— With three weekends remaining in college football's regular season, you must work especially hard to avoid the Cam Newton theories or everyone's bowl projections. But we will toss out five more topics to consider before diving into a playbook full of BCS storylines:
1. Upon further review
Back in August, when we were all geniuses, there were many certainties about this season. Let's look back at how we got them all so wrong.
— Alabama was the unstoppable team.
Yes, yes, we remember now. How could we have forgotten? There are no unstoppable teams.
The Crimson Tide, the nearly unanimous No. 1-ranked team in the preseason, had some issues. Nine defensive starters needed to be replaced. The schedule was rugged, including five opponents that came off a bye week to face Alabama. And there was the always difficult task of repeating.
Even though the Tide had the returning Heisman Trophy winner (Mark Ingram) and another back just as good (Trent Richardson), even though they had a quarterback that simply refused to lose (Greg McElroy), even though there were talented recruits to plug into any gaping holes, it still didn’t work.
Historically, it rarely does.
There are too many potholes and pitfalls facing any team daring to repeat as college football's national champion, particularly in a rugged league such as the SEC.
Alabama (8-2) ran into one team that played a flawless game (South Carolina 35, Alabama 21 on Oct. 9) and another that continued to live a charmed life (LSU 24, Alabama 21 on Nov. 6).
The repeat dreams were gone.
Who figured that Alabama's resounding 31-6 smashing of Florida on Oct. 2 would be rendered largely irrelevant?
— Florida would be just fine without Mr. Tebow.
Yeah, nice try.
Tim Tebow really was a once-in-a-lifetime type of talent, with his skill-set fitting perfectly into Urban Meyer's offensive scheme.
John Brantley, good soldier, waited his turn and the opportunity was his to seize. It simply didn't mesh. Amid injuries and defections, the Gators were horrifyingly short on playmakers. Brantley never seemed comfortable in the offense, or maybe the offense never fit Brantley's strengths.
The Gators (6-4) suffered their first three-game losing streak since 1988. Still with a face-saving shot at winning the SEC East, they were thrashed at home by South Carolina (and former Gators coach Steve Spurrier) 36-14.
Florida had plenty of problems this season, but the biggest was everyone's assumption that the train could run just fine without Tebow.
— Miami's defense would make it class of the ACC (and maybe a national-title contender).
It never happened. The Hurricanes aren't back (again). There was an early season trip to Ohio State (the Buckeyes won 36-24), but Miami moved on with its mulligan. Then came a 45-17 home loss against Florida State (when the Seminoles rushed for 298 yards) and a 24-19 road defeat against Virginia (when the Cavaliers rushed for 185 yards). There was also a narrow escape (Miami 26, Maryland 20).
Could it be that many of the Miami defensive recruits were simply overrated?
Unless Virginia Tech (8-2) completely falls apart, the Hurricanes (7-3) will fail to win the ACC title for the seventh straight season. It's almost comical to remember the talk about Miami dominating the ACC when the league expanded in 2004.
— Oregon's Pac-10 title hopes would be severely compromised by Jeremiah Masoli's dismissal.
When Masoli left the program (after mounting legal issues) and landed at Ole Miss, the Ducks were seemingly dropped to "best of the rest" status. Check that. They are the best, period.
Darron Thomas, the sophomore quarterback, has been a marvel. Thomas is completing 61.2 percent of his passes for 23 touchdowns and six interceptions. He has rushed for 434 yards (and a 5.6-yard average). But mostly, he has smartly directed one of the best offenses we have seen in recent college football history.
— Let's not quibble over details, Texas will be Texas.
Oops. The Longhorns, who were in last season's BCS Championship Game, are 4-6 and losers in six of their last seven games.
Sign of the times: Texas has a must-win game Saturday against … Florida Atlantic.
Mack Brown has led Texas and North Carolina teams to 20 consecutive winning seasons, the longest active streak among Football Bowl Subdivision coaches. But the Longhorns must defeat Florida Atlantic and Texas A&M (7-3) just to reach a minor bowl, where a victory would be needed to preserve Brown's streak.
You could look to the obvious — Colt McCoy's absence — for an explanation of Texas' plight. Sure enough, McCoy was one of the best quarterbacks and leaders in Texas history. But it has been more of a team meltdown, something we haven’t seen from Texas since the John Mackovic era.
Texas looks like what it really is — a last-place program.
Meanwhile, far from America's consciousness, Nebraska (9-1) continues to plow through the Big 12. The Cornhuskers made it look ridiculously easy against Kansas, winning 20-3 while limiting the Jayhawks to 87 total yards and five first downs in Coach Turner Gill's return to Lincoln.
Nebraska must still be kicking itself over the 20-13 home loss against Texas on Oct. 16. Last season's final-play defeat against the Longhorns in the Big 12 title game cost Nebraska a BCS bowl bid. This season's defeat against the Longhorns might cost Nebraska a shot at the national championship.
We will know more about Nebraska following Saturday's trip to Texas A&M. For now, the Cornhuskers are still among the nation's eight one-loss teams in the FBS.
Here's how I rank them:
3. Big East outrage
Well, you can see this one coming.
The Big East Conference will have a so-so team in a BCS bowl, while there will be a flurry of one-loss teams (and maybe even an unbeaten team) left out.
You can place all the Big East teams in a barrel, shake it up, dump it out, and who could identify the pecking order? South Florida coach Skip Holtz compared the league to NASCAR, saying, "Everybody has the same engine — it's who does the best job of driving it that weekend."
It's too early to call, but Syracuse (7-3, 4-2) finishes its conference season Saturday against Connecticut (5-4, 2-2). Pittsburgh (5-4, 3-1) goes to South Florida (6-3, 3-2).
You have to believe that this season's Backyard Brawl on Nov. 26 — West Virginia (6-3, 2-2) at Pittsburgh — will have a major bearing on deciding the conference championship.
Regardless of how it shakes down, it's going to look awfully weird for the Big East champion to go big-time bowling (probably in the Fiesta Bowl against the Big 12 winner). Unlikely to happen, but it would be particularly strange if an undefeated Boise State team — or one-loss teams Stanford or LSU — must settle for a smaller bowl.
Syracuse is the highest-ranked Big East team in the BCS standings (37th) and the league could be the first to send a non-top-25 team to a BCS bowl.
Those are the rules.
It's a flawed system, but we already knew that.
4. Gamecock Nation
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier was priceless following his team's 36-14 road stomping of Florida to win the SEC East division title.
"God smiled on the Gamecocks tonight,"’ said Spurrier, who used that expression countless times during his 12-season coaching tenure at his alma mater Florida, but with the term "Gators" as the main subject.
Spurrier renamed Florida Field as the "Swamp" in the early 1990s and often said he wanted it to be an intimidating place where "only Gators come out alive."
"Sometimes, Gamecocks come out alive," Spurrier said after his postgame news conference.
Arriving back home at Williams-Brice Stadium after 1 a.m., the Gamecocks were welcomed by thousands of cheering fans. South Carolina has won only one conference title in its football history (ACC in 1969). Even though this was just a division title, Spurrier was clear.
"We're celebrating tonight!" he said. "We had 7,500 fans (at Florida), sold all of our tickets. And when the game was over, those were the only ones who were left."
Sure enough, when South Carolina made it a three-score game, Gators fans left the stadium like it was a fire drill.
Now it's the larger question for South Carolina (7-3 with Troy and Clemson remaining before the Dec. 4 SEC Championship Game date against Auburn). Is this an aberration or the start of something much bigger?
Florida is suddenly in disarray. Georgia has regressed. Who knows when Tennessee can again approach championship level?
South Carolina already looks like an SEC East favorite for 2011. The Gamecocks will return a trio of offensive skill-position stars: quarterback Stephen Garcia, running back Marcus Lattimore and wide receiver Alshon Jeffery.
Some were wondering how much Spurrier, 65, had left in the tank. After beating the Gators, he might be supremely motivated to keep going.
5. Fields of dreams
Let's close with two games that will not have any bearing on the national championship but are two delicious matchups:
Notre Dame (5-5) vs. Army (6-4) and Illinois (5-5) vs. Northwestern (7-3).
Notre Dame-Army is at Yankee Stadium. The Fighting Irish and Black Knights have a 22-game history there, including Knute Rockne's "Win One for the Gipper"’ speech in 1928 (when Notre Dame upset unbeaten Army 12-6) and the fabled 0-0 tie of 1946, when No. 1 Army and No. 2 Notre Dame met in the "Game of the Century."
Illinois-Northwestern is at Wrigley Field. It's the first football game there since 1970 (when the NFL's Bears last called it home) and the first college football game there since 1938 (the classic DePaul-St. Louis matchup).
Illinois and Northwestern last played at Wrigley in 1923 when the locals were grumbling that it had been 15 long years since the Cubs won the World Series.
College football. Yankee Stadium. Wrigley Field.
Love it. Love it. Love it.