs. Then Mack Brown came to Texas, Bob Stoops to Oklahoma and the pendulum quickly swung south. With the recent decline of the Huskers, Wildcats and Colorado, things got so bad that the Buffaloes won consecutive division titles in 2004 and '05 with overtly mediocre squads (the second of which lost 70-3 to Texas in the conference title game). Those two seasons constituted the North's undisputed low point, with the six division teams going a combined 5-27 against the five South teams not named Baylor.

That's why Saturday was such a significant day within the Big 12. It wasn't just that highly ranked Oklahoma and Texas lost -- it's who they lost to. Rapidly improving Kansas State showed last year's breakthrough win over the Longhorns was no fluke, this time handing Colt McCoy and Co. the worst home loss (41-21) of the Mack Brown era. Meanwhile, Colorado, a year removed from going 2-10, stunned a previously dominant Sooners team in Boulder. Both Ron Prince's and Dan Hawkins' second-year programs are clearly headed in the right direction -- K-State, you may recall, came within a last-minute touchdown of winning at Auburn opening weekend, while the Buffs' 16-6 loss to Florida State two weeks ago doesn't seem so bad after watching the ‘Noles shut down No. 22 Alabama in similar fashion Saturday.

Couple them with thus-far undefeated Missouri and Kansas, along with disappointing starts so for not only the South's Sooners and ‘Horns but also Oklahoma State and Texas A&M, and it's no stretch to say the North may be the superior division this season. And that's without even mentioning its highest ranked team in the preseason, defensively challenged Nebraska.

3) That it's always the quarterback's fault Shortly after USC's 27-24 win at Washington, I checked out one of the message boards at the fan site WeAreSC.com and was surprised to see threads with the following titles: "Booty is our Rex Grossman," "Booty = Deer in Headlights = Over rated" and "****official replace Booty thread****." Wow. A month ago they were ready to hand this guy the latest Trojan Heisman; now they want to bench him? (I suppose when your two immediate predecessors both won Heismans, anything short of Heisman-esque performances is considered unacceptable). Meanwhile, after watching their team's offense go in the toilet against Florida State, several Alabama fans e-mailed me suggesting Nick Saban ought to look at replacing second-year QB John Parker Wilson -- the same guy who was being celebrated just two weeks ago for throwing a game-winning touchdown pass (his fourth of the night) to beat Arkansas.

Mind you, there are plenty of times when a quarterback deserves every bit of the criticism he receives (though I'd be careful not to utter such critiques in the vicinity of Mike Gundy). These are not them. I seriously doubt Booty has forgotten how to play quarterback since the Rose Bowl. He did throw a couple of bad interceptions against the Huskies, but he was hardly the sole reason the game was so close. USC committed 16 penalties, and its already injury-riddled offensive line suffered another casualty (starting guard Chilo Rachal). And while nearly all the Trojans' young receivers were highly touted coming out of high school, none of them are yet playing anywhere near the same level as predecessors Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith. Meanwhile, USC has figured out that its strength on offense this season lies with its running game -- Stafon Johnson and Chauncey Washington combined for 228 yards on 35 carries Saturday night. Booty's production (875 yards through four games) will inevitably suffer, but he's still completed nearly 66 percent of his passes for 10 touchdowns against four picks.

In Wilson's case, I would imagine his newfound critics were particularly riled by one specific game-changing play early in the fourth quarter Saturday. Trailing 7-0 and pinned at his own 8-yard line, a desperate Wilson foolishly tried to scramble and get a pass off on a third-and-15 despite a gang of defenders converging on him. ‘Noles DE Everette Brown wrapped him up from behind and forced a fumble that set up an easy second touchdown for FSU. It was a bad play by Wilson, no question, but this was also the most imposing defense the Tide have faced to date, and it turns out Nick Saban might not yet have the personnel up front to counter it. If I were a 'Bama fan, I'd be much more dismayed by my team's inability to run the ball (89 yards on 27 attempts) than Wilson's 28-of-53, 240-yard, two-touchdown performance. "When you can't run the football and get a block," said Saban, "that's not the quarterback's fault." Tell that to the message-board folks.

4) That there are signs of life from the ACC. Florida State's victory over the SEC's Crimson Tide was significant not only for Bobby Bowden's program but for its oft-maligned conference. And that wasn't the only feather in the ACC's cap Saturday. Maryland, widely expected to finish in the middle of the pack at best (especially following a lopsided loss to West Virginia and a complete collapse last week at Wake Forest) went on the road and stunned a top-10 Rutgers team. The Terps' victory -- in which they piled up 458 yards against a Scarlet Knights defense that ranked fourth in the country last season -- was so rousing it even caused television's most transparent Terps homer, Scott Van Pelt, to give a "helmet sticker" to the entire Maryland team on ESPN's late-night wrap-up show.

Elsewhere in the ACC on Saturday, surprise 4-1 team Virginia cast its own stone at the Big East with a 44-14 shellacking of Pittsburgh (conversely, Louisville handled N.C. State 29-10), while Georgia Tech showed it's not about to go quietly into the night by shutting down No. 13 Clemson. The league's one big disappointment continues to be offensively inept Virginia Tech, which mustered just 17 points against a bad North Carolina team. (South Florida put up 37 on the Tar Heels just a week earlier.) The Hokies came into the season as the conference's runaway favorite, but now that would appear to be 5-0 Boston College, with any number of other teams -- FSU, Maryland, Clemson, Georgia Tech, Wake and Virginia among them -- capable as well.

5) That if ever there was a year to delay the first polls until Oct. 1, this would be it. Before the season, I argued in the pages of Sports Illustrated that while preseason polls will always exist, be it on the Internet or in the pages of SI, Athlon or Street and Smith's, it would behoove the AP and coaches to delay the release of their first editions until at least a month into the season. The reality is, in the BCS era, there is a whole lot riding on what used to be just-for-fun exercises. There's simply no way to legitimately handicap a field of rosters that change dramatically from one season to the next -- and the 2007 season in particular has demonstrated that dramatically. While there will always be preseason "flops" and "surprises," and while even the very best teams in the country are vulnerable to an upset or two in conference play, never before has there been this much upheaval this early. We'd barely even gotten a chance to decipher the national hierarchy before the Auburns and Colorados of the world went out and blew it up.

As a result, never have I had a harder time filling out my weekly AP ballot than I did this weekend. What I ended up doing is something we should probably all start doing around this time every season: Throwing out my previous ballot and starting from scratch. As a result, some teams moved up or down from last week more dramatically than others despite similar results; the first batch of two-loss teams (Auburn and Colorado) made their entry several weeks earlier than usual (while another, Arkansas, got tossed out after having remained in last week); and comparative records (i.e. a 5-0 team vs. a 4-1 or 3-2 team) carried less weight than the presence or absence of impressive victories and/or the quality of opponents to whom they lost. The result was this extreme-makeover edition (which I will explain in further detail when my Power Rankings are published Tuesday). I'm sure nearly every single one of you will disagree with at least something in there, and that's perfectly fine with me. It's just one man's opinion, to which everyone's entitled. Besides, anyone who tries tells you he's definitively figured out this season's pecking order is either highly deluded or a visitor from the future.
posted by Stewart Mandel | View comments | Add a comment
9/30/2007 12:57:00 AM

Saturday Observations Part IV

Oakland Arena
Will Muschamp (left), Patrick Lee and Auburn had reason to celebrate after giving Florida its first home loss under Urban Meyer.
Doug Benc/Getty Images
From Appalachian State beating Michigan to Colorado beating Oklahoma, from Notre Dame starting 0-5 to South Florida emerging as a national title contender, the cliché “anything is possible” has become anything but a cliché this season -- and we’ve still got more than two months of games to go.

Auburn went into Gainesville a 20-point underdog Saturday night and came out a 20-17 victor. What does that mean? That Florida was highly overrated? If so, Tennessee (which lost 59-20 to those same Gators) must be really bad. But wait -- the Vols hung tough in Berkeley on opening weekend against the same Cal team that is about to ascend into the top three.

Does it mean Auburn is a lot better than its 2-2 record indicated? Most likely -- but that must mean Mississippi State isn’t all that bad either. So what does that say about LSU, which beat the Bulldogs 45-0?

And what of South Florida? Both the Bulls (which knocked off No. 5 West Virginia on Friday) and Auburn have now beaten top-five foes -- but South Florida also beat Auburn. Is there another team in the country with two more impressive victories?

You can wrack your brain all you want trying to figure out what all these interlocking pieces truly mean -- but I wouldn’t advise it. I know because I’ve been trying to do that very thing for the last several hours while re-working my now-meaningless AP Top 25 ballot (I ended up starting over from scratch), and there’s simply no logical way to tie all these seemingly contradictory events into a pretty little bow. Let's focus on a less complicated attempt at analysis: How Auburn beat Florida.

It’s pretty simple, really. The Tigers uncovered what many had secretly suspected: That Tim Tebow is in fact human. It’s not that the Gators’ sophomore QB had a bad game. Far from it. The problem is Florida has become almost entirely dependent on him, and a one-trick pony offense doesn’t work against a defense as stout as Auburn’s. The Gators notched 312 yards of offense Saturday night; Tebow accounted for 276 of that.

Because Urban Meyer still has no confidence in his tailbacks (Kesthan Moore carried three times for just 7 yards) he’s once again relying on Tebow to be his top runner. Only unlike Ole Miss last week, Auburn’s defense didn’t part like the Red Sea on Tebow’s account. On the contrary, the Tigers held him to 3 yards or less on 11 of his first 14 carries. He finally got rolling in the fourth quarter only after Auburn’s top defender, Quentin Groves, went out with an injury.

It’s not like we haven’t seen this before. Florida managed to go 13-1 and win a national title last season using Tebow as a battering ram in place of a competent tailback. Many of the Gators’ wins were every bit as ugly as their performance Saturday night. The difference is, Florida’ defense was absolutely dominant last year. This year’s younger unit is susceptible to the pass, which is how Auburn QB Brandon Cox was able to pick apart the Gators in the first half en route to the Tigers’ two touchdowns.

All of which leads to an inescapable conclusion: Florida is in really big trouble next week at LSU. The Tigers’ defense is even more dominant than Auburn’s, and Matt Flynn’s receivers are a big step up from Cox’s. That said, Florida also lost to Auburn last year ... and went on to win the national title. Meyer and offensive coordinator Dan Mullen will almost certainly figure out a way to lighten the load on Tebow and make the offense more dynamic -- maybe not by next week, but in time to salvage their season.

Which is exactly what Auburn did for itself Saturday night. Once left for dead, the Tigers are right back in the thick of things in the SEC West. LSU is the odds-on favorite to win that division, but it will be interesting to see how things shake out among Auburn, Arkansas, Alabama and visibly improved Mississippi State and Ole Miss.

On a weekend in which almost everything we thought we knew about this young college football season went up in smoke, you couldn’t ask for a more improbable ending than a true freshman kicker hitting a game-winning 43-yard field goal -- twice -- in one of the nation’s most hostile stadiums. Two weeks ago, Wes Byrum and his teammates walked off the field to boos and their own stadium; Saturday night, he ran off the field at the Swamp doing the Gator chomp.

How quickly fortunes change in this sport.

• No. 1 USC endured its own "scare" Saturday night at Washington -- but not really.

Yes, the final score was just 27-24, but the Trojans controlled the game for the most part, outgaining the Huskies 460-190. They did their best to keep Washington in the game thanks to two first-half turnovers that led to two Huskies touchdowns (including a 54-yard return of a John David Booty interception) as well as a staggering 16 penalties. Stafon Johnson and Chauncey Washington once again ran the ball at will, and Booty and Patrick Turner (six catches, 87 yards) connected on several big plays.

If you’re a Trojans fan, however, you have three reasons to be concerned right now: Injuries (guard Chilo Rachal joined center Kris O’Dowd and cornerback Shareece Wright – who himself was replacing the injured Cary Harris – on the sideline Saturday); the lack of a second dependable receiver after Turner; and Cal/Oregon/Arizona State. The Trojans, which have to play all three of those ranked teams on the road, are clearly far from invincible, and both the Bears and Ducks sure looked good Saturday.

• Lost in the shuffle of all these upsets was a significant victory for Florida State. It’s not just that the ‘Noles beat a ranked Alabama team; it’s that they may have finally found a quarterback in the process. After watching the offense struggle yet again during a scoreless first half (while the defense dominated the Tide’s offense just as it did Colorado’s two weeks ago), coordinator Jimbo Fisher sent his first call of the season to Xavier Lee -- and the offense immediately seemed to wake up.

The more mobile Lee finished with 283 total yards and threw for two touchdowns in the 21-14 victory. This isn’t the first time Lee has given ‘Noles fans reason for hope -- but this was also a far more impressive performance than any in the past. With a defense like FSU’s, Lee doesn’t need to be Charlie Ward to win games -- he just needs to help move the chains with more regularity than has been the case for the ‘Noles the past few years.
posted by Stewart Mandel | View comments | Add a comment
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