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October 31, 2007

Surprising unbeatens starting to get noticed

King: Double talk with Kansas CB Aqib Talib

TEMPE, Ariz. The kings of the desert still are thirsting for attention.

Arizona State has won each of its first eight games while watching Pac-10 rivals steal the headlines.

USC entered the season as the top-ranked team in the nation. California was poised to take over at No. 1 before going on a three-game losing streak. Oregon has garnered plenty of attention for its explosive offense and its early season blowout at Michigan.

"We were No. 4 in the BCS," Arizona State tailback Dimitri Nance noted Saturday after the Sun Devils' 31-20 victory over California, "but we really didn't get talked about that much."

Nance doesn't have to worry about that anymore because the Sun Devils' days of thriving in the background have ended. The same goes for Boston College and Kansas, the other unbeaten teams that opened the season out of the top 25.

All three passed their biggest tests of the season last week with varying degrees of success. Each still has even tougher challenges ahead in upcoming weeks. They've been unknown and unbeaten for much of the season. Now, only the latter adjective applies.

If they keep winning, they could become this season's version of the 2006 Boise State team or the 2005 West Virginia squad, which won BCS games after opening the year out of the preseason polls. If they slip up, they'll turn into the next USF or Kentucky, programs that had brief moments in the spotlight before losing streaks caused them to fade into the background.

"The 8-0 experience is awesome," Kansas quarterback Todd Reesing said Saturday after a 19-11 victory at Texas A&M. "We still have a long way to go, and we haven't reached our goal. We are playing as a team and a program."

Each program would love to make a statement that it belongs among the nation's elite. The nation's two other unbeaten teams Ohio State and Hawaii have been ranked all season. Boston College, Arizona State and Kansas initially struggled to earn respect even though each returned at least 14 starters.

Recap and look ahead: ARIZONA STATE
Sept. 1San Jose State45-3
Sept. 8Colorado33-14
Sept. 15San Diego State34-13
Sept. 22Oregon State44-32
Sept. 29at Stanford41-3
Oct. 6at Washington State23-20
Oct. 13Washington44-20
Oct. 27California31-20
Nov. 3, at Oregon (7-1). The buzz: The two highest-scoring offenses in the Pac-10 square off in what essentially is an elimination game in the national-title race.
Nov. 10, at UCLA (5-3). The buzz: Arizona State has struggled to avoid sacks and will have to look out for Bruce Davis, one of the nation's top pass rushers.
Nov. 22, vs. USC (6-2). The buzz: The Sun Devils have lost their past seven games to USC by an average margin of 19 points.
Dec. 1, vs. Arizona (3-6). The buzz: Arizona could be playing to save Mike Stoops' job. Then again, Arizona State coach Dirk Koetter got fired last year even after winning this game.
The Atlantic Coast Conference media predicted Boston College would finish behind Florida State in the Atlantic Division. Kansas was picked to finish fourth in the six-team Big 12 North. And Arizona State was picked fourth in the Pac-10.

That might explain the chip on the collective shoulders of these teams. The attitude was evident last weekend when Arizona State quarterback Rudy Carpenter fielded a question about whether the Sun Devils' 31-20 victory over California would earn them some respect.

"Probably not because they'll say that Cal came in here with a two-game losing streak," Carpenter replied. "I don't think people realize how good a team Cal is."

Perhaps the skepticism was understandable. These teams don't have the tradition of Ohio State or LSU, to name two of the programs competing with them in the national-title sweepstakes.

Arizona State enjoyed a perfect season in 1975 and was one defensive stop in the Rose Bowl away from winning the national championship in 1996, but the Sun Devils haven't finished higher than third in the Pac-10 since 1998. Arizona State was 2-19 against teams in The Associated Press poll under former coach Dirk Koetter, who was fired at the end of last season.

Boston College has won bowls in each of the past seven years, but the Eagles never have won an ACC or Big East title outright.

Kansas has the shakiest history of all. The Jayhawks produced Pro Football Hall of Famers Gale Sayers and John Riggins, but they haven't won a conference title since tying for first in the Big Eight in 1968. Kansas hasn't finished higher than fourth in the Big 12 North and has gone to just four bowls in the past 25 years.

"There are so many different things historically about this program," Jayhawks coach Mark Mangino said. "We haven't played well against this team, haven't done this, haven't done that. It's been a century of inconsistency here. We're trying to get that righted."

At least Kansas doesn't have to worry about getting overshadowed by its area pro teams, though Lawrence, Kan., is just a 40-minute drive from Kansas City. Arizona State and Boston College often have to compete for headlines with the successful pro franchises in their cities.

Arizona State began its unbeaten season as the Arizona Diamondbacks were making their playoff run and have continued it just as the Phoenix Suns prepare to make their latest NBA title bid.

Recap and look ahead: BOSTON COLLEGE
Sept. 1Wake Forest38-28
Sept. 8N.C. State37-17
Sept. 15at Georgia Tech24-10
Sept. 22Army37-17
Sept. 29Massachusetts24-14
Oct. 6Bowling Green55-24
Oct. 13at Notre Dame27-14
Oct. 25at Virginia Tech14-10
Nov. 3, vs. Florida State (5-3). The buzz: Florida State not BC was the preseason pick to win the ACC Atlantic Division.
Nov. 10, at Maryland (4-4). The buzz: BC has had its way against this ACC rival. The Eagles won 31-16 in 2005 and 38-16 last year.
Nov. 17, at Clemson (6-2). The buzz: The Eagles are second in the nation in run defense, but they struggled to stop Virginia Tech's ground game. Clemson runs the ball much better than the Hokies.
Nov. 25, vs. Miami (5-3). The buzz: BC hasn't beaten Miami since Doug Flutie's miracle throw at the Orange Bowl in 1984.
Dec. 1, ACC Championship Game. The buzz: The Eagles still must win the Atlantic Division to earn a date in Jacksonville, Fla. Don't be surprised if this turns into a BC-Virginia Tech rematch.
Boston College had the misfortune of playing one of its biggest games in recent history a thrilling 14-10 comeback victory over Virginia Tech last week at the same time the Boston Red Sox were playing Game 2 of the World Series. The Eagles play host to Florida State this Saturday, the night before the unbeaten New England Patriots face the unbeaten Indianapolis Colts in a huge NFL showdown.

The lack of attention hasn't bothered the Eagles, nor has it altered their approach. BC quarterback Matt Ryan was one of the few New England residents who didn't stay up long enough to watch the Red Sox clinch the World Series title Sunday night. He watched the first six innings and didn't know the Red Sox had completed the sweep until he woke up the next morning.

"We've been very focused on just trying to take care of our own business and taking care of what we can control," said Ryan, who grew up a Philadelphia Phillies fan. "We're going to continue to stay focused on those things and not really be concerned about everything that's going on around us."

That unyielding focus has worked out well for each of the unbeatens.

Boston College needed that kind of tenacity as it erased a 10-point deficit in the final 2 minutes against Virginia Tech. That hunger has helped Arizona State rally from double-digit, first-quarter deficits against Colorado, Oregon State and California. Kansas' extraordinary focus helped the Jayhawks win road games against Kansas State and Texas A&M.

"You could see their confidence growing each and every week," Mangino said. "As soon as we went out and played well on the road our first game in Manhattan (Kan.), our kids really understood they had a chance to be a good football team."

All three teams have kept on winning while also providing at least a little bit of ammunition for their detractors.

Arizona State has endured slow starts all season and has allowed 3.5 sacks per game. Boston College struggled to protect Ryan last week and ranks 85th in the nation in rush offense. Kansas ranks fifth in the nation in scoring and second in scoring defense, but the Jayhawks have benefited from a conference schedule that doesn't include Oklahoma, Texas or Texas Tech.

Recap and look ahead: KANSAS
Sept. 1Central Michigan52-7
Sept. 8SE Louisiana62-0
Sept. 15Toledo45-13
Sept. 22Fla. International55-3
Oct. 6at Kansas State30-24
Oct. 13Baylor58-10
Oct. 20at Colorado19-14
Oct. 27at Texas A&M19-11
Nov. 3, vs. Nebraska (4-5). The buzz: How crazy is this season? Consider that the Jayhawks are favored by 19 points over a team that used to beat them like a drum.
Nov. 10, at Oklahoma State (5-3). The buzz: The matchup between Oklahoma State WR Adarius Bowman and Kansas CB Aqib Talib is one we likely will be seeing on Sundays in future seasons.
Nov. 17, vs. Iowa State (1-8). The buzz: This shouldn't be a problem for the Jayhawks unless they're looking ahead to the following week.
Nov. 24, at Missouri (7-1). The buzz: These longtime rivals haven't played a game as big as this one since they were battling for Big Eight titles in the late 1960s.
Dec. 1, Big 12 Championship Game. The buzz: Kansas isn't playing Oklahoma, Texas or Texas Tech during the regular season. If the Jayhawks win the Big 12 North, they'll probably face one of those teams for the conference title.
"I'm a little bit surprised with this whole team because I didn't know how good we are or how many games we're going to win, and I still don't know," Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson said. "I do know we're going to win at least eight, so you go to the next one and see what happens. When you start having success, you gain confidence and that's what's happened."

All three definitely are good, but are they great? We should learn the answer in the next few weeks.

Kansas faces longtime nemesis Nebraska this weekend, travels to Oklahoma State next week and ends the regular season against Missouri in a game that probably will determine the Big 12 North champion.

BC plays host to Florida State and Miami and travels to Clemson and Maryland before a potential appearance in the ACC Championship Game. Miami has beaten Boston College 15 consecutive times.

Arizona State looks to have the toughest road of all. The Sun Devils are seven-point underdogs this weekend at Oregon. The Sun Devils also must travel to UCLA and play host to USC before ending the regular season against Arizona.

"(The games) are only going to continue to get bigger as we keep on going through the season," said Carpenter, who plans to play this week despite spraining his right thumb against California. "It's one of those things that when you keep on winning and getting more attention, every game becomes the biggest game of the year."

Even if one of these teams keeps winning, there's no guarantee it will play for the national title. No. 4 Arizona State trails a one-loss LSU team in the latest BCS standings. No. 8 Kansas must leapfrog four one-loss teams: No. 3 LSU, No. 5 Oregon, No. 6 Oklahoma and No. 7 West Virginia. Boston College is in the best shape as the second-ranked team in the BCS standings, but the Eagles must win impressively to avoid getting passed by LSU.

If the Eagles keep winning ugly, as they did against Virginia Tech, it could tempt voters to move LSU ahead of them by virtue of the Tigers' tougher schedule.

"We don't worry too much about what other people think or whether other people think we're deserving of where we're at," Ryan said. "We're really just concerned with what we can control."

That strategy has worked wonders for all three teams so far.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

King: Double talk with Kansas CB Aqib Talib

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