Derek Carr has led Fresno State to a surprising unbeaten mark so far this season. (Rick Dodd/Icon SMI)
Navigating through the first four weekends of college football with an unbeaten record doesn't always indicate a championship-caliber team. But an undefeated program early in the season often garners plenty of talk of potential, especially in contending for a conference title.
So how do we separate the contenders from the pretenders among the college football teams that remain without a loss? Zac Ellis and Martin Rickman discuss the status of the unbeatens in this week's Read-Option.
Martin Rickman: We're through Week 4 of the college football season, and we're already down to 29 unbeatens, with that number sure to dwindle a bit more this week. What have you seen out of our unbeatens so far, and which team has shocked you with an undefeated record through the first four weeks?
Zac Ellis: I think first we should look at the non-AQ unbeatens: Fresno State, NIU and Navy. Now that we've seen Boise State likely lose its shot at BCS-busting, I wonder if any of these teams has a chance to surprise on a national level. I think Fresno is raising some eyebrows, and deservedly so. Derek Carr is one of the most dynamic passers in the game, and he's a big reason why the Bulldogs have beaten two teams that aren't slouches: Rutgers and Boise State. And looking at Fresno's schedule, I'm not sure I see another loss on it.
MR: I agree. Navy has an easier schedule than in years past, but there's no way that the Midshipmen are getting through that stretch of Air Force, at Duke, at Toledo, Pittsburgh and at Notre Dame unscathed. So that leaves NIU and Fresno State. And of the two, I'd agree Fresno State has the best shot. It already beat Boise State, and the Bulldogs avoid Utah State. The Huskies travel to Purdue this week and still have pretty tough games at Kent State, vs. Ball State and at Toledo left. It's not out of the realm of possibility for NIU to make it through the MAC unbeaten for the second-straight year, but the Huskies have needed some late-game theatrics just to get to 3-0 already.
ZE: Fresno's squeezed through some tight wins, but as long as they aren't losses, I see the Bulldogs staying in a sleeper picture. What about the AQ side? Houston, Louisville and UCF are all without losses in the American so far, but I'm not buying anyone from that crowd except the Cards, and they're still a mystery to me. Teddy Bridgewater and the offense struggled against Kentucky, which is one of the toughest games on an otherwise weak schedule but not true threat. Louisville has all the makings of an undefeated season, but they don't exactly look like a BCS-worthy team just yet to me.
MR: We'll know more about Louisville in October. That back-to-back against Rutgers and UCF (another unbeaten with a truly tough test vs. South Carolina) will tell us what the Cardinals are made of. If they win those, they should coast to an undefeated season unless Cincinnati gets its act together by the end of the year. And don't get me wrong, Louisville with wins over Ohio, Rutgers, UCF and Cincinnati isn't the highest quality resume we've ever seen, but if they win all those games easily, you can't ignore the Cards.
ZE: No question, there's plenty of time for Louisville to look dominant, and it very well might with that schedule. What about the ACC? That's one intriguing conference right there, with Clemson, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Maryland and Miami all undefeated. I'm a big believer in Clemson so far. Tajh Boyd's the real deal, and wins against Georgia at home and a deceptively good NC State team on the road make the Tigers look legit and, at the very least, ACC favorites to me. I'm interested to watch what happens with Maryland. Did anybody expect a 4-0 start and a Week 4 blowout of West Virginia from the Terps? Can they sustain this rise? That's a wrinkle in an ACC that looked like a two-team race between Florida State and Clemson in the preseason. What do you think of that league?
MR: That's the biggest thing with Maryland -- the manner in which the Terps have been winning games. That's a team that might be one of the biggest surprises (along with Missouri in the SEC) among the unbeatens thus far. The Terrapins are explosive on offense and the defense has played very well, too. Maryland won't finish undefeated, but it's quickly looking like a contender in the Atlantic, which is a nice curtain call for the team's last year in the ACC. If we're looking for two teams with a shot to run the table, it's Florida State and Clemson. Georgia Tech and Miami are good football teams, but there are weaknesses there. That Florida win for the 'Canes was important for the program, though. The winner of that 'Noles-Tigers game on Oct. 19 immediately holds the title of "current" best team in the ACC and likely the team with the best shot at finishing 12-0. And honestly, they're the two most complete teams in the league.
ZE: That's how I see the ACC playing out, too. The Big Ten features a couple of surprises, in my opinion. Ohio State and Northwestern don't necessarily shock me as unbeatens, but Michigan and Minnesota also haven't lost games. I know what you're thinking: The Wolverines are a surprise? If you've watched Michigan in its last two games, you'd put an asterisk next to its record, too. Brady Hoke's team was lucky to escape Akron and UConn without falling in upsets, and there are too many questions concerning turnovers with that offense for me to truly believe in them just yet. Ohio State, of course, hasn't lost since its Gator Bowl loss to Florida in January 2012. Its offense has looked impressive thus far, but I would like to see how Braxton Miller looks once he returns from his knee injury. Kenny Guiton has looked amazing under center, but this is Miller's team if he's healthy.
MR: This is one of those things that ends up being messy but a possible embarrassment of riches for Ohio State. If Urban Meyer can manage his two quarterbacks effectively (which he has done before), the Buckeyes can beat Wisconsin and Northwestern and essentially coast into their date with a flawed Michigan team at the end of November. But this two-week stretch is it for OSU: If it makes it out alive, it's a true BCS contender. If it slips up, that probably takes the Bucks out of contention for the BCS title. Minnesota is a neat story, but the team started 4-0 last year too and promptly lost seven of its last nine (including the Car Care Bowl vs. Texas Tech). Let's pump the brakes on the Gophers until they can beat a team better than San Jose State or UNLV. What about the Big 12 or the Pac-12? Anybody standing out in those conferences to you?
ZE: Of the Big 12's unbeatens (Baylor, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech), the Red Raiders have surprised me thus far. That Thursday night win over TCU was big for Kliff Kingsbury in his first year as a head coach. And looking at its schedule, Tech could head into its Oct. 26 game at Oklahoma with a 7-0 record, Not too shabby. Baylor has also been flat-out impressive on offense, but the Bears haven't really played anybody. Still, Bryce Petty and Lache Seastrunk will be a tough duo to handle for any Big 12 defense, so Baylor could easily contend in the conference.
MR: Out of those three and Oklahoma State, do you see any of those four making it out alive and unbeaten through year's end, or is it another Big 12 rock-paper-scissors as we've grown accustomed to?
ZE: Oklahoma visits Notre Dame this weekend, and obviously a loss to the Irish could derail any BCS hopes the Sooners have. But in the conference, I think I like Baylor right now. There's a reason coach Art Briles is getting mentioned as a potential replacement for Mack Brown at Texas. Briles has built a team that is explosive on offense and sound on defense, but most importantly, it has the ability to win a shootout, which can often define the winner of the Big 12.
MR: In the Pac-12, six teams are still unbeaten: Arizona, Colorado, Oregon, Stanford, UCLA and Washington. That league is pretty strong from top to bottom, and those west-coast games get crazy when the sun goes down. I'm on record as thinking Stanford looks the part of a BCS Championship contender, and Oregon is always dangerous with the playmakers the Ducks have on the offensive side of the ball. What do you make of the Wildcats, Bruins, Buffaloes and Huskies?
ZE: All due respect to the Buffs, I think we can both agree that we shouldn't expect much from Colorado. Washington looked especially dangerous when it blasted Boise State on opening weekend, and it handled a pretty good Illinois team the next week. But the Huskies' next three opponents -- Arizona, Stanford and Oregon -- are all unbeaten, so we'll know a lot more about Washington in three weeks. UCLA has looked really solid, and that comeback win at Nebraska has to be one of the season's better road victories. Plus, Brett Hundley might be the Pac-12's most talented quarterback not named Marcus Mariota. I wouldn't sleep on the Bruins.
MR: That leaves the SEC. One of the four unbeatens will fall when Alabama plays Ole Miss this weekend, and LSU has a road test against Georgia. Of course, there's Missouri too. Does anybody not named Alabama have a shot to make it out of the SEC with zero losses?
ZE: LSU has been very impressive on offense, and that's really paying off. Cam Cameron has done wonders for Zach Mettenberger, whose career was previously defined by inconsistency. The Tigers' meeting with Alabama later this the season might end up being bigger than the Tide's earlier game against Texas A&M, as far as conference implications. As for Alabama, I heard an interesting point regarding the Tide today: If you knew nothing about the past four seasons, would you rank Alabama No. 1 right now? Come to think of it, I'm not sure I would. Nick Saban's crew did take down A&M in College Station, but against Virginia Tech and Colorado State they looked anything but dominant. What do you think?