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Who Are College Football’s Biggest Surprise Teams?

In a lot of ways, college football is the most unpredictable sport around. Despite the fact that chaos can break out at any time, we’re at a point in the season where we all have a good feel for what a lot of teams will look like the rest of the year. The 2020 season brought in so many outside variables, it was hard to figure out which surprise teams were flukes, and which were for real. And because we as fans are dumb-dumbs, the only way to truly discern the real trends is through cold, hard math. For this exercise, I’m using a slightly modified version of Richard Johnson’s SI Composite, which is the average of a few different analytics data sets. Each team is given a number that represents what their scoring margin should be against the average team on a neutral field. So for example, a team that is -7 would lose to the average team by 7 points. With this in mind, let’s take a look at four teams that everyone was wrong about coming into this year. Two of these teams are much better than we thought, and two are much worse.

Arkansas

Hand up, I was one of the people who thought last year was a massive fluke, and that the Razorbacks would be one of the worst teams in the SEC. Some people were a little more optimistic, but nobody was expecting much this year. Vegas set their preseason win total at 5.5, good for 12th in the conference. It’s safe to say that their week two wompin’ of Texas proved everyone that they’re for real. As of now, their composite ranking has improved by 6.5 points, which is the second-largest increase in the nation and puts them 23rd overall. They also rank in the top 30 nationally in both scoring offense and defense. Unfortunately for the Hogs, they have a brutal schedule coming up, with four straight games against ranked teams. They’re currently expected to be favored in 4 more games, but whether they can hold up to the grind of a full SEC schedule remains to be seen.

Fresno State

After pulling off one of the biggest upsets of the season so far at UCLA last week, Fresno State cemented themselves as a legitimate contender for a New Year’s Six bid. Vegas expected them to be mediocre this year, setting their total at a perfectly average 6 wins, but they’ve overachieved at every turn. Their composite score has jumped an NCAA leading 7 points, and they show no signs of slowing down. They’re favored in 6 of their final 8 games, although I don’t think anyone would be surprised if they ran the table.

Ball State

Did you know Ball State won the MAC last year? You certainly couldn’t tell by watching them now. The Cardinals have had the largest drop in composite score, plummeting by 14.6 points. That’s two entire touchdowns! They’re in the bottom 15 in offense and defense. That’s not a good sign of them living up to their Vegas total of 7.5. Their only saving grace this year is that the MAC is looking especially terrible, and somehow the Cardinals are favored in three more games this year. Ball State isn’t as bad as the next team on this list, but they’ve fallen well short of what we all expected of them. With that being said, I’d still take them +4.5 against Toledo this week.

Florida State

You probably saw this one coming when you read the title. It was always going to be a rebuilding year for the ‘Noles, but hoo boy they’ve hit rock bottom. Week one feels like it was a decade ago in Tallahassee. After the disaster against Jacksonville State and a blowout to Wake Forrest, the hype is long gone, and all of the McKenzie Milton Disney movie scripts have been scrapped. FSU is in the bottom 100 in both offense and defense, and their composite score has dropped a horrifying 10.7 points, making them 88th in the nation. Norvell’s job is probably safe because of outside circumstances, but it’s about to be a long few months. They’re only going to be favored in one game (thank the football gods for UMass), dropping them well short of their 5.5 Vegas total. Stranger things have happened, and it’s not like they’re facing a murderer’s row in the ACC, but the worst FSU season in half a century is still on the table.

Photo courtesy of The LA Times

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