Originally Published: September 23, 2013

Flying under the radar

By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

ideo1>

We've reached the quarter pole of the 2013 college football season, and the first four Saturdays revealed a few surprises and disappointments.

The ACC, led by No. 3 Clemson and No. 8 Florida State, might finally have a legitimate national championship contender.

The Big 12, with defending conference champion Kansas State and Texas struggling, is up for grabs.

And unless Michigan fixes its problems on offense quickly, Ohio State might run away with a Big Ten title.

While No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Oregon might seem headed toward a showdown in the BCS Championship Game presented by VIZIO at the Rose Bowl on Jan. 6, there are a handful of teams that might throw a wrench into the final season of the BCS.

Among the teams flying under the radar:

Baylor Bears (3-0)

Baylor

Sure, Baylor has played one of the softest schedules to date, but it has beaten FCS foe Wofford, Buffalo and Louisiana-Monroe by a combined score of 209-23. The No. 19 Bears look like the class of the mediocre Big 12, along with No. 11 Oklahoma State and No. 14 Oklahoma. The Bears are the first FBS team since LSU in 1930 to open a season with at least 60 points in three consecutive games.

Baylor leads FBS teams in passing (444.3 yards per game) and scoring (69.7 points), is second in scoring defense (7.7 points) and seventh in rushing (307 yards). Quarterback Bryce Petty has completed 74.6 percent of his passes for 1,001 yards with eight touchdowns and no interceptions, and tailback Lache Seastrunk is averaging 11 yards per carry.

Barring a big upset (like a loss on an Oct. 12 road trip to Kansas State), the Bears should enter November with a 7-0 record. Then we'll find out if Baylor is really as good as it looks. It plays three consecutive games against ranked foes: home against Oklahoma on Nov. 7 and in Arlington, Texas, versus No. 24 Texas Tech on Nov. 16, followed by a road trip to Oklahoma State on Nov. 23.

Standout stat: Baylor is outscoring its opponents by a whopping 186 points so far. No team over the past 10 seasons has a scoring margin that wide after three games. Oregon in 2010 (plus-176) comes closest. Last season, only 13 teams had that kind of margin for the season. And Baylor (plus-94) wasn't one of them. -- Gregg Found, ESPN Stats & Information

Best-case scenario: Baylor's offense is really that good, allowing the Bears to run unscathed through the mediocre Big 12, which would earn them a spot in a BCS bowl game.

Worst-case scenario: Baylor's eye-popping results are really only a product of weak competition, and its defense can't hold up against explosive offenses like those of Oklahoma, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State.

Central Florida Knights (3-0)

UCF

Louisville's final season in the American Athletic Conference might not be as easy as it once seemed. The Knights, who are playing their first season in The American after leaving Conference USA, look like the Cardinals' biggest challenger. After blowing out Akron and Florida International, UCF beat Penn State 34-31 on the road Saturday, its first victory over a Big Ten opponent.

Junior quarterback Blake Bortles has completed 71.4 percent of his passes for 816 yards with seven touchdowns and one interception, and tailback Storm Johnson ran for 305 yards with six touchdowns in the first three games. The Knights piled up 507 yards of offense against Penn State on Saturday.

UCF gets a huge test at home against No. 12 South Carolina on Saturday and then plays at No. 7 Louisville on Oct. 18. The Knights don't play Cincinnati during the regular season and they play Houston and Rutgers at home.

Standout stat: The Knights aren't just undefeated after three games; they haven't trailed in any of those games. That includes a 34-31 win at Penn State. UCF is one of eight teams that hasn't trailed yet this season, joined on the list by top-10 teams LSU, Ohio State and Louisville. -- Gregg Found

Best-case scenario: The Knights pull off stunning upsets of South Carolina at home on Saturday and at Louisville on Oct. 18, putting them in position to win the American title and play in a BCS bowl game in their first season in the league.

Worst-case scenario: The Knights get walloped by South Carolina and Louisville. Unless UCF slips in home games against Houston and Rutgers, a 10-2 record seems to be the worst case given its schedule.

Fresno State Bulldogs (3-0)

Fresno State

Say hello to the best-looking BCS buster of 2013. The No. 25 Bulldogs needed overtime to defeat Rutgers 52-51 in their opener and then seemed to sleepwalk through a 41-25 victory over FCS foe Cal Poly. But Fresno State got over a huge hurdle by defeating Boise State 41-40 at home on Friday night, which ended its seven-game losing streak to the Broncos. As long as quarterback Derek Carr and his teammates handle their early success, there's a good chance they might go into November with an unblemished record. Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter passed out earplugs to his players last week to encourage them to "block out the noise."

Fresno State's remaining eight regular-season opponents have a combined record of 9-19, and only Wyoming (3-1) has a winning record. Colorado and Fresno State officials haven't decided whether their earlier scheduled game -- it was postponed on Sept. 14 because of catastrophic flooding in Colorado -- will be rescheduled. Regardless, the Bulldogs' toughest remaining obstacles are road trips to Wyoming on Nov. 9 and San Jose State on Nov. 29 -- and potentially a rematch against Boise State in the inaugural Mountain West Conference championship game on Dec. 7.

Standout stat: Coaches say football is a game of field position. But Fresno State is actually losing the field position battle this season, starting on average in worse field position than its opponents. The only other 3-0 team that can say that is Ole Miss. Lest you think field position isn't relevant, the top five teams so far in field position margin -- Houston, UCLA, Stanford, Ohio State and Arizona -- have a combined 16-0 record. -- Gregg Found

Best-case scenario: The Bulldogs take care of business down the stretch, beating Wyoming and San Jose State on the road to finish unbeaten. Fresno State then beats Boise State or Wyoming for a second time in the Mountain West Conference championship game and plays in a BCS bowl game.

Worst-case scenario: The Bulldogs get complacent and slip up against Nevada, Wyoming or San Jose State, knocking them out of contention for a BCS bowl game.

LSU Tigers (4-0)

LSU

Alabama might be a two-time defending BCS national champion, but it might be argued that No. 6 LSU has been the most impressive SEC team so far this season. After losing a plethora of star players to the NFL draft, LSU has simply reloaded again on defense. And the Tigers' offense is much more explosive than in the past couple of seasons with new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron directing the show. Quarterback Zach Mettenberger has completed 64.8 percent of his passes for 1,026 yards with 10 touchdowns, only two fewer than he threw in 13 games last season. After missing the opener because of a suspension, tailback Jeremy Hill has run for 350 yards with six touchdowns in three games.

Here's the bad news: LSU still plays a whopping five games against ranked opponents, starting with Saturday's road trip to No. 9 Georgia. The Tigers also play No. 20 Florida (home) on Oct. 12, No. 21 Ole Miss (road) on Oct. 19, No. 1 Alabama (road) on Nov. 9 and No. 10 Texas A&M (home) on Nov. 23.

Standout stat: Mettenberger's greatest improvement so far might be his down-field passing. He has increased his completion percentage on passes of 15 yards or longer by 18 percentage points over last season and has completed at least four such passes in every game this season. Mettenberger (21 completions of at least 20 yards) and Johnny Manziel (22 such completions) lead the SEC in deep completions. -- Gregg Found

Best-case scenario: Les Miles works his magic again, and the Tigers have an unblemished record after playing one of the country's most difficult schedules. They win an SEC title in Atlanta and play for a BCS national championship.

Worst-case scenario: Mettenberger returns to his old ways and the inexperienced defense breaks, and the Tigers lose difficult road games at Georgia and Alabama, dropping them to third in the SEC West.

UCLA Bruins (3-0)

UCLA

With USC struggling under coach Lane Kiffin, the Pac-12 South is up for grabs, and the No. 13 Bruins look like the team to beat. After rallying from a 21-3 deficit by scoring 38 consecutive points in a 41-21 win at Nebraska on Sept. 14, UCLA had 692 yards of offense in a 59-13 rout of New Mexico State on Saturday.

Sophomore quarterback Brett Hundley leads an offense that is averaging 52.7 points per game and ranks in the top 15 among FBS teams in passing (330 yards) and rushing (284.3). Junior tailback Jordon James had the unenviable task of replacing departed star Johnathan Franklin, but he ran for 424 yards with four touchdowns in the first three games, including a career-high 164 yards against New Mexico State.

The Bruins' biggest tests will come next month, when they play consecutive road games at No. 5 Stanford on Oct. 19 and at No. 2 Oregon on Oct. 26.

Standout stat: UCLA has proved it can win without needing the aid of turnovers. Bruins opponents have committed just three turnovers this season, fewest by any remaining undefeated team and fewest in the Pac-12. Without turnovers, the offense has to move the ball itself, and the Bruins are doing just that, picking up third-down conversions at an unprecedented rate: 68 percent, which leads the nation. Last season, UCLA converted on just 38 percent of third downs. -- Gregg Found

Best-case scenario: Riding Hundley and an improved offensive line, the Bruins pull off one of two potential upsets against Stanford and Oregon (or both?) and win the Pac-12 South.

Worst-case scenario: The Bruins lose to both the Cardinal and Ducks and finish the season in a tailspin for the second year in a row.

Washington Huskies (3-0)

Washington

There's a reason some college football pundits are beginning to wonder if the Pac-12 is not the deepest (and best?) conference in the country this season. It might be argued that Washington is only the fourth-best team in the Pac-12, and the Huskies are pretty good. After routing Boise State 38-6 in their opener, the Huskies beat much-improved Illinois 34-24 at Chicago's Soldier Field and then plastered FCS foe Idaho State 56-0 on Saturday. The Huskies have scored at least 34 points in three straight games for the first time since 2002.

Quarterback Keith Price has been more disciplined, completing 77 percent of his passes for 879 yards with seven touchdowns and one interception. Tailback Bishop Sankey has already run for 446 yards with four touchdowns in three games.

The Huskies will get major tests next month, playing at Stanford on Oct. 5 and hosting Oregon on Oct. 12.

Standout stat: It's early, but Price's improvement is fully backed up by the statistics. Price has a Total QBR of 85.0 so far this season, vastly improved from his QBR of 40.9 (below average) last season. Only Mettenberger has a higher improvement from last season's QBR to this season. A key reason for the improvement: hardly any sacks. Price was sacked 37 times last season, an average of almost three per game. This season he's been sacked only three times total. -- Gregg Found

Best-case scenario: The Huskies really are as good as they looked in their opener and stun Stanford and Oregon in consecutive weeks to climb into the BCS national championship race.

Worst-case scenario: Beating Boise State wasn't really that big of a deal, and the Huskies get steamrolled by the Cardinal and Ducks. Then they lose at UCLA and fall to rival Washington State in the Apple Cup for the second year in a row.

Comments

Use a Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, photo & other personal information you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment, and may be used on ESPN's media platforms. Learn more.