Biggest Upset Watch Games for the 2020 College Football Season
After more than seven months of patiently waiting for college football's preseason Associated Press Top 25 poll to be released, now it's time to gaze into the future and try to forecast which games are most likely to shake up those rankings.
The first shakeup is guaranteed to come after Week 1, when the nine ranked teams that aren't playing this season are eliminated from consideration. It's certainly not the weirdest thing about this campaign, but it will be strange when Tennessee vaults from No. 25 to No. 16 several weeks before its season even begins.
But beyond that initial adjustment, we've scoured each week of the 2020 schedule to identify games with significant upset potential.
Be sure to note that not all weeks are created equally. Not even close. There might not be a single loss by a ranked team until Week 5. Week 8 is packed to the gills with games liable to turn the season upside down, but it is followed by two weeks in which it's hard to find any major upsets.
Nevertheless, let's work our way through the calendar and highlight some possible shockers.
Note: There are no ranked teams playing in Week 1, so we'll dive straight into Week 2 with a highly unlikely upset candidate.
Week 2: Clemson at Wake Forest
Wouldn't it be wild if the No. 1 team lost its first game of the season?
Considering Clemson has an 11-game winning streak over Wake Forest—with an average margin of victory of 28.6 points, no less—it's highly unlikely. It doesn't help the Demon Deacons' case that their starting quarterback (Jamie Newman) transferred to Georgia or that neither of their 1,000-yard receivers (Kendall Hinton and Sage Surratt) will play this fall. Heck, they'll be moving on without five of the six players who accounted for at least 330 yards from scrimmage in 2019.
It's not like they had any offense against Clemson last year, though, gaining just 105 yards in the 52-3 loss. And at least Wake Forest has a solid defensive front seven led by Carlos Basham Jr.
However, we're all expecting Clemson to win in blowout fashion. The only reason this game is on the list is because it's the only one in which a ranked team will play on the road. As shocking as this would be, it's even more unlikely that Notre Dame will lose at home to Duke or Oklahoma will lose at home to Missouri State.
Week 3: UCF at Georgia Tech
The vast majority of nonconference games are not going to be of any interest to the vast majority of college football fans.
However, a ranked UCF team playing on the road against a Power Five opponent will definitely be worth keeping an eye on.
Predictably, Georgia Tech's first season under Geoff Collins was a disaster. That's not because Collins is a bad coach but rather because the Yellow Jackets were changing their offensive philosophy (from the triple-option to a more conventional scheme) while also replacing most of their defensive leaders. A 3-9 record while giving up nearly twice as many points as they scored was to be expected.
But the Yellow Jackets had a few solid performances over the latter half of the season, and they bring back most of their key contributors. They aren't likely to be a threat in the ACC, but they should at least put up a fight at home against the Knights.
If the defense hasn't improved, though, UCF will steamroll Tech. The Knights have averaged better than 43 points per game in each of the past three seasons, and that trend should continue despite the departures of Adrian Killins Jr. and Gabriel Davis.
An upset could happen, but this game should serve as a reminder that it's more than just the ACC, Big 12 and SEC that will play meaningful football this fall.
Week 4: Auburn vs. Kentucky
Auburn has had to replace a ton of key players during an offseason that has been atypical.
Four starting defensive backs are gone. As are Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson, who anchored the defensive line over the past four years. And it's hard to know how the running game will look after leading rusher JaTarvious Whitlow transferred, four of the five starting offensive linemen graduated and both the offensive line coach and offensive coordinator were replaced.
Normally, Auburn would have had spring camp, summer workouts, fall camp and a couple of nonconference games to figure things out. This year, though, spring camp didn't happen, summer plans were more than a little messed up and the Tigers have to open the season against a Kentucky squad that should have a strong defense for the third consecutive year.
The Wildcats have question marks of their own with all-purpose star Lynn Bowden Jr. out of the picture, but if 2018 starting quarterback Terry Wilson is back to full strength after missing almost all of last season with a torn left patellar tendon, this team is capable of going on the road and stunning a Top 10 opponent.
Week 5: Oklahoma at Iowa State
Given the struggles Oklahoma has had with Iowa State in recent years, this probably wouldn't even be considered that big of an upset. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if the Cyclones are favored in Vegas, even though the Sooners are the favorite to win the Big 12.
Last year, Iowa State scored three fourth-quarter touchdowns and was a failed two-point conversion away from knocking Oklahoma out of the College Football Playoff picture. In 2018, Iowa State put up a good fight in a 37-27 loss. And in 2017, the Cyclones stunned the Sooners in Norman for their first win in this series since 1990.
Suffice it to say, it's been a better game in recent years than it used to be, and Iowa State has more than enough key returning pieces to befuddle this annual CFP contender yet again.
That list begins with the starting combo of quarterback Brock Purdy and running back Breece Hall. The Cyclones also bring back a bunch of key receiving threats, most notably tight end Charlie Kolar, who had an uncommonly productive-for-that-position 51 receptions for 697 yards and seven touchdowns last season. And on defense, getting JaQuan Bailey back as a redshirt senior was clutch. He had 18.0 sacks from 2016 to 2018 before missing most of last season with a leg injury.
Throw in Oklahoma's uncertainty at running back—Trey Sermon transferred, Kennedy Brooks is sitting out the season and Rhamondre Stevenson will presumably still be suspended—and the fact that it's a road game for the Sooners, and this could cause the first major wrinkle in the CFP conversation.
Week 6: Alabama at Ole Miss
Over the past three years, Ole Miss has been little more than a sacrificial lamb on Alabama's schedule. The Crimson Tide won by 28 last year, 55 the year before and 63 in 2017.
In the three years prior to that, Ole Miss won twice and blew a 24-3 lead in the other game. That makes this one of the few SEC programs that has had success against Alabama during the Nick Saban era.
Could new Ole Miss head coach—and former Alabama offensive coordinator—Lane Kiffin rekindle that upset magic?
There's certainly enough talent on the offense for the apprentice to put up some points.
Quarterback John Rhys Plumlee rushed for more than 1,000 yards last season and accounted for three touchdowns in last year's loss to Alabama. Aside from LSU's Ja'Marr Chase and Alabama's tandem of DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle, Elijah Moore is arguably the SEC's most noteworthy returning wide receiver. And Jerrion Ealy is a breakout star waiting to happen after compiling 894 yards from scrimmage as a true freshman.
To have any hope, though, Ole Miss needs to figure out how to slow down the Alabama offense for a change. The Crimson Tide have averaged 58.8 points during its four-game winning streak against the Rebels. Plumlee and Co. are capable of scoring a bit, but putting up anywhere near that against this Alabama defense will be virtually impossible.
Week 7: Appalachian State at Georgia Southern
You could easily argue for North Carolina at Florida State, Auburn at South Carolina or Texas A&M at Mississippi State as this week's most noteworthy upset candidate, but we're opting to highlight the Sun Belt's best team playing on the road against what has been the biggest thorn in its side for the past two years.
Since taking Penn State to overtime before losing its 2018 season opener, Appalachian State has a record of 24-2. That includes road wins over North Carolina and South Carolina, back-to-back Sun Belt championships and a pair of bowl-game victories by a combined 46 points.
It also includes an 0-2 record against Georgia Southern, which certainly kept the Mountaineers from playing in a New Year's Six bowl last season.
The triple-option offense has simply befuddled the Appalachian State defense. The Eagles rushed for 278 yards and three touchdowns in blowing out the Mountaineers in 2018, and they upped the ante to 335 yards and three scores in last year's victory.
With all of last year's leading rushers returning—namely Wesley Kennedy III, J.D. King, Shai Werts and Matt Laroche—expect more of the same from Georgia Southern, which could end Appalachian State's quest for perfection once again.
Week 8: Take Your Pick
Thus far, this has mostly been about minor upsets or big ones that aren't all that realistic, but we picked them because there aren't any better options.
But Week 8 (Oct. 24) could be the week when things hit the proverbial fan.
If that does happen, the SEC figures to be at the center of it. Alabama plays at Tennessee, Georgia plays at Kentucky and Auburn plays at Ole Miss. All three are potential losses for the road team, particularly for Auburn, as this stands out as a trap game just seven days before its huge showdown with LSU.
In the ACC, Notre Dame has a tricky road game against Pittsburgh. If you'll recall, unranked Pittsburgh almost won at No. 5 Notre Dame two years ago. And this would be the prime spot for a letdown game, on the road and right after back-to-back home games against potential AP Top 25 foes Louisville and Florida State.
In the Big 12, Oklahoma could run into some trouble at TCU. The Horned Frogs have only one win over the Sooners in nine tries since joining the Big 12, but six of those nine games were decided by seven points or fewer. That includes last year's game at Oklahoma in which TCU had the ball in enemy territory down by just four points with less than two minutes remaining.
And in the AAC, Cincinnati plays at SMU, which lost a lot of its skill position players but still has Shane Buechele at quarterback. Just one more game ripe for an upset in a week full of them.
Week 11: Memphis at Navy
Just to be clear, we didn't accidentally omit Weeks 9 and 10. They were intentionally skipped because of the lack of games that profile as potential major upsets. This, of course, means they will be the most ridiculous weeks of the season, because that's just the way college football works. But outside of maybe Virginia winning home games against North Carolina (Week 9) and Louisville (Week 10), it's hard to imagine any noteworthy upsets transpiring.
There are huge games in both of those weeks, though. Texas at Oklahoma State, LSU at Auburn, Memphis at Cincinnati and Virginia Tech at Louisville on Halloween could all be ranked vs. ranked affairs, and then the one-two punch of Florida vs. Georgia and Clemson at Notre Dame during Week 10 should be spectacular.
Week 11 is also a bit light on upset potential with Alabama facing LSU while Clemson, Oklahoma, Texas and Oklahoma State are idle, but there is one game in the AAC liable to shake up the rankings.
Memphis has struggled with Navy's triple-option offense since the teams became conference rivals in 2015. The Midshipmen have averaged 338.0 rushing yards and 3.4 rushing touchdowns per game against the Tigers, winning three of the five meetings. And the last time we saw Memphis, its front seven was getting annihilated by Penn State in the Cotton Bowl to the tune of 396 rushing yards and five touchdowns.
Memphis then lost its leading tackler (Austin Hall) and its best edge-rusher (Bryce Huff) to graduation. Not exactly a situation that suggests this is the year the Tigers figure out how to slow down Navy.
On the plus side for Memphis, the offense is loaded with quarterback Brady White, running back Kenneth Gainwell and wide receiver Damonte Coxie returning. It's not often that a team gets back a 4,000-yard passer, a running back who amassed more than 2,000 yards from scrimmage and a wide receiver who led the conference in receiving yards (1,276). All the Tigers' games figure to be high-scoring affairs, but this one may be especially difficult.
Week 12: Clemson at Florida State
Putting that Clemson-Wake Forest game on the list back in Week 2 was just silly. No one believes that upset is going to happen.
This one just might happen, though.
Clemson has had Florida State's number lately, even winning a road game against the Seminoles 59-10 two years ago. That's a huge outlier in the history of this series, as Florida State is 12-5 all-time at home against Clemson—and the other four losses were by a combined 24 points.
Moreover, there's palpable excitement coming out of Tallahassee with Mike Norvell taking over after his impressive work at Memphis over the past four years. There's plenty of talent on this offense with wide receiver Tamorrion Terry, averaging better than 20 yards per reception in his career, back in the fray. If Texas A&M transfer Jashaun Corbin can hit the ground running in the backfield, the 'Noles should be solid, especially with 10 starters returning on defense.
But there's a huge difference between Florida State being better than it has been in the past three years and ready to topple mighty Clemson. If you're not at least putting this game on your potential upset radar, though, you're underestimating the Seminoles.
Also, here's an honorable mention for Mississippi State at Georgia because Mike Leach, K.J. Costello and Kylin Hill are probably going to win one of their five games against the top six teams in the SEC. It probably won't be this road tilt, but you never know. The visiting Bulldogs might catch the homestanding Bulldogs napping during what's supposed to be a relatively easy final four-game stretch of the season.
Week 13: Georgia at South Carolina
Are we putting this game on the list solely because Georgia inexplicably lost a home game to South Carolina last year?
There was an inordinate amount of chaos throughout the history of this series long before that result.
In the past 50 years, Georgia has been ranked in the AP Top 6 for nine games against South Carolina. The Bulldogs are just 5-4 in those games with three of the wins coming by one score. And in the 12 games played at South Carolina in the past quarter century, the Gamecocks have five wins and three losses by seven points or fewer. From 1996 to 2016, Georgia outscored South Carolina just 182-181 in Columbia.
In other words, it's been an even series—even though it's often ranked Georgia against unranked or much-lower-ranked South Carolina.
If Gamecocks star defensive back Israel Mukuamu has a repeat of last year's three-interception game, another big upset could follow.
Oklahoma will also be on upset watch at West Virginia. The Sooners are 8-0 in the series since the Mountaineers joined the Big 12, but the games in Morgantown have generally been competitive. And with this game falling one week after Oklahoma's rivalry game against Oklahoma State, the potential for an upset feels great.
Week 14: Texas at Kansas State
You can't write a proper upset watch article without featuring Texas somewhere on the list.
And playing in Manhattan, Kansas, has been a nightmare for the Longhorns over the years.
Since joining the Big 12 in 1996, Texas has played at Kansas State eight times, resulting in six losses, a three-point win and a five-point win. The most catastrophic result came in 2006 when Texas was ranked No. 4 as the reigning national champion but lost 45-42 at unranked KSU. That was the first of five consecutive road losses to the Wildcats.
Having this game in the final week of the regular season is just cruel for Longhorns fans. They might be on the brink of playing in the Big 12 Championship Game only to blow it against Kansas State. Or, worse, Texas might already be out of the Big 12 title hunt, and this game against the Wildcats could be the last for Tom Herman as Longhorns head coach.
Elsewhere, Florida plays at Tennessee in a game that might decide whether the Gators win the SEC East. Even if it doesn't make a difference in the division, a win over Florida would be a shot in the arm for Volunteers fans, who have had to watch the Gators win 14 of the last 15 meetings.
Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.