A long, five-Saturday September is over, so it’s time to pause for a moment to take stock of the national college football picture as we head into the meat of the season in October.
(All stats through Oct. 2.)
Five National Championship Contenders
1. Alabama. Alabama is going to go undefeated in the regular season, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. It was news when the Crimson Tide actually trailed Ole Miss last Saturday, but that lasted all of 15 seconds. Nick Saban’s defense ranks No. 1 in points allowed, No. 2 in yards allowed, No. 3 against the pass and No. 4 against the run. Perhaps LSU can still pull it together and knock off the Tide in Baton Rouge on Nov. 3 … but probably not. Saban has built a machine on defense, and he found a perfect fit to manage games in quarterback A.J. McCarron.
2. Oregon. In half of their games every year, the Ducks seem to toy with an opponent, making it think an upset is possible in the first half. Then they shift into high gear, and the result is another 50-plus points and another blowout win. Last year, an opening-week loss to LSU derailed early talk of an undefeated season. This year, the Ducks avoided that fate by playing Arkansas State, Fresno State, Tennessee Tech, Arizona and Washington State in the first month. Things don’t really get tough until November, but a trip to USC doesn’t look as daunting as it did a few weeks ago. Oregon can run the table and take its best shot at the Crimson Tide defense in a battle of contrasting styles.
3. Florida State. The Seminoles passed their big test against Clemson and now must fight through a series of trap games, riding an elite defense and emerging backfield led by quarterback E.J. Manuel and running back Chris Thompson. A trip to Miami in a few weeks isn’t exactly a gimme, and they’ll end the season with two of three at Virginia Tech and against Florida. One loss isn’t going to cut it, but if Florida State goes undefeated, get ready for endless FSU-Oregon debates.
4. Whoever survives to win the Big 12. Kansas State, Texas, West Virginia, TCU and Texas Tech -- half the conference -- are all still undefeated. Here’s betting that, at most, only one will be undefeated by the end of October, and none by the end of November. There is no Alabama-like standout. A one-loss Big 12 team would have a good chance of reaching the championship game only if Oregon and Florida State both lose. West Virginia and Texas are the best bets.
5. Someone in the SEC not named Alabama. What looked like a toss-up between Alabama and LSU suddenly looks like a sure thing for the Crimson Tide -- and then a four-team race for the league’s second BCS bid. The SEC West will come down to Bama’s trip to Baton Rouge on Nov. 3. The SEC East will come down to a series of games between South Carolina, Georgia and Florida this month, plus, LSU’s games against the Gamecocks and Gators. Alabama and Georgia are in the best position because they don’t play cross-divisional heavyweights until the conference title game.
Five Heisman Favorites
1. Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia. WVU’s lack of a defense probably won’t allow it to go undefeated and reach the national title game, but Smith still has a clear path to the Heisman if the Mountaineers win at least 10 games. Obviously, he has the numbers -- 1,728 yards in four games, 20 touchdowns, zero interceptions, an 83 percent completion rate -- and the move to the Big 12 gives him several high-profile games, including a prime-time trip to Texas on Saturday.
2. E.J. Manuel, QB, Florida State. Manuel is finally breaking out as a senior, and he already has one signature game, throwing for 380 yards and rushing for 102 against Clemson. His numbers in the other four games have been pedestrian, but he’ll be a frontrunner almost by default if the Seminoles go undefeated. A senior quarterback who plays well in big games for a title contender gets an automatic seat in New York, and he still has high-profile games against Miami, Virginia Tech and Florida (and, in all likelihood, the ACC championship).
3. Collin Klein, QB, Kansas State. I hate to do it, I’m sorry, but … yes, the guy looks like Tim Tebow -- the college version -- as a runner. Bill Snyder’s Wildcats keep winning, and, as long as they do that, Klein will be near the forefront of Heisman discussion. Kansas State ranks 14th nationally in rushing, and Klein’s a big reason; he racked up 289 yards and five touchdowns in four games. Snyder would be wise to try to reduce the wear and tear on Klein a little bit, but keep an eye on him if he gets the ball in the red zone, considering he rushed for 27 touchdowns last year. Plus, we’ve seen in the past that transcendent passing isn’t necessarily a requirement for Heisman-winning Big 12 QBs.
4. Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State. It seems unlikely that a team ineligible for the postseason will produce a Heisman winner -- Matt Barkley didn’t even get invited to New York last year -- but with the lack of a clear candidate on the nation’s No. 1 team and the fact that Miller is the centerpiece of a team that could win 11 or so games, he has a chance. His passing is decent enough, and he ranks 13th in the country in rushing. Throw in the presence of Urban Meyer, and Miller is on everyone’s radar.
5. De’Anthony Thomas, RB, Oregon. Although he’s the most explosive player on the most explosive running offense in the country, Thomas’ numbers over the last couple of weeks have been underwhelming, but the signature games that matter most for the Heisman come later. Sharing a backfield with Kenjon Barner will make winning awards difficult, but Thomas is the team’s leading receiver and return man, and he averages an absurd 9.7 yards per carry on his limited touches. Big plays in November against USC, Stanford and Oregon State can vault him near the top of the discussion.
Five September Surprises
1. Oregon State. The Beavers played only three September games (the opener against Nicholls State was postponed), but they already equaled last year’s win total, beating three respectable teams in the process (Wisconsin, and both UCLA and Arizona on the road). QB Sean Mannion leads a good offense, and the run defense is perhaps the most improved unit in the country, shutting down Montee Ball and Johnathan Franklin. Oregon State will stumble at some point, but this is a talented team, and even if the Beavers can’t beat Oregon, the season-ending Civil War looks more interesting than expected.
2. Kansas State. It’s not an exaggeration to call Bill Snyder one of the best coaches in the history of the sport; the historically inept Wildcats have only been relevant under Snyder. They won 10 games last year, and the one-two punch of Klein and John Hubert gives them one of the nation’s best running games, so this year’s 4-0 start shouldn’t be too surprising. While the Wildcats beat Oklahoma, the concern is that they are still not built to play from behind, which could spell trouble against teams like West Virginia and Oklahoma State.
3. Northwestern. The Big Ten race is wide open, and that’s not a good thing. It’s looking like a historically weak season, and it doesn’t help that the best team (Ohio State) is banned from the postseason. If you’re looking for a silver lining, though, the Wildcats have quietly moved into the top 25 with wins over nonconference foes Syracuse, Vanderbilt and Boston College, and an absurd performance from jack-of-all-trades Kain Colter against Indiana last week. Northwestern is the type of team that could win or lose any game.
4. Rutgers. It played one of the weirdest schedules imaginable for a BCS conference team, opening at Tulane and playing only one home game in September, against mighty Howard. But new coach Kyle Flood has the Scarlet Knights at 4-0, with impressive wins at Arkansas and South Florida, thanks to a stingy defense, a promising young tailback in Jawan Jamison and improved play from QB Gary Nova. The Big East is there for the taking, and things don’t get tough until mid-November, when Rutgers plays at Cincinnati, Pitt and at home against Louisville.
5. Notre Dame. The Irish aren't going to go undefeated. In fact, they will probably lose at least two games. But they’ve started out surprisingly strong, going 4-0 (3-0 in the Big Ten), thanks to linebacker Manti Te’o and a dominant defense. The quarterback situation remains unresolved, and the schedule doesn’t let up all year, but Brian Kelly has the Irish heading in the right direction -- probably to a BCS game for the first time since 2006.
Five September Disappointments
1. Arkansas. The Razorbacks are getting attention, but for all the wrong reasons. What looked like a possible dream season last winter has turned into the biggest nightmare in the country. They beat Jacksonville State, then lost to Louisiana-Monroe, Alabama, Rutgers and Texas A&M (58-10!). So begins two-plus months of speculation about John L. Smith’s replacement.
2. Big Ten. One by one, the Big Ten’s eligible teams fell out of the national picture before conference play even began. Michigan was embarrassed by Alabama and committed six turnovers to Notre Dame; Michigan State scored just three points against Notre Dame; Nebraska lost at UCLA; and Wisconsin looked like a shell of its former self in losing to Oregon State and barely escaping Northern Iowa, Utah State and UTEP. Ohio State, after its win over Michigan State, looks like the best team, but it doesn’t matter. The balance of power in college football is usually cyclical, but there’s no end in sight for the Big Ten’s woes.
3. USC. No other team received the offseason hype of USC, dating back to Barkley’s celebratory announcement that he was returning to school to lead the Trojans to a post-sanctions championship. But the Trojans have had issues along the offensive line, getting embarrassed up front by Stanford, and their defense is mediocre. Some thought the Lane Kiffin narrative might change this year. Not quite, though they’ll still probably win 10 games.
4. Virginia Tech. Typically the most consistent program in the country has looked unusually ordinary. Not that the Hokies are immune from bad losses, but they haven’t done anything impressive and have dropped two of their last three to Big East teams Pitt (which lost to Youngstown State) and Cincinnati. History tells us that the Virginia Tech could regroup, and it doesn’t have a conference loss yet, but the ACC’s balance of power has shifted from the Coastal to Florida State and Clemson in the Atlantic. The Hokies might fail to win 10 games for the first time since 2003.
5. Oklahoma. While not all hope is lost, the Sooners have been unimpressive after receiving a lofty No. 4 preseason ranking. They’ve played only three games, barely winning at UTEP, beating Florida A&M in a meaningless game and scoring only 19 points in a home loss to Kansas State. Oklahoma can still win nine or 10 games, but this doesn’t look like a Big 12 championship team in a competitive league.
Five BCS Bowl Projections
1. BCS National Championship: Alabama vs. Oregon
2. Rose Bowl: Nebraska vs. USC
3. Sugar Bowl: South Carolina vs. Texas
4. Orange Bowl: Florida State vs. Louisville
5. Fiesta Bowl: West Virginia vs. Notre Dame