Three weekends into the college football season, the national picture is clearing up a bit.
The usual suspects like Alabama, Oregon and Ohio State are asserting themselves, and duds (looking at you, Longhorns and Trojans) already are counting down the days until a potential coaching change.
Then, there are those teams that are pleasantly surprising. All over the country—from the heart of Texas to the Pacific Northwest to the Deep South—upstarts are making headlines.
New coaches have revived life into stagnant programs. Old coaches have rebuilt teams from the rubble of the previous coaching regime or amid NCAA investigations. New programs are making their mark on the Football Bowl Subdivision.
It's still early, but here are six teams who may not be on your radar yet but should be.
It may seem hard to believe, but the Red Raiders have a legit shot to be 7-0 rolling into Norman on Oct. 26, to face Oklahoma. Their only real test before then is a road trip to West Virginia.
Former Texas Tech star quarterback Kliff Kingsbury returned to his alma mater as head coach after a stint as Texas A&M offensive coordinator, and he has come out with guns blazing to begin his career.
The calm, cool 34-year-old is the youngest coach at a BCS conference school and the third-youngest overall, according to Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports. He believes in his system, and that system has produced points.
Despite starting a true freshman walk-on quarterback Baker Mayfield, Kingsbury's offense rolled up 41 points in a season-opening win at SMU then beat Stephen F. Austin, 61-13. Against TCU, the Red Raiders proved they could win a grinder, beating the Horned Frogs 20-10.
Kingsbury has been lauded for how he's handled his young team, as reported here by Mike Graham of The Dallas Morning News.
Now, a manageable run of Texas State, at Kansas, Iowa State and at West Virginia awaits TTU before a brutal season-ending stretch that includes trips to Oklahoma and Texas, as well as home games versus Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Baylor.
Hugh Freeze is playing freshmen all over the field, but that hasn't kept Ole Miss from starting 3-0 with wins over Vanderbilt and Texas—both bowl teams from last year.
Just how much progress has the No. 21 Rebels made? Texas walloped them 66-31 in Oxford a year ago, and Ole Miss returned the favor 44-23 last weekend.
Senior quarterback Bo Wallace told ESPN's Edward Aschoff just how big a difference he has seen in the growth of his team during its second season under Freeze and how big the win at Texas was:
It's huge. You have to look at how far we've come. Last year at this time, we were really soul-searching this weekend after the Texas game, trying to find ourselves. Anytime you can win a game that people say you aren't supposed to win, you can turn some heads. That's what we have to do: Turn some heads and get people excited about our program and keep climbing in the polls and keep winning games.
The Rebels are getting production from veterans like Wallace, jitterbug running back Jeff Scott and linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche. They're also mixing in future stars like Robert Nkemdiche, Laquon Treadwell and Tony Conner.
Ole Miss has a bye this week, and its biggest test of the year looms on Sept. 28 when they travel to Tuscaloosa to take on the Crimson Tide.
Few are saying that The U is back just yet, but a massive Sunshine State victory over Florida two weeks ago was a national statement that announced UM head coach Al Golden's rebuilding project is on the fast track.
Despite getting dominated in the box score, the resilient Hurricanes forced the Gators into five turnovers and closed out a 21-16 victory. The shackles of an NCAA investigation and Randy Shannon's forgettable tenure as head coach were, for a day at least, in the past.
Now, according to ESPN, the 2-0 Canes are ranked No. 16 in the Associated Press poll and No. 17 in the USA Today poll and should win the next two against Savannah State and South Florida before welcoming Georgia Tech into Miami Gardens. It's an encouraging start to Golden's third season in Coral Gables.
Star running back Duke Johnson and an opportunistic defense have carried Miami thus far. If the Canes can get quarterback Stephen Morris to come along and produce the way he did in 2012 (3,345 yards and 21 touchdowns), the Hurricanes will be a whirlwind for opponents to handle.
They're probably not in that upper echelon of the Pac-12 yet, but the Washington Huskies look like they're emerging as a force in the fifth year of Steve Sarkisian's tenure.
Quarterback Keith Price has led U-Dub to a 2-0 record and a top-20 ranking. Those wins came over two pretty decent teams in Boise State and Illinois. The win over Boise in Seattle was particularly impressive as Washington dominated the Broncos, 38-6.
Then, they turned around and racked up 615 yards against the Illini, with Sarkisian telling The Seattle Times' Adam Jude after the game:
We’re in a good place as a team right now. As a team, they’re all aware of areas where they can improve individually (that will) in turn make us a better team. …They’re fired up and excited to be 2-0, sure, and to go on the road and win, but they also have enough maturity to say, ‘Hey, we can be better than this.’
This team has the offensive firepower to finally eclipse the 7-6 record Sarkisian's team has compiled in each of the past three seasons.
The stretch of football from Sept. 28 through Oct. 19 will tell the tale of the Huskies' season. During that month, Washington hosts Arizona and Oregon and travels to Stanford and Arizona State.
Last Saturday's matchup between Central Florida and Penn State was billed as a battle of the quarterbacks with Nittany Lions' freshman sensation Christian Hackenberg going up against UCF's Blake Bortles.
Bortles got the better of the battle by completing 20 of 27 passes for 288 yards and three touchdowns in a 34-31 win at University Park. At 6'4", 230 pounds, the redshirt junior is emerging as a pro prospect, and his Golden Knights look legit.
They began the season with a 38-7 dissection of Akron, which didn't look all that impressive until the world saw what the Zips nearly did to Michigan in the Big House.
Now, Bortles will be on the national stage in two of the next three weeks as the Knights attempt upsets against South Carolina and Louisville, sandwiched around Memphis.
An upset against the Gamecocks or Cardinals could help this program take a big step, and who knows where UCF may wind up with all the recent conference alignment? There are at least some national folks entertaining upset thoughts. Said Mike Huguenin of NFL.com:
UCF is off next week, then welcomes in South Carolina on Sept. 28 for what suddenly is an intriguing matchup. That looks to be the toughest remaining game on UCF's schedule.
Yes, UCF is in the AAC and must play Louisville, and the Knights appear to be the biggest remaining impediment between Louisville and an unbeaten season. But if Bortles is as hot as he was Saturday and if Johnson runs that well again, UCF can beat Louisville.
Just a year ago, South Alabama was limping through its transition to the FBS with a 2-11 record and 1-7 clip in Sun Belt Conference play.
What a difference a year makes.
With last Saturday's 31-24 upset victory over Western Kentucky, the Jaguars have put a disappointing, season-opening loss to Southern Utah behind them. The win over the Hilltoppers marks the second win by USA after it beat Tulane 41-39 two weeks ago. That matches their entire total from last season.
An opportunistic defense has been the story in Mobile. USA ranks No. 1 in the Sun Belt with four interceptions, is second in rush defense and is second in sacks, according to AL.com's Tommy Hicks.
In that same article, Hicks interviewed ESPN's Todd McShay, who gave the Jaguars a little love.
Obviously, they've come a long way in a short period of time. It's really impressive, actually. When you consider just how quickly it's happened and beating a program like Western Kentucky that has a very good, very talented coach in Bobby Petrino and a lot of good players.
The facilities, I've spent some time there ... very nice facilities and obviously there is tons of talent in the state of Alabama and surrounding areas and not everyone can go to Alabama. ... You have to be really, really pleased with how far they've come in a short period of time.
USA has a tough test in Knoxville against the Vols following a bye week, but looking ahead, the Jaguars appear much better equipped to compete in the Sun Belt than a season ago.
Neither Auburn nor Maryland has been an underdog in any of the games during their 3-0 starts.
But that doesn't change the fact that both programs have looked much improved than they were a season ago.
The Tigers suffered a 3-9 record and went winless in the Southeastern Conference in 2012, leading to the firing of Gene Chizik and hiring of former AU offensive coordinator Guz Malzahn. It was a monumental collapse of a program that just won a national championship in 2010.
There has been a bit of a resurgence on the Plains, however, as junior-college quarterback Nick Marshall and a revamped running game has led the Tigers to a 3-0 record that included close, dramatic victories over Washington State and Mississippi State.
The real litmus test for how far they've come is Saturday night in Baton Rouge.
Maryland wasn't much better last year, falling to 4-8 under Randy Edsall due in part to an unusual run of bad luck with quarterback injuries. The Terps lost four starting quarterbacks to injury and were forced to start a freshman linebacker Shawn Petty under center for the last third of the season, according to USA Today's Paul Myerberg.
This year, the Terps are 3-0, but their best win has been over Connecticut. Even so, Maryland hasn't been this far into the season without a loss since 2001, according to The Washington Post's Alex Prewitt, and bowl aspirations are high on the Beltway.