Don’t rely heavily on early upsets in football

Sep 29, 2009 5:06 PM
Feist Facts 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. That’s often evident early in the pro and college football seasons because some teams are very different from year to year. Look at a team like Michigan. The Wolverines stumbled badly last year with a very young team and a new coach bringing in a whole new offensive philosophy.

The Wolverines have been much better this season, even beating Notre Dame as an underdog. After struggling to score points in 2008, Michigan’s offense has been very productive, going over the total in back-to-back games against the Irish and Eastern Michigan.

September is a fascinating time for handicappers to follow college football partly because of surprises. We’ve already seen a bunch of surprises. 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.

This year’s upset was because of an injury to QB Sam Bradford combined with a dominating BYU defense. Four years ago it was because of a lack of quarterback experience as TCU stacked the line and held the Sooner running game to 2.7 yards per carry. 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.

It’s important not to read too much into major surprises, either. Sometimes a team pulls a huge upset not so much because it is so much more improved, but because the opponent is overvalued. 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. East Carolina, for instance, was expected to have a good offense for Skip Holtz, with so many returning starters, plus senior QB Patrick Pinkney (back for his sixth season, if you can believe that). Yet, the offense hasn’t been there yet. Watch teams like this closely, whether you are a fan or serious handicapper. They can begin to improve as things click, or the coaching staff can make adjustments for better or worse.

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 last season was Tennessee. 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. There have been many new changes for this season, but the Vols are still struggling offensively.

Of course, the biggest upset was USC losing at Washington in a 16-13 stunner that sent shockwaves through the Top 10. Washington just ended a 15-game losing streak this month that included a 56-0 loss to the Trojans last season. The difference? This is not the same Washington team from last year. Senior QB Jake Locker missed most of last season, plus the Huskies have a new playbook and attitude under Coach Steve Sarkasian.

Maybe the Trojans aren’t as good as last year or aren’t as good as August expectations, but it’s clear the team they were playing wasn’t as bad as anticipated, either. Maybe this will cheer up Oklahoma and USC fans: In 2003, LSU debuted at No. 12 in the first BCS standings and rallied to win the national title. 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.

Question? Comment? E-mail me at: Jim Fiest