Winners and losers: College football's most overrated and underrated teams thus far

Wake up. September’s over.

The first month of the college football season flew by. And we learned a lot about the teams we thought would be good entering the season. Some, like Alabama, are very good like we expected. Others are not. And on the flip side, there are some teams that are outperforming our modest expectations. With October just hours away, it’s a good time to take a look at our most overrated and underrated teams through the first part of the college football season.

OVERRATED

Mississippi State has floundered while Kentucky has flourished. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston)
Mississippi State has floundered while Kentucky has flourished. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston)

Mississippi State (Preseason rank: 17): We thought Mississippi State was a top-three team in the SEC West and well-positioned to be a spoiler to Auburn and Alabama at the top of the division. Boy, were we wrong. The Bulldogs enter October with two SEC losses already. Mississippi State lost at Kentucky in Week 4 and at home to Florida on Saturday night. The combined point total in those two losses: 13. We thought Joe Moorhead’s arrival in Starkville was going to make the Mississippi State offense even better than it was under Dan Mullen. Instead it looks like quarterback Nick Fitzgerald has taken a step backward.

Michigan State (Preseason rank: 11): The Spartans have just one loss through the first month of the season but what makes you think Michigan State is positioned to challenge Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State in the Big Ten East? We thought the Spartans had what it took and now we’re not so sure. Michigan State was up 31-3 on Saturday before Central Michigan scored 17 unanswered points to make the 31-20 score look a lot closer than the game was. But Brian Lewerke has now thrown as many touchdowns (five) as interceptions. That’s not a good recipe as the schedule gets tougher.

Florida State (Preseason rank: 19): Florida State escaped the month with a winning record thanks to the disaster that is Louisville. The Cardinals absolutely choked away a win in the fourth quarter and allowed Florida State to emerge with a 28-24 win. There’s nothing that screams ranked team about Florida State and it’s not all Willie Taggart’s fault. He may not have inherited as great of a situation as we thought he did. Florida State could somehow scratch out eight wins, but the Seminoles are nowhere near the top 25 at the moment.

UNDERRATED

Kentucky (Preseason rank: Unranked): When the season began we thought South Carolina was the second best team in the SEC East. We also could make a case for Florida and new coach Dan Mullen and Missouri with all-SEC quarterback Drew Lock. We did not envision a scenario with Kentucky positioned as the top challenger to the Bulldogs but here we are. Kentucky has disposed of both Florida and South Carolina and are 5-0 heading towards October. Running back Benny Snell is one of the best in the country and if Terry Wilson can continue to be efficient at quarterback, Kentucky has a real chance at a nine or 10-win season. Georgia is the only ranked opponent left on the schedule.

Joe Burrow (9) has helped lead LSU to a top five ranking in the AP poll. (AP)
Joe Burrow (9) has helped lead LSU to a top five ranking in the AP poll. (AP)

LSU (Preseason rank: Unranked): The Tigers have been the most impressive team in the country relative to preseason expectations. LSU beat Miami in Week 1, Auburn in Week 3 and then took care of business against Ole Miss on Saturday night. Miami and Auburn were both ranked in the top 10 in the preseason. LSU’s offense isn’t going to wow you — unless it’s playing Ole Miss — but it’s been good enough so far. Can the Tigers hang with Alabama on the first weekend of November? We’ve got a month to convince ourselves the answer is anything other than “no.”

Notre Dame (Preseason rank: 13): Notre Dame now has two wins over teams ranked in the top 15 at the time of the game after beating Stanford on Saturday. Granted, Michigan entered the season as the No. 14 team in the country, but it’s still an accomplishment second only to LSU. At 5-0 the Irish are looking very good for a playoff berth at the moment and will definitely get serious consideration at 11-1. The quarterback switch from Brandon Wimbush to Ian Book looks genius as Book has accounted for nine touchdowns over the past two weeks.

Here are this week’s winners and losers:

WINNERS

Michigan: Things didn’t look good for Michigan early on against Northwestern. The Wolverines fell behind 17-0 in the second quarter and the offense was going nowhere. But the defense kept the game close until the offense finally woke up. In a 20-17 win, Karan Higdon was a workhorse for UM, carrying 30 times for 115 yards and two touchdowns. His five-yard score with 4:06 to play proved to be the game winner. It was the first time a Jim Harbaugh team ever came back from such a deficit.

Tulane: A 1-3 start was probably not what Willie Fritz envisioned for his third season at Tulane, but the Green Wave got back on track with a 40-24 home win over Memphis on Friday night. Memphis was a 14.5-point favorite, but could not contain the Tulane rushing attack. The Green Wave, while wearing amazing helmets, put up 318 yards on the ground. Afterward, Fritz and his team celebrated accordingly.

Kyler Murray: Murray got the Baker Mayfield one-possession suspension from last year for being late to practice. Not starting had no impact on his performance, however. In Oklahoma’s 66-33 win over Baylor, the Heisman candidate completed 17-of-21 passes for 432 yards and six touchdowns. He also ran for 45 yards and a score. His seven total touchdowns tied an Oklahoma record set by, you guessed it, Mayfield.

Army: Army followed up its fantastic effort against Oklahoma by trouncing previously undefeated Buffalo on the road, 42-13. The Knights limited the Bulls’ offense, which had been averaging 40 points per game, to just 255 yards of offense with talented QB Tyree Jackson completing only 10-of-24 passes for 152 yards. Meanwhile, Army’s offense put up 281 rushing yards and totally dominated the time of possession by more than 15 minutes. Army is now 3-2 on the year and well on its way to another bowl game.

Washington State: Let’s start this with the caveat that college football takes sacks into account when totaling rushing yards. But still, it’s impressive for a team to win with no rushing yards at all. And that’s exactly what Washington State did in a 28-24 win over Utah. The zero yards Washington State accumulated are the fewest the Cougars have had in a win since totaling -38 rushing yards in a win over Arizona State in 2016. James Williams was Washington State’s leading rusher Saturday afternoon with five carries for 13 yards.

Ryan Willis, QB, Virginia Tech: After last week’s embarrassing loss to Old Dominion, Virginia Tech bounced back with a commanding 31-14 win over No. 22 Duke. And Ryan Willis played a big part. The Kansas transfer started at QB for injured Josh Jackson and had a great game. He completed 17-27 passes for 332 yards and three touchdowns. It was his first win ever as a starting quarterback.

Eno Benjamin, RB, Arizona State: Benjamin had 30 carries for 312 yards and three touchdowns in Arizona State’s 52-24 win over Oregon State. It’s his second-straight game over 100 yards after two-straight games with fewer than 30 yards rushing and Benjamin also had three catches for 27 yards and a receiving touchdown.

Davion Davis, Sam Houston State: In Sam Houston State’s 34-31 win over Central Arkansas, senior wideout Davion Davis made a tremendous one-handed catch. Watch this and please take note of the crazy formation that it came from:

LOSERS

Louisville: Louisville looked like it had a win over Florida State in its grasps. But that was until Bobby Petrino made a rather, um, curious play call. With his team leading 24-21 and driving into FSU territory with the clock ticking under 2:00, Petrino dialed up a pass play. Louisville QB Jawon Pass was picked off by A.J. Westbrook, giving the ball back to the Seminoles. Five plays later, Deondre Francois found an open Nyqwan Murray, who bounced off a lackluster tackle attempt, made another man miss and sprinted 58 yards for a game-winning touchdown.

Nebraska: Scott Frost said things would get worse before they got better at Nebraska. He wasn’t kidding. With a 42-28 home loss to Purdue, the Huskers dropped to 0-4 on the year, the program’s worst start since 1945. On top of that, Nebraska has now lost eight straight games, a program record. After the loss, Frost said Nebraska “looks like one of the most undisciplined teams in the country.” Nebraska had 11 penalties for 136 yards on Saturday, so his assessment is not inaccurate.

Bill Snyder: Did Snyder cost his team a chance at a win against Texas? Kansas State lost to the Longhorns 19-14 and all 14 of the team’s points came with Skylar Thompson at quarterback in the second half. Snyder pulled Thompson without telling his offensive assistants in last week’s loss to West Virginia in favor of Alex Delton, who started on Saturday. The Kansas State offense was lackluster as Delton was the signal caller. Delton had 41 total yards.

It’s no guarantee that Kansas State wins if Thompson plays the whole game, but it’s not out of the question.

Dino Babers: There’s no shame in losing to No. 3 Clemson on the road, but Syracuse coach Dino Babers could have given his offense a much better chance in the game’s final minutes. As Clemson, with its offense on a long, methodical drive and came closer and closer to inevitably taking the lead, Babers did not use a single timeout. By the time Travis Etienne scored what proved to be the winning TD for Clemson, there were only 41 seconds left in the game.

Babers’ explanation for holding onto his timeouts didn’t make much sense.

“We had to see what was going on, whether they were trying to score a field goal, were they trying to score a touchdown,” Babers said per Syracuse.com. “If I used those timeouts and then they go all the way down to the end, they score with one second left and I used two timeouts, you’d be asking me the other questions.”

BYU: The Cougars’ pass game coordinator said “stats are for losers” earlier in the week. We have some stats for BYU. The Cougars had seven first downs and 194 total yards in a 35-7 loss to Washington. Tanner Mangum was 18-21 passing for 160 yards, so that’s nice, but he didn’t throw a touchdown. BYU’s win over Wisconsin looks more and more of a statement about Wisconsin’s (relative) lack of expected strength than it does about BYU’s strength.

Tennessee: Tennessee actually played a reasonably competitive game against Georgia on Saturday. The final score, 38-12, may not make it seem that way, but UT was within 12 points early in the fourth before UGA scored two late TDs. But Tennessee deserves scorn for lining up in an illegal formation when trying to punt three times. Those penalties were all in the first quarter, including twice on one punt! That is just terrible.

UCLA: The beginning of the Chip Kelly era is going very poorly. UCLA dropped to 0-4 with a 38-16 loss to Colorado on Friday night. In the loss, the Bruins’ defense allowed 477 yards. UCLA actually had a 16-14 lead midway through the third quarter before the Buffs scored 24 straight points to turn a close game into a blowout. Kelly lost just seven games in his four seasons at Oregon. He may surpass that in one season at UCLA.

Eastern Michigan: Does any program lose more close games than Eastern Michigan? Against Northern Illinois on Saturday, EMU forced overtime by hitting a 28-yard field goal in the final seconds of regulation. The teams each scored touchdowns to open overtime, but EMU had a chance to win in 2OT after an NIU fumble. This time, EMU’s Chad Ryland missed a game-winning 38-yard attempt, forcing 3OT. In the third extra frame, Ryland hit from 42 yards, but NIU won the game, 26-23, with a touchdown. EMU now has 11 losses by seven points or fewer since the start of the 2016 season. Ouch.