Each Sunday, our staff of college football experts will offer thoughts on things they learned over the weekend.
Stanford is the best team in the Pac-10 right now. It's hard to believe the Cardinal have come so far so fast. Just three years ago, Stanford managed just one victory. But it's impossible to argue Stanford isn't the best team in the Pac-10 after it exceeded 50 points in back-to-back victories over Oregon and USC. Stanford, which is second in the Pac-10 standings, got 178 rushing yards from RB Toby Gerhart and a strong game from QB Andrew Luck against the Trojans. If Stanford wins it final two regular-season games and its bowl game, it would reach 10 victories. That would equal its win total for the past three seasons combined.
Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads has to be the country's least appreciated coach. In his first season in Ames, Rhoads has the Cyclones bowl eligible after Saturday's 17-10 victory over Colorado. The six wins are more than his predecessor, Gene Chizik, managed in two seasons at Iowa State. Chizik, of course, left to take over as coach at Auburn. Rhoads was defensive coordinator at Auburn before taking over at Iowa State. Six wins might not be cause for celebration in many places, but at Iowa State, it's a big deal. Rhoads deserves recognition for turning around the Cyclones.
This might be Pete Carroll's worst team at USC. Is USC just the fourth-best team in the Pac-10, behind Oregon, Stanford and Arizona? This is Carroll's worst USC squad since his debut season in 2001. Yes, there has been a talent drain off of last year's team, as eight defensive starters had to be replaced. And QB Mark Sanchez turned pro early. But the Trojans' streak of seven Pac-10 titles in a row still figured to continue. Alas, that impressive run has ended. The latest debacle: a 55-21 drubbing at home to Stanford. Just two weeks ago, the Trojans yielded 47 points in a loss at Oregon. In four of the past five games, USC has allowed at least 27 points. The offense hasn't been much better, scoring an aggregate 55 points in the past three games.
June Jones has SMU back. Saturday's 35-31 victory over UTEP makes the Mustangs bowl eligible. SMU hasn't been to a bowl since 1984, when it beat Notre Dame in the Aloha Bowl. Credit Jones, who is in his second season at SMU, which went 1-11 in 2007 and '08. If the Mustangs, 6-4 overall and 5-1 in league play, win their last two games, they will punch their ticket to the C-USA title game. It has been a big year for former Southwest Conference schools left out of the Big 12, with TCU (10-0) and Houston (8-2) enjoying banner seasons along with SMU.
Clemson RB C.J. Spiller can earn a trip to New York. Spiller ran for a touchdown, caught a touchdown pass and threw for a score in Saturday's rout of N.C. State, giving him at least one touchdown in every game this season. Now that everyone is paying more attention to him, he has chances to build his resume against Virginia, South Carolina and - in all likelihood - in the ACC championship game against Georgia Tech. If he performs at this level in those remaining three games, I don't see many excuses to prevent him from being a Heisman finalist - especially after Houston QB Case Keenum probably dropped off a few ballots this week. Spiller's worst game of the season came in the inexplicable loss to lowly Maryland - a game in which he rushed for 72 yards and still returned a kickoff for a TD. I'm not saying he should win the award, but he deserves serious consideration.
The BCS at-large bids are going to be interesting. What will the Sugar, Fiesta and Orange bowls do? Florida, Alabama, Texas, Ohio State, the ACC champion, the Pac-10 champion, the Big East champion and either TCU or Boise State will play in the BCS. That's eight teams for 10 spots. The race for the last two spots will be teams you probably wrote off at some point this season. USC is headed for a second- or maybe even third-tier bowl after losing to Stanford. Miami's slim BCS hopes ended with a loss to North Carolina. I see a few candidates for those last two spots. Two undefeated non-Big Six teams could - and probably should - make it. By taking Ohio State to OT in Columbus, Iowa still may be an attractive team. Oklahoma State was ranked 19th in the BCS going into Saturday and would reach the top 14 if it wins out over Colorado and Oklahoma. Could the Big East get two bids? Could the Cincinnati-Pitt loser get a bid? In any event, there could be a surprise or two in the BCS.
Stanford RB Toby Gerhart deserves more Heisman mention. Gerhart is third nationally in rushing offense (139.5 yards per game) and is the engine that drives Stanford's productive offense. In back-to-back weeks, he put up 223 yards and three touchdowns on Oregon and 178 yards and three touchdowns on USC - a school that recruited him to be a fullback or linebacker. Gerhart has scored 19 touchdowns, and has rushed for 100 yards in eight of the Cardinal's 10 games and twice has rushed for 200 yards. He has seven games with at least two touchdowns and three games with three. Gerhart, at 235 pounds, isn't a prototypical tailback, but he is a bruising runner who could help Stanford finish with 10 wins.
Florida's offense is seriously flawed. The Gators have had two solid offensive games in SEC play, scoring 41 against both Kentucky and Georgia. But in their other six SEC games, they've averaged 23.2 points per game. That's a far cry from their production from last season. Coaches still are tinkering - true freshman left tackle Xavier Nixon made his first college start Saturday at South Carolina and saw, by far, his most extensive playing time all season - but all the tinkering in the world won't replace WRs Percy Harvin and Louis Murphy. The playcalling has been uneven under new coordinator Steve Addazio, and QB Tim Tebow has developed a tendency to hold onto the ball too long - as evidenced by Florida allowing 24 sacks. But the Gators also are unbeaten and finished 8-0 in the SEC for just the second time in school history. When you score 23.2 points per game, that's more than enough when you're allowing just 12 points in conference games. Only two conference foes scored more than 17 points and one of those was Mississippi State, which scored 19 thanks to two interception returns for TDs.
TCU's offense is legit. When you think about TCU, you think defense. But the reason this particular TCU team seems even better than usual is because it has an outstanding offense to go along with its fearsome defense. TCU was ranked eighth in the nation in scoring before its 55-28 triumph over Utah on Saturday, which marked the second consecutive game in which the Horned Frogs have reached the 55-point mark. QB Andy Dalton has taken a giant leap forward this year and is making the same kind of impact on his team that former Utah QB Brian Johnson had on the Utes last season. Ed Wesley, Joseph Turner and Matthew Tucker give the Frogs three dangerous running backs. Utah likely entered this game thinking that if it scored 28 points, it would have an excellent shot at the upset. As it turned out, it got the Utes barely halfway to TCU's point total.
Tony Pike is Cincinnati's best quarterback. Before he got hurt, Pike was a sleeper candidate for the Heisman. But after Zach Collaros replaced an injured Pike and threw eight touchdown passes without an interception in wins over Louisville, Syracuse and Connecticut, we started hearing whispers that Pike wasn't even the best QB on his team. Cincinnati's 24-21 victory over West Virginia on Friday ought to put that talk to rest. Collaros threw for 205 yards with an interception, while Pike came off the sidelines to throw each of the Bearcats' two touchdown passes. Pike could only perform a cameo role because he still isn't at full strength. The Bearcats need him healthy again. Cincinnati has a much better chance of remaining unbeaten if Pike's running the offense against Illinois and Pitt.