College football's soft September schedules, typically loaded with statistics-bloating mismatches, finally are in the rearview mirror.
Now, it is on to October: start of the real season in the race for the BCS crystal football.
That means meaningful matchups between elite teams on a weekly basis, starting with three significant showdowns Saturday. By this time next week, we will know the results of three Saturday games that loom as elimination matches in the national title chase: No. 5 Georgia (5-0) at No. 6 South Carolina (5-0); No. 4 LSU (5-0) at No. 10 Florida (4-0) and No. 8 West Virginia (4-0) at No. 11 Texas (4-0).
As a bonus, No. 2 Oregon (5-0) and No. 12 Ohio State (5-0) both face ranked opponents -- No. 23 Washington (3-1) and No. 21 Nebraska (4-1), respectively -- capable of ending their undefeated seasons. Bottom line: We're looking at Separation Saturday in college football, when contenders and pretenders will define themselves for the second half of the season.
Based on what we've seen to date, here are a handful of conclusions worth drawing from September evidence:
No. 3 Florida State is the non-SEC team with the inside track to the national title game, based on talent and remaining schedule. The Seminoles (5-0) should be paired against top-ranked Alabama (5-0), which received all 60 first-place votes in Sunday's Associated Press poll and clearly has been the best of the five SEC teams currently ranked in the top 10.
Texas quarterback David Ash, a sophomore, grew up in the fourth quarter of Saturday's 41-36 victory over Oklahoma State by leading two go-ahead touchdown drives in crunch time against a solid team. Stunningly, Ash -- who had twice as many interceptions (8) as TD passes (4) last season -- ranks second among FBS players in passing efficiency (184.03 rating), trailing only West Virginia's Geno Smith (208.37), the early Heisman Trophy favorite.
On the flip side, the Longhorns' defense will be torched Saturday by Smith & Co. unless Texas begins stopping the big plays it has allowed in abundance in victories over Mississippi (66-31) and OSU (41-36). West Virginia has the nation's top big-play offense, with Smith connecting on 83.4 percent of his passes.
The improved Pac-12, with six teams ranked in the Top 25, has too much depth to allow Oregon to run the table and get back to the BCS title game, which the Ducks achieved in 2010.
No. 9 Notre Dame (4-0) has the defense necessary to earn a BCS bowl berth. But instability at quarterback will lead to at least two losses, keeping the Irish out of the national title game.
Early front-runner for the Broyles Award, given to college football's assistant coach of the year, has to be Texas Tech defensive coordinator Art Kaufman. He took over a unit in disarray and, through four games, the Red Raiders (4-0) lead the nation in total defense (167.5 yards per game) and checked in Sunday at No. 24 in the coaches' poll.
With Ohio State ineligible for the postseason, one of the participants in the Big Ten championship game projects to be the winner of the Oct. 13 game between unranked Purdue (3-1) and unranked Wisconsin (3-2).
Hands-down Heisman front-runner is West Virginia QB Geno Smith, whose numbers through four games eclipse the eye-popping digits posted at the same juncture by Baylor's Robert Griffin III, the 2011 recipient. Smith has 1,827 total yards with an 83.4 completion rate and a 20-0 ratio of touchdown passes-to-interceptions. Griffin, after four games last season, had 1,481 total yards, an 82.1 completion rate and an 18-1 ratio of TDs-to-interceptions.
There is no reason to leave the SEC when naming the Freshman All-America backfield. Just take Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, who set an SEC record with 557 yards of total offense in Saturday's 58-10 rout of Arkansas, and Georgia's freshman tailback tandem of Todd Gurley (536 yards, 9 TDs, 7.9 per carry) and Keith Marshall (428 yards, 5 TDs, 8.2 per carry).
Among unranked teams with undefeated records, the school capable of shocking the nation is Louisiana Tech (4-0). The Bulldogs have an explosive offense, three road victories over FBS opponents (Houston, Illinois, Virginia) and should be 5-0 heading into their Oct. 13 game against Texas A&M in Shreveport. An 11-1 or 12-0 regular-season record is not a stretch.
Many of these observations could be worthless by Saturday, given the right mix of upsets. That is why college football is so compelling.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760