September Football: Upset City!
by Jim Feist
There’s a reason they play the games. Teams don’t always play the way stats and power rankings suggest they are supposed to. The NFL dogs barked loudly Sunday, 10-3 against the spread with six straight up winners. That’s often evident early in the pro and college football seasons because some teams are very different from year to year. Baylor scheduled Liberty to get this season off to a winning start…and as a 33-point favorite got upset, 48-45.
UNLV, off all teams, was a 45-point favorite over Howard…then played like Moe Howard in a stunning 43-40 defeat. While the point spreads attached were shocking, upsets this time of the season are nothing new. Last season Arkansas squeaked by La Tech, 21-20, as a 21-piont favorite. Back in 2012 the same Razorbacks were No. 8 in the nation and a 30-point favorite, but lost to UL Monroe, 34-31.
September is a fascinating time for handicappers to follow college football partly because of surprises. Six years ago Oklahoma was anticipated by many to return to the national title game, but couldn’t even get a win in Week 1, losing as a 23-point favorite to BYU, 14-13. Wasn’t it just a few years ago the Sooners were upset by TCU as a 24-point favorite? Yes, and that took place in September, too.
The 2009 upset was because of an injury to QB Sam Bradford and the previous upset was because of a lack of quarterback experience as well as an underrated TCU defense. That’s the thing with early season football: Injuries can mar the best laid championship plans, while team weaknesses can get exposed and taken advantage of by opposing coaches.
Sometimes teams are simply better than anticipated, such as Houston a year ago, beating Oklahoma in September, 33-23, as a 2-TD dog. It’s also important not to read too much into major surprises, either, providing there are not significant injuries to key players. Sometimes a team pulls a huge upset not so much because it is so much more improved, but because the opponent is overvalued.
When you see a team that struggles to score as a significant favorite, be careful. This was the case with TCU back in 2005, which dominated Oklahoma, then went out the next week and lost to SMU, 21-10 as a 13½ point favorite. Were the SMU Mustangs that much improved? No, as the next week SMU lost 66-8 at Texas A&M.
Early season football also features significant shifts and changes, not only because of injuries but because of ineffective play. In the NFL, the Miami Dolphins have already lost their starting quarterbacks, while the Bills, Colts, 49ers, Jets and Rams are all dealing with either injured QBs or weak signal caller play.
Coaches select new starters based on scrimmages before the season, but there is a huge difference between practice and real-game situations. Subtle things reveal themselves in games, such as leadership, decision-making, performance and even pressure. Some players, quarterbacks in particular, have weaknesses in those areas that don’t fully reveal themselves until game-day competition. As a result, that can throw off preseason prognostications of fans, media and the team’s coaching staff.
A great example was Tennessee nine seasons ago. Expectations were high for the Volunteers with a lot of returning talent. But QB Jonathan Crompton and a new offensive coordinator never were able to get things rolling and it was a disastrous season. Expectations are one thing, but that doesn’t mean things will turn out that way. Just as USC QB Sam Darnold. With high Heisman expectations he threw no TDs and 2 picks in the opener against Western Michigan, a 34-point dog that was tied with the Trojans 21-21 in the fourth.
Speaking of USC, a big early upset a few years ago was USC losing at Washington in a 16-13 stunner that sent shockwaves through the Top 10. Washington had just ended a 15-game losing streak that month and had a 56-0 loss to the Trojans the previous season. The difference? It was not the same Washington team. QB Jake Locker missed most of that season, plus the Huskies had a new playbook and attitude under Coach Steve Sarkasian – the former USC offensive coordinator.
Understand that preseason expectations are not set in stone, and don’t overvalue teams simply based on one impressive game. Handicappers know that big dogs often bark in September, but that doesn’t mean they will continue to bark the rest of the season.
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