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Can OU, FSU, Oregon avoid USC's fate?

Landry Jones will have to step up his game against Kansas State this weekend. Jim Cowsert/US Presswire

It didn't take long for the national championship picture to change shape. USC isn't out of it -- it's September; no one this side of Colorado is -- but the Trojans' hopes took a significant hit Saturday at Stanford.

Lane Kiffin's team, primarily because of its star power on offense, was thought to be the lead contender in providing America with a champion outside of the SEC. Then it actually played someone.
Hawaii and Syracuse revealed something about the Trojans, but Stanford exposed weaknesses -- like the O-line's inability to protect Matt Barkley -- that weren't even previously perceived.

Three of the title contenders who benefited the most from USC's Week 3 loss -- Oregon, Florida State and Oklahoma -- will face their first legitimate opponents in Week 4. Each plays a ranked team at home on Saturday. Where do they stand going in? Will they become the next USC, or will they advance?

Oregon Ducks (3-0)

Week 4 opponent: No. 22 Arizona Wildcats (3-0)

The Ducks put up 162 points in wins against Arkansas State, Fresno State and Tennessee Tech. That sort of production is what we've come to expect from the Ducks. However, even if some of it came during junk time, those opponents did score an average of 24.3 points against Oregon.

Defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti was particularly miffed after giving up 34 points and 530 yards in the opener to Arkansas State -- despite the fact the Ducks led 50-3 with seven minutes to go in the first half. And despite the fact Gus Malzahn now coaches Arkansas State.

"I'm a competitor," Aliotti told reporters after the game. "When you get a chance to play, you've got to step up like a man and make some plays."

NFL scouts like the Ducks' speed and size at virtually every position -- 6-foot-7 end Dion Jordan and linebacker Michael Clay, as examples -- but Saturday will present opportunities to, well, do as Aliotti says.

Arizona, under new coach Rich Rodriguez, has the Pac-12's top passing offense (357.7 yards a game) and the second ranked scoring offense (46.3 points a game) behind Oregon.

Quarterback Matt Scott, who has a 156.6 passer rating, has made the intelligent decisions that you would expect from a senior. Feature back Ka'Deem Carey is averaging 5.8 yards a carry and has five touchdowns in three games.

And the Wildcats have wins against two bowl teams from 2011: Toledo and Fiesta Bowl winner Oklahoma State.

This is the first game for Oregon in which the loss of free safety John Boyett, who is out for the season with knee injuries, will be evident. But that's where the Ducks have something USC does not: depth.

The (Eugene, Ore.) Register-Guard wrote last week that Boyett's replacement, Avery Patterson, has played in all 30 Oregon games since he arrived. He was actually fifth on the team in tackles in 2011 (Boyett was first).

With USC knocked down, now is the opportunity for the Ducks to become the preeminent team in the Pac-12 (some, myself included, thought they already were, entering the season).

Florida State Seminoles (3-0)

Week 4 opponent: No. 10 Clemson Tigers (3-0)

No team in America has done more against less. Scheduling hang-ups forced FSU to not only play two FCS teams, but two really bad ones in Murray State and Savannah State. So it's tough to get a read on the Seminoles, even after a 52-0 dispatching last week of one of Jim Grobe's weakest Wake Forest teams in years.

Remember, though, that FSU did lose last season at Wake. Coach Jimbo Fisher will take playing well, even if it's against inferior opponents. The Seminoles are currently first in the country, averaging a gaudy 8.4 yards per play. They're also first in total defense, giving up just 103.3 yards a game.

"We haven't taken anything for granted," Fisher said Tuesday on ESPN Radio's "Scott Van Pelt Show." "We've dotted I's, crossed T's and given every game its due diligence."

Fisher said he is hopeful that habits formed in the routs will carry over to bigger games, like Saturday's against Clemson.

The Tigers handed the Noles another one of their losses in 2011, but FSU was really physically worn down from a tight game the week before against then-No. 1 Oklahoma. Quarterback E.J. Manuel, for one, didn't play in Death Valley.

A couple of coaches around the region again intimated to me this week that they're not sold on Manuel as a big-game QB. A decisive win Saturday wouldn't completely absolve that, but it would help.
The run game, maligned a year ago as the backs worked behind a patchwork offensive line, has looked better early in the year. The three-headed beast of senior Chris Thompson (254 yards), sophomore James Wilder (220) and sophomore Devonta Freeman (147) is averaging 8.5 yards a carry.

Again, the competition must be considered, but Thompson did go for 197 yards and two touchdowns on nine carries last week against Wake. He suffered a back injury last year against the Deacons and missed the rest of the season. The Seminoles have always liked him. If he can play up to his potential and provide them with a durable veteran back, it would certainly help the offense move more effectively against better defenses.

Is Clemson one of those better defenses? The jury is out on that, with first-year coordinator Brent Venables saying that the Noles would "break the scoreboard" if the Tigers play like they did last week against Furman. But note that Venables, previously at Oklahoma, had an outstanding game plan each of the past two years against FSU.

"It's certainly better than not knowing anything (about them), coming in blind," Venables told reporters this week.

Fisher said he can tell a difference in the team because his message and tone has now been reinforced for three years. That's why he suspects this season could be the one in which expectation and reality meet.

"There's a different look in their eyes," he said.

From a schedule perspective, look at it this way: Clemson, the reigning ACC champ with a lot of returning starters, is a double-digit underdog this week. Scroll through the schedule. The Seminoles appear to be overwhelming favorites in every game they'll play -- including the Nov. 8 game at Virginia Tech after the egg the Hokies laid last week at Pitt -- until maybe the finale against Florida.

Oklahoma Sooners (2-0)

Week 4 opponent: No. 15 Kansas State Wildcats (3-0)

It's been a long wait for a game of consequence in Norman, although those who traveled to El Paso for the opener got quite a shock when the Sooners were up only 10-7 in the fourth quarter before pulling away from UTEP.

Kansas State, on paper, doesn't have the athletes to compete with Oklahoma. But if UTEP can, why can't K-State? A year ago, the answer would have been the narrative about no one beating the Sooners at Owen Field. But a Texas Tech team that finished 5-7 took care of that luster.

The Wildcats won eight of their 10 games in 2011 by an average of 4.5 points, meaning it was rare that they were completely out of games. That can all be attributed to Bill Snyder, who gets more out of his players than any coach in America, according to those in the Big 12. (Vanderbilt's James Franklin was second, among those we asked.)

The 58-17 OU win was the outlier for the Wildcats, whose other losses were by seven and 13 points. That likely leaves K-State wanting to prove some sort of point this week, that the gap between the teams isn't that wide. There's some support for that. The Vegas line opened at 17, but has come back to 14. There's some money coming in on the Cats.
The Sooners were a machine in that game last year, converting 7 of 10 third downs, moving the chains 34 times and throwing for 520 yards.

But OU's offense has not looked the same since. Ryan Broyles, the NCAA leader in career receptions, was lost the following week with a knee injury and, as a result, veteran quarterback Landry Jones has yet to regain his footing. Broyles was seemingly always open, and always caught whatever was thrown his way.

"Landry has always had times when he'd look indecisive," one Big 12 assistant told me a couple of weeks ago, "but those moments seem to be a regular thing now. I don't know if it's the receivers or what. He's a good player, but something looks off."

Jones, a fifth-year senior who was given a first-round grade by the NFL's draft advisory board back in January, is currently 49th in passing efficiency. Meanwhile, K-State QB Collin Klein, not known for his ability to throw, is ninth. Maybe that eventually evens out, but it's a surprising result given that Jones has played against UTEP and Florida A&M.

The Sooners are not bereft of talent at receiver, with players such as Kenny Stills and Trey Metoyer, but it's becoming increasingly obvious how important Broyles was to the unit's success. If OU struggles to move the ball against a defense that's giving up 5.1 yards a play (seventh in the Big 12), then it could be in real trouble in October when it faces the stingy defenses of Texas and Notre Dame.

As far as the Longhorns and Irish, so much for the supposedly "soft" schedule I heard about in the preseason. Texas and Notre Dame are already pushing the top 10. And the Sooners' closing stretch of Baylor, at West Virginia, Oklahoma State and at TCU isn't exactly a string of pushovers.

How Oklahoma plays Saturday -- at home against a team with less talent -- might suggest how it will fare in those later games. As a backdrop, the Sooners' intermittent early struggles last year were indicative of their ultimate failures against Texas Tech and Baylor.