Posted in: College Football
Troy over LSU. Syracuse topping Clemson. Boston College thumping FSU. Iowa running roughshod over Ohio State.
These were some of the incredible upsets in college football’s 2017 season. And there’s plenty more to come this year.
Whether due to a surprise positional matchup, a scheduling advantage, or the personal stakes of the game, there are many ways to pick an upset. What’s the underdog’s history with creating havoc for more talented teams? Are they catching their opponent in a good old-fashioned trap game?
These are all things to magnify when looking for the jaw-dropping shockers of this college football season.
To be considered for this list, I had one measure. As far as predicting games, ESPN’s FPI isn’t the greatest or worst tool. But I’m using its percentage chance of victory as a measurement of how big the upset is. And every game on this list gives the favorite an over 75% chance of winning.
Some of the selections take place in-conference. But those games would still cause plenty of disbelief if they went to the dogs. Here are seven upsets to watch for in 2018.
I keep telling people they need to chill when it comes to setting expectations for Scott Frost in his first season in Nebraska.
But the head coach built UCF back from ground zero so quickly, it’s hard not to wonder.
Nebraska will have early tests and growing pains throughout the 2018 season. They’ll likely have a true freshman, Adrian Martinez, at quarterback most of the year if he wins the preseason battle. Several other offensive positions will be manned by sophomores.
But by the time the Cornhuskers host Michigan State on November 17th, the offense should be established. Frost will have the quarterback he recruited specifically for his scheme. And Martinez will have ample experience, playing against teams like Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Michigan all on the road.
But Nebraska will also get a break with Illinois at home the week before they take on Sparty. Meanwhile, Michigan State will be on a nine-week stretch of games that includes PSU, Michigan, and Ohio State the week before they go to Lincoln.
That could whether be a hangover game if they beat the Buckeyes or a demoralizing loss that carries over into the next week. Last year they were crushed by OSU and struggled mightily in a close win over lowly Maryland.
The defensive line is expected to be Nebraska’s most improved group. If it is, they might be able to minimize Michigan State’s L.J. Scott in the run game. If they can do that, they’ll be in striking distance.
Sparty played plenty of close games against lesser opponents last year. Iowa, Indiana, Northwestern (a loss), and Maryland were all tight.
Expect this to be Nebraska’s biggest game of the year in terms of program momentum. For Michigan State, it’s just the game after Ohio State. That’s where the Cornhuskers, on Senior Day, should have an advantage.
FPI Chances: Michigan State 80.8%
Many see that Northwestern has Wisconsin, Notre Dame, and Iowa in a row and doubt them. But Notre Dame might be the one here with a tricky schedule.
Sure, Wisconsin will be a doozy before the Fighting Irish. But the Wildcats were up 10-7 at halftime last year against them. They went toe-to-toe with the Badgers in the physical style of the contest.
Don’t look for Coach Pat Fitzgerald’s team to be exhausted after Wisconsin this year, especially with playing Notre Dame at home.
As for the Irish, they must travel to play Navy in San Diego the week before. Then they’ll travel cross-country to play one of the most physical teams in the country in their house. That’s after playing the Midshipmen, who aren’t exactly stacked with talent but can leave a team with plenty of marks.
Northwestern is still well-built along the defensive front-seven. Jordan Thompson up the middle is especially a handful. It’s easy to see this game turning into a methodical tussle for field-position.
The Irish have more offensive punch, but there’s no telling where the Navy game will leave them. Anticipating a huge matchup at home against FSU the following Saturday could also make their focus waver.
Altogether, this is the definition of a “trap game”.
The Wildcats always seem to have that one impressive upset every year. Notre Dame in 2014, Stanford in 2015, nearly Ohio State in 2016, and Michigan State in 2017.
Notre Dame looks like the target that makes the most sense for this season.
FPI: Notre Dame 77.8%
Last season, Boise State took its time gaining breathing room against the Troy Trojans.
On the blue turf in Idaho, the Broncos used an 81-yard punt return and a Troy fumble into their end zone to pull off a 24-13 victory.
But now Boise State is traveling to Troy opening week. The Trojans know what to expect from the Broncos and have improved considerably since that opening game last season. This included wins against LSU, Arkansas State, and North Texas for the Sun Belt title.
Boise State has been getting the hype as the best Group of Five team in the nation. That could be the case with 16 returning starters to an 11-win team.
But Troy is being undervalued at several different positions and are still a major contender in the Sun Belt.
Once again, the pundits are focused on what Troy has lost. But that didn’t mean much last year, especially on defense, when they were playing without five of their top seven 2016 tacklers. They responded with a top-25 defense and an 11-win season in 2017.
And they shouldn’t take much of a dip in 2018, with four of their top seven tacklers back. They could have issues at quarterback early, but a sturdy and experienced offensive line should keep Kaleb Barker upright.
Once again, this will be a low-scoring game despite the Broncos continuity on offense. They needed a big defensive play and another on special teams to put them over-the-top last season.
The crowd will be behind Troy and all the pressure on Boise State to live up to enormous hype. This is a sneaky early contest with the focus more on Boise State’s perfect aspirations rather than the game itself.
This is what Troy is banking on.
FPI: Boise State 80%
Chip Kelly will soon have the UCLA Bruins’ offense firing on all cylinders and competing for Pac-12 championships. Just don’t expect that to be the result during the first month of his tenure.
UCLA is playing Fresno State at home. But the Bulldogs are probably the most unassumingly good team in college football. They flew far under the radar last season yet came away with 10 wins. They lost by three in the Mountain West Championship to a Boise State team they’d already beaten.
So the fact the Bruins come in as major favorites is probably a product of their coach and recent recruiting classes. But their development has been slow, and with a new coach and quarterback, they need time to settle in.
The Bruins will also be coming back from Oklahoma, where they’re likely to get kicked around by the Sooners.
The growing pains and bruises for this young team won’t get any reprieve against last year’s 10th-ranked scoring defense. And Fresno brings back seven of the starters from that unit. Most of them are in the secondary, making things extra tough for true freshman QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson.
The Bruins are changing schemes on both sides of the ball, and much of their defensive woes won’t easily go away in September. They gave up the most single-season rush yards in school history last season and finished 122nd in the nation overall.
The Bulldogs have all their major weapons back on offense, including an established quarterback in Marcus McMaryion. They should be a top MWC team at QB, WR, and OL.
But they may only have to be decent to get past this Bruins D.
FPI: UCLA 75.4%
For all the criticism distributed to coach Ed Orgeron at LSU, he still managed to win nine games last year. But that won’t be the case this year.
Despite LSU’s continued success at defensive back and potential at linebacker, it won’t save them. Having the highest-paid defensive coordinator (Dave Aranda) and seven returning starters from last year’s 12th-ranked defense won’t either.
That’s because, even with Ohio State transfer Joe Burrow at quarterback, it’s going to be hard for them to put up points.
LSU won’t have any returning running backs with a college touchdown. They won’t possess great early-season synergy with a new QB and offensive scheme. Beyond that, there aren’t many weapons at receiver.
Coming off the body-blow of playing Auburn on the road, Louisiana Tech could find the Tigers licking their wounds.
After two easy games against South Alabama and Southern, Tech will get a bye before playing LSU. They couldn’t have asked for a better schedule placement.
LA Tech is also established across the offense.
They were a top-50 scoring team last year. That should only go up with the return of their starting QB, leading wideouts, and four of five top linemen.
If LSU can look unfocused at home against a team like Troy last year, the same could happen here.
The Bulldogs are slowly progressing on their defensive front. They may not push LSU around, but the lack of a run-game for the Tigers will give Tech a break. Burrow should have a nice game, but that won’t be enough.
With one of the more surprisingly balanced teams in Conference USA, Tech is catching the Tigers at the opportune time. They won’t be able to air it out all over the field on this defense, but coach Skip Holtz knows how to pick his spots.
FPI: LSU 85.7%
Last year’s Georgia-Florida game turned brutal quick, with the Bulldogs dominating all the way through. It was a change of story from what has been a series primarily owned by the Gators since 1990 (21-6 before 2017).
But the Gators were handed their biggest loss to Georgia since 1982 and have completely revamped the coaching staff since the embarrassing blowout. That won’t be enough to put Florida back in the win column against one of their greatest rivals, but it may be a part of a concoction that will do so.
Mullen likely won’t have the best quarterback for his offense this year if Feleipe Franks is the starter. But he’s made plenty of QB situations work and has a great track record of developing at the position.
Florida has the rushing attack to combat Georgia. They were missing that last year when RB and freshman sensation Malik Davis went down with a knee injury early in the game. Now he and Jordan Scarlett (suspension) are both back, giving the Gators a two-headed monster at the position.
Any considerable push by this offense will make this a game. The Bulldogs are still skilled all over their defense. But they’re considerably younger and facing not only an experienced line but one of the most underrated receiving corps in the country.
Georgia will be set whoever plays quarterback. But Florida will apply far more pressure than they did last year. The Bulldogs have a line that rarely will be pushed on their heels. But this may be one of a couple teams who can do it.
DeAndre Swift will be the difference for Georgia. If he can balance out the offense the way many think he will, this upset attempt could easily be squashed.
But Florida won’t be dominated through the air and have a better scheme to bring more pressure to the backfield. They have receivers who, if given opportunities, will surprise the country. And they’re stronger at running back and O-line than they have been in some time.
And by then, Mullen’s offense should be well-absorbed and clicking away. If they can take advantage of the experience in the back seven of UGA’s D, then they could pull off another big upset in this series.
FPI: Georgia 78.7%
ESPN’s FPI shouldn’t be the only indicator of what an upset could be. But the fact it gives Ohio State an 80.6% chance of winning this game is surprising in and of itself.
The Buckeyes will be playing what can almost be considered a true road game in Arlington, Texas versus TCU. The Horned Frogs campus is a half-hour drive west.
But not many experts are too high on TCU. They’d rather give Texas or West Virginia the dark horse talk in the Big 12. This is despite TCU being ready to add to its recent legacy on defense and plenty of talent at the offensive skill positions.
The only major concern for the Horned Frogs is how the offensive line will adapt to the most talented D-line north of Clemson. But Gary Patterson always seems to get the most out of his presumably weakest units.
His defense, which can be considered the Big 12’s best at each phase, could really give OSU QB Dwayne Haskins fits. The sophomore will have played Oregon State and Rutgers to that point. That won’t exactly prepare him for the onslaught he’ll face.
The Buckeyes do have RB J.K. Dobbins and a great receiving core to try and bail him out, but the right side of the line will be tested early and often.
Forcing Haskins to make big-time throws time and time again will be the key defensively. If they commit extra bodies to stop Dobbins, it’ll be up to the OSU QB to beat by far the best talent he’s ever faced.
A 24-21 sort of game should be expected. There won’t be much scoring on Nick Bosa and his Buckeye defensive mates either.
But I’ve seen Gary Patterson do this time and time again. He’s 5-1 against the Big 10 since taking over as the Frogs head coach. His team is best when expectations are dampened. And he has one of better defenses he’s had in his 18 years as head coach.
That’s saying something.
FPI: Ohio State 80.6%