Preseason College Football Rankings: Underdogs Who Can Upset Each Top 25 Team
Preseason rankings are not a perfect science—they are simply projections on which teams will begin the season as the 25 best in the nation. But who knows how these teams will actually perform come October, November or later?
Each school has a full slate of games that they have yet to play—and by season’s end, there will have been overtime thrillers, blowouts, nail-bitters and quite a few upsets.
This list will treat each top 25 team as the victim of an upset—either at the hands of an unranked team, or a much lower-ranked top 25 team.
Though all of these upsets may not actually happen, do not be surprised if quite a few of these top teams fall to their unranked opponents on the following slides.
25. Florida: At Vanderbilt Oct. 13
This isn’t the Vandy of old!
Last season, this Vanderbilt team posted the SEC’s third leading rusher (Zac Stacey), who was only outdone by the No. 3 pick in the NFL Draft (Trent Richardson) and arguably the best young Auburn RB since Bo Jackson (Michael Dyer).
This team can also pass the ball—sophomore Jordan Matthews was the fourth leading receiver in the SEC (Florida’s top pass catcher ranked 18th in the league).
Combine this offensive talent with the timing of this trap game—the week after the Gators host LSU(Oct. 6) and a week before the Gators host South Carolina (Oct. 20), then Georgia (Oct. 27). Not only could the Gators be upset here, but they could realistically go 0-4 in the month of October.
24. Notre Dame: Vs. Boston College Nov. 10
Notre Dame has a very tough schedule this season; The Irish host Michigan and Stanford and take road trips to Michigan State, Oklahoma and USC—needless to say, they will face some challenges.
Near the end of this tough schedule, the Fighting Irish must also travel to Alumni Stadium to face a Boston College team that should be reaching their stride as an 8-1 or 7-2 group at this point.
Don’t sleep on the Eagles! This game will not be a blowout and could easily be a late-season upset looming for the Irish.
23. Boise State: At Southern Miss Oct. 6
As usual, the Bronco’ will not face many top-tier opponents during the 2012 regular season—excluding an opening-day matchup at Michigan State, which should be a great game.
In addition to this September matchup with the Spartans, an early October battle against Southern Miss should also prove to be an intriguing contest.
The Golden Eagles are always a fast, physical but underrated team—and this year will be no different.
At this point in their season, they will have been exposed to other spread teams (East Carolina and Louisville) that will prepare them for Boise’s offensive attack, and they will have also seen what top 25 talent looks like during their opening game against Nebraska.
Beware of a shocker at Southern Miss!
22. Texas: At Ole Miss Sept. 15
Though UT will be much improved this season, two things they still lack are confidence in their QB and overall consistency—characteristics they must develop before being mentioned with the Texas teams of the past.
Week three at Ole Miss will be Texas’ first real competition—after playing Wyoming and New Mexico in weeks one and two. This will also be their first road matchup.
They will play an Ole Miss team that rarely receives any attention because they are one of the “little brothers” of the SEC big boys. But keep in mind, the 2010 Rebels lost to ‘Bama by two scores and LSU by only seven points, and last year the Rebels only fell by five points to Arkansas and two scores to LSU—showing that they still have some fight left in them, and on the right day they can play with anyone.
If Ole Miss comes ready to play, and Texas does not travel well after two easy home wins, this could be one of the biggest upsets of the season.
21. Oklahoma State: Vs. Texas Tech Nov. 17
Without Justin Blackmon and Brandon Weeden, many questions surround the 2012 Oklahoma State Cowboys.
Though some of these questions will be answered early on, one question that will have to wait to be answered is, “Can this team take things one week at a time?”
If the answer is no, audiences may watch the Cowboys look right past the Texas Tech Red Raiders—the team they play a week before their matchup with in-state rival Oklahoma.
Looking past teams like Texas Tech can easily result in giving up a ton of points and eventually being upset by an unranked team, in your own stadium.
20. Ohio State: At Penn State Oct. 27
Both of these perennial powerhouses have had their share of on- and off-the field issues recently. I fully expect their on-field issues to be corrected in the 2012 season and for this matchup to be an amazing contest to watch.
Most predict Ohio State will come out on top—tipping the series, which is tied 13-13 all time, in their favor.
But if new head coach Bill O’Brien and a Penn State team loaded with returning talent and fresh off of a bye week can put together a formidable game plan, the Nittany Lions can easily sneak one away from their Big Ten rivals.
19. Virginia Tech: At Pitt Sept. 15
Logan Thomas will lead this talented Virginia Tech team into Pittsburgh for a week three matchup against a very formidable opponent.
Pittsburgh has found a way to come out on top in each of the last three matchups between these two talented teams, and they return many key starters.
Look for this Pittsburgh team that averaged over 140 rushing yards a game last season to establish the run and win their fourth straight against Virginia Tech this September.
18. Clemson: Neutral Site vs Auburn Sept. 1
Last time football fans had an opportunity to see Clemson, the Tigers' defense was busy giving up 70 points and almost 600 total yards of offense. Surprise, surprise: They will try out a new defensive coordinator this season.
They open the 2012 season at a neutral site against Auburn, who will also debut a pair of new coordinators. Clemson’s D will be at a disadvantage because they will not know what to expect from Scot Loeffler’s new pro-style offense—as it will be vastly different from Gus Malzahn’s run-and-gun offense featured last season.
Overall, Auburn is a young but experienced team whose approach will be different than it has been in the past. Clemson can expect—well, actually they have no clue what to expect, which could lead to big problems.
Auburn over Clemson on a neutral field could easily be the first big upset of the 2012 season.
17. Nebraska: At Northwestern Oct. 20
Nebraska’s 2012 schedule is a very tough one—the ‘Huskers travel to Ohio State and Michigan State and will also play host to Michigan and Wisconsin.
Sandwiched between matchups with Ohio State and Michigan is a trip to Northwestern that may prove to be more difficult than critics realize.
This Northwestern team is returning six offensive starters to an offense that finished second in the Big Ten last season. If there is a chance that Nebraska will look past any game this season, they should be sure not to choose this one—because this Northwestern team could prove to be tougher than advertised.
16. Wisconsin: Vs. Illinois Oct. 6
Even without Russell Wilson, Montee Ball and company should be able to solidify another solid season for the Wisconsin Badgers in 2012.
Surely games against Nebraska and Ohio State are already circled on Wisconsin’s calendars, but is there another contest that they should be sure to keep their eyes open for?
Illinois has not been one of the powerhouses of the Big Ten of late but is rarely at the bottom of the conference rankings. In 2011 the Fighting Illini were one of only two teams to lose to the Badgers by less than 12 points—every other opponent that Wisconsin took down was beaten by at least 31 points.
Though Illinois lost AJ Jenkins to the NFL, this roster is still loaded with a ton of underrated talent, and they will catch Wisconsin after a tough game against Nebraska. If the Badgers do not also keep an eye out for this contest, they may be in for a rude awakening.
15. Stanford: At Cal Oct. 20
Without key offensive linemen, pass catchers and their field general Andrew Luck, there are many unknowns surrounding this year’s Stanford Cardinal. If they are able to get a solid start to the 2012 season, one matchup that will prove entertaining is their October meeting with Cal.
Cal came within three points of upsetting Luck and the Cardinal last season. With one team losing stars this offseason and the other retaining most of their talent, it looks like this could be the season the Golden Bears retake their thrown.
Cal has won seven of the last 10 matchups between these two teams and has only suffered one loss by more than a TD in this span. They also get the Cardinal to visit to Berkley for their rivalry game this season.
There’s defiantly an upset brewing here—now someone just has to make sure the band stays off the field.
14. TCU: At Baylor Oct. 13
No team in the nation will end the season with a tougher five-game stretch than TCU—playing at Oklahoma State, at West Virginia, vs. Kansas State, at Texas and then ending the season at home vs. Oklahoma.
There is a good chance that this five-game gauntlet will sneak into the minds of the Horned Frogs a little early and cause them to look right past a young Baylor team.
Though these are not the same Baylor Bears now that RGIII is a Washington Redskin and Kendall Wright is a Tennessee Titan, fans can rest assured that Art Briles still has his fair share of capable athletes in Waco, TX. They all still remember the game plan that put up 50 points against TCU last season.
13. Kansas State: Vs. No. 22 Texas Dec. 1
After being embarrassed on national television two seasons ago and beaten in their last four meetings, Texas will be looking to get some kind of payback on the Kansas State Wildcats.
Make no mistake about it, Kansas State is a team to be taken seriously. Texas has not beaten Kansas State since 2003—to put that in perspective, Vince Young was a redshirt freshman at that time. This, combined with the fact that K-State is ranked almost 10 slots higher than the Longhorns, surely qualifies this game as an upset.
Both teams will be returning key starters, including their QBs and linemen on both sides of the ball, but at the skill positions, Texas' guys are bigger, stronger, and faster than the Wildcats'.
Kansas State will not sneak up on the Longhorns in 2012 the way they have done in the past.
Expect UT to pull out the W at home in this high-scoring matchup.
12. Michigan State: Vs. Iowa Oct. 13
Michigan State had a great season last year and returns one of the best defenses in the nation, but they have a very difficult middle-of-the-season stretch when they visit Michigan and Wisconsin before playing host to Nebraska.
Directly before this stretch is a meeting with Iowa.
Iowa is always a tough opponent and in this case will be coming fresh off a bye week to face the Spartans. A group of well-rested Hawkeyes—who will probably be 5-0 at this time—will surely pose a huge threat to the championship hopes of Michigan State.
11. West Virginia: At Texas Tech Oct. 13
West Virginia’s bowl performance last season was one of the most offensively dominating performances in recent history. The Mountaineers scored at will against a team that tried to keep up with them but eventually just couldn’t.
Can the Texas Tech Red Raiders keep up with a similar Mountaineer team this season?
In a word: yes.
The Red Raiders are a pass-happy, high-scoring team that will have been tested by good teams before this game. The level of competition that Texas Tech is accustomed to playing against has prepared them to shock highly ranked opponents in the past. If the Mountaineers aren’t careful, their names will be added to this list.
10. Michigan: At No. 20 Ohio State Nov. 24
This rivalry game is never overlooked—and shouldn’t be this year either. Both teams will surely come prepared for this matchup in Ohio Stadium.
Good news for Buckeye fans is that by the time this late November matchup takes place, all the kinks will have been worked out in Columbus, and Ohio State will have established a solid rhythm.
On the other hand, some bad news for Michigan fans: In recent history, the Wolverines have established a bad habit of ending seasons poorly, totaling a record of 6-9 in November games over the past four seasons.
Michigan has only defeated Ohio State twice since the year 2000. Expect this losing trend to continue as the two teams battle later this season.
9. Arkansas: At TAMU Sept. 29
Though Texas A&M will be a new addition to the nation’s best conference, by the time this late-September matchup takes place, the Aggies will have had their first taste of SEC competition and should be fully aware of what to expect from their opponents.
When these teams battled last season, A&M jumped out to an 18-point halftime lead before giving it up in the second half and losing by four points. Though they dropped this game, last season’s contest showed that the Aggies do match up well with the Razorbacks—even at a neutral site.
This year’s matchup on Kyle Field—a stadium that already has an SEC atmosphere—would be the perfect stage for A&M to pull off their first big SEC upset.
8. South Carolina: At No. 25 Florida Oct. 25
Coming off of back-to-back games against Georgia and LSU, South Carolina will be in for a huge road challenge against a Florida team that returns 18 starters.
There’s no hiding the fact that Florida underachieved last season, but their combination of experience and a favorable schedule has many in Gator Nation thinking this may be the season that Will Muschamp’s team takes the next step.
Beating the Gamecocks in Gainesville looks to be a realistic way to signify that the Florida Gators are back and are legitimate contenders in the SEC East.
7. Florida State: Vs. No. 18 Clemson Sept. 22
Unfortunately for Seminole fans, history would suggest that Florida State will be overrated once again.
Since 2000, the FSU dynasty has been on a constant downslope—winning only 62 percent of their games and averaging 4.5 losses each season. Still, experts continue to rank the Seminoles as preseason favorites year in and year out.
This season, their first real test will be a home matchup against a very athletic Clemson team that has steadily been gaining confidence.
Expect Dabo Swinney and company to invade Doak Campbell stadium with a fast, high-scoring team looking to build on last season’s five-point victory.
6. Georgia: At Mizzou Sept. 8
If Mizzou really wants to make a splash in the SEC, they will be given a perfect opportunity in week two against the Georgia Bulldogs.
Sure, Mizzou lost a few games last season, but they lost close and they lost to good teams. Coming within ten points of Oklahoma, Kansas State, and Baylor, as well as beating Texas and Texas A&M, should be enough to categorize the Tigers as a threat to any top program.
New and returning weapons—like the Tigers’ leading receiver in 2010 and 2011 TJ Moe, and the nation’s top WR recruit a season ago Dorial Green-Beckham—should help returning QB James Franklin make Mizzou’s offense as potent as we have seen it in the past.
Also, fans should not forget that the Tigers have a way of getting the most out of QBs in their second seasons as starters.
Brad Smith improved from five wins in his first season to eight wins in his second; Chase Daniel improved from eight wins his first year as a starter to twelve wins in his second season; and Blaine Gabbert bettered his win total of eight wins as a first-time starter to ten wins in his second season at the helm.
Will Franklin and the 2012 Tigers continue this trend of second-year QB success by upsetting the Bulldogs at home?
5. Oklahoma: Vs. No. 21 Oklahoma State Nov. 24
Historically, this rivalry game has been fairly one-sided—with Oklahoma leading the series 82-17-7. But do not be surprised if Oklahoma State goes into Norman and steals another one from their in-state rivals in 2012.
This game will be the second in a harsh end of the season home stretch for the Sooners (West Virginia, Oklahoma State and then TCU). By the time Oklahoma State comes to town, the Sooners could be caught looking forward to TCU, the Big 12 championship or even thinking about a potential BCS bowl appearance.
If the Sooners are caught looking past this game, the Cowboys’ high-scoring offense could quickly orchestrate a reenactment of last season’s 44-10 blowout and put a damper on OU’s title hopes.
4. Oregon: At Arizona State Oct. 18
Every Oregon player undoubtedly has teams like USC, Cal and Stanford circled on their calendars, but one of their last big challenges before facing these circle-worthy teams is on the road against a young, but talented Arizona State team.
Almost every season, the Sun Devils have one shocking game in which they ruin someone’s perfect record—last season it was USC, and before that they upset Washington. This season, first-year head coach Todd Graham would love nothing more than to use an offense that ranked third in the Pac-12 last season to upset the preseason No. 4 team in the nation.
3. Alabama: At Tennessee Oct. 20
This could be “the year” for a talented Tennessee team to finally reestablish their relevance in the nation’s best conference. Winning an October matchup against the Crimson Tide would go a long way in doing so.
Last season, the Vols racked up the third most passing yards in the SEC—behind only Arkansas and Georgia. This season SEC fans can expect to see an even more potent attack as Tyler Bray, now a third-year starter, gets back one of his most dangerous weapons—Justin Hunter.
This passing attack will be unleashed against an Alabama team replacing several key defensive starters, including three members of the secondary.
“The Third Saturday in October” is one of the best rivalries in the SEC but has been overlooked recently for other big games. With Tennessee and Alabama potentially entering this game with a combined two or fewer losses, expect all eyes to be on this matchup when the Tide travel to Knoxville.
2. LSU: At Auburn Sept. 22
Road trips in the SEC are always difficult, so an untested team, on the road for the first time and playing in their first in-conference matchup of the season, will almost always find themselves on upset alert. Such will be the case when LSU travels to Auburn for their fourth game of the season (after playing at home against Idaho, Washington and North Texas).
Though LSU’s schedule up until this point will have been relatively easy, the other Tigers will have been tested by Clemson and Mississippi State—both in hostile atmospheres. These in-game experiences against quality competition will give Auburn an edge going into this Tiger Bowl matchup.
Dating back to the late '80s, this series has been virtually deadlocked with the overall record (from 1988 to now) tied at 11-11, and few games being decided by double-digits.
This season, both teams have very high expectations as Auburn returns 18 starters and LSU returns 14.
Though there are many questions, one thing is for sure: LSU better be careful because this Tiger Bowl looks to be a very memorable one.
1. USC: Vs. Oregon Nov. 3
When you’re the No. 1 team in the nation, any team beating you classifies as an upset. USC may not feel that sting until their November matchup with in-conference foe, Oregon.
When these two teams meet, Oregon will be two weeks removed from a bye and will have just come off of a home matchup against a Colorado team that should not challenge the Ducks too much.
USC, on the other hand, will be four weeks removed from their bye and coming off of a four-game stretch that includes three road matchups.
Though the all-time series record between these two teams is still tipped in USC’s favor, with their overall W-L total against Oregon being 38-18-2, recently the Ducks have found ways to get the best of the Trojans, winning seven of the last twelve matchups—including a 53-32 blowout en route to a 2010 national championship appearance.
This year’s Ducks do lose former All-American RB LaMichael James, but he will be replaced by one of the nation’s quickest backs in De’Anthony Thomas—who has been timed at 10.57 in the 100m dash, and a 4.29 in the 40 yard dash.
Thomas' quickness, combined with the other speedsters on Oregon’s roster, might just be enough to keep USC from retaining their preseason No. 1 ranking.