PALO ALTO, CA - SEPTEMBER 15: Stepfan Taylor #33 of the Stanford Cardinal jumps over Morgan Breslin #91 of the USC Trojans on his way to scoring a touchdown against the USC Trojans at Stanford Stadium on September 15, 2012 in Palo Alto, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Stanford, Florida, Florida State, and Notre Dame all looked like teams that earned their programs past glory on Saturday. USC? Not so much. Follow @SBNationCFB
Logic said that Stanford's three-game winning streak over USC was going to meet an ugly demise on Saturday. The Cardinal didn't have Andrew Luck, architect of the offenses that beat the Trojans in those three games, nor the NFL-stationed offensive linemen that protected him, nor the coach, Jim Harbaugh, who built Stanford into the Pac-12's smashmouth counter to the flashy Oregon and USC teams that have captured the national imagination. And USC had all the talent in the world. With a 21-14 win on The Farm, Stanford's nasty nerds told logic to go fornicate with itself.
Gus Johnson, calling the game on FOX, compared Stanford to a "F-Ford-150" and USC to a Maserati, and despite the slip, he was mostly right: the Cardinal wrecked Matt Barkley's Heisman campaign and likely sideswiped USC's national title run by crushing the Trojans with a defense that strafed Barkley on blitz after blitz and an offense that ran it down the Trojans' throat. Barkley was sacked five times and completed just 20 of 41 passes, notching his worst completion percentage since his freshman year, and Stepfan Taylor ran for 153 yards and a touchdown, led the Cardinal with five catches, and tallied another 60 yards and a score through the air.
It used to be that USC was both truck and sports car, with a massive line helping Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, and Reggie Bush win three Heisman Trophies in four years, but yielding five sacks to Stanford was perhaps a lesser crime: the Trojans, with 1,000-yard rushers Curtis McNeal and Silas Redd at their disposal, got just 26 rushing yards on 28 carries. Stanford's rush defense is good, certainly, but just last week, Duke managed 27 yards on 23 carries against the Cardinal.
This was probably every bit as much a Stanford win as a USC loss, which says a few things. Stanford is good, very good, as is David Shaw, and the Cardinal might just challenge for the Pac-12 title in the first year of the Josh Nunes (215 yards through the air, 33 yards and one sweet juke on the ground) Era by getting back to what has worked for them lately, years and playing disciplined, unflappable football. USC was overrated on the basis of a collection of incredible offensive skill position players, but has an offensive line and a defense that are about as soft as Owl City. And Oregon's probably going to win the Pac-12 again, with Chip Kelly and Nick Aliotti sure to watch last night's game and adapt Stanford's game plan to their devastating speedsters.
The best pair of wins in college football in 2012? That belongs to Florida. The most impressive set of three wins is unquestionably Florida State's. And so the two teams that starred in a rivalry that helped define a decade of college football are on the front burner once again.
Florida's 37-20 win over Tennessee, which featured 27 points in the second half and a nearly flawless performance from Jeff Driskel in his second career start, seemed like the sort that could catapult Will Muschamp's Gators back from the cold hinterlands of mediocrity and into SEC and national title contention. The Gators don't have the terrifying defense that fans though would eventually materialize under Muschamp just yet, but they have a quarterback who is precocious and improving, a running back in Mike Gillislee who is both a workhorse and a big-play threat, and a temperament suited to second half comebacks, which they have staged in College Station(against a Texas A&M team that looked great in a demolition of SMU) and Knoxville so far.
Florida's scheduling has been so protective under athletic director Jeremy Foley that 2012 was the first season in 20 years that the Gators faced two road games in their first three contests; back then, the Gators lost at Tennessee and Mississippi State in the first two weeks by a combined 61-20 count, but this year's team outscored two SEC teams 37-6 in the second half en route to two wins. Florida's usually spotless Septembers, which have given the Gators seven straight 3-0 starts, don't have the degree of difficulty inherent in hitting the road twice for SEC contests, but the Gators are now the only team in America with two conference wins and two wins over SEC teams, and one of just a handful with two road wins. Florida goes back to feasting on cupcakes next week, when Kentucky comes to town, but the Gators' October gauntlet (LSU, Vanderbilt, South Carolina, and Georgia in the span of four weeks) looks like the Gators' chance to make their move in the SEC rather than a stretch that will have them hitting rock bottom.
That rise of Muschamp's Gators can only infuriate Seminoles fans, who have the nation's most dominant team right now and must hear about how their biggest rival has aced difficult tests. Jimbo Fisher's bunch is putting up A++++ performances, but against scrubs:
#FSU hasn't beaten anybody but they've beaten the shit out of everybody— RaysnNoles (@RodMahoney) September 16, 2012
In a little less than 11 quarters, FSU has eviscerated Murray State, Savannah State, and Wake Forest by a combined 176-3 count. The 'Noles have a 63-0 first quarter advantage, and are gaining more than eight yards per play while allowing about two yards per play on the season, both hallmarks of a team that jumps on foes early and annihilates them. The problem is that the best Florida State opponent is a Wake Forest team with no talent casual fans would know (Michael Campanaro, one of the nation's leading wideouts, was held to two catches for eight yards by the 'Noles), and so Fisher's squad seems like a rampaging horde that has overwhelmed the defenseless. That changes this Saturday, when Florida State welcomes Clemson to Tallahassee in a game that will make or break both teams' seasons.
Whether the Gators and 'Noles are "back" likely depends on what you expect those programs to get "back" to: Florida's been the last two decades' most spectacular program, while Florida State was elite for about 15 consecutive careers. Saturday showed that both teams at least know how to hop on the road to the top.
The question of "IS _______ BACK!?" is never asked so often or so loudly as it does about Notre Dame, though, as the Irish occupy a perch in college football history that leads fans to believe that they won or competed for titles in every year before they were born. Saturday's dominant 20-3 win over Michigan State in East Lansing woke up the echoes of that question again: listen to sports radio in the next few days or devise a way to get tweets read aloud to you and you will literally hear them.
Before dismissing this as the same old ersatz greatness that Notre Dame has specialized in for a decade or so, though, consider this: the last BCS conference team Notre Dame held under 10 points was UCLA in 2007, and that team ended up being one of the rare bowl teams to finish with a losing 6-7 record. Notre Dame hasn't had a great defense in ages, never ranking higher than 30th in total defense in the last five years, but 2012's unit might make a run at it. Anchored by the sublime Manti Te'o, who "had a worse week than most of us could imagine" with the deaths of his grandmother and girlfriend and recorded his 18th career game of 10 or more tackles, the Irish defense gave up just 237 yards to the Spartans, gummed up the running game that Le'Veon Bell has powered, and allowed no plays of more than 23 yards on the night.
That's promising pummeling by the Irish, especially since the offense that Brian Kelly was supposed to be building is still not fully operational. Everett Golson completed just 14 of 32 passes and got his lone passing touchdown on an ill-advised throw that John Goodman turned into six points with a phenomenal catch, signs that the Domers still have work to do when they have the ball. But a road win over a top-10 team is a road win over a top-10 team, and this one sets up another installment of the Notre Dame-Michigan rivalry that has been supremely entertaining of late. Forget waking up the echoes: the Irish could make some noise this year.
The least surprising results on Saturday, though, came from three teams that never have to get back, because they never get away from their dominance: Alabama drilled a listless Arkansas team, 52-0, and LSU and Oregon ran away from Idaho and Tennessee Tech by identical 63-14 counts. That Showdown Saturday in November that features Alabama-LSU and USC-Oregon is a bit diminished by the Trojans' loss, but it should still be a day on which three national championship contenders either belt into the driver's seat for a title game appearance or get thrown from the vehicle.
Check the national college football scoreboard right here, and look through SB Nation's many excellent college football blogs to find your team's community.