Biggest Surprises of the 2019 College Football Season So Far
Overreacting to small sample sizes in college football is very easy. Instead of making grand proclamations about something unsustainable, though, it's best to point out notable trends and monitor whether they continue.
After a couple of weekends, B/R explored the biggest disappointments to date. This week, we're looking past the negatives and highlighting some of the most positive storylines in the nation.
For several reasons, quarterbacks have demanded attention. There are veterans who have turned into Heisman Trophy contenders and newcomers who are excelling right away. Plus, a couple of first-year coaches are enjoying a tremendous start at their new schools.
The order is entirely subjective. Feel free to rearrange the surprises in your mind.
North Carolina Pulling Off 2 Marquee Wins
Did anyone who doesn't cheer for North Carolina actually predict a 2-0 start for the Tar Heels? South Carolina and Miami were both supposed to have above-average defenses, and UNC was starting a true freshman quarterback against them.
Nevertheless, Sam Howell led game-winning fourth-quarter drives to topple the Gamecocks and Hurricanes, guiding UNC to its first 2-0 start since 2014.
Because college football is relentlessly strange, the Heels ended up falling to Wake Forest in a nonconference matchup in which head coach Mack Brown benched Howell for a quarter after a slow start from the Heels.
Although the loss takes a little shine off the victories, that UNC defeated both South Carolina and Miami was a stunning feat.
Anthony Gordon's Hot Start
Washington State head coach Mike Leach's quarterbacks always rank among the national leaders in completions, yards and touchdowns. Redshirt senior Anthony Gordon's placement in those rankings is fully understandable.
However, most everyone―even some around the program―didn't expect him.
Gordon beat out Gage Gubrud, a coveted transfer who totaled more than 11,000 yards of offense at Eastern Washington, for the Cougars' starting job. Additionally, while Trey Tinsley attempted just nine passes in 2018, he seemed like the backup to Gardner Minshew II, ahead of Gordon on the depth chart.
The decision has clearly paid off for Washington State, which is 3-0 thanks to Gordon's 1,324 passing yards and 12 touchdowns.
Jalen Hurts' Level of Production
In Oklahoma's high-tempo system, transfer quarterback Jalen Hurts was always going to put up decent numbers. But he's playing well beyond expectations.
Through three blowout wins, the senior has completed 49 of 61 passes (80.3 percent) for 880 yards with nine touchdowns and zero interceptions. He's averaging a ridiculous 14.4 yards per attempt, best in the nation, and has scampered for another 373 yards and four scores.
"He's a special player," UCLA coach Chip Kelly said of Hurts, per Bryan Fischer of Athlon Sports. "He's as good as anybody I've ever had the opportunity to coach against. Jalen, Kyler Murray, who we coached against last year, and Andrew Luck are probably the [top] three quarterbacks that I've coached against."
Hurts has solidified the Sooners as the Big 12 favorite.
SMU's Offensive Surge
Texas transfer quarterback Shane Buechele has steadied an offense that ranked 96th in yards per snap (5.4) last season. So far, SMU has averaged 44.3 points per game and ranks 26th nationally (6.9) in yards per play behind Buechele's 301.3 yards of total offense per game.
The overall production is impressive.
Running back Xavier Jones has already racked up seven touchdowns to go with a pair of 100-yard performances while sharing the backfield with Ke'Mon Freeman. Reggie Roberson Jr. ranks 10th in the country with 114 receiving yards per game, and freshman TJ McDaniel exploded for 159 rushing yards and three scores during a smackdown of Texas State.
Not only is SMU's win-loss record unblemished, but the Mustangs are also 3-0 against the spread, per TeamRankings, meaning head coach Sonny Dykes' team is even outperforming Vegas.
Charlotte Can Move the Ball! And Score!
Last season, Charlotte ranked 119th in yards per play and 114th in scoring offense. That followed a similarly horrid 2017 campaign (114th and 128th, respectively) and ultimately led to Brad Lambert's dismissal.
What a difference a coaching change can make.
The 49ers hired Will Healy from Austin Peay, where he helped snap a 29-game losing streak and posted a 13-10 record over the last two seasons. The former quarterback has quickly overhauled the offense and made Charlotte a scoring threat.
Even if Charlotte isn't a real contender in Conference USA this season, Healy has the program headed in the right direction.
Kansas State Rolling to 3-0
Breaking news: School hires coach who consistently won championships, and said school improves dramatically.
That part isn't a surprise, of course. Chris Klieman was hired away from North Dakota State, where he celebrated three FCS national titles as an assistant coach and four as the boss. His offensive style and defensive background are an ideal fit for Kansas State.
But, again, the how is unanticipated.
The Wildcats steamrolled Nicholls State 49-14, blanked Bowling Green 52-0 and edged Mississippi State 31-24 on the road. This is only K-State's second 3-0 start since 2013, and the program hadn't scored more than 14 points in four regular-season games against a Power Five nonconference opponent during the same time frame.
Klieman and Kansas State are primed to play the spoiler role, something all too familiar for Big 12 teams.
Dillon Gabriel Ripping Away UCF Starting Job
Having watched Brandon Wimbush struggle for Notre Dame early in 2018, it's not surprising he didn't keep the first-string role at UCF. This quickly, though? Sure didn't see that coming.
In Darriel Mack Jr.'s absence, Dillon Gabriel has unquestionably earned the position. The freshman has connected on 38 of 62 throws for 719 yards―that 11.6-yard average is fourth-best nationally―with nine touchdowns and zero interceptions.
The southpaw shredded Stanford for 347 yards and four touchdowns while hitting 22 of 30 attempts. Despite that performance, head coach Josh Heupel didn't rush to name Gabriel the starter for UCF's Week 4 game against Pitt.
But it's clear Gabriel deserves a chance to play, even as once-expected starter Mack returns from his ankle injury.
LSU's Powerful, Efficient Offense
LSU has regularly signed top-rated wide receivers, but stagnant offenses and stubborn coaches hadn't capitalized on their talent since Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry in 2013.
That's all changing in a massive way.
Head coach Ed Orgeron has relinquished control of the offense to assistants Steve Ensminger and Joe Brady. Together with quarterback Joe Burrow, the Tigers have morphed into a prolific spread attack that is seventh in yards per play (8.0) and third in scoring (55.0 PPG).
Burrow leads the country in completion percentage (83.3), is second in yards per attempt (12.5) and is tied for third in touchdowns (11). His three main targets―Justin Jefferson, Terrace Marshall Jr. and Ja'Marr Chase―have combined for 45 catches, 771 yards and all 11 of Burrow's touchdown passes.
Yes, the difficulty of LSU's schedule is about to increase significantly. But this time around, the Tigers actually have the talent and scheme worthy of a national contender.