The Most Surprising Successes of the 2017 CFB Season so Far

Brad ShepardFeatured ColumnistOctober 6, 2017

The Most Surprising Successes of the 2017 CFB Season so Far

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    After five full weeks of the 2017 college football season, several things (such as Alabama's dominance and Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield shredding defenses) remain the same.

    But that doesn't mean we've been devoid of some surprise excitement throughout the first third of the year.

    From between the hedges in Georgia, down into South Florida and all the way up into the Pacific Northwest, college football is giving us some pretty compelling storylines.

    A couple of mid-majors are stealing spotlights in the Sunshine State in the UCF Knights and South Florida Bulls.

    There was a Friday night party in Pullman, Washington, last week that could be a sign of a new Pac-12 power, too. We've also witnessed a trio of studs stepping out of the shadow of superstars to make their own names.

    We may not know how the rest of the 2017 season is going to unfold, but headlines abound in areas where you may not expect them.

    Let's take a look at some of college football's most unexpected successes of the season so far and examine whether they're early-season flashes or long-term locks to keep making noise in the standings or between the white lines.

Georgia Bulldogs

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    What was expected

    Georgia's surge didn't exactly come out of nowhere. The Bulldogs were the preseason favorite to win what has been a dismal SEC East division.

    But few expected the Bulldogs to be one of college football's top teams at this point. With quality running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel returning, there was optimism that they could take a big step up in Kirby Smart's second season in Athens. But it wasn't supposed to look this easy.

               

    What's been delivered 

    Georgia has looked as good as anybody in the country with the exception of maybe Alabama and Clemson, and the Bulldogs appear to be the Crimson Tide's biggest threat, at least right now.

    They've not only gotten great play from Chubb and Michel, but from the quarterback position as well. Nobody would have predicted that, especially after sophomore starter Jacob Eason was lost to injury in the season opener. All true freshman Jake Fromm has done is enter and turn into a steady star.

    When you factor in how fast, aggressive and disruptive Mel Tucker's defense has been, UGA looks legit.

                 

    What's to come

    It's hard to imagine anybody beating the Dawgs, at least until late in the season when they run into Auburn and Georgia Tech. Those could be important games for UGA's national title hopes, and that has to be exciting for fans to think about this early.

    Of course, that Florida game could go either way for the SEC East in Jacksonville, but it's hard to envision the Gators winning that game. If Fromm continues to improve and the Bulldogs can stay healthy, big things could follow.

Clemson Quarterback Kelly Bryant

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    What was expected

    Honestly, not much by people outside of the program. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney never really wavered in his belief that Kelly Bryant was the right guy to replace Deshaun Watson despite all the young talent the Tigers stockpiled at the position.

    Though Bryant is a talented dual-threat player, nobody expected he'd be able to follow in Watson's footsteps. He may not be the same type of quarterback, but he's a dynamic playmaker in his own right. 

                  

    What's been delivered 

    The numbers may not be all that impressive. The junior signal-caller has completed 66.2 percent of his passes for 1,059 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions. But he also has 362 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on the ground.

    More than that, he's a steady leader who hasn't done anything to get the Tigers beat. He lets his elite defense and solid running game do a lot of the damage, and he's made plays when he had to.

    According to SI.com's Bruce Feldman, "Against three Top 15 opponents, Bryant has completed 65 percent of his passes, thrown for 683 yards, run for 179 more and accounted for six touchdowns with no interceptions." 

    That's quality football.

                 

    What's to come

    Clemson has tough games remaining against Wake Forest, Georgia Tech, Florida State and South Carolina. But the Tigers likely won't be underdogs in any of them.

    It's good that Bryant has been steady, but can he be spectacular in games like the ACC championship or perhaps the College Football Playoff later in the year? He's got the talent, and if he can pick his game up another notch, Bryant could take a major step forward.

    if the Tigers get exceptional quarterback play, they'll be right at the top in the end.

Central Florida Coach Scott Frost

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    What was expected

    After he turned the Knights around from a 0-12 season in 2015 to winning six games and making a bowl appearance last year, Scott Frost looked like a hot young commodity.

    This season, the Knights were expected to make some noise in the American Athletic Conference, but in only his second year as a head coach, the former Oregon assistant and Nebraska star quarterback was still a bit of an unknown. He had a high upside, but nobody really knew what his coaching chops were. 

                 

    What's been delivered 

    Along with first-year Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm, Frost is one of the most discussed names when it comes to landing a marquee coaching job after this year.

    The Knights are going to enjoy him as long as he's around. Right now, they're undefeated and ranked No. 25 after dismantling previously unbeaten Memphis last week. Frost's team looks well-coached, is solid on both sides of the ball and could challenge South Florida for that New Year's bowl spot.

    UCF is a very good team, and it's because it has taken on the identity of its young coach.

               

    What's to come

    A big-time season parlayed into a quality bowl game, a resurgent program and a nice paycheck at a college football destination spot for Frost after this season.

    The Knights are probably only losing a game or two at most, which is the kind of quick turnaround the bluebloods pay attention to. With Mike Riley struggling in Lincoln, it seems like a no-brainer for the Cornhuskers to bring home their favorite son if things keep trending down.

    Nebraska had better make Frost happen quickly, because teams like Tennessee or LSU may wind up inquiring after the season too.

The Strong Effect in South Florida

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    What was expected

    Those who watched the Bulls and quarterback Quinton Flowers a year ago in former coach Willie Taggart's system knew South Florida had plenty to offer on offense. That made the situation an enviable one for whoever replaced Taggart once he left for Oregon.

    Charlie Strong would probably like to forget his time in Texas, and his struggles in Austin led to uncertainty once he took the job in Tampa. So, there were concerns whether it would be a good fit or not, especially after tough early-season games against San Jose State and Stony Brook.

                  

    What's been delivered 

    Despite those two early contests where they didn't play their best football, the Bulls are 5-0 and look like one of the toughest Group of Five teams, if not the best outright.

    Yes, Flowers and Co. are a big reason for that, but the Strong effect is being felt, too. The defensive-minded coach who built his reputation as Florida's defensive coordinator under Urban Meyer has put together a sturdy unit in Tampa. The Bulls are 16th nationally in total defense.

    Though they've allowed more than their fair share of points (20.0 per game), it's mainly because of the team's quick-strike offense. The Bulls are fast, aggressive and good. 

                       

    What's to come

    With teams like Cincinnati, Tulane and UConn on the schedule over the next month, those numbers should get even better. The Bulls are building a solid defensive resume to go along with all their offensive firepower.

    When you're trying to catch voters' attention as a non-Power Five team, style points matter. The Bulls are winning that way now. Late in the season when it comes time to play offensive juggernauts like Tulsa and UCF, they'll have plenty of swagger.

TCU Horned Frogs

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    What was expected

    TCU finished last year 6-7 and fifth in the Big 12, so with all the uncertainty surrounding quarterback Kenny Hill and a bunch of young offensive players, the Horned Frogs were an enigma.

    Yes, they had a defense full of veterans, but that unit wasn't very good a season ago. All of that led to the belief that coach Gary Patterson could post a turnaround year with eight or nine wins, and TCU would still be in the middle of the pack in the conference.

                        

    What's been delivered 

    Boy, were we wrong.

    That veteran defense has begun to play like a Patterson defense of old, especially showing out on the road at Stillwater in a big win over previously unbeaten and untested Oklahoma State. In that game, the Frogs made life difficult for Cowboys quarterback Mason Rudolph.

    A young offense has thrived under redshirt senior Hill, who has completed nearly 73 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns and three interceptions. Sophomore running back Darius Anderson has been a revelation, and freshman receiver Jalen Reagor is the playmaker on the perimeter that's been missing in Fort Worth.

    This is an undefeated team that looks like a real weapon.

                        

    What's to come

    The Big 12 is tough this year, and TCU's schedule proves it. Things get really hard starting with this week's home game against West Virginia in a battle that should be a lot of fun.

    They also still have Kansas State, Oklahoma and Texas on the schedule, so there are a lot of potential land mines that could blow up a spotless season. This doesn't look like a team that has the chops to be one of the best in the country, but the Horned Frogs will be a force in the league throughout.

    Patterson looks like he's got a group that will win 10 or 11 games at least. That's a major bounce-back year.

Running Backs Following in the Footsteps of Stars

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    What was expected

    Much like the situation at quarterback in Clemson, there was guarded optimism about the talented backups waiting in the wings, but nobody expects to be able to follow a legend.

    Kelly Bryant has done a commendable job, and so have a pair of California running backs who actually met on the field earlier this year.

    At Stanford, Bryce Love had the unenviable task of replacing do-everything star Christian McCaffrey, who was drafted in the first round by the Carolina Panthers. At San Diego State, Rashaad Penny had to relieve all-time FBS leading rusher Donnel Pumphrey.

                      

    What's been delivered 

    How about one-upping those guys? That's what we're seeing so far.

    In the case of Love, he's been college football's most dynamic player. Last week, all he did was rush for a school-record 301 yards in a win over Arizona State. 

    "Never seen anything like that. Ever," Stanford coach David Shaw told ESPN.com's Kyle Bonagura. "It was unbelievable." Just how crazy is Love's year so far? He's averaging 51.7 yards per touchdown run. That's ridiculous.

    Just how sensational is Love's year so far? He's averaging 51.7 yards per touchdown run. That's ridiculous.

    Penny is second nationally to Love in rushing yards. The senior has run for 823 yards, seven touchdowns and 7.1 yards per carry.

                    

    What's to come

    If the Cardinal can win some games (they're currently 3-2), Love will figure prominently in the Heisman Trophy race. He's having too good of a season to not get recognized, and when it comes to individual honors, he's been the most impressive player in the country.

    Penny looks like a sure-fire NFL running back who moves with the kind of power and speed that is perfect for the Aztecs' game-control rushing attack.

    These are two players who have the potential to be All-Americans.

Miami Coach Mark Richt

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    What was expected

    After a 9-4 season in Mark Richt's first year at Miami, it was conceivable the Hurricanes would take another step toward getting the program back on firm footing. But after quarterback Brad Kaaya's puzzling decision to forgo his final season in Coral Gables, that became less of a sure thing.

    The Hurricanes could win nine games again this year, and at the beginning of the season, most fans would have been pleased with that. Now, it looks like much bigger things are in store. 

                     

    What's been delivered 

    Beating Duke on the road isn't going to make national pundits start referring to you as a powerhouse. But it was the way Miami went into Durham a week ago and soundly dispatched an undefeated Blue Devils team that was so impressive.

    Dual-threat quarterback Daniel Jones had been so good this year, but he was smothered by Miami's aggressive defense. Quarterback Malik Rosier has been a godsend for the 'Canes, and they've got playmakers all over the field. Richt is even escalating the program's progress more quickly than expected.

                    

    What's to come

    If Miami can soundly whip Florida State while its rival is down this weekend, the Hurricanes could begin to usher in a changing of the guard in the Sunshine State.

    Richt is in the process of compiling a recruiting class that looks like it'll finish among the nation's top 10, and with players like that coming in, it's only going to get better for the 'Canes. Richt was known as the coach who couldn't get over the hump when he was winning games at Georgia.

    Can he do it at his alma mater? This is an ideal start.

Washington State Cougars

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    What was expected

    With Luke Falk coming back for his senior season, Wazzu fans had a lot to be excited about. But Falk lost some top receiving targets, and while everybody fears Mike Leach's high-flying offense, he's never proved he can field the defensive unit to win consistently.

    With a stable of running backs and some quality defenders, all the elements looked to be there for the Cougars to have a respectable season. But with all the solid teams in the Pac-12, most expected WSU would be good but not good enough.

                        

    What's been delivered 

    A resounding upset win over USC last weekend in Pullman proved the Cougars are legit, and Falk was brilliant all night in outdueling Sam Darnold.

    They played so much better than the team that had to come from behind to beat Boise State 47-44 earlier in the year, and after surviving that game, WSU has improved each week. With a veteran leader like Falk running the show, and a bunch of capable running backs taking pressure off him, there's reason for thrills.

    Not only that, but Washington State's defense isn't bad, either.

                        

    What's to come

    This weekend's tough road tilt with Oregon got a little easier after it was announced Ducks quarterback Justin Herbert will be out with an injury. The Cougars should win what would have been a much more difficult test with him in there.

    They've still got Utah and hated rival Washington on the schedule, so those two games stand between WSU having a really good year or a memorable one. They've got to keep improving on defense and keep their quarterback healthy.

    Also, Falk needs to continue to play the way he did against USC rather than hang on to the ball too long. If they keep making steps forward, Leach will keep them loose, and this could be a dangerous team.

West Virginia Quarterback Will Grier

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    What was expected

    Nobody really knew. After all, Will Grier showed so much promise as a redshirt freshman at Florida before he was suspended for performance-enhancing drugs, which resulted in him missing more than a season of action.

    He transferred to West Virginia, where he looked like the ideal player to run coach Dana Holgorsen's offense, but after that long of a layoff, learning a new system and the uncertainty of when he'd be eligible again, he was far from a sure thing.

                    

    What's been delivered 

    Really big numbers for a potent offensive attack that looks like it fits right in with all the other high-flying Big 12 offenses.

    Grier is having a monster start to his junior season, completing 65.3 percent of his passes for 1,374 yards, 13 touchdowns and three interceptions. On a big stage against Virginia Tech to open the season, he showed out, and he's continued to ever since.

    This weekend will be his biggest test so far when the 3-1 Mountaineers take on undefeated TCU on the road. 

                      

    What's to come

    The game against the Horned Frogs will tell us a lot. Grier has all of the physical skills to be a college star, an All-American and a future NFL stud. He's got some players around him to help ease the pressure, too.

    The best thing about Grier is he looks unshakable. That will be a huge asset when he goes into hostile environments like Fort Worth. If he can pull off an upset this weekend, the Mountaineers will no longer be a sleeper in the conference. They'll be a legitimate contender alongside Oklahoma.

    If Grier has a big game, you may start hearing his name as a dark-horse Heisman candidate.

Michigan Wolverines Defense

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    What was expected

    Former Michigan coach Brady Hoke left Jim Harbaugh with a ton of talent, as evidenced by Michigan's historic draft earlier this year that saw 11 Wolverines selected. Eight of those came off the defense, though, so while Harbaugh stockpiled a lot of skilled young players, they are inexperienced.

    Nobody questions the Wolverines' talent on defense, but most expected some growing pains as this group learned to play together and jell as a unit while getting increased reps from a season ago. 

                        

    What's been delivered 

    Only the best defense in the nation.

    The Wolverines have improved from a season ago. They lead the nation in total defense, allowing just 203.3 yards per game. They're also tied for eighth in scoring, giving up just 13.5 points per game.

    They're first in rush defense, fourth in pass defense, first in first downs allowed, fifth in sacks and third in third-down defense. About the only negative so far is you'd like to see them force more turnovers, but they haven't really been on the field enough to do that.

    This young squad is dominant. 

                     

    What's to come

    It's only going to improve with guys like Rashan Gary and Maurice Hurst getting better as the season goes on. This could be the best defense Big Blue has trotted out there in two decades.

    Penn State and Ohio State will be the biggest tests for this young unit, but with all the offensive issues the Wolverines are battling right now, this unit may have to carry them in those games. So far, they've been up to the challenge.

    It's unrealistic to keep asking this unit to compensate for its lack of offense, so that side of the ball must get better for Michigan to compete for championships. But this defense is already title-worthy.