Biggest Surprises, Disappointments 5 Weeks Into 2021

Welcome! If any of you read our blog last year, we constructed a post noting our top 10 surprises through the first few weeks of our sim, both positive ones, and negative ones. So we’re back to give it another go-around after 5 weeks in our 2021 simulation! Keep in mind, things can change quickly here, as sample sizes are still relatively small.

Surprises

Honorable Mentions: Clemson, NC State, Syracuse, North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Iowa State, Ohio State, Buffalo, Northern Illinois, Air Force, Arizona State, Coastal Carolina, Georgia State, Texas State

10. Memphis (5-0)

It’s no secret the Tigers lost a lot of talent from last year’s squad, which was already a team that had gotten much worse from the last 3-4 year stretch. But this team has defied expectations thus far. While there haven’t been any games they were huge underdogs in, they’ve beaten the teams they’ve supposed to handily, fended off a trendy upset bid from UTSA, and pulled off an upset win against Mississippi State. The offense is leading the way, averaging over 36 PPG. A challenging road trip to Tulsa looms next.

9. South Alabama (3-1)

First-year coach Kane Wommack scored a huge upset over Louisiana last week to put the Jags on this list. They started off the season with a dud against Southern Miss. However, they appear to be on a roll. They blew out Bowling Green on the road, a team they were supposed to play close with. They then dominated FCS Alcorn State before shocking the world in the conference opener. Could this team flirt with a bowl game?

8. Oklahoma State (5-0)

Expectations were mixed on this OSU team heading into 2021. All they’ve done is win thus far, led by an extremely impressive defense, holding opponents to under 11 PPG.  They’ve blown out Missouri State as expected, but then defeated Tulsa by more than expected too.  Follow that up with a trip to Boise that ended with a victory, and that’s no easy task.  They’ve outscored KSU and Baylor in their first two conference games 59-11, and those were supposed to be relatively close.  They’ll get a real test in Austin following the bye week.

7. Louisville (4-1)

Cardinal fans were pretty down on Scott Satterfield heading into this year, as the program looked to be in disarray, and his lack of leadership seemed to show.  However, he has silenced the doubters quite well thus far.  Despite a season-opening loss in Atlanta to Ole Miss, UL competed pretty well with the SEC foe.  A defeat of UCF is the headliner on this schedule so far.  Two road conference wins against Florida State and Wake carry a good bit of weight too.  Now, Louisville needs to adjust expectations to be the clear #2 in the Atlantic, and maybe challenge Clemson down the road.

6. Cincinnati (4-0)

It’s the topic every year it seems, and fans are hoping the miracle can finally cash in.  Can a G5 team have a route to the playoff?  Cincinnati is well on its way to making a case for itself.  Cincy is 4-0, but the two tough road wins, both in the state of Indiana, should carry a lot of weight come Selection Sunday.  The Bearcats dominated the Hoosiers, and squeaked one out against the Fighting Irish.  Add that to two dominant performances against lesser opponents to start off the year and UC looks every bit the part of a CFP contender.  But they need some AAC teams to step up their game to give them more quality wins, and for IU and ND to continue to win.  Regardless, Luke Fickell’s team is taking care of business thus far.

5. Texas (5-0)

Maybe I’m overrating Texas on this list.  Fine.  I’m just so used to seeing them not live up to any sorts of expectations they have heading into a season.  But in 2021, Steve Sarkisian is doing quite well in his first year in Austin.  They haven’t beaten any “great” teams.  However, they have a plethora of good wins on their schedule already, and most importantly, no blemishes.  With wins over Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas Tech, and TCU, they’re up to #12 in the country for good reason.  They have also looked even stronger as the season has gone on, most recently shutting down a dangerous TCU offense in Fort Worth.  Now they’ll get an even more lethal offense to try to slow down:  the rival Sooners.  We’ll see just how much staying power UT has.

4. North Texas (3-1)

We continue in the Lone Star state with the Mean Green of North Texas.  This program had fallen quite a bit over the last couple years.  It seems like ages ago that Seth Littrell was a strong candidate for P5 jobs.  He may be rectifying that as we speak, however, as he has his team playing very strong.  They dominated an FCS team early on, which should be heralded for UNT.  Then after a tough performance at SMU, they rattled off back-to-back wins in conference play over division favorite UAB, and on the road as an underdog against LA Tech.  This team was picked to lose those games heavily, but UNT has its eyes set on the division now.  We’ll see if they can play consistently moving forward.

3. Florida (5-0)

Yes, we knew the Gators would be good this year most likely.  But following the departure of Ka’Darious Toney, Kyle Pitts, and Kyle Trask, we did not think they would have the team they did last year.  Instead, the Gators are sitting at 5-0 and #4 in the country here in early October.  They dominated two in-state schools in FAU and USF early on, and then did the unthinkable by defeating Alabama in the Swamp.  It was an Alabama team with tons of new players, but I can’t overstate how important that win is in the grand scheme of things.  They avoided a letdown against Tennessee, and dominated Kentucky in Lexington after that.  They have Vandy this week, and it looks like UF will clinch bowl-eligibility in the minimum number of games.  But, can the Gators finally get to the playoff?  Their defense is as good as anyone’s.

2. Colorado (3-2)

My #2 most surprising team has two losses.  That’s okay, because the Buffs were competitive against two undefeated teams in Texas A&M and Arizona State.   I didn’t think they’d be anywhere close to those types of teams.  However, after a scare early on against NOCO, the Buffaloes somehow beat the Golden Gophers start to finish, in a game, not many gave them a shot in.  They then defended Folsom Field against the previously undefeated USC Trojans.  I can promise you, no one had them winning that game.  Karl Dorrell might have something cooking in Boulder.

1. Colorado State (3-1)

The Steve Addazio hire was questioned by many around Fort Collins when he came over following the departure of Mike Bobo.  The first year showed why, as CSU was pretty dreadful.  But 2021 has been a different story for the Rams.  They won by a field goal against South Dakota State to start off the campaign.  Keep in mind, SDSU may be the best FCS team in the country, so that close win should be applauded.  They then beat an SEC team.  Yes, it’s Vandy, but for CSU, that’s a huge upset win.  They laid an egg on the road against a solid Toledo team, which is forgivable in my book.  But then, they pulled off maybe the biggest upset of the season by going to Kinnick Stadium and knocking off the 16th ranked Hawkeyes.  I’m starting to buy in on the Rams.

Disappointments

Honorable Mentions: Navy, Boston College, Miami (FL), Iowa, Minnesota, Florida Atlantic, Old Dominion, Louisiana Tech, Bowling Green, Miami (OH), LSU

10. Illinois (2-4)

I understand this is Year 1 in Champaign for Bret Bielema.  However, this roster was senior-heavy.  While many people didn’t expect a good season for the Illini, many thought they would at least flirt with a bowl.  I can’t see that happening anymore, as the experience hasn’t proved to be worthwhile.  Illinois has been playing teams close, and even has an impressive win against an upstart UTSA.  But Illinois had an easy first half of their schedule, and now things get much more challenging.  I think they really needed another win or two in this stretch.

9. Western Kentucky (1-3)

WKU was expected to have a high-flying offense this year, and contend in the upper tier of Conference USA. Now I’m questioning if they can do so this year. After narrowly escaping lowly UT-Martin in the season debut, they got shut down by Army, and had no answer for the Black Knights. Granted Army is a good team, but I expected a better fight from the Tops. After a bye week, they dropped a home contest to Indiana, in OT which is nothing to be ashamed of, but followed it up with a shutout loss in East Lansing against MSU. I can tell you 1-3 is not where Tyson Helton expected his squad to be after a third of the regular season. Luckily, conference play is still ahead of them. But, they get a difficult UTSA coming to Bowling Green next week.

8. Indiana (2-3)

Let’s get this out of the way:  I don’t think Indiana is a bad team.  However, by the end of the year, they could very well have a bad record.  They have lost to three pretty good teams thus far, in Iowa, Cincinnati and Penn State.  They showed good fight in Happy Valley too.  But, after barely surviving the aforementioned WKU, I don’t see how this team can compete with the likes of OSU or Michigan down the road.  Maybe they’ll prove me wrong, and IU could most definitely go 7-5 or even 8-4, but that’s a tall task, and some of last year’s luck seems to be wearing off for Tom Allen.

7. Liberty (3-2)

After the Flames’ amazing 2020 season, and a boatload of returning talent, expectations were sky high in Lynchburg.  Hugh Freeze has gotten off to a dud of a start however this year.  They’ve blown out lowly Campbell and ODU, but were upset on the road at Troy.  Troy is improved, but with how explosive LU was supposed to be, you can’t lose that one.  Follow that up with a drubbing at ACC member Syracuse, a game the Flames were favored in, and Liberty already has more losses than they did in 2020.  They did bounce back with a shutout win at UAB (more on them later), but the offense still only mustered 12 points.  Freeze has got to figure it out quickly.  There’s too much talent here.

6. Texas Tech (2-3)

While Tech has given a decent Houston team its only loss this season, and shut out FCS Stephen F. Austin, the Red Raiders are on a three-game skid.  Matt Wells needs a bowl game to save his job this year, and things are spiraling out of control quickly.  As bad as that sounds, keep in mind one of those losses is to FIU!  Yes, somehow the lowly Panthers came into Lubbock and defeated the Red Raiders.  That spells a death sentence for Wells in an absolutely unacceptable loss.  They were crushed by Texas next in Austin, and then lost a two-score game in Morgantown.  A bowl isn’t totally out of the question, but the schedule is pretty tough the rest of the way, and that FIU loss is going to hurt them for a long, long time.

5. Stanford (1-4)

How far the Cardinal have fallen.  Save for a massive home upset over #17 UCLA by a single point, the Cardinal has been pretty dreadful in 2021.  Had they dropped the UCLA game, they may be #1 on this list.  They have played a couple teams close, but the offense is nowhere to be found, and everyone knows they can’t run the ball.  After losing to Kansas State close to start off the year, they were drilled by USC and then lost an overtime contest to Vanderbilt in Nashville.  Stanford should not be losing to Vandy considering they were in the Rose Bowl not too long ago.  They didn’t look awful against Oregon, but Stanford looks to be the team everyone might feast on in the Pac-12.  This could be a season with very few W’s for Stanford.

4. Mississippi State (1-4)

Mike Leach’s debut season in Starkville did not go very well.  Unfortunately for Bulldog fans, Year 2 looks to be even more of a rough start.  MSU fans had lots of optimism MSU could have a surprisingly solid year, and many pundits were high on them.  They look to be incorrect thus far.  After handily beating a fellow disappointment in Louisiana Tech in the opener, they have since dropped four in a row.  They haven’t been very competitive in SEC play against two ranked teams in LSU and A&M.  They also dropped non-con games in the Liberty Bowl to Memphis and at home to NC State.  None of those losses are bad by any means.  But with how high expectations are in Starkville, and given Mike Leach’s history with offense, only 25.6 PPG is not what everyone expected.  Things will most likely get worse before they get better, as Alabama comes to town after a bye.

3. Louisiana (3-2)

Speaking of high expectations, let’s talk about the Ragin’ Cajuns.  This team was expected to contend for a New Year’s Six berth for the G5.  That’s what the hype was around this program in the summer.  They started off #23 in the AP Poll for a reason.  Billy Napier was building something special in Lafayette, and I still think he is.  But, ULL has already fallen twice on their schedule, and to be frank, many Cajun fans were hoping for an undefeated season.  Losing by 14 to an impressive Texas team in Austin is no bad loss, even though many thought they’d play closer.  But losing in Mobile to the USA under a first-year coach is straight-up unacceptable for where this program has been the last few years.  They could very well run the table and have a great season, winning the Sun Belt.  However, things aren’t looking great right now, and I have little confidence they can play out the rest of their season without another loss or two.

2. UAB (1-4)

Bill Clark is one of the best coaches in America.  But he’s facing quite a bit of adversity at the moment.  UAB has built itself up as the premier program in the West division of Conference USA.  This season may end up being a down year though.  The Blazers opened a new stadium in downtown Birmingham.  But, that’s about all the good news we’ve seen surrounding this program.  They did beat down a good FCS team in Jacksonville State to start off the year.  However, they’re currently in a tailspin, dropping four straight.  They were absolutely obliterated by Georgia, but that’s an elite team that was angry following a loss.  However, they let that embarrassing performance affect the next one, losing the conference opener to a struggling program in North Texas.  Follow that up with a blowout loss at Tulane, a game many thought would be close and that put UAB at 1-3.  Last week, they opened up Protective Stadium, only to not show their fans a single point, losing 12-0 to Liberty team that also looks vulnerable.  They obviously have lots of room for improvement, but this is the worst this team’s looked in a long time.

1. Nevada (1-3)

I do think Nevada has a great chance to win their division still, as they only have one conference loss.  But similar to Louisiana, many thought this team could go on a run and potentially reach the New Year’s Six.  That’s not happening folks.  Nevada has faced three tough road tests against Cal, K-State, and Boise.  They’ve lost them all and weren’t close in any of them, especially the first two.  Lots of people picked the Pack to knock off 2 or even 3 of those teams.  But they have not been close.  While QB Carson Strong was receiving NFL draft hype prior to the season, that has all but faded, as the team’s only averaging 24 PPG, a total inflated by scoring 44 against a middle of the road FCS team in Idaho State.  Jay Norvell is a great recruiter, but I have not been impressed by his actual in-game coaching abilities.  He’ll have plenty of chances to turn it around, but 2021 has been awful to Nevada thus far.

-Scott

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