Every year in college football, a handful of schools establish themselves as September surprises.
However, in this season that has already provided the ultimate in wacky — hello, Appalachian State — can anything truly be called surprising?
So, with that cynical mindset, it is time to examine the teams that have surp, er, performed better than many expected. Four stand out: Boston College, Cincinnati, Kentucky and Michigan State.
Gauge of improvement: The Eagles (4-0) have the nation’s longest bowl win streak at six, so coach Tom O’Brien left the cupboard full when he left for North Carolina State. To be ranked 12th, however, is a most lofty location.
What has gone right: Quarterback Matt Ryan is a long shot Heisman candidate, throwing for 1,341 yards and 10 touchdowns. The defense has held up despite injuries. First-year coach Jeff Jagodzinski has pushed all the right buttons.
In for the long haul? Three of BC’s wins have been against fellow teams in the ACC, the worst Bowl Championship Series conference. League games against Virginia Tech, Maryland and Clemson are all on the road.
Crystal ball: A 10-2 record, but a second-place finish (behind Clemson) in the Atlantic Division. The Eagles will play in the Gator Bowl on Jan. 1.
Gauge of improvement: The 24th-ranked Bearcats won eight games last season but were expected to rebuild under new coach Brian Kelly. Dwight Eisenhower was president the last time Cincinnati was 4-0, and the team is in the rankings for the first time in 31 years.
What has gone right: Kelly’s spread offense is averaging 45 points and 429 yards a game. Both quarterbacks — senior Ben Mauk and junior Dustin Grutza (filling in after Mauk injured his shoulder) — have played well.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” Kelly said. “We’re not at the point where we can win games on offense. We’re in the evolution process.”
In for the long haul? Other than Oregon State, the Bearcats’ schedule has been suspect. Big East play begins next week, with Rutgers and Louisville the first two opponents, and a much better read on UC can be made then.
Crystal ball: Eight wins and a second-tier bowl game.
Gauge of improvement: The 14th-ranked Wildcats won eight games a season ago, but some forecasted that they would manage only six victories in 2007. It is possible that coach Rich Brooks’ club will have reached that total — and be 6-0 — when Louisiana State visits on Oct. 13.
What has gone right: QB Andre Woodson has thrown 296 passes without being intercepted, an NCAA record, and has generated Heisman chatter. The defense has given up a lot of yards but has made big plays, as the Wildcats have a plus-6 turnover margin.
In for the long haul? SEC play will be demanding for a UK squad that might not be as good as its ranking. The South Carolina contest next week is winnable but no sure thing, and Florida comes to Lexington a week after LSU. The regular season ends with a back-to-back of Georgia and Tennessee.
Crystal ball: Eight wins and Chick-Fil-A or Liberty bowls.
Gauge of improvement: Despite a 4-0 record, the Spartans are unranked by the Associated Press — they are 23rd in the USA Today (coaches) poll — because they have not beaten anyone. However, little was expected of MSU in the first year after John L. Smith’s tumultuous regime ended.
“We’re having success; can we be mature enough to handle it?” coach Mark Dantonio said.
What has gone right: Running backs Javon Ringer (144 yards against Notre Dame last week) and Jehuu Caulcrick (six touchdowns this year) have developed into potent 1-2 punch. Defensive end Jonal Sait-Dic has six sacks, tying him for second in the country.
In for the long haul? We will know much more about MSU after its visit to No. 9 Wisconsin today. A five-game stretch of Ohio State, Iowa, Michigan, Purdue and Penn State ends the schedule, but considering the blah-ness of the Big Ten, who knows how demanding of a slate that will be?
Crystal ball: Seven wins and a minor bowl, possibly the Insight in Tempe.
This report includes information collected from other media sources.
• Darren McFadden: The Arkansas running back, who leads the nation with 173 yards per game on the ground, has played like a Heisman winner. But one more loss by the Razorbacks — which would be their third — will likely irreparably damage his candidacy.
• Sam Bradford: With 14 touchdown passes, the Oklahoma quarterback has had a sensational September. But so did Sam Keller in 2005. Sooners coach Bob Stoops’ restraint on plugging his freshman QB is justified.
• Mike Hart: The Michigan running back has 655 yards and six touchdowns rushing, but he might need voters to forget the Wolverines’ dreadful first two games of the season.
• Dennis Dixon: The Oregon quarterback, who accounted for five touchdowns last week against Stanford, gets his best opportunity to make a statement with today’s showdown against California.
• Percy Harvin: The Florida running back-receiver, who caught 11 passes for 121 yards against Mississippi last week, might be the most dangerous big-play threat in the nation right now.
When a team had six players arrested in a four-month span — as Texas has — the jokes are going to come from all sides, including an opposing band.
And it appears that Stanford might have some competition for the title of most outrageous musicians in college athletics: Rice’s Marching Owl Band (whose abbreviation, and not by accident, is MOB).
At halftime of last week’s game against Texas, three band members dressed as Henry Melton, Sergio Kindle and James Henry — who are among the UT players landing on the police blotter. They were chased by cardboard police cars.
“The Longhorns’ demeanors and misdemeanors have changed,” a public-address announcer for the band said during the performance. “So, be sure to get a program to look up all of Texas’ All-Americans and America’s most wanted.”
By the way, the game was at Texas.
Last year, Missouri receiver Jeremy Maclin tore the anterior cruciate ligament and supporting muscles in a knee, and many doubted that he would even have a football career.
“I thought about giving up,” Maclin said. “I was this close to not playing football again.”
He has come back, with explosive authority. All the redshirt freshman is doing is leading the nation in all-purpose yardage, with 122 yards rushing, 244 receiving, 200 in punt returns and 355 in kickoff returns. He has scored six touchdowns this season.
The Tigers are coming up with all kinds of ways to use Maclin — reverses, even lining him up at quarterback.
“Every time he touches the ball, we want to get up and watch,” defensive tackle Lorenzo Williams said.
Three and out
• A football program is supposed to generate revenue to help support an entire athletic department. At San Diego State, football loses money, resulting in athletics needing money from other university sources. One has to wonder how long that can continue.
• A week after drilling then-11th ranked UCLA 44-6, Utah was blanked by unheralded Nevada-Las Vegas, 27-0. How in the world does that happen?
• The worst BCS conference team could be Minnesota, which is 1-3 and lost to Bowling Green and Florida Atlantic. Glen Mason, who took the Golden Gophers to five straight bowl trips but was fired after last season, must be enjoying a chuckle somewhere.
• Clemson: Boston College is getting all of the buzz in the ACC right now, but the Tigers are not far behind in the polls — and they have already played, and beaten, Florida State. The Nov. 17 home game against BC should determine the Atlantic Division champion.
• Hawaii: Looking good. At 17th in the USA Today (coaches) rankings and 18th in the Harris poll, an unbeaten Warriors should finish in the top 12 of the BCS standings. It will likely all come down to the Boise State game on Nov. 23.
• Pac-10: Southern California is still projected to play for the national championship, and the winner of today’s showdown between California and Oregon will control its own destiny for at least an at-large BCS berth.
• Rutgers: Who knows? The Scarlet Knights are expected by some to play in a big-payoff bowl, but games against Buffalo, Navy and Norfolk State have taught us nothing about them. And that Big East opener against Cincinnati looks a lot tougher now.
Next week, there should be two games that pair top-10-ranked teams: Oklahoma-Texas and Florida-Louisiana State.