With all due respect to the teams that were expected to be good and the mid-majors that are doing everything in their power to crash the BCS party, the 2012 season has been made exciting by several upstart teams that are exceeding preseason expectations.
The following is a look at undefeated teams from BCS automatic qualifying conferences that began the season unranked in the Associated Press preseason poll.
Their résumé: Considering they haven’t had a season above .500 since 2008 (and even that season was a modest 7-6), the Gophers’ 4-0 start to the season is a big step in the right direction. In the past two weeks they’ve beaten Western Michigan and Syracuse, which are respectable––though not flashy––wins.
Senior who will make a living in the NFL: quarterback MarQueis Gray. Known more as a mobile quarterback that can hurt you with his legs, Gray is not a protypical pro-style quarterback, but his athleticism can’t be overlooked at the next level. Gray has been sidelined by a high ankle sprain this season but should return in time to make an impact in Big Ten conference play.
Final verdict: Jerry Kill’s club will find their Big Ten conference schedule to be much tougher than their non-conference slate, but they only need two more wins to make a bowl. Kill’s track record indicates he’ll mold Minnesota into a contender in the next few seasons. Floyd of Rosedale is on the line this weekend when the Gophers visit Iowa, and it looks like a winnable game.
Their résumé: The Wildcats have three non-conference wins over teams from BCS automatic-qualifying conferences by beating Syracuse, Vanderbilt and Boston College. That might not be murderer’s row, but it’s a better out-of-conference schedule than most other college teams.
Senior will make a living in the NFL: guard Brian Mulroe. Mulroe is in his third consecutive season as the starter at left guard after being named honorable mention All-Big Ten as a junior.
Final verdict: Year in and year out, Pat Fitzgerald does more with less than most other coaches in the country. Northwestern will qualify for a bowl game. The next step is to win one. The Wildcats have lost nine straight bowl games, which is tied for the NCAA record.
Their résumé: Coming on the heels of a Big East win over South Florida, Rutgers followed that up with one of the biggest wins in school history with a road victory at Arkansas. A win over the Razorbacks may not appear as strong as it did before the season, but it’s still a victory over an SEC opponent.
Senior who will make a living in the NFL: linebacker Khaseem Greene. Greene is an impact player who’s already made 41 tackles, four for a loss, two sacks, four passes defensed and a forced fumble. He’ll be an early round NFL draft choice.
Final verdict: Rutgers’ upcoming schedule sets very nicely with its next five games against Connecticut, Syracuse, Temple, Kent State and Army. They’re a legitimate Big East title contender, but the evidence may not come until late in the season.
Their résumé: A season-opening victory over Pitt didn’t look like anything special at the time, but after Pitt beat Virginia Tech, Cincinnati can now feel better about themselves. Only two games into the season, however, the jury is still out on the Bearcats.
Who will make a living in the NFL: defensive end Walter Stewart. In just two games, Stewart already has 3.5 tackles for a loss, two sacks and a forced fumble. At 249 lbs., he’s an undersized defensive lineman but could be an outside linebacker in the NFL.
Final verdict: Cincinnati’s own date with Virginia Tech is on Saturday, which will be a good litmus test of their legitimacy. Get by the Hokies, and then the Bearcats can consider themselves a threat in the Big East.
Their résumé: The most impressive win thus far is against a New Mexico team that was 1-11 last season and one of the worst teams in FBS. Despite the less than stellar schedule, Texas Tech’s defensive improvement is notable as they currently rank No. 1 in the nation in total defense by allowing only 160.3 yards per game.
Senior who will make a living in the NFL: offensive tackle LaAdrian Waddle. An all-conference selection the past two years, Waddle was honorable mention in 2010 and second-team in 2011.
Final verdict: A lot will be learned about Texas Tech as they travel on Saturday to Ames to take on the next team on this list, Iowa State. The winner gets a leg up in the race to become bowl eligible.
Their résumé: The Cyclones can boast of a win over in-state rival Iowa, but beating the Hawkeyes is less impressive in 2012 than most other seasons. Still, an undefeated start to the season is never taken for granted in Ames.
Senior who will make a living in the NFL: linebacker A.J. Klein. The Kimberly, Wis. native is the reigning co-Big XII Defensive Player of the Year. He’s off to a modest start to the 2012 season, but his contributions will take on greater importance now that conference play is beginning.
Final verdict: The Big XII is so tough that it will be difficult for Iowa State to get bowl eligibility, but coach Paul Rhoads has a way of exceeding expectations and coming up with a big-time upset like he did last season by shocking Oklahoma State and ending their chance at the national championship.
Their résumé: The Bears haven’t beaten anyone of note, but they were able to win a road game at Louisiana-Monroe who beat Arkansas and took Auburn to overtime. For a team that lost Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III, however, starting 3-0 is a major achievement.
Senior who will make a living in the NFL: wide receiver Terrance Williams. Through three games, Williams already has 17 catches for 353 yards and four touchdowns. He’s a first-round draft choice and could be the first player at his position taken overall.
Final verdict: In order to win, Baylor will have to out-score opponents, because they’re not going to stop them. We’ll find out more about Art Briles’ club this weekend when they travel to West Virginia in what is probably the weekend’s marquee matchup.
Their résumé: Oregon State has only played two games, but it’s hard to find a more impressive pair of wins. Victories over Wisconsin and UCLA said a lot about the Beavers’ run defense. In stopping Montee Ball and Johnathan Franklin, Oregon State should find their confidence brimming.
Senior who will make a living in the NFL: wide receiver Markus Wheaton. His draft stock seemingly improves with each passing game. Through two games, Wheaton has 17 catches for 237 yards and a touchdown. At only 6-0, Wheaton must prove he has next-level speed to make it in the NFL.
Final verdict: The tests are only going to get tougher once the Beavers get deeper into their Pac-12 schedule, but Mike Riley is usually up to the challenge. The Beavers may not be the conference’s representative in the Rose Bowl, but they should find themselves in a nice bowl game.
Their résumé: A win over Auburn is nothing to scoff about, but it’s the only notable victory four games into the season. Still, 4-0 is 4-0, and that’s not something that happens with frequency in Starkville.
Senior who will make a living in the NFL: cornerback Johnthan Banks. Banks had a really, really solid 2011 season with five interceptions, three sacks, three forced fumbles and eight tackles for a loss, and he’s proving it wasn’t a fluke with three interceptions already in 2012. Banks is a potential first-round draft choice.
Final verdict: The SEC schedule starts easy and gets progressively harder. With the Bulldogs’ next three games against Kentucky, Tennessee and Middle Tennessee, they could be 7-0 heading into a late October date with Alabama.
Where College Gameday Is At
This week College Gameday is in East Lansing, Mich. for the Ohio State-Michigan State matchup in a battle for supremacy in the Big Ten.
The Big Ten may not be among the top couple conferences in the nation, but these are still two nice teams, and had Ohio State not found itself ineligible, this very well could have been a preview of the conference championship game.
Because Ohio State is ineligible for the postseason, it would seem as if observers are discounting the Buckeyes this season. At 4-0, they’re only ranked 14th in the Associated Press poll.
Certainly, Urban Meyer’s crew has their flaws. On offense, they don’t have a lot going outside of Braxton Miller. The Buckeyes quarterback has been dangerous as a dual threat runner-passer with seven touchdowns both through the air and on the ground.
This game lost some of its luster when Michigan State fell to Notre Dame at home two weeks ago. Andrew Maxwell hasn’t adequately replaced Kirk Cousins as the Spartans’ quarterback, and the offense is struggling as a result.
Michigan State is hanging its hat on the defense, which currently ranks sixth in the nation in total defense giving up an average of only 233.5 yards per game.
Prediction: The Spartans will game plan to stop Miller, and they have the horses to do it on the defensive side of the football. In a close game, Michigan State prevails 21-20.
The Wisconsin Connection
The Badgers put together their best performance of the season in a win over UTEP last week, but it came at the expense of losing running back Montee Ball midgame due to a concussion.
Losing a Heisman Trophy finalist is less of a concern than many might think, however, as Wisconsin is stocked at running back. Melvin Gordon rushed for 112 yards on only eight carries and James White added 65 yards on 15 carries after Ball exited.
On the defensive side of the football, the Badgers still have not forced a turnover yet in 2012 with the season one-third over.
The degree of difficulty is ramped up significantly as Wisconsin starts Big Ten conference play on Saturday by visiting Nebraska.
Because they’re getting improved quarterback play from Taylor Martinez, the Huskers offense is operating more efficiently this season, but they still haven’t beat anybody noteworthy.
Prediction: The way the Badgers have played this season, it’s difficult to see them beat a ranked team on the road. Huskers prevail, 23-17.
What Happened Before Saturday
Washington got arguably its best win since 2010 when it beat USC on the road by getting past eighth-ranked Stanford on Thursday evening by a score of 17-13.
After trailing late 13-3 late in the third quarter, the Huskies got two touchdowns on a 61-yard run by running back Bishop Sankey and a 35-yard reception by wide receiver Kasen Williams with less than five minutes remaining.
Washington stopped Stanford by stuffing running back Stepfan Taylor who was limited to only 75 yards on 21 carries. The previous week, Taylor was the hero as Stanford upset USC, and he rushed for 153 yards.
It was a fantastic defensive gameplan that stopped the Cardinal rushing attack and forced Stanford to beat the Huskies through the air, which it was incapable of doing. Washington got just enough offense to win, despite a leaky offensive line, and did its best to mask the deficiencies.
***To see which NFL teams are sending scouts to college football games this weekend, check out the website of NFL Draft analyst Chris Steuber.***
Brian Carriveau is the author of “It’s Just a Game: Big League Drama in Small Town America,” a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and an editor at Cheesehead TV. To contact Brian, email email@example.com.