10 College Football Teams Who Are Better Than We Expected

Matt Smith@MattSmithCFBCorrespondent IIIOctober 1, 2013

10 College Football Teams Who Are Better Than We Expected

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    As the calendar turns to October, it's time to reflect on some of the teams who have been pleasant surprises over the first month of the 2013 college football season.

    With many teams beating up on lesser opponents during September, we must be wary of fool's gold, but each of the 10 teams here have shown that the summer perception of them may not match the autumn reality.

    From the valleys of California to the plains of Texas to the beaches of Florida, let's look at 10 teams who have exceeded preseason expectations.

Fresno State (4-0, 1-0 Mountain West)

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    The original potential "BCS buster" from all the way back in 2001 has gone full circle and is now back in the conversation for a major bowl game. A strong first month for Fresno State included one-point wins over both Rutgers and Boise State.

    David Carr was the quarterback on that 2001 Bulldogs team that reached the top 10 of the polls after defeating Colorado, Oregon State and Wisconsin. His younger brother, Derek, is the quarterback of this Fresno State team. Derek Carr is completing nearly 70 percent of his passes and has already thrown 14 touchdowns.

    Second-year head coach Tim DeRuyter could find himself as a candidate for some premier jobs after the season, but for now, the focus in the San Joaquin Valley is on finishing a dream that began over a decade ago and leading Fresno State to a BCS bowl.

Houston (4-0, 1-0 American)

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    Few teams in the country suffered bigger falls last season than Houston, which tumbled from 13-1 in 2011 to 5-7 under first-year head coach Tony Levine. The Cougars are off to a 4-0 start and would match their 2012 win total with a victory against Memphis on Oct. 12 following a bye week.

    The team's biggest win to date was a Sept. 21 win over Rice, Houston's third-straight in the rivalry. The conference schedule isn't friendly, with road trips to Louisville, Rutgers and UCF, but even with the move up from Conference USA to the American Athletic Conference, the Cougars' record will improve.

    Freshman John O'Korn has seized the starting quarterback role and has been quite impressive through four games, tossing 10 touchdowns and just one interception. These aren't the 2011 Cougars that flirted with a BCS bowl, but they certainly aren't the 2012 Cougars, either.

Illinois (3-1, 0-0 Big Ten)

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    There may not have been a worse BCS-conference team in college football last season than the Illini. Illinois lost all eight of its Big Ten games and did so by an average of 23 points. At 3-1, the Illini have already surpassed their 2012 win total.

    A key to the resurgence in Champaign has been offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, who has helped mold senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase back into the player that he was when the Illini raced to a 6-0 start in 2011 before dropping 16 of their next 19 games.

    Big Ten play begins Saturday at Nebraska. While the Illini will still need to pull an upset or two to reach the postseason, there is at least some buzz back around what had been a lifeless program.

LSU (4-1, 1-1 SEC)

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    Yes, LSU lost to Georgia, but the Tigers have proven to again be a national title contender in what many thought would be a rebuilding year after losing almost their entire starting defense.

    The offense finally has a pulse under first-year coordinator Cam Cameron, and Zach Mettenberger looks like a Heisman Trophy candidate with the aid of top targets Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry. The running game, although limited against the Bulldogs, is again a force.

    The defense took its lumps in Athens, but most defenses will suffer a similar fate against Georgia this season. If the Tigers can peak before key division games in November with Alabama and Texas A&M, they could find themselves in their third BCS Championship Game in seven years come January.

Maryland (4-0, 0-0 ACC)

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    Maryland was the laughing stock of college football in 2011, first for its uniforms, and later for its play in a miserable 2-10 season under first-year head coach Randy Edsall. The 2012 season didn't go much better at 4-8, but the 2013 Terrapins are poised to make a major splash in their final season in the ACC before joining the Big Ten.

    Sophomore wide receiver Stefon Diggs may be the best player you've never heard of, and quarterback C.J. Brown has returned from an ACL injury to thrive in coordinator Gary Crowton's offense.

    The schedule has been light up to this point, with the best win coming over West Virginia, but the October slate is bookended by games with top-10 teams Florida State and Clemson. Edsall entered the season on the hot seat, but he could end it as the ACC Coach of the Year.

Miami (FL) (4-0, 0-0 ACC)

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    The Hurricanes have played only one notable opponent, but the 21-16 win over Florida on Sept. 7 has helped boost them to a top-15 ranking heading into the start of ACC play Saturday against Georgia Tech.

    The young defense is still finding its way, but senior quarterback Stephen Morris and the offense have given Miami fans flashbacks to the program's most recent glory days in the early 2000s. Running back Duke Johnson currently ranks second in the ACC in rushing yards.

    Miami is yet to win a division title since the ACC added a conference championship game in 2005. With key games against Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech both at Sun Life Stadium, this could be the year the 'Canes finally play on December's first Saturday.

Texas Tech (4-0, 1-0 Big 12)

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    New head coach and former Texas Tech quarterback Kliff Kingsbury has brought some swagger back to the panhandle of Texas. The Red Raiders are 4-0 and already have a conference win under their belts after defeating TCU on Sept. 12.

    The quarterback situation remains murky, as Davis Webb and Baker Mayfield continue to share the role, but Texas Tech is still looking at a potential 7-0 start before traveling to Oklahoma on Oct. 26. The Red Raiders face Kansas (1-2), Iowa State (1-2) and West Virginia (3-2) before going to Norman.

    Texas Tech isn't a Big 12 title contender yet, but it could spring a few upsetsas it did against TCUand get to eight or even nine wins. The future looks bright in Lubbock with Kingsbury back in town.


UCLA (3-0, 0-0 Pac-12)

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    The Bruins have played just three games this season, having already had both of their bye weeks. That said, few people thought that they would make it through September unscathed after a long road trip to Nebraska.

    A 21-3 UCLA deficit in Lincoln quickly turned into a 44-21 Bruins rout, giving UCLA an improbable sweep of a home-and-home series with the reigning Big Ten Legends Division champions. Sophomore quarterback Brett Hundley has accounted for 10 touchdowns (8 passing, 2 running) in the first three games.

    The Bruins appear to be the favorite in the Pac-12 South, with USC in shambles and Arizona State having to come to Pasadena. They've yet to begin conference play, but they do so with all other teams in their division having already suffered a conference loss.

Utah (3-1, 0-1 Pac-12)

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    The Utes missed a bowl game for the first time in a decade last season, but Kyle Whittingham's team appears poised to return to the postseason in 2013. The Utes defeated rival BYU for the fourth-straight season on Sept. 21, and now, they prepare for a key game with UCLA Thursday night in Salt Lake City.

    While an overtime loss to Oregon State has left the Utes to play catch-up in the Pac-12 South race, taking a team that won nine games in 2012 past 60 minutes shows that Utah is moving in the right direction.

    Quarterback Travis Wilson ranks No. 15 in the nation in pass efficiency and has thrown for over 1,100 yards in four games. The schedule gets tough in October, but this team should be able to find its way back to a bowl game.

Washington (4-0, 1-0 Pac-12)

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    One of the more intriguing games of opening weekend was supposed to be perennial BCS bowl contender Boise State visiting renovated Husky Stadium to face Washington. The intrigue was quickly erased, as the home team rolled to a 38-6 win.

    Washington has continued the momentum it built in that Aug. 31 victory, racing to a 4-0 start heading into a showdown at No. 5 Stanford Saturday night in Palo Alto. A visit from Oregon looms a week later in what could be the program's biggest home game since its last conference title in 2000.

    Senior quarterback Keith Price has been outstanding, throwing nine touchdowns to just two interceptions. A Pac-12 title remains a bit of a stretch at this point, but a 10-win season is well within reach for Steve Sarkisian's Huskies.