The teams, players and chaos scenarios that can upend college football

ByBill Connelly ESPN logo
Monday, October 7, 2019

This is the point in the season when we start projecting toward the end and declaring the campaign basically over. We know who the best teams have been, and we start painting pictures of multiple unbeaten teams and chalk results beyond chalk results.

This season, for instance, Alabama obviously is going 13-0 and winning the SEC, 13-0 Clemson is winning the ACC, 13-0 Ohio State is winning the Big Ten, and 13-0 Oklahoma is winning the Big 12. Clemson and Ohio State have each faced SP+ top-20 teams (Texas A&M and Michigan State, respectively) and won by a combined 58-20. These teams are the class of the sport and destined for the College Football Playoff, right?

This can be a pretty depressing exercise, unless you're a fan of one of those teams. But we're almost always wrong in going down this road.

Chalk is not guaranteed

Over the past 20 years, college football has averaged just 1.3 unbeaten power conference teams after championship week, plus 3.7 one-loss power conference teams and 0.7 unbeaten mid-majors. We have gotten to the finish line with zero unbeatens more times in that span (four) than we've had three unbeatens (three). The field tends to winnow itself down pretty well, and almost everybody loses at least once.

This remains probable for 2019. SP+ projects zero teams with a better than 50% chance of getting to championship week unbeaten. Only five Power 5 conference teams have a better than 10% chance (Clemson 42%, Ohio State 33%, Alabama 30%, Oklahoma 21%, Georgia 15%), and the combined chance of all five teams going 12-0 is just 0.1%. Heck, they have only a 14% chance of all going 11-1 or better. There are plenty of loss opportunities on the horizon.

All hail #ChaosAuburn (or #ChaosAggies)

Who are our most likely chaos agents over the next two months? We probably have to start with a couple of familiar names.

Auburn will play Alabama, Georgia and LSU

The Tigers fell at Florida on Saturday, relegating them from contender status (for now) to a role far more familiar: spoiler. They play at LSU in two weeks. In November, they host both Georgia and Alabama. They have done so three times under Gus Malzahn, and they've swept the Dawgs and Crimson Tide twice.

Auburn still ranks a healthy 12th in SP+, with win probabilities of 29% against LSU, 41% against Georgia and 29% against Alabama. Chances of beating at least one of the three: 70%. Whose season might Auburn wreck?

A&M will, too

Back in August, I called Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond the most important player in college football for 2019.

"A&M plays at Clemson in Week 2, finishes the regular season with trips to Georgia and LSU, and hosts Auburn, Alabama and Mississippi State in between. ... The odds are pretty good that they beat at least one team with solid national title odds. Who will it be?"

It wasn't Clemson, which handled the Aggies by two touchdowns at home. It wasn't Auburn, either: The Tigers rode an early scoring spurt to a 28-20 win. But the upset opportunities continue. The Aggies remain 19th in SP+ and have win probabilities of 22% against Alabama on Saturday, then 23% against Georgia and 22% against LSU. Odds of winning at least one of the three: 53%.

Wisconsin and Penn State aren't giving Ohio State the Big Ten crown without a fight

The Buckeyes might have just walloped Michigan State, but Wisconsin and Penn State have been mostly dominant as well, sans one result each. Penn State flirted with losing to Pitt before prevailing by seven points, and Wisconsin let Northwestern muck up the game the way Northwestern loves to and needed a pair of defensive touchdowns to prevail by nine.

Their other eight results? An average win of 51-5. The Badgers are sixth in SP+, and the Nittany Lions are seventh. Both play at Ohio State in the regular season, and the Badgers are the favorites to win the Big Ten West, which would mean a potential rematch against OSU or a playoff qualifier of sorts against PSU.

Week 9: Wisconsin at Ohio State -- 70% win probability for OSU

Week 13: Penn State at Ohio State -- 71% win probability for OSU

Hypothetical Big Ten title game: Wisconsin vs. Ohio State -- 65% win probability for OSU

Hypothetical Big Ten title game: Wisconsin vs. Penn State -- 51% win probability for UW

Ohio State is a healthy favorite in both the regular-season games and the hypothetical Wisconsin rematch. The odds of winning all three, however? Just 32%.

The Big 12's messy race for No. 2 could pull Oklahoma under, too

The Big 12's average SP+ rating is currently 12.6 adjusted points per game, just a point behind the SEC's (13.4). Although the league has only one top-10 team to the SEC's five, its depth is astounding: Six teams rank between 14th and 33rd, and a seventh isn't far behind (No. 41 Kansas State).

This is making for one heckuva title game race. Even if we hand Oklahoma one of the two spots, the favorite for the other spot shifts from week to week. Texas and Baylor are tied with Oklahoma at 2-0, four teams are 1-1, and SP+ projects three with between 5.5 and 6.4 average conference wins. This is a delightful mess that could go down to the wire.

This constant quality also could mean trouble for OU, even if the Sooners, at No. 3 in SP+, are a step ahead overall. Their average projected win total in conference play is 7.6 games, and though they're favored in every remaining regular-season contest, SP+ gives them a 68% to 77% chance in four games:

Week 7: Oklahoma vs. Texas -- 77% OU win probability

Week 11: Iowa State at Oklahoma -- 77% OU win probability

Week 12: Oklahoma at Baylor -- 68% OU win probability

Week 14: Oklahoma at Oklahoma State -- 74% OU win probability

Odds of winning all four of those games? Just 30%. Chances of going 10-2 or worse overall: 41%.

For chaos lovers who regard wild seasons such as 2007 as the be-all and end-all of the sport, therestill is hope. Maybe not much hope, but hope.

We have to acknowledge, though, that while we almost never get to the finish line with three or more unbeatens, we did have three last season. We did in 2004 and 2009, too.

By this point in the 2018 season, Clemson was finished with close games. The Tigers won every game by 20-plus points from this point forward. Alabama didn't win a game by fewer than 22 points until the SEC title game against Georgia. Notre Dame, though not on Clemson's or Alabama's level, flirted with defeat only one more time, and that was against constant chaos agent Pitt. These teams could be gearing up to dominate once more down the stretch.

Love in the age of chalkiness

On the off chance that this is the new normal, then, we should steel ourselves in advance. Here are the people and things to watch if we want to remain engaged and enjoy ourselves through the rest of the regular season.

Six wins would mean the world to some teams

Some of the most amazing moments in this blue-blood-heavy sport involve minor teams and minor bowls. Back in 2017, my eyes welled up watching New Mexico State head coach Doug Martin try not to bawl on camera after his Aggies got to 6-6 and qualified for their first bowl in 57 years. Aggies fans rushed the field after the sixth win, then rushed someone else's field after their seventh, an overtime conquest of Utah State in the Arizona Bowl. That game meant nothing to the overall college football landscape, but it meant theworld to the university and its supporters.

Those moments, or some approximations, happen every season. Here are some teams to whom a bowl bid would mean a lot, along with their SP+ odds of reaching six-plus wins. Pick one as your new favorite, and follow their progress the rest of the way. You won't regret it ... unless you pick the wrong one.

Teams that have never bowled:

Liberty (4-2): 98% chance of six-plus wins

Coastal Carolina (3-2): 79% chance

Charlotte (2-3): 53% chance

Texas State (2-3): 27% chance

Teams that at least briefly have fallen on hard times of late:

Western Kentucky (3-2): 79% chance

Central Michigan (3-3): 74% chance

Ball State (2-3): 56% chance

Georgia State (3-2): 47% chance

San Jose State (3-2): 40% chance

Tulsa (2-3): 29% chance

Kent State (2-3): 28% chance

UL Monroe (2-3): 25% chance

If you're into the ultimate long shot and don't mind rooting for a Power 5 team, throw on an orange shirt and shout "Go Beavers!"

Oregon State, which began Jonathan Smith's tenure with 13 losses to FBS teams in 14 tries, has been slowly improving for weeks, starting the season 98th in SP+ and jumping all the way to 53rd this week. The Beavers just walloped UCLA in Pasadena, and though they're just 2-3 overall, SP+ gives them a 12% chance of reaching bowl eligibility.

That's not much, but it was 1% a month ago. If the Beavers are able to pull an upset one of the next two weeks -- at home against Utah in Week 7 or at Cal in Week 8 (not likely, but hey, go with me here) -- this will become a legitimate thing to watch down the stretch.

Conference races

We covered the Big 12's lovely mess above, but there are plenty of potentially dramatic division races on the horizon:

ACC Coastal: ESPN's FPI gives Virginia a 45% chance to win the division, followed by North Carolina (25%), Duke (14%), Pitt (10%) and Miami (4%). But if the Hurricanes were to knock off the Cavaliers at home this coming weekend, that very much would become a race that won't be decided for another month or so.

Pac-12 South: USC's win over Utah eliminated the Utes' easy path to another South crown. They might be the best team remaining, but they have their work cut out for them. FPI says USC has the best title odds at the moment (42%), followed by Utah (39%), Arizona (9%) and Arizona State (8%). USC still is pretty scatterbrained, though, and we're only one or two upsets from outright chaos.

AAC West: This division probably is better than the ACC Coastal if we're being honest, and we have ourselves a race: SMU leads the way at 46% per FPI, followed by Memphis (29%) and Tulane (18%).

MWC West: Hawaii has emerged as FPI's favorite here at 53%, but the Rainbow Warriors still have San Diego State (24%) and Fresno State (22%) hot on their heels. They host both teams in November.

C-USA (both divisions): FAU has begun to emerge as an East division favorite (52%), but Western Kentucky isn't far back (29%), and Middle Tennessee and Marshall still have chances. In the West, three teams are listed at 28% to 33% (North Texas, Southern Miss, Louisiana Tech).

The players you need to watch

College football isn't just about the teams, of course. There are hundreds of fun players you should watch if you get a chance. Here's at least one -- all from likely noncontenders -- from each unit on the field:

Quarterbacks: David Moore (Central Michigan) and Jordan McCloud (USF): CMU's season might have begun to turn around when Moore, a former Memphis QB, took over behind center. He threw for 279 yards in 15 completions in the Chippewas' stunning 42-16 blowout of EMU on Saturday. Meanwhile, McCloud -- former Clemson receiver Ray-Ray's brother -- has thrown for 374 yards and rushed for 118 in USF's two wins. Although McCloud has more growing pains to go through, you can tell how much of a spark plug the redshirt freshman could be in the future.

Running back: Javian Hawkins (Louisville): You enjoy big plays, right? Hawkins has four rushes of 40-plus yards (only Oklahoma State's Chuba Hubbard and Memphis' Kenneth Gainwell have more), and he ran for 172 yards in the Cardinals' vital 41-39 win over Boston College on Saturday.

Wide receiver: Omar Bayless (Arkansas State). Bayless has gained at least 132 receiving yards in five of six games, and if Arkansas State were to play 14 games, he would have a solid shot at 2,000 yards.

Tight end: Brevin Jordan (Miami). Miami can't protect its passers, and QB Jarren Williams just had a meltdown against Virginia Tech. But Jordan is trying his best; he is averaging more than 16 yards per catch, and he had seven receptions for 136 yards against the Hokies.

Offensive line: Kentucky's interior (Luke Fortner, Drake Jackson, Logan Stenberg): Quarterback injuries have rendered Kentucky's passing game limited, and the defense has regressed. But the hosses on the inside are doing their job. They're the main reason UK still has a solid, physical run game to lean on.

Defensive end: DeAngelo Malone (Western Kentucky): Malone was second on Western Kentucky's defense with nine tackles for loss last season. He has seven in the past two weeks! He now is leading the nation with 13, and if WKU makes a bowl, he'll have a very good chance to top 30.

Defensive tackle: Bravvion Roy (Baylor): Who doesn't love a good bowling ball in the middle? The 6-foot-1, 333-pound senior has 4.5 TFLs, plus a sack and three hurries for a Baylor defense that might be the Big 12's best.

Linebacker:Blaze Alldredge (Rice): Bad teams have long leaned on tackling-machine linebackers to save them from being even worse teams. But Alldredge isn't just Rice's tackles leader -- he's also made 11.5 tackles for loss (second in FBS) and 13 run stuffs (fifth). If Rice makes a stop, Alldredge is probably why.

Cornerback: Paulson Adebo (Stanford): The Cardinal have struggled to get going in 2019, but don't blame Adebo. He just keeps making plays. Since the start of 2018, he has logged 3.5 TFLs, five interceptions and 28 breakups.

Safety: Douglas Coleman III (Texas Tech): Tech has a top-40 defense, per SP+, and Coleman's recent exploits: He has picked off five passes in three games, including two in the Red Raiders' upset of Oklahoma State.

Kicker: James McCourt (Illinois):I know, you probably don't watch football to see the kickers, but if you see McCourt in an Illinois game, he probably is being asked to do something ridiculous. Four of his six field goal attempts have been 46 yards or longer (including a 57-yarder), and he has made all four. Better yet, he has missed both of the kicks he has attempted from shorter than 46 yards!

Punter: Max Duffy (Kentucky):No, I didn't intend to have Kentucky represented in more than one unit. But it's not my fault; Duffy is averaging 51.2 yards per punt, with a 49.3 net average. We are living in a golden age of punting, friends, and Duffy is our new king.

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