Upset Alert (Week 1): Elite College Football Teams That May Go Down
In the NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision, every game is huge. Most programs have only 12 opportunities to woo the BCS into giving them a Top 25 ranking and berth to a high-profile bowl game.
Keep in mind, though, the amateur players aren't being compensated for their production (and those naive enough to accept rewards here in Miami are bringing shame to my beloved university). Winning in college doesn't necessarily change their circumstances. I'm sure some of them think, "I don't need to kill myself out there! A 4.4 40-time is all I need to make bank in the NFL." There's not much of a rebuttal to that.
Still—and maybe naivety is a Hurricane thing—I believe the majority of the guys on the gridiron feel the need to compete. Don't we all operate under that assumption? It allows us to judge teams solely on what matters (talent, coaching, experience and eligible players) and conclude which ones are best.
This begins prior to the season; we already believe we know who'll win and who won't. Of course, nobody actually knows. There will be upsets. There always are. Here are some Week 1 games with the potential to shake up the Top 25.
South Florida @ No. 16 Notre Dame (Sept. 3)
This match-up features Miami's last two opponents from 2010, both of whom defeated the Hurricanes and appear poised to improve in 2011.
South Florida-Notre Dame is especially intriguing because Bulls' Head Coach Skip Holtz—entering only his second season at USF—is a former Fighting Irish (or whatever you call a Notre Dame alum), as is Bulls' receiver Spencer Boyd. Unhappy with the position change he had to make at Notre Dame, I'm certain the highly touted transfer will be motivated. Likewise, opposing Head Coach Brian Kelly is starting his second season at his current school and was previously with the Big East's Cincinnati Bearcats.
While Notre Dame is arguably the most-respected program in the nation, USF is still too new to have a legacy (the program was created in 1997). Still, their brief history has been relatively successful. Entering their 11th season in Division 1-A, they've had three consecutive seasons of eight wins and a bowl victory. You think South Florida will be intimidated going into South Bend? Think again! Their unlikely wins against Miami and Clemson came in road environments.
However, their struggles in the mediocre Big East conference have been well documented (3-4 in conference play in 2010). Also, their win at the Meineke Car Care Bowl was the last for many members of what was a senior-laden squad. The Bulls lost three defensive starters, three others on the offensive line and their top rusher, Moise Plancher.
Notre Dame chose Dayne Crist as their starting quarterback instead of sophomore Tommy Rees. But frankly, neither are outstanding options. Luckily, four starters return to bolster the offensive line.
The strength of this defense lies in its depth. It seems Notre Dame has multiple quality options at every position, not to mention some potential stars like middle linebacker Manti Te'o and freshman defensive end Aaron Lynch.
I believe that USF's blocking ability—or lack thereof—throughout this game will be crucial in getting their offense down the field. In case they lose that battle in the trenches, the Bulls still have a shot in the return game with Big East Special Team's Player of the Year Lindsey Lamar's running back kicks.
The Fighting Irish have to be considered favorites in this one. However, the upset potential is there. It rides on South Florida's tendency to get big plays going their way.
No. 14 TCU @ Baylor (Sept. 2)
TCU was excellent last season and Baylor wasn't. The teams met during Week 3, and it got ugly quickly—the Horned Frogs led 35-3 at the half! However, we can expect a much different outcome this time around with Baylor hosting.
Sure, the Horned Frogs haven't lost a regular season game since 2008, but that streak may end this weekend for several reasons:
Offensive Overhaul – Seeking to become Texas Christian's all-time winningest coach, Gary Patterson has to replace eight starters on his scoring unit. Casey Plachall is by all accounts more athletic than the legendary Andy Dalton at quarterback, and he'll need to be with a new-look O-line. Only one lineman from 2010's juggernaut remains. Moreover, three of the top four receivers are gone. Although there appears to be a lot of talent available to fill the voids, the lack of experience will be a major issue. It's tough to imagine TCU approaching last season's 41.6 points per game average.
Special Teams no longer a specialty – Jeremy Kerley was an amazing returner for the Horned Frogs and the biggest difference-maker against Baylor in their last meeting. Knowing his reputation for long returns, the Bears avoided him entirely on kickoffs, opting to give TCU good field position and not risk letting him run it back all the way. He affected the game on offense instead, catching two touchdowns from Dalton to build the insurmountable first-half lead. By the way, Kerley was still given opportunities on punts and totaled 84 yards on four returns. Replacing him may be impossible; Coach Patterson is just hoping one of his spare receivers can do an adequate job.
Heisman hopeful Robert Griffin III – Griffin had just one highlight in last year's TCU trouncing: a meaningless 53-yard touchdown pass late in the third quarter (the score after the play was 38-10). Expect more from him this time around. Griffin is a legitimate dual-threat quarterback, not to mention one of the nation's most accurate passers. While Plachall is surrounded by youth on all sides, Griffin's supporting cast is a strength. His favorite deep threat Josh Gordon is suspended indefinitely, but luckily there is a ton of depth in the receiving core and offensive line.
Not only might Baylor pull out a win on Friday, but they may do so decisively. The Bears don't have much to work with on defense and expectations of a conference title or BCS bowl berth are just unrealistic. I like their chances in this match-up.
SMU @ No. 8 Texas A&M (Sept. 4)
Southern Methodist made headlines last week when school president R. Gerald Turner declared his intention to get the Mustangs into a BCS conference. Hold your horses, Turner! Let this be settled on the playing field, where they take on Texas A&M, conveniently the program that SMU hopes to replace in the Big 12.
The Mustangs are hoping to complete their comeback to greatness after a quarter-century of irrelevancy.
Beating up on Conference USA competition—12-4 since 2009—has qualified them for bowl games in each of their last two seasons. Head Coach June Jones has worked tirelessly to build up the program entering a pivotal year. With returning starters, their is a realistic expectation for this team to win as many as nine regular season games. That would get the BCS conferences to take notice.
While his offense lacks star power, it has depth all across the chart. The entire line is back, including Zach Line, the team's leading rusher from 2010. Although they lost their top receiver, Aldrick Robinson, the Mustangs retained their next-best options, Cole Beasley and Darius Johnson.
Jones subscribes to a pass-first philosophy (Remember Colt Brennan at Hawaii? That was him.). The problem is that Beasley and Johnson are vertically challenged (5'9" and 5'10", respectively) and quarterback Kyle Padron under-preformed in his first season as full-time starter.
Also, I'm not sure what to make of the defense. End Margus Hunt only began playing football in 2009, Marquis Frazier is out of position and Kevin Pope is a converted running back trying out linebacker. Overall, SMU only held opponents under 16 points once in 2010.
The Aggies aren't likely to be shut down by anybody this season. They boast an amazing running back tandem of Christine Michael and Cyrus Gray, and former receiver Ryan Tannehill was incredibly effective after taking over mid-season.
Despite A&M's Top 10 ranking, I'm skeptical that they can replicate—let alone improve upon—last season's run-stopping. Vonn Miller was huge for them, and now he's off to the NFL. The best-case scenario would be for returning linebackers Garrick Williams and Sean Porter to keep everybody organized.
Of my featured potential upsets of Week 1, this is by far the least likely. Experience doesn't usually beat talent, but it's possible, right?
No. 5 Boise State @ No. 19 Georgia (Sept. 3)
The goal of this article is to identify games that will shake up the AP Top 25 and regardless of the outcome, Boise State-Georgia will do just that. A blowout in favor of the Broncos could possibly banish the Bulldogs from the land of the ranked, while the converse result would bring the teams to converge somewhere in the #11–15 range.
It's easy to contrast the two programs:
- Boise State had another strong season (12-1—lone loss came in overtime at No. 19 Nevada—with a 26-3 bowl victory against Utah), while Georgia slumped to a losing season (6-7 with a 10-6 loss to UCF in Liberty Bowl).
- Despite a competitive upgrade from the WAC to the Mountain West, Boise State still has little to gain and everything to lose from conference play. Georgia, however, has intimidating match-ups with South Carolina, Florida and Auburn later this season. Plus, the SEC Championship Game—if they made it there—would further boost their resume.
- The Broncos ooze experience with 27 seniors, including 2010 Heisman Finalist quarterback Kellen Moore. The 2011 Bulldogs are mostly puppies; only 18 seniors and nearly 60 freshmen, including running back Isaiah Crowell.
- Boise State Head Coach Chris Petersen is targeted for the top vacancies every offseason; Georgia's Mark Richt would be fortunate to last another year.
- The Broncos expect to go undefeated; the Bulldogs will likely start 0-2.
Predictions rarely come to fruition, though.
Consider that Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray now has a 3,000-yard season under his belt, Crowell will surely bolster the running attack, which was among the SEC's worst in 2010, and transfers John Jenkins (nose guard) and Jarvis Jones (outside linebacker) add to this defense with size and speed, respectively. Moreover, remember that between kicker Blair Walsh and punter Drew Butler, the Bulldogs can force Boise State—or anybody else—into bad field position.
That could be a troubling obstacle for Boise State to overcome. Although Kellen Moore is back, his top targets, Austin Pettis and Titus Young, are not. The Broncos would've had a crucial advantage in receiver-defensive back match-ups had these teams met a year ago. Their options in 2011 will only exploit Georgia's young line-up to a limited extent.
If any team feels the need to work at 110 percent on every play, it's Boise State. Their national championship aspirations are only realistic if they earn some "style points." They need to win and win convincingly each week for the next three months.
Can they do it? Or will Georgia ride their freshmen to a BCS berth? Or will Jacory Harris regain eligibility, get his starting job back and lead Miami to the promised land? I don't know. Nobody really does. Crazy things happen in the FBS and even the best programs are always on upset alert.