Alabama came into this season with question marks at quarterback, running back and offensive line. Few expected a second undefeated run through the regular season in as many years.
The Crimson Tide is 10-0 after handling Mississippi State 31-3 on Saturday.
Auburn came into this season with question marks everywhere, starting at head coach. Another losing season looked possible, if not likely.
The Tigers are 7-4, despite a 31-24 loss at Georgia on Saturday.
Jacksonville State had no prospects, thanks to a postseason ban, yet the Gamecocks have made a statement. They are 7-1 against teams on their level and dominated most, including Tennessee Tech in Saturday's 55-28 romp.
If eligible, JSU would have been the top preseason pick in the Ohio Valley Conference. The Gamecocks can still finish with the best league record or at least tied for the fewest league losses.
All three teams have met or exceeded expectations, though JSU and Auburn lost winnable games and Alabama won itself weekly dominance comparisons with Florida and Texas.
The Iron Bowl and JSU's season finale against Eastern Kentucky lie ahead. Those games can change views of the season for all three.
But one can stuff a leaf bag with reasons to call it a successful fall for Alabama, Auburn and JSU, to say nothing of postseason prospects for the Tide and Tigers.
McClain is Tide's MVP
Running back Mark Ingram is making a nice run at becoming Alabama's first Heisman Trophy winner. He's a deserving candidate, arguably the leading candidate at this point, but is he even the Tide's MVP?
Saturday's game at Mississippi State was billed as a showdown between Ingram and MSU's Anthony Dixon, the nation's sixth- and eighth-leading rushers prior to kickoff.
Ingram won statistically, but Tide middle linebacker Rolando McClain rightfully got much credit for Alabama's holding Dixon to 81 rushing yards.
McClain is the clear leader and top player for the nation's third-ranked defense.
Defense keys Alabama. The defense has kept pressure off of Alabama's offense and carried the Tide through three October games that could have derailed the team's national title prospects.
Anyone who has seen McClain make tackles from one sideline to the next, pressure quarterbacks and cover tight ends knows what he means to the defense.
Alabama coach Nick Saban has called McClain a "coach on the field."
There are awards for players who, like McClain, make their impact on defense. Maybe the Heisman should be one of them more often.
Chizik better wake up Auburn
Auburn must get over a game of would-haves and could-haves against Georgia and prepare for what will be a heavily favored Alabama team, and the Tigers have someone who remembers well the most recent the Iron Bowl set up like that.
First-year head coach Gene Chizik was Auburn's defensive coordinator in 2002, when the Tigers overcame a dramatic disappointment against Georgia plus injuries to their top three running backs to upset Alabama.
It'll take an historic upset for Auburn to do something similar in 2009. For as long as records track pregame rankings, an unranked team has never beaten a team ranked either No. 1 or No. 2 in the Iron Bowl. Most such games were routs.
It's also uncertain what personnel answers Chizik could find to stop Alabama's running game and attack Alabama's defense in a way no team has.
This year's game also serves up a much different coaching match-up. Tommy Tuberville was at least an equal to Dennis Franchione in 2002 and better in big games. Chizik must outwit Nick Saban.
But Chizik was there to see how an Auburn staff repaired wounded psyches and restored confidence despite injuries to Carnell Williams, Ronnie Brown and Brandon Johnson.
That 2002 staff got it done in one week — Chizik gets two.
Chizik also has the benefit of Auburn playing Alabama at home. That 2002 game was in Tuscaloosa.
JSU set for biggest game
JSU recovered its dominating form against Tennessee Tech, just in time for the Gamecocks' de facto bowl game.
JSU will finish at home, against Eastern Kentucky. The Colonels are 5-2 in OVC play and were one of two FCS teams that beat JSU last season, keeping the Gamecocks out of the playoffs.
Saturday's game is the chance for JSU to conclude a season of mostly dominating its opponents with a similar finish.
In a season where JSU will have played only four home games, it's a chance to walk off of the Paul Snow Stadium turf like champions.
This comes with what JSU coach Jack Crowe is calling a "statement in steel" that looms over the visiting side. The new suites and expanded seating are due for completion for the 2010 season.
A strong finish — added to dominating shows against most FCS opponents and a very-near upset of Florida State — would give JSU strong on-field memories to weigh against the postseason ban.
It would mean that JSU likely would have been a playoff team with prospects to win a game or two, a bittersweet likelihood.
It would make a nice send-off into what, one would hope, will be a ban-free future.