10 College Football Teams with the Best Chance to Pull a Week 1 Upset
The opening week of the 2014 college football season is less than two weeks away, and the slate of games that will welcome us back from the long offseason features plenty of great matchups. Gone are the days where all of the power programs open against Creampuff University, as there are 11 games pitting two teams from power conferences, and four of those are league tilts.
There are also plenty of opportunities for early-season upsets—the kind of games that could serve as a launching point for the underdogs and major obstacle for the goals of the favorites.
Most upsets occur when a perceived underdog (based on point spreads, such as those compiled by VegasInsider.com) is playing at home against a ranked or higher-ranked team, or against a team with a better record. Others occur when an under-appreciated visitor, such as one from a lesser conference or from the FCS ranks, capitalizes on a team that doesn't play to its full potential.
In 2013, the first week of play gave us several upsets; FCS teams Eastern Washington, North Dakota State and Northern Iowa took down Oregon State, Kansas State and Iowa State, respectively. We also saw Virginia take out BYU and Northern Illinois triumph at Iowa, as well as a few near misses such as Auburn's narrow win over Washington State and Nebraska's slim victory over Wyoming.
Week 1 in 2014 could give us just as many upsets, if not more. While nearly every game provides the opportunity for an upset, each week there are some so-called "best bets" because of a variety of factors that include the venue, the quality of the underdog (based on past performance) and the pressure put on the favored team to win easily. During the opening week of a season, the uncertainty of what to expect from both teams can also lead to many upsets that turn out not to be so surprising as the year goes on.
With that in mind, here's a look at the 10 teams that have the best shot of any to pull off a season-opening surprise.
Boise State Broncos
Week 1 matchup: Aug. 28 vs. Ole Miss in Atlanta
Boise State has never been afraid to take on big challenges early in the year, and nearly all of those have come on the road since most power programs won't even consider playing on the Broncos' famed blue turf. This will be the sixth straight season Boise opens against a major opponent, and the third time that opener has been on the East Coast.
The Broncos' last visit to the Georgia Dome was a successful one, when they began the 2011 season with a 35-21 win over Georgia. The year before, they started off with a 33-30 victory against Virginia Tech in Landover, Maryland.
For Ole Miss, the inclusion in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game is a great chance for the Rebels to start strong against a quality opponent, similar to last season's comeback win at SEC foe Vanderbilt that paced an 8-5 season. With senior quarterback Bo Wallace and some veteran leadership on defense, 2014 could be a big year for the Rebels, but dropping such an early high-profile contest could derail that.
ESPN.com's Alex Scarborough isn't that sold on the possibility of an upset, though, writing that "getting Boise State to start the season would have been a mammoth undertaking in past years. But with coach Chris Peterson gone, now is the time to take on the giant of all giants among mid-majors."
History has shown that overlooking the Broncos (ahem, Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl) can be a recipe for disaster.
Week 1 matchup: Aug. 29 vs. BYU
Twenty FBS programs made a head coaching change during the offseason, and in Week 1, those new coaches will be looking to start their tenures off with a bang. At Connecticut, Bob Diaco has a chance to make a major splash in his debut as a head coach with a nationally televised game against BYU on Friday night.
While leagues such as the ACC and SEC don't consider the Cougars to be a quality opponent—at least when it comes to playoff-minded schedule strength is concerned—that's not the case with the American Athletic Conference. UConn is one of three American squads on BYU's 2014 slate, and if it is bowl-eligible, it will face another AAC opponent in the inaugural Miami Beach Bowl.
The Huskies are the least imposing of those foes (the others are Central Florida and Houston), having gone 3-9 last season. But that record includes three straight wins to close out 2013, providing momentum for a program in transition to try to build on. Knocking off a team like BYU could give UConn the chance to have a major comeback year.
Hawaii Rainbow Warriors
Week 1 matchup: Aug. 30 vs. Washington
When Hawaii was at its best, the visits made to the islands by power-conference programs were always cause for upset alert. The long travel, change in time zone and home-field advantage made the Rainbow Warriors a tough out no matter how strong the visitor.
That hasn't been the case the last few seasons, however, as Hawaii has won just four of its last 24 games and hasn't beaten an FBS team with a winning record since 2011.
But even though Washington has had months to prepare for all the logistics involved with playing so far from home, you can never eliminate the chance of the tropical locale causing a distraction and leading to an upset. The Huskies are under the guidance of a new coach, Chris Petersen, who went 2-1 at Hawaii during his time with Boise State. In 2007, he actually lost back-to-back games in Aloha Stadium when his Broncos lost their regular-season finale to the Rainbows and then fell to East Carolina a few weeks later in the Hawaii Bowl.
Washington is coming off its best season since 2000, but with a new staff and mostly new players on offense, the chance of a slow start to 2014 is very possible.
Week 1 matchup: Aug. 28 vs. Wake Forest
Though it wasn't against a particularly good team, Louisiana-Monroe's 21-19 win at Wake Forest last year was one of the 2013 season's biggest upsets, if only because it involved a Sun Belt team winning on the road against a squad from the ACC. For the Warhawks to pull off such a win in back-to-back years would be even bigger.
ULM has made a habit of knocking off power programs, beating Arkansas in 2012 and pulling off the massive upset win at Alabama in 2007. This will be the first time it gets a chance to take down one of them in Monroe, and it will be one that will come in with more attention on it than you'd expect from a team coming off a 4-8 season.
Wake is under the guidance of a new coach, Dave Clawson, who has already made headlines by naming true freshman John Wolford as the starting quarterback. This will be the first of many tough road games for the Demon Deacons, who also visit Utah State, Louisville, Florida State and Duke, but a loss in the opener would be more detrimental than any other.
Week 1 matchup: Aug. 30 vs. Boston College
Massachusetts' ascension to FBS hasn't gone very well, and that's putting it nicely. The Minutemen are 2-22 in their two years since moving up from FCS in 2011, and those wins came against teams that went 1-11 and 0-12 , respectively. Their results against winning teams were far from impressive, as last season they lost by an average score of 39-8 against teams that finished .500 or better.
But if there's one team UMass has managed to have "success" against in the FBS ranks, it's in-state foe Boston College. It has beaten the Eagles four times in 22 meetings, though not since 1978. And all of those were on the road.
This will be the first time the Minutemen get to host BC and the third time they've hosted a power-conference opponent (they lost at home to Vanderbilt in 2013 and Indiana in 2012). Coach Mark Whipple told reporters at the team's media day he expects it will be "the largest crowd we've ever played in front of," partly due to the likely attendance of plenty of Eagles fans, as well as the "biggest home opener we've ever had in the history of UMass."
Whipple returns to the program he led from 1998 and with whom he won an FCS title in his first season. He never got a chance to face BC during his tenure, and there would be no better way to make his triumphant homecoming than with a signature victory over the state's established program.
Week 1 matchup: Aug. 30 vs. Ohio State in Baltimore
Navy has won eight or more games in 10 of the last 11 seasons, and last year's 9-4 mark included wins over Indiana and Pittsburgh. The Midshipmen haven't made a splash with a big victory, though, since taking out Notre Dame in 2008.
Beating Ohio State would rocket to the top of Navy's all-time conquests.
This contest is one of the more underrated big-time matchups of Week 1, featuring a pair of teams with veteran mobile quarterbacks who will dictate their offense's flow. Ohio State has senior Braxton Miller, who is a contender for the Big Ten's career total offense mark and the FBS record for career rushing yards by a quarterback. Navy has junior Keenan Reynolds, who last year rushed for 31 touchdowns, including seven in a win over San Jose State, the most by a quarterback in FBS history.
Ohio State is a favorite to win the Big Ten and a top contender to play in the first-ever College Football Playoff. Losing this game wouldn't affect a conference title, but it would put a serious dent in the Buckeyes' quest to make the semifinals.
North Dakota State Bison
Week 1 matchup: Aug. 30 at Iowa State
Several FCS teams are going to beat FBS programs in 2014. It happens every year, and in the first week of the 2013 season alone, it happened to eight teams, including notable power-conference teams such as Iowa State, Kansas State and Oregon State.
The FCS-over-FBS upset has become as common as a lightning-delayed game in August or September, and just as reliable has been North Dakota State's ability to take down a big name. The Bison have beaten an FBS opponent every year since 2010, with last year's upset at Kansas State the biggest of the lot. They've not lost to an FBS team since 2009 when they fell 34-17 at Iowa State—the same team they open defense of their third straight FCS national title against this season.
NDSU went through major changes since winning it all last December, losing coach Craig Bohl to Wyoming while seeing athletic director Gene Taylor take a job at Iowa. The Bison won't be as potent on offense as last year, but they return six starters from a defense that ranked No. 1 in FCS in scoring allowed for the third straight season.
Iowa State is coming off a woeful 3-9 season but is expected to be a little better this year. Avoiding another loss to an FCS team (it fell to Northern Iowa to open 2013) would help that cause.
Utah State Aggies
Week 1 matchup: Aug. 31 at Tennessee
Utah State is coming off the best three-year stretch for the program since the 1970s, winning 27 games since 2011 and reaching the Mountain West Conference title game in its first season in the league. But the one thing the Aggies haven't been able to do is pull off a major upset outside of conference play.
Aside from a 2012 win over in-state rival Utah, which had just moved into the Pac-12, Utah State hasn't beaten a power-conference team since 1992. Last year it narrowly lost at USC, and in 2012 it lost by two points at Wisconsin (and then lost its coach, Gary Andersen, to the Badgers in the offseason).
This season provides a pair of chances to end that skid, with the Sunday night opener at Tennessee being by far the better opportunity. The Aggies are 1-10 all-time against SEC schools (beating Kentucky in 1970), but despite being a decided underdog heading into a stadium that will have more than 100,000 orange-clad fans cheering against them, they have a great chance to pull off the upset.
USU is a program on the rise and has dynamic quarterback Chuckie Keeton back after he missed most of last year with a horrific knee injury. Tennessee hasn't had a winning record since 2009, and while senior Justin Worley will again be the quarterback, the rest of the Volunteers offense is young and inexperienced.
Week 1 matchup: Aug. 30 vs. UCLA
Very little went right for Virginia last season, as it had a 2-10 campaign that featured nine straight losses and the first winless run through the ACC since 1981. But none of that seemed in the cards after the first week of 2013, when the Cavaliers opened with a surprising and impressive 19-16 home win over BYU.
Repeating that feat will be much harder this year, with a well-regarded UCLA coming into Charlottesville for the season opener. The Bruins won 10 games last season and have one of the best quarterbacks in the country in junior Brett Hundley and a star-studded defense. But they also have a lack of experience playing on the East Coast, last heading out that way in 2009 to face Tennessee.
Kickoff will be at 9 a.m. local time for UCLA, and though the team will have prepared during training camp for the early start, there's always a chance that jet lag and acclimation could come into play. Throw in the fact Virginia will be debuting a defense that features a pair of 5-star recruits (according to 247Sports.com) in defensive tackle Andrew Brown and safety Quin Blanding, and the ingredients are there for a big shocker.
Western Michigan Broncos
Week 1 matchup: Aug. 30 at Purdue
It's not every day that a team coming off a 1-11 season has a chance to open the following year with a big road victory. But that's the situation that Western Michigan finds itself in when it visits Purdue in Week 1.
WMU's only win last year was against another 1-11 squad, Massachusetts, but that's still more victories against FBS teams than Purdue had a year ago. The Boilermakers were also 1-11 and only triumphed over FCS Indiana State, beating the Sycamores (also a 1-11 team) by just six points. Purdue was arguably the worst team from a power program in 2013 and might not be much better this season.
Western Michigan's season may not end with a winning record, but it will be paced by youthful exuberance. According to Chris Vannini of 247Sports.com, coach P.J. Fleck said at Mid-American Conference media day that he expects to start as many as 14 true freshmen. The Broncos also have one of the most exciting young wide receivers in the country in sophomore Corey Davis.
WMU is 6-40 all-time against current Big Ten teams (including 0-3 vs. Purdue), but if there's a time when it isn't a decided underdog, it will be in this opener at West Lafayette, Indiana.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.