Could Notre Dame knock off Georgia?
Biff Tannen acquiring Grays Sports Almanac dramatically changed the future of Hill Valley, California, in "Back to the Future 2." Although a work of science fiction — and never mind that Marty McFly didn't have the good sense to get an Athlon Sports magazine instead — the movie speaks to a concrete fact: No one picks every winner without cheating.
Nailing the inevitable upsets that shape a college football season without a tip from the future is tough. The following 10 games in the 2019 season's first month are less picks than they are a guide to the most feasible, yet still landscape-altering, upsets September may bring.
10. Air Force over Boise State, Sept. 20
After losing an overtime heartbreaker in last December's Mountain West Conference Championship Game, Boise State reloads with a team that's a clear favorite in 2019. However, the road to a conference title and potential New Year's Six Bowl contention is rife with challenges. The first for the Broncos, and perhaps the most treacherous in Mountain West play, comes early.
Air Force has been a consistent thorn in Boise State's side since the Broncos joined the Mountain West in 2011. The Falcons won three straight from 2014-16, including a Friday night game on the blue turf in '15 in which Air Force head coach Troy Calhoun showed some new wrinkles to the playbook. Last year, Air Force put up 38 points in a loss to the Broncos. The Falcons' starting lineup is one of the most veteran in the nation, and their unorthodox style could give Boise State fits on a quick turnaround.
9. Northwestern over Michigan State, Sept. 21
Northwestern won the Big Ten West in 2018, rallied in dramatic fashion to win the Holiday Bowl, and returns key players like J.R. Pace, Isaiah Bowser and Bennett Skowronek. And yet, the Wildcats are largely overlooked heading into 2019. No matter: Northwestern has a prime opportunity to score an early-season Big Ten win over a preseason top-20-ranked opponent, Michigan State.
The Wildcats beat the Spartans by 10 last season in East Lansing, extending their winning streak in the series to three games. Not many programs boast the kind of success against the always-tough Spartans that Northwestern has enjoyed in recent years.
8. Houston over Washington State, Sept. 13
Power 5 programs visiting Houston have not had an easy go of it. The 2016 Cougars beat two different No. 3-ranked teams (Oklahoma, Louisville) the week they came to the H, and last year flattened Arizona. Washington State makes the trip there this year, coming off the best season in program history and as an under-the-radar contender to win the Pac-12.
This Friday the 13th encounter should produce a ton of points and have defensive backs on both sides running more than the characters in the slasher franchise that shares the date's name. This is an opportunity for Dana Holgorsen to score a marquee win over the coach from whom he cultivated his variation of the air-raid offense.
7. UCF over Stanford, Sept. 14
Stanford is one Power 5 conference program that doesn't shy away from playing road games against Group of 5 opponents. Meanwhile, no Group of 5 program in recent years has been more vocal about brokering home-and-homes with the Power 5 than UCF. It's difficult to posit whether a Knights win over Stanford would help or hurt UCF's chances for future such dates. But the program riding the nation's longest regular-season winning streak stands to bolster its profile at least for the immediate future.
The Knights get Stanford one week after what should be an emotional Pac-12 for the Cardinal against USC (and upset potential for Stanford in its own right, too). UCF's potent offense will give a new-look Cardinal defense a workout.
6. Iowa over Iowa State, Sept. 14
When Matt Campbell stayed at Iowa State despite rumored interest from a bevy of other sources (including the NFL), the Cyclones' 2019 hype train pulled out of the station. There's a lot to love about this team, but the chatter around Iowa State has somewhat overshadowed the potential at rival Iowa.
On offense alone, the Hawkeyes return Nathan Stanley at quarterback, Alaric Jackson to anchor the offensive line, and a deep rotation of capable running backs with Mekhi Sargent, Toren Young and Iovry Kelly-Martin. With A.J. Epenesa powering the defense, Iowa may be the team to beat in the wide-open Big Ten West. It's a well-guarded secret now, but word will get out fast if the Hawkeyes win in Ames to claim the CyHawk.
5. Nebraska over Ohio State, Sept. 28
This may be a trendy pick, given all the love shown to Nebraska in the offseason. However, a younger Cornhuskers team played a more veteran Ohio State bunch to within a single possession at the Horseshoe last season. Prior results don't dictate the future, but it's not a narrow limb to pinpoint this as a possible upset. The Buckeyes will be in the first month of integrating a new starting quarterback (though they did just fine with that process last year) and also a new head coach. Lincoln will certainly be the most raucous atmosphere of Ryan Day's first season at the helm.
4. USC over Utah, Sept. 20
Utah comes into 2019 off a historic, first-ever appearance in the Pac-12 Championship Game. Without a peculiar interception against Washington (not to mention a bevy of offensive injuries), the Utes may well have played in the Rose Bowl. All that sets the scene for a campaign with high expectations — expectations that could come crashing down early if Utah fails in some familiar spots. One such spot is USC.
Kyle Whittingham made the gutsy decision to go for two and the win in Utah's last visit to the Coliseum in 2017. The gamble did not pay off, and the Utes remained winless in the venerable stadium. With USC unveiling a new offense without much game film available to study, the Trojans could be a trap for Utah, playing in the most vexing venue for the Utes in all of the Pac-12.
3. Colorado over Nebraska, Sept. 14
No team in college football coming off a season as bad in the W-L column is getting as much love as 4-8 Nebraska. The Cornhuskers showed plenty of potential in Scott Frost's first year as head coach at his alma mater, to be sure, but overcoming the close-game bug that bit it so repeatedly in 2018 is key to fulfilling expectations in '19. One of the teams that handed Nebraska a close loss last season was Colorado, which undergoes some considerable changes in the coaching staff, yet returns a corps of veteran talent.
Wide receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. is back and healthy. He shredded Nebraska a season ago, including hauling in a spectacular, game-winning touchdown catch.
If Nate Landman can lead the Buffaloes defense to an inspired performance, Colorado has a prime opportunity to spoil some of the offseason hype around Nebraska early.
2. Notre Dame over Georgia, Sept. 21
When Georgia and Notre Dame rebuffed the recent trend of big-name programs agreeing to non-conference games only under the pretense of a one-off, neutral field encounter, a mini-rivalry was born. Georgia paved its way to the 2017 College Football Playoff, in part, on a road win at Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish made the final four a season ago at 12-0 despite the not-so-subtle protests of an 11-2 Georgia team.
Based on the last two seasons' developments, the 2019 back-half of a historic home-and-home functions as something of a rubber match. The stakes are remarkably high for a game so early in the docket. Georgia comes into the season a heavy favorite to contend for the playoff once more, while last year's semifinalist Notre Dame must prove it can hang with the heavyweights of the southeast after a blowout loss to Clemson.
Quarterback Ian Book injected life into Notre Dame's offense after taking the reins last season. With a full year under his belt, and four starting offensive linemen returning, the Fighting Irish have the potential to attack the Bulldogs in a manner comparable to Texas in January's Sugar Bowl.
1. Syracuse over Clemson, Sept. 14
Clemson was cursed when it visited the Carrier Dome on Friday the 13th in October 2017. The Tigers barely escaped a rematch with the Orange at home last season, when in hindsight, a loss would have almost certainly derailed their playoff aspirations. Whatever Dino Babers is doing, it's provided the stiffest challenge for Clemson in the ACC. The 2019 installment could be more of the same.
Syracuse replaces Eric Dungey with promising quarterback Tommy DeVito, and the defense features one of the nation's most fearsome pass-rushing duos in Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman.