Each Sunday, our staff of college football experts will offer thoughts on things they learned over the weekend.
South Carolina could win the SEC championship. Ever since joining the SEC, South Carolina has been treated like a fifth wheel. But the Gamecocks' 35-21 victory over No. 1 Alabama demands respect. The maturation of QB Stephen Garcia, the running of freshman RB Marcus Lattimore, the big-play ability of WR Alshon Jeffery and Ellis Johnson's defense make this South Carolina team a true threat. The Gamecocks still have a ways to go and have to prove they can win when other teams are gunning for them. But they obviously have the talent to legitimately challenge for a championship.
Denard Robinson can be contained. The Michigan quarterback had been the most explosive player in the nation through the first five weeks of the season, but he was merely OK in a 34-17 loss to Michigan State. He passed for more than 200 yards and rushed for 86 -- solid numbers -- but he threw two interceptions in the red zone. Michigan State's defense was the best Robinson had faced and it showed. A good defensive team kept him in check. Other players must step up for Michigan as the Wolverines play stronger competition.
Michigan could be in trouble. Michigan's 34-17 loss to Michigan State may be the beginning of the end for the Wolverines after a 5-0 start. Michigan very well could lose the rest of its games. Next up is a visit from Iowa followed by a trip to Penn State. There also is a home game vs. Wisconsin and a visit to Ohio State. Even games with Illinois and Purdue -- teams that have beaten Michigan each of the last two years -- are perilous. Best-case scenario, the Wolverines finish 7-5 without a win over either of their rivals. Will that be good enough for Rich Rodriguez to keep his job?
Missouri may be a real factor in the Big 12 North. Everyone has been quick to anoint Nebraska as the winner of the division. But the Tigers are nation's quietest 5-0 team following a 26-0 muffling of Colorado, Missouri's most impressive victory to date. The next four games will tell us about Mizzou: at Texas A&M, vs. Oklahoma, at Nebraska and at Texas Tech. If the defense continues to play well (No. 4 in the Big 12 at 318.6 ypg), Missouri could end up ruining the Huskers' farewell tour through the Big 12 by winning the North.
Some of the pressure may be off Ron Zook. So far, Zook's teams at Illinois have been Rose Bowl or bust. This team won't go to the Rose Bowl, but it won't go bust, either. Earlier this season, Illinois led Missouri in the fourth quarter and trailed Ohio State by only four points in the final period. On Saturday, the Illini didn't give Penn State any opportunity to claw back. Illinois had its best game of the year in a 33-13 rout of the Nittany Lions. Running back Mikel LeShoure was productive as usual, and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase (14-of-19 for 153 yards passing, 64 yards rushing) had his best game of the season. Illinois has fooled us with strong performances before, but this season, it seems more believable. At 3-2, Illinois has a great chance to get to six wins with Indiana, Purdue and Minnesota at home. If Illinois can steal a road game from Michigan, Northwestern and/or Fresno State, Illinois could guarantee itself a winning season.
We haven't heard the last of Oregon State and Stanford in the Pac-10 race. Oregon is in the driver's seat for the Pac-10 title, but Saturday proved we shouldn't hand the Ducks a spot in the Rose Bowl (or BCS championship game, for that matter) just yet. I'm not too concerned with the Ducks despite a closer-than-it-looks 43-23 victory over Washington State. Part of that was because of a letdown from the Stanford game and part was injuries to quarterback Darron Thomas and running back Kenjon Barner. Still, the rest of the league will have a say in the race. Despite starting 1-2 overall, Oregon State is 2-0 in the Pac-10 with a gutty win over Arizona on Saturday. Once the calendar turns to October, Oregon State is a different team. That trend might be challenged now that James Rodgers (knee) may be out for the season. In the same game, at least, the Beavers discovered Markus Wheaton as a potential replacement. Stanford has to root for an Oregon loss, but its winning drive to beat USC has to be respected. The Trojans marched down the field for the go-ahead touchdown. With help from a Chris Galippo personal foul, Stanford matter of factly got into position for the winning field goal in just more than a minute. The Pac-10 race will be worth watching every step of the way.
Florida State is the best team in Florida. Jimbo Fisher's team has some issues, but not nearly the issues faced by Florida or Miami. FSU is fresh off a thumping of Miami that puts the Seminoles in great shape in the ACC race; they should cruise to the Atlantic Division title and play for the league crown in Fisher's first season. The defense has made huge strides under new coordinator Mark Stoops, and the rushing attack has been excellent other than in the debacle at Oklahoma. That loss to OU shows that FSU isn't necessarily a top-10 team, but after a long run of mediocrity, a potential 10- or 11-win season should make Seminoles fans mighty happy.
The SEC West race is going to be a monster. Alabama's loss to South Carolina on Saturday means the SEC West race suddenly has a ton of intrigue. Basically, there's a showdown game each week the rest of the way. It starts this Saturday, with Arkansas traveling to Auburn. The Hogs face a must-win situation because a two-loss Arkansas team will not win the division if the losses are to Alabama and Auburn. That also will serve as a huge game in the Heisman race, with Arkansas QB Ryan Mallett dueling Auburn QB Cameron Newton. On Oct. 23, it's LSU at Auburn. On Oct. 30, it'll be Auburn at Ole Miss. On Nov. 6, Nick Saban and Alabama visit LSU in front of what potentially could be the most raucous crowd in Tiger Stadium history; Arkansas is at South Carolina on that day, too. Nov. 13 is rather calm, while Ole Miss is at LSU on Nov. 20. Then, on the final regular-season weekend, Auburn is at Alabama and LSU plays Arkansas in Little Rock.
Cameron Newton can respond to adversity. After Auburn blew a 17-point lead against Kentucky, Newton made sure the Tigers remained unbeaten. Auburn started its final drive at its 7 with 7:22 remaining. Newton calmly drove the Tigers down the field -- converting three third-down situations along the way -- to set up Wes Byrum's winning 24-yard field goal in the final play of a 37-34 victory. Newton gained 408 total yards (210 passing, 198 rushing) and ran for four touchdowns Saturday, but it was his leadership on that final drive that made the biggest impression.
Boise State isn't the only BCS buster worth watching. Basically all the attention surrounding programs from outside the six major conferences has focused on Boise State's national title bid, but TCU and Utah quietly are proving they also merit attention. TCU is ranked only one spot behind Boise State and just blanked Wyoming 45-0 for its second consecutive shutout. Utah also remained unbeaten with a 68-27 blowout of Iowa State. If TCU and Utah maintain this pace while other unbeaten teams keep falling, the winner of their Nov. 6 showdown in Salt Lake City could argue it deserves consideration for a spot in the BCS title game.