BEST OF TIMES. A snapshot of teams, coaches and players at their peak…
MICHIGAN'S DEFENSE. Brady Hoke has worked hard this week to downplay the numbers in the wake of a 58-0 embarrassment of Minnesota, the Wolverines' first shutout since blanking the worst Notre Dame team of all time in 2007, and the fourth time in the first five games under new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison that they've held an opponent at or below 10 points. But even against bad teams, pessimism is much easier said than done when you haven't had to sit through Michigan's defense over the preceding three seasons: This is the team, after all, that gave up 30-plus points last year in early shootouts with Indiana and UMass, before sinking to the bottom of the Big Ten rankings by every conceivable measure.
If improvement under Mattison was inevitable, though — progress is the de facto assumption when an awful defense returns seven upper-class starters — regression through the thick of the Big Ten race may be just as certain: At the moment, the Wolverines are recovering an ungodly number of fumbles, and this is the precise point in the schedule that fast starts fell apart two years in a row under Rich Rodriguez. We'll know a lot more about how far they've come after watching them deal with Dan Persa-led Northwestern this weekend.
RON ZOOK. Incredibly, Zook is in his tenth season as a head coach, at least seven of which have been spent on "hot seats" of varying temperatures. The only person in the world who didn't think he should be fired in the midst of a 3-9 flop in 2009 was his then-boss, Ron Guenther. But Illinois' 38-35, comeback win over Northwestern — the Illini's third in a row by three points — makes this the first Zook-led team to start 5-0, and with lowly Indiana, reeling Ohio State (in Champaign) and Purdue on the horizon, there's no end in sight before a make-or-break stretch against Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin. Just like that, he may have bought himself two more years.
WASHINGTON STATE. Say what you will about the schedule: At 3-1, the Cougars have already won more games than they did in any of coach Paul Wulff's first three seasons, and they've done it in explosive fashion. After three straight years at the bottom of the Pac-10 charts, the offense currently ranks in the top 10 nationally passing, scoring and total yards per game, and just rallied for two touchdowns in the final three minutes to overcome a 10-point deficit at Colorado.
Two of Wazzu's next three games are winnable ones, against 2-3 UCLA this Saturday and 0-4 Oregon State (a team the Cougars trounced last year in Corvallis, 31-14) on Oct. 22. Win both, and a highly improbable bowl is just one November upset away.
WORST OF TIMES. …and of the ones way down in the hole.
FRANK SPAZIANI. Boston College fans seem like a basically patient, reasonable lot, especially when it comes to a guy who helped bring the program back from the brink in the wake of an epic gambling scandal in the mid-nineties. But the two most high-profile B.C. blogs on the web were unequivocal after Saturday's 27-19 loss to Wake Forest: It's time to fire Frank Spaziani as head coach. Like, yesterday.
With the loss, the Eagles fall to 1-4 — the one win coming against an FCS patsy, UMass — and have now lost home games to Northwestern, Duke and Wake Forest in a span of a little less than a month. Of course, that was supposed to be the easy part of the schedule. From here, forget extending the 12-year bowl streak: If they can't beat similarly flailing N.C. State on Nov. 12, they're spiraling fast toward 1-11.
ARIZONA. Want to guarantee your season is on life support before the weather turns? Arizona has the recipe: Take a hopelessly young team, and send it into three straight games against top-10 opponents in September, followed by a road trip to the most consistent talented program in the conference. After back-to-back-to-back blowouts at the hands of Oklahoma State, Stanford and Oregon, the Wildcats were outgunned in a 48-41 shootout Saturday at USC, dropping them to 1-4 against the most brutal opening stretch in the nation. (Including last year's late collapse, 'Zona has dropped eight straight against I-A/FBS competition — five of them against teams ranked in the top 20, and the other three coming by a combined margin of 11 points.) They currently rank dead last in the Pac-12 in every conceivable defensive category.
Now that that's out of the way, the season can actually begin: The next two games are winnable — must-win, actually — dates with 0-4 Oregon State and 2-3 UCLA. Seriously, guys, it's going to get better.
THE BIG TEN, IN GENERAL. Ohio State is collapsing on offense, Nebraska is collapsing on defense, Penn State is struggling with Temple and Indiana, Michigan State and Purdue are getting blown out by Notre Dame, Iowa is losing to Iowa State, nobody can remember which teams are supposed to be in which division and the bottom four teams in the conference have collectively dropped games to Rice, Ball State, North Texas, Army, New Mexico State and one of the Dakotas.
Yes, Wisconsin is still flying the Big Ten banner proudly in the polls, but to make a case for quality depth beyond the Badgers, you have to believe that both Illinois and Michigan are poised to sustain the momentum of their respective 5-0 starts. If you're sold on the Wolverines and Illini in the first week of October, America's historians would like to have a few words with you.