All college football fans know preseason evaluations and rankings are shaky at best. Just ask Auburn fans about what the narrative of the Tigers was going into last season. Almost as unreliable as preseason prognostications are early season results, when a small sample size, often against weak competition, can inflate even the most mediocre of teams and fill their supporters with false hope.
The tricky part, of course, is to separate the surprise teams can actually back up their early season successes from the ones that are destined to fall back to earth. SI.com's Zac Ellis, Martin Rickman and Ben Glicksman weigh in on which teams can actually back up their hot starts and which will soon fade.
Zac Ellis: We're less than a month into the college football season, which is usually when folks start wondering which teams are, you know, actually good. Does a good start matter much at this juncture? Last season there were several examples of hot starts that ultimately meant very little on a national scale. Take Northwestern, for example, which shot out of the gate with a 4-0 record before losing seven straight games in 2013. Miami dropped four of its last six games following an unblemished 7-0 start last year, too. This season Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Nebraska and BYU are among the surprise unbeatens so far.
Martin, I'll begin with you -- who sticks out so far among the country's surprise teams, and why?
Martin Rickman: I've got to say I'm most surprised by Arkansas so far. This is a team that went 0-8 in the SEC last year and suddenly looks competent and confident. It was puzzling to see Bret Bielema struggle so mightily last year after his success at Wisconsin, and in the now pass-happy SEC, it's fun to have a team run the ball 12 times and smash it in the end zone. Coaches are having a tough time scheming for those teams that line it up and dare you to get into their backfield or plug the gaps, so the Razorbacks zigging while others zag is refreshing.
I'm not saying this is a team that's going to compete in the SEC West or anything, but they're dangerous again and that's enough for me. Beat a couple teams you shouldn't, make a bowl game, pile up the rushing yards and go into next season with momentum. The SEC is better off when Arkansas is competitive.
What about you, Ben? Any teams standing out on your radar, good or bad?
Ben Glicksman: Arkansas is a good one. It has already lost to Auburn, but it is going to beat one of the top teams remaining on its slate. The Razorbacks play Texas A&M, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi State, LSU and Ole Miss before season’s end. They’re going to win one or two of those, even if I can’t identify which ones.
As for the surprise unbeatens, I like to break them into three categories. They are (among Power Five teams that didn’t start the season in the Top 25):
- Fun while it lasts: NC State, Utah
- Too early to tell: TCU, Georgia Tech, Oregon State, Arizona
- Don’t look now: Duke, Penn State, Mississippi State
Of those, the Blue Devils seem the most primed to sustain their success. They’re the defending ACC Coastal champs and avoid playing Florida State, Clemson Notre Dame and Louisville. In fact, Duke may be the division favorite. Welcome to 2014.
• JOHNSON: Can Duke sustain recent recruiting success long-term?
There’s also BYU, which has Taysom Hill and is rolling through opponents with all the unbridled rage that comes with being sworn off by basically every major league’s new scheduling philosophy. The Cougars show no signs of slowing down.
So, Zac, how does that breakdown look to you?
Ellis: A couple of things stick out to me from that list. First, I'm totally on the BYU bandwagon. That's mostly because Taysom Hill is fun to watch, but the defense is also quietly efficient and allowing only 18.8 points per game. That's 25th in the country. Also, I'd enjoy watching the controversy if the Cougars won all their games. The schedule is pretty forgiving from here on out. Can you imagine BYU jumping into the playoff debate? And I think the Cougars have the firepower to do it, though they won't get in.
Georgia Tech is another intriguing case for me. The Yellow Jackets barely snuck past Georgia Southern at home before traveling to Blacksburg the next week and topping Virginia Tech. The last time Paul Johnson's team started this hot was 2011, but that Georgia Tech squad turned a 6-0 start into an 8-5 season. Johnson's won seven games in each of his two seasons since. There just doesn't feel like a lot of positivity coming out of this program -- Johnson was even rumored to be unhappy at Tech last winter. Due to recent history, I'm almost tempted to bump the Jackets down to "fun while it lasts."
Ben, you mentioned Penn State. What are the chances James Franklin makes the Nittany Lions the surprise of the Big Ten?
Glicksman: Given the state of the Big Ten, I’d say odds are good. Ohio State is down. Michigan is mess. Penn State’s next opponent, Northwestern, has yet to fully recover from its program-altering loss to the Buckeyes last October.
James Franklin has a future NFL quarterback in Christian Hackenberg. He has big-time offensive playmakers in Geno Lewis, DaeSean Hamilton and Jesse James. And he has a team energized by the newfound knowledge that it’s bowl eligible, a development that still probably hasn’t set in yet. I think Penn State will enter its season finale against Michigan State on Nov. 29 with a chance to win the East Division, something that didn’t seem possible -- from a talent or NCAA sanctions standpoint -- just a few weeks ago.
Turning back to you, Martin, which teams that started hot are ready to drop off?
Rickman: My pick for a team that's ready to cool down is Washington. I don't know if you can call it a "hot start," but 4-0 is 4-0, and the wins still count. The Huskies have looked extremely vulnerable in the early going of the season against teams that aren't exactly world beaters. It's a testament to new coach Chris Petersen that Washington has been able to win these games in the first place and avoid an embarrassing loss, but the Huskies draw Stanford on Saturday, get a bye, then play at a suddenly reinvigorated Cal team, at Oregon and return home to play Arizona State. That's a tough enough stretch for a dominant team, much less one that struggled to beat Hawaii.
Zac, do you have any teams that are a mirage right now and will disappoint their fans later on down the road?
Ellis: I'll go with another Pac-12 team, Arizona. The Wildcats' last-second win over Cal last Saturday was wild, but it was also the third straight close call for RichRod's crew. In two weeks they play at Oregon on a Thursday night before facing USC, Washington State and UCLA in a row. With the way the Cougars' played Oregon last week, even that's not a given victory, though Arizona quarterback Anu Solomon has looked legit. The Wildcats could easily be 4-4 in another month. But who really knows? The Pac-12 has looked pretty deep so far this season.