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September 24, 2009 Although every part of the country and each year is different, the air has begun to grab that autumn chill to herald the arrival of conference play. While big inter-sectional games in September are fun, there's a whole new level of intensity when the opponents are familiar. These teams see you every season and they know exactly what makes you tick. Over the course of time it is inevitable that even the lowliest of conference opposition will at least push the best teams in the conference for 55-60 minutes. A perfect example of this was USC dropping a game to Washington, a team who did not win a game last year. There's no gimmes anymore for the national title contenders, especially when they hit the road.

The UW-USC game brings up another interesting point. I cannot remember a time in the past couple of decades where so many high profile teams were dealing with serious injuries to key players. Oklahoma and USC were listed among the four sure-fire elites going into the season, but three weeks in the books and both have had injuries and subsequent losses. Oklahoma has been the most seriously hit with their Heisman winning quarterback Sam Bradford out for a month and his favorite target TE Jermaine Gresham gone for the season. Oklahoma will definitely struggle to keep up with Texas and Oklahoma State this year. USC only had temporary losses in QB Matt Barkley and FS Taylor Mays, but that was enough to let USC lose focus and lose to Washington. Notre Dame will need to find some young receiving talent to step up to replace Michael Floyd. All of these teams could very well be out of national title contention due to injuries, and all of a sudden, we have a whole new ballgame beyond just Texas and Florida.

A week after the epic Florida State - Miami showdown, the luster seemed to be off the theory that both were vastly improved after the Hurricanes had a bye and the Seminoles barely beat an FCS team. However, the perception swapped right back to great with Florida State's beatdown of BYU and Miami's dominance of Georgia Tech. Perhaps there's a lot more to the state of Florida than the Gators, which would be the first time since the early part of this decade that all three teams are relevant. Miami should be the unquestioned number one team in the country if they can navigate the next two games against Virginia Tech and Oklahoma, even with the aforementioned injuries at OU. More on the Hurricanes later as this week's matchup is the second truly must-see matchup of the season. The ACC comes into conference play with some bangs and bruises as only North Carolina and Miami remain undefeated. Still, the ACC is poised to remain as competitive as it was last year yet have teams on a higher level overall.

It's highly doubtful that anybody anticipated the losses by both Oklahoma teams this early, but the door is open for Texas, Texas Tech, Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska to step up and compete for the BCS. Colorado looked like a contender coming into 2009 but very well may be the worst team in the conference. It is clear that Missouri and Oklahoma will be highly challenged if they want to meet each other for the third straight year in the conference championship.

The Big Ten has suffered in the national media because they have struggled on the bowl scene and in big games the past few years. The best thing that could happen for the Big Ten may be only sending one team to the BCS, but the Big Ten has sent the maximum two teams nine out of the past eleven years. This means the already tough bowl matchups get even harder as every team must move up to the next bowl when the BCS takes two. The resurgence of Michigan is the biggest story headed into conference play, but this should be a three team show between Iowa, Penn State, and Ohio State. The first big test comes Saturday night as Iowa heads to Happy Valley.

The Pacific 10 seemed like same old same old with USC coming in as the dominating favorite. However, the Trojans are lucky to not be 1-2 after getting dominated by the Buckeyes and then getting beat by the Huskies. California has an amazing ball-control offense with Heisman contender RB Javhid Best and nabbed a huge win at Minnesota last week to become the new conference favorite. Despite some early hiccups, Oregon and Oregon State should also compete while UCLA and Stanford make some noise as well. The Pac-10 has USC in last place in the conference standings, which may be the best thing that can happen for conference fans.

The SEC flexed its muscle as usual in out-of-conference play, including in the high profile Alabama-Virginia Tech game. Florida looks very vulnerable all of a sudden and Oklahoma and USC have already proved this season will not go as the prognosticators guessed. Alabama will definitely contend and Mississippi, LSU, and Auburn hae all bagged impressive starts as well. Florida can probably still be penciled in for an SEC championship, but the winner of the West will be more than a mere bump in the road for the Gators.

The Big East brings up the rear in many BCS discussions, and I suppose placing them out of order pigeonholes them in this article too. However, this conference race is much simpler than the others. West Virginia showed some glaring issues at Auburn, South Florida will fall off the map without QB Matt Grothe, and Rutgers was blown off the face of New Jersey in week 1. Pittsburgh has had a good start, but this season has now become all about whether defending conference champion Cincinnati can run the table and perhaps make a surprise appearance in the National Championship. That would be quite a coup for a much-maligned conference.

The first game of the week is TCU at Clemson. The Horned Frogs have already been to ACC country to beat Virginia, but Clemson is a whole new level of competition. TCU has a very strong rushing attack led by Joseph Turner, but the Clemson front seven should be up to the task of slowing down this offense. On the other side of the ball, RB C.J. Spiller is off to a good start and will also churn up some clock and some yards against the Horned Frogs. This game should be relatively fast-paced because both teams would like to establish the tun first. Death Valley is a mighty tough palce to play, but Clemson is still a little overmatched by the Horned Frogs in this one. TCU wins by 10.

The second game of the week is the primetime battle between Iowa and Penn State. The Hawkeyes did struggle to beat the FCS Northern Iowa in week 1, but since then have been very dominant in beating two BCS schools while Penn State has beaten up on nobody as usual. The Nittany Lions were ambushed in Iowa City last year, but this game has been circled for revenge in Happy Valley since last November. Nevertheless, Iowa will be a game opponent as the new freshman duo rusing attack of Brandon Wegher and Adam Robinson will challenge the backup linebackers Penn State is having to play due to injuries. Penn State is also very questionable on the offensive line, and it will be very interesting to see if the three games of preseason-level competition have prepared the Nittany Lions to push back and protect against Iowa's defensive front. The makings of an upset are right there on the table again, but Penn State will only be knocked off at home by a superior team, and Iowa is not quite that good this year. PSU wins by 7.

The top game of the week is undoubtedly Miami at Virginia Tech. The last time these two teams were elite at the same time, the two combatants were playing for Big East titles. However, the ACC is happy to have both teams in the spotlight again and this is a huge opportunity for both teams. Virginia Tech was posied to perhaps go undefeated before the loss against a tough Alabama team, but beating an up-and-coming Miami squad would put the Hokies back in the driver's seat for a BCS berth if nothing else. Miami is in that brutal stretch listed above, but at 2-0 this is a chance to become a national power again in familiar Blacksburg. The Miami offense is led by QB Jacory Harris, who is throwing for over 300 yards per game against quality defenses. Virginia Tech will not be excited to see another wide-open attack, but the battles against Alabama and Nebraska can only help the Hokies now. Tyrod Taylor should have more room to make plays against the Hurricane defense, but expect Miami to throw lots of blitzes and hidden coverages to try and force some mistakes. Although every instinct tells me to go with the Hokies on this one, let's go against the gut and try and improve on the lackluster 4-5 start with an upset. Miami wins by 3.

2009 GOTW Record: 4-5
Last Week: 1-2

Fitz Top 10 - Week 3
1. Florida (3-0)
2. Alabama (3-0)
3. Texas (3-0)
4. Boise State (3-0)
5. California (3-0)
6. Penn State (3-0)
7. Mississippi (2-0)
8. TCU (2-0)
9. LSU (3-0)
10. Oklahoma (2-1)

Just Missed: USC, Ohio State, Cincinnati, Virginia Tech, Miami

There are a lot of undefeated teams left out there three weeks in, but expect many of these to fall by the wayside quickly with stronger and more familiar opponents in conference play. In about three weeks we'll reach the halfway point and start to formulate the picture for how the BCS and national championship pictures will shape up in October and November. For right now, we only have to enjoy the journey as the unexpected continues to happen every weekend. See you next week!

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