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September Football: Upset City!

By: Jim Feist
Date: Sep 21, 2015
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by Jim Feist

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 money went on the Vikings Monday night, the young up and coming team under Mike Zimmer that had been so impressive in preseason and the second half of the 2014 season.

Those Vikings were matched up against a San Francisco team with a new coach that had had a terrible offseason, losing a string of talented players on both sides of the line to free agency or retirement. So what happened? The 49ers dominated the Vikings in a 20-3 beat-down as a home dog.

September is a fascinating time for handicappers to follow college football partly because of surprises. A few years 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. Weren’t those the same Sooners were upset by TCU as a 24-point favorite? Yes, and that took place in September, too.

The upset was because Oklahoma had 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.

Notre Dame has already lost their starting QB, while in the NFL Dez Bryant is out for a while and Baltimore star DE Terrell Suggs is already done for the year. I recall another recent season when Notre Dame lost its starting quarterback in September, losing 23-20 to South Florida as a 10-point favorite.

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. One season Duke won at Boston College as a +7 dog, but the Eagles were terrible offensively with QB problems that stretched back two years. When you see a team that can score as a significant favorite, be careful. This was the case with another TCU team that 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. How long will Jameis Winston keep getting the call in Tampa? Their backup, Mike Glennon, isn’t that bad – and isn’t that old. The Eagles have new looks all over their defense, so it’s not yet clear how much improved (of at all) they are from 2014.

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 big early upset a few years 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, getting several key players back from injury along with a new coach.

Maybe this will cheer up Tennessee and Texas 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.

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