Flying under the radar
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.
LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger's improvement is getting the most attention in Baton Rouge, La., but tailback Jeremy Hill might be the Tigers' best player. Hill, who was suspended for the opener against TCU because of off-field problems, ran for a career-high 183 yards with three touchdowns in LSU's 35-21 victory over Auburn on Saturday night. It was the highest rushing total by an LSU player since 2004.
On The Mark: Precision Passers
1. Derek Carr, Fresno State
Carr passed for 460 yards and four touchdowns in Fresno State's 41-40 win against Boise State. It was the fifth game of his career with 400 or more pass yards, the most such games in Mountain West Conference history. He also extended his FBS-leading streak of games with a pass touchdown to 23.
2. Tom Savage, Pittsburgh
Savage had career highs in pass yards (424) and touchdowns (six) in Pittsburgh's 58-55 win at Duke. He is the first Panthers quarterback to have six passing touchdowns in a game since Pete Gonzalez set the school record with seven on Oct. 25, 1997, against Rutgers.
3. Brett Smith, Wyoming
Smith had a school-record 511 total yards in Wyoming's 56-23 win at Air Force. He completed 35 of 41 passes for 373 yards and four touchdowns. On the ground, he had 138 yards and a touchdown. His Total QBR of 99.0 was the highest for any player in Week 4.
4. Terrel Hunt, Syracuse
Hunt made the most of his first career start. The sophomore had 220 total yards and was responsible for five touchdowns. His Total QBR of 98.6 was the highest by an Orange starting quarterback in the past 10 seasons.
5. Sean Mannion, Oregon State
Mannion threw for two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to help erase a 13-point deficit in Oregon State's 34-30 win against San Diego State. He finished the game with 367 pass yards and three touchdowns. It was his fourth straight game with at least 350 pass yards, the longest such streak in school history and the longest active streak in FBS.
On The Mark: Ground-Gaining RBs
1. Antonio Andrews, Western Kentucky
Andrews rushed for 213 yards and a school-record five touchdowns in Western Kentucky's 58-17 win against Morgan State. It was the most rush touchdowns by an FBS player since Temple's Montel Harris had seven on Nov. 11, 2012, against Army.
2. Jeremy Hill, LSU
Hill had a career-high 183 rushing yards and tied his career high with three rush touchdowns in LSU's 35-21 win against Auburn. It was the sophomore's second straight 100-yard rushing game and the sixth of his career.
3. James Conner, Pittsburgh
Conner had career highs in carries (26) and rushing yards (173) in Pittsburgh's 58-55 win at Duke. It was the freshman's second straight game with at least 100 rushing yards and a touchdown.
4. David Fluellen, Toledo
Fluellen had 32 carries for 197 yards and two touchdowns in Toledo's 38-17 win at Central Michigan. It was his third straight 100-yard rushing game and the 10th of the senior's career.
5. Fitzgerald Toussaint, Michigan
Toussaint had season highs in carries (24) and rushing yards (120) in Michigan's 24-21 win at Connecticut. He scored two touchdowns in the second half to help the Wolverines erase a 14-point third-quarter deficit.
On The Mark: Big-Play WRs
1. Tyler Lockett, Kansas State
Lockett had a career-high 13 receptions for a school-record 237 yards in Kansas State's 31-21 loss to Texas. It was his third 100-yard receiving game this season and the fifth of his career.
2. Chandler Jones, San Jose State
Jones had seven receptions for career highs in receiving yards (197) and touchdowns (three) in San Jose State's 43-24 loss at Minnesota. He is tied with Edell Shepherd (2000-01) for the most career receiving touchdowns (18) in school history.
3. Jaelen Strong, Arizona State
Strong had 12 receptions for 168 yards and a touchdown in Arizona State's 42-28 loss to Stanford. In his three FBS games, the junior college transfer has 24 receptions and 330 receiving yards.
4 Antwan Goodley, Baylor
Goodley had five receptions for career highs in receiving yards (156) and touchdowns (two) in Baylor's 70-7 rout of Louisiana-Monroe. He had touchdown catches of 65 and 63 yards. Goodley and Colorado's Paul Richardson are the only FBS players with two touchdown receptions of at least 60 yards in one game this season.
5. Willie Snead, Ball State
Snead had nine receptions for 175 yards in Ball State's 51-20 win against Eastern Michigan. He has the fifth-most receptions (117) and the sixth-most receiving yards (1,628) in FBS since the start of last season.
On The Mark: Feel-Good Comeback
If you were one of the 67,093 fans watching Washington blow out Idaho State at Husky Stadium in Seattle on Saturday, you might want to check your pulse if you didn't at least have a tear in your eyes in the fourth quarter.
Washington tailback Deontae Cooper, who came back from three major knee injuries, got his first career touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter. He finished with 59 yards on 14 carries.
"I knew it was going to be a special moment for me, my teammates, my coaches," Cooper told reporters. "They've seen me put all the hard work in and all the time going through the injuries, so it was definitely special."
Cooper signed with Washington in 2010, but then tore the ACL in his left knee. He tore the ACL in the same knee the next year, and then tore the ACL in his right knee in fall camp in 2012.
Off The Mark: Karma
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema's wife didn't make many friends among Wisconsin fans when she tweeted "#karma" after the Badgers' stunning 32-30 loss at Arizona State on Sept. 14. Bielema didn't leave Wisconsin on the best of terms, and his wife Jen's tweet didn't make their relationship any better.
Well, it didn't take Wisconsin fans long to get their revenge after the Hogs lost 28-24 at Rutgers on Saturday. Badgers fans filled Jen Bielema's Twitter timeline with not-so-nice references to karma, and even Jen Vrabel, wife of Ohio State assistant coach Mike Vrabel, offered her thoughts on Twitter, writing: "Congrats to future Big Ten rival Rutgers. Big win today over SEC opponent. #Karma."
On The Mark: UCLA's Tribute
UCLA coach Jim Mora might have a short fuse at times, but few coaches have handled a tragedy any better.
The Bruins lined up in a 10-man formation on their first offensive play against New Mexico State to honor wide receiver Nick Pasquale, who was hit by a car and killed on Sept. 8. The Bruins arrived at the Rose Bowl wearing T-shirts with Pasquale's No. 36 on them, and the school handed out 40,000 blue towels with his jersey number on them. Pasquale's name and No. 36 were also painted on the turf. His parents and brother were honored on the field after the first quarter.
"This game, this whole season is for him," UCLA running back Steven Manfro said.
Off The Mark: West Virginia
In the fourth game of the 2012 season, West Virginia beat Baylor 70-63, finishing with 807 yards of offense, including 656 passing. In their fourth game this season, the Mountaineers were shut out 37-0 by Maryland, finishing with 175 yards of offense, including 62 passing, with six turnovers.
What in the world has happened to coach Dana Holgorsen's spread offense? The Mountaineers have already used three quarterbacks this season, and they've scored only seven points in eight quarters against BCS competition. West Virginia's two wins came against FCS foe William & Mary and woeful Georgia State.
"Offensively, we are as inept as we can possibly be in college football, and I accept the responsibility for that," Holgorsen said.