College Football's Eight Unexpected Division Leaders, and the Odds They Keep This Up

No one saw Northwestern, Virginia or Kentucky controlling their respective destinies in August, but these surprise teams have hung around long enough to force us to consider the toughest and easiest roads to their conference title games.
Publish date:

Eleven teams that entered Week 9 in the AP Top 25 lost, which has put a new spotlight on several programs that weren’t on anyone’s radar in August but have since quietly put together solid seasons. Kentucky, Northwestern, Virginia and Washington State all sit atop their respective Power 5 divisions entering November, which no one saw coming. The Group of Five also has a few surprising league leaders with a month left to play.

Below, we examine the teams turning heads atop the standings and their chances of actually making it to their conference championship games. With a month left in the season, expect at least some of these teams to keep this up, but exactly who is anyone’s guess.


Preseason SEC East prediction: 5th
Chances of reaching conference title game: Zero

Well, the Wildcats’ chances are technically 50–50, since the SEC East title will be decided when Georgia visits Lexington on Saturday. Anyone who has seen Kentucky’s last three games knows it has no margin for error. Even with a stout defense, a passing game that averages 148.1 yards per game—barely better than the service academics—isn’t a great recipe for success. Kentucky has relied on running back Benny Snell, who sits seventh in the nation with 935 rushing yards but has been held in check in two of his last three games. The Wildcats will need a herculean effort from Snell if they want any chance at their first conference title game trip. Otherwise, Georgia just has too much talent.


Preseason AAC East prediction: 3rd
Chances of reaching conference title game: Slim

Temple has bounced back nicely from its season-opening defeat to Villanova, but in the next three weeks, the Owls play the heavy hitters of the AAC—UCF, Houston and South Florida. Their defense is good enough to throw those conference contenders out of rhythm, but if they can get through that gauntlet and potentially beat Houston a second time in the AAC title game, they will have a strong case for the Group of Five’s spot in the New Year’s Six bowls even with the three losses already to their name.


Preseason ACC Coastal prediction: 7th
Chances of reaching conference title game: Decent

It feels like the Cavaliers have risen up to the top of the Coastal by default, capitalizing on Miami’s inconsistency to kick off a 3–0 run against their division foes, with Pittsburgh, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech left on the conference slate.

Virginia has a dual-threat quarterback in Bryce Perkins, a reliable workhouse back in Jordan Ellis (683 yards, 7 touchdowns) and a top 20 scoring defense, a bend-but-don’t-break unit that has kept games close when the offense is not clicking. With three distinct tests standing in their way, the Cavaliers need to get better in the red zone, where less than half of their trips have ended in touchdowns this year.


Preseason Big Ten West prediction: 3rd
Chances of reaching conference title game: Better than most

Winners of four straight games, Northwestern’s penchant for blowing leads seems to be a thing of the past, a development that would come at the ideal time with road games at Iowa and Minnesota coming up. Remember, this is a team that lost to Akron at home and went down to the wire against pitiful Rutgers and Nebraska, then somehow handled Michigan State and Wisconsin with relative ease. The Wildcats have a running game that’s only better than Florida State and San Jose State (and a putrid 2.6 yards per carry average), but it has improved of late under freshman Isaiah Bowser, who has 225 yards rushing and three touchdowns in wins over Rutgers and Wisconsin. Northwestern’s chances of a Big Ten title game appearance rest on the arm of quarterback Clayton Thorson, who has thrown 10 touchdowns and 10 interceptions through eight games.

Utah State

Preseason MWC Mountain prediction: 4th
Chances of reaching conference title game: Book it

Anyone who hasn’t watched Utah State since it put a scare into Michigan State on the first Friday night of the season is missing out. All coach Matt Wells has done since is put the Aggies in a position to make a run at a New Year’s Six bowl. Utah State has scored 60 or more points three times this season, and is doing it with deadly efficiency: 17 scoring drives have lasted one minute or less. The defense only allows a 35% conversion rate on opponents’ third-down chances and leads the nation in forcing three-and-outs with more than six per game. The season-ending trip to Boise State should double as the Mountain Division title game, and the Broncos have not looked as formidable as they have been in recent years.

Washington State

Preseason Pac-12 North prediction: 5th
Chances of reaching conference title game: Decent

Mike Leach has again found a way to overcome offseason pessimism and overachieve in Pullman. Grad transfer quarterback Gardner Minshew, who leads the NCAA in completions per game, passing yards, passing yards per game and total offense, has plugged in immediately with thrilling results. The Cougars’ high-flying style can get them through the mediocre Pac-12 peloton, but the season finale against Washington, which has owned the Apple Cup of late, looms large.

Georgia Southern

Preseason Sun Belt East prediction: 4th
Chances of reaching conference title game: Solid but not spectacular

Since head coach Chad Lunsford took the reins in November 2017, Georgia Southern has only lost twice and sits 7–1 and 4–0 in the Sun Belt, led by the steady play of quarterback Shai Werts, who ran for 129 yards in an upset victory over Appalachian State last week.

You know exactly what Georgia Southern is going to do, and you still can’t stop it. Facing the Eagles’ option attack is scary enough, but they have avoided the mistakes associated with teams that run their offense, fumbling only three times so far. Georgia Southern leads the nation with a plus-19 turnover ratio. Last season, they had a turnover margin of zero and went 2–10. The East Division co-leader Troy comes to down in two weeks for a game that should settle who plays for a conference title.


Preseason C-USA East prediction: 3rd
Chances of reaching conference title game: Excellent

What Butch Davis is doing in his second stint in South Florida (he coached the Miami Hurricanes from 1995 to 2000) shouldn’t be surprising. His recruiting skills are helping the Golden Panthers win battles in the talent-rich state and now in his second season, has made his team bowl eligible for the second straight season.

Quarterback James Morgan has been outstanding, leading Conference USA in passing efficiency and yards per pass attempt through Week 9. Morgan has completed 65.2% of his passes with 19 touchdowns and only four interceptions and has multiple touchdown passes in seven straight games. The schedule sets up well for FIU, as their two toughest remaining opponents (Florida Atlantic this weekend and Marshall on Nov. 24) have to travel to Miami.