Before the season, five schools ranked among the top 12 in the Associated Press poll -- No. 3 Tennessee, No. 4 Michigan, No. 7 Oklahoma, No. 11 Iowa and No. 12 Louisville -- all had legitimate national title hopes. It was hard to imagine any of those teams with more than two losses by season's end.
By tomorrow, however, the national title hopes of all five may have evaporated before the season's first month has elapsed. Michigan, Oklahoma and Iowa have two losses, eliminating them from Rose Bowl consideration. Yesterday, Michigan fell out of the Associated Press poll, ending a streak of 114 straight weeks in the rankings.
The biggest shocker, of course, was Louisville, which received one first-place vote in the preseason Associated Press poll and was considered to have the easiest road to an unblemished record and a berth in the Rose Bowl, the site of the national title game. But the Cardinals (2-1) flopped in their Big East opener, losing to South Florida, 45-14. Coach Bobby Petrino's team may still earn the Bowl Championship Series berth from the Big East, but finagling one's way into the Rose Bowl with a loss to South Florida on the resume will be next to impossible.
And tonight, Tennessee (1-1) must beat Louisiana State at Tiger Stadium to avoid a second consecutive loss in the Southeastern Conference. The Volunteers, who have played musical chairs at quarterback all season, have given the starting job back to Erik Ainge, who started the season opener against Alabama-Birmingham.
With the exception of Tennessee, which lost at Florida on Sept. 17, and Iowa, which lost Saturday at Ohio State, these five schools have not been losing to top 10 teams. In fact, Oklahoma fell to Texas Christian and UCLA, and Iowa was blown out at Iowa State, 23-3.
Among the more surprising revelations is how ineffective Michigan's offense has been.
Granted, running back Mike Hart has been sidelined the past two games after pulling his hamstring in the Notre Dame loss on Sept. 10.
But quarterback Chad Henne failed to take advantage of Notre Dame's suspect secondary in the loss two weeks ago and led a sputtering offense in the second half Saturday against Wisconsin.
After halftime, Michigan's drives resulted in four punts, one fumble, one interception and a touchdown.
"The big problem we had in the second half was offensively," Michigan Coach Lloyd Carr said after the game. "With the exception of one big play, we just couldn't get much going."
Iowa, meanwhile, was a trendy preseason pick to earn the Big Ten's BCS berth, but the Hawkeyes have been plagued by several problems.
Against Iowa State, Iowa fumbled the ball five times. Against the Buckeyes, the running game was the issue, both offensively and defensively. Ohio State ran for 314 yards, while Iowa racked up minus-nine.
In the view of Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz, the Hawkeyes' problem boils down to this: "We need to focus better as coaches."
Play's the Thing
If Tennessee Athletic Director Mike Hamilton were serious about intending to forfeit the game against LSU if his players could not safely reach Baton Rouge, La., LSU would not have been satisfied with the victory.
"It's a little better than kissing your sister," LSU Coach Les Miles said Friday after practice. "I think it would be truly a shallow victory. We certainly would not have taken any credit for it."
When asked if he thought an SEC coach would let his athletic director forfeit a game, Miles took a significant pause before saying, "I'm certain they made the right decisions and represented their position as well as they could."
One issue that has hardly been addressed in how LSU has dealt with hurricane-related disruptions is recruiting. Miles said prospects were scheduled to take official visits to campus this weekend for the Tennessee game, but those were canceled because of Hurricane Rita. The coaching staff also has had a challenging time keeping tabs on prospects in the New Orleans area, some of whom are displaced and now are attending other schools.
Sudden Death Valley
No team has endured more tight games than Clemson. The Tigers (2-2, 1-2 ACC) won their first two games by a total of five points and dropped their last two games after playing a combined four overtimes. . . . Mississippi State is in the midst of a stretch in which it plays three top 10 teams, starting with a 23-10 loss to Georgia on Saturday. LSU and Florida follow. . . . When Notre Dame Coach Charlie Weis returned from the "Ty Bowl" in Seattle yesterday, the first question reporters posed to him was, "Are you glad to get that over with?" Weis answered, "I think that's a fair statement."