Commentary

Season is beginning to take shape

With wins Saturday, Miami, LSU and USC proved they belong among the elite

Originally Published: October 3, 2009
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

MIAMI -- A senior and a freshman, a starter and a stand-in, acknowledged their success and stressed they can't stop to enjoy it. If that doesn't describe the end of the beginning of the football season, nothing does. Five weeks in -- five entertaining, maddening, thrilling, confusing weeks -- the 2009 season began to make sense Saturday.

Miami freshman safety Ray Ray Armstrong captured the state of the game. The Hurricanes needed Armstrong to step up against No. 8 Oklahoma because of injuries to both starting safeties. Armstrong, in the fourth game of his career, responded with seven bone-rattling tackles in the No. 17 Hurricanes' 21-20 victory at Land Shark Stadium.

"I feel like I took a big step," Armstrong said. "I'm not done yet."

[+] EnlargeRay Ray Armstrong
Jonathan Brownfield/US PresswireRay Ray Armstrong and the Canes are trying not to let success go to their heads.

And then there is senior halfback Javarris James, who, in the 38th game of his career, rushed for 150 yards on 15 carries. That's 28 yards more than the Sooners had allowed in their first three games combined.

"We can't let the Oklahoma victory beat us next week," James warned. "We have to keep pushing."

After Saturday, the title race is all but over for some teams. The poseurs no longer can maintain their poses. The good teams are rounding into the shape that good teams take.

No. 4 LSU confirmed its status among the elite after four so-so victories with a dramatic 20-13 comeback victory at No. 18 Georgia. The Tigers, thus validated, await a visit from No. 1 Florida.

No. 7 USC dominated No. 24 California 30-3, in a game in which each team found its level. The Trojans' offense looked like it changed its spark plugs, while the Golden Bears played their second consecutive game without scoring a touchdown.

Auburn continued to make the pollsters look stupid -- OK, so it's not that hard to do -- by going to 5-0 with a 26-22 victory at Tennessee. This is the last week the Tigers will be unranked.

And there's Miami, which completed its four-game Schedule of Doom with a 3-1 record and a lot of big smiles. The Hurricanes proved their true identity is far removed from the team that lost in a cold rain at Virginia Tech a week ago.

"It was a wake-up call," senior left offensive tackle Jason Fox said of the 31-7 loss to the Hokies. "It challenged us in every dimension of the game."

Two deep interceptions in Jacory Harris' first four passes Saturday resulted in Oklahoma taking a 10-0 lead. The Canes responded by moving to a short passing game, and Harris finished with three touchdowns. Miami's defense clamped down on an injury-riddled Sooners offense.

[+] EnlargeJoe McKnight
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesJoe McKnight and USC separated themselves from the pack.

Freshman quarterback Landry Jones, with little time to throw and no one to throw to, finished 18-of-30 for 188 yards. In a game of dinks and dunks, Oklahoma finished one dink short.

The Sooners may be the exception to this season defining itself this week. Oklahoma began the season at No. 3 and, after the opening 14-13 loss to BYU knocked the Sooners out of the top 10, had climbed back in. A second one-point defeat leaves the Sooners at 2-2. Someone asked head coach Bob Stoops if his Sooners were as average as their record.

"Maybe we're pretty good," he said. "I still think it's way too early."

With Heisman winner Sam Bradford coming back as soon as the Big 12 opener against Baylor next Saturday, the odds are Stoops is right. Yet the odds also weigh heavily against Oklahoma reaching the BCS Championship Game. The same goes for Houston, Michigan, Texas A&M and UCLA, which all surrendered their undefeated records Saturday.

The No. 12 Cougars' 58-41 loss at UTEP may be catalogued with the early-season shockers, but the Wolverines, Aggies and Bruins confirmed what long had been suspected. The four of them leave 13 unbeaten teams, and each of the next two weeks promises a showdown. Florida at LSU next week is followed by Cincinnati at South Florida on Thursday, Oct. 15.

Miami is no longer unbeaten, of course, but the Hurricanes, having vanquished three of the four ranked opponents they've played, can again queue up the talk that The U is back. It's just that no one wearing orange and green wants to hear it.

"When I came in," Miami coach Randy Shannon said after the game, "Jacory told the team, 'Listen, the only thing we're going to watch on TV from now on is 'SpongeBob.' We ain't watching ESPN, CBS or ABC. If 'SpongeBob' is talking about us, then we deserve it."

SquarePants could not be reached for comment Saturday night, and Florida, Texas and Alabama haven't resorted to a college football television ban yet. Then again, they haven't lost a game. Miami, Virginia Tech and USC may have proved they belong in the national picture. But with two months still to play, they have used up their margin for error.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN3.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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