First impressions not always right

Separation Saturday paved the way for Sleepwalk Saturday.

But even though many of the nation's best teams didn't bring their "A" games this past weekend, all played well enough to survive without any major scares. There were no losses among the top 8 in the polls, and that gets us one step closer to what could be a season-defining day on Nov. 1. (More on that next week if the top teams all win again.)

At least one national title contender was wide awake on Saturday, however. In its second 31-point victory over Notre Dame in 11 months, Southern California displayed the same dominance we saw at the end of 2002 and beginning of 2003. That, combined with Georgia's lackluster performance against Vanderbilt, made for some challenging decisions by poll voters on Sunday.

The Trojans solidified their hold on the fourth spot in the coaches' poll, but they couldn't quite overtake the Bulldogs for fourth in the AP poll. This means the teams share an average poll ranking of 4.5 in the first BCS Standings.

This is significant because the biggest advantage a once-beaten team can have in the national title chase is to be ranked higher in the polls than every other team with a loss. And although USC and Georgia are currently cohabitating in the catbird seat, the inside track to poll supremacy clearly switched from the Bulldogs to the Trojans over the weekend.

Earning Their Stripes
That growling you hear in the distance is coming from the plains of Auburn. Left for dead after losses to Southern Cal and Georgia Tech, the Tigers are suddenly playing like the elite team many projected them to be in the preseason. With three blowout victories surrounding a pair of wins over Top-10 teams, Auburn is a squad nobody wants to play right now.

That's good news for USC, which could reap BCS benefits from its win over Auburn if the Tigers' record continues to improve. Not only does a strong Auburn make for a stronger USC in the computers, but that early-season win would also contribute bonus points to the Trojans if the Tigers reach the top 10 of the BCS Standings.

Auburn's improvement is not as exciting for Georgia, because the Bulldogs might have to face AU twice before the season is over. The teams square off in Athens on Nov. 15, and if they each win their respective divisions of the SEC, they would play again on Dec. 6 at the conference championship game in Atlanta. And it just so happens that Auburn has won the last five meetings between these teams in the state of Georgia.

It's not out of the realm of possibility that the Tigers could even get themselves back into the national title picture, but with two losses they will obviously need a lot of help. Don't forget that twice-beaten Colorado was within decimal points of playing for the 2001 championship and finished ahead of three major-conference teams that had only one loss.

The Frontrunners
Although Georgia, USC and several other once-beaten teams are still in the race, the fact remains that the three major-conference undefeateds -- Oklahoma, Miami and Virginia Tech -- are all alone on the lead lap. At least two of those three must fall for the rest of the field to have a chance.

But in every previous year of the BCS, the outlook of the one-loss teams has been less encouraging than this at the initial release of the standings. With only three unbeaten contenders this year, there is a higher-percentage chance than ever for those teams that need a little help.

This season most resembles 2000, in which only the top three spots in the initial standings went to teams with perfect records, and two of those three still had to play each other in the regular season (Oklahoma and Nebraska). OU and Virginia Tech were both in the top 3 that year, as well.

As it turned out, the Sooners beat the Huskers, the Hokies lost to Miami, and Florida State climbed into the final No. 2 spot amid much controversy. It's just a reminder that plenty can still happen.

A look at the brief history of the BCS also shows us that holding one of the coveted top-2 positions means relatively little at this stage of the season. In the first five years of this system, only four of the 10 teams that had the inside track on the first day of the standings were still there on the last day. Only three of the 10 didn't lose a game the rest of the season.

The Others
Northern Illinois and TCU also continued their winning ways over the weekend, but now the real fun starts for them. After both appear in this week's initial BCS Standings, the hype surrounding their status as undefeated teams from non-BCS conferences will intensify with every outing. In fact, NIU could feel the pressure immediately when ESPN's College GameDay shows up Saturday to the Huskies' game at Bowling Green.

As long as these teams keep winning, the questions will persist: Can they reach the top 6 of the final BCS Standings -- and secure automatic entry into a BCS game -- if they go undefeated? Is it unfair if they finish undefeated and don't make the top 6?

It's interesting that the BCS system adds both pressure and publicity to these teams' seasons, even though it doesn't offer a realistic chance for them to be rewarded for successfully navigating the difficult road.

The decision to eliminate scoring margin as a factor in the BCS computer ratings a few years ago ended any reasonable hope for a team not from a BCS conference to finish in the top 6. The reason: Having no margin of victory places more emphasis on schedule strength -- an element that is always weak among non-BCS teams because of conference games. Previously, a weak schedule could have been somewhat offset by proving superiority on the scoreboard. But now, non-BCS schools have no choice but to watch helplessly as their BCS numbers deteriorate as the season progresses.

Northern Illinois has three nonconference wins over teams from BCS conferences, but it appears that only Maryland is helping the Huskies' cause at this point. Alabama and Iowa State are not enjoying the success they had a year ago, so those wins now mean very little for NIU.

One small bit of consolation for the Huskies is that they are making the highest debut of any non-BCS school ever in the BCS Standings. TCU is also in the same neighborhood.

BCS Standings
1. Oklahoma -- Win and they're in.
2. Miami -- Big test at Va. Tech on Nov. 1.
3. Virginia Tech -- Plenty of obstacles left to clear.
4. Georgia -- Can't afford to fall behind USC in coaches' poll.
5. Florida State -- Suck it up and pull for the Gators until Nov. 29.
6. Ohio State -- Ends season with Michigan State, Purdue and Michigan.
7. Southern California -- Wants to see Auburn keep winning.
8. Purdue -- Must win at Michigan and OSU to have a chance.
9. Washington State -- Beat USC and hope for much help.
10. Northern Illinois -- Huge hurdles remaining at Bowling Green and Toledo.

FYI: Every national championship game participant in the five years of the BCS has been ranked in the Top 6 of the initial standings.

Brad Edwards is a researcher for ESPN. His Road to the BCS column appears every Sunday.