Each Sunday, our staff of college football experts will offer thoughts on things they learned over the weekend.
Oregon will challenge for the Pac-10 championship. Three weeks ago, the outlook for Oregon looked bleak. The Ducks lost their season opener to Boise State 19-8, the offensive line appeared chaotic and the passing game was in shambles. Oh, yeah, and leading returning rusher LeGarrette Blount was dismissed from the team. The Ducks' prospects didn't appear much better a week later after they escaped with a 38-36 victory over Purdue. But then the Ducks beat Utah. Saturday, Oregon made a huge statement with a 42-3 victory over sixth-ranked California. QB Jeremiah Masoli passed for 253 yards and three touchdowns. Once again, the Ducks must be viewed as a force with which to be reckoned in the Pac-10. And if the Ducks don't fade, Chip Kelly will have to be considered for coach of the year honors for keeping his team from unraveling early.
Houston would contend in the Big 12 South. When the Southwest Conference dissolved back in 1995 and four of its teams left for the Big 12, Houston was left looking for a conference. The Cougars eventually landed in Conference USA, but languished in mediocrity for years. The Cougars are not mediocre anymore. In fact, they would be serious contenders in the Big 12 South. The Cougars followed up a 45-35 upset of No. 5 Oklahoma State by posting a 29-28 victory over Texas Tech on Saturday. QB Case Keenum, who raised his profile in the Heisman race, led the Cougars on a late scoring drive as the Cougars improved their record to 3-0 overall … and 2-0 in the Big 12 South.
Alabama should be No. 1. You'd be hard-pressed to find a squad with more impressive wins than the Tide's victories over Virginia Tech and Arkansas. Alabama's defense has been as good as advertised, especially in holding the Hogs to seven points. And the special teams also have excelled, as expected. But it's the play of the offense that has surprised. QB Greg McElroy has been a star, showing savvy in the pocket and underrated physical skills. Who is going to beat this team in the regular season? No one. Let's just hope Alabama meets Florida in the SEC title game for a second year in a row in what would shape up as the best matchup of the season.
The Pac-10 race will be wild and wooly. USC and California were the preseason favorites, but each already has a league loss. They play each other this Saturday, with the loser likely out of the running. Don't forget about Oregon, which has rebounded to win three in a row since a brutal season-opening loss at Boise State. The Ducks are coming off an impressive 42-3 rout of Cal. And how about Stanford? The Cardinal are the lone league team with a 2-0 Pac-10 mark, already beating Washington State and Washington.
Iowa is a Big Ten contender. That sounds too simplistic for a team that just beat the conference favorite on the road by 11, but it's too early to call anyone a Big Ten front-runner. The Hawkeyes have as good a case as anyone. Iowa's defense and special teams are the real deal, holding Penn State to fewer than 300 total yards and 100 rushing yards as the Hawkeyes scored 14 non-offensive points. Why is Iowa not the favorite? First, the offense is a work in progress. The run offense is fine with the combination of Adam Robinson and Brandon Wegher, but Ricky Stanzi threw two interceptions and was just 11-of-26 in the air. The schedule is daunting, with road trips to Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State. Iowa's not a national title contender, but the Hawkeyes proved they have what it takes to return to the top of the Big Ten.
Beyond the top three, the polls are a mess - and the top three aren't invincible, either. OK, pollsters, pencil Florida, Texas and Alabama into the top three in whatever order. Then what? Do you have the nerve to put Boise State up there, or Houston or Cincinnati, for that matter? What about LSU, which came within inches of losing to Mississippi State on Saturday? Is it time to start moving Virginia Tech and Oklahoma back up the rankings? Good luck with that. I'm glad I don't have a ballot. The top three look good, but Texas and Florida aren't perfect, either. Until clobbering UTEP, Colt McCoy has been a slow starter. Tim Tebow's concussion makes things difficult for Florida. Voters need to get ready for a long season. Filling out those ballots isn't going to get any easier.
TCU might be the best non-Big Six team - but the Horned Frogs also have the toughest remaining schedule. Boise State garnered much national attention for its season-opening victory over Oregon, which looks more impressive now in light of the Ducks beating Utah and California in back-to-back weeks. And Houston deserves all of the attention it is getting after winning at Oklahoma State, then nipping Texas Tech at home. For some reason, though, TCU lags behind on the attention meter - and it's probably because the Horned Frogs' offense isn't as explosive as Boise's or Houston's. But their defense is better than the Broncos' or Cougars'. Still, it may not matter. TCU still has games left with BYU, Utah and Air Force. Boise's toughest game? Probably Tulsa or Louisiana Tech. Houston's toughest game? Either a trip to Mississippi State or a home game against Southern Miss. It's going to be tougher for Gary Patterson and TCU to remain unbeaten than it will be for Boise or Houston. Indeed, it would be a shocker if Boise doesn't finish 13-0 against its weak schedule.
Arkansas QB Ryan Mallett still has a ways to go. Mallett was hailed as a potential All-SEC pick after he carved up Georgia's secondary to the tune of 408 yards and five TDs last week. Well, it was a different story this weekend. Facing a real, live defense for the first time this season, Mallett looked mighty, mighty mediocre, going 12-of-35 for 160 yards, with one TD and one pick, against Alabama. Obviously, Alabama's defense is one of the best in the nation. But his performance against the Tide showed that Mallett - and Arkansas' offense - has some work to do.
Virginia Tech is the class of the ACC. When you're a two-time defending conference champion and you're an underdog at home against a league rival, you deserve to have a chip on your shoulder. And Virginia Tech certainly played as if it had something to prove Saturday in a 31-7 rout of Miami. The Hurricanes were anointed by the media as the ACC's team to beat after knocking off Georgia Tech and a Florida State squad that may have been vastly overrated, but Virginia Tech showed Saturday why it was the overwhelming preseason pick to win the conference. A run defense that couldn't stop Alabama's Mark Ingram or Nebraska's Roy Helu held Miami to 1.9 yards per carry. Facing a significant pass rush for the first time all season, Miami's Jacory Harris finally started to look like a first-year starting quarterback instead of a Heisman candidate. Miami clearly has taken a giant step forward this season, but the Hurricanes still have a long way to go before they can end Virginia Tech's reign atop the ACC.
USF will do just fine without Matt Grothe. USF lost the face of its program last week when Grothe went down with a career-ending torn anterior cruciate ligament, but the Bulls won't have to worry about getting diminished results from the quarterback position the rest of the season. If redshirt freshman B.J. Daniels keeps playing the way he did Saturday, he might even represent an upgrade. Daniels, a Tallahassee (Fla.) Lincoln graduate, returned to his hometown and delivered arguably the biggest win in USF history in his first career start. Daniels was just 8-for-21 through the air, but his eight completions produced 215 yards. And he also ran for 124 yards - nearly seven times Florida State's combined rushing total of 18 yards. Daniels was a four-star prospect from Tallahassee, yet Florida State didn't offer him a scholarship. If he couldn't join the Seminoles, Daniels figured he'd beat them instead.