An early-season review: Southern California, the top-ranked team in the nation, struggled with Stanford. Marshall lost on a last-minute, 55-yard field goal at sixth-ranked Ohio State, and then lost, 13-3, at No. 3 Georgia, which means the Thundering Herd must be the best 0-3 team in the nation. Utah and Fresno State are arguing, with absolute legitimacy, that they deserve consideration for a spot in the Bowl Championship Series.

Does any of this clear up who's great, who's good and who's somewhere in between? Not yet.

With the college football season a month old, confusion has been about as prevalent as shanked kicks (and there have been plenty). It would seem time to grab hold of the true national picture, yet so little has helped us do that over the first four weeks of the full schedule. There have been only four games in which both teams were ranked in the Associated Press top 25 -- Miami over Florida State, Auburn over Louisiana State, Tennessee over Florida and West Virginia over Maryland. Good games all, but that's it.

Finally, it's about to change, and perhaps we'll begin to get a clearer idea of how the conference races and, ultimately, the national championship chase look.

"We're just now getting to the meat of our schedule," Auburn Coach Tommy Tuberville said yesterday. "Things are going to start to sort themselves out."

On Saturday, Tuberville's Tigers (4-0) play at Tennessee (3-0), another in a series of matchups that will begin to sort out what appears to be the nation's premier league, the Southeastern Conference. Auburn might become a factor in that race because few people expected the Tigers to be. Last year, a few preseason publications had the Tigers ranked No. 1. They lost their first two games -- at home to USC and at Georgia Tech. Now, Tuberville said, they're more relaxed.

"I think they're a little bit less concerned about where they've been ranked or the polls, any of those things that were talked about continuously this past year," Tuberville said. "It's been a little bit easier, even on our seniors."

Saturday also will feature defending national champion Louisiana State at third-ranked Georgia. The Bulldogs (3-0) have been a bit sluggish -- wins over South Carolina and Marshall have come by a combined 14 points -- but they will be coming off a bye week and will have freshman tailback Danny Ware back from a bruised lung. LSU's only loss was 10-9 to Auburn, a loss at least partially attributable to a botched extra point. Throw in Florida -- whose only loss was 30-28 to Tennessee on a 50-yard field goal -- and it's hard to argue, through the first month, that the SEC isn't the best conference.

"You play in our conference, week after week after week," South Carolina Coach Lou Holtz said, "you're going to stub your toe."

The only Big Ten teams not to stub their toes have been Ohio State, Purdue, Minnesota and Wisconsin. By now, people merely expect the Buckeyes to win by a touchdown or less. The latter three, however, are all seeking legitimacy. Purdue travels to suddenly rejuvenated Notre Dame on Saturday, where the Heisman campaign of quarterback Kyle Orton -- who has a completion percentage of 69.8 percent, with 13 touchdowns and no interceptions -- will either take off or come to a halt, as will the Boilermakers' attempt to gain the national spotlight.

Auburn-Tennessee, LSU-Georgia and Purdue-Notre Dame will help sort out the SEC, the Big Ten and the Fighting Irish, who -- following a 38-3 drubbing of Washington -- appear to have fight again. But that's only a start. The following Saturday, Oct. 9, brings a smorgasbord.

Two key Big Ten games, Minnesota at Michigan and Wisconsin at Ohio State, will accompany what could be the three most significant games of the season to that point: Tennessee at Georgia, California at Southern California and Texas vs. Oklahoma in Dallas. The 10 teams involved in those five games are ranked in the top 25 and are a combined 32-1.

Tough Times for Paterno

Penn State had much more to worry about than its 16-3 loss at Wisconsin on Saturday. Backup quarterback Michael Robinson, who replaced starter Zack Mills (Urbana High) after Mills sprained his left shoulder, was taken off the field on a stretcher after being hit by Wisconsin's Erasmus James.

Penn State spokesman Jeff Nelson said Robinson had a concussion diagnosed, spent the night at University of Wisconsin Hospital & Clinics, and was released yesterday morning. He returned to State College, Pa., yesterday afternoon.

Of more serious concern was the status of Coach Joe Paterno's son-in-law, Chris Hort, who was badly injured in a bicycle accident in State College. Hort, who is married to Paterno's daughter, Mary Kay, and is father to three of Paterno's 14 grandchildren, remained in intensive care at a hospital in Altoona, Pa., where he was airlifted following the accident.

Paterno's wife, Sue, was in Madison, Wis., for the Nittany Lions' game and flew home in the first half on a university plane, accompanied by Penn State Athletic Director Tim Curley. The school sent another plane from State College so Paterno, as well as his son, Jay, the Lions' quarterbacks coach, could head home immediately afterward. Penn State plays at Minnesota this week.

Slow Starters

The starting debut of Alabama quarterback Marc Guillon, replacing the injured Brodie Croyle, did not go well. Guillon completed 6 of 18 passes for 57 yards and an interception in a 27-10 loss at Arkansas. . . .

The main reasons for Washington's 0-3 start: lousy run defense and poor quarterback play. The Huskies are conceding 236 yards per game on the ground, and junior quarterback Casey Paus hasn't completed 50 percent of his passes in any game.

Purdue's Kyle Orton has 13 touchdown passes, no interceptions, prompting Heisman buzz.