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The program took heat for it season after season, but Kansas State’s road out of the mire in the early and mid-nineties was paved with the tar it wrung from the flattened remains of Northern Illinois and San Jose State. It was the master stroke of the master rebuilding job, the realization that wins of any variety will boost morale, create a little buzz, secure bowl bids and open up recruiting. It means something to a team to start 4-0, 5-0, especially a struggling program that needs something good to happen for its players, to give them hope, and to get cynical fans believing something special might be on the horizon. Rarely, virtually never, is this actually the case. The losses always come. Sooner or later. Once the idea is implanted, though, once the program feels like it has a chance, it doesn’t just go away. And you can build on that.

When you prove it, prove it in style (try not to get bailed out by a penalty first, though).
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Occasionally, once or twice every year, a fast starter in the K-State tradition turns that sliver of cupcake-fed hope into a full blown, tortured Cinderella metaphor by turning a corner even the skeptics can’t deny (well, not plausibly, anyway, to the extent anyone on an opposing message board is bound to plausibility). The moment came for Rutgers last November against Louisville, when its scoffed-at run against cupcakes morphed in a single half into a feel-good locomotive of breathless hype. Any fair perception of the Knights since concedes respect that was impossible before those two quarters against the Cardinals. The classic case is Arizona State in 1996, a team that began the season unranked and unrespected until it rocked defending mythical champion and physically dominant overlord Nebraska en route to an 11-0 regular season and Rose Bowl bid, where the Devils wound up one Joe Germaine comeback from finishing number one.

If there’s a revelatory moment in that vein in store for 2007, this is the Saturday for it: of the 14 teams that emerged from September unscathed, a good half dozen of them remain firmly on the far side of respectability, blocked by very valid skepticism over a combination of scheduling and shaky to outright futile past performance. Four of them make their first real foray into the shit this week against ranked teams, desperate for that badge of courage. None will be left standing Sunday without it.

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Purdue (5-0) vs. Ohio State

Purdue's Road to 5-0
Opponent Score Record Avg. Stat Rank*
Toledo 52-24 1-4 93.5
Eastern Illinois 52-6 - -
Central Michigan 45-22 2-3 83.5
Minnesota 45-32 1-4 68.9
Notre Dame 33-19 0-5 97.0

*- Average national rank of eight major stat categories (rush, pass, total and scoring offense/defense)
Whoa, deja vu. If you’ll remember, Purdue actually made the Rose Bowl at the start of the decade, and since that season (2000) has subsisted on a reputation of high flying quasi-competence that perfectly corresponds to September’s 5-0 jog through MAC and MAC-level foes (sorry, Minnesota and Notre Dame, but y’all know it’s true) destined to surrender ghastly yields. And so they have: the Boilermakers lead the Big Ten in passing offense, total offense and scoring offense.

Of course, we’re immediately reminded of last year’s team, which was similarly gangbusters against the weak (41 ppg in a 4-0 start) but impotent when faced with the slightest strength on the other side. The 8-6 record split perfectly down the middle: 8-0 against losing teams, 0-6 against winners. Penn State shut the Boilers out a week after Wisconsin held them to a field goal.

Then, as I pointed out in August, there’s this:

Purdue Since Rose Bowl
2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006
Overall 6-6 7-6 10-3 7-5 5-6 8-6
vs. Big Ten 4-4 4-4 6-2 4-4 3-5 5-3
vs. Winning 4-4 2-5 2-4 1-4 1-6 0-6
vs. Ranked 0-3 0-4 3-3 0-4 0-3 0-4

Nothing in the 5-0 start has changed anything on that chart; Purdue still hasn’t beaten a team that finished with a winning record since it opened against Akron (7-6 at year’s end) in 2005. Even the potential strong points of the schedule to date, Notre Dame and Minnesota, are in the midst of historic regressions.

If there is one difference, it might be Curtis Painter, whose current 18:3 touchdown:interception ratio is three times better than his 10:5 ratio through five games last year. Ohio State’s defense, though, has been a rock: fourth in the nation in pass efficiency D, second in total defense, third in scoring. Save a garbage time touchdown by Washington in the final minute of a three-score OSU rout, no team has scored more than once on the defense in any capacity. Purdue won’t drag Ohio State’s offense to that level - it’s allowed 24 points per game to the four I-A offenses it’s faced – and would leap immediately into conference contention if Painter can make enough of a dent in that streak to win Saturday night.

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Cincinnati (5-0) at Rutgers

Cincinnati's Road to 5-0
Opponent Score Record Avg. Stat Rank
SE Missouri State 59-3 - -
Oregon State 34-3 2-3 49.3
Miami, Ohio 47-10 2-3 89.8
Marshall 40-14 0-4 93.1
San Diego State 52-23 1-3 80.4
After being stunned and physically beaten last week against Maryland, Rutgers finds itself in every bit the "prove it" role Cincinnati does, and in revenge mode, too, after the Bearcats emphatically ended the Knights’ undefeated run last year in Cincinnati. One of the major catalysts for that stunner was Mike Teel’s four-interception implosion, which led directly to a 20-point swing in a 19-point final deficit. Teel has been a completely different quarterback in the meantime: before losing to the Bearcats, he had never thrown for 250 yards in a game and had passed for more than one touchdown just once, benchmarks he’s topped in each of his last six starts since. He entered last week’s game as the top-rated passer in the country and is still number two in efficiency.

Cincinnati hasn’t really been the same, either, that blowout upset marking the beginning of a seven-game win streak that hasn’t even been close – Western Michigan, 26-23 loser in the International Bowl, is the only victim of that run that’s fared better than the Knights. It also happens to be the only other victim boasting a winning record, to which none of UC’s opponents this year are even aspiring at the moment.

The Bearcats are winning by an average of five touchdowns – they are sixth in scoring and fourth in preventing scoring – but the yardage totals have been much closer, especially against Oregon State, which outgained UC in a 31-point loss. Mainly, the Bearcats are raking in reams of takeaways, currently leading the nation in turnover margin at nearly plus-three per game. The defense has been mediocre by most measures, particularly in allowing an average of almost 350 yards and 19 first downs the last three weeks against hapless units from the Ohio-based Miami, winless Marshall and San Diego State. This would portend certain doom against the Knights, if they weren’t already on the negative side of the turnover ledger their own selves after giving the ball away three times against Maryland.

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Kansas (4-0) at Kansas State

Kansas' Road to 4-0
Opponent Score Record Avg. Stat Rank*
Central Michigan 52-7 2-3 83.5
SE Louisiana 62-0 - -
Toledo 45-13 1-4 93.5
Fla. International 55-3 0-4 109.8
No doubt Kansans remember (as they were likely the only ones who knew in the first place) KU’s 39-20 rout of surging Kansas State last November, a week after the Wildcats’ potentially corner-turning upset of Texas. It was the Jayhawks’ second win over KSU in 14 years, and also the start of a KU run that’s carried over dramatically into this year’s start – at one point last year, the Jayhawks had lost five of six games by an average of a little over five points. Beginning with its win over Colorado, a week before beating K-State, Kansas has since won seven of eight by an average of somewhere around five touchdowns. It comes in Saturday off easily the most statistically dominant September (average score: 54-6) in the country.

That means pretty much nothing in light of the competition, the whole lot of which boasts wins over Iowa State and Northern Illinois and a 30-point loss to I-AA South Dakota State (SDSU’s victim, Central Michigan, did beat another KU/Purdue whipping boy, Toledo, by three touchdowns). Rarely has outgaining an opponent by 460 yards seemed as irrelevant as Kansas’ curb-stomp of Florida International does next to KSU’s very non-flukey repeat takedown of the Longhorns.

There’s nothing Kansas isn’t doing fantastically well on paper, except maybe punting (it’s punted 11 times in four games), but there is no carryover whatsoever Saturday. Even Kansas State’s one apparent soft spot, its offensive running game, could turn out just fine; it’s hard to judge when half the fronts KSU has run against belong to Auburn and Texas, with predictable results.

Maybe that’s why Mark Mangino has been so on-edge throughout his team’s win streak. He’s dealing with a lot:

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Missouri (5-0) vs. Nebraska

Missouri's Road to 5-0
Opponent Score Record Avg. Stat Rank*
Illinois 40-34 4-1 44.1
Ole Miss 38-25 1-4 86.5
Western Michigan 52-24 2-3 74.0
Illinois State 38-17 - -
Missouri may have more going for it than any other team profiled here, by virtue of beating two legitimate teams in Illinois and Ole Miss and getting a struggling division favorite it’s beaten twice in the last four years, on the Huskers’ last two trips to Columbia.

It is also Missouri, not only requiring titanic offensive efforts to overcome flimsy defense in close wins over the Illini and Rebels, but also not-so-proud owners of a 12-27 record against winning teams under Gary Pinkel and a 38-year streak without a conference championship. The Tigers enter Big 12 play for the seventh time in Pinkel’s tenure having yet to finish better than 4-4 against the rest of the league.

That said, the Huskers have been fairly atrocious against the run: setting aside USC’s 313-yard romp, Nebraska allowed 236 on the ground to Wake Forest, 188 to Ball State and 149 before sacks to Iowa State. None of those teams have weapons of the caliber of Chase Daniel or Tony Temple. But then, Sam Keller hasn’t faced a secondary as forgiving as the Tigers’.

That will cover all but the most suspicious of the remaining unbeatens: Hawaii (overtime winner over lowly Louisiana Tech and feaster of not one but two outmanned I-AA outfits) and especially UConn, beneficiary of this call on fourth down against the Temple Owls, they of a single, lonely win in their last 27 games, playing in Storrs a week after being pounded 42-7 by Buffalo:

I’m not sure what’s worse: a close, probably cheap win over Temple, or an unambiguous blowout at Wyoming, where Virginia began the year with an embarrassing, 100-yard effort in a 20-3 loss to the Cowboys. The difference is that UVA has been impressive in four consecutive wins since, one over Georgia Tech, and will be the first UConn opponent not featuring a savory nougaty center on Oct. 13, after this Saturday’s bye for the Huskies.