Each Sunday, our staff of college football experts will offer thoughts on things they learned over the weekend.
Florida has the most explosive offense in the nation. There are tremendous offensive units in Texas, Oklahoma and Missouri, but Florida's is the most explosive. Perhaps that was already assumed or suspected, but it was proven in a 56-6 thrashing of South Carolina - whose defense ranked among the nation's best. The balanced Gators had eight players account for offensive plays that covered at least 21 yards and rolled up 519 yards of offense against the Gamecocks. It was fifth consecutive game in which the Gators scored at least 42 points. That's not uncommon in the Big 12, but Florida has done it against better defensive teams than Big 12 teams face.
Florida State still is having quarterback issues. Inadequate quarterback play has plagued the Seminoles in recent seasons, but it seemed they'd made progress. Sophomore Christian Ponder had performed reasonably well in the second half of the season. Ponder doesn't put up huge numbers, but at least he hadn't been a liability. But in a 27-17 loss to Boston College he completed fewer than half his passes with three interceptions and no touchdowns.
The ACC and Big East don't deserve BCS bids. It's a shame the champions from the Big East and ACC will get BCS bids. Cincinnati? Pitt? West Virginia? I'm sorry, I am not buying the notion any of these Big East squads is the peer of the third-place team in the Big 12 South or even would be the third-best team in either division of the SEC. Ditto for Miami, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia Tech or any other team in a bumbling ACC race that seemingly nobody wants to win. If the college football world was just, BCS bids would be doled out based on the BCS standings - not automatically given to champions from weak conferences.
Alabama is a throwback. Is Alabama the most talented team in the nation? Heaven's no. But no squad is playing with more unity and purpose. And no team is as physical as Nick Saban's Crimson Tide. So, while everyone in the galaxy is fawning over the speed, incredible athletic ability and pyrotechnic offenses at Florida, Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech, don't be shocked if Saban's plodding and punishing Alabama squad ends up winning the national title. Sort of reminds you of that 1992 Alabama team, doesn't it?
Oregon State isn't going away. By the third quarter of Oregon State's game against California, you got the feeling things were just going the Beavers' way. That's when Sammie Stroughter took a reverse, fumbled it 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage, picked it up and - thanks to a block from freshman sensation Jacquizz Rodgers - turned the play into a 21-yard gain. The Beavers moved another 15 yards after a late hit, moving them to Cal's 21. They scored two plays later. That's what Oregon State's season has been – it started as a disaster but is ending beautifully. You probably shrugged when you found out Oregon State could go to the Rose Bowl if they won out. That was when Oregon State was beating up on Washington State (1-10), Washington (0-10), Arizona State (4-6) and UCLA (4-6). The 34-21 win over Cal proves Oregon State has realistic hopes of ending their 43-year Rose Bowl drought. Whether it's USC, Cal or Washington State, the 5-foot-7 Rodgers won't be intimidated, and the defense was stingy again. Games against Arizona and Oregon aren't gimmes, but the Beavers' chances of winning out look much more plausible than they did a couple of weeks ago.
USF has some soul-searching to do. The school's rise has been astounding. Jim Leavitt built the program from scratch and took the Bulls to No. 2 in the nation in just 75 games. Nowadays, Leavitt is learning that maintaining the program is as challenging as building it. USF is 9-8 overall and 4-7 in the Big East since reaching that No. 2 ranking last season. Saturday's 49-16 home loss to Rutgers was the Bulls' fourth loss in five games and by far the most embarrassing. They were a mess – six turnovers, a blocked field goal, a botched snap on an extra point and eight penalties. Sure, several key players on defense and the offensive line have dealt with injuries this season, but losing by 33 at home and owning a 1-4 record in the Big East is a major disappointment. Equipping his team to handle success and play at a consistently high level will be a major undertaking for Leavitt during the offseason.
The ACC race is fascinating. The league doesn't have an elite team – not even close. But I have to admit that watching ACC games each weekend – and watching the changes in the division standings – is like going on a roller-coaster ride. Every team in the league except Duke has a chance at a .500 conference finish and every team in the league still has a shot at bowl eligibility. Only two teams – Maryland and Miami – have fewer than three conference losses. And being ranked is something to fear: Over the past four weeks, ACC teams ranked in the media polls are 3-9 after Florida State (at home to Boston College) and North Carolina (on the road against Maryland) lost on Saturday. All in all, it makes for a lot of fun.
Minnesota is back to normal. After last season's 1-11 debacle, the Golden Gophers started 7-1 this season and a New Year's Day bowl appearance was within reach. Alas, Tim Brewster's team has lost three in a row and finish off the regular season next Saturday with Iowa, which is playing better football right now. In other words, Minnesota looks primed for a 7-5 finish – still a nice improvement over last season but not near what it could've been. And remember this: Minnesota had gone to six bowls this decade under former coach Glen Mason, winning six or seven regular-season games in five of those seasons. Thus, the Gophers are back to "normal."
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald has come of age: When Northwestern coach Randy Walker died in the summer of 2006, the Wildcats promoted linebacker coach Pat Fitzgerald, who had the difficult task of beginning his head-coaching career at the age of 31. Northwestern endured some growing pains as Fitzgerald went through some on-the-job training the past two seasons, but the Wildcats and their coach have exceeded expectations this season. There's no question Northwestern made the right call in giving the job to Fitzgerald, even if he had to accept the reins a few years ahead of schedule. Northwestern's 21-14 victory at Michigan improved the Wildcats' record to 8-3 and gives them a chance to post double-digit wins for the first time since their Rose Bowl season of 1995. Fitzgerald was an All-America linebacker on that 1995 team. Thirteen years later, the youngest coach in FBS (i.e., Division I-A) again has Northwestern beating the odds.
Don't bet against Maryland if they're playing a ranked team: Maryland's 17-15 triumph over North Carolina – the No. 16 team in the BCS standings – makes the Terps the only team in the nation to knock off four ranked teams this season. And the Terps have beaten all six ranked teams they've faced the past two seasons. Maryland also has endured some unexpected losses – such as a 24-14 shocker against Middle Tennessee and a 31-0 setback at Virginia – but the Terps control their destiny in the ACC Atlantic Division heading into next Saturday's home game with Florida State. The only bad news for Maryland is that Florida State isn't ranked this week, and Maryland's recent track record suggests FSU's absence from the rankings could make a Seminoles victory more likely.