10 Biggest Upset-Alert Games of the 2015 College Football Season
When preseason predictions are made—much like the ones you'll see these next few weeks at Bleacher Report—potentially tricky contests for big-time programs are chalked up as sure wins. They're easy calls.
But each and every season, college football shows everyone that they should expect the unexpected.
Last year, Ole Miss and Mississippi State kicked off their times in the spotlight with wins over top-10 foes Alabama and LSU, respectively. Arizona began its surprise Pac-12 South title run with a win over Oregon, and Virginia Tech went into the Horseshoe and beat Ohio State—although it all worked out in the end for the Buckeyes.
Then there were the real shockers, like Indiana's win over SEC East champion Missouri and Northwestern's defeat of Wisconsin. In the Group of Five, UConn cost UCF its shot at an outright AAC title with an upset few saw coming.
With the race for the four College Football Playoff spots looking wide-open heading into the 2015 season, let's take a look at 10 contenders who should be on high-alert for one of these upset losses to an unranked opponent this year. These matchups were based on timing on the schedule, potential matchup problems and past history with certain opponents.
Of course, a lot can change between now and the time several of these games kick off, but they look like possible giant-killers on paper in the preseason. Tell us who you think should be on upset alert this season in the comments below.
Western Michigan over Michigan State (Sept. 4)
Let's get this countdown started with possibly the biggest one on here. Michigan State will be a top-five team—or at least near that mark—in every preseason poll out there. The Spartans return 14 starters this season, and they've won at least 11 games four of the last five seasons.
But Michigan State opens what could be a huge season in somewhat weird fashion when it heads to Western Michigan on a Friday night.
Western Michigan is coming off a great turnaround campaign in 2014, posting an 8-5 record after going just 1-11 in 2013. The Broncos have 16 starters returning this season, with nine of them coming on an offense that averaged 6.5 yards per play. Quarterback Zach Terrell had a pair of almost 1,000-yard receivers last season—both of whom are back—and running back Jarvion Franklin ran for 1,551 yards and 24 touchdowns.
Michigan State's defense should be strong once again, but it'll be less than full strength heading into the season opener. According to David Drew of MLive.com, the Spartans will be without senior linebacker Ed Davis this season due to a knee injury, while starting defensive back Darian Hicks could miss the game with mono. Michigan State's secondary is still in the process of replacing three key players from last season's "No Fly Zone" squad.
The trip away from home, the Friday time slot, possible early-season rust, WMU's willingness to spread the field and the danger of looking ahead to Week 2's matchup against Oregon all combine to give this game intriguing upset potential.
Virginia Tech over Ohio State (Sept. 7)
This matchup deserves an obligatory spot because of what happened last season and what has transpired this offseason for Ohio State.
The Buckeyes' lone loss in their national championship run came to Virginia Tech inside the Horseshoe. This year, the Hokies open the season with Ohio State on a Monday night in what head coach Frank Beamer called "the most anticipated game in the history of Lane Stadium," per Jimmy Robertson of Inside Hokie Sports.
Urban Meyer won't announce his starting quarterback until this game, but the winner of the battle between J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones will have to handle the Hokies without several top teammates. H-back Jalin Marshall and wide receivers Corey Smith and Dontre Wilson will be suspended—along with star defensive end Joey Bosa—for that season-opening trip to Blacksburg.
"Smith and Wilson have each been plagued by inconsistencies throughout their respective college careers, but Marshall was a key cog in the Buckeyes' national title run and is one of the players being counted on to replace Devin Smith as a downfield threat in the Ohio State passing game," Bleacher Report's Ben Axelrod wrote last month.
Ohio State's defense should be fine without Bosa, but the Buckeyes will face one of the nation's toughest secondaries without a trio of possible offensive playmakers. While the defending champions will still be the favorites for this tough road trip, they should be on the highest of upset alerts once again.
Texas Tech over TCU (Sept. 26)
First of all, yes, TCU did score 82 points against Texas Tech last season—and it could have put up even more on a Red Raiders team that just looked like it gave up after hanging with the Horned Frogs in the first half.
But that was last year, and this year is a completely different ball game.
TCU should be a legimitate national title contender this season. Trevone Boykin is a Heisman frontrunner at quarterback, and the Frogs return almost every one of their top offensive playmakers from a season ago, along with a strong defensive front. But an area that has some question marks is the back seven of TCU's defense.
As Bill Connelly of SB Nation noted in his annual TCU preview, three of the top four linebackers on the Horned Frogs 4-2-5 defensive depth chart were either true or redshirt freshmen. Texas Tech, on the other hand, returns nine starters on an offense that ranked No. 10 nationally in yards per game last season. An abysmal defense doomed the Red Raiders to a 4-8 season.
This will be TCU's first Big 12 test of the season, and it comes away from home. Texas Tech will be coming off a physical matchup at Arkansas, but a defense with any sort of improvement could make this a shootout the Horned Frogs don't want to see this early in the season. After all, a Texas Tech team that was already ineligible for the postseason lost by just two points to Baylor at home last year.
Boston College over Clemson (Oct. 17)
With quarterback Deshaun Watson healthy again and Florida State replacing a lot of offensive talent, Clemson has become a popular pick to win the ACC this season. But in order to pull that off, the Eagles will most likely have to knock off the Seminoles and avoid a letdown loss to another conference opponent.
One of those top letdown candidates is Boston College, which blew a late lead to Clemson in 2013 and came close to another upset in 2014. While the Eagles must replace quarterback Tyler Murphy and their offensive line this season, they will still do the same thing on offense—pound the ball at defenses on the ground.
"Ball security is a huge deal," Boston College head coach Steve Addazio said at the ACC Football Kickoff, per BC Interruption. "Our plan to win at Boston College is play great defense, because I think you have to play great defense to compete. You have to be able to run the football. If you can't run the football, it's hard to have any level of championship football."
Addazio will be able to lean on a defense that returns a majority of its starters from last season. The Eagles leapt from 93rd in total defense in 2013 to 11th in 2014, and they will need a big performance in order to keep Clemson's high-powered offense at bay.
Clemson hosts Boston College one week after playing a tough Georgia Tech team and right before a tough trio—at Miami, at N.C. State and home against Florida State. If Boston College can keep the ball out of Clemson's hands and run right at the heart of a defense that returns just three starters, a major upset could be in the cards in the ACC Atlantic Division.
Navy over Notre Dame (Oct. 10)
In each of the last two seasons, Navy has had no problem moving the ball and hanging with Notre Dame. This year, the Midshipmen could deliver a critical blow to the Irish's College Football Playoff chances or knock them out altogether.
Navy must replace the bulk of its plug-and-play option attack, but one of the best players in program history is still around—quarterback Keenan Reynolds. The Midshipmen signal-caller is hunting the all-time FBS career rushing touchdown mark this season, and he's led his offense to more than 330 rushing yards in his last two starts against Notre Dame.
"After all, Reynolds and the Midshipmen nearly took down the Irish in 2014, carrying a lead into the fourth quarter and pulling within three in the final minutes," Bleacher Report's Mike Monaco wrote. "Notre Dame is still searching for the answer against the option, and Reynolds is a potent operator ready to ride into South Bend in October."
Notre Dame's veteran defense will at least have some more experience with the triple option by the time Navy visits—the Irish play Georgia Tech in Week 3—but this matchup's place on the schedule could be troublesome. Navy plays Notre Dame the week after the Irish head to Clemson for a huge game and before the annual rivalry game with fellow CFP hopeful USC.
How Notre Dame plays against Georgia Tech will have a lot to do with how this matchup shakes out, especially when Navy has the ball in its hands. These Midshipmen could pull off the big upset this fall after back-to-back near-misses.
Kentucky over Auburn (Oct. 15)
Before Auburn hits a tough stretch of its season that could make or break its playoff hopes, the Tigers must travel on a Thursday night to a Kentucky team looking for its first signature win under Mark Stoops.
While Kentucky doesn't have the overall talent of a recruiting power such as Auburn, the Wildcats have a good amount of experience on both sides of the ball.
Quarterback Patrick Towles, who is officially still the No. 1 man in Lexington, had a couple of big games through the air last season against SEC opponents, and he'll be joined by UK's leading rusher, receiver and four of its five starting linemen. The Kentucky defense has veteran presences across the board, including a trio of returning starters at linebacker who will look to slow down Gus Malzahn's fast-paced offense.
Home-field advantage could be a big aid for Kentucky in this matchup. The last time Auburn came to Lexington, the Tigers needed to rally back from 24-7 down and kick a last-second field goal to defeat the Wildcats. The year was 2010, and Auburn later won the national championship with Cam Newton at quarterback.
Auburn faces a quartet of tough SEC games—Arkansas, Ole Miss, Texas A&M and Georgia—right after its trip to Kentucky. If the experienced Wildcats can work some Thursday night magic in one of their biggest home games under Stoops, they can crush the Tigers' championship dreams.
Western Kentucky over LSU (Oct. 24)
By the time LSU plays Western Kentucky in mid-October, the answers to a lot of the Tigers' preseason questions will have already been answered.
But the Hilltoppers should be a team LSU will have to watch out for this season, even with its dominant run against nonconference opponents inside Tiger Stadium. They will want to throw the Tigers, who have lingering questions at quarterback, into a shootout.
Western Kentucky's biggest calling card is its unbelievable air attack, which ranked No. 2 nationally in passing yards per game. Senior quarterback Brandon Doughty returns after his Conference USA Player of the Year campaign in which he threw for 49 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions, and the lethal receiving duo of Jared Dangerfield and Taywan Taylor are also back for 2015.
Of course, LSU consistently has one of the nation's best pass defenses, and as Scott Rabalais of the Advocate notes, the Tigers "secondary is expected to be a rock" with "worries about depth on the defensive line and at linebacker." That's where WKU can hit LSU's defense with its underrated rushing attack—senior running back Leon Allen gave the Hilltoppers their fifth straight 1,500-yard rusher last season.
Playing in Tiger Stadium is a major challenge for any opponent, especially one from the smaller conferences. But Western Kentucky's high-powered offense should be cause for concern as LSU makes the transition from longtime defensive coordinator John Chavis to Kevin Steele.
Cal over USC (Oct. 31)
USC has plenty of reasons for optimism this season, but one of its biggest needs for improvement can be found in the secondary. The Trojans return several key defensive backs from a unit that finished No. 118 nationally in passing yards allowed per game in 2015.
And on Halloween this year, quarterback Jared Goff and California's "Bear Raid" attack will test the strength of that pass defense over and over again.
Cal had several close misses in its 5-7 campaign last season, and its road game against USC was one of them. The Golden Bears trailed 31-9 at halftime but rallied in what turned out to be a 38-30 loss—one in which Goff threw for 279 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions.
"We were so close there at the end," Goff told the Associated Press after the game, per ESPN.com. "Knowing that we had so many mistakes there early on that could have allowed us to have a chance to beat them there at the end, it's just kind of frustrating. We'll learn from it, move on, and try to be more disciplined next time."
Goff and his teammates will look to finish the job at home this season. Cal returns 17 starters this season and will have some extra time to prepare for USC—the Golden Bears travel to UCLA on the previous Thursday night. USC will face Cal between what should be a physical home game against Utah and a major contest against Arizona, putting the Trojans on high alert for these pass-first, upset-minded Bears.
Georgia Southern over Georgia (Nov. 21)
Depending on how Georgia fares in its first 10 games of the season, this matchup with Georgia Southern could wreck a title campaign or put another nail in a disappointing coffin.
Georgia Southern went 9-3 last season but was ineligible for bowl season due to its relatively new status as a FBS member. Under new head coach Willie Fritz, the Eagles incorporated more pistol and shotgun sets into their option offense last season, but they still hammered away at opponents on the ground. They ranked first nationally with 379.9 rushing yards per game while only completing 90 passes all season.
The Eagles, who get their four leading rushers back for 2015, also have the experience of making powerhouse programs sweat. In 2013, they beat Florida in the Swamp, and they lost at N.C. State and Georgia Tech by a combined five points in the first three weeks of 2014. And with eight returning starters back on defense, improvement can be expected this fall from Georgia Southern.
In two of their three losses last season—Florida and Georgia Tech—the Bulldogs struggled with slowing down an opposing offense that wanted to do nothing more than keep it on the ground. While the depth chart issues should be solved by late November, Georgia is having to replace a huge chunk of its interior linemen and linebackers.
Georgia will enter this game after what should be a tough road test against Auburn and before a trip to face Georgia Tech. This is a classic "sandwich" upset opportunity, and run-heavy Georgia Southern has already proven to be dangerous against the big boys in recent seasons.
Texas over Baylor (Dec. 5)
This has the potential of being the highest alert on the list. While TCU ends its season with the massive Friday night matchup with Baylor on Nov. 27, Art Briles' team has to dispatch one more team before it can move into the postseason.
Outside of Baylor's lone regular-season loss to West Virginia, Texas held the Bears' seemingly point-a-minute offense in check better than anyone else in 2014. The Bears only put up 389 yards of offense and 28 points in Austin last season, two weeks before the big loss to the Mountaineers in Morgantown.
Under Charlie Strong, the Texas defense should be good again, even with a number of new faces in the starting lineup. But by the time December rolls around, the newcomers on both defense and an offense that desperately needs some life will have almost an entire season of experience.
A lot can change between now and the final week of the regular season, and Texas has a hard path to read at this point in the year. But no matter the record for the Longhorns, they would probably love nothing more than to go into Waco and hand Baylor a deflating loss—especially one that could derail its playoff hopes.
The Baylor-TCU game is expected to be the de facto Big 12 Championship Game and a national quarterfinal this season, but that scenario works best for Baylor if it beats Texas the following week. Look for Strong and the Longhorns to push hard for an upset that could shift momentum in the Lone Star State heading into the offseason.
Justin Ferguson is a college football writer at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JFergusonBR.