One of the best things about college football is how unpredictable it is. Nothing says reliable like a bunch of 18-to-22-year-olds, right? So as we get closer to the start of the 2021 season, our staff is looking ahead to how that unpredictability might play out.
This week’s staff picks takes a hard look at potential upsets for the fall, and there’s a common theme among the choices. Namely, they’re early-season games between Power Five teams and quality Group of Five opponents. Matchups play a big role in these picks, but so does timing. When you face an opponent oftentimes has much to do with an upset as the team itself. With those things in mind, here are our picks for some of the biggest upsets we could see this fall.
And just a warning, Texas fans: the start to the Steve Sarkisian era could be an ugly one.
Barrett Sallee: Louisiana over Texas (Sept. 4)
Sorry, Steve Sarkisian, your Texas tenure isn’t going to get off to a roaring start. The Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns — fresh off of a 10-1 season and a Sun Belt title — will roll into Austin and spring the upset in Week 1 of the college football season. Coach Billy Napier, who probably should be coaching a Power Five team at this point, has put together back-to-back double-digit win seasons, returns “super-senior” quarterback Levi Lewis, running back Chris Smith and a whopping 96% of its offensive production from last season’s squad. Meanwhile, Texas’ defense finished seventh in the Big 12 in total defense last year, sixth in scoring defense and has undergone a coaching transition. Yikes. Texas is going to have to score 40 to have a chance — and it won’t be able to do it.
First, let’s talk about the underdog because it’s important to acknowledge the Cardinals’ spot among its peers as one of the best teams in the MAC. The conference champions handed both Buffalo and San Jose State their only losses of the season. Of the 22 seniors off of last year’s team, 16 decided to take advantage of the NCAA’s opportunity for another year to run it back. That group of “Super Seniors” includes starting quarterback Drew Plitt, last year’s sack leader in Anthony Ekpe and the second, third and fourth-leading tacklers from 2020. This is a really good team, uniquely motivated to build on the success of a program-changing season.
Now let’s take a look at Penn State, which should see much better results from 2020 but faces a daunting start to the season with Wisconsin in Week 1 and Auburn in Week 3. The Week 2 opponent? Ball State coming to Happy Valley. At the end of the season, all three of those opponents could be in the top 25, and I think Penn State gets got in the sandwich spot.
Tom Fornelli: Arkansas over Texas (Sept. 11)
One of the things I look for when trying to identify potential upsets is an early-season game. Teams usually aren’t operating at 100% efficiency yet, and are more prone to the kind of stupid mistakes good teams often have to make to lose to teams they’re supposed to beat. I also look for advantageous spots in the schedule, and I think this could be one for an Arkansas team that was pretty feisty last season.
Under a new coach in Steve Sarkisian, Texas will have to open its season with a tough Louisiana team that has just about everybody back from a team that finished 10-1 last season. Arkansas gets to open the season with Rice. In other words, the Hogs get a more leisurely warmup while Sark and the Horns are in for a scrap. That could lead to Texas being ripe for an upset in Fayetteville.
By now, App State has established itself as a program not to be overlooked by the big boys of college football. Though we’re a long time removed from the stunner in Ann Arbor in 2007, the Mountaineers still manage to be a thorn for many Power Five programs bold enough to put them on the schedule. From time to time, App State even comes away with a notable win, the most recent being against North Carolina in 2019. So I fully believe Miami knows what it’s getting into when it hosts the Mountaineers in Week 2 — but it comes at an advantageous time. The Hurricanes will be down off of a Week 1 adrenaline rush against Alabama. App State is perfectly sandwiched between that game and a Sept. 18 home matchup against Michigan State for the ‘Canes. That’s a prime spot for a letdown.
But make no mistake: Appalachian State returns a quality team, perhaps one of the best in a pretty deep Sun Belt East division. Camerun Peoples, fresh off a record-breaking bowl performance, leads one of the conference’s best running back groups. Head coach Shawn Clark, a longtime OL coach, is ready and willing to slow things down, lean on the big uglies and make life hard for the Hurricanes. That should take the pressure off of App State’s new quarterback, perhaps veteran ACC guy Chase Brice, to make all the plays. Miami should be a fun team with QB D’Eriq King — assuming he’s fully recovered from his ACL injury — but App State is in a good position to pull the upset.
David Cobb: Army over Wisconsin (Oct. 16)
Army lost 24-21 at No. 7 Michigan in 2019 and 28-21 at No. 5 Oklahoma in 2018, so the Black Knights are due to pull a stunner. With Army coming off an open date prior to playing at Wisconsin on Oct. 16, the Badgers look like the perfect victim. Army’s option attack is a notorious challenge, and with the game crammed into a stretch of 10 games in 10 weeks for Wisconsin, the Badgers won’t have any extra time to prepare. Considering Wisconsin has no recent experience playing against a similar scheme, learning will have to be done on the fly, and that’s a recipe for disaster against an opponent that will be well-rested and hungry.
Army finished 9-3 last season and even rose into the AP poll at No. 22 early in the season. The Black Knights hung tight against Cincinnati and nearly knocked off West Virginia in the Liberty Bowl as the program continued to make strides under Jeff Monken. The next step is a marquee victory, and Oct. 16 looks like a great chance to check that box.