The Untainted Twenty: Assessing college football’s remaining unbeatens

The calendar has flipped to October, and with conference play heating up it’s about time for a number of college football’s undefeated teams to face the wrong side of the scoreboard for the first time in 2013.

Ranging from top ranked Alabama to somewhat more under the radar Fresno State, an even 20 teams still have the dream of an undefeated season alive. History, though, says that all goes out the window soon enough. In the 15 previous seasons of the BCS, three or more undefeated squads played a bowl game just four times. Out of those, 2009 is definitely the outlier. Five teams made it to bowl season without a loss, though only two of those finished the season that way.

Next year, the sad narrative of the undefeateds who can’t play for the title will be remedied (to an extent), but until then the BCS and the crystal football await. Of course, that’s a story for another day. Right now, I give to you the 20 contenders (in alphabetical order) and their chances of staying that way.

Signs Point to Yes

alabamaAlabama (4-0, 2-0):  You can’t start this list without mention of the defending national champions. The Tide have been tested already by a more-than-game Johnny Football and Texas A&M, and just last week the defense made a tough Ole Miss squad look downright pedestrian. Road Blocks: Nov. 9 vs. LSU; No offense to Auburn, Arkansas or Tennessee, but Alabama is hitting stride, and I don’t expect them to even play a close game other than the one against the Tigers. Then, it’s likely Georgia or South Carolina playing them for a spot in the BCS Championship.

clemsonClemson (4-0, 2-0): The Tigers got their statement win in Week One against Georgia, and they’ve been coasting along nicely ever since then. That won’t change this week when Clemson heads to Syracuse to likely give the Orange a rude welcome to the ACC. The Tajh Boyd-Sammy Watkins connection is one of the best in the nation, but the Tigers need to have a close eye on Running Back Roderick McDowell this week coming back from an ankle injury. Road Blocks: Oct. 19 vs. Florida State, Oct. 26 @ Maryland; I don’t necessarily expect the Terps to hang with the Tigers, but Maryland is much improved and the game sets up as a trap game after the big one against Florida State. The game against the Seminoles will almost certainly decide the division’s representative in the conference title game, and it will eliminate the loser from national title contention.

floridastateFlorida State (4-0, 2-0): Talk about a nice schedule for breaking in Quarterback Jameis Winston. The Seminoles haven’t played anyone so far, and Winston has starred, turning himself into one of the early season’s big stories. Just like most seasons, Florida State has the players to hang with anyone. The bigger question is if they’re going to show up every week and avoid a letdown. Road Blocks: Oct. 5 vs. Maryland, Oct. 19 @ Clemson, Nov. 2 vs. Miami, Nov. 30 @ Florida; As mentioned above, the game on the 19th against Clemson should decide which teams goes to the ACC Championship and which one has no more shot at the national title. The game against Miami will likely be played twice if the Seminoles advance to the conference championship.

louisvilleLouisville (4-0, 0-0): The Cardinals haven’t had to worry about a single challenge to date, and that’s how they should spend most of the season. The problem all year for Louisville isn’t going to be winning games. It’s going to be doing it impressively enough to overcome their schedule and move up the rankings. This schedule makes Ohio State’s slate look like a midnight walk through Sleepy Hollow. Road Blocks: Oct. 10 vs. Rutgers, Nov. 16 vs. Houston, Dec. 5 @ Cincinnati; None of these teams should legitimately challenge Louisville, but if someone’s going to beat them it will be one of these three.

Ohio StateOhio State (5-0, 1-0): Ohio State upped its record under Urban Meyer to a perfect 17-0, though most people are just concerned with the lack of competition offered in those 17 games. Make no mistake about it, OSU plays in a conference that is extremely weak, and if they lose a game it would be a considerable upset. Road Blocks: Oct. 5 @ Northwestern, Nov. 30 @ Michigan; This week should be the toughest remaining game. The Buckeyes travel to undefeated Northwestern, and College GameDay will be on site. From there, the challenge is keeping focused for five games before the grudge match at Michigan. In the conference championship, it will most likely be a rematch with one of those two teams. Because of the weak schedule, the Buckeyes need to hope there aren’t more than two undefeated teams or they will only be Rose Bowl bound.

oregonOregon (4-0, 1-0): The Ducks are No. 2 in the polls and No. 2 on this list. They elicit strong feelings on both sides of the fence. One contingent points at their 60-11 average score and says teams won’t be able to hang with their high octane attack. The other side, though, points out that their four opponents so far have a combined 9-9 record, and those nine on the left side aren’t exactly against quality competition. Road Blocks: Oct. 12 @ Washington, Oct. 26 vs. UCLA, Nov. 7 vs. Stanford; There are four undefeated teams in the Pac 12 right now, and Oregon will play all three of the others. First up is next week against the resurgent Huskies, but most people consider the last one against Stanford as a very possible national championship play-in game.

stanfordStanford (4-0, 2-0): David Shaw’s team is changing all perceptions of how a Pac 12 team is expected to play. While SEC teams are playing 49-42 and 44-41 games, The Cardinal squad are grinding it out and dominating teams with power and precision. It would be a very interesting flip of the script to have a tough nosed Stanford team playing a high powered SEC squad in the BCS title game. Road Blocks: Oct. 5 vs. Washington, Oct. 19 vs. UCLA, Nov. 7 vs. Oregon, Nov. 16 @ USC, Nov. 30 vs. Notre Dame; Is Stanford better than all five of those teams? I’d say Oregon is the only one better, but with so many challenges in a span of nine weeks, it will be a draining stretch run for the Cardinal.

Reply Hazy, Ask Again

BaylorBaylor (3-0, 0-0): This team has been nothing short of incredible so far. Oregon averages 60 points per game. Baylor is scoring 70, and that’s not an exaggeration. 70 is their actual average. The problem is, Baylor has put up those numbers against Wofford, Buffalo and Louisiana Monroe, so we really have no idea just how good this team is. Road Blocks: the five straight weeks from Nov. 7 to Dec. 7; In that span, the Bears host Oklahoma and Texas Tech, travel to Oklahoma State and TCU, then host Texas. Those five teams have a combined 16-5 record, and any one of them has the tools to challenge the Bears if they’re not quite as good as the early success indicates.

fresnostateFresno State (4-0, 2-0): The Bulldogs are undefeated, but their three wins against FBS teams have come by a combined seven points. So, even though every other MWC team has at least two losses, it’s extremely difficult to have confidence in Fresno State running the table. What I will say is they definitely have the offense to do so (44 ppg). On the other hand, that defense is giving up an equally ridiculous 38 points per contest. Road Blocks: Oct. 26 @ San Diego State, Nov. 2 vs. Nevada, Nov. 29 @ San Jose State; The Wolfpack are undefeated in conference right now, and the two San State’s were the only ones expected to challenge the Bulldogs for the MWC West title.

miamiMiami (4-0, 0-0): Back to the BCS conferences and a Miami team that’s excelling even while NCAA investigations linger on. The Hurricanes looked very good in a win over Florida, and they haven’t seen a single test otherwise. Duke Johnson has the potential to take over a game on the ground at any time. The problem is Quarterback Stephen McGee has already left two games with injury. If he can’t stay on the field it’ll make things much more difficult. Road Blocks: Nov. 2 @ Florida State, Nov. 9 vs. Virginia Tech; In back-to-back weeks Miami gets a possibly undefeated Florida State in a big rivalry game and the team who has controlled the ACC’s Coastal Division for awhile now.

MichiganMichigan (4-0, 0-0): After the last two weeks, Michigan should probably find itself on the “No Chance” portion of this list, but once again we’re in the B1G so you just never know. The Wolverines beat horrible, and I mean capital-H Horrible Akron and UConn teams by a combined seven points, so confidence there can’t be great. Road Blocks: Oct. 5 vs. Minnesota, all five games in November; This week’s game against Minnesota should show us how they compare against a one-loss Minnesota team that was whipped a week ago. Then, in November they play at Michigan State, home against Nebraska, at Northwestern and Iowa and home against Ohio State. Those five are a combined 18-4. None has more than one loss. I should move them to the “No Chance” list.

northernillinoisNorthern Illinois (4-0, 0-0): Being in the MAC means you’re inherently overlooked, but that changed last year when the Huskies beat Kent State in what ended up being an Orange Bowl play-in game. The performance against Florida State was forgettable, but with nearly everyone back, this is an extremely talented team that handed Iowa its only loss so far. So why am I not so sure they’ll go undefeated? They come from a conference that inspired the hashtag #MACtion because of the predictably ridiculous games that happen on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays throughout October and November. Should they go undefeated? Yes. Will they? I won’t go that far. Road Blocks: Nov. 13 vs. Ball State, Nov. 20 @ Toledo; The Huskies should continue to coast along for the next few weeks before the MAC West is decided in the two middle weeks of November. And you guessed it. Both games happen on a Wednesday night on national TV. #MACtion indeed.

OklahomaOklahoma (4-0, 1-0): The Sooners are coming off a convincing two touchdown win against Notre Dame, and they really have looked good all season, but we don’t really know what we have in this team yet, and the Big 12 seems so even it’s tough to say one of them can get through the schedule unfazed. The only comparisons we have right now are that Oklahoma beat Louisiana Monroe by 34 when Baylor did it by 63, but that can be written off to two totally different styles of play. Also, the Sooners beat West Virginia when Oklahoma State couldn’t. Road Blocks: Oct. 12 vs. Texas, Oct. 26 vs. Texas Tech, Nov. 7 @ Baylor, Dec. 7 @ Oklahoma State; The Sooners get a couple big tests the next two weeks with TCU this week and the Longhorns the week after. Then it’s fellow undefeated Texas Tech. After that we get the two biggest games with trips to Baylor and Oklahoma State. It’s a tough road.

UCLAUCLA (4-0, 1-0): The Bruins are the class of the Pac 12’s South Division with Arizona State right behind. Quarterback Brett Hundley has this offense clicking, and the defense has enough to keep the team in Pac 12 games. They made a statement in not just beating Nebraska but coming back on the road and pounding the Huskers. Despite that, the remaining schedule has too many challenges to say they could go undefeated at this point. Road Blocks: Oct. 19 @ Stanford, Oct. 26 @ Oregon, Nov. 15 vs. Washington, Nov. 23 vs. Arizona State; Whoever made this schedule is not a friend of the Bruins. Playing Stanford and Oregon in back-to-back weeks, both on the road is beyond brutal. If they win both of those games they should get national championship consideration.

My Reply Is No

houstonHouston (4-0, 1-0): The Cougars are undefeated so far in the AAC, but let’s be real. This team beat Temple and Rice by a combined 14 points. How can we sit back and expect them to compete with Louisville, let alone the likes of Cincinnati and Rutgers. Houston is a positive story so far, but it won’t last. Road Blocks: Nov. 9 @ UCF, Nov. 16 @ Louisville, Nov. 23 vs. Cincinnati; If The Cougars get through Rutgers on October 26th, I’ll admit they’re better than I thought, but to ask them to win three straight weeks against UCF, Louisville and Cincinnati, two of them on the road, is just too much.

marylandMaryland (4-0, 0-0): At 4-0, the Terps are one of the country’s most surprising undefeated teams a third of the way through the season. They even got a dominant and impressive 37-0 win against West Virginia a couple weeks ago. The problem is, as lightly regarded as the ACC generally is, there are three really good teams in the conference, and Maryland plays two of them. Road Blocks: Oct. 5 @ Florida State, Oct. 26 vs. Clemson, Nov. 16 @ Virginia Tech; The Terps are in the same division as Florida State and Clemson so they really shouldn’t expect anything better than third when it’s all said and done.

muMissouri (4-0, 0-0): If you were asked which SEC East team is undefeated, I bet the answer most people gave wouldn’t be Missouri. I also bet you’re wondering why Missouri is in the SEC East. Me too. Don’t worry about it, I guess. Anyway, the Tigers are the Maryland of the SEC except they haven’t played anyone worth mentioning. That changes very quickly. Road Blocks: Oct. 12 @ Georgia, Oct. 19 vs. Florida, Oct. 26 vs. South Carolina, Nov. 30 vs. Texas A&M; If you thought Houston had a tough three game stretch, how about Mizzou. After playing Vanderbilt this week, it’s the presumed top three teams in the East. And after getting through all that, the season caps off with Johnny Football.

NorthwesternNorthwestern (4-0, 0-0): If you hadn’t noticed, a common thread in these “No Chance” teams is that most of them haven’t started their conference schedule yet. I’m not trying to say Northwestern isn’t good, but there’s no way they get through the conference slate untouched. In fact, it’s a transition to even understand that the Wildcats are good at football. Generally, they’re known as the B1G school that raises the conference’s GPA. Road Blocks: Oct. 5 vs. Ohio State, Nov. 12 @ Wisconsin, Nov. 2 @ Nebraska, Nov. 16 vs. Michigan; The Wildcats have a chance in a matter of hours to prove they’re for real. GameDay comes to town for a match up with Ohio State. Then, it’s a run through the gauntlet of the division to see who likely plays OSU in the conference title game.

Texas TechTexas Tech (4-0, 1-0): The Red Raiders got a chance to show what they’re made of in front of a national audience in a Thursday night game against TCU. Tech didn’t play great, and they got plenty of help from the refs, but a win is a win, and they’re undefeated. Now, things start to heat up to find out who’s the class of the Big 12. Road Blocks: Oct. 26 @ Oklahoma, Nov. 2 vs. Oklahoma State, Nov. 16 @ Baylor, Nov. 28 @ Texas; The back-to-back games against Oklahoma and Okie State are a huge test, and they come just a week after the Red Raiders will need to get through West Virginia. If all that happens, Baylor awaits.

washingtonWashington (4-0, 1-0): The Huskies made a statement on opening night, dismantling a ranked Boise State team. Since then, that win doesn’t carry as much weight, but Washington is turning things around and trying to get back into the conversation of the Pac 12’s best. Unfortunately for them, they face the same ugly fate as UCLA, back-to-back games against Stanford and Oregon. Road Blocks: Oct. 5 @ Stanford, Oct. 12 vs. Oregon, Oct. 19 @ Arizona State, Nov. 15 @ UCLA; The big test starts this week. The Huskies go to hard nosed Stanford, then high octane Oregon comes to Washington. They get the conference’s other best team next month too with a trip to Los Angeles. It’s not looking good.