Whether it's contenders in the SEC and Big Ten or the Pac-12's last remaining undefeated team, what has surprised our staff the most this season?
Every year, without fail, things in sports catch us by surprise. College football is no exception, and it usually only takes a few weeks to see the players, teams and coaches that are clearly outperforming (or falling short of) expectations. But not all surprises are created equal. So we asked our writers: who or what has been the biggest surprise of the season so far?
I have to say I’m the most surprised by how good LSU’s offense has been—not that it’s been good, but that it’s been this good. Right now, it’s the SEC’s best offense, averaging 563.5 yards per game, which is an almost unfathomable number in a league known for its defensive play, and for a team that hasn’t quite hit its offensive rhythm in years. Sure, that number is bound to decrease as conference play begins in earnest, but consider this: No SEC team since 1996 has averaged as many yards over the course of a season; the closest was when Texas A&M put up 558.5 yards per game in 2012 with Johnny Manziel at quarterback. Even if the Tigers fall off a bit, to, say, an average of 500 yards per game, that will still put them as one of the 15 most productive SEC offenses of the past 20 years.
Wisconsin is determined not to change its identity. There is a reason why it is headed toward its fifth double-digit victory total in the past six years. It will run the ball with Heisman contender Jonathan Taylor until you stop it and play good defense. That’s it. Nothing fancy. Why change something when it works so well? The Badgers haven’t needed Jack Coan (77%, 690 yards, 5 TDs, 0 INT) to win games, and they might not need to until they have a stretch of playing Michigan State, Ohio State and Iowa later this season. On average per game, Wisconsin runs it 20 more times than it throws it, and it helps that it doesn’t make mistakes, as it is among the nation’s leaders in turnover margin. People shouldn’t be surprised if Wisconsin is battling for a playoff spot at season’s end.
LSU's offense. As a former LSU local beat reporter, I can attest that each offseason for the last six some-odd years, we've heard of LSU's plans to overhaul an archaic run-heavy scheme and modernize to the spread. We heard it again this offseason, with reports from spring practice emerging about a no-huddle, shotgun-based scheme. Finally, the Tigers have delivered in stunning fashion. Few expected such an offensive overhaul like this.
Jalen Hurts’s complete and utter dominance. When Hurts transferred to Oklahoma, I think most people figured he’d do well there. Seeing how Lincoln Riley tutored Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray, you had to think Riley would be able to develop Jalen Hurts, too. But I wasn’t expecting this. Hurts looks like one of the best, if not the best, players in college football. Through three games, he’s averaging 417 yards of total offense and four touchdowns a game. For comparison, in his best year at Alabama, he averaged 249 total yards and 2.4 touchdowns a game.
Hurts had always been a dynamic runner, and he’s continued to showcase his speed. But at Oklahoma, he appears to have made great strides as a passer, too. He’s completing 80% of his passes right now and has thrown nine touchdowns and zero interceptions. Many times, his receivers are running wide open, but Hurts is executing Riley’s scheme to perfection.
Who could have predicted that four weeks into the season, the only undefeated team in the Pac-12 would be…Cal? The 4–0 Golden Bears, up eight spots in the AP Poll this week to No. 15, are still very much alive in the College Football Playoff picture. They’ve had some especially impressive road wins so far, knocking off reigning conference champ Washington and later going into SEC territory and beating up on Ole Miss. We knew about Justin Wilcox’s defense, but the offense is clicking, too. Sophomore quarterback Chase Garbers threw for 357 yards and four touchdowns against the Rebels, and also led a game-winning drive to beat the Huskies by one point. The Bears still have to play three top-25 teams, including Oregon and Utah on the road, but right now they’re looking like the contender no one saw coming.
I feel duped by Texas A&M. The Aggies entered 2019 following nine wins and a dominant win over NC State in the Gator Bowl, raising expectations for year two of the Jimbo Fisher-Kellen Mond era. Texas A&M's junior QB threw for 3,107 yards and 24 touchdowns last season with just nine interceptions. Mond's potential progression could have slotted the Aggies as the second-best team in the SEC West.
Texas A&M is more of a middling SEC team through Week 4 than a conference power. The Aggie offense stalled at Clemson in Week 2, and Saturday's loss to Auburn was discouraging. Jimbo Fisher's roster was the class of the ACC at Florida State. The Aggies' talent isn't atop the SEC, and currently, it isn't all that close. Texas A&M's move to the SEC should pay off at some point in the next decade. 2019 is unlikely to be a year to remember.
I’ll go with an under-the-radar pick: SMU. The Mustangs went 5–7 in Sonny Dykes’s first full season as head coach, and scored at least 30 points four times. SMU has scored at least 37 points in all four games this season, with the most recent being a 41–38 road win over No. 25 TCU. In fact, this is the first time that SMU has started 4–0 in 36 years. Texas transfer Shane Buechele has looked sharp thus far, as his 8.8 YPA is the same as his former teammate Sam Ehlinger down in Austin. A tough road game at Memphis looms, but without UCF on the schedule, SMU is a threat to contend in the AAC.