Somewhere out there is a college football team lurking on the fringes of the rankings, one that hasn’t been talked up as a playoff contender, but is primed to make a run.
Maybe it’s Arizona.
The Wildcats made a case to be this season’s gate-crasher with a surprising 31-24 victory at No. 2 Oregon on Thursday night, starting the biggest weekend of the college football season so far with the biggest surprise of the college football season so far.
“Nobody gave us a shot but this is a statement that Arizona is here to play,” Wildcats linebacker Scooby Wright said.
On Saturday, six games will match ranked teams, including three matchups involving SEC West rivals in the top-15. While the SEC sorts itself out, Arizona provided the first real shake-up of the rankings — about three weeks before the College Football Playoff selection committee makes its initial assessment.
The Wildcats gave college football a reminder that once October rolls around, you can forget about what you thought you knew in August.
Now the season really starts.
Then again, after last season, did we really need a reminder? It wasn’t until the seventh week of the 2013 regular season that Auburn even entered the rankings. The Tigers were the ultimate off-the-radar crew, coming off a winless Southeastern Conference season in 2012 to make a run all the way to the BCS championship game.
Auburn’s turnaround was historic, but contenders emerging outside the early season favorites in October is routine. The Tigers weren’t even the only team that went from unranked to national title contender last year. Missouri made a similar run in the SEC East, going from losing team to the top-five heading into championship weekend.
In 2012, Notre Dame started the season unranked and Kansas State was No. 22. By the middle of October, both were in the top five. When November rolled around, the Wildcats and Fighting Irish were at the heart of the BCS championship race, and it was eventually Notre Dame playing for the national title.
While the highly ranked teams mostly held serve in 2011, when LSU and Alabama never left the top five and Oklahoma State started ninth and ended third, those seasons tend to be the anomalies.
More often what you get is what happened in 2010, when another Auburn team, this one led by a junior college transfer quarterback named Cam Newton, went from No. 22 in the preseason to No. 1 at the end.
Arizona will no doubt vault into the rankings come Sunday, and we’ll see if the Wildcats, who needed a last-second touchdown pass to complete a miracle comeback against California two weeks ago, have the staying power to make a run in a tough Pac-12.
Maybe No. 25 TCU is that team. The Horned Frogs are coming off a losing season, but they entered the rankings this week, just in time to play No. 4 Oklahoma, and with No. 7 Baylor next on the Big 12 schedule.
Nebraska has a chance to be that team, too. The Huskers fell out of the rankings a few weeks ago, after struggling to beat McNeese State. They’re back at No. 19 and heading to No. 10 Michigan State on Saturday.
For all the grief the Big Ten has gotten, an undefeated run through it would put Nebraska in the mix for a playoff spot.
Don’t count out Oregon, though. The Ducks will tumble but you can all but guarantee there won’t be four unbeaten teams from the five major conferences on selection Sunday. It never happened in the BCS era. The committee is going to be sorting through one-loss teams to fill four spots, and if the Ducks can fix their flaws and win a Pac-12 title, that misstep Thursday night could be a distant memory.
With quarterback Marcus Mariota returning for another year, Oregon had cruised through its nonconference slate, including a 46-27 victory at home against the then-No. 7 Spartans. Many called it a statement-making win: The Ducks seemed headed straight to college football’s first playoff.
But the Ducks showed vulnerabilities in a conference-opening 38-31 road win over Washington State. Mariota was sacked seven times.
The weaknesses were amplified in the loss to Arizona, which was already Oregon’s nemesis after routing the Ducks last season. The Wildcats have opened 5-0 for the first time since 1998.
Mariota was sacked five times Thursday night, including a hit by Wright on what would turn out to be the Ducks’ final drive of the game.
Terris Jones-Grigsby plowed into the end zone from a yard out for the tiebreaking touchdown with 2:54 left. On the Ducks’ ensuing series, Mariota was sacked by Wright, who stripped the ball from the Heisman Trophy hopeful and recovered it himself.
Arizona then gained a clinching first down on the ground and ran out the clock.
“I don’t know if anybody picked us,” Wildcats coach Rich Rodriguez said. “I don’t know how many people were talking about us, but I bet you most of them weren’t thinking this was going to happen, not on the road.”
AP Sports Writer Anne M. Peterson in Portland, Oregon, contributed to this report.
Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.