Minnesota is 3-0 in Big Ten play for the first time since 1990. Big Ten newcomer Maryland has won two of three conference games and is within striking distance of Michigan State and Ohio State in the East.
Not bad for a couple teams picked to finish fifth in their divisions.
The West Division-leading Gophers are on track to finish with a record better than the previous season for the fourth straight year under Jerry Kill. At 6-1, they're off to their best start since Tim Brewster's 2008 team won seven of its first eight. A victory at Illinois this week would make Minnesota 4-0 in the Big Ten for the first time since 1967.
Kill said last week's 39-38 win over Purdue revealed some pluck that the Gophers hadn't shown before. They won for the first time in 23 games after trailing at halftime. Kill said he issued a challenge in the locker room when they were down 31-20.
"You've got to go out and prove that we're a good football team, and the only way to do that is come back. So they did," Kill said Tuesday. "They showed some character and didn't panic, and showed some maturity, which we haven't had. It was a huge win for a lot of reasons, but certainly being able to come back is something we haven't done a whole lot of."
There's nothing fancy about Minnesota, whose only loss was at the Big 12's TCU. The durable David Cobb, who's fourth in the nation with 144.7 yards a game, has had 30 or more carries in four straight games. Quarterback Max Leidner is a serviceable passer and capable runner.
The Gophers' defense is middle-of-the-pack in the Big Ten statistically but has limited big plays.
"Definitely has Jerry's personality all over it," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "They're physical on both sides of the line of scrimmage. They know who they are as far as what they're trying to accomplish in all three phases."
The Gophers' toughest games are in November. They play Iowa and Ohio State at home and finish on the road against Nebraska and Wisconsin.
Maryland, which finished no higher than fifth in its division in its last three years in the Atlantic Coast Conference, has been one of the Big Ten's surprise teams despite a run of injuries.
The Terrapins lost 52-24 to Ohio State three weeks ago — their other loss was to the Big 12's West Virginia — and should stay in the East race until the end if they can win at Wisconsin this week.
"Obviously, they've fit in very well in the Big Ten, and they came from a quality conference," Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said. "They're a great addition, which we all believed."
The Terps are averaging 35 points a game with a versatile offense led by double-threat quarterback C.J. Brown and two of the Big Ten's best receivers in Stefon Diggs and Deon Long. The offense's production has covered for a defense that has given up 39 plays of 20 yards or longer.
Maryland is coming off its most satisfying Big Ten win, rallying from 14 points down in the fourth quarter to beat Iowa 38-31. Brown ran 21 times for 99 yards despite missing a quarter with a back injury.
"I knew there were outstanding coaches in this league, outstanding players, and that's come to bear out as we've played," Terps coach Randy Edsall said. "You take a look at what these people do and try to make them do something different. But what you have to do is focus on what you do and try to get better. So far we're 5-2, and we'll see where we go from here."