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Eyes on the Nation: Who’s emerging as a surprise contender?

Few surprises appear in the top 10, but which teams are creeping into the national discussion?

NCAA Football: Boise State at Oklahoma State Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

The top of the national pecking order in college football seems pretty clear.

Alabama continues to disembowel Power Five foes, Georgia dominated a plucky South Carolina team and Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray is spearheading a lethal Sooner offense. Both Clemson and Ohio State survived close contests in the state of Texas, while LSU, Stanford and Notre Dame vaulted into the top-10 after wins over ranked foes.

The race to the College Football Playoff will clarify once the rubber hits the road in conference play, but outside of these teams, which teams are quietly emerging with impressive resumes?


Blowout victories over overmatched Group of Five teams is nothing new for the Cowboys. The last time Oklahoma State played a ranked non-conference team was No. 1 Florida State in 2014. Destroying Missouri State and South Alabama this year wasn’t going to turn heads.

Obliterating former No. 17 Boise State — a Group of Five New Year’s Six favorite — to the tune of 44-21 in Stillwater made an impression.

Mike Gundy consistently produces prolific offenses. Behind Mason Rudolph last year, the Pokes ranked No. 3 in S&P overall offense. With new quarterback Taylor Cornelius taking the reins — as well as 2019 Michigan commit Daxton Hill’s brother Justice at running back — the unit has averaged 52.3 points a game, so far.

Boise State’s defenses have been consistently solid — top-50 in S&P each year since 2014 — so another 44-point outburst is legitimate. What’s changed is an uncharacteristically physical defense.

The Cowboys lassoed the Broncos for just 1.1 yards a carry, and sacked Brett Rypien seven times. Gundy has a chance to lead this well-rounded squad to a 9-0 mark heading into Norman for Bedlam — just seven weeks away.

IOWA (3-0)

This was covered briefly in Conference Corner this week, but to reiterate: The Hawkeyes have a chance to race ahead in the Big 10 West race with No. 18 Wisconsin visiting Kinnick this Saturday.

One of the weekend’s most fascinating matchups is the All-American Badger offensive line versus the formidable trio of A.J. Epenesa with Anthony and Matt Nelson. They form the front wall of the nation’s No. 5 defense, as well as the No. 7 run unit.

As a reminder, Epenesa in particular can level the likes of Saquon Barkley.

Kirk Ferentz’s offense is likely too pedestrian to beat whoever the East produces, as the running game averaged less than three yards a pop against Iowa State. However, Nate Stanley is a low-risk signal-caller who won’t undermine the dominant defense.

If they get past Wisconsin, the only other ranked opponent on the docket before Indianapolis is No. 10 Penn State in Happy Valley.


This section is all about sophomore running back A.J. Dillon, an emerging Heisman candidate that used to be committed to Michigan.

The Lawrence Academy (Groton, Mass.) product chose to stay home instead of head to Ann Arbor, and he is racking up the rushing yards behind the typically pile-driving lines of head coach Steve Addazio. After running for 185 yards last week against Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, he now ranks fifth nationally in rushing yardage.

It helps that quarterback Anthony Brown leads the country in passing efficiency, as well. The Eagles compete in the ACC Atlantic alongside No. 3 Clemson, and host No. 21 Miami on Oct. 26 before visiting No. 13 Virginia Tech the next week.

Boston College has been a multi-dimensional offense from beating Clemson the last few years — 17-13 in 2014, 34-17 in 2015 and 34-7 in 2017 after entering the fourth quarter tied. With the Tigers coming to Chestnut Hill Nov. 10, there’s a chance for parity in the ACC race.


  • No. 8 Notre Dame at Wake Forest (12 p.m., ABC). Michigan wants their only loss to rise in value, which won’t happen if the Irish continue to win one-score games.
  • Texas over No. 17 TCU (4:30 p.m., FOX). The Horned Frogs rank just above the Wolverines, and they also pushed Ohio State last Saturday in Arlington, Tex. If TCU loses, it emphasizes Buckeye vulnerability that much more.
  • Kentucky over No. 14 Mississippi State (7 p.m., ESPN). Michigan would pass the Starkville Bulldogs — which sounds like a minor league baseball team.
  • Iowa over No. 18 Wisconsin (8:30 p.m., FOX). Another team ranked ahead of Michigan. Also, an excuse to post college football’s best tradition.
  • Indiana over No. 24 Michigan State (7:30 p.m., BTN). Hoosier running back coach Mike Hart needs to shake Mark Dantonio’s hand after the game.
  • No. 7 Stanford at No. 20 Oregon (8 p.m., ABC). Michigan fans that watch Stanford must feel like they’re looking at a meal they ordered four years ago. It’s exactly what people want, but the waiter keeps telling them that the it’s going to take more time to cook.