Teams are capable of defying statistics
September 19, 2017 3:00 AM
by Jim Feist
There’s a reason they play the games. Teams don’t always play the way stats and power rankings suggest they should.
That’s often evident early in the pro and college football seasons because some teams are very different from year to year. In Week 1 of the NFL season a season ago, it was a Super Bowl rematch between the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos.
The offense wasn’t that sharp (again) as the great defense of Denver pulled the upset behind a kid quarterback, Brock Osweiler, whose only previous NFL regular season action was taking a knee. Denver won 21-20 despite scoring just 7 points in the first three quarters. The defenses were way ahead of the offenses, with a combined 5 sacks and 3 picks.
September is a fascinating time for handicappers to follow college football partly because of surprises. Last September, Oklahoma went down against Houston, Texas upset Notre Dame and Wisconsin surprised LSU. And there were some near-shockers, with Appalachian State taking Tennessee to overtime, eventual champion Clemson squeezing by Troy (30-24) and Nichols State giving the Georgia Bulldogs a game, 26-24.
A few 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. The same Sooners that were upset by TCU as a 24-point favorite, which also took place in September.
The upset was because Oklahoma had 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.
It’s also important not to read too much into major surprises either, providing there are no significant injuries to key players. Sometimes a team pulls a huge upset not so much because it is so much more improved, but that the opponent is overvalued. One season Duke won at Boston College as a +7 dog, but the Eagles were terrible offensively with QB problems that stretched back two years.
When you see a team that can’t score as a significant favorite, be careful. This was the case two years ago when Washington State opened with a defeat to Portland State, only to finish the season 9-4 SU, 10-2 against the spread.
Early season football also features significant shifts and changes, not only because of injuries but ineffective play. Will we see much from NFL QBs Mitch Trubisky with Chicago? And just who is a capable quarterback to run the show with the 49ers or Jets? The coaching staff isn’t even sure and needs to find out in September, which means those QBs may be on the bench by December – or even October!
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 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, getting several key players back from injury along with a new coach.
Maybe this will cheer up Oklahoma and LSU fans: Four years ago Auburn was 200-to-1 to win the national title in mid-September, then got to the title game, taking Florida State to the wire. 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 do so the rest of the season.