Each Monday, our staff of college football experts will offer thoughts on things they learned while on the road - or things to keep an eye on in the coming weeks. Here is this week's edition after taking in the sights and sounds at Boston College, Oregon and Alabama.
Steve Megargee, Rivals.com National Writer
Alabama is back: Alabama's fade down the stretch Saturday most likely will end up costing it the SEC Western Division title, but the Crimson Tide should be making plenty of trips to Atlanta during Nick Saban's tenure. The Tide's ability to turn an early 14-point deficit against LSU into a 10-point advantage showed how far this program has come in Saban's first season. Alabama's starting lineup featured six sophomores and three freshmen, but the Tide didn't appear intimidated by the situation and instead forced a more experienced LSU team into numerous mistakes. Alabama just might have pulled the upset if an offensive line missing two suspended starters hadn't allowed seven sacks. "We need to not be hung over about this game," Saban said after the 41-34 loss. "We need to learn from this game, improve and play better in the future." As long as Saban sticks around, Alabama's future looks bright.
North Carolina State is rebuilding quickly: The guy who helped make Boston College a national-championship contender is performing an equally remarkable rebuilding project at North Carolina State. NC State dropped four of their its five games ? the only win coming over Division I-AA program Wofford ? under new coach Tom O'Brien. The Wolfpack since have won three in a row and have a decent chance at a bowl even though they have trouble running the ball and stopping the run. O'Brien's emphasis on discipline clearly is paying off. The Wolfpack still rank 117th of 120 Division I-A teams in turnover margin, but they've won the turnover battle in back-to-back upsets of Virginia and Miami.
McFadden's back in the Heisman race: By tying an SEC-record with 321 yards in a 48-36 victory over South Carolina, Arkansas TB Darren McFadden at least earned himself a trip to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony. He also may have given himself a realistic shot at winning the prize. McFadden, the 2006 Heisman runner-up, appeared out of contention after gaining just 43 yards on 17 carries in a 10-9 loss to Auburn on Oct. 13. McFadden has rushed for 492 yards and five touchdowns in the three games since while other Heisman contenders (e.g. Matt Ryan, Andre Woodson) have fallen by the wayside. He ranks fourth in the nation in rushing yards per game (148.5) and third in total rushing yards (1,316). Arkansas' relatively disappointing 6-3 record could work against McFadden, but Florida QB Tim Tebow has remained one of the Heisman front-runners even though the Gators also have lost three games.
David Fox, Rivals.com National Writer
The Big Ten and national-championship race again will come down to Ohio State-Michigan. Even with an upset next week, the Big Ten will come down Ohio State and Michigan. It's not the No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup it was last year, but it will impact the national picture nonetheless. The rivals looked as impressive as they have all year in recent weeks. The Buckeyes solidified their place at the top of the BCS standings with a win at Penn State and a gut-check against Wisconsin. Michigan, too, showed some resolve by scoring the final 14 points in a 28-24 win at Michigan State. Neither of their opponents next week are pushovers ? Ohio State plays host to Illinois and Michigan goes to Wisconsin ? but there's an excellent chance Michigan-Ohio State will carry the same weight it always does.
Brian Kelly is more than just an offensive mastermind: Les Miles has company in the crazy coaching department. Cincinnati remains in the Big East title hunt thanks to a rollicking win at USF. In the process, Cincinnati scored 31 first-quarter points, forced eight turnovers and scored touchdowns on an interception return and a recovery of a blocked punt. But the real drama didn't take place until the final 25 seconds. Kelly opted for a fake rather than a 45-yard field goal that would have put Cincinnati up 41-33 with 25 seconds left. The fake failed and USF had a chance for the win. Kelly got out of the game unscathed, but the game was an indication of what we've seen all year from the Bearcats, who are 12th in the nation in scoring despite meager offensive weapons. Cincinnati leads the nation in turnovers forced (34, seven more than anybody else), leads the Big East in turnover margin and is second only to LSU in blood pressure-raising play calls.
USF isn't ready for the big time: USF is playing better football than an in-state rival that actually is located in south Florida, but USF has a long way to go if it is to join Florida's "Big Three." USF has lost three in a row since being ranked No. 2 and has to beat Syracuse this week to avoid falling into last place in the Big East. The close games just aren't going the Bulls' way anymore. USF beat Auburn by three in overtime and West Virginia by eight. Its past three losses have been by one score, too, with USF holding the ball late in the fourth quarter with a chance to score. Miscues in one area each week hold the Bulls back, though. First, it's 10 penalties and poor third-down production against Rutgers. Then it's struggles on third down and in the red zone against Connecticut. Then it's eight turnovers against Cincinnati. USF has only itself to blame if the Bulls play their bowl in Canada.
Mike Huguenin, Rivals.com College Sports Editor
LSU's defense is overrated. We're not saying the Tigers' defense is bad; it's just not near as good as people thought. In six SEC games, LSU has allowed 141 points (23.5 ppg) ? and that includes a shutout of Mississippi State. In their past four games, the Tigers have allowed 24 points to Florida, 43 to Kentucky in three overtimes (UK had 27 in regulation), 24 to Auburn and 34 to Alabama (though one Tide TD was on a punt return). LSU's linebackers are adequate, nothing more, and the pass rush hasn't been quite as consistent as expected.
Oregon's receivers are good enough to win a national title. The Ducks are down to third-stringer and true freshman Aaron Pflugrad at one wide receiver spot because of injuries, but that doesn't matter. Jaison Williams is the go-to guy, and he's a matchup nightmare because of his size (6 feet 5, 240 pounds) and physical nature. TE Ed Dickson (coincidentally, the same size as Williams) is underrated nationally. The best part of the passing attack, though, is that the Ducks are so strong on the ground. Defenses have to worry about QB Dennis Dixon and TB Jonathan Stewart, and when you start to focus on them ? bang ? Dixon makes a nice pass for a big gain.
You, your kid and nine guys from the block can score on Nebraska. The Huskers' defense is pitiful. Actually, it's beyond pitiful. Why wait? Just get rid of the coaching staff now.
Olin Buchanan, Rivals.com Senior National Writer
There is no lingering Les Miles influence in Stillwater: LSU, which is coached by Miles, seemingly has made pulling out last-minute victories a weekly occurrence. Oklahoma State, Miles' former team, did quite the opposite in blowing a 21-point fourth quarter lead in a 38-35 loss to Texas. The Cowboys have been outscored 38-3 in the fourth quarter of their past two losses. Meanwhile, the Longhorns have outscored their past two opponents ? Nebraska and Oklahoma State ? 43-8 in the fourth quarter.
Nebraska's victory over Ball State on Sept. 22 was an upset. That's right. Six weeks ago Ball State was praised for coming up a missed field goal short when falling 41-40 to the Huskers in Lincoln. In retrospect, the Cardinals appear to have stumbled against an inferior team. Nebraska is 1-5 since that game and has allowed an alarming 261 points. That, of course, includes Saturday's landmark 76-39 loss to Kansas ? the most points ever scored against Nebraska. No disrespect to Kansas QB Todd Reesing, who threw a school-record six touchdown passes, but the Huskers' ineptitude overshadowed his brilliance.
Ohio State TB Chris Wells should be a Heisman Trophy contender: Wells demonstrated that he has that kind of ability by rushing for 169 yards and three touchdowns in Ohio State's 38-17 victory over Wisconsin, which kept the Buckeyes on pace for a return to the BCS national-championship game. Wells came through when needed most with all three touchdowns ? two on runs of 30 and 31 yards ? in the second half after Wisconsin had taken a lead. Wells has rushed for 523 yards in his past three games and has 1,165 yards and 10 touchdowns on the season.
Jason King, Yahoo! Sports National Writer
Kansas has an unsung hero: With 23 touchdown passes and only four interceptions, quarterback Todd Reesing is receiving some much-deserved hype for Kansas' 9-0 start. Equal praise, however, should be given to first-year offensive coordinator Ed Warinner for changing the entire complexion ? and fortunes ? of this Jayhawks team. Kansas is racking up eye-popping point totals with many of the same players who struggled for years under the conservative, horizontal passing attack of former coordinator Nick Quartaro. Marcus Henry, Dexton Fields, Brandon McAnderson and Derek Fine are all juniors and seniors who never experienced more than six regular season wins before this fall ? mainly because KU's offensive game plan was terrible. Now, with Warriner calling the shots, the unpredictable and versatile Jayhawks are three wins away from claiming the Big 12 North title.
LSU will play for the national title: Just don't see the Tigers losing the rest of the way ? even in the SEC title game. Most pundits that LSU has the most talented team in the country, and judging by their string of fourth quarter wins, the Tigers also may be the most fortunate. I'd like to see LSU matched up against either Oklahoma or Oregon in the final. Either scenario would seem possible if undefeated Ohio State loses at Michigan on Nov. 17. Oregon and Oklahoma should both win the rest of their regular season games. The Ducks don't have to play a conference title game. The Sooners, meanwhile, will face a tough test from either Missouri or Kansas in the Big 12 Championship Dec. 1 in San Antonio.
Mike Gundy should be fired: The Cowboys have too much talent to be underachieving in the fashion that they are. For the fourth time in the last five years, Oklahoma State coughed up a lead against Texas. This time it happened when the Longhorns scored 24 unanswered points in the fourth quarter of a 38-35 win over the Cowboys ? in Stillwater. The Cowboys, who were also blown out by Troy, are currently 5-4 and could finish 6-6 if they lose to Kansas and Oklahoma and defeat Baylor. That's flat-out inexcusable during a time when millions are spent on facilities and other program upgrades. Oklahoma State can afford a better coach than Gundy. And, please, if he does get the boot, don't shed any tears. He can take it. He's a man. He's 40.
Gerry Ahern, Yahoo! Sports Senior Editor
Hart should be part of Heisman discussion: Michigan senior running back Mike Hart is a study in toughness and determination. Despite missing two games with an ankle injury, Hart is the second-leading rusher in the Big Ten at 1,188 yards and has 12 touchdowns. He leads the conference in rushing average (148.5). He came up with table-setting runs of 31 and 37 yards Saturday in the Wolverines' 28-24 comeback win over Michigan State. Hart, hobbling all day Saturday, admitted afterward that he probably came back from the injury a week too early. That didn't stop him from piling up 110 yards, 97 in the first half, and making a fumble recovery that kept this team in the game. Big games against Wisconsin and Ohio State over the next two weeks could raise his profile with voters.
Manningham can be a game breaker: After his 129-yard, two-touchdown performance in the win over Michigan State, Mario Manningham eluded reporters. He did the same to the Spartans' secondary on the game-winning score, shedding the cornerback with a stutter square out and making an acrobatic catch in the right corner of the end zone for a 31-yard TD on third-and 11. It was the kind of play most have expected more of from the talented junior. Afterward, coach Lloyd Carr indicated his receiver has been frustrated in the past by not getting the ball when he was open. But Carr said Manningham has learned to play through the frustration. If that is the case, expect big things from him the next two weeks against the Badgers and Buckeyes.
How low can they go? Forget for a moment that Notre Dame saw its 43-game domination over Navy end with a 46-44 triple-overtime loss Saturday. The Fighting Irish have lost five consecutive home games. That's the first time ND has lost five home games in a season, let alone in a row. Hugh Devore, Terry Brennan, Joe Kuharich and Gerry Faust didn't manage that. Could Air Force and Duke add to the woes? Stay tuned.