It's nearly Halloween, the leaves are off the trees, and the weather has turned cold. Yet it feels like Opening Day of the college football season to me. That's because -- finally -- the real football schedule kicks off this weekend.
I've been an AP football poll voter, on and off, since 1993, and except for the crazy 2004 scramble (when I didn't have a vote, fortunately), I cannot recall a season in which so many top teams seemed a mystery to me. Alabama, the defending champion and still owner of the most ferocious defense this side of the NFL, appears a legitimate No. 1, but even it hasn't beaten an elite opponent. (Sorry, Michigan.)
And the other teams at the top of the polls have similar holes, similar question marks, in their own résumés. Notre Dame's defense seems dominating, but do the Irish really have the offense of a national contender? Oregon is its usual track-meet self, but does blowing out Arizona, Arizona State and Washington prove they're ready to take on the Tide? Kansas State might have the most impressive season to date, winning easily in Oklahoma and West Virginia; might the Wildcats be the real No. 1?
Fortunately, the power centers of college football should make themselves known this weekend and next. More than half of the top 15 teams, as ranked by AP, face off against each other on Saturday in four games that should winnow the title contenders. How's this for a great Saturday?
No. 15 Texas Tech at No. 4 Kansas State: The Wildcats' schedule is tough but manageable, and 12-0 is within reach. Tech has gotten little attention but could move up fast by beating KSU and Texas next week.
No. 5 Notre Dame at No. 8 Oklahoma: Without a Big 12 championship to create a rematch with Kansas State, the Sooners' chances of climbing into the BCS title picture appear dim. But a victory in Norman, and one next month at USC, might be enough to catapult the Irish to the second spot in the BCS rankings.
No. 3 Florida at No. 12 Georgia: The SEC East title might be at stake here, and that's critical, especially for one-loss Georgia, because winning the conference title game is their only realistic hope of impressing poll voters enough to climb the rankings.
No. 13 Mississippi State at No. 1 Alabama: The Bulldogs have ridden an incredibly soft schedule to national attention, but Alabama, Texas A&M and LSU on consecutive weeks will establish their real identity.
Next Saturday brings Alabama at LSU and Oregon at USC. The Big Ten would love to join in the national title talk, but its teams played themselves out of that with a lousy September (or in Ohio State's case, an NCAA postseason ban).
But the conference can gain clarity of its own this weekend, too. We'll learn whether Ohio State or Penn State should be most despondent about being ineligible for the postseason. The winner of their showdown in State College, Pa., will likely earn at least part of a Leaders Division championship but forfeit the right to play for a Rose Bowl berth. And the Legends Division front-runner will be decided Saturday, too, when Michigan visits Nebraska for the first time since 1911.
So get ready for a big couple of weekends of football. The presidency isn't the only high office that's going to be decided by early November.