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September Football: Upset City!
by Jim Feist - 09/30/2010
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. In Week 1 of the NFL season, the Steelers,
Texans, Seahawks, Redskins and Chiefs all won outright as home dogs.
The Jets, 49ers and Lions covered as home dogs in Week 2. The Vikings
and Saints had devastating offenses last season, but have not been as sharp
to start 2010. Teams aren’t the same from one year to another, and offenses
aren’t as sharp in September as they will be in late October and November.
(Follow Jim on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JimFeistSports).
In the colleges, the Oklahoma defense struggled against Utah State in
the opener, then squeaked by Air Force, 27-20, as a big home favorite.
September is a fascinating time for handicappers to follow college football
partly because of surprises. A year 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. 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.
Last year's upset was because of an injury to QB Sam Bradford and
five years ago it was because of 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.
Another home dog in college that won was UCLA, pounding Houston.
You have to feel bad for the Cougars losing two quarterbacks in that game,
the most devastating was senior Case Keenum. Just like that, the Cougars
have gone from No. 23 in the nation to a team that will have to forge a
new identity. Instead of a Heisman contender, Houston turns to QBs true
freshmen Terrance Broadway and David Piland.
It's also important not to read too much into major surprises, either,
providing there are not significant injuries to key players. 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. In the Big 10, Penn
State and Michigan are going with freshman QBs. In the SEC, Ole Miss
QB Jeremiah Masoli only recently joined the team, allowed to play after
transferring from Oregon. That's a big reason the offense has been below
par, including a 28-14 loss to Vandy.
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 in 2008 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 with a new coach and quarterback.
The biggest upset a year 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
from 2008. QB Jake Locker missed most of that season, plus the Huskies
had a new playbook and attitude under Coach Steve Sarkasian – the former
USC offensive coordinator.
Maybe this will cheer up Iowa and Penn State 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.