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September 20, 2006 ďSeparation SaturdayĒ did a world of good in giving the country a better idea of which teams will be contenders and which will be pretenders for the national championship and BCS bowl invitations in January. But along with signaling the teams to look out for, week three of the college schedule also gave some valuable insight into the reasons why some teams can be considered elite and others are have a ways to go before dawning that moniker.

No disrespect to Louisville and West Virginia who are both fantastic football teams and have been for a few years, but after Ohio State separated itself from the pack in week two down deep in the heart of Texas, last weekendís games saw Auburn, USC, Michigan, and LSU put themselves on another level of quality atop all the rest in college football, with Florida trailing close behind.

Big early-season wins have a habit of giving a team a confidence that canít be gained by playing a Division 1AA rent-a-win team. And the big five or six in college football seem to be sitting pretty for a nice run from here on out. And yes, I know LSU lost last weekend.

But lost in the heart of these big wins sometimes - or in LSUís case, big loss - besides the obvious, is the very real physical differences between the contenders and pretenders on the college football landscape. And for proof of that fact we need look no further than USCís game with Nebraska, Michiganís game with Notre Dame, and the SEC battle-royal slugfest that was Auburn-LSU.

The visual images of these three games were stunning, and told me everything I needed to know as the season marches toward the middle stages of the schedule. Clearly, and people in all parts of the country would disagree, USC is the best team in the country, but Ohio State, Auburn, Michigan, and LSU are nipping at their heels. The Trojans' game with a very good Nebraska team was proof positive of USCís superiority in every unit and facet of its wildly talented team. The USC lines, backs and backers, quarterback, receivers, defensive backs, and kickers are loaded with phenomenal athletes and playmakers that can go back to the second and third strings without missing much of a beat. Of course, this is the payoff for having the top overall recruiting class in three of the last four years. And the quality of the Trojans showed in their workmanlike dismantling of the Cornhuskers on Saturday night.

In the end, the Cornhuskers, despite their outstanding front sevenís great effort, didnít have an athletic match for Dwayne Jarrett on the outside, and USC always has the quarterbacking talent to make you pay for such glaring weaknesses. On the other side of the ball, Nebraska did a decent job of blocking the USC front early on, but couldnít make enough strides to do anything significant. And when they decided to pass, which wasnít very often, the receivers had no chance of beating the more talented USC secondary. Many fans after the game, and Kirk Herbstreit during the broadcast, called for Nebraska coach Bill Callahan to open things up and air it out a little more. But Callahan is no dummy, and knew it would have been suicide to put his teams into 2nd-and-10s and 3rd-and-long situations against Pete Carroll and the Trojans.

Throughout the course of the day, the same scenario was played out in South Bend, Indiana, as the Michigan Wolverines put a colossal-sized hurting on the Fightless Irish from Notre Dame.

Nothing could have been done in hindsight. The Wolverines did exactly what a more talented team is supposed to do to an unathletic pretender to the college football throne. Like Nebraska, Notre Dame, with all the hype and expectations of a true resurgence to play out in the form of a 2006 national championship, simply doesnít have the horses to compete with the big dogs of college football when they are on their game. And let me be the 500th person to say it, but Michigan was on its very impressive and overwhelming game on Saturday afternoon.

What stood out most in Big Blueís bending over of the Irish was the glaring differences in the defensive speed of the two teams. Whereas Michigan has more than a few players (Leon Hall being the best of the bunch) who are the athletic superior of the Notre Dame receivers, there was nobody on the field, bench, or in the crowd in South Bend that had a remote chance of covering the fantastic Mario Manningham on Saturday. And like Ted Ginn and Santonio Holmes torched the Irish in the Fiesta Bowl, Super Mario had Irish faithful trashing their old Nintendo game systems in an attempt to never think about the name, and the day, ever again.

But although #86 was the recipient of most glaring physical mismatch of the day, it was the Michigan defenseís too fast and too physical play that re-routed the Irish title-bound train for destinations now unknown. Brady Quinn and the Irish offense seemed unable to cope with the speed, disciplined play, and athleticism coach Carrís bunch put out on the field in Notre Dame Stadium, and seemed very uncomfortable playing against such a quick defense. Ohio State and Georgia Tech provided the blueprint in previous games, Penn State refused to follow, and Michigan added its variations on the winning theme to stop the Notre Dame running game cold and harass Quinn in to bad throws, a number of costly turnovers, and more than a few sleepless nights this week.

After all the shouting was finished, the game - like the Nebraska-USC game - came down to speed. One team had it, and the other did not. Seperation Saturday was definitely doing what it was billed all week to do.

And without further ado, since weíre talking about having speed in the ranks, there is a reason why the SEC is the best conference in football. Please, say it with me now on ď3Ē...ready? 1...2...3...SPEED!

During the USCóNebraska game, one of the announcers (canít remember if it was Herbstreit or Davie) made the comment that USCís defense was beginning to look a lot like an SEC defense, and what a horrifying reality it produced given the Tojans' otherworldly offensive prowess. I happen to think itís a true statement and is the reason why USC is, well, USC right now. The defense is incredible. But down in the plains Saturday, two SEC defenses played each other and showed the nation why the ABC announcerís comments about USC were so complimentary. Outside of USC, Ohio State, and Florida State, nobody has the talent on defense or plays it any better than the elite teams of the SEC.

If you took the time to watch the game - and you canít possibly call yourself a true fan of college football if you didnít, unless, of course, your team was playing at the same time - you quickly found out or reaffirmed what the SEC is all about: big, fast athletes shooting at opposing offenses in waves of contact-thirsty, multicolored blurs on search and destroy missions determined on blowing up blocks and taking down opposing ball carriers.

The SEC separates the men from the boys, and LSU and Auburnís defenses separated themselves from the rest of the men by putting on a display of greatness often seen in the SEC, and seldom seen anywhere else. The hitting was tremendous, the athletes were even more tremendous, and neither team gave an inch as each second, each play, and each quarter took both teamís game up to another level in hopes of sustaining its national title hopes. Unfortunately, one team had to lose the game; but this is the way of the SEC (and more reason why Auburn never should have been left out of the championship game in 2004). If you can stand up to that gauntlet of super-talented and well-coached teams, you can play with anybody on Godís green and blue planet.

Florida made its own statement in front of the Rocky Top hootiní and holleriní of Neyland Stadium, so the race hasnít been decided yet. But if I were Notre Dame, West Virginia, or Louisville - teams looking to sneak their way into the BCS title game - Iíd be thanking my lucky stars that I donít play in the SEC, and can continue to go on living life as pretenders wrapped in contenderís clothing.

In the end, like any sport, college football comes down to experienced talent. The programs with the best combination of the two have the advantage over everyone else. USC, Auburn, Michigan, Ohio State, Florida, and LSU have positioned themselves as being a cut above the rest in the college football world. Now itís up to the rest of the country to show thereís not as much separation as Saturday seemed to show.

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