Until further notice, the race for the national championship game in Pasadena revolves exclusively around Texas, Florida and USC. All three teams playing conference games on national or regional TV this week, so fans will get plenty of chances to watch them and start the debate going on their merits. None of three should be seriously in danger of losing, and Saturday—particularly for Texas and Florida—will be about making their first appearance for a broad audience and setting the table for the rest of the season.
One of last season’s signature moments came in the Texas Tech-Texas game on November 1. Michael Crabtree hauled in a Graham Harrell pass, broke free from a Longhorn defender and scored the winning touchdown pass with one second left. If that play goes the other way, it’s Texas, not Oklahoma, getting a chance to play Florida for the crown. Payback time is Saturday night on ABC. Texas will be at home. Their road trip to Wyoming provided a little bit of tuneup. And the Red Raiders have lost the key people who forged not only that upset, but their own impressive 11-1 campaign. It all adds up to a perfect stage for Colt McCoy to launch his Heisman campaign. He’s averaged over 300 yards a game in the first two outings. The UT offense lit up a good Texas Tech team last year on the road, scoring 38 points in that defeat. There’s no reason to think they won’t light up a mediocre one this year at home. After this game comes two pretty easy home dates, and then it’s time for OU in Dallas on October 17, a game for which Bradford is likely back to start. That kickstarts a challenging three-week run that includes road trips to Oklahoma State and Missouri. Mack Brown’s team can’t afford a slipup prior to that stretch and it won’t happen here.
USC visits Washington, a game that’s attracted considerable intrigue because of the coaching situation. New Huskie coach Steve Sarkisian was the Trojan offensive coordinator prior to this gig, and the speculation is that he’ll enjoy an advantage, in terms of knowing USC’s system and the weaknesses of its players. That’s so much media hype. Now Sarkisian has certainly improved what was a horrible team last year. The Huskies were respectable in a Week 1 loss to LSU. And the Trojans are certainly not above an emotional letdown in a game they should have. But if it was that easy to beat a team by knowing its system, former assistants would be upending their mentors left and right, and schools would rush to hire the lieutenants at their archrival. That doesn’t happen. USC may be a little flat after the big win at Ohio State, but they kick it in gear in time to coast away with no problem. USC gets its next real test in two weeks at Cal, with the road trip to Notre Dame two weeks after that.
Finally we come to defending champion Florida. It would seem to be impossible for the Gators, who have won four straight in this rivalry to be the ones who have the bulletin board material on their side. But new Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin came to town mouthing off about Urban Meyer essentially being an NCAA outlaw. Between Florida’s talent edge, the recent record in this series, the Volunteer loss to UCLA last week and the way Kiffin has stoke UF’s fires, the oddsmakers have made Florida a 28-point favorite. Did anyone ever think we’d see the day when a program like Tennessee’s—the national champion in 1998 and consistent contender for the BCS, would ever get four touchdowns from anyone? Because of his mouth, Kiffin’s on a very short leash and last week showed his team is not ready to back it up. Tim Tebow makes his case for a second Heisman in three years to the CBS audience (3:30 ET) in an easy Florida win. The only question is whether they cover that number and that all depends whether Meyer decides to run it up or not. One guess as to whether or not he will. Florida’s first real road test will be October 10 at LSU. They avoid both Ole Miss and Alabama on the regular season schedule.
There’s another key SEC game going on at night, in the conference’s now-traditional 7:45 ET ESPN spot. Georgia visits Arkansas. This is a must-win game for the Bulldogs, who have aspirations of playing in a major bowl game even if they can’t beat out Florida in the East Division. The Dawgs put on an impressive offensive display in beating South Carolina 41-37 last week. But let’s not forget that last year’s Georgia team displayed similar fireworks—notably in a 52-38 track meet win over LSU—and was still remembered as a disappointment. Teams don’t reach serious national heights without playing defense and Georgia has got to get serious on this side of the ball. Arkansas doesn’t have Steve Spurrier orchestrating its attack—they have Bobby Petrino instead. But their sophomore quarterback Ryan Mallet is better then Spurrier’s soph Stephen Garcia. I believe in Georgia’s ability to control the game enough to think they’ll win here, but winning an SEC game on the road requires more defensive effort then they’ve shown thus far.
This whole week is kind of segueway week in college football. There’s a smattering of conference games going on now, highlighted by the ones discussed in this piece. But it’s still mostly a non-conference week. That changes next week, when most leagues pick up full-tilt. By then we should have formulated some clear opinions on which leagues deserve the most credit when it comes to one-loss teams vying for a national title or for at-large BCS berths. Because after that, those conferences are mostly playing amongst themselves. With that in mind, the Notebook will be back Sunday night to start sizing up that landscape.