College Football: A Pair of Potential Week 1 Upsets
Legendary North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano famously described his NCAA basketball tournament strategy as “survive and advance.”
In college football, it is not just a playoff strategy. With a 12-game regular season, “survive and advance” is a season-long reality beginning in Week 1.
For Power 5 teams, a non-conference loss to start the season wouldn’t necessary eliminate them from College Football Playoff contention, but it would drastically reduce an already thin margin for error. Ohio State's loss to Virginia Tech in Week 2 of the 2014 season was ultimately just a stumbling block for the Buckeyes on their improbable run to the national title.
But consider this: no team in the BCS or playoff era has won the national championship with an opening week loss. Not one.
For Power 5 also-rans and Group of 5 upstarts, a playoff berth is the longest of shots. Even being in the debate would require a miraculous run, a la Jimmy Valvano's 1983 team.
But Week 1 presents a chance to make a statement toward a more modest set of prizes: a December bowl game or perhaps even a New Year’s Six bowl appearance. This is all to say that Week 1 matters. Unlike the NFL, you don’t get 15 more weeks to recover.
Here are two games where upsets are not just possible but could also simultaneously lift the hopes of one team while essentially killing the dreams of another.
Western Michigan at Northwestern
At first glance this Western Michigan-Northwestern matchup appears anything but sexy. But the Broncos are getting some buzz as a contender for the best Group of 5 team, which would land them in a New Year’s Six bowl game.
According to the composite preseason rankings of four key metrics’ systems -- (Brian Fremeau’s FEI, ESPN’s FPI, Bill Connelly’s S&P+, and Ed Feng’s The Power Rank) -- the Broncos are expected to be a top-60 team. And the gurus at the preseason magazines agree: their average ranking of Western Michigan is 57th.
While Northwestern spent much of last season ranked by the human polls in the top 25, the numbers-based systems consistently flagged that the Wildcats were among the most overranked teams in all of football. That would also explain why the metrics’ systems average preseason ranking for Northwestern was 50.75.
Based on the stat heads’ data, the Western Michigan-Northwestern matchup is one between peers, not David and Goliath.
A good deal of the Western Michigan hype surrounds coach PJ Fleck and the excitement he’s brought to the program. With the buzz has come a busload of talent. The Broncos outrecruited every MAC team over the last five seasons, and according to The Sporting News, they landed as many 3-star players in their 2016 class as the MAC’s second- and third-ranked teams combined.
Many pundits expect this to be the season when all of that talent puts Western Michigan on top of the MAC and in the national conversation. Vegas agrees, with the Broncos being the consensus favorite to win the conference.
Western Michigan will once again be buoyed by a prolific offense, which brings back 87 percent of their production from 2015. It starts with quarterback Zach Terrell, who brings 32 career starts into his senior campaign. His top target is Corey Davis -- a first-team All-American candidate -- who Pro Football Focus has called a “superior pro prospect.”
There is balance on offense too, with a thunder-and-lightning combination at running back. Jarvion Franklin and Jamurari Bogan will test a Northwestern run defense that ranked 22nd in the nation last season, according to S&P+, and that returns all-Big 10 middle linebacker Anthony Walker.
If Western Michigan can put up points, the Wildcats do not likely have the offensive weaponry to keep pace. Sure, Justin Jackson is a volume running back, but both efficiency and explosiveness have been lacking. And in the passing game, competency is a lofty goal. Last season, Northwestern’s passing offense ranked in the 20th percentile in the FBS in both success rate and explosiveness.
If Western Michigan can establish a pass rush and free up the secondary -- which adds transfers from Iowa and Notre Dame this season -- to be more aggressive, this anemic Northwestern offense may have 2015-like trouble.
Western Michigan is well-suited not only to cover the five-point spread but also to win this game outright. Football Outsiders and FPI give the Broncos the chance to pull the upset about a third of the time.
Southern Miss at Kentucky
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops deserves credit for getting an impressive series of recruits to come to Lexington. The problem is that his crowning achievement as the Wildcats’ head coach is the hull he got in 2014. It was the 22nd-ranked class in the nation.
In the last five seasons, Kentucky has ranked 32nd overall in recruiting, with their worst class rated a respectable 38th (2015), according to 247Sports Composite rankings. It is a rather remarkable story.
But so is the relevant lack of on-the-field success. Over the same period of time, Kentucky has ranked a woeful 92nd in F/+, which combines FEI and S&P+. A 38th recruiting rank paired with an 92nd efficiency rating can make a coach's seat rather warm. Such is the case with Stoops.
Over the same period of time, Southern Mississippi has achieved the opposite, ranking 72nd in F/+ from 2011 to 2015. With far less talent -- a five-year recruiting rank of 82nd -- the Golden Eagles have put up decent longer-term efficiency numbers. And there is every expectation that the Golden Eagles will keep it going this season, as they return the 16th-most experience in the FBS based on Phil Steele’s calculations.
So what does that mean for Saturday night’s matchup, where Southern Miss enters as a 6.5-point underdog?
All the pressure is on Kentucky and their cast of young but promising players. The key will likely be the play of sophomore quarterback Drew Barker, who takes full control of the offense that ranked a woeful 108th in efficiency, according to S&P+. To improve upon that ranking, Barker will need to be much more accurate. His 50 percent completion rate in limited action last year will not be good enough against Southern Miss and certainly not upcoming SEC foes.
The good news for Barker is that he will be able to rely on junior Boom Williams -- yes, another 4-star -- an emerging stud at running back. An opposing SEC assistant coach told Athlon Sports, “[Kentucky coaches] need to find a way to get Boom Williams more carries. I think he’s just a tremendous talent. I’m not sure why they don’t use him more.”
Expect that to change this season, especially against a Golden Eagles defense that ranked 76th against the run last season and was prone to giving up big plays.
The Southern Miss offense enters the season with far fewer what-ifs and will look to build upon their FBS-best explosiveness (IsoPPP) rating in 2015. Junior Nick Mullens set school records for passing yards (4,476) and passing touchdowns (38), and he should be able to exploit a Kentucky pass defense that was among the top 20 in the FBS in efficiency last season.
The Golden Eagles also get back a 1,000-yard rusher in Ito Smith to challenge this Kentucky run defense, which ranked only 99th in the nation and returns just 41 percent of their tackles from 2015. Like last year when Southern Miss was 61st in rushing efficiency and 49th in passing efficiency, the Golden Eagles’ offensive balance will prevent Kentucky and other defenses from being too aggressive.
Some metrics-based projections certainly suggest this is a toss-up game, and the Golden Eagles should have every chance to get a signature road win against an SEC team. That would be a building block for a stellar 2016 résumé, especially if Southern Miss can continue their winning ways in Conference USA.
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