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September 24, 2008

Notebook: Some unbeatens are untested

Getting fat on cupcakes is easy. Roughage tends to thin things out, though.

And the going is about to get rough for several unbeaten and untested teams.

Penn State, Northwestern, Minnesota, Oklahoma State, Nebraska, Connecticut and TCU are undefeated. But between them, they've posted one victory over a "Big Six" conference opponent with a winning record. Those are Northwestern's 24-20 squeaker over Duke (2-1) and Penn State's easy victories over Oregon State and Syracuse.

This is a "burden of proof" weekend for the group. Six of those teams face "Big Six" opponents with winning records, and Oklahoma State faces 2-1 Troy a team that blasted the Cowboys 41-23 last season.

Perhaps the greatest burden of all falls on Minnesota, which travels to play Ohio State. Last season, the Buckeyes blasted the Gophers 30-7.

"That's a very, very daunting challenge to take a young football team like we have into one of the most hallowed grounds of college football," Minnesota coach Tim Brewster told Rivals.com. "It will be very exciting for our football team. Obviously, it's a tremendous challenge.

"We've already done some really good things. Now we're into the Big Ten schedule and we understand you'll be judged by how you do within your conference. We want to go in and play our tails off for four quarters and see what happens at the end of the game. Maybe we're in over our heads, but our kids have shown they will compete and play hard."

The Gophers are 4-0 after posting victories over Northern Illinois (1-2), Bowling Green (1-2), Montana State (1-2) and Florida Atlantic (1-3). That might not seem impressive, but consider last season they lost to Bowling Green and Florida Atlantic, so winning those games obviously shows progress.

"People can say what they want," Brewster said. "We're playing the games put before us and we're winning games. That's the only thing that matters."

They're also winning with one of the youngest teams in the country. The Gophers have just four senior starters, the offensive line includes three redshirt freshmen and a sophomore, and quarterback Adam Weber is a sophomore.

"We have tremendous youth. That's exciting and also disconcerting," Brewster said. "We're talented, but young people make mistakes. We're not the most experienced football team, but we're doing the things we need to do on a daily basis."

UNBEATEN, UNTESTED
Here's a look at the seven unbeaten teams that will face their strongest test this weekend:
Team (who they've beaten) This week
Penn State (d. Coastal Carolina, Oregon State, Syracuse, Temple) vs. Illinois (2-1)
Northwestern (d. Syracuse, Duke, Southern Illinois, Ohio) vs. Iowa (3-1)
Minnesota (d. Northern Illinois, Bowling Green, Montana St., Florida Atlantic) vs. Ohio State (3-1)
Oklahoma State (d. Washington State, Houston, Missouri State) vs. Troy (2-1)
Nebraska (d. Western Michigan, San Jose St., New Mexico State) vs. Virginia Tech (3-1)
Connecticut (d. Hofstra, Temple, Virginia, Baylor) vs. Louisville (2-1)
TCU (d. New Mexico, Stephen F. Austin, Stanford, SMU) vs. Oklahoma (3-0)
To Brewster, those things are as simple as waking up on time, having breakfast and attending class.

He said his young players aren't just practicing hard, but are also becoming students of the game and learning to play smarter. That may be reflected in that Minnesota has scored on 15 of 16 red-zone opportunities.

The Gophers also have been better on defense. Last season, 10 of 12 opponents scored at least 30 points. No opponent has managed more than 23 points this season, and last week the Gophers held Florida Atlantic to three. Minnesota also has forced 13 turnovers.

"The kids are buying into what (defensive coordinator) Ted Roof wants to do," Brewster said. "They have the mentality to swarm, attack and turn the ball over. We're getting 11 men to the football, we're attacking the football and we're creating turnovers.

"It's fundamental and simple, but it's also real and our players are doing that. It's nothing complicated and there's no magic to it. We have a bunch of players that have bought into what we're trying to teach."

Can they keep it up? That question will be better answered after the Gophers face Ohio State. All the cupcakes are gone now.

RANDOM THOUGHTS

Losing the opener to UCLA was bad enough for Tennessee, but consider how bad it looks now with the Bruins getting outscored 90-10 in back-to-back losses to BYU and Arizona. Last summer Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer agreed to a deal in which his contract automatically rolls over if the Vols post at least eight victories. Reaching that level this season will at least require winning at Auburn or Georgia or beating Alabama in Knoxville.

At 4-0, Vanderbilt is ranked 21st and appears on the way to its first bowl appearance since 1982. That makes you wonder where Bobby Johnson will be coaching next season.

Michigan State running back Javon Ringer has rushed for 11 touchdowns this season. Only eight teams have more rushing TDs.

If Colorado defeats Florida State on Saturday, it will mark the first time the Buffaloes have started 4-0 since 1998. They finished 8-4 that season.

Does anyone else wonder why offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher has been anointed the successor to Bobby Bowden at Florida State? The Seminoles' offense was mediocre at best last season and produced just three points against Wake Forest last week.

A Duke victory over Virginia on Saturday would be significant on a couple of levels. Duke hasn't won a conference game since 2004 and hasn't posted three wins in the first month of the season since starting 7-0 in 1994.

Quarterback is a high-risk position, especially at Oregon. The Ducks may be down to freshman Darron Thomas on Saturday against Washington. Thomas was fifth on the Ducks' depth chart in the summer. But Nate Costa, Justin Roper and Jeremiah Masoli have been injured, and freshman Chris Harper was ineffective last week.

UNLV coach Mike Sanford just may be off the hot seat. The Rebels managed just six victories in three previous seasons under Sanford, but now they're 3-1 after consecutive overtime victories over "Big Six" opponents Arizona State and Iowa State.

The loss of Ball State receiver Dante Love could prove the costliest injury this season. Love suffered a spine fracture in last week's 42-20 victory over Indiana and his career is over. Love had at least seven catches in each of the first three games and had scored three touchdowns for the unbeaten Cardinals. Last season, Love had 100 catches for 1,398 yards and 10 touchdowns.

STATE OF THINGS

Championships always are the goal. But if those aspirations aren't reached, teams always can find solace in at least proclaiming superiority in their state. Three games matching the only Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly called Division I-A) teams in their respective states are on this week's schedule. Two more games match rivals that could lay claim to being best in the state with a victory. Here's a look:

New Mexico at New Mexico State: The Lobos and Aggies have combined for just two victories. Still, it's the biggest game in the Land of Enchantment. New Mexico State has lost the last five in the series. The Aggies might have a chance this season, though. Quarterback Chase Holbrook threw five touchdown passes last week against UTEP, while New Mexico's defense already has allowed 12 touchdown passes.

Nevada at UNLV: Nevada has won the past three in the series, but UNLV is 3-1 and has back-to-back wins over "Big Six" opponents. Nevada's defense has faced Texas Tech's Graham Harrell and Missouri's Chase Daniel in the past two games, so the Wolf Pack should get a break against UNLV's Omar Clayton. But Clayton is 28th in the nation in passing efficiency.

West Virginia at Marshall: The Mountaineers have lost two in a row. If they lose to Marshall, there might be a mutiny in Morgantown. West Virginia blew out Marshall in each of the past two seasons, but the Herd appears to have a better chance this season. Marshall running back Darius Marshall has rushed for 417 yards, and West Virginia has had issues stopping the run.

Notre Dame at Purdue: The championship of Indiana? Ball State might have something to say about that, but the Irish and Boilermakers are the highest-profile teams in the state. Notre Dame has trouble scoring. Purdue doesn't.

Kentucky vs. Western Kentucky: There are three FBS programs in Kentucky. The Wildcats already beat the other one Louisville. So a win over Western Kentucky should settle the question of the state's dominant team. Well, that is if there is any question.

QUICK HITTERS

Even though Florida State sophomore quarterbacks Christian Ponder and D'Vontrey Richardson were a combined 12 of 36 with five interceptions in last week's 12-3 loss to Wake Forest, there are no plans for senior Drew Weatherford to move back into the starting lineup. Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden said that would just cause confusion.

Maryland is devising ways to get the ball more often to wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey, who is averaging 22 yards on five rushes and 20.8 yards on 12 receptions. He already has scored four touchdowns.

North Carolina quarterback T.J. Yates will miss at least six weeks with a broken ankle. Redshirt freshman Mike Paulus whose brother, Greg, is Duke's starting point guard in basketball is the new starter.

Nebraska safety Rickey Thenarse is expected to return to action on Saturday against Virginia Tech. Thenarse has been out of action since hurting his collarbone in the Huskers' season opener.

New Mexico's Donovan Porterie is out for the season with a knee injury, which means redshirt freshman Brad Gruner takes over at quarterback.

Olin Buchanan is a Heisman voter and a senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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