RALPH D. RUSSO
Breaking down the AP college football poll after Week 9 of the regular season.
MAKING A STATEMENT:
Call them the fantastic four. Or maybe the final four in the race for No. 1.
Alabama, Oregon, Kansas State and Notre Dame hold the top four spots in The Associated Press college football poll released Sunday.
The Crimson Tide is No. 1 for the ninth straight week and the Ducks are No. 2 for the sixth consecutive week.
The third-ranked Wildcats and fourth-ranked Fighting Irish each moved up a spot after Florida lost 17-9 to Georgia. That dropped the Gators from third to eighth.
The BCS standings came out later Sunday and Alabama was first again, but Kansas State and Notre Dame followed with Oregon fourth.
The Tide, Ducks, Wildcats and Irish will spend the last month of the regular season competing against each other from a far, vying for two spots in the BCS national championship game. All of them could get to Dec. 2, BCS selection day, unbeaten.
The finish line is now in sight, but no peeking.
"It's tough not to, knowing you're so close, but man, you just have to focus in on next week, focus in on next game," K-State wide receiver Chris Harper said after the Wildcats' 55-24 victory against Texas Tech. "It's really hard not to look ahead, but the position that we're in, you can't do it."
Alabama and Oregon both face big tests Saturday. Emerging Heisman trophy contender AJ McCarron and the Tide go to Baton Rouge, La., to face No. 5 LSU in a game that could decide the SEC West.
The Pac-12's game of the year was supposed to be Saturday as well. The Ducks will be at No. 18 Southern California, but the Trojans are coming off their second loss of the season. USC fell 39-36 at Arizona and hasn't looked much like a team that started the season No. 1.
Still, Matt Barkley and crew figure to provide some resistance to an Oregon team that has yet to enter the fourth quarter of a game with the result in doubt.
Kansas State is home against Big 12 rival Oklahoma State. Notre Dame, coming off a 30-13 victory at Oklahoma, takes on Pittsburgh in South Bend, Ind.
A BCS mess looms. Alabama's position as No. 1 is safe as long as the defending national champions keep winning. The other three will jockey for the position behind the Tide, and voters (both in the AP poll and the two used in the BCS standings) will parse scores and schedules, looking for the slightest flaws to separate the Ducks, Wildcats and Irish.
Good luck with that.
Dismissed after getting thumped at South Carolina, No. 7 Georgia moved up five spots in the latest rankings and moved into position to win a second straight SEC East title.
The Bulldogs put together by far their best defensive performance of the season against the Gators. It really came out of nowhere. Georgia, with a lineup full of future NFL draft picks, had been allowing more than 200 yards per game on the ground over its last three.
All-American linebacker Jarvis Jones, who has been slowed by injuries, was spectacular with 13 tackles, three sacks and two forced fumbles. Florida ran for only 81 yards.
Georgia needs to beat Mississippi and Auburn to book a trip to the Southeastern Conference title game for the sixth time in 12 seasons under coach Mark Richt. Yes, the Bulldogs have benefited from a favorable schedule the past two seasons, missing the best teams from the SEC West. But you can only play the teams on your schedule and Georgia has beaten almost all of them.
Still, many Bulldogs fans have been exasperated by their team and coach in recent seasons. Georgia hasn't won the SEC since 2005, and while Florida, Alabama, Auburn and LSU have won the last six national titles, Georgia hasn't won any.
That's a high standard to meet, but that's where the bar is set for the top SEC programs these days.
USC, now that's a disappointing team.
Even after losing at Stanford in September, the Trojans were No. 10 with a chance to work their way back into the national title race. Another sloppy performance led to their second loss of the season.
The Trojans had more than 600 yards, including 493 passing by Barkley, against Arizona. Star receiver Marqise Lee had 16 catches for a Pac-12 record 345 yards. But USC committed five turnovers and 13 penalties and let a 15-point, second-half lead slip away.
Coach Lane Kiffin's talented team has been its own worst enemy all season. USC is the most penalized team in the country, averaging 10.3 per game for 84.6 yards. The Trojans are tied for 94th in the nation with 18 giveaways.
The irony is USC will still be front and center in the national championship chase.
The Trojans play Oregon on Saturday, and finish their regular season on Nov. 24 at home against Notre Dame. The Trojans still control their destiny in the Pac-12 South, and could reach the conference title game, possibly for a rematch with Oregon.
Playing spoiler, however, is not what the Trojans had in mind this season.
IN AND OUT
From undefeated to unranked.
Rutgers pulled off that trick with a ghastly performance at home against Kent State.
The Scarlet Knights committed seven turnovers and the Golden Flashes won 35-23 for the Mid-American Conference's fourth victory this season against the Big East. For the second straight week, a ranked and unbeaten Big East team lost to a MAC team. Last week, it was Cincinnati losing at Toledo.
Rutgers, which only had six turnovers coming into the game, had been ranked 18th.
The silver lining for the Scarlet Knights is they are still very much in play for their first Big East championship. They play Army next week before finishing the season against Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and No. 12 Louisville.
The Big East didn't have much chance of sending a team to the national title game, but those nonconference loses have taken some of the luster off what was set to be an intriguing league race.
Elsewhere in the MAC, Ohio University also went from unbeaten to unranked. The Bobcats, ranked for the first time since 1968, lost 23-20 to league rival Miami of Ohio.
MAC teams Toledo (8-1, 5-0), Kent State (7-1, 4-0), Northern Illinois (8-1, 5-0) and Ohio (7-1, 3-1) all received votes in the latest AP Top 25.
Also falling out of the rankings was Michigan. Moving back in was No. 21 Nebraska, No. 24 Arizona and No. 25 UCLA.
FROM THE ARCHIVES
Louisville has not been ranked this high since it reached No. 8 early in the 2007 season, the year after Bobby Petrino coached the Cardinals to the Orange Bowl, and then bolted for the NFL.
Louisville fell out of the rankings in September 2007, and didn't get back in until the start of this season.
ODDS AND ENDS
Newly ranked Arizona and UCLA play at the Rose Bowl on Saturday. ... No. 16 Texas A&M is at No, 17 Mississippi State. The Bulldogs, who were trounced by Alabama 38-7 on Saturday, will try to avoid a two-game losing streak after starting the season 7-0.