Biggest Upset-Watch Games for the 2021 College Football Season
Every loss during a college football season hurts, but upsets particularly sting. And for programs with high expectations, that kind of letdown can derail a year.
For fans and media alike, part of the preseason fun is trying to identify which matchups have upset potential. In many cases, we focus on a Group of Five program that may upend a Top 25 team. Some conference games or marquee nonconference showdowns fit the category too.
The list—which is ordered chronologically—considers game timing, expected performance and impact of the result.
Additionally, there is an emphasis on early-season games because the aftermath of a November result is far less certain.
More to Know
The teams below in italics are on upset watch:
- Sept. 11: Oregon at Ohio State
- Sept. 11: Iowa at Iowa State
- Sept. 25: Clemson at North Carolina State
- Oct. 2: Florida at Kentucky
- Oct. 9: Utah at USC
- Oct. 9: Alabama at Texas A&M
- Oct. 30: Penn State at Ohio State
- Nov. 13: Texas A&M @Ole Miss
Sept. 4: Louisiana at Texas
Texas should know better than to overlook Louisiana. Last season, the Ragin' Cajuns upended Iowa State 31-14 in the opener.
But as Louisiana returns a strong majority of its production from a 10-1 team, Texas is installing a new offense with a wide range of new personnel. That includes a first-time starter at quarterback, whether it's Hudson Card or Casey Thompson. The competition hasn't ended, so uncertainty continues to linger around the offense.
Talent usually wins out, and Texas is an understandable favorite. However, Louisiana already has proof of concept; the Longhorns—win or lose—are probably in for a four-quarter struggle.
Sept. 4: Fresno State at Oregon
While at Washington, Jake Haener never had a chance to play against Oregon. Now with Fresno State, though, he could engineer one of the biggest upsets in 2021.
Last year, Haener finished fourth nationally with 336.8 passing yards per game and ranked 16th in yards per attempt (8.7). Several other key weapons return, including running back Ronnie Rivers and top wideouts Jalen Cropper and Zane Pope.
Plus, the Bulldogs have the advantage of an early tuneup game, as they host Connecticut in Week 0. Theoretically, they'll have shaken the nerves that accompany a season opener.
Oregon undoubtedly has more talented pieces in an experienced offensive line, star duo at running back and seasoned defense. But if quarterback Anthony Brown has a subpar showing or the secondary has a bad game, the Ducks will likely be in danger of an upset.
Sept. 11: Appalachian State at Miami
We've traveled this road before.
Appalachian State hosted Miami in September 2016 for a matchup billed as a potential upset game. Instead, the Hurricanes scored on their first offensive play, seized a 21-0 first-quarter lead and cruised to a dominant 45-10 victory.
If quarterback D'Eriq King is truly recovered from a torn right ACL, it's easy to envision another comfortable win. On paper, though, the Mountaineers are again a pesky matchup.
Their run-first offense may frustrate a Miami defense that is unproven at linebacker and seemingly lacks an elite defensive end for the first time in several years. App State brings back nearly the entire defense—one that allowed just 4.9 yards per play in 2020.
King's performance in the opener against Alabama will dictate whether this game belongs in the "upset watch" category. But for now, it merits a place in the discussion.
Sept. 25: Indiana at Western Kentucky
Indiana joined the national conversation in 2020 when it posted a 6-2 record and put a scare into Ohio State. Michael Penix Jr. emerged as one of the nation's more productive quarterbacks before a torn right ACL ended his season two-plus games early.
As a result, the Hoosiers have reasonably high expectations this fall. Ohio State remains the Big Ten favorite, but Indiana is viewed as a moderate threat in the conference.
Still, we're keeping an eye on a Sept. 25 jaunt to Western Kentucky.
It's an inconveniently timed game for Indiana, which plays WKU between a showdown with Cincinnati and a trip to Penn State. Indiana certainly knows Cincinnati needs the victory for national respect, and Penn State has never lost to Indiana at home.
As long as WKU quarterback Bailey Zappe—who tossed 35 touchdowns for Houston Baptist in 2019—has a smooth transition, the Hilltoppers could use home-field advantage to stun Indiana.
Oct. 2: Oklahoma at Kansas State
Considering the recent history of this series, Kansas State toppling Oklahoma would not be filed under the "surprise" label. In both 2019 and 2020, the Wildcats edged the Sooners.
However, it would still qualify as a major upset.
The six-time defending Big 12 champion, Oklahoma is ranked No. 2 nationally. Spencer Rattler is the preseason Heisman Trophy front-runner. The defensive line is among the best in the country. There's no doubt the Sooners are the premier Big 12 team.
But other than the strength of OU's defensive line, that's nothing new. Kansas State rarely competes for a Big 12 title yet won those games anyway, leaning on quarterback Skylar Thompson and earning a 6-0 advantage in the turnover battle.
When the programs meet at Kansas State on Oct. 2, the Sooners will knowingly be on upset watch.
Oct. 2: Cincinnati at Notre Dame
Earning a win at Indiana on Sept. 18 is critical for Cincinnati, but that victory would only ensure the Bearcats stay on the national radar. If they are going to break through the Group of Five's glass ceiling for the CFP, they must upset Notre Dame.
It's that simple.
While the Bearcats have an idle weekend before this game, Notre Dame takes on Wisconsin. Rest and preparation time are two of many factors, but they are advantages for Cincinnati nonetheless.
Unlike power-conference teams, Cincinnati doesn't have the hope of a one-loss margin for error. And if a G5 program loses to a Power Five squad, the CFP selection committee never considers the G5 team for anything more than a New Year's Six bowl. Fair or not, history has repeatedly shown that.
Notre Dame can either shatter Cincinnati's hope of a marquee bowl or be the subject of the Bearcats' signature win.
Oct. 16: Army at Wisconsin
Want to raise your blood pressure? Simple solution: Ask your favorite team to schedule Army.
In 2019, the Black Knights took seventh-ranked Michigan to double overtime. In 2018, they forced overtime at No. 5 Oklahoma. Although both Michigan and Oklahoma ended up winning, Army landed some attention for startling a highly ranked team.
Next up: Wisconsin?
Entering the year ranked No. 12, the Badgers will face Penn State, Notre Dame and Michigan in three of their first four games. After Wisconsin meets Illinois, Army travels to Madison on Oct. 16 following an idle weekend. Wisconsin has to prepare for a triple-option offense it otherwise won't see in 2021, and the defensive line doesn't seem like a strength.
The Badgers will be favored, but both the game's timing and Army's style could be problematic for Wisconsin.
Odds via DraftKings and accurate as of Wednesday.
If you or someone you know has a gambling problem, crisis counseling and referral services can be accessed by calling 1-800-GAMBLER (1-800-426-2537) (IL).
Gambling problem? Call 1-800-GAMBLER (NJ/WV/PA), 1-800-9-WITH-IT (IN), 1-800-522-4700 (CO), 1-800-BETS OFF (IA), or call or text the TN REDLINE: 800-889-9789 (TN).
21+. NJ/PA/WV/IN/IA/CO/IL/TN only. In partnership with Meadows Racetrack & Casino. Eligibility restrictions apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.