Sizing up which surprise unbeaten is best positioned to make BCS run
Through four weeks of college football season, 27 FBS programs remain unbeaten
Many of the surprise teams' schedules set up favorably, could help extend streaks
Rutgers and Oregon State seem best positioned to make a true run at a BCS berth
It happens every year, in every sport. Each season, a few teams climb out of the cellar and emerge as unlikely contenders. And we look forward to it. Cheering for underdogs is part of the very fabric of fandom.
Through four weeks, the 2012 college football campaign has been no exception. Twenty-seven FBS teams remain undefeated, and for every Alabama, there's an Ohio; for every LSU, a Louisiana Tech. Of the current AQ-conference teams without a loss, eight were unranked in the preseason AP and Coaches' polls. Still, hope prevails for all 27: This year could be the year.
Of course, the vast majority of these teams will fade. The Tide will keep rolling, but the UTSA Roadrunners will likely slow their pace. Call it the BCS cycle of life. As November approaches, the feel-good stories make way for the perennial powers.
This edition of the Weekly Spotlight examines several of the unheralded unbeatens -- and their chances for extending their perfect seasons.
Take a look at the upcoming schedules for three under-the-radar unbeatens:
Team 1: Bye week; Oct. 6 at Connecticut; Oct. 13 vs. Syracuse; Oct. 20 at Temple
Team 2: Sept. 29 at Iowa; bye week; Oct. 13 vs. Northwestern; Oct. 20 at Wisconsin
Team 3: Bye week; Oct. 6 at Kentucky; Oct. 13 vs. Tennessee; Oct. 20 vs. Middle Tennessee
None of the above foes are ranked, and without knowing the three teams listed, each game appears winnable. Before the season, how many people thought Rutgers, Minnesota and Mississippi State, the three mystery teams, could all start 7-0?
Unlike the typical first-month upstarts, some of this year's Cinderellas could enjoy extended runs before the clock strikes midnight. Of the eight AQ-conference unbeatens that were unranked to start the year -- Cincinnati, Iowa State, Minnesota, Mississippi State, Northwestern, Oregon State, Rutgers and Texas Tech -- at least half stand a chance of entering the final week of October unscathed and poised for an improbable BCS run.
Which team has the best chance of cracking the BCS?
A three-tier approach best answers that question.
Tier 1 -- Ready to fall: Iowa State, Texas Tech
The Big 12 has seven schools that have yet to lose, the most of any league in the FBS. But while Kansas State, Texas, West Virginia, Baylor and TCU are largely known quantities, Iowa State and Texas Tech remain relative mysteries. The Cyclones have a sneaky-good defense (they currently rank second in pass efficiency defense) and a developing attack, while the Red Raiders have a prolific passer (Seth Doege has thrown for 858 yards and 12 touchdowns through four games) and a stable of receivers capable of making big plays.
Unfortunately, there's a catch. Iowa State hosts Texas Tech Saturday, and neither team's schedule relents from there. Iowa State plays Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Baylor by the end of October, and the Red Raiders take on Oklahoma, West Virginia, TCU, Kansas State and Texas in grueling succession. It'd take something close to a miracle for either team to keep its streak alive.
Tier 2 -- Intriguing underdogs: Cincinnati, Minnesota, Mississippi State, Northwestern
Cincinnati boasts a dual-threat quarterback in Munchie Legaux, a veteran running back in George Winn and the nation's third-ranked scoring defense through Week 4. But the Bearcats have played just two games, against Pitt and FCS Delaware State, and turned the ball over six times in the latter contest. They face Virginia Tech in Landover, Md., this weekend, and their performance should provide a better indication of what to expect from this team moving forward.
The two Big Ten squads, Minnesota and Northwestern, both benefit from their conference's deteriorated state; Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin all seem far more vulnerable than predicted. Both also feature dynamic playmakers. The Gophers' MarQueis Gray, though recovering from knee and ankle injuries, has blossomed into a dangerous quarterback after moving over from wideout in 2011, while the Wildcats' Venric Mark ranks fifth in the nation with 714 all-purpose yards -- 82 of which came on a punt return against Syracuse for the team's first points of the season.
If Minnesota and Northwestern can win their conference openers Saturday, they could meet in Minneapolis Oct. 13 in a matchup of improbable importance. Whichever team wins could challenge for a berth in Indianapolis: In addition to playing in a weakened Legends Division (Nebraska might pose the biggest threat), both avoid Ohio State, the Leaders Division's top team.
The most interesting team in this group may be Mississippi State, even though the prospect of an undefeated season in Starkville seems nearly impossible. The Bulldogs whipped an Auburn team that played LSU down the wire last week, and they currently lead the nation in turnover margin, forcing 15 takeaways (nine interceptions, six fumbles recovered) while surrending just two. The cornerback pairing of Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay, often overlooked behind other elite SEC defenders, ranks among the top secondary tandems in the country.
But the Bulldogs travel to Tuscaloosa Oct. 27 and trek to Baton Rouge just two weeks later. Winning even one of those games -- no easy feat -- would likely keep Dan Mullen's squad in the BCS conversation entering late-season showdowns with Arkansas and Ole Miss.
Tier 3 -- BCS contenders: Oregon State, Rutgers
Oregon State's emergence has been established by now. The Beavers not only shut down Wisconsin in Week 2, but upended UCLA in Los Angeles last Saturday, an effort that proved they were more than a one-game wonder. Mike Riley's team has a budding star in quarterback Sean Mannion, a pair of top targets in Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks and a defense that's allowed opponents to convert just 4-of-29 third downs, the stingiest percentage in the FBS. The Beavers have arrived.
However, if any under-the-radar unbeaten has the best chance to play in a meaningful January game, it's Rutgers. The Big East is almost always a toss-up. Favorite Louisville has had trouble closing out lesser opponents thus far. Most importantly, the Scarlet Knights have shown uncommon mental toughness. They've already beaten both USF and Arkansas on the road -- no small feat even given the magnitude of the Razorbacks' recent collapse.
Lost amid the chaos following Greg Schiano's departure, when many were predicting a mass-recruiting exodus and a flaring of transitional issues, was that Rutgers had one of the top-ranked defenses in the nation last year. And it returned almost all of its key players. Linebacker Khaseem Greene, who earned league co-Defensive Player of the Year honors after racking up 141 tackles in 2011, already has 24 tackles this season. Fellow senior linebacker Steve Beauharnais has 2.5 tackles for loss, and defensive tackle Scott Vallone has started more games (42) than any other player in the conference. Even the Scarlet Knights' offense has thrived. Jawan Jamison pulled a did-you-see-that spin move to sink South Florida, and quarterback Gary Nova threw for a career-high 397 yards and five touchdowns in Fayetteville.
Then there's the schedule. New coach Kyle Flood won't look past this week, but Rutgers' next five games (UConn, Syracuse, at Temple, Kent State, Army) set up perfectly for a 9-0 start. At that point, who knows what could happen?
"We feel the program is at a point where we need to prove to ourselves and to our university that we can not only win bowl championships, but we can win Big East championships and BCS championships," said Flood. "And I don't say that without understanding exactly how hard that is. We know full well we're trying to do something that's never been done at Rutgers."
Connecticut at Rutgers, Oct. 6: Before Rutgers can advance any talk of its BCS aspirations, it has to first get by the Huskies. That could be more difficult than it sounds. UConn routed the Scarlet Knights, 40-22, last November and currently boasts the top-ranked rushing, pass efficiency and total defense in the Big East.
Northwestern at Penn State, Oct. 6: Penn State is undergoing an unprecedented rebuilding project. Northwestern may have its best shot at a Big Ten title since the Damien Anderson era. Still, the Wildcats haven't beaten the Nittany Lions since 2004. A win in State College would clear a major mental hurdle for Kain Colter, Trevor Siemian and Co.
Tennessee at Mississippi State, Oct. 13: Both teams have dangerous pocket passers in the Vols' Tyler Bray and the Bulldogs' Tyler Russell. Mississippi State's opportunistic secondary will be tested by big-play wideouts Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson. If the Bulldogs win, though (and win this weekend at Kentucky), they'll be just one victory against Middle Tennessee away from taking on 'Bama with an unblemished 7-0 mark.
SI.com caught up with Rutgers coach Kyle Flood a week after his upset of Arkansas.
SI: Are you surprised with your team's success through four weeks?
KF: We're really not surprised. We felt coming into the season that we had a pretty good football team. But we were certainly more established on defense than we were on offense. I think one of the keys for us was to figure out who was gonna be the quarterback that ultimately was gonna lead us.
SI: How do you feel about quarterback Gary Nova's development as a sophomore?
KF: He has done a tremendous job. The things, to me, that are the most encouraging are probably the kind of under-the-radar type of things that fans don't look at. I look at his willingness to throw the ball away when he doesn't have an open receiver. That's a big step for a quarterback to take so he's not forcing the ball. The other thing, in our last game, we had maybe seven or eight different receivers who caught passes. He's not locking on one guy. He's not predetermining anything. He's taking what the defenses are giving him. You do those little things, then you end up with numbers like he had about Arkansas.
SI: Through four weeks, Rutgers is allowing just 12.75 points per game. What's made your defense so effective early on?
KF: I think it starts with the players, like anything else. We have established leaders at every level of that defense. ... And the ability to keep [defensive coordinator] Robb Smith. He's the only other holdover from the prior staff other than myself. Every other assistant coach on the staff went to the NFL, whether it was the Bucs, the Ravens or the Rams. So we've got an excellent scheme. And we've got the right guy running it.
SI: What was the first thing you told your players after being promoted to head coach?
KF: I said to them, "It would've killed me inside to watch anybody else coach this team." I've been here seven years as an assistant. I've been through a lot with these players, both on the field and off. I felt a responsibility to be here for them as much as it was professionally wanting to be the head football coach. I wanted them to not have to go through a change. That was really my message.
SI: Now that you're 4-0, how do you keep your team from looking ahead to late-season games against Cincinnati, Pitt and Louisville?
KF: In college football, it's very simple. People say we don't have a playoff system. We do have a playoff system. It happens every week. There are very few teams in the country that can play for a national championship with one loss. There's a couple, but there's not many. We started the season, like I'm sure a lot of football teams did around the country, with a goal of having a chance to play for and win the national championship. But you can only win one game a week.
Chances are, none of these teams will crack the BCS. The odds are too slim, the season too arduous. By November, the natural order will be restored.
Even if history suggests otherwise, though, at least two of these teams could remain in late-season BCS contention. The combination of fortunate scheduling and veteran playmakers makes the system ripe for some shakeup, allowing a couple of nontraditional programs to beat out traditional powers. If nothing else, some team from the Big Ten and Big East has to claim a coveted BCS bowl berth.
Prediction: Oregon State may have the most talent, but the Pac-12 appears too deep for the Beavers to make a sustained undefeated run. Of all the surprise teams, look for Rutgers -- the same Rutgers that changed coaches, starting quarterbacks and both coordinators during the offseason -- to enter its season finale against Louisville with a BCS invitation on the line.