Bowl season is finally upon us. It’s the glorious time of year where we all sit down to watch teams you haven’t heard of play in a city you otherwise wouldn’t know exists in a game named after a sketchy tech company; all so we can avoid interacting with our loved ones during the holidays. It’s a perfect time begin looking back on the regular season. Let’s start by looking at ten of the year’s most surprising teams, half of which were pleasant surprises, and the other half not so much. These teams were selected based on the change in their composite rankings, nerd stats that predict how much better or worse a team is compared to the average, from the start of the year to the end. I did not pick these teams myself. There are 131 FBS teams. That’s a lot to sort through for subjective rankings. I want to make sure that you understand that, because there is one very conspicuous omission from this list, and I don’t want to get yelled at. I want to be optimistic, so let’s start with the good and end with the bad.
1. Duke: +15.70
The numbers support what we all saw on the field, Duke was the biggest surprise of the season. Last year, the Blue Devils finished 3-9 and winless in the ACC. They only had two losses by less than 25 points, and one of those was to lowly Charlotte. David Cutcliffe retired, and Mike Elko took over what most people believed would be a massive rebuild. He had no interest in a rebuild, instead deciding to win right away. Duke finished this season 8-4, had a winning ACC record, and was a last second touchdown away from winning the Coastal division. Three of their four losses were by a field goal or less. The Blue Devil offense scored a full ten more points per game, while the defense gave up a mind-boggling 17 fewer points per game. Just a few months ago plenty of people were questioning whether Duke even cared about having a football team, and now they’re legitimate conference championship contenders. Mike Elko is a certified miracle worker.
2. James Madison: +14.62
Every statistic has limitations. Judging a team that is moving up from FCS relative to the entirety of FBS is almost impossible. James Madison’s preseason rating was always going to be too low, but the Dukes still exceeded all expectations. They finished the year 8-3 and won the Sun Belt East, even though the dumb NCAA didn’t allow them to compete for the conference championship. Their offense and defense both ranked in the top 30, plus they had the highest composite rating in the conference. They did all of this after losing their best player Juice Wells, who went to South Carolina and was a 1st team All-SEC wide receiver. Curt Cignetti has James Madison set up to compete for conference championships (and eventually playoff spots) for years to come.
3. TCU: +11.97
What a year for the Horned Frogs. They just finished up an undefeated season, clinched a playoff berth, and quarterback Max Duggan came out of nowhere to finish as the runner up for the Heisman trophy. Just eleven short years ago, TCU was competing in the Mountain West against bottom feeders like New Mexico and UNLV. Now, they’re beating up on blue bloods like Texas and Oklahoma. Sonny Dykes worked a genuine miracle, turning a five-win team into a twelve-win team instantly. What’s most impressive is that this was not a USC/Lincoln Riley situation. Dykes didn’t bring in an army of five-star transfers. In fact, all of their serious contributors on offense were on the roster last season. Most experts figured TCU would be a better team after moving on from legendary coach Gary Patterson, who very clearly had lost touch with his players, but nobody expected this. And, as always, all glory to the Hypnotoad.
4. South Alabama: +11.96
The Sun Belt was full of surprises this season. I’m going to toot my own horn for a second: I was more surprised at how low the projections were for South Alabama coming into the season. Kane Wommack is a hell of a coach, and they finished 5-7 with a lot of close losses in his first season. Everything clicked this season. The Jaguars finished 10-2, with one of those losses coming on the road against UCLA by one point and the other being a four-point loss to rival and eventual Sun Belt champ Troy. Wommack’s calling card has always been defense, and this year was no difference. They allowed less than twenty points per game, finishing fifteenth nationally. Wommack appears to have South Alabama set up for success going forward, at least until he takes an SEC job in a few years, maybe somewhere he has family ties where the school is scrambling to replace their coach who left for a better job. Just a totally random hypothetical to think about.
5. Tulane: +11.86
I wrote about Tulane’s complicated history with football recently, so I won’t go into all of it here. More importantly, Tulane was genuinely awful last year. They opened the year strong by almost upsetting Oklahoma on the road, and then completely fell apart, finishing 2-10 with most of the losses being blowouts. Willie Fritz turned everything around shockingly quickly. The Green Wave went 11-2, beat Big 12 champion Kansas State, and won their second conference title since the ‘40s. They avenged their only conference loss, clinching a spot in the Cotton Bowl against the mighty USC and the #16 spot in the final CFP poll. Fun fact, that makes them the highest ranked team in the state of Louisiana.
1. Colorado: -14.07
Colorado was picked the finish last in the Pac-12, and somehow still ended up being the most disappointing team. The Buffaloes were easily the worst team in the P5, and if it wasn’t for a fluky overtime win over Cal, they would’ve easily been the worst team in the country. They lost seven games by more than THIRTY points. That is more than half of their season. For context, UMass only had three of those kinds of losses. Let’s get even more specific. They only had one loss by 21 points or less. That’s three full touchdowns. We’ll see if Deion can turn things around quickly, but he’s arguably starting from the lowest point in the sport.
2. Miami: -13.97
First year coaches deserve a bit of leeway. It’s difficult to come into a new situation and have to overhaul both the scheme and locker room culture while still winning at a high level. However, it should never be this bad. Especially after you are as loud and obnoxious as Miami was this past offseason. A coach who is paid $10 million per year should never get run off the field by Duke and Middle Tennessee State. The Canes finished 5-7 and missed out on a bowl game. What’s even worse: that record was deceivingly kind. Two of those wins came against the Virginia schools, who finished tied for last in the ACC, including a 14-12 quadruple overtime win against UVA in possibly the worst game I’ve ever witnessed. Miami was the preseason favorite to win the Coastal division, but they couldn’t even finish ahead of Georgia Tech. The team could easily turn things around, when have as much money as Miami does in the age of NIL and the transfer portal it’s hard not to, but there’s no denying this season was a massive disappointment.
3. Michigan State: -11.74
As it turns out, Tuck ain’t comin’. After being the biggest surprise of the 2021 season, Michigan State collapsed this year, going from 11 wins to missing a bowl game all together. Everybody expected the Spartans to take a step back after losing a lot of contributors from last year’s transfer-heavy roster, including star running back Kenneth Walker III. Losing to Indiana was not supposed to be part of that step back. What was most shocking was their steep offensive decline, scoring a putrid 24 points per game. Kenneth Walker alone rushed for more yards and touchdowns in ’21 than the entirety of this year’s team combined. Against Ohio State, MSU ran for seven, yes seven, total yards. If Mel Tucker doesn’t bounce back next season, his 10-year $95 million extension is going to look like one of the worst contracts in the history of sports.
4. Boston College: -11.25
Jeff Hafley overachieved in his first few seasons at Boston College. Back-to-back years with six wins is an accomplishment, especially considering they lost their starting QB for half of last season. That being said, the wheels fell off this year. They lost nine games, including one to UConn of all teams, and were two shocking upsets away from being one of the worst teams in the country. Yes, they dealt with a crazy number of injuries, but they still lost to some awful competition. Sustaining success somewhere like Boston is brutally difficult, but this season seemed like a major backslide for Boston College.
5. Northern Illinois: -10.87
Regression comes for us all. In 2021, Northern Illinois won nine games, including the MAC championship. However, they won with some one-score game black magic that would make Scott Frost cry. The Huskies went 6-2 in such games. Unfortunately, all of the research shows that these close games are essentially coin flips, meaning that a regression to the mean was inevitable. Even more unfortunately for NIU, that regression came this year and was very literal. Their record in those games flipped, going 2-6 with one of those wins coming against an FCS school. The MAC is easily the most volatile conference in the sport. In the past eight years there has been six different champions. Predicting which teams will be good is nearly impossible, and last year’s success clearly inflated NIU’s value coming into this season. Still, this year was a disappointment nonetheless.
(Header courtesy of The Chronicle)