Senior College Football Columnist

The Big Picture: Beyond top 3, next 10 less than top-10 worthy


Late Saturday night, the producer of our post-game show at CBS Sports Network asked what proved to be a lot more a vexing question than it initially appeared: "So if Oregon and Oklahoma can't rally to win these games," he said, "what's your top five look like?"

As I began to unravel my thought process, I did not want to have three teams from the same conference go 1-2-3, but with the way this season has played out, it's seems pretty hard not to go LSU, Alabama, Arkansas. In fact, it would be foolish not to. Heck, that's not only three from the same conference, that's three from the same division -- the SEC West.

The bigger dilemma is what comes next: rounding out the top five. It feels like you have three elite teams and about 10 No. 15-caliber squads in the mix. Welcome to College Football 2011.

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For much of the season, save for that one Saturday night -- when Michigan State pulled off the Hail Mary to topple Wisconsin, and Texas Tech, a four-touchdown underdog, upset Oklahoma -- it's been largely vanilla, at least by college football standards of drama. The past eight days, though, have been been loaded with curveballs and this weekend, starting with lowly UAB stunning No. 20 Southern Miss on Thursday night, was deliciously wild.

And, for those of you who hate that talk about an LSU-Alabama rematch in the BCS title game, the volume on that just got turned all the way to the right as far as it'll go.

 First, Oklahoma State got beat at Iowa State as Paul Rhoads, the architect of Pitt shutting down WVU in 2007 as the Mountaineers appeared headed to the BCS title game, did it again as another four-TD underdog: Down went No. 2.

 Up in Oregon, the Ducks were ambushed by USC, who saw Saturday night as the real Pac-12 title game. Down went No. 4.

 Almost at the same time Saturday, Baylor's Robert Griffin III was putting the finishing touches on a masterful performance as the Bears defeated Oklahoma for the first time in 21 tries. Down went No. 5.

 Even Clemson landed with a thud. The Tigers were pummeled by an N.C. State team just hoping to get bowl-eligible. Down went No. 7.

People are talking about how this is some sort of BCS armageddon. Is it? It sure looks like the top of college football has clearly been separated from the next batch of top teams. What would really cause chaos is if Arkansas beats LSU and/or Auburn upsets Alabama next week. Then things really get interesting.

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 Robert Griffin III was the star of all stars in the first month of this season. Remember that seemingly unthinkable stat he had going where he had thrown more TDs than incompletions, prompting the TD-INC ratio?

Well, then October came. He and Baylor lost three of four. He threw four picks in those games. In fairness, Griffin's play was still terrific then too. Just not at the outrageous level at which he'd begun the 2011 season. But with a thunderbolt, Griffin is back in the Heisman chase. RG3 lit up the Sooners in spectacular fashion.

In upsetting OU, Griffin accounted for 551 of his team's 616 total yards, a staggering 89 percent. A load that would make Denard Robinson's eyes bug.

Griffin's handling of the winning, five-play, 80-yard drive was superb, topped off by his 34-yard strike with eight seconds remaining to Terrence Williams on the other side of the field in the back of the end zone. The play, where Griffin used his dazzling feet to evade OU pass-rushers to buy more time to allow his receiver to get free, reminded me of Matt Ryan's signature college play when he kept a play alive to also throw across the field and find his receiver in the end zone for a game-winner when Boston College beat Virginia Tech in 2007.

After the past few weeks of Trent Richardson getting contained in his biggest test of the season against LSU, then Andrew Luck putting up good, but certainly not great numbers in a blowout home loss to Oregon and then Brandon Weeden having a 3-INT effort in a loss at Iowa State, we were looking for someone to seize the Heisman spotlight. Griffin did in stunning fashion for four hours Saturday night. He shredded a top-five opponent, carving up a unit that was No. 1 in the country in sacks and No. 12 in pass-efficiency defense. Griffin has the Heisman moment. In reality, he's had a few of them. He's also got the gaudy stats to back it up, completing 73 percent of his passes to go with a 33-5 TD-INT ratio and a rating of 191.7, which would top Colt Brennan's NCAA record. (Russell Wilson, though, has an even higher rating at 199.2.)

Baylor is 7-3 and in the top 20 in mid-November. It took them 21 tries, but the Bears finally beat OU and it was largely due to RG3. He's No. 1 on my Heisman list at this point.

The other QB who vaults into the Heisman picture is USC's Matt Barkley. As I said last Monday, if he goes up to Oregon, where the Ducks had won seven in a row against Top 25 opponents, Barkley's stock would soar especially, since he'd actually faced a lot tougher competition than many other top QBs.

Barkley and the Trojans were able to do things to the Oregon defense that Andrew Luck couldn't. Barkley is fortunate he has the kind of playmakers at receiver that Stanford simply does not have. Marqise Lee and Robert Woods can get the kind of separation the Cardinal's outside guys could not. They also had the burst to put the Ducks on their heels and do serious damage once they got the ball in their hands. But it wouldn't have mattered so much if the QB weren't so sharp. Barkley's numbers: 26-34 for 323 yards with four TDs and one INT as the Trojans ended Oregon's home winning streak at 21 games, which had been the longest in the country.

Barkley certainly belongs in the Heisman race and should at least get invited to the ceremony in New York as a finalist. This was the fifth top-40 defense he's faced in 2011. In those games, he's thrown 13 TDs and three INTs. And don't try and hold USC's NCAA sanctions against his Heisman hopes. Barkley had zero to do with what happened there years ago. If anything, the NCAA sanctions will impact Barkley's Heisman cause in another way: he won't get that 13th game, which would've likely helped him better his candidacy.

This USC game against the Ducks was quite a turnaround from what Oregon has been able to do to the Trojans the past few years. Monte Kiffin's D didn't shut down the Ducks, but slowed them down enough to win. That in itself is quite a feat. In their previous two games vs. USC, the Ducks averaged 6.2 yards per rush in 2010 and 8 yards per rush in 2009. On Saturday night, it was a tame 4.4 yards. More impressive, though, is this stat: the Ducks' longest run all night against USC went for just 17 yards. Last year they had five runs against the Trojans longer than that. In 2009, the last time they played them in Autzen Stadium, they had eight runs longer than that in the game. The Ducks also went a season-worst 3-6 in the Red Zone and had two turnovers inside the USC 20. As my colleague Bryan Fischer noted, this was Chip Kelly's first loss to an opponent that didn't have more than a week to prepare for the game.

One last point on USC: the rest of the country's college football fans flare their nostrils at the very mention of Lane Kiffin's name. They're going to probably hate realizing this, but the guy can coach. He's going to win Pac-12 Coach of the Year honors, and if Barkley opts to return for his senior year -- a big if, but not out of the question -- the Trojans realistically could start the 2012 season, their first after the NCAA bowl ban expires, as the preseason No. 1.

 The rest of my Heisman Top 5: RG3, Trent Richardson, Andrew Luck, Barkley and Case Keenum.

 Ga. Southern couldn't upset 'Bama, but give this team a ton of credit. They ran for 302 yards against the Crimson Tide. To put that in some context: Alabama has played four Top 25 teams and those four combined rushed for 287 yards on the Tide. Freshman Dominique Swope burned 'Bama for 153 yards. As Jon Solomon pointed out on Twitter, there had only been four 100-yard rushers against the Tide in Nick Saban's five seasons until Saturday.

 This Belldozer thing at Oklahoma is legit. With the power running formation when backup QB Blake Bell is inserted into the lineup, the Sooners used it six times. They scored five TDs and converted on fourth down.

Too bad the only thing that could stop it was a false-start penalty before a 2-point play late in the game that prompted Bob Stoops to kick an extra-point instead.

 Former USC recruit Jarvis Jones, who the Trojan medical staff never would clear, (now at Georgia) continues to terrorize the SEC. He had 2.5 more sacks against weak Kentucky team, giving him 12.5 for the season. Jones had beat a double-team to force a fumble, setting up a Dawgs touchdown.

 I know it's only Year Two for Turner Gill at Kansas, but Saturday saw another KU blowout, a 61-7 thumping by Texas A&M that could've been much uglier. It marked the sixth time the Jayhawks have lost by at least 30 this season. Losing games is one thing. Getting blown out of the building is another.  Speaking of which, Maryland's free-fall continues. Wake hammered the Terps 31-10. It was their sixth straight double-digit loss.

 Congrats to Mike London for a good win at FSU. Virginia, which fields a team from which I suspect even most ACC fans couldn't name two players, has now won four in a row and could play for the ACC title if it beats Va. Tech next week.

 TCU pounded CSU 34-10 to clinch at least a share of its third consecutive Mountain West title. It's the first time in school history the Horned Frogs have won conference titles in three consecutive seasons. TCU can win it outright if the Horned Frogs beat UNLV when the Running Rebels come to town Dec. 3.

 Nice to see Iowa State OC Tom Herman reference our Stats That Matter from earlier in the week on Twitter Saturday morning, not long after the Cyclones' big win over No. 2 Oklahoma State: @CoachTomHerman: We won the double-positive. The stat is huge. Our defense played their tails off.

 Stat of the Day: Michigan is 9-2. Last year the Wolverines rode Denard Robinson to a bowl game. This year, they have a legit top-15 team and the biggest reason is DC Greg Mattison and the Michigan defense. They handled the Nebraska offense, limiting Rex Burkhead to 36 yards and kept the Huskers to 3-13 on third downs as the Wolverines had almost a 42-18 edge in time of possession. Of course, much of that credit can go to Michigan's run game, which dominated the Nebraska D. But let's remember that Michigan is No. 8 in the nation in scoring defense. Last year at this point, the Wolverines were No. 108.

Bruce Feldman is a senior writer for and college football commentator for CBS Sports Network. He is a New York Times Bestselling author, who has written books including Swing Your Sword, Meat Market and Cane Mutiny. Prior to joining CBS, Feldman spent 17 years at ESPN.

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