The Essay Question

The 2012 college football season has been remarkable. In any other year, we'd be drowning in Notre Dame hype by now. A few early-season wins for the Fighting Irish can turn the college football world upside down, and inspire over-the-top Sports Illustrated covers. It's a great American tradition to overhype Notre Dame in September, then watch the Irish suffer a couple dreadful losses and get shellacked in a bowl game where they don't even belong.

Then this season happened. Notre Dame has methodically piled up the wins, many of them close. There was 20-17 over Purdue, 20-3 over Michigan State, 13-6 over Michigan, 20-13 over Stanford and 17-14 over BYU, plus blowouts of Miami and Navy. They were a bunch of solid wins, but nothing that proved Notre Dame was actually a national title contender. The Fighting Irish have gotten plenty of attention, of course, but they still entered the weekend ranked No. 5, behind undefeated Alabama, Florida, Kansas State and Oregon.

That's right: undefeated Kansas State ranked ahead of undefeated Notre Dame in late October. As it should have been, yes, but still a rarity.

Well, perhaps we should be taking Notre Dame seriously. It's good that everyone has learned their lesson and been cautious with the Irish, who have lingering questions about a freshman quarterback, an inconsistent offense and the aforementioned slew of narrow victories. Was Oklahoma an elite team? No, not quite. But to go into Norman -- as double-digit underdogs, amazingly -- and win 30-13, well, what more do the Irish have to do? Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood give them a solid running game. Everett Golson held on to the ball against a good defense. And the defense kept performing at an elite level. Yes, Landry Jones threw for 356 yards, but he needed 51 attempts to do it; the Irish completely took away the Oklahoma running game, holding the Sooners to 15 yards on 24 carries. Manti Te'o has been spectacular as the centerpiece, and he's gotten plenty of help from a fantastic defensive line.

So now we're left with one month. Four of the of the five lesser undefeateds (Rutgers, Oregon State, Mississippi State and Ohio) fell by the wayside this weekend -- leaving only Louisville in that category -- and Florida lost to Georgia, meaning that there are now four breakaway national title contenders: Alabama, Oregon, Kansas State and Notre Dame. Last week, I mistakenly left Notre Dame on the rung below the other three. But it's clear that the Irish belong on the top tier, with three winnable games (Pitt, Boston College, Wake Forest) before finishing the regular season at USC.

As we saw on Saturday, undefeated teams can drop in a hurry, and often when we least expect it. For all we know, Notre Dame will lose to Pitt, or Oregon will lose to USC, or Alabama will lose to LSU, or Kansas State will lose to TCU. We all know to expect the unexpected. But what if all four make it the rest of the way unscathed? The four-team playoff isn't here yet. Like it or not, we're stuck with two.

We've been cautious with Notre Dame, asked the right questions. But now another question lingers as a possibility over the next month, one that seems unthinkable: What if the Irish go undefeated and don't get a title shot?

Lessons Learned

The SEC East belongs to Georgia. Always remember to look at the schedule. Heading into the season, the Bulldogs held a clear advantage in the SEC East in one area: cross-division games. In the new-look SEC, teams play only two of their eight conference games against the other division. Florida had to play LSU and Texas A&M. South Carolina had to play LSU and Arkansas. Georgia had to play Auburn and Ole Miss. Yes, Florida won both its games. No, Arkansas isn't very good. But still, Georgia had the cleanest path to the SEC title game, and all it has to do is sweep its games against the West to punch its ticket to Atlanta. That's the case despite a 35-7 embarrassment at South Carolina a few weeks ago, because the Gamecocks lost to LSU and Florida, and Georgia put together a dominant defensive performance to win the Cocktail Party against Florida on Saturday. Aaron Murray played poorly, but it didn't matter, because Todd Gurley ran for 118 yards, and the defense did it all, keeping Florida out of the end zone and forcing six turnovers. That's the Georgia defense we expected to see heading into the season, and Jarvis Jones reminded everyone just how good he is by recording 13 tackles, 4½ tackles for loss, three sacks, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.

Oregon is not going to lose. The Ducks saved their toughest work for last, as three of their four November games are against USC, Stanford and Oregon State. They're still going to run the table, though. The Trojans put up mammoth offensive numbers on Saturday at Arizona (493 yards for QB Matt Barkley, 16 catches for 345 yards for Marqise Lee), but they lost 39-36 anyway, ending any change Barkley had at capturing a national title as a senior. Stanford is decent but can't out-score Oregon. Then there's Oregon State, which finally saw its unbeaten run come to an end on Saturday night at Washington. The Beavers have been a great story, already doubling their 2011 victory total with several solid wins, but they turned the ball over four times in a 20-17 loss to Washington. All these teams are significantly flawed. Oregon is not. The Marcus Mariota/Kenjon Barner/De'Anthony Thomas offense is too fast and too explosive, and the defense has yet to look like a major liability.

Football can be a cruel, cruel game. Marcus Lattimore went to South Carolina as one of the biggest recruits in program history: a five-star prospect, the nation's top running back. In three seasons, he's now given both knees to the program. I'm not going to link to a video or photos of the injury; trust me, you don't want to watch it. But Lattimore suffered one of the most devastating leg injuries you'll ever see on a football field during Saturday's win against Tennessee, marking the second straight season the junior has seen his season end in October because of a serious knee injury. Last year, he tore ligaments in his left knee. On Saturday, he severely tore up his right knee, prompting both teams to come out and offer well-wishes as he was carted off. It was a devastating scene, and a harsh reminder that the career trajectory of a star football player can be altered in an instant.

History is on Boise State's side. For years, the polls were biased against the Broncos because of their position in the WAC (and now the Mountain West) and their lack of history, even after they started beating major opponent after major opponent. However, Boise State has finally built up enough of a reputation that it may back its way into a BCS bid, despite earning no high-profile wins. Replacing many of their key players, including QB Kellen Moore, the Broncos dropped their opener at Michigan State, but they haven't lost since, most recently beating a hapless Wyoming team 45-14. They could still be challenged by San Diego State and in the season finale at Nevada (we've seen that before), but if they run the table, they'll probably return to the BCS after back-to-back Las Vegas Bowl trips. They were 21st in the BCS heading into the weekend, and to automatically qualify for a BCS game, they need to finish in the top 16 and ahead of one of the automatic qualifiers from a major conference. After Ohio lost to Miami (Ohio) on Saturday, there are no more undefeated BCS buster teams to compete with, and there's a good chance that the Broncos will finish ranked higher than the Big Ten (and maybe even the Big East) champion, largely because of its reputation in the minds of voters. Boise State getting too much credit, Notre Dame getting too little … where are we?

The Big East is still the Big East. Midway through the season, the Big East had three undefeated teams. It was declared better than the ACC, and in the minds of some, the Big Ten. Well, undefeated Cincinnati lost to Toledo last week. And this Saturday, undefeated Rutgers lost 35-23 at home against Kent State, tying the season series between the MAC and Big East at four wins each. Rutgers played an incredibly sloppy game, turning the ball over seven times (six Gary Nova interceptions), and while Louisville is still unbeaten after Friday night's dramatic win over Cincinnati, the conference once again feels like the one that people joke about ad nauseam. One of these teams gets an automatic BCS bid, though, and Rutgers and Louisville remain unbeaten in conference play and could decide the league title in their Nov. 29 meeting in Piscataway. My guess is Syracuse, which is actually 3-1 in conference play, will end Louisville's run in a couple weeks, then Louisville will beat Rutgers, and the top of the league race will be an exciting mess -- which is what we've come to love and expect out of this misfit conference.

Grading the Rest of the Weekend

A+: Alabama and Kansas State 
It's somewhat scary how methodically Nick Saban's club is able to dismantle opponents. This week's victim? Previously unbeaten Mississippi State, which didn't score until garbage time. Alabama won 38-7, holding the Bulldogs to 256 yards and forcing three turnovers. A.J. McCarron still hasn't thrown an interception this season. The Tide might win the Iron Bowl by 60.

As for Kansas State? It's equally scary how methodically Bill Snyder's club is able to dismantle opponents. After a slow start, falling behind 10-3 until midway through the second quarter, the Wildcats woke up and blew out No. 14 Texas Tech, winning 55-24. Another four total touchdowns for Collin Klein, another three takeaways, another good all-around win.

A: Ohio State 
Heading into the game, Penn State's offense -- amazingly -- appeared capable of taking it to Ohio State's shaky back seven. But in a sold-out Beaver Stadium, the Buckeyes pulled their defense together and knocked the Nittany Lions out of sync, winning 35-23. Matt McGloin ended up throwing for 327 yards, but the Penn State offense never found a rhythm, as Ohio State controlled the line of scrimmage and disrupted McGloin with well-timed blitzes. The Buckeyes are now 9-0 with Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan left on the schedule.

A-: Oklahoma State 
Aside from a 41-36 loss to Texas, Oklahoma State has flown under the radar this season, but the Cowboys moved to 5-2 (3-1 in the conference) on Saturday, picking up an impressive 36-14 win over TCU despite falling behind 14-0. Wes Lunt returned to the starting lineup and threw for 324 yards, while Joseph Randle kept rolling with 126 yards on the ground. He has rushed for 100 yards in all but one game. The Cowboys will be the next team to take a shot at unbeaten Kansas State next week in Manhattan as part of a brutal four-game stretch that also includes West Virginia, Texas Tech and Oklahoma.

B+: Florida State 
The Seminoles lost four fumbles and still won 48-7 against Duke. Yes, Duke is bowl eligible, but the Blue Devils still haven't ever beaten the Seminoles and don't appear capable of doing it anytime soon. The dominant Florida State defense rendered the Duke offense helpless.

Arizona State doesn't have a notable win this year, but it was still important for UCLA to beat a competent opponent on the road after inexplicably getting blown out at Cal a few weeks ago. In a 45-43 shootout, UCLA blew a nine-point lead in the fourth quarter but won on a 33-yard Ka'imi Fairbairn field goal as time expired to stay in the Pac-12 South race. Brett Hundley threw four touchdown passes, and September star Johnathan Franklin got rolling again with 164 rushing yards and two TDs.

B-: The Service Academies 
Air Force and Navy get "A" grades this weekend. Unfortunately, Army brings the grade down with another loss, this time to Ball State. But after a rough start that included blowout losses to Notre Dame and Penn State and a shutout loss against San Jose State, Navy is on track for a bowl bid, moving to 5-3 with a 56-28 win over East Carolina in which the Midshipmen had 12 players run the ball 69 times for 512 yards and six touchdowns. Air Force also got closer to bowl eligibility on Friday, moving to 4-1 in the conference with a 48-31 win over Nevada. The Falcons rushed 82 times for 461 yards and four touchdowns.

C+: Boston College
Let's give Boston College credit for beating its first FBS team before November. But let's not give the Eagles too much credit, because they finished with eight rushing yards as a team, and the win was 20-17 over Maryland.

C: Stanford
Beating Washington State by only a touchdown isn't something to be proud of, but aside from a 50-13 win over Duke, this is how Stanford wins football games. The Cardinal beat San Jose State by three, USC by seven, Arizona by six, California by 17 and now Washington State by seven. Stepfan Taylor was held to just 58 yards, and Washington State QB Jeff Tuel completed 41 passes for 401 yards, so there's plenty to question. Of course, the Stanford run defense held the Cougars to -16 yards on the ground, so maybe it all balances out.

C-: Texas
OK, the grade is quite generous. The Longhorns needed a one-yard Case McCoy (David Ash got benched after throwing for 63 yards and two interceptions) touchdown pass with 12 seconds left to beat Kansas 21-17. It would have been a devastating loss for Mack Brown, and even in a win it was one of the most uninspiring efforts you'll ever see out of Texas.

D+: Michigan's offense
The Wolverines haven't scored a touchdown since a 45-0 win at Illinois on Oct. 13. They kicked four field goals to beat Michigan State, then managed only three field goals in a 23-9 loss at Nebraska. To make things worse, Michigan lost Denard Robinson to an arm injury in the first half. Thankfully, he's expected to be OK, especially after freshman backup Russell Bellomy went 3-of-16 for 38 yards with three interceptions as Nebraska took first place in the Legends Division.

D: The Big Ten Leaders Division
Ohio State? Undefeated but ineligible. Penn State? Ineligible. That leaves Wisconsin, Indiana, Purdue and Illinois battling for the Leaders crown, which means Wisconsin wins by default, even after losing 16-13 to Michigan State on Saturday and also possibly losing QB Joel Stave. After almost beating Ohio State, Purdue was blown out by Minnesota to remain winless in the Big Ten. And Illinois also remained winless in the league, losing by two touchdowns to an Indiana team that had three conference wins in the last four seasons.

F: Southern Miss
Just how much did Larry Fedora mean to Southern Miss? The Eagles had consistently been a solid mid-major program, finishing above .500 in 18 straight seasons under Fedora and Jeff Bower. That success was capped by a 12-2 season last year, which resulted in Fedora leaving for North Carolina. Now, after an embarrassing 44-13 loss to Rice, the Eagles are 0-8 in 2012 under former South Carolina defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, making them one of only two winless teams, along with FBS newcomer UMass.

Incomplete: Team that played Colorado
It's pretty remarkable that Colorado beat Washington State to pick up a win at all this season. In this week's beatdown, Oregon did what Oregon does, going up 42-0 within the game's first 19 minutes. The Ducks put up 617 total yards, with 425 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground. Also, De'Anthony Thomas did this on a punt return.

Auburn: Auburn
Auburn's magical misery tour rolled on back at Jordan-Hare Stadium, as the Tigers never stood a chance in a 63-21 loss to Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M. The Aggies went up 42-7 at halftime, Manziel had five total touchdowns and Texas A&M out-gained Auburn 671 to 335. Auburn is now 1-7 (0-6 in the SEC) and is out of the bowl picture. Gene Chizik's record without Cam Newton: 22-36.

Honor Roll

Giovani Bernard, RB, North Carolina: Bernard delivered a big blow to N.C. State's ACC Atlantic title hopes. The Tar Heels overcame a 35-25 fourth-quarter deficit, with the winning touchdown coming on a dramatic 74-yard Bernard punt return with 13 seconds left. Oh, Bernard also ran 23 times for 135 yards and two touchdowns and caught eight passes for 95 yards. He has 717 rushing yards in his last four games.

Jarvis Jones, LB, Georgia: Worth repeating from before: Jones had 13 tackles, 4½ tackles for loss, three sacks, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries to help end Florida's undefeated season in a big rivalry game.

Jordan Lynch, QB, Northern Illinois: Can we call Lynch the Collin Klein of the MAC? In a 48-34 win over Western Michigan, Lynch threw for 274 yards and four touchdowns and ran for 136 yards and two touchdowns. He has 13 touchdown passes and 13 touchdown runs this season.

Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson: Tigers teams of the past probably would have found a way to lose at Wake Forest on a Thursday night, but instead Clemson cruised to a 42-13 win behind the playmaking of Watkins and QB Tajh Boyd (who threw for 428 yards and five touchdowns). Watkins hadn't been much of a factor this year thanks to a suspension and health problems, but he finally broke out again with eight catches for 202 yards and a touchdown.

Dri Archer Touchdown Report

OK, he may have scored only one touchdown on Saturday (his 16th of the season), but this report continues for another week for a few reasons. One, Kent State beat undefeated Rutgers on the road. Two, Archer scored a TD (he finished with 18 carries for 79 yards and two catches for 36 yards) against what had been the nation's No. 3 scoring defense. Three, he still found a new way to score, with a seven-yard TD run in a different uniform number after his first jersey was torn off earlier in the game.

Archer's touchdowns in 2012:

Towson: 15-yard run, 98-yard kick return, 18-yard run
Kentucky: 47-yard run
Buffalo: 11-yard run
Ball State: 99-yard kick return, 23-yard catch, 33-yard catch
Eastern Michigan: 5-yard catch, 98-yard kick return, 64-yard run
Army: 24-yard pass, 87-yard run
Western Michigan: 22-yard run, 10-yard run
Rutgers: 7-yard run

Student of the Year

If I had a Heisman ballot …

1. Collin Klein, QB, Kansas State: A lot can happen in the next month, but Klein is clearly in the driver's seat. The Wildcats are undefeated, and Klein has totaled a ridiculous 11 touchdowns in the last two weeks in blowout wins over West Virginia and Texas Tech. For the season, Klein has 12 passing touchdowns (vs. two interceptions) and 16 rushing touchdowns.

2. Manti Te'o, LB, Notre Dame: Another 11 tackles, plus two tackles for loss, one sack and a key interception. The heart and soul of Notre Dame's undefeated team led another great effort in what was the defining win of the team's season at Oklahoma.

3. Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State: After getting knocked out of last week's game against Purdue, Miller returned to the field and looked 100 percent in a solid win at Penn State. He struggled as a passer and threw for only 143 yards, but that included a 72-yard TD to put the game out of reach, and he again led the ground attack with 25 carries for 134 yards and two TDs.

Bowl Eligibility Tracker

There are 35 bowls, which means 70 bowl spots. The last thing we want is for college football to come up short, forcing it to dip into the pool of sub-.500 teams. Eligible teams (six wins) as of Oct. 27:

40*: Alabama, Ball State, Boise State, Bowling Green, Clemson, Duke, Florida, Florida State, Fresno State, Georgia, Kansas State, Kent State, LSU, Louisiana-Monroe, Louisiana Tech, Louisville, Mississippi State, Nebraska, Nevada, Northern Illinois, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Ohio, Oregon, Oregon State, Rutgers, San Jose State, South Carolina, Stanford, Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Toledo, Tulsa, UCF, UCLA, USC, Utah State, Western Kentucky, Wisconsin

*Ohio State and North Carolina are ineligible for postseason play.

BCS Exams

Ranking the remaining games based on national championship implications:

1. Alabama at LSU, Nov. 3
2. Oregon at USC, Nov. 3
3. Notre Dame at USC, Nov. 24
4. Oklahoma State at Kansas State, Nov. 3
5. Texas A&M at Alabama, Nov. 10

On the Syllabus for Week 10

It's finally here. No, Nov. 3 doesn't look quite as enormous as it did in August, when we thought the top four teams might be squaring off. But Alabama at LSU and Oregon at USC remain two enormous games that will help shape the 2012 national title race. Get your remote ready or get an extra TV, because both games are in prime time. As for the other undefeated teams, Notre Dame hosts Pitt, Kansas State hosts Oklahoma State in another interesting game, Louisville hosts Temple and ineligible Ohio State hosts Illinois.