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Instant Replay: Alabama separates from SEC

Nick Saban saw the team he wants No. 1 Alabama to be and it had to be a scary sight for the rest of the Southeastern Conference. Really, for the rest of the country.

For 30 minutes against Florida on Saturday night in Bryant-Denney Stadium, Saban's Crimson Tide played nearly perfect football.

Alabama's offense was sharp and balanced, blending the power of Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson with the precision of Greg McElroy. The improving defense was fast and furious, coached so well it looked as if it knew what was coming from the Gators at times.

"We have a program here, and we have a high expectation and high standard for how we want to play and what we want to do," Saban said after a 31-6 victory over Florida that included a 24-point first half.

The Crimson Tide showed its vulnerabilities in a come-from-behind 24-20 victory at Arkansas, as an inexperienced secondary struggled against star quarterback Ryan Mallett. A week later, that maturing defense, filled with five-star recruits, suffocated Urban Meyer's offense.

Normally, with six SEC regular-season games left it would be crazy to pencil in the Tide for a return trip to the BCS title game.

This season, in THIS SEC, well, you might even want to consider taking out the pen.

THE BIG STORY

Who can beat Alabama?

Conceding that there is no such thing as an unbeatable team, it's simply hard imagine the Tide losing.

The best chance might be Saturday, when Alabama visits No. 19 South Carolina, 'Bama's third consecutive week facing a ranked team.

Steve Spurrier has what looks to be his best squad in his six seasons in Columbia. Still, South Carolina ranks 10th in the league in defense and in the middle of the pack in offense. And Gamecocks quarterback Stephen Garcia is the kind of high-risk, high-reward player that Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart can feast upon.

Unless the grind of three straight huge game takes a toll on the Tide (think Saban would allow a letdown?), South Carolina (3-1) doesn't seem equipped to spring the upset.

Alabama has two more road trips after that, against Tennessee (Oct. 23) and No. 12 LSU (Nov. 6).

The Volunteers (2-3) are no threat. Six wins would be an accomplishment in coach Derek Dooley's first season in Knoxville. And that team nearly beat LSU in Death Valley on Saturday.

LSU is undefeated but rarely has 5-0 felt less promising. The Tigers' defense is stellar, led by star cornerback Patrick Peterson, but the offense is awful.

Only eight teams in the country are averaging less than the 131 yards per game LSU averages through the air. Coach Les Miles has taken to alternating quarterbacks Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee, which for LSU fans is sort of like alternating between banging your head against a wall and banging your head against a table.

How that offense could do enough to beat Alabama is inconceivable.

And still LSU probably has a better shot at beating the Tide than Mississippi (Oct. 16) or Mississippi State (Nov. 13), both of which come to Bryant-Denny Stadium.

The Tide essentially has a week off before the Iron Bowl, playing FCS newcomer Georgia State.

Auburn is undefeated and quarterback Cam Newton quickly has become one of the most dynamic players in the country. Also, Tigers offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn is one of the few coaches capable of matching wits with Saban and Smart.

But the Tigers have needed some good fortune to beat South Carolina, Clemson and Mississippi State.

That leaves the SEC championship game and maybe a rematch with Florida. Alabama has outscored the Gators 63-19 in the last two meetings. There's no reason to believe the next round will be drastically different.

Especially considering this Tide team seems to be getting better.

"I was very pleased with the passion and intensity we played with in the first half," Saban said. "We just have to focus on doing that all of the time."

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IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads beat his former Auburn boss, Tommy Tuberville, as the Cyclones knocked off Texas Tech 52-38 in Ames on Saturday.

The Cyclones (3-2) are halfway to a second straight bowl bid, which would be a huge accomplishment for Rhoads, in his second year after replacing Gene Chizik. Iowa State still plays No. 10 Utah, Texas, No. 6 Oklahoma, No. 7 Nebraska and No. 24 Missouri, so getting bowl-eligible will be tough. But beating Tech at home was essential to reaching that goal.

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QUICK HITS

— Rutgers (2-2) lost 17-14 at home to Tulane and while coach Greg Schiano is certainly in no danger of being let go, his star has fallen. Not long ago, Miami and Michigan came calling for Schiano and he was thought to be a possible replacement for Joe Paterno at Penn State.

— There are 18 undefeated major college teams. Only Kansas State (4-0) and Northwestern (5-0) are absent from the AP Top 25. The Big 12's Wildcats get their big chance to break into the rankings Thursday night when Nebraska comes to the Little Apple. The Big Ten's Wildcats, who have fattened up on cupcakes, could be on the way to 10 wins. Pat Fitzgerald's team plays neither Ohio State nor Michigan.

— Reports of TCU heading to the Big East might sound odd, but the marriage would make some sense. The Big East would love to dip into the Dallas market and TCU would do just about anything to be in a league with an automatic BCS bid.

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LOOKING AHEAD

Michigan's Denard Robinson has been doing incredible things against some very bad defenses. On Saturday, Robinson and the 18th-ranked Wolverines (5-0) step up to play at No. 17 Michigan State (5-0). The Spartans rank sixth in the Big Ten in total defense and third in rushing D, led by All-American linebacker Greg Jones.