One of the biggest differences between college football and the NFL is that there is no preseason in the NCAA. That can make it difficult to know with any certainty what a team will look like before its first game of the season. That can sometimes make teams particularly vulnerable during their first game, at least if they’ve been overrated or overvalued before the season. Just look at last season when the likes of Iowa State, LSU, and Florida State lost their first game of the season while others survived a close call despite being favored.
There’s every chance that will happen again this season as well. With that in mind, let’s check out some teams that should be on upset alert in their season opener in 2021.
This will be the first game of the season between two power-conference teams with the Cornhuskers entering as 7.5-point favorites on the road against Illinois.
This is a big season for Scott Frost if he’s going to prove that he’s the guy who can take his alma mater back to the promised lane. But it figures to be a tricky opener against the Fighting Illini, who are again overlooked heading into a season.
Bret Bielema is back in the Big Ten where he belongs and he’ll have one of the best offensive lines in the league and an experienced quarterback in Brandon Peters to help orchestrate his power-running attack. If the Nebraska defense isn’t ready for that and gets pushed around in the trenches, Illinois could control the tempo of the game and keep the ball away from Adrian Martinez.
Even with Martinez, Frost’s offense didn’t have a particularly good season in 2020, so who knows if they’re actually a touchdown better than Illinois. If the Illini can move the ball on the ground in this game, the Cornhuskers could easily fall.
Ohio State Buckeyes
We rarely see the Buckeyes in a vulnerable position and they typically hit the ground running in their season opener. That explains why Ohio State is favored by 14.5 points at Minnesota to open the season. But things may not be so simple for Ryan Day’s team.
Keep in mind that the Buckeyes aren’t settled at the quarterback position. While there is talent at that position no matter who plays, inexperience could be something to worry about with the Buckeyes playing their season opener on the road against a conference opponent.
On top of that, Minnesota is a team to watch in 2021. Tanner Morgan is still at quarterback after leading the Golden Gophers to an 11-2 season in 2019. He brings back a wealth of experience, not to mention an offensive line and running game that will ensure that he doesn’t have to do all of the work. The Minnesota defense also features some playmakers at every level that could give Ohio State’s inexperienced quarterback trouble.
Talent-wise, the Golden Gophers might not be on the same level as Ohio State, but they are just good enough to pull off an upset if the Buckeyes aren’t at their best.
Duke Blue Devils
Even as 7.5-point road favorites, the Blue Devils shouldn’t take anything for granted, especially against an in-state foe that will be excited for the opportunity to knock off an ACC team at home. David Cutcliffe’s team has taken a step back over the last two years, going 7-16 after going to six bowl games in seven years. In fairness, the Blue Devils crushed Charlotte 53-19 last season. However, Duke has another quarterback quandary with Chase Brice transferring, leaving an offense that allowed too many sacks and turnovers last year. There are arguably even more concerns about the Duke defense heading into the season.
Meanwhile, Charlotte has a senior quarterback in Chris Reynolds who helped the 49ers get to a bowl game in 2019. The 49ers also have an experienced offensive line that should be able to hold its own against the Blue Devils. Defensively, Charlotte added eight transfers during the offseason to boost the overall talent and depth on that side of the ball.
If this game were at the end of the season, Duke might be a little more comfortable. But with an injection of talent to the Charlotte roster and the 49ers having a more experienced quarterback, they pose a threat to the Blue Devils in the season opener.
Last season’s struggles should have taught Michigan that nothing is guaranteed. That needs to be their attitude when they welcome Western Michigan to Ann Arbor for the season opener, even as 17.5-point favorites.
Tim Lester has built the Broncos into a stable and successful program that always figures to be one of the best in the MAC West division. Not only does WMU return quarterback Kaleb Eleby, but the Broncos also bring back almost all of their productive skill players and four starters from the offensive line. Even without top wide receiver D’Wayne Eskridge, the Broncos have the pieces to come out flying offensively and make things interesting against the Wolverines.
It’s not as if Michigan is heading into the season with a lot of stability. They gave up nearly 35 points per game last season and were vulnerable against the big play, which will be a concern against the Western Michigan offense. The Wolverines also have questions about who will be their quarterback. The backfield is in great shape, but that’s not enough to assume that the Wolverines will be able to steamroll a feisty and capable WMU team that will be thrilled to visit the Big House against a potentially vulnerable Michigan team.
Mississippi State Bulldogs
The Bulldogs pulled off an upset over LSU last season, but they need to be a little careful against Louisiana Tech this year. Even if they’re at home and 23.5-point favorites, there’s no guarantee that Mike Leach’s air-raid offense will hit the ground running. The Bulldogs struggled offensively last year and quarterback Will Rogers is still largely unproven. While the defense looks solid, we know that Leach’s teams' success is based on how well they play offensively.
More importantly, oddsmakers appear to be vastly underrating Louisiana Tech. Skip Holtz has built the Bulldogs into one of the most consistent programs in Conference-USA. They are just two seasons removed from a 10-win season, including a bowl win over Miami. With 10 starters back on defense and Willie Baker returning to the defensive line after missing 2020 due to injury, the Bulldogs should be ready for what Mississippi State throws at them. The Tech offense should improve as well with either Luke Anthony returning as the starter or West Virginia transfer Austin Kendall taking the reins.
Despite going 5-5 last year, Holtz has built a program that should be able to bounce back and create trouble for a Mississippi State team that still has a lot of questions to answer.
It always seems like a good idea to schedule a MAC team for the season opener, but the conference has plenty of teams that can surprise you. Missouri could learn that this year despite being a 13.5-point home favorite against Central Michigan. They were 3-3 last year, but Jim McElwain led them to the MAC title game in 2019 and they should be in the running to get back there this year. The Chippewas bring back all five starters on the offensive line and a majority of their top offensive playmakers. If Washington transfer Jacob Sirmon can hit the ground running at quarterback, CMU could score enough points to be a threat to Missouri.
The Mizzou defense wasn’t exactly stout last season, even if they bring back some nice pieces this year. The Tigers are also lacking in bonafide playmakers on offense while quarterback Connor Bazelak still has plenty to prove despite flashing plenty of potential in 2020.
Obviously, Missouri will have an obvious edge in overall talent and athleticism. But don’t discount the possibility of the Chippewas keeping up in a shootout and becoming a pest for the Tigers.
The Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns upended Iowa State to open the season last year, and this season they will try to do the same as 9.5-point underdogs. Iowa State team nearly won the Big 12 while Louisiana finished the season as a top-25 team, so the Ragin’ Cajuns are no fluke and neither was that upset.
The Ragin’ Cajuns may have lost their dynamic backfield, but quarterback Levi Lewis decided to return for his super-senior season. The Louisiana defense also brings back 10 starters on a defense that allowed just 22 points per game last year, so this is a team that looks like one of the best mid-majors in the country.
On the other side, there is a little uncertainty with Texas heading into the season opener with a new head coach. While there is hope under Steve Sarkisian, we don’t know what the Longhorns have at quarterback with Sam Ehlinger no longer at the helm, so Texas will have to lean on its running game, which could make them a little predictable against the Louisiana defense. There are also some lingering questions about the Texas defense, especially against an experienced quarterback who can make plays with his legs.
Given everything we know about the Ragin’ Cajuns, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them go toe-to-toe with Texas for 60 minutes.
After San Jose State won the Mountain West title last year, it’s safe to say that they won’t sneak up on USC this year. But even as 15.5-point underdogs on the road, the Spartans should still be considered a threat.
Quarterback Nick Starkel elevated the Spartans last year and is coming back for another year. There’s enough around him on the San Jose State offense to think the Spartans can score points against USC. They also have 10 starters returning on defense, which should help on that side of the ball.
Meanwhile, the Trojans have some flaws that could be exposed. Most notably, the offensive line and running back are concerns, putting way too much pressure on quarterback Kedon Slovis. The Trojans also have some work to do offensively despite having plenty of talent on that side of the ball. A veteran quarterback like Starkel might be able to take advantage of that in a season opener and make the Trojans sweat it out against an in-state foe from a smaller conference.
The Tigers know all about losing season openers from last year when they lost as heavy favorites to Mississippi State. Coming off such an unfortunate season, LSU is favored by just 3.5 points as the Bayou Bengals make the trip West to the Rose Bowl. Nevertheless, most will assume that the SEC team will beat the mid-level Pac-12 team, which is why the Tigers need to be on upset alert. While nobody is doubting the talent on the roster, there are plenty of lingering questions coming off a subpar 2020 campaign.
Granted, UCLA has similar questions, but Chip Kelly’s team knows how important this game is for them. There is also a chance that quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson can have a true breakout season after showing a lot of promise last year. He certainly has the talent to have a special season while the Bruins have a nice tandem in the backfield that can move the ball and keep LSU off-balance with its tempo. If the UCLA offense can get rolling early, this game could easily go either way.
Ole Miss Rebels
The opening weekend of the season comes to an end on a Monday night and it could end with an upset. Lane Kiffin’s Ole Miss team is a 9.5-point favorite against Louisville on neutral ground. However, preseason expectations for the Rebels are based on the best-case scenario, but Ole Miss still has a lot to prove. The defense needs a lot of work after giving up nearly 40 points per game last year while the offense still needs to fill the void left by Elijah Moore.
At the same time, Louisville might be a little better than people think. The Cardinals took a step back last year, but Scott Satterfield had them rolling in 2019 behind Malik Cunningham, who returns for an extra year. Cunningham has the athleticism to run circles around defenses and can be even more dangerous when he’s accurate with his passes. The Louisville defense is also a little better than last year’s numbers indicate, as the Cards came on strong late in the season. If that carries over, Louisville should be a tough matchup for a largely unproven Ole Miss team.
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