Posted: Sunday October 2, 2011 8:09PM ; Updated: Monday October 3, 2011 2:23PM
Stewart Mandel

Five surprising undefeateds make marks as conference contenders

Story Highlights

Clemson and Michigan are among the formerly unranked teams making runs

With Oklahoma and Texas both undefeated, Red River is again must-see TV

Plus: Alabama's dominance, overrated and underrated teams, rogue officials

Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
Quarterback Tajh Boyd and Clemson have toppled three ranked foes in a row to move to 5-0 on the season.
Quarterback Tajh Boyd and Clemson have toppled three ranked foes in a row to move to 5-0 on the season.

Last week, I swooned over LSU and Alabama. Saturday night, I bestowed serious praise on Wisconsin. College football fans will hear plenty about Oklahoma and Texas this week, and plenty more about Boise State and Stanford when those teams play an opponent of note.

This week, however, we're here to analyze some other undefeated teams: the season's early surprises. They're not on any short lists for New Orleans just yet, but clearly expectations have changed for these five schools, which were all unranked when the season began.

No. 8 Clemson (5-0): The Tigers' third consecutive win over a ranked foe was their most resounding yet, SI Videoa 23-3 road rout of 11th-ranked Virginia Tech in which the defense overwhelmed Hokies quarterback Logan Thomas behind a dominant effort from defensive end Andre Branch (three sacks and a forced fumble).

Clemson has been a poster boy for inconsistency for years, but beating three ranked foes in a row requires a universal degree of self-confidence we simply haven't seen from the Tigers in the past.

"Coach [Dabo] Swinney calls it the 'Shock the World tour,'" said quarterback Tajh Boyd, who expectedly cooled down against Virginia Tech's defense but threw a 32-yard touchdown to tight end Dwayne Allen. "We really feel like we believe in what we can do."

Clemson is quite clearly the ACC favorite now. One could argue for fellow 5-0 surprise team Georgia Tech, with its powerful option offense. But the Jackets, who SI Videobeat N.C. State 45-35 on Saturday, haven't put on a defensive display like the Tigers did Saturday. The two meet Oct. 29 in Atlanta, and they could meet again in Charlotte in December.

No. 12 Michigan (5-0): Yes, we've seen this before (last season, in fact), but the Wolverines are crushing teams right now. They followed an impressive 28-7 win over San Diego State with SI Videoa 58-0 whitewash of Minnesota, in which coach Brady Hoke broke out a two-quarterback package that put Denard Robinson and Devin Gardner on the field at the same time.

But the real story has been the Michigan defense. These Wolverines aren't vastly more talented than last year's horrendous group, but they're flying to the ball and creating pressure and turnovers (12). They've allowed a combined 10 points the past three games. That's a big change from the disastrous Greg Robinson era.

Michigan finally hits the road the next two weeks against Northwestern and Michigan State, and while skeptics assume another midseason meltdown is coming, there's ample evidence to suggest things are different under Hoke. The Wolverines will run into trouble when they face some defenses capable of slowing down Robinson (the Spartans' No. 1-ranked unit comes to mind), but it's not like the Big Ten is brimming with heavyweights. There is one, Wisconsin, but Michigan doesn't play the Badgers. The Wolverines can contend in the wide-open Legends Division.

No. 19 Illinois (5-0): The Illini staged a frenetic rally to go from down 28-10 to up 31-28 against Northwestern, fell behind again 35-31, then scored the winning touchdown SI Videowith 13 second left. Receiver A.J. Jenkins had a career day, catching 12 passes for a staggering 268 yards and three touchdowns.

Illinois' defense did not have its finest hour, as Wildcats quarterback Dan Persa, making his first appearance of the season, threw four touchdowns before leaving with another injury. But the Illini still held Northwestern to a modest 332 total yards, and they rank among the top 20 nationally in total defense.

It's hard to imagine Illinois beating out Wisconsin in the Big Ten's Leaders division, but a favorable schedule coupled with the mediocrity of division members Ohio State and Penn State gives the Illini an outside shot of starting 9-0. More realistically, they'll stumble once along the way but could get to 10 wins by season's end, which might be good enough for a BCS berth.

No. 20 Kansas State (4-0): Hats off to Bill Snyder, who, at 71, hasn't lost his mojo. The Wildcats followed a nice win at Miami by becoming the first team to render Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III mortal -- at least a little bit. Griffin was 23-of-31 for 346 yards and five touchdowns, but linebacker Arthur Brown became the first player this season to intercept Griffin, and it set up K-State's go-ahead field goal late in SI Videoa 36-35 upset.

Quarterback Collin Klein has emerged as a decent dual-threat guy (he ran for 113 yards and threw for two touchdowns against the Bears), but the Wildcats are still limited offensively. Their run could end as soon as this week against Missouri.

Houston (5-0): No one's talking about him, but sixth-year record-setter Case Keenum is back doing his thing (69.7 percent completions for 2,005 yards, 14 touchdowns and two interceptions). Of course, the Houston defense is as shaky as always, giving up 538 yards in a 49-42 win over UTEP. Houston is the lone remaining undefeated non-AQ team outside of Boise State, but the defense is too suspect to string together a Boise-like dream season. A Conference USA title is perfectly realistic, though.

Alabama showing no pity

Alabama crushes Florida
Source: SI
The Tide defense suffocated the Gator offense, holding Florida to a paltry 15 rushing yards in a decisive 38-10 win.

Many of you thought my Alabama-LSU "de facto national championship" take was a bit premature last week. You should see some of the things being written this week. Their game is still five weeks away, and we're already talking rematch? Really?

But the excitement is understandably growing after the Crimson Tide put on another defensive clinic Saturday night at The Swamp. After allowing a long John Brantley touchdown pass early (Brantley later went down with what looked like a serious leg injury), 'Bama clamped down and suffocated the Gators in a 38-10 rout. Florida came in averaging 259 yards rushing; it finished with 15 on Saturday night. Factoring in the Week 4 Arkansas win, the Tide have held consecutive ranked opponents to a combined 32 rushing yards.

That doesn't seem humanly possible.

"Show no pity," 'Bama nose guard Josh Chapman said of the Tide's nasty defense. "In my mind we're trying to go out there and not give up anything."

'Bama plays three overmatched foes -- Vanderbilt, Ole Miss and Tennessee -- between now and Nov. 5, and it's possible the Tide could hold each to negative rushing yards. LSU has a tougher stretch, hosting Florida next week, visiting Knoxville, then facing Auburn, which improved to 237-0 in close games under Gene Chizik with Saturday's 16-13 upset of No. 10 South Carolina.

Sorry rest of the country, but the hype is only going to get louder over the next five weeks, especially now that LSU and 'Bama are No. 1 and No. 2 in the AP poll.
Hot Topics: NBA Draft Yasiel Puig NHL Playoffs NBA Playoffs Mark Cuban Jabari Parker
TM & © 2014 Time Inc. A Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you. Read our privacy guidelines, your California privacy rights, and ad choices.
SI CoverRead All ArticlesBuy Cover Reprint