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Biggest Surprises of the 2013 College Football Season So Far

Brian LeighFeatured ColumnistOctober 1, 2013

Biggest Surprises of the 2013 College Football Season So Far

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    Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

    In trying to predict each college football season, writers waste weeks upon months fruitlessly crunching numbers, devouring game tape and poring over a withered Phil Steele magazine in order to glean something about the upcoming year.

    And it always comes crashing down.

    Five weeks into the 2013 campaign, things are no different. The top of the rankings look about the same—Alabama and Oregon are still the teams to beat—but beyond that, parity and some other unforeseen developments have run rampant.

    So much for preseason predictions.

Sean Mannion: Davey O'Brien Candidate

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    Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

    Sean Mannion, who didn't even win the starting job over Cody Vaz until late this fall, leads the nation with 2,018 passing yards and 21 touchdowns through five games.

    Prorated over 12 games, his stats project to 4,843 yards, 50 touchdowns and just five interceptions. That number is a little flawed—his competition will be much better in conference play—but it gives you an idea of what kind of start Mannion is off to.

    For reference, last year's leading passer, Nick Florence of Baylor, finished the season with 4,309 yards, and Geno Smith led the nation with 42 TDs. Mannion is (technically) on pace to shatter both of those marks.

    The corollary to those numbers is surprising too: Oregon State's defense has been, like, historically bad. One year after a defensive (and team-wide) resurgence, the Beavers have been gashed by opposing offenses, which has forced Mannion's arm to stay active for four quarters each game.

    If that keeps up and OSU wins some more shootouts, he could become a very unlikely Davey O'Brien winner.

SEC Football Is the New Big 12 Football

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    In November of 2011, football fans were treated to "LSU 9, Alabama 6," the supposed model of all that SEC football stood for.

    Southeastern fans were proud—nay, haughty—about playing big, dumb, defensive-minded football, casting off the offensive teams and leagues as boys trying to play a man's game (and doing it incorrectly). 

    SUPERIMPOSE: TWO YEARS LATER...

    The SEC's three biggest games this year—South Carolina at Georgia, Alabama at Texas A&M and LSU at Georgia—have gone for totals of 71, 91 and 85 points, respectively.

    The year's biggest nonconference tilt, meanwhile, between Georgia and Clemson, went for a "scant" total of 73. And what of Ole Miss and Vanderbilt's 39-35 result back in Week 1?

    Such is the new world order of SEC football, which didn't need to adapt to the increased pace of play—it has, after all, won seven straight national titles—but opted to do so anyway.

    Even if you can beat 'em, it's sometimes more fun to join 'em.

Notre Dame Looks REALLY Bad

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Time to eat some crow.

    Even after Everett Golson was suspended, I remained bullish on Notre Dame's hopes this season—if for no other reason than to be a contrarian. 

    I thought Tommy Rees was serviceable, Brian Kelly was a top-tier coach, the defense was among America's best and that folks were writing ND off way too soon.

    The Irish did, after all, beat Stanford and Oklahoma en route the BCS National Championship Game last year, and they did—or so I thought—return enough pieces to maintain some continuity from that squad.

    My bad.

    Rees devolved into "Tommy Turnover" again last week vs. Oklahoma, and the defense as a whole has been largely disappointing. Especially over the middle—where Manti Te'o no longer roams—teams have been able to exploit Notre Dame through the air and pick apart its leaky coverage.

    The Irish are now 3-2 on the season, and they easily could have suffered a third loss at home against Michigan State. If not for some dubious pass interference calls, they probably would have.

    This is not last year's team. Not in the slightest. 

Texas Tech Flies Under the Radar

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    Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

    Kliff Kingsbury—whom you may know better by market-friendly nicknames like "Swagger" or "GQ" or "Hollywood"—is a former record-breaking college quarterback who helped turn Johnny Manziel into a Heisman winner as the offensive coordinator at Texas A&M last year.

    Now, he and his razor-sharp jawline have returned to Texas Tech, where he played from 1999-2002. Kingsbury has plugged in a walk-on freshman as the first-team quarterback, started 4-0, crashed the Top 25 and made the Red Raiders legitimate candidates to win the up-for-grabs Big 12.

    How is this not being abused by ESPN?

    Texas Tech's resurgence, after going 13-12 the past two seasons, has been surprising unto itself. Even without the whole media angle, it would have had a crack at making this list.

    But that Kingsbury has yet to be exploited, debated and plastered on commercials and shoved down our throats as a First Take topic is curious (albeit mildly refreshing).

    If his success keeps up, though, how much longer will that be the case?

The FCS Revolution

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    Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

    It's past the point of the season where anyone cares, and going forward, it isn't likely to matter much. But this list would be remiss to ignore how good the FCS has looked.

    Here are the Football Championship Series teams that have beaten BCS opponents in 2013:

    FCS TeamFBS OpponentLocationResult
    Eastern Washington(25) Oregon StateCorvallis, Ore.W 49-46
    North Dakota StateKansas StateManhattan, Kan.W 24-21
    TowsonConnecticut  Stoors, Conn.W 33-18
    Northern IowaIowa State Ames, IowaW 28-20
    McNeese StateSouth Florida Tampa, Fla. W 53-21 
    FordhamTemplePhiladelphia, Pa.W 30-29
    MaineMassachusetts Foxboro, Mass.W 24-14

     

    That list comes on top of several near-misses, like Illinois and West Virginia needing late-game heroics to beat Southern Illinois and William & Mary, respectively, in Week 1, or N.C. State needing a late field-goal to beat Richmond the following Saturday.

    There's still a giant talent discrepancy between FBS and FCS schools, but the chasm isn't as deep or wide as it once was.

    That, combined with some very good coaching and some plucky young players, helped make the Football Championship Series one of the best early-season stories.

USC and Texas Make Midseason Firings

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Lane Kiffin and Mack Brown both entered 2013 on the hot seat, so it's not exactly a shock to see their job security discussed—or, in Kiffin's case, terminated—so early in the year.

    What's shocking is how much they warrant it.

    USC and Texas both began the season ranked, both programs and fanbases infused with delusions of program-restorative grandeur. On paper and paper alone, there was no reason either or both couldn't have competed to make the BCS.

    Kiffin is already gone in SoCal. Meanwhile, in Austin, defensive coordinator Manny Diaz and athletic director DeLoss Dodds have both walked out (or been shown) the door. Brown is hanging onto nominal job status, but the writing is etched palpably on his wall.

    For two proud programs to make such drastic moves in-season says everything you need to know about their performance. Especially relative to expectation, no two teams have been more disappointing.

    But where do they go from here?

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