Ranking the Most Underrated Teams in College Football
As college football tiptoes through the COVID-19 minefield of star sit-outs and game cancellations, plenty of teams have written their resumes in bold font.
Even so, pollsters remain largely unimpressed with several such teams, whether they're getting docked for beating up on inferior opponents, a lack of Power Five affiliation or are trying to dig themselves out of a hole of their own early-season making.
In some cases, these teams haven't played enough games. In others, they just don't have that historic name across their chest.
Somewhere, 2017's UCF Knights, who were 13-0 and left out of the College Football Playoff, are nodding emphatically.
This isn't a snapshot of which teams were underrated entering the season (looking at you, Indiana, which didn't make the list because of its No. 10 ranking). Instead, this is a list of the teams that Rodney Dangerfield would be proud of: They get no respect.
Narrowly missing this list are Purdue, Wisconsin, Arizona State and Army. In the first three cases, they simply haven't done enough yet to prove they are underrated. In the last case, Army is a great story everybody should root for but simply hasn't played anybody.
9. Arkansas Razorbacks
The Arkansas Razorbacks are only team that would have made both the "preseason underrated" and "still underrated" lists.
Yes, they are only 3-3 and therefore unranked, but they are overwhelmingly the most surprising team in the SEC and one of the biggest in the nation.
The Hogs are balanced and steady on both sides of the ball, which is stunning, considering they hadn't won an SEC game in 20 tries before they beat Mississippi State earlier this season. First-year head coach Sam Pittman paid his dues as a respected assistant for years, and his program is taking on his identity.
So, just how are they underrated? Well, they would be 4-2 if not for a botched call.
Arkansas lost 30-28 to Auburn on a last-second field goal. That only happened after the Tigers were gifted the ball following quarterback Bo Nix's attempt to spike the ball to set up the short game-winner. Instead, he bobbled the snap, picked it up and threw it into the ground, drawing a flag for intentional grounding.
The problem was, Nix spiked the ball backward, which should have been ruled a fumble (which the Razorbacks recovered). The Tigers retained possession, made the field goal and won the game, but the Hogs should have taken it and earned a ranking. Instead, Auburn is 4-2 and sits at No. 24.
Regardless, Arkansas' success is a testament to what making the right coaching hire can do for a program.
Pittman got former Missouri head coach Barry Odom as defensive coordinator and Kendal Briles to call offensive plays, and both are doing excellent jobs. Florida quarterback transfer Feleipe Franks has enabled Pittman to get a jump-start on building the program.
Arkansas is an extremely dangerous team, and the Hogs will have a major opportunity against Florida this weekend.
8. Appalachian State Mountaineers
A ton of publicity is pointing in the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers' direction, and for good reason, as coach Jamey Chadwell's team is 7-0.
But the Sun Belt championship still runs through Boone, North Carolina.
The Appalachian State Mountaineers have won the past two conference championships and held at least a share of the title the past four years. They have dominated since rising to the FBS ranks in 2014 after a run as the nation's most storied FCS program.
No matter if they've been coached by Scott Satterfield or Eli Drinkwitz, Appalachian State has been a force in the league.
Now they're coached by Shawn Clark, and the fact that nobody is talking about them means little when it comes to throwing their helmet back in the Sun Belt title-fight ring.
The Mountaineers travel to Coastal Carolina on November 21 for a huge matchup with the Chanticleers. Before that, though, they have a tough home game with Georgia State this weekend.
With seasoned senior quarterback Zac Thomas and electric running back Daetrich Harrington churning out yards, and a defense that ranks in the top 26 nationally in total yards, points and passing yards allowed per game, this is a team people aren't paying close enough attention to.
The Mountaineers are 5-1, with the only loss coming to an undefeated Marshall team that you'll see later on this list. That's a tough game to drop (by a 17-7 score) to take you out of the rankings.
The Mountaineers will have a chance to get right back into the pollsters' minds. Not only do they have the aforementioned games, but they also play Louisiana and Georgia Southern. A back-loaded schedule will give them just the fuel they need to catapult back into the conversation.
7. Northwestern Wildcats
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald's team wandered through the quarterback wilderness in 2019 following back-to-back seasons of at least nine wins.
Following the incoming transfer of Indiana graduate signal-caller Peyton Ramsey, though, the Wildcats have another dependable player at the position, and it is showing up on the field, as they are 3-0.
Ramsey wasn't beating out Michael Penix Jr. with the Hoosiers, and he has resurrected his collegiate career in Chicago. Though things haven't always been pretty during his first three games, he's impressed his coaches.
"His response is consistent in the same mindset each time: 'I'm fine, let's go,'" Fitzgerald told the Daily Northwestern's Peter Warren. "That's what you want out of your quarterback. That's what you want out of your offensive leader."
The running back tandem of Drake Anderson and Isaiah Bowser is off to a nice start, as Northwestern is playing a bit of offense to back up the defensive prowess for which the Wildcats are known.
While none of Northwestern's three wins were over juggernauts, none were over slouches, either. They thrashed Maryland 43-3 to open the year, and the Terrapins have been terrific offensively since.
Consecutive wins over Iowa (21-20) and Nebraska (21-13) were typical Big Ten slugfests too. Purdue and Wisconsin will be stiffer tests over the next two weeks for a team that looks like it could be one of the conference's biggest surprises.
Still, they're ranked just 23rd and not getting much love yet.
The winner of that Boilermakers-Wildcats game may join Indiana among the Big Ten's early-season surprises. Considering Northwestern barely beat Purdue for a spot on this list, it's time to prove it on the field.
6. Oklahoma Sooners
Just how wild has this season been for the Oklahoma Sooners?
They started the year looking like the nation's most overrated team. Seven games in, they're among the most underrated. That's college football for you.
Back-to-back losses to Kansas State and Iowa State on September 26 and October 3 dropped Oklahoma from the Top Five all the way out of the Top 25, and redshirt freshman quarterback Spencer Rattler was shuttling back and forth from under center and the sideline.
Given the loss of elite quarterback Jalen Hurts, receiver CeeDee Lamb and linebacker Kenneth Murray from last year's College Football Playoff team; the opt-out of starting running back Kennedy Brooks; the ACL injury to receiver Jadon Haselwood; and the suspension of Rhamondre Stevenson, OU was searching.
More than midway through the season, they've found themselves, and there is no way there are 17 teams better than the 18th-ranked Sooners. They're 5-2, but they've scored 124 points in consecutive wins over Texas Tech and Kansas.
No, neither of those opponents is any good, but it doesn't change the fact that the Sooners are playing better defense. With Stevenson's return, they have a more formidable running game and, therefore, a more balanced offense. Rattler is settling in too.
Wins over the next two weeks against Oklahoma State and West Virginia would be huge to get them back in the top-tier conversation, though the Big 12 has done itself no favors.
If the Sooners click offensively against the Cowboys, who have the league's top scoring defense, that will say a lot about the progress of coach Lincoln Riley's team. There will be no College Football Playoff this season for OU, but the rumors of the Sooners' demise appear exaggerated.
This is still the best team in the Big 12.
5. Coastal Carolina Chanticleers
If you don't believe in the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers yet, it's time to start.
Also, if you are like a million other college football fans, you've probably Googled what a Chanticleer is (a fierce rooster from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales "who dominates the barnyard," per the team's site) and where Coastal Carolina is located (Conway, South Carolina, about 100 miles from Charleston).
When you see a Top 25 team that only seemed vaguely familiar because the school's baseball team won the 2016 College World Series, it makes you want to find out more. A deeper look will show you a year-three leap for Chadwell, but one that has been underappreciated.
After coming from Charleston Southern, the two-time FCS National Coach of the Year finalist endured 3-9 and 5-7 campaigns before leading the Chanticleers to a 7-0 start. They beat Kansas by 15 points and upset then-No. 21 Louisiana 30-27 to burst into the spotlight. Two weekends ago, they dominated Georgia State 51-0.
"Our offense was clicking (and so was the) defense (and) special teams," Chadwell told the Charleston Post & Courier's Danny Kelly after that game. "I'm going to try to find something bad that happened, but it looked pretty good."
That refrain has been the season's soundtrack.
Despite being undefeated and having plenty of heroics, they're still just 15th nationally and have consistently been jumped by teams just starting their seasons the past few weeks.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Grayson McCall is a revelation and just the catalyst the program needed. This team has found its star, and it has the nation's No. 15 defense.
There's still work to be done, of course. Appalachian State looms in two weeks, and upstart Liberty (7-0) ends their regular-season schedule, but both of those games are in Conway. Things are setting up nicely for Coastal. Now it's a matter of people giving them their due.
While a two-loss Georgia team and a Wisconsin team that has played just one game are considered Power Five powerhouses, Coastal Carolina is undefeated. Shouldn't that be rewarded with a higher ranking?
4. Liberty Flames
The No. 22 Liberty Flames are not in the SEC, but they are becoming a household name in college football thanks to a pair of castoffs from that conference.
Following his tumultuous time at Ole Miss, coach Hugh Freeze took over the Flames before the 2019 season and led the independent program to a surprising 8-5 record. This year, Liberty has elevated its play even more, thanks to star Auburn transfer quarterback Malik Willis.
Willis has completed 67.1 percent of his passes for 1,339 yards, 12 touchdowns and just one interception. He's also run 90 times for 603 yards and seven more scores, and he may just be the top Group of Five player in the nation.
Freeze and Willis are fresh off their signature win too.
After kicker Alex Barbir hit a career-long, game-winning field goal with one second left to give Liberty a stunning 38-35 win over Virginia Tech, the Flames moved to 7-0. They were huge underdogs to the Hokies but played them tough every step of the way.
The Hokies blocked a Barbir field goal with eight seconds left, and Jermaine Waller returned it for what looked like the game-winning touchdown, but Tech had called a timeout before the play. Liberty didn't miss again, and the storybook season continued.
What more do the experts need to see to move them higher than No. 22? The Flames already dominated Power Five opponent Syracuse and beat Virginia Tech this past weekend. They've still got to travel to Coastal Carolina too.
Several SEC fanbases have already seen all they need to; Freeze is a popular name on message boards for the disgruntled fans of Auburn, Tennessee and South Carolina who want him to fill head coaching vacancies that do not yet exist.
Liberty needs to be higher in the polls; it's had a better season than Texas, SMU and Iowa State, and the Flames have played a tougher slate than Marshall and Coastal Carolina above them.
3. USC Trojans
Sometimes, the difference between darlings and dogs is razor-thin.
This spot almost belonged to Arizona State. The Sun Devils were underrated before the season opener against the USC Trojans last Saturday and still probably are at 0-1. Instead, coach Clay Helton's program gets the slot.
The Trojans seized early-season control of the Pac-12 South with a frenetic comeback. They scored 14 points in the final three minutes to steal the game and shock Arizona State, which had built a 27-14 lead.
The Trojans scored with 2:52 left, corralled the onside kick, and then Kedon Slovis threaded a bullet pass to Drake London, beating double coverage with 1:20 go to complete the comeback.
USC's reward? It stayed at No. 20 in the Associated Press rankings.
That probably happened because the Trojans were expected to beat Arizona State, had things go their way down the stretch and caught a break to get the win. But these are the kinds of games that have eluded the proud program in recent years.
The only remaining regular-season test looks like Utah on November 21. The path is clearing for a potential showdown with Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship Game, and all the Trojans need to do is run the table.
It's obvious after just one game that USC is far from perfect, but the kind of grit it showed in a comeback win against a quality opponent can galvanize a team. Oregon's biggest competition in the conference shouldn't be ranked all the way down at No. 20. They're better than that.
Next comes beating teams USC should handle easily and earning some style points. Slovis and crew have to earn back the respect from the pollsters who used to have USC among the nation's top teams.
2. BYU Cougars
The BYU Cougars have tried.
Coach Kalani Sitake's team has run up an 8-0 record against mostly middling programs, but it's not the Cougars' fault a pandemic threw everything into chaos.
BYU scheduled Utah, Michigan State, Arizona State, Minnesota, Missouri, Boise State, San Diego State and Stanford before COVID-19 wreaked havoc. Instead, the best opponents the Cougars have played are Houston and Boise State, but they've dismantled everybody.
On Friday night, BYU dominated Boise State 51-17, and, unfortunately for the No. 8 Cougars, the Broncos were forced to trot out their third-string quarterback for much of the game after a head injury to backup Jack Sears. So, there's another excuse for the experts to not give them their just due.
Still, all BYU has done is destroy everybody on its schedule and try to play anybody who will line up against it. They still want more games, too, with North Alabama and San Diego State remaining on the slate. BYU is trying to prove it belongs with the big boys.
It does. If you watch this team, it looks better than eighth nationally, no matter the competition.
Quarterback Zach Wilson is not only a high future NFL draft pick, but he should also get more Heisman Trophy consideration. He is like a cross between Patrick Mahomes and Rex Grossman. His knowledge of the offense and faith in receivers Gunner Romney and Dax Milne make the unit a joy to watch.
Plenty of times, Wilson just points to a spot and throws it there, and the receivers go get it. The Cougars also have a strong running back duo in Tyler Allgeier and Lopini Katoa, a quality tight end in Isaac Rex and arguably four future NFL offensive linemen in Tristen Hoge, James Empey, Brady Christensen and Chandon Herring.
The defense makes plenty of plays, too, considering it's on the field a ton thanks to the explosive offense.
But it's just hard to envision BYU getting any College Football Playoff love. Unbelievably, the Cougars may get left out of the New Year's Six discussion too. That would be a travesty. They at least deserve a shot to play a strong Power Five team in a bowl.
1. Cincinnati Bearcats
BYU looks like a good team. Cincinnati looks like a College Football Playoff team.
While the talking heads discuss whether the Pac-12 champion will get a shot at the national title and, if not, which Power Five conference will get two teams in the CFP, the Bearcats look like they may get left on the doorstep.
That would be a shame if they continue winning impressively. If there was ever a year to experiment with a Group of Five team getting an invitation into college football's final four, it would be this season.
But will the sport prove it learned from the UCF decision in 2017? Probably not.
Coach Luke Fickell's Bearcats are ranked seventh despite pelting their opponents in a good AAC. Though they've still got UCF, Temple and Tulsa remaining, Cincy has easily dispatched everybody in its way.
Army had some early-season buzz and has lost just one game, a 24-10 setback to the Bearcats. SMU, with quarterback Shane Buechele, was supposed to be a major AAC contender, but Cincinnati whipped the Mustangs 42-13. The same goes for Memphis, which entered Nippert Stadium and limped out after a 49-10 loss.
Dana Holgorsen's high-powered Houston attack was next on the list, but a 38-10 Bearcats win followed the same pattern.
There is simply nobody holding these explosive offenses in check like Cincinnati. Teams cannot move the ball against that defense, and quarterback Desmond Ridder has blossomed into a star, throwing for 1,156 yards, 11 touchdowns and six interceptions while running for 394 yards and eight more scores.
The running back duo of Gerrid Doaks (511 yards, seven touchdowns) and Alabama transfer Jerome Ford (270 yards, four touchdowns) is formidable, and that defense can hang with anybody. Those guys are why Fickell is a popular next-big-thing in coaching circles.
It would be so much fun to watch them get a swing in the playoffs. But don't hold your breath. The UCF Knights are still holding theirs from '17.
Follow Brad Shepard on Twitter at @Brad_Shepard