We never can be certain about what’s going to happen in a given college football season, and it doesn’t take long for some predictions to be wrong.
Sure, there are seemingly obvious happenings with preseason favorites winning early on, but many projections haven’t come true. Although the first thought is these will be negative developments, this can be positive, too. This list includes both single-game and opening-month reactions.
Clemson isn’t messing around
Even though most projections didn’t have Clemson in the College Football Playoff, a healthy chunk of bowl predictions placed Dabo Swinney’s team in a New Year’s Six game. That would’ve been a quality season for the reloading Tigers, but they’ve proved that’s the floor of the 2017 squad. Clemson absolutely dominated top competition in September, bouncing No. 13 Auburn, No. 14 Louisville and No. 12 Virginia Tech to become the first team in FBS history to defeat three Top 15 opponents before October arrived. Two of those three were road wins, too. The Tigers aren’t quite a lock for the CFP, but this group showed it is capable of a repeat title.
Troy went to Baton Rouge and beat LSU
Troy is a good team. The Trojans might even win the Sun Belt this season. But this is a matchup LSU should never, ever lose. Nevertheless, Neal Brown’s crew pulled off a stunner during the SEC school’s homecoming weekend, providing the Sun Belt school a $985,000 check in the process. Troy forced a fumble on the first offensive snap of the contest, steadily pulled ahead 17-0 and held off a fourth-quarter charge from the Tigers. The victory ended a 49-game winning streak for LSU at home against nonconference opponents and dropped the Bayou Bengals to 3-2 on the year. The “safe” hire of Ed Orgeron is looking pretty dangerous.
Bryce Love’s breakout year is nearing historic levels
If you search “college football breakout players,” the odds are pretty good Bryce Love made the cut. He did on ours, too. But nobody could’ve anticipated this. Through five games, Love has rushed for 1,088 yards. According to ESPN Stats & Info, that’s the fourth-highest total during that span in FBS history. It should come as no surprise Love is dwarfing the nation in explosive plays. He’s rattled off 18 gains of 20-plus yards — 11 more than the second-highest mark — and nine of 40-plus yards. Stanford has dropped two games, but Love is shredding everyone.
Florida’s miracle win over Tennessee
If you like aesthetically pleasing football, this SEC clash was not for you. Florida and Tennessee combined for six turnovers — including a lost fumble on a 74-yard run that skittered through the back of the end zone and cost the Gators a touchdown — and 15 penalties. To cap it off, Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks launched a 63-yard prayer as time expired. For whatever reason, Tennessee worried about underneath routes and left a safety in single coverage with Tyrie Cleveland. And it did not work out. Well, it did for the Gators, who celebrated the miraculous win over their rival.
USC keeps living dangerously
The preseason hype wasn’t USC’s fault, but the Trojans aren’t playing like a dominant team. Clay Helton’s squad has found itself in a fourth-quarter struggle during every game except for one — Stanford, which might end the season as USC’s toughest regular-season opponent, ironically enough. Western Michigan, Texas and Cal couldn’t pull off the upset, but Washington State outplayed the Trojans and capitalized on a late opportunity. Although the Pac-12 title and College Football Playoff dreams are still alive, USC no longer has a margin for error during the final two months of the season.
Oklahoma throttled Ohio State in Columbus
Baker Mayfield shouldn’t have been forced to apologize for planting an Oklahoma flag at midfield following the 31-16 triumph at Ohio State. He and the Sooners truly owned Ohio Stadium that night. Mayfield threw for 363 yards and three touchdowns, helping OU outgain the Buckeyes 490-350. The final score would’ve looked even more lopsided had the Sooners’ first four drives not ended in a turnover on downs, two fumbles on Ohio State’s side of the field and a missed field goal. The CFP committee might not ultimately need convincing to pick Oklahoma for the four-team tournament anyway, but nonconference wins don’t get much bigger than that.
Washington State actually pulled off an upset in Pullman
Entering the showdown with USC, Washington State was 4-16 against ranked teams during the Mike Leach era. How could that be any more disappointing? In addition to the measly .211 winning percentage, the Cougars’ only victory at home opposite a Top 25 happened during a 3-9 campaign in 2012. But when the fifth-ranked Trojans traveled to Pullman in Week 5, Wazzu deserved every bit of the 30-27 triumph. The Cougs outplayed the championship contenders and the crowd at Martin Stadium celebrated like it was Woodstock — except everybody had their clothes on.
Georgia’s defense is wrecking everything
Even when the starting quarterback is hurt, winning tends to be easier when the defense never concedes 20 points. Georgia snatched a 20-19 victory at Notre Dame while surrendering just 3.4 yards per snap. The Bulldogs also silenced the hype around Mississippi State — which had just smashed LSU — in a 31-3 dismantling and blanked Tennessee 41-0. Few defenses looked more impressive than Georgia’s unit during September. Head coach Kirby Smart has an interesting decision to make at quarterback with Jake Fromm and now-healthy Jacob Eason, but the defense’s performance lessens the pressure of getting that choice correct immediately.
The level of Saquon Barkley’s production
Given the projections Saquon Barkley would be an All-American and Heisman Trophy candidate, his excellence is by no means a surprise. However, the junior has elevated his production to a special level. Through five games, Barkley has posted 243.6 all-purpose yards per game. For comparison’s sake, Christian McCaffrey averaged 276.0 yards during a 2015 season where he shattered school and national records. Barkley’s “worst” performance to date is a 183-yard, two-touchdown display at Pitt. The versatile back, who an NFL scout said is already better than Ezekiel Elliott, is cruising toward an invitation to New York for the Heisman ceremony.
Florida State falling out of national contention
This point absolutely is based on the unpredictability of Deondre Francois’ injury. When he crumpled to the ground in the loss to Alabama, the worst-case scenario of Florida State’s season happened. As a result, the idea that the Seminoles are no longer a national contender is not shocking. That it happened, however, will remain that way. Francois could help FSU overcome its struggles along the offensive line thanks to his knowledge of the system and excellent mobility. Without him, the 1-2 ‘Noles have already fallen to North Carolina State and could drop games to Miami, Louisville and Clemson, if not more.
TCU upsetting Oklahoma State
According to OddsShark, Oklahoma State closed as a 9.5-point favorite over TCU. Considering the performance of Mason Rudolph and Co. in three blowout wins prior to the matchup, that seemed reasonable. But the Horned Frogs left Stillwater with a victory. They won the turnover battle 4-1, and the final interception — which came on a poorly executed trick play — helped Gary Patterson’s crew seal the upset. Although we didn’t race to buy TCU stock following the win, it was an impressive victory for a team projected to occupy the Big 12’s second tier in 2017.
Malik Zaire hasn’t been in Florida’s plans
The longer Notre Dame grad transfer Malik Zaire waited to enroll, the less likely it seemed he would surge into the starting lineup. One appearance in Florida’s first four games, though? Not even a short-yardage or red-zone role? That was unexpected. Franks, a redshirt freshman, has consistently struggled to this point. And when Jim McElwain picked a new starter for Vanderbilt, he went with Luke Del Rio, who’s been decent at best for the Gators. Granted, he’s now out for the season, so Zaire may impact Florida’s offense moving forward. But most of the college football world didn’t anticipate Zaire being relegated to the sideline through September.
San Diego State edging two Pac-12 teams
San Diego State traveled to Arizona State in Week 2 and hosted Stanford the following Saturday. Splitting the games would’ve been a commendable outcome for the Aztecs. Instead, they clipped both Pac-12 programs, beating Arizona State 30-20 and defeating Stanford 20-17. The first victory was foreseeable since SDSU was only a three-point underdog, per OddsShark, and the 2016 team knocked off Cal. But USC had embarrassed Stanford the week before. The Cardinal, so we thought, would be focused on bouncing back and out-physical the Aztecs. Instead, a new Group of Five favorite emerged.
Alabama’s offense is crushing everyone, too
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, Alabama’s defense is really good. Yes, water is wet, the sky is blue. But the offense, while consistently above-average under Nick Saban, is just hammering everything in sight. Among non-triple-option teams, the Crimson Tide rank No. 1 nationally with 315.6 rushing yards per game. Throw in Navy, Georgia Tech and Army, and Alabama is still fourth overall. Only Minnesota (2.3) has allowed fewer tackles per loss than the Tide (2.4) on average, and they haven’t committed a single turnover yet. The SEC Championship Game is Dec. 2.
The best AAC team isn’t USF right now
And it’s not Memphis, either. No, the most impressive American Athletic Conference team through September is Central Florida. Scott Frost helped the Knights forget a winless 2015 campaign during his debut, installing a new offense and riding a tough defense to six wins last season. This year, UCF — despite having a hurricane-affected schedule — has demolished a trio of opponents. The Knights trounced FIU 61-17, Maryland 38-10 and Memphis 40-13. Challenging games like Navy, SMU and USF remain on the slate, but it’s about time to start giving UCF some national attention.
Punters are still kicking to Dante Pettis
Dante Pettis entered the season with five career punt-return touchdowns. It’s not like the Washington standout was an unknown player and suddenly became a lethal playmaker. Nevertheless, each of Rutgers, Montana and Fresno State tried him — and Pettis had time. He weaved through them all once, and the touchdown against Fresno State moved the senior into a three-way tie for the all-time lead with eight punt-return scores. Colorado and Oregon State, wisely, haven’t given him a chance, but three of five opponents played with fire and got burnt. Don’t kick to Pettis.
Returning quarterback being Michigan’s early weakness
During the preseason, the most common negative talking point about Michigan was the amount of youth Jim Harbaugh’s team would be relying on this season. As it turns out, the less experienced players are carrying the Wolverines, since Wilton Speight struggled in a big way before getting crunched at Purdue and exiting the game. He mustered a 54.3 completion percentage with 581 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions in three-plus appearances. Last season, Speight steadily progressed until a shoulder injury ruined the rest of his year. The junior simply hasn’t regained that form. And if John O’Korn plays well while Speight recovers from his current injury, he might not get the starting job back.
Baylor still doesn’t have a win
Losses to Oklahoma and Kansas State are no big deal for Baylor, which wasn’t expected to contend for more than a bowl appearance in 2017. But as the season enters October, the Bears still have a goose-egg in the win column. They began the campaign with losses to Liberty — an FCS school — UTSA and Duke. At the absolute worst, we would’ve thought Baylor holds a 2-3 record. Yet the first year of the Matt Rhule era hasn’t proceeded anywhere close to plan, and the Bears are staring down an 0-8 start with Oklahoma State, West Virginia and Texas up next.