To paraphrase modern philosopher Homer Simpson, a college football season without upsets is like a bowling ball without a liquid center.
OK, so perhaps Springfield's most famous resident isn't the most likely voice to invoke when breaking down college football. Still, the point remains: Upsets are part of the magic that make the shortest season in American sports a thrilling sprint. As summer transitions into autumn, the landscape for the college football season is set with September games, both out-of-conference and in leagues, that have bearing on winter's national championship picture.
Part of the excitement of college football's inevitable round of upsets is that the actual upsets are unpredictable. Who called Syracuse over Clemson or Arizona State over Washington last season, for example? So while we may not know which upsets will impact the scene, consider the following a guide to some of the more likely, and those with the most profound possibilities, in altering how we view the postseason chase.
10. Boise State over Oklahoma State, Sept. 15
A future Hall of Famer can cast a big shadow, but Boise State head coach Bryan Harsin has an opportunity to create his own legacy at Boise State as the successor to Chris Petersen. Harsin won his second Mountain West Conference championship in 2017, and this fall, has a team capable of being his second to earn its way into a New Year's Six bowl bid.
For the Broncos to set the tone among the Group of 5, they have to navigate a difficult non-conference schedule with two early-season trips well outside of Idaho (as we will see later in this countdown). Boise State will be road-tested when it visits Stillwater in Week 3 to face an Oklahoma State bunch undergoing some change.
The Cowboys' pass-happy offense faces a real test from Boise State's aggressive defense; that means plenty of opportunities for defensive backs Kekoa Nawahine, Tyler Horton and Avery Williams to make plays.
9. Northwestern over Michigan, Sept. 29
The 2018 season is an important one for Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Wolverines. After consecutive 10-win campaigns in 2015 and '16, the '17 squad faltered down the stretch amid a rash of injuries and badly underachieved. The offense was built practically from scratch to kick off the season, and with Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich leading the defense, Michigan has enough on both sides of the ball to mount a College Football Playoff push.
Getting through a cross-divisional matchup with Big Ten West dark-horse contender Northwestern could be one of the most serious challenges the Wolverines face. Pat Fitzgerald's program thrives in the underdog role, standing toe-to-toe with the best of the Big Ten playing a hard-nosed defensive style and running an innovative offense. New Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson will have to contend with sack-producing machines Joe Gaziano and Samdup Miller.
8. Troy over Boise State, Sept. 1
The past two seasons have gone pretty well for the Troy Trojans. The program earned its first Top 25 ranking in the 2016 campaign, and last season, Neal Brown's bunch followed that up with a Sun Belt Conference title.
Troy looks like a strong contender to win the Sun Belt again in 2018. The next frontier for the Trojans to conquer could well be contending for the Sun Belt's first New Year's Six spot. It's a difficult hurdle to clear, with the SBC typically viewed as bringing up the rear among the Group of 5 conferences. But with the clout of having beaten a Top 25-ranked SEC team last year (LSU), reaching the polls two years ago, and drawing the favorite to win this year's New Year's Six spot at home, the pieces are in place for Troy to mount a surprise run.
7. Northern Illinois over Utah, Sept. 8
Long the benchmark for greatness in the Mid-American Conference, Northern Illinois is a favorite to return to the league's mountaintop in 2018. The Huskies also have a long and distinguished history of knocking off power-conference opponents. Rarely does one come to DeKalb, either.
Home-field advantage promises Northern Illinois a raucous environment as it looks to knock off one of the top contenders in the Pac-12. Defensive end Sutton Smith introducing himself to Utes quarterback Tyler Huntley could play a key part in the Huskies' upset pursuit.
6. Kansas State over Mississippi State, Sept. 8
Whether this qualifies as an upset or not depends on how our friends in the desert view these two teams after Week 1. Bill Snyder's Wildcats may well be favorites by then, considering the challenge Mississippi State has trekking to the Little Apple for an early (noon ET) kickoff amid the Gothic buildings and cornfields of Manhattan.
However, K-State heads into 2018 occupying its usual middle-of-the-pack predicted finish in the Big 12. Mississippi State, returning a bevy of starters on both sides of the ball and welcoming the outstanding offensive mind of coach Joe Moorhead, is an en vogue selection to finish second in the tough SEC West.
Should the Bulldogs perform as well in conference as some pundits project, the Big 12 scoring a head-to-head victory could go a long way in earning the conference playoff credibility come December.
5. Iowa over Wisconsin, Sept. 22
Wisconsin is a perennial contender in the Big Ten, and the clear heavyweight of its division, but 2017 still shocked much of the college football punditry. With Jonathan Taylor breaking out as the latest star Badgers running back, Wisconsin went into the Big Ten Championship Game a surprise playoff contender. The shocks continued with a win over Miami in the Orange Bowl.
Paul Chryst has a bona fide national title contender on his hands in 2018, but the Badgers face a stiff challenge early that may deny Wisconsin another perfect regular season. Iowa plays in front of one of the most passionate fan bases in the country, and home-field advantage can go a long way for the Hawkeyes. Just last year, the Hawkeyes nearly eliminated Penn State from the playoff conversation with a September upset.
This year's Iowa team should be better than the 2017 version, with Kirk Ferentz having the parts in place for one of his patented surprise seasons. A win over Wisconsin to get Big Ten West competition rolling could kick start the shocks.
4. Utah over Washington, Sept. 15
Utah knocked on the door of springing upsets against Washington each of the past two seasons, including last season in Seattle when the Utes had possession with fewer than two minutes remaining.
This season, Utah has home-field advantage and perhaps its best overall lineup since the 2008 undefeated team. The Utes can contend for their first-ever Pac-12 Championship Game appearance, and knocking off Washington would be a huge step in that direction.
While the home team winning a potential conference championship game preview does not smack of upset, Washington does enter 2018 a heavy favorite to win the Pac-12 and contend for a College Football Playoff berth. Depending how a Week 1 ostensible road game vs. Auburn goes, the Huskies' trip to Salt Lake City might carry some weighty implications for them; ditto for the Utes if the previously mentioned potential upset involving Utah comes to fruition.
3. Arizona State over Michigan State, Sept. 8
Michigan State returns a bevy of talent on both sides of the ball, and has one of the best strategic minds in the game with head coach Mark Dantonio. All told, the Spartans are dark-horse contenders for the College Football Playoff. How much that readies a team to endure the blistering temperatures and hostile atmosphere an early-season opponent faces at Sun Devil Stadium is the question lingering over this Big Ten vs. Pac-12 showdown.
Arizona State boasts a distinguished history of knocking off highly ranked opponents at home early in the season -- just ask Washington, which had its playoff hopes dashed in Tempe last year -- including the last Big Ten team to visit, Wisconsin. This Sun Devil squad is better than its last-place billing in the Pac-12 preseason media poll, returning underrated Manny Wilkins at quarterback and arguably the best receiver in the nation, N'Keal Harry.
2. South Carolina over Georgia, Sept. 8
Future Hall of Famer Steve Spurrier -- legendary both for this coaching acumen, which included the most prosperous era in South Carolina history, as well as his trash-talking ability -- once quipped that playing Georgia early in the season was a boon for the Gamecocks.
While the nature of Spurrier's trash talk does not apply in 2018, successor Will Muschamp and his South Carolina squad could benefit all the same from a Week 2 showdown. The defending SEC champion Bulldogs head into 2018 with quarterback Jake Fromm, but Kirby Smart's left replacing several key players integral to last year's title-game run. Gone are Roquan Smith, Sony Michel and Nick Chubb, among others.
Meanwhile, South Carolina returns one of the most experienced lineups in the SEC, building off a surprise nine-win campaign in 2017. With Gamecocks quarterback Jake Bentley poised for a star season, look for South Carolina to capitalize on the early growing pains Georgia faces and perhaps spring the most important SEC upset of September.
1. TCU over Ohio State, Sept. 15
Despite an offseason mired in turmoil, Ohio State has legitimate national championship credentials in 2018. The Buckeyes are loaded on defense and return some impressive playmakers on offense, packing enough firepower to withstand a top-heavy Big Ten East.
But how will the Buckeyes fare outside of the Big Ten?
Ohio State's playoff hopes may well hinge on an out-of-conference showdown against the Big 12 (talk about deja vu). And the matchup is a doozy. Gary Patterson oversees one of college football's perennial overachievers at TCU, typically built around stout defense. That should be no difference in 2018, but the return of running back Darius Anderson and the promising prospects of talented quarterback Shawn Robinson suggest the Horned Frogs could have their most explosive offense since 2014.
If TCU can score this early-season upset, not only does it dramatically alter the playoff forecast for Ohio State, but it also launches the Horned Frogs to the forefront of the conversation.