10 Biggest Upset Alert Games of the 2014 College Football Season

Brian Leigh@@BLeighDATFeatured ColumnistAugust 21, 2014

10 Biggest Upset Alert Games of the 2014 College Football Season

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    It's difficult to put a team on upset alert before the season, because the best upsets materialize over a steady interval. Injured players, breakout stars and other in-season developments play a huge role in setting the stage.

    Still, in perusing the schedule each preseason, a handful of games manage to jump off the page as potential upsets-to-be.

    This can happen for a number of reasons. 

    Sometimes, a certain underdog matches up well against a certain favorite. Its strengths nullify the favorite's strengths and/or magnify the favorite's weaknesses.

    Sometimes, the underdog catches the favorite at the most opportune time. It gets the favorite tired on the heels of a close game and/or looking ahead to the following week.

    Other times, it's as simple as having the best player on the field: a weapon that the favorite can't stop. Football isn't basketball, where the best player on the court out of 10 has a disproportionate impact, but we have seen heroic one-man efforts lift a team.

    All three of those upset types have been included in this article, albeit to varying degrees. We also made an effort to include all different magnitudes of upset: some that we think actually will happen but others that we admit are far-fetched.

    Even if it is the latter, though, that doesn't mean the favorite should get a pass. There were still enough elements of an upset to put it on notice—especially since the biggest upsets of every season are the ones that sound "admittedly far-fetched" in August.

    Sound off below with any games you think I might have left off.

Obligatory Honorable Mention

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    Appalachian State at Michigan 

    This one almost deserved a proper slide on this list, especially since one "history repeats itself" game was included.

    Ultimately, it just didn't feel like there was enough here to put Michigan on serious upset alert. Maybe if the Mountaineers were at peak form right now it would, but on the heels of a 4-8 season, they do not appear to be the same team that shocked the world at Michigan Stadium seven years ago.

    Having said that, Michigan is also not the same team that got shocked at Michigan Stadium seven years ago. That Michigan team was ranked No. 5 in the country and expected to compete for a national title; this Michigan team is unranked an expected to compete for eight wins.

    Appalachian State can still hang with the Wolverines if everything—everything—breaks right. And here's hoping that it does. Even a one- or two-score game at halftime would make for a good Week 1 story.

    I just wouldn't go banking on it to happen.

Utah State at Tennessee (August 31)

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    Upset Magnitude (1-10): 4

    Upset Alert Because: The Underdog Might Be the Better Team

    At what point would Utah State beating Tennessee not even qualify as an "upset"? We've been hearing about it for, what, seven months?

    Ironically, all the speculation and doubt Tennessee fans have hated enduring this offseason might ultimately help their Vols. Butch Jones' team won't overlook that plucky Mountain West opponent people keep trumpeting, right?

    But not overlooking Utah State and beating Utah State are two very different things. Quarterback Chuckie Keeton is recovering from the ACL and MCL tear that ended his 2013 season, but if he comes back in relatively good health, the Aggies will have the best player on the field.

    Bleacher Report's Adam Kramer called Keeton the "most exciting talent" in college football, and it's not hard to see why. His legend started back in 2011, when, as a true freshman playing his first college game, he nearly led his team to an upset over Auburn (the defending national champions) at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

    You think going to Neyland three years later will intimidate him?

    Safety Brian Suite said he saw Keeton "jump cutting and doing what Chuckie does" during a recent team scrimmage, per Jeff Hunter of the Deseret News. Defensively, the Aggies have some pieces to replace but finished No. 8 in last year's defensive F/+ ratings, ahead of teams like Wisconsin and South Carolina. 

    They are not a team to be taken lightly.

    And even if they aren't, they are still good enough to beat you.

Arizona at UTSA (September 4)

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    Upset Magnitude (1-10): 6

    Upset Alert Because: Experience Matters Early

    UTSA has only been around for three seasons; 2014 will be its fourth.

    As one might be able to deduce, that means it is loaded with experience. The Roadrunners' first recruiting class is about to become seniors, which explains how they ranked No. 1 in the country on Phil Steele's combined experience chart (and have 19 senior starters).

    By contrast, Arizona ranked No. 94 on Steele's experience chart and has a ton to replace on offense. The wide receivers are there to keep the unit competitive, and so is the head coach, Rich Rodriguez. But the team should be better at the end of the year than at the beginning.

    Plus, it's not like Rodriguez will be the only famous face on the sideline in San Antonio. UTSA is led by former Miami head coach/national champion Larry Coker, who has done a great job molding this team in his image. It peaked last year at No. 67 in the F/+ ratings.

    Coaching plus experience plus home-field advantage is a solid formula for an early-season upset. 

    UTSA has all three of those in its favor.

No. 24 Missouri at Toledo (September 6)

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    Upset Magnitude (1-10): 7

    Upset Alert Because: Toledo Can Win in the Trenches

    Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, Toledo gets banned for life from being the trendy offseason upset pick.

    Yes, I fell for the Rockets last season, thinking they could open the year with a win at Florida (that ultimately wouldn't have even been that impressive) before watching them get handled, 24-6.

    That doesn't mean I'm wavering from this pick.

    In fact, I am doubling down.

    Why? Simple: Because Toledo is one of the few teams in America that can match Missouri's defensive strength. The Tigers do their best work along the defensive line—and are particularly susceptible in the back seven this upcoming season—and Toledo has one of the best offensive lines in the country. From any conference.

    The Rockets finished No. 4 in adjusted sack rate (pass protection) and No. 18 in adjusted line yards (run blocking) last season, per Football Study Hall, and they return 100 career starts in 2014. They can neutralize the likes of Shane Ray and Markus Golden in the pass rush, and they can establish running back Kareem Hunt on the ground.

    If they accomplish those things, there is no reason they can't hang around for four quarters and stand a decent chance at winning late.

    Getting Missouri at home—where MAC teams almost never get to play SEC opponents—certainly doesn't hurt.

Eastern Washington at No. 25 Washington (September 6)

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    Upset Magnitude (1-10): 7

    Upset Alert Because: The Better QB Always Has a Chance

    I have not been shy about predicting big things for Washington, even going so far as to say that it would win the Pac-12 North.

    I stand by that prediction—in Chris Petersen we trust—but that doesn't mean I'm naive enough to overlook what Eastern Washington has done the past few seasons. Now that Craig Bohl is gone from North Dakota State, EWU is probably the best FCS team in America.

    It certainly looked that way last year, when star quarterback Vernon Adams led the Eagles to a 49-46 win over Oregon State in Corvallis. Adams finished with 411 passing yards, 107 rushing yards and six total touchdowns on the afternoon, carrying his team to victory.

    "It's just having swagger," Adams said of his underdog mindset, per The Associated Press (via ESPN.com). "Coming out here and not being nervous. Just come out here and play your game."

    Washington has a lot of things going for it this season, but so did Oregon State in 2013. Especially with an unsettled quarterback situation on their own part, the Huskies cannot take Adams lightly.

    The last time these teams met was back in 2011, and even though Washington eked out a 30-27 win on its home field, Eastern Washington actually doubled its yardage total, 504-250.

Georgia Tech at Tulane (September 6)

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    Upset Magnitude (1-10): 5

    Upset Alert Because: Tulane Can Stop the Run

    Talk about two ships sailing opposite directions.

    Georgia Tech has petered out after a fast start to the Paul Johnson era, to the point where Johnson is now squarely on the hot seat. Tulane, meanwhile, has been vivified by third-year head coach Curtis Johnson, who led it to an unlikely bowl game in 2013.

    The Green Wave get the Yellow Jackets in a colorful clash in New Orleans, and even if the atmosphere feels more like a neutral field than a home game, playing this anywhere but Atlanta should help.

    Really, though, Tulane has GT on upset alert because of the way it matches strength for strength. The Yellow Jackets want to run the ball down your throat with their triple-option offense, but Tulane returns eight rotation players from a defensive line that finished No. 8 in adjusted line yards (run defense) last season, per Football Study Hall.

    The loss of space-eating tackles Julius Warmsley and Chris Davenport will hurt, but even with moderate regression, Tulane has the pieces to do a decent job against Georgia Tech's ground attack. If program momentum means anything, this will be a game where it shows.

    One team is trending up; the other is trending down.

    That tends to bode well for the former.

East Carolina at No. 9 South Carolina (September 6)

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    Upset Magnitude (1-10): 8

    Upset Alert Because: This is the Quintessential Trap Game

    South Carolina is a better team on paper than East Carolina is, but East Carolina has a history of beating teams it's worse than on paper.

    It was only six years ago, after all, that the Pirates took down No. 17 Virginia Tech and No. 7 West Virginia to start the season, and last year, even though the talent margin was arguable, they hung 55 points on North Carolina to beat the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill.

    This year, ECU gets South Carolina one week after the Gamecocks play Texas A&M and one week before they play Georgia. Together, those teams have won 40 games the past two seasons, and games that count toward the SEC record matter more for obvious reasons.

    It's hard to imagine a scenario in which the Gamecocks don't leave the door cracked open in Week 2. Given their schedule, that wouldn't even necessarily be an indictment. It is hard to get up for an AAC opponent that is nestled between two ranked ones.

    But if they don't get up for ECU, they might regret it.

Wyoming at No. 3 Oregon (September 13)

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    Upset Magnitude (1-10): 10

    Upset Alert Because: The "Body Blow Theory"

    On paper, Oregon should beat Wyoming by four or five touchdowns. Will beat Wyoming by four or five touchdowns.

    There's a reason this has a magnitude of 10.

    Games, though, are not played on paper; and they're not played in a vacuum, either. There are extrinsic factors at work that make certain magnitude-of-10 upsets plausible, and this is a perfect case.

    To wit, Oregon hosts Wyoming the week after hosting Michigan State and the week before its Pac-12 opener at Washington State.

    Mentally, one must prepare for an emotional drop-off after the biggest nonconference game of the college football season (especially if Oregon wins), and there is look-ahead potential with conference play so soon ahead; physically, the "body blow theory" will be on red alert one week after playing the rugged, blue-collar Spartans.

    For those not initiated, the body blow theory—as put forth by Bruce Feldman during his time at CBS Sports—broadly states that teams tend to struggle after playing a physical opponent.

    The paragon Feldman used at the time was Stanford, and his findings were remarkable. One week after playing the Cardinal, teams ran for considerably less and allowed considerably more yards on the ground.

    Michigan State does a lot of the same things Stanford does—and if the 2014 Rose Bowl was any indication, it does a lot of those things slightly better. Wyoming may not have the bodies to capitalize, but it also may. Who really knows? Especially with Oregon's predicted emotional letdown, there's a chance.

    A small chance? Certainly. But a small chance is better than none.

    Plus, Wyoming is led by former NDSU head coach Craig Bohl, who just came to the FBS after winning back-to-back-to-back FCS national titles. His record in the last three seasons is 43-2.

    He's bound to have a trick or two up his sleeve.

No. 4 Oklahoma at West Virginia (September 20)

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    Upset Magnitude (1-10): 8

    Upset Alert Because: West Virginia Always Wins One Big Game

    West Virginia has not proved it can win with consistency in the Big 12, but it has proved that it can win against anyone.

    During their first season as a member of the conference in 2012, the Mountaineers handed No. 11 Texas its first loss of the season in Austin, 48-45. Last year, even during an eventual 4-8 season, they handed Oklahoma State its only loss before the regular-season finale against Oklahoma, costing the Cowboys the conference title.

    Before that, WVU played a close Week 2 game against Oklahoma in Norman, losing 16-7 in a sloppy affair. Quarterback Trevor Knight completed 10 of 20 passes for 119 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions before being yanked for Blake Bell in the fourth quarter.

    On the whole, West Virginia wasn't as bad as it appeared last season. Or at least it wasn't before getting bitten by the injury bug. According to Bill Connelly of Football Study Hall, it actually had a positive adjusted points per game margin (plus-1.1) during the first five games, but it regressed to minus-11.2 during the last seven.

    Oklahoma draws West Virginia early (again), when it's likely to be healthier (again) and playing better (again), and the result should be a close finish (again). That the game is in Morgantown—which remains a place you don't want to visit—only further supports that belief.

    West Virginia's backfield tandem of Rushel Shell (a Pitt transfer and former 5-star recruit) and Dreamius Smith (whose 8.0 highlight yards per carry made him one of the most explosive backs in the country last season) looks like the real deal, and Oklahoma's defense is much more vulnerable on the ground than through the air.

    I'm not saying this will happen, but, well, this could happen.

No. 1 Florida State at NC State (September 27)

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    Upset Magnitude (1-10): 10

    Upset Alert Because: Um...Because History Repeats Itself?

    This one almost broke the magnitude scale, but it has to be mentioned after what happened in Raleigh two seasons ago.

    To wit, a 5-0 Florida State team that was ranked No. 3 in the country and eventually went on to win the Orange Bowl got caught napping against an inferior opponent, losing by one point, 17-16, to NC State on a touchdown pass with 16 seconds left in the game.

    Last year, the Seminoles extracted revenge, rolling over the Wolfpack by 32 points in Tallahassee. But the ghosts of Carter-Finley Stadium might still haunt them when they visit in 2014.

    However, it's not just the "history repeats itself" angle that puts Florida State-NC State on this list. To be perfectly honest, that is most of it, but there are also other small factors at play.

    Florida State goes to Raleigh one week after playing Clemson, and Clemson has a defensive front seven capable of evoking the body blow theory, much like Michigan State. There will be a physical and emotional drop-off for FSU one week after playing its biggest ACC rival, especially if it wins in a close, taxing game.

    What's more, NC State should improve across the board with better injury luck in 2014. A lot of youth was forced onto the field last season, which should ostensibly benefit this year's team.

    One of those young players was running back Shadrach Thornton, who rushed for 173 yards and two touchdowns against the Seminoles last season. Not included in those young players is quarterback Jacoby Brissett, who sat out last year after transferring but played against Florida State as a true freshman with Florida in 2011.

    According to the F/+ ratings, Florida State was the third-best team in the country two seasons ago. It was better in 2013, and it should be better once again in 2014, but if the third-best team in the country can lose at NC State, so can the second or first.


No. 14 LSU at Arkansas (November 15)

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    Upset Magnitude (1-10): 7.5

    Upset Alert Because: The Body Blow Theory AND Recent History

    Arkansas very nearly beat (and probably should have beaten) LSU in Tiger Stadium last season, losing only when a blown coverage capped a 99-yard game-winning touchdown drive by Anthony Jennings.

    Did the Razorbacks get LSU's best shot? Heck no. They injured Zach Mettenberger in that game and played a team that looked sluggish in general. If you played that game 20 times in the middle of October, it's doubtful that it ever would have been that close.

    Still, a result such as last year's might embolden the young Arkansas players, who now know they can hang with just about any team in the country. They rushed for 182 yards on 35 carries against the Tigers, and now, in addition to playing in Fayetteville, they face a defensive front seven that was gutted by players leaving early for the NFL.

    Arkansas also gets to face LSU off a bye week, giving it an extra few days to heal its wounds and prepare. By diametrical contrast, LSU plays Arkansas one week after hosting Alabama, which sets the table for another case of the body blow theory.

    Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema needs for this to happen.