10 Realistic Upsets That Would Send the 2017 College Football Season into Chaos

Greg Wallace@gc_wallaceFeatured ColumnistAugust 14, 2017

10 Realistic Upsets That Would Send the 2017 College Football Season into Chaos

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    Could Michigan find itself on the wrong end of a damaging upset again in 2017?
    Could Michigan find itself on the wrong end of a damaging upset again in 2017?Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    College football is one of America's most popular sports, and one huge reason for its popularity is its unpredictability. In August, fans devour preseason magazines and preseason media coverage, speaking in absolutes about how the season will unfold and which teams will make the College Football Playoff.

    By October, however, many of those magazines have little value beyond scratch paper, kindling or an improvised coaster for your favorite game-day beverage.

    Upsets can and will happen, and previously unheralded teams will emerge. After all, did anyone expect Pitt to go into Death Valley and stun Clemson? Or for Penn State to emerge as the Big Ten champion? Or, for that matter, for Michigan State to tumble from the College Football Playoff to 3-9? That's the beauty of college football. We think we know, but we don't know anything until the games are played.

    Here's a look at 10 realistic upsets that would send the 2017 season into chaos. We're not guaranteeing they'll happen, by any means. But if they do, remember, you heard it here first.

Arkansas over Alabama

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    Devwah Whaley is poised to be a breakout star in Arkansas' ground game.
    Devwah Whaley is poised to be a breakout star in Arkansas' ground game.L.G. Patterson/Associated Press

    Why it could happen

    Arkansas has lost nine consecutive games to SEC West rival Alabama, but the Razorbacks always play the Crimson Tide tough. In 2014, the Hogs lost 14-13 to the Tide. In 2015, Arkansas led 7-3 at the half before falling 27-14. And last fall, the Tide used a pair of defensive touchdowns to ease to a 49-30 win.

    This year, Arkansas visits Tuscaloosa on Oct. 14. The Razorbacks return 12 starters, including an experienced secondary, and should be better defensively with former Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads as the new defensive coordinator. The game also comes at a somewhat tough spot on the Tide's schedule between a road trip to Texas A&M and a rivalry match with Tennessee.

    If the Hogs can pressure sophomore quarterback Jalen Hurts, control Alabama's run game and open holes for emerging star back Devwah Whaley to run through, they stand a shot at breaking the streak and pulling off an upset that would rock the SEC West.

            

    The aftermath

    Alabama overcame losses to Ole Miss in 2014 and 2015 to make the College Football Playoff, so it isn't unheard of for the Tide to stumble in the regular season and still reach their postseason goals. But the SEC West should be improved this fall as both Auburn and LSU take steps forward.

    A loss to Arkansas would swing the SEC West (and College Football Playoff) door wide open for Alabama's challengers by reducing the Tide's margin for error.

    That, in turn, would make the rest of the regular season far more interesting for the SEC programs that don't play in Bryant-Denny Stadium.

Indiana over Michigan

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    Indiana has pushed Michigan hard in each of the last two seasons.
    Indiana has pushed Michigan hard in each of the last two seasons.Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    Why it could happen

    Although Indiana has a new coach in Tom Allen (elevated from defensive coordinator following Kevin Wilson's departure), it would be unwise for Michigan to take the Hoosiers lightly when they meet Oct. 14. Two years ago, Indiana pushed the Wolverines to double overtime before falling 48-41. Last fall, Indiana led 7-3 at halftime at the Big House before Michigan rallied for a 20-10 victory.

    Coming off a six-win season, Indiana figures to be solid in 2017. The Hoosiers return 14 starters, including nine on defense. If they can pressure Michigan's offensive line and quarterback Richard Lagow can scare a Michigan defense that returns one starter from 2016, Indiana can finish the job and pull off a big upset.

            

    The aftermath

    The Big Ten East figures to be tightly packed again and decided late in the season. The top three contenders (Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State) all face one another between Oct. 21 and Nov. 25.

    That gauntlet figures to decide the division. If an upset happens early on, it'll take a little luster away from the games but also give those who remain perfect (in this case, Ohio State and Penn State) a significant edge for the division title and a College Football Playoff berth.

Iowa over Ohio State

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    Kirk Ferentz and Iowa have shown they are more than capable of pulling a key upset.
    Kirk Ferentz and Iowa have shown they are more than capable of pulling a key upset.BRADLEY LEEB/Associated Press

    Why it could happen

    Ohio State is still smarting from a 31-0 Fiesta Bowl defeat at eventual national champion Clemson's hands, but the Buckeyes are a strong bet to get back to the College Football Playoff in 2017. Urban Meyer has built a deep, talented roster and returns 15 starters, led by senior quarterback J.T. Barrett and junior defensive end Sam Hubbard.

    However, the second half of the season will be far tougher than the first, save a Sept. 9 visit from Oklahoma. Ohio State must face Penn State, Michigan State and Michigan in its final five games, and a Nov. 4 trip to Iowa looms as a possible trap between the Nittany Lions and Spartans. Iowa returns a bruising ground game led by seniors Akrum Wadley and Nevada transfer James Butler and has an experienced defense.

    Kirk Ferentz's teams aren't flashy, but they are tough and dangerous, as Michigan found out last November in a 14-13 upset at Kinnick Stadium. It would be less than surprising to see the Buckeyes meet a similar fate in Iowa City if the Hawkeyes are able to get their ground game going and shut down Barrett.

               

    The aftermath

    The Big Ten East figures to be one of the nation's best divisions as the Buckeyes, Nittany Lions and Wolverines battle for supremacy. A year ago, the three combined for four Big Ten losses, three coming at each other's hands (Iowa was the other). An Ohio State loss would be damaging and would give Michigan and Penn State a leg up on the East Division title and a berth in the College Football Playoff—provided, of course, they can avoid similar pitfalls.

Iowa State over Oklahoma State

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    In Matt Campbell's second season, Iowa State should be significantly improved.
    In Matt Campbell's second season, Iowa State should be significantly improved.Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Why it could happen

    Six years ago, Oklahoma State had a clear path to the BCS national championship. At 10-0, all the Cowboys had to do was beat an average Iowa State team and rival Oklahoma to make the national title game. Instead, Mike Gundy and the Cowboys floundered and dropped a 37-31 double-overtime decision to the Cyclones, ending their title hopes.

    This fall, the Cowboys have designs on the College Football Playoff. But they'd be wise to be wary of Iowa State. Big 12 observers have Nov. 4 circled on their schedules—that's when Oklahoma and Oklahoma State meet in Bedlam, which could have huge College Football Playoff implications. But the following week, OSU travels to Iowa State for what should be a chilly mid-November game.

    The Cyclones should be improved in Matt Campbell's second season and will likely be fired up, as they'll need this win for any hopes of bowl eligibility. Mason Rudolph and Co. have a potent offense, but it's not out of the realm of possibility to imagine Iowa State and a solid offense could play spoiler again in Ames.

             

    The aftermath

    The Big 12's new format that sends the league's top two finishers to the reborn Big 12 title game allows room for error, but not a lot of it. A loss to a team like Iowa State would be damaging for Oklahoma State's playoff hopes, and if it followed a Cowboys win over Oklahoma, it could hurt the league as a whole, especially if the one-loss programs have a rematch in the title game.

    The College Football Playoff rewards teams with few blemishes, but losing to second-division teams could leave the Big 12 out of the playoff for another season.

N.C. State over Clemson

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    N.C. State came oh-so-close to upsetting Clemson last fall.
    N.C. State came oh-so-close to upsetting Clemson last fall.Todd Bennett/Getty Images

    Why it could happen

    Clemson lived on the edge last fall en route to its first national championship since 1981, and its mid-October meeting with N.C. State was one of the biggest examples. On the final play of regulation, the Wolfpack needed only a field goal to upset the Tigers, but Kyle Bambard pushed a 33-yard try wide right. Clemson exhaled and eventually took a 24-17 overtime victory.

    The Tigers are replacing major pieces of their offensive core, including Heisman Trophy runner-up Deshaun Watson, but still figure to be a major player in the College Football Playoff race, and a Nov. 11 visit from Florida State will be crucial. In each of the last six seasons, the winner has gone on to win the ACC title, and both teams will begin the season in the Top Five nationally. But Clemson must first survive a Nov. 4 visit to N.C. State.

    The Wolfpack return 16 starters and feature one of the nation's top defensive lines, led by senior end Bradley Chubb, who had 10.5 sacks a year ago. Clemson's new offensive starters, including likely starting quarterback Kelly Bryant, will have had time to settle in by November, but this will be a big test. It's not hard to imagine N.C. State could pull off the upset and shake up the ACC Atlantic race.

             

    The aftermath

    While Clemson has several key road tests (including at Louisville and Virginia Tech) in September, the Florida State game has become a key barometer for the ACC title and playoff pictures. FSU is ready for a move back toward national elite status this year, and its visit to Clemson is a key league showcase. If the Tigers falter the week before, it could open up the Atlantic title race and FSU's path to the playoff considerably.

Northwestern over Penn State

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    Northwestern's Justin Jackson is one of the nation's top returning tailbacks.
    Northwestern's Justin Jackson is one of the nation's top returning tailbacks.Adam Hunger/Getty Images

    Why it could happen

    Penn State had an incredible 2016 season. The Nittany Lions broke through in coach James Franklin's third year, shaking off a 2-2 start to win the Big Ten title and make the Rose Bowl. Expectations are sky-high in Happy Valley as 16 starters return, including junior tailback and Heisman Trophy candidate Saquon Barkley and junior quarterback Trace McSorley. The Lions have a huge October stretch with Michigan and Ohio State in consecutive games, but a tough test looms Oct. 7 at Northwestern.

    The Wildcats closed strong to finish 7-6 last fall, winning three of their final four games, and return 15 starters, led by 1,500-yard rusher Justin Jackson. They are more than capable of Big Ten contention, and if Jackson runs wild on the Lions defense, they can pull an upset in Evanston.

            

    The aftermath

    Penn State was routed early at Michigan last fall and rebounded to win the Big Ten East, but a loss going into the Wolverine-Buckeye gauntlet would be damaging for the Lions and give the other two contenders an opening. It would make it more likely that the Ohio State-Michigan showdown would decide the East, although nothing is certain, as we found out in 2016.

Oregon over Washington

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    Royce Freeman hopes to help Oregon author a quick turnaround under Willie Taggart.
    Royce Freeman hopes to help Oregon author a quick turnaround under Willie Taggart.George Frey/Associated Press

    Why it could happen

    Oregon's fall from national runner-up in 2014 to 4-8 in 2016 was shocking, and coach Mark Helfrich paid with his job. Nothing epitomized that more than Washington's 70-21 thumping of the Ducks on Oct. 8 in Autzen Stadium. The Huskies could do no wrong and stamped themselves as the Pac-12 North's best team, while Oregon could only watch.

    The Ducks have 16 starters returning, including star senior tailback Royce Freeman and emerging sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert. New coach Willie Taggart hopes for a quick turnaround, and what better way to show he's serious than an upset of Washington? Oregon visits the Huskies on Nov. 4. For Washington, it comes right before perhaps the toughest game on its schedule, a Nov. 10 trip to Stanford.

    New defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt should have a significant impact on Oregon's defense, and Herbert will be even better in his first full season as a starting quarterback. It won't be easy, but the Ducks will be much less of a pushover in 2017. If Herbert and Freeman excel and Oregon's defense can limit Jake Browning, the Ducks can flip the script.

              

    The aftermath

    Washington lost one regular-season game (to Southern California) last fall and still won the Pac-12 title. The Huskies can do so again even with a loss to Oregon but would have to hope the Ducks slip up twice more along the way to avoid losing the division on a tiebreaker. In other words, they'd have no room for error.

    Oregon could show that 4-8 was just an aberration and that it's ready to return to prominence under Taggart's watch. However, that could rob the Pac-12 of a potential USC-Washington unbeaten clash in the league title game.

Texas Tech over Oklahoma

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    Does Nic Shimonek have what it takes to lead an upset of Oklahoma?
    Does Nic Shimonek have what it takes to lead an upset of Oklahoma?John Weast/Getty Images

    Why it could happen

    One of 2016's wildest games happened in Lubbock when Oklahoma visited Texas Tech. The Red Raiders pushed the Sooners to the limit before falling 66-59 in a game that featured an NCAA single-game record 1,708 yards from scrimmage.

    Tech had the nation's worst scoring and total defense, yielding 43.5 points and 554.3 yards per game. Head coach Kliff Kingsbury is taking an added focus on defense, and with an infusion of talent led by returning middle linebacker Dakota Allen, the Raiders can't possibly be worse, right?

    Oklahoma hosts the Raiders Oct. 28, a week before traveling for a huge Bedlam meeting with Oklahoma State. Baker Mayfield has finished in the top four in Heisman voting the last two years and is running the offense again, but the Sooners have some uncertainty at the skill positions. Tech returns seven offensive starters, and new quarterback Nic Shimonek should thrive in the offense. If the Raiders are sharp heading into Norman, they could finish the job and deliver a huge upset.

           

    The aftermath

    Nov. 4's showdown between Oklahoma and Oklahoma State looms as the biggest game of the year in the Big 12 and one of the biggest in the nation. With only a month to go in the regular season, it has the potential to decide the Big 12 regular-season champion.

    While the league is bringing back its title game this fall, Bedlam will remain important in the College Football Playoff picture. If the Sooners falter, it could put even more pressure on OU to win at Oklahoma State, but it could also damage the league's hopes of getting a playoff qualifier.

Wake Forest over Florida State

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    Dave Clawson is building Wake Forest back into respectability.
    Dave Clawson is building Wake Forest back into respectability.Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    Why it could happen

    Following a pair of 10-win seasons, Florida State is set to make a move back into college football's penthouse this fall. The Seminoles return 14 starters (nine on defense), get standout safety Derwin James back from a knee injury that ended his 2016 season and hope for more from developing dual-threat quarterback Deondre Francois. They should be among the nation's best and a strong College Football Playoff contender, but they must avoid pitfalls along the way.

    That includes Sept. 30's trip to Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons have played FSU relatively tough in the last two meetings. Two years ago, they fell 24-16 in Winston-Salem after having a last-ditch pass intercepted in the end zone. Last fall, they lost 17-6 in Tallahassee, getting inside the FSU 25 four times without scoring a touchdown.

    Wake Forest improved in 2016, going 7-6 and beating Temple in a bowl game, and BB&T Field can be a tough locale for opponents. It would be no surprise if the Seminoles were pushed hard by the Demon Deacons, who return 13 starters.

            

    The aftermath 

    Florida State is the favorite to win the ACC Atlantic, but an early loss could open the door for challengers to step forward. Defending national champion Clemson, which hosts the Seminoles, would love to see it happen, as would Louisville and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Lamar Jackson. An upset would leave the Atlantic wide open but also potentially diminish the ACC's College Football Playoff hopes.

Washington State over Southern California

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    In Mike Leach's wide-open scheme, Luke Falk is one of the nation's most underrated quarterbacks.
    In Mike Leach's wide-open scheme, Luke Falk is one of the nation's most underrated quarterbacks.Denis Poroy/Associated Press

    Why it could happen

    Southern California has positioned itself as a prime contender for the College Football Playoff. The Trojans finished 2016 on a nine-game winning streak and have a strong Heisman Trophy candidate in quarterback Sam Darnold. With a talented roster on hand, they're a good bet to race to the Pac-12 title, right?

    Washington State might have something to say about it. The Trojans open the season with home games against Western Michigan, Stanford and Texas before traveling to Cal on Sept. 23. A Sept. 29 trip to Pullman looks like a potential roadblock.

    Mike Leach has the Cougars on the right path after winning 17 games the past two seasons with a thriving Air Raid offensive attack. Washington State returns 16 starters, nine on defense, as well as prolific quarterback Luke Falk, who threw for 4,468 yards and 38 touchdowns last fall.

    If Falk can take advantage of a USC secondary led by Iman Marshall but breaking in two new starters, the Cougars could give the Trojans trouble on the Palouse and pull off a surprising early-season upset.

            

    The aftermath

    Southern California does not face Washington this season, so the Trojans could rebound from a loss at Washington State, run the table in the Pac-12 and make the league title game, potentially vs. the Huskies.

    But a win would give the Cougars much more national recognition and give them confidence that they can hang with the rest of the league, including Washington in the Apple Cup. It would make the rest of the regular season far more intriguing.