NCAAF
September 4, 2020
BY Bryan Zarpentine

10 CFB Teams on Upset Alert in Their Season Opener

Somehow, the college football season has arrived. 

Amidst the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, a majority of college football conferences will attempt to play the 2020 season. Of course, while we can predict and prognosticate all we want about what teams will be the best in the country this year, there’s no way of knowing anything until the games actually begin.

With that in mind, it seems inevitable that some of the teams we fancy as being strong contenders could be the victims of an upset the first week of the season. Whether they are beginning the season with an overlooked conference rival or a tricky mid-major, here are 10 teams that could find themselves on upset alert in their season opener if they aren’t at their best.

Miami Hurricanes

With D’Eriq King transferring to Miami, expectations have been raised for the Hurricanes after a year-long quarterback controversy plagued the team for all of 2019. However, there are lingering questions about Miami, especially after such pitiful play from the offensive line last year. Opening the season against UAB feels like a trap game ahead of 10 consecutive ACC games, including Louisville, Florida State and Clemson right off the bat.

The Blazers won Conference USA two years ago, went to the conference title game last year and are favorites to win the league in 2020.

The UAB defense has a chance to be something special, so if the Hurricanes have flaws on offense, they can be exposed. 

Offensively, don’t expect too many fireworks from the Blazers, although they return an experienced quarterback in Tyler Johnston III. Despite being 16.5-point favorites, Miami could get bogged down in a defensive slugfest and struggle to put away UAB, making for a tight finish.

Louisville Cardinals

Scott Satterfield surpassed expectations in his first season at Louisville in 2019. But the Cardinals beating in-state foe Western Kentucky to open the 2020 season is far from a sure thing. The Hilltoppers put together an impressive nine-win season a year ago and have one of the best defenses outside the power conferences. WKU’s defense is almost exclusively seniors, giving them a chance to keep the speedy Louisville offense under wraps.

If the Cardinals don’t get their offense rolling, they’ll be vulnerable because the Louisville defense is filled with uncertainty heading into the season. The Hilltoppers, to be fair, are far from a juggernaut offensively. But they have a strong offensive line and a 1,000-yard rusher in Gaej Walker.

Even as 12-point favorites, this game won’t be easy for Louisville, who should fear a Western Kentucky team that will be eager to knock off their big brother for the first time since 1975.

Kansas State Wildcats

Kansas State will have three weeks after this game to prepare for their second game, so they shouldn’t be overlooking the Red Wolves. Nevertheless, Arkansas State poses a serious challenge for the Wildcats. ASU quarterback Layne Hatcher began his career at Alabama, so he has the talent to play in a power conference and led an offense last season that scored at least 30 points on 10 occasions.

On the other hand, K-State returns a strong offensive line and senior quarterback Skylar Thompson. That being said, the Wildcats could have a hard time creating separation from the Red Wolves if they can’t slow down Hatcher and the ASU offense.

On paper, Kansas State doesn’t look like a high-scoring team, which will make them vulnerable to an upset in their season opener.

TCU Horned Frogs

The Horned Frogs aren’t a huge favorite in this game, but as the power-conference team, they’ll be expected to beat their bitter rivals in SMU. While Gary Patterson usually has one of the best defenses in the Big 12, TCU returns just four starters on that side of the ball, so there could be growing pains early in the season. That could be a problem against the Mustangs.

SMU brings back Texas transfer Shane Buechele, who could be the best quarterback in the country outside the power conferences. 

He threw for nearly 4,000 yards last year and is poised for an even better senior season with an experienced offensive line in front of him. Keep in mind that the Mustangs beat TCU on the road last season. While SMU will have to make the trip to Fort Worth again this season, they’ll be confident they can upset the Horned Frogs for the second straight season.

Baylor Bears

Despite a coaching change after Matt Rhule left for the NFL, Baylor is a borderline top-25 program heading into 2020. With Charlie Brewer back at quarterback, the Bears have high hopes to return to the Big 12 title game for the second consecutive year. But they could get more than they bargained for with Louisiana Tech in their opener.

Remember the Bulldogs beat Miami in their bowl game to close out the 2019 season. Skip Holtz has brought great consistency to the program, making Louisiana Tech a yearly contender in Conference USA. While the Bulldogs return just a couple of starters on defense, Baylor also returns just two starters on its defense.

This game could turn into a wild and high-scoring affair, making it difficult for the Bears to secure a win, much less cover the 17-point spread.

No. 23 Iowa State Cyclones

On paper, Iowa State has a team that could be a dark horse to reach the Big 12 Championship Game. But the Cyclones better be ready to play in their season opener against Billy Napier’s Ragin’ Cajuns. Louisiana has a dynamic rushing attack and returns an experienced quarterback in Levi Lewis, who threw for over 3,000 yards, 26 touchdowns, and just four interceptions last year.

The Louisiana defense also returns seven starters from a unit that gave up fewer than 20 points per game last season. The Ragin’ Cajuns went 11-3 last year, losing their season-opener to Mississippi State 38-28. They will be serious contenders in the Sun Belt and won’t be intimidated by a power-conference opponent.

If the Cyclones can’t assert their dominance and push Louisiana around early in the game, Iowa State will be on upset alert.

No. 18 North Carolina Tar Heels

After going 7-6 last year, Mack Brown’s Tar Heels have high hopes for 2020. However, opening the season as 20.5-point favorites against Syracuse feels dangerous. Almost all of UNC’s games last season were close, so beating a conference foe by three touchdowns might be a stretch. Also, Syracuse is a wild card in the ACC.

The Orange won 10 games two seasons ago and finished the 2019 season strong despite missing a bowl game. If the Syracuse up-tempo offense gets rolling, they can compete in a track meet. Plus, the Orange defense is switching over to a 3-3-5, which is rarely seen. The Tar Heels won’t have much film on Syracuse playing that defense, and if it takes Sam Howell and Co. time to adjust, this game could be closer than anticipated, giving the Orange a chance to pull off the upset.

No. 11 Auburn Tigers 

Unfortunately for Auburn, facing Kentucky at home to open the season probably doesn’t rank among the team’s five toughest games this season. However, it won’t be easy for Gus Malzahn’s Tigers to come away with a win as modest seven-point favorites.

The Kentucky defense allowed fewer than 20 points per game last season and could be just as good this year with a collection of talented upperclassmen. Auburn quarterback Bo Nix, while showcasing plenty of promise last year, didn’t exactly prove himself against quality defenses in 2019. To be fair, the Wildcats were a mess offensively in 2019, but with Terry Wilson returning from injury, things should improve.

While Auburn is deservedly favored, Kentucky is more than capable of pulling off the upset.

No. 8 Florida Gators

Get ready for the Lane Kiffin era in Oxford. While Kiffin has plenty of problems to fix, he brings a lot of excitement to the Rebels, who will be eager to play the Gators at home in their season opener.

If Florida quarterback Kyle Trask can carry over his performance from 2019, the Gators should do some damage an Ole Miss defense that has some holes and will take some time for Kiffin to fix. 

However, the Gators will have to prepare for both John Rhys Plumlee and Matt Corral to play quarterback for the Rebels. Ole Miss also has an intriguing set of offensive playmakers, including running back Jerrion Ealy.

With Kiffin at the helm, you can’t rule out the possibility of Ole Miss coming out firing on all cylinders and forcing the Gators into a shootout. Florida is favored by 11.5 points in this game, but they shouldn’t expect a blowout win.

No. 6 LSU Tigers

The reigning national champs open the 2020 season against a tricky Mississippi State team, although the Tigers will be at home, which should help. Nevertheless, this will be the SEC debut for Mike Leach and his Air Raid offense. With Stanford transfer K.J. Costello at quarterback and a veteran group of wide receivers, the Bulldogs will be throwing the ball all over the field against an LSU defense that had six players from last year’s team selected in the NFL Draft, including two key members of the secondary.

MSU will also be a threat on the ground with running back Kylin Hill. With a new 3-3-5 formation on defense, the Bulldogs won’t make things easy for LSU quarterback Myles Brennan, either. The Tigers are 16.5-point favorites, but look for this game to be a lot closer.

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