<
>

What's real and what's not for three surprising B1G unbeatens

Pat Fitzgerald's Northwestern team had just a 7.5 percent chance of winning its first three games. Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Through three weeks of the season, five Big Ten teams remain undefeated.

Two of them -- Ohio State and Michigan State -- come as little surprise, with the Buckeyes and Spartans ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the latest Associated Press Top 25. The other three league teams who have yet to suffer a loss qualify as genuinely unexpected developments.

Indiana, Iowa and Northwestern didn't appear on many preseason radar screens, yet all three are among the most improved clubs in the Big Ten. The Wildcats, who have beaten Stanford and Duke, are ranked No. 17 in this week's AP poll. Iowa is 3-0 for the first time since 2009, a season in which it won the Orange Bowl. Indiana has won its first three games for the first time since 2010.

But the sample size still is small, as three weeks do not tell the tale of a season. So which of these teams are for real, and which are not? Let's examine them a little more closely.

Northwestern Wildcats

Football Power Index ranking: 40

Best chance for first loss: Oct. 3 vs. Minnesota

Verdict: For real

Remember when the Wildcats were soaring in 2012, heading into a showdown with Ohio State at home? Pat Fitzgerald's team has had trouble recapturing that magic. Until now.

Northwestern's opening 16-6 win over Stanford only grew in stature when the Cardinal beat USC 41-31 on the road Saturday. And the 'Cats once again used a suffocating defense to take down Duke 19-10 on the road for their second résumé-enhancing win. FPI rates Northwestern as the most efficient defensive team in the FBS, which makes sense given that it has allowed only one touchdown all season.

FPI gave Fitzgerald's team just a 7.5 percent chance of winning its first three games, second-lowest to only Toledo (7.3 percent) among teams that have remained undefeated so far. It only gives Northwestern a 0.1 percent chance of winning out. But Wisconsin is the only ranked team left on the Wildcats' schedule, and if they can improve the offense behind redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson, this is a definite Big Ten West Division contender.

Iowa Hawkeyes

FPI ranking: 48

Best chance for first loss: Oct. 3 at Wisconsin

Verdict: Somewhat for real

Kirk Ferentz's program seemed to be trending in the wrong direction, and with some questions on the offensive line and heavy grumbling among the fan base, this looked like a potentially long season.

Instead, Ferentz has the Hawkeyes playing inspired football, and quarterback C.J. Beathard has breathed excitement into the offense. Ferentz rolled the dice by choosing Beathard over Jake Rudock in January, prompting Rudock to transfer to Michigan. But look at the two players' stat lines through three games:

Rudock: 582 yards passing, three touchdowns, five interceptions, 64.8 completion percentage,, 34.3 QBR

Beathard: 684 yards passing, four touchdowns, one interception, 64 completion percentage, 79.9 QBR

Iowa also is running the ball better than it has the past couple of years, averaging 4.9 yards per carry, compared to 4.1 in 2014 and 4.2 in 2013. The caveat on these Hawkeyes: They have yet to leave the state of Iowa, and their best wins have come over struggling Iowa State and a banged-up Pitt team. They needed a 57-yard field goal by Marshall Koehn as time expired to beat the Panthers.

The schedule will get more difficult, including trips to Wisconsin and Nebraska. But with no crossover games against Ohio State, Michigan State or Michigan, Ferentz has a great chance of getting to eight or nine wins this season, and maybe more if all goes well.

Indiana Hoosiers

FPI ranking: 75

Best chance of first loss: Saturday at Wake Forest

Verdict: Not for real

The Hoosiers smartly eased up on their schedule this year, and it has paid off. Still, things have not come easily for Kevin Wilson's team, which trailed at halftime in all three games, needed a dropped two-point conversion to survive against FCS Southern Illinois and came back from 11 points down vs. Western Kentucky last weekend. FPI gave Indiana only a 22.1 percent chance of winning its first three games, even though all were at home.

Indiana has done just enough when it has mattered and especially in the third quarter, when it is outscoring opponents 44-0. The offense (40.7 ppg) rebounded as hoped with the return of quarterback Nate Sudfeld (13th nationally in passing yards) while UAB transfer Jordan Howard has ably replaced Tevin Coleman's production. Howard leads the FBS in total rushing yards with 507.

But, oh, that defense. FPI rates it No. 120 in the country (there are 128 FBS teams). Allowing more than 544 yards per game, as the Hoosiers have done, is an unsustainable formula for success.

The good news: If Indiana can beat Wake Forest -- the Demon Deacons haven't had a winning season since 2008, so no excuses if not -- it will achieve a rare feat. The program's last 4-0 start came in 1990, when the team went to the Peach Bowl. And with games remaining against Purdue, Penn State, Rutgers and Maryland, Wilson may well lead the Hoosiers to their first bowl game since 2007.