Four teams that began the year outside the preseason rankings now find themselves holding court in both major polls after surprising 3-0 starts. Now the really important question: Can you actually trust any of them over the rest of the season?
ARIZONA. Rich Rodriguez landed in the desert last winter with a well-earned reputation as an offensive innovator, cultivated over a decade as head coach at West Virginia and Michigan, and his first team in Tucson has taken to the "Spread 'n Shred" with gusto: Through three games, Arizona is fourth nationally in total offense, surging into the polls on the strength of a wild 59-38 upset over Oklahoma State in Rodriguez's second game. Aside from concerns over the defense, though, Rodriguez's teams at Michigan also had a knack for fast, inspiring starts that unraveled with alarming speed as the season wore on. Are the streaking Wildcats bound for the same fate?
Trust: The offense to date has been a different, more-balanced animal than the heavily run-oriented versions of Rodriguez's system in Morgantown and Ann Arbor, but the results are indistinguishable: Even if you're not impressed by prolific nights against the highly combustible likes of Toledo and South Carolina State, the Wildcats also hung 500 yards and 59 points on a much saltier D from Oklahoma State. Matt Scott leads the Pac-12 in passing, Ka'Deem Carey is second in rushing and visions of Pat White and Steve Slaton are already dancing in the partisans' heads.
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Don't Trust: Ignore the goose egg on the scoreboard for South Carolina State: The defense is a work in progress, to say the least. Oklahoma State moved the ball at will by ground (200 yards rushing) and air (436 yards passing) and was only stopped by four interceptions from the arm of a true freshman quarterback on the road for the first time in his career. Veteran passers of the Pac-12 will not be so generous.
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From Here: The Wildcats cleared the first major hurdle – a win over a ranked team at home – as two-touchdown underdogs against Oklahoma State. Virtually no one expects them to clear the second Saturday night at Oregon, where the Ducks are 22-1 under coach Chip Kelly and initially pegged as 23.5-point favorites. On top of that, the trip to Eugene is only the first of four games in the next six weeks that pits Arizona against a conference rival currently ranked in the top 20, three of them (at Oregon, at Stanford and at UCLA) on the road. If they take the Ducks into the fourth quarter on their own turf, it's probably safe to BUY the Wildcats as a likely eight or nine-win team bound for the Holiday or Sun Bowl and a spot near the bottom of the polls, where they currently reside. If anyone starts talking Rose Bowl, SELL.
MISSISSIPPI STATE. The Bulldogs play in the division pretty much everyone agrees is the "Toughest Division in College Football," the SEC West, ostensibly relegating them to also-ran status before the ball is even kicked. (Mississippi State has only won the West once, in 1998, and still counts a single SEC crown from 1941.) With a Week 2 win over Auburn, though, MSU is 1-0 in conference play for the first time in more than a decade, and ranked for the third consecutive season. Thanks to a favorable draw in the inter-division schedule – no Florida, Georgia, Missouri or South Carolina from the East – and a backloaded West slate, the Bulldogs could be knocking on the door of the top 10 before we know much of anything about them. But what then?
Trust: The defense wrapped up Auburn's offense in a neat little bow, collecting five turnovers without allowing an offensive touchdown. (The Tigers' only trip to the end zone came courtesy of a kickoff return.) Through two quarters of that game, Auburn quarterback Kiehl Frazier had a negative pass efficiency rating, and had just 18 yards passing through three.
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Don't Trust: The offense has been nothing to write home about and it's unclear if credit for the whitewash against Auburn goes to the MSU defense or Frazier's ineptitude in his first career start on the road. Last week, Troy ripped the same defense on the same field for 572 yards in a tight 30-24 finish that wasn't decided until well into the fourth quarter.
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From Here: With Auburn in the books as a win, the schedule sets up surprisingly well for a 7-0 start: Beginning Saturday, the next four games are against South Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee and Middle Tennessee State, all of them but Kentucky in Starkville, and all of them but Tennessee – a toss-up – likely Mississippi State wins. After that, it gets significantly steeper down the stretch, mainly courtesy of death-defying road trips to Alabama and LSU. If the Bulldogs take two of three against Tennessee, Texas A&M and Arkansas in Starkville, though, they are a BUY as a potential nine-game winner with a January bowl on the horizon.
NOTRE DAME. The Irish jumped nearly 10 spots in both polls after last Saturday's 20-3 rout at Michigan State, Notre Dame's first win over a top-10 team since 2005 and arguably its best win in any context in at least a decade. Where have we heard that before? Notre Dame hasn't finished anywhere in the final polls (or with fewer than five losses in a season) since 2006, when it started No. 2 and finished No. 17. The 2012 edition wasn't expected to be much better before the season. Is there any reason beyond a promising effort within the last 72 hours to believe they've actually turned a corner?
Trust: The defense couldn't have been much better in East Lansing, effectively thwarting the Spartans' burly, between-the-tackles running game while also sacking MSU quarterback Andrew Maxwell four times. Senior Manti Te'o is has made good on the hype that pegged him as the best linebacker in the nation, and then some.
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Don't Trust: The return of starting tailback Cierre Wood from a two-game suspension did nothing to jolt the perennially meh running game, which only put more pressure on the arm of erratic redshirt freshman Everett Golson. Golson has avoided the crippling mistake so far, but if he ever finds himself playing from behind in a shootout – or any game that will likely require more than 20 points against a competent defense to win – it's only a matter of time.
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From Here: Even if you love everything about this team through the first three games, the schedule over the last nine absolutely forbids optimism. Forbids, I say. This weekend, it's Michigan, which has dealt the Irish three consecutive last-minute defeats in increasingly painful fashion; get past the Wolverines, and the next four games are against Miami , Stanford,BYU and Oklahoma (in Norman). Then there's USC waiting in the finale. If the goal is still a BCS bowl, the Irish have to take at least four of those six, and avoid a November upset from the ranks of non-patsies Pittsburgh, Boston College and Wake Forest. For any team in America this side of Alabama and LSU, that's an automatic SELL.
UCLA. The long-suffering Bruins went outside the family last December for the first time in decades to hire Jim Mora, the first new head coach since 1957 with no prior connection to UCLA as a player or assistant, in an apparent effort to change the stagnant "culture" of the program. So far, so good: With redshirt freshman quarterback Brett Hundley at the controls, the Bruins scored a touchdown on the first snap of the season, rolled up 633 yards of total offense in an upset win over Nebraska and have generally shown few signs of the malaise that has made them one of the most consistently disappointing programs in the country.
Trust: Hundley has been money at quarterback, but all of the success on offense begins with an astonishingly effective ground game that defies a solid decade of mediocrity and worse. Senior Johnathan Franklin went over 200 yards against both Rice and Nebraska and currently leads the nation in rushing on more than eight yards per carry.
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Don't Trust: The defense held Houston to just six points Saturday, largely thanks to six Houston turnovers, but still ranks dead last in the Pac-12 against the run after yielding 174 yards rushing at Rice and 260 against Nebraska. Running quarterbacks, in particular, have been a glaring issue: Nebraska's Taylor Martinez had a 92-yard touchdown run, and Houston's David Piland broke an 86-yarder. Rice's Taylor McHargue also had a 40-yard run in the opener.
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From Here: Fortunately for the Bruins, the rest of the quarterbacks on the schedule are all pocket-bound, "pro style" slingers, and only one of the next seven – Arizona's Matt Scott – plays for a team that's currently ranked. Some UCLA fans are already sizing up the possibility of heading into the rivalry game against USC sitting at 10-0. Those odds look much better on paper than they do in reality for a program that hasn't won more than seven games in a season since 2005. But given that the Trojans are already 0-1 in conference play, the prospect of the Pac-12 South still being up for grabs at that point is a much smarter BUY.