NOTE: You can read my column from the Penn State-Ohio State game here.
1. That Texas Tech can beat Texas. By no means is this meant as an indictment against the top-ranked 'Horns, which notched yet another impressive victory over a top-10 foe Saturday against Oklahoma State. However, since before the season even started, I believed next week's UT-Tech game in Lubbock would serve as the long-awaited moment when Mike Leach's team finally asserted itself on the national stage, and the 8-0 Red Raiders have done nothing to change my opinion. If anything, they've looked even stronger than I anticipated.
While star QB Graham Harrell (34-of-42, 386 yards, five TDs, no INTs) and the offense produced their usual heroics in Tech's 63-21 rout at Kansas, take a closer look at the Raiders' defensive numbers. The Jayhawks managed just 315 yards and went scoreless for nearly three full quarters. QB Todd Reesing, who came in with five 300-plus yard games, threw for just 154 yards and three INTs. It's Tech's much-improved defense (third in the Big 12) that separates this team from years past and gives them a fighting chance next week against Colt McCoy and Co.
2. That USC's offense still hasn't turned the corner. It's been three long years since Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush headed off for greener pastures, and the Trojans have yet to come close to replicating their offensive prowess of those early Pete Carroll teams. They certainly appeared on course back when QB Mark Sanchez shredded Ohio State in that 35-3 victory on Sept. 13, and they've had their share of moments since, but performances like Saturday's at Arizona (not to mention the Oregon State loss) keep me from placing full confidence in them.
USC's 17-10 win in Tucson was littered with sloppiness. RB Stafon Johnson had a nice game (83 yards rushing and a 54-yard punt return), but following a 30-yard touchdown pass from Sanchez to Stanley Havili midway through the third quarter, the Trojans never scored again. Four fourth-quarter possessions netted three punts and a missed field-goal. USC's ultra-dominant defense (one touchdown allowed in their past 14 quarters) will keep them in every game, but heaven forbid the defense has an off night (as it did in Corvallis), can you truly count on that offense?
3. That the SEC/defense thing is a myth (this year). Remember when SEC defenses were just so darn tough that it made life miserable for opposing offenses? Saturday in Baton Rouge, Georgia and LSU staged a Big 12-style shootout littered with blown coverages. (The teams combined for 90 points and 940 yards.) Florida treated Kentucky's purportedly respectable defense like a 1990s-era Kentucky defense in a 63-5 win. And Auburn's normally stingy defense spent most of Thursday night watching West Virginia RB Noel Devine race right past them.
It's not that there aren't great defenses in the SEC. South Carolina, Alabama, Florida and Tennessee all rank in the top 15 nationally, with Auburn not far behind. There just aren't as many of them. The deterioration of LSU's previously top-notch unit has been particularly galling, and Georgia's defensive line isn't what it has been in recent seasons. The three best defenses in the country belong to USC, TCU and Florida State, and -- brace yourself -- a Big Ten defense may exceed any in the SEC this year. Penn State held Ohio State to six points Saturday night
4. That Virginia isn't going away. Al Groh's team is quietly staging the most remarkable in-season turnaround in the country. The way the Cavaliers started the year -- losing 52-7 to USC, scoring three first-half points against Richmond, then losing 45-10 to Connecticut and 31-3 to Duke -- it seemed almost certain they were headed to the ACC basement. Losing starting QB (dismissed for an alcohol-related transgression) didn't seem to help their cause any.
Instead, Virginia has gone in the complete opposite direction, rolling off four straight victories -- including Saturday's 24-17 win at No. 21 Georgia Tech -- to move into first place in the ACC's Coastal Division (5-3, 3-1 ACC). Much like last year's 9-4 team, which made a habit of close, last-second victories, the Cavs rallied from a 14-3 deficit to win on a Cedric Peerman touchdown run with 3:29 left. Peerman has gone for 100-plus yards in three of his last four games, and the UVA defense has improved dramatically, allowing 12.5 points per game during the streak.
5. That Revenge of the Nerds is on hold. Just when you thought Vanderbilt and Northwestern were cruising toward bowl berths, the two high-minded schools suddenly returned to being ... Vanderbilt and Northwestern. Since starting 5-0, the Commodores have dropped three straight, including a humbling 10-7 home loss to Duke on Saturday. The 6-2 Wildcats suffered an inexplicable 21-19 loss at Indiana in what was supposed to be their last gimme victory of the season. Making matters worse, RB Tyrell Sutton injured his wrist and will require surgery.
While Vandy's loss has its bowl-starved fans (the Commodores haven't been since 1984) feeling a bad case of déjà vu (they started 4-0 in 2005 only to lose six straight), but even with an anemic offense, they should still beat either or both Tennessee and Kentucky. Meanwhile, Duke's victory was noteworthy in itself. The Blue Devils reached the four-victory mark for the first time since 2003. Note that at 4-3, David Cutcliffe's team has a better record than his last two employers, Tennessee (3-5) and Ole Miss (4-4). Duke may itself be bowl-bound ... in 2009.