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Surprising competition breaks into the top 10

first_imgUSC, Oklahoma, Michigan, Arkansas, Michigan State and our own Wisconsin Badgers. The list could go on and on of teams that have underperformed this season. Some have just not played well and others have had their road to a national title game decimated by upset losses.This story line of fallen teams has dominated our attention so far this college football season.But there have been a few emerging surprises as well. Three teams that were given little or no attention in the preseason have broken into the ranks of the top 10. Stanford, Kansas State and Notre Dame have surprised the nation with outstanding performances in the first four weeks of the season and deserve a closer look for bowl game potential.The Fighting Irish are 4-0 for the first time since 2002. The traditional powerhouse is making a comeback to the spotlight with a No. 10 AP ranking entering Week 5. What is most impressive about this start is the caliber of teams Notre Dame has already beaten. After thumping Navy in their season opener 50-10, the Fighting Irish narrowly escaped Purdue with a last- second field goal, by far their shakiest performance. The past two weeks have been a stomping on the state of Michigan, with Notre Dame beating No. 10 Michigan State on the road and handing No. 18 Michigan a 13-6 loss last weekend.Defense is where Notre Dame shines. The Irish forced six turnovers against the Wolverines Saturday, including four interceptions of Denard Robinson. The defensive line was a key contributor, but most impressive was Manti Te’o. The linebacker recorded eight tackles and two interceptions for the Fighting Irish, as his presence on the field continues to elevate the Irish defense to one of the best in the nation.Offensively is where the questions still remain. Although head coach Brian Kelly has repeatedly said there is no quarterback controversy in South Bend, the fact remains Notre Dame has two quarterbacks that are sharing time. Kelly was right to bench sophomore Everett Golson for the second half in favor of veteran Tommy Rees on Saturday.While this back-and-forth game is working for the Irish at the moment, I have doubts it will continue to be successful down the road. Kelly needs to decide on who is his man in the next few weeks because the schedule does not get any easier and the team needs consistency to get itself through it.Notre Dame has one of the toughest sets of opponents in college football this year. No. 16 Oklahoma, No. 13 USC and No. 8 Stanford are all teams the Irish will have to beat, with the Cardinal headed to South Bend in just three weeks. If the Irish can get past these teams and not stumble in other games along the way, they could very well find themselves in a BCS bowl game. I doubt this pretty of a season will happen, but it still remains a big surprise there is even a possibility.Of all teams that could ruin things for Notre Dame, the most intriguing is Stanford. Graduating Andrew Luck left a key hole in the Cardinal offense entering the season. Junior quarterback Josh Nunes is no Luck, but if you can outplay USC quarterback Matt Barkley, you’re probably doing just fine.Running back Stepfan Taylor gives the Cardinal a balanced offensive attack; he has scored a touchdown in every game for the Cardinal as their main offensive weapon. Since entering the season ranked No. 21, Stanford has seen its stock rise meteorically to No. 8, quite the surprise for a team that lost its best player to the NFL draft in the offseason.Coming off a bye week, the Cardinal will head north to play the Washington Huskies Thursday night in what should be a great Pac-12 matchup. I don’t think anyone gave this team a realistic shot at a bowl game this year without Luck, but with arguably its toughest game already a success story, why not? The Pac-12 has suddenly turned into a heated conference battle fans should be eager to watch play out.Other surprising conference battles? Look no further than the Kansas State Wildcats’ win over Oklahoma on the road.Yes, a team that was given little respect going into the season with no ranking knocked Oklahoma down. I honored head coach Bill Snyder with Coach of the Week, but as the season sits, I proclaim him Coach of the Year so far in this young season.The Wildcats finished second in the Big 12 last year, returned 18 starters and yet were ranked sixth in the conference to start the season. On a mission to prove their worth to the college football elite, they have done just that. The Wildcats slowly crept their way up the Top 25 rankings with solid performances against Missouri State, Miami (Fla.), North Texas and then struck hard with the upset over the Sooners on Saturday. Now suddenly they are the No. 7 team in the nation, causing many people to ask if this Wildcat team is the real deal.Playing in a very competitive Big 12 that is now up for anyone’s taking, Kansas State has already beaten its supposed biggest threat. If the Wildcats can beat Oklahoma on the road, there is no question the four other currently ranked teams remaining on their schedule are in for tough games.Quarterback Collin Klein leads the KSU offense and has mustered up talk as a potential Heisman candidate if his performances can continue. He is backed by a defense that forced Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones to make mistakes all night long, including two turnovers that turned into Kansas State touchdowns. Sounds like the real deal to me.With surprise and success being the theme, I must make a note about the Gophers. Hold your groans.As a Minnesotan who grew up in a home that worships the Gophers, I can’t help but be pleased to see the program improving. Don’t get me wrong, I have happily traded family tradition and converted to the superior side, cheering twice as loudly when Minnesota comes to Camp Randall. Yet after going 3-9 in 2011, Minnesota brought the Big Ten down. Second-year coach Jerry Kill has started to turn things around with a 4-0 start to the season, and with the Big Ten lacking overall strength right now, the Gophers are looking in good shape to make a run in conference play.However, the Gophers are going to do what Minnesota teams do best: Choke.In a season boasting surprisingly competitive teams, that should still prove to be a given.Happy now? Follow Caroline on Twitterlast_img read more