It happens every college football season. The early non-conference schedule is going according to script on a lovely fall Saturday with the big-name Power Five team beating up a significant underdog. Then, suddenly, you learn that one of those matchups is not quite going the way everyone expected and you’re instantly enthralled with the tense back and forth of the final few minutes.
Which team might make the front page for just such an upset in 2016? Here are 10 candidates that could pull off a big win as the underdog during the first three weeks of the season.
Western Michigan over Northwestern, Sept. 3
Southern Miss over Kentucky, Sept. 3
Tulsa over Ohio State, Sept. 10
SMU over Baylor, Sept. 10
Boise State over Washington State, Sept. 10
Michigan State over Notre Dame, Sept. 17
10. Appalachian State over Tennessee, Sept. 1
Every college football fan instantly associates Appalachian State with its historic upset of Michigan nearly a decade ago when the then-FCS team upset a top-five Wolverines team in Ann Arbor. This year’s Tennessee team sports a similar profile and may be overlooking the Mountaineers for their big matchup with Virginia Tech the next week. They shouldn’t. Scott Satterfield has one of the best Group of Five teams around and will be in prime position to pull off another remarkable upset.
9. North Dakota State over Iowa, Sept. 17
Two years ago, NDSU went into the Hawkeye State and upset Iowa State. Can the Bison be thinking the same thing can happen in 2016 against the actual Hawkeyes? Don’t put it past the team that has won five straight FCS national titles and has punched well above their weight on the FBS level. Quarterback Easton Stick can test the highly touted Iowa secondary and there’s enough depth on defense for NDSU to slow down C.J. Beathard and company. Last season was a magical ride for Iowa fans but, as they all certainly saw at the Rose Bowl, 2016 is a different beast and things might get off to a rough start.
8. Missouri over West Virginia, Sept. 3
Missouri has been through an amazing amount of on- and off-field turmoil the past year, so you would expect the team to want to put that all behind and come out fired up for the opener against West Virginia. The Tigers’ offense has nowhere to go but up and it will get the benefit of facing a Mountaineers defense that has a lot of new faces being put on the spot right away. New Mizzou head coach Barry Odom is a master at scheming defenses and likely has the edge over Dana Holgorsen’s offense given all the question marks on that side of the ball.
7. Texas over Cal, Sept. 17
Charlie Strong needs a big non-conference win to help save his job and he’s got a good chance to get one when the Longhorns head west to Berkeley. Cal will be without all-everything quarterback Jared Goff and while replacement Davis Webb is pretty good, it will be hard to replicate what the No. 1 NFL Draft pick did a year ago with far less supporting talent around him. Texas has some talented athletes and, at the very least, can use its power run game to take control of this one.
6. Auburn over Texas A&M, Sept. 17
It was a little surprising to see Auburn roll into College Station last season and run the ball down Texas A&M’s throats for a big upset. Could the same thing play out again, this time on the Plains? It’s definitely possible as Gus Malzahn’s offense has given Kevin Sumlin’s group fits over the years. Both teams have tough early games before this one kicks off and both should be plenty motivated to make a big opening SEC West statement. With Myles Garrett on one side and Carl Lawson on the other, the winner of this one might be whose left tackle holds up best.
5. Virginia Tech over Tennessee, Sept. 10
The "Battle at Bristol" is expected to host the largest college football crowd ever, so this one figures to be wild from the tailgates through to the final whistle. Tennessee has a lot of talent, but the spotlight will be on this team for the first time in a while so it will be interesting to see how the Volunteers handle sky-high expectations on the big stage. Virginia Tech should see a big increase in offensive efficiency under new head coach Justin Fuente and the ground game should be strong with a veteran offensive line set to contain Derek Barnett and the Vols’ defense. It will be strange not to see Frank Beamer on the sidelines for the Hokies, but don’t bet against the team winning a big one for its old coach, especially if things are tight late.
4. Ohio State over Oklahoma, Sept. 17
One of the biggest non-conference matchups in recent memory pits a pair of college football heavyweights against each other with significant College Football Playoff implications. Norman has been quite the fortress since Bob Stoops arrived in town and Baker Mayfield will lead a talented team onto the field that returns quite a bit from last year’s final four team. Still, hardly anybody has recruited more talent the past few years than Urban Meyer and he has his own Heisman-caliber quarterback in J.T. Barrett. The Buckeyes always seem to rise to the occasion for big time games like this and Sept. 17 should be no exception.
3. Kansas State over Stanford, Sept. 2
If there’s one thing veteran college football fans know, it’s not to sleep on Bill Snyder. Every year he goes into a big game with less talent but winds up coaching the Wildcats into a big victory. This could be the case for both teams’ opener with Stanford having to replace a lot of NFL talent around superstar Christian McCaffrey and on defense. The Cardinal have usually started their season slow and that’s not a great thing when they’re having to face a healthy and talented Kansas State team.
2. Arkansas State over Auburn, Sept. 10
Auburn has had a history of close games with talented non-Power Five teams and needed overtime just to escape FCS foe Jacksonville State last season. Arkansas State is on a different level than most however and the defending Sun Belt champs should be able to give the Tigers everything they’ve got. There’s a ton of skill position talent all over the board returning from last year and a host of transfers (including ex-Alabama DL Dee Liner and TCU speedster Cameron Echols-Luper) stock one of the more impressive depth charts in the country. The Red Wolves’ offense should pose plenty of problems and the fact that Auburn will be coming off a big game against Clemson in the opener screams that this one has huge upset potential.
1. Houston over Oklahoma, Sept. 3
Every year there is talk about whether a non-Power Five team can crash the Playoff and that will be kicked into overdrive in 2016 if Houston can pull off the upset of the Sooners to open the year. A dynamic offense led by quarterback Greg Ward Jr. will give any team fits, much less one like Oklahoma’s that is missing key players at all three levels from last year’s team. The Cougars’ defense also lost talented pieces like William Jackson III, but the depth might be just as good thanks to a handful of transfers, young players and incoming recruits like five-star tackle Ed Oliver. If everything comes together, people will be talking about much more than Tom Herman and Houston beating Oklahoma and begin to wonder very seriously if a party crasher will be making it into the final four.
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.