While Alabama and Ohio State remain constants, holdovers at the top of the polls from the past few seasons, their brethren have fallen and others have risen to take their place. Sure, Texas and Florida and Oklahoma are unbeaten, but they’ve each revealed themselves to be shells of what they were in recent years, much more vulnerable than in the past. Meanwhile, Nebraska and Arkansas and South Carolina are creeping higher.
It’s a time of change.
Days are rapidly getting shorter. There’s a bite to the morning air that didn’t exist just a few weeks ago. There’s even a hint of red and orange mixed in with green in wooded landscapes.
It happens every year, the onset of fall.
In college football, this is a season of change. While Alabama and Ohio State remain constants, holdovers at the top of the polls from the past few seasons, their brethren have fallen and others have risen to take their place. Sure, Texas and Florida and Oklahoma are unbeaten, but they’ve each revealed themselves to be shells of what they were in recent years, much more vulnerable than in the past.
Meanwhile, Nebraska and Arkansas and South Carolina are creeping higher.
Nowhere, however, is the change more pronounced that out west in the Pac-10, where once-dominant USC has been surpassed by not merely one team but perhaps plenty, and the conference is being turned upside down.
The men of Troy may be undefeated, but they haven’t looked particularly good in any of their three games, allowing 36 points to Hawaii, barely hanging on at home to beat Virginia and then struggling against a Minnesota team that lost to South Dakota.
This is not that USC team that won 34 straight games from 2003 through 2005 - many of the victories since vacated due to Reggie Bush’s ineligibility. This is a team that might start 5-0 thanks to an easy opening schedule, but then lose six consecutive games once it meets the chalk of the Pac-10.
Oregon is obvious. The Ducks are no surprise, a perennial contender since rising from nothing in the mid-1990s that might be the best team in the country this year. They were expected to represent the Pac-10 in the Rose Bowl - USC is ineligible for postseason play, again stemming from Bush’s time at the school - and three games have revealed they’re better than advertised, leading the nation in both offense (scoring and yardage) and defense (scoring and yardage).
But the probability is that it won’t be USC that challenges Oregon. Instead, Stanford and Arizona are the Ducks biggest challengers - with Oregon State, Arizona State and Cal-Berkeley also solid - and evidence of just how much this season is different than others.
Just four years ago, Jim Harbaugh arrived in Palo Alto, the brash new coach of the Cardinal who caused a stir by claiming USC’s Pete Carroll would lead the Trojans just one more year - it turned out to be three - and then went out and pulled off one of the great upsets in the history of college football when his 41-point underdogs beat the Trojans 24-23 on a last-second touchdown.
The Cardinal was 1-11 in 2006, the year before Harbaugh’s arrival, and won just four games his first year. Last year they were 8-4 - including a 52-21 demolition of USC - and this year they’re 3-0. Unlike the Trojans, Stanford’s undefeated start includes three impressive performances. Led by the superb Andrew Luck at quarterback, the Cardinal has scored no fewer than 35 points in any of the wins, including 68 last weekend, and their smallest margin of victory is 35.
“They take pride in getting strong and being a tough football team, and I think we’re working toward that,” said Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh. “Our schedule demands we get ourselves prepared for that because of the teams we play week in week out. It is a fight, it is a sprint, it is not a marathon for us in terms of the opponents we play. Every week we’re in a fight for our lives. ... We’re in the part of the season that will tell the tale.
“Last year we described it as put up or shut up. We’re in that right now.”
Stanford is at Notre Dame on Saturday, then travels up to Eugene for a showdown with the mighty Ducks in one of the games that will determine the outcome of the Pac-10.
Arizona, too, will have a big role in the way the conference race plays out.
The turnaround engineered by coach Mike Stoops has taken longer than the one Harbaugh has executed, but it’s reached same point as Stanford’s at the same time. The Wildcats were 2-9 in 2003, the year before Stoops was hired, and as recently as 2007 were just 5-7. But then came eight wins and a victory over BYU in the Holiday Bowl in 2008 and eight more wins last year.
This year they’re not just 3-0, but late last Saturday got their first signature win under Stoops, recovering after blowing a 20-point lead over Iowa to win on a late touchdown pass from Nick Foles to William Wright to beat the Hawkeyes, who might just win the Big Ten.
Suddenly, the Arizona desert is a lot more foreboding than it’s been in a long time.
“One game is not going to define you,” said Stoops. “It’s the accumulation of all 12 games. Our goals are different than beating just Iowa. That was a one-week goal, just like beating Cal (this week) is another goal. We’re in a good place right now - I think our kids like being where they’re at, but they understand it can go away very quickly.
“You hope they’re mature enough - and our team showed great character and maturity in the fourth quarter. I think they want more of themselves than what we’ve done in the past.”
In this time of change, the Pac-10 is different than it’s been in a long time.
The beast is no longer scary, a shell of its former self. Meanwhile, something special is happening far to the north in the Oregon woods where one of the nation’s best lives. And turnarounds in the desert and Bay Area leave the once-dominant force no better than fourth in the conference it once owned.
What We Learned
Temple, against all odds, is a pretty good football team.
As impressive as the turnarounds at Stanford and Arizona may be under Harbaugh and Stoops, respectively, they’re nothing compared with what Al Golden has done with the Owls.
Temple was a program essentially left for dead during the middle of the last decade. After going 2-9 in 2004 with just one win in the Big East - after a 1-10 season with no conference victories in 2003 - the Owls were dropped from the Big East. They joined the Mid-American Conference in 2005 and promptly went 0-11, allowing more than 60 points three times.
Temple seemed more suited to FCS play than FBS play, simply unable to compete.
Enter Golden, who came to the Owls after five years as the defensive coordinator at Virginia and even now is one of the youngest FBS coaches at 41 years old. It took a few years, but Temple recovered, and is starting to thrive.
The Owls won one game in 2006 - Golden’s first year - but then came four in 2007 and five the next year. Last year, there were nine wins, a loss in the MAC Championship Game and - get this - a bowl game.
The Owls are 3-0 this season. Last Saturday you might have missed it as the cavalcade of scores scrolled by during the highlight shows, but there it was: Temple 30, Connecticut 16.
Connecticut may not have the same cache as Alabama or Notre Dame or Michigan, but UConn is good, and has been for a few years. It’s also a team from the Big East, that conference where Temple was overwhelmed.
“It was a good win, a hard-fought game, a physical game against a real challenging opponent that has a great resume of both bowls and big wins,” Golden said on Monday. “It was a good win for our program.”
Temple will likely get a reality check on Saturday when it plays at Penn State. The Owls haven’t beaten the Nittany Lions in nearly 30 tries while Joe Paterno has been the head coach in Happy Valley, and last year Penn State won 31-6.
“I think the guys understand the challenge that’s in front of us,” said Golden. “They don’t lose very often at home. ... We understand what the odds are here and we’re trying to control the things that we can control.”
Penn State isn’t the game that will make or break Temple’s season. After visiting Army on Oct. 2, the Owls get into the meat of the MAC schedule - they’re 1-0 so far in the conference. And miraculously, after being on life support just five years ago, jettisoned from the Big East, Temple is looking to improve on a nine-win season.
“I think the MAC has been a great fit for Temple and where we were five years ago,” said Golden. “The commitment that we had five years ago when we got here is growing. Our success is growing, and it’s nice to be in a league where you can be competitive.”
Game of the Week
Alabama’s season starts on Saturday.
The No. 1 team in the nation has looked exactly that through three games, none decided by less than three touchdowns. The Crimson Tide beat San Jose State by 45 points to open the season and whipped Duke by 49 last Saturday. In the middle was a 24-3 beating of a Penn State team that’s not quite on par with some of Paterno’s past squads.
On Saturday afternoon, Alabama travels to Arkansas.
The Tide will be on the road for the second time in 2010 - but the first time in a truly hostile stadium since the first road game was the win at Duke - and they’ll be playing a team that’s been strong so far, and might just be ready to get a statement victory. The Razorbacks have already shown they can win in a nasty place, beating Georgia in Athens, and though they lost big to the Crimson Tide early last year they nearly upset Florida in the middle of the season.
Through three games - not much of a sample size given how many teams load up the start of the season with the softest teams they’ll face - Arkansas is third in the nation in passing yardage with quarterback Ryan Mallett and fifth in points-allowed with just 11.3 (Alabama is second in points-against with 6.3).
“It’s going to be loud. It’s going to be a hostile environment,” said Alabama running back Mark Ingram, last year’s Heisman Trophy winner. “They are going to be really rowdy and anxious for us to get up there, so I know the fans are going to be real crazy and real loud.
“We’re just going to have to be more focused on what we’re doing.”
The trip to Arkansas begins a three-game stretch that could tell the tale of Alabama’s season. After leaving Fayetville, the Tide hosts Florida and then visits South Carolina.
But while Alabama is playing to stay on top and in position to win a second straight national championship, Arkansas is playing to get where the Tide already live. It’s been seven years since the Razorbacks started a season 4-0, and they’ve never so much as sniffed a BCS bowl.
That could change this year ... if they beat Alabama.
If I Had a Ballot ...
1. Alabama (3-0): The season will be shaped by the next three weeks.
2. Ohio State (3-0): Three more patsies until a trip to Madison.
3. Oregon (3-0): Saturday night at Arizona State could be an upset special.
4. Boise State (2-0): The Broncos host Oregon State, which sadly represents the second-toughest game on their schedule.
5. Texas (3-0): The offense is still a bit off, but that win at Texas Tech was pretty good.
6. Nebraska (3-0): A 5-0 start is just about guaranteed with South Dakota State and Kansas State next before Texas calls.
7. Oklahoma (3-0): The Sooners have been down, then up, then down. They better get consistent soon with Texas looming after a trip to Cincinnati.
8. TCU (3-0): Looking ahead, the Horned Frogs face very little until a trip to Utah on Nov. 6.
9. Florida (3-0): Beware the trap game - the Gators host Kentucky this week, then are at Alabama next Saturday.
10. Arizona (3-0): If the Wildcats can handle their success, there’s a chance at an 8-0 start before playing at Stanford.
Eric Avidon is a Daily News staff writer. He can be reached at 508-626-3809 or firstname.lastname@example.org.