Every season has one ritual that’s both exciting and infuriating — the practice of throwing out the preseason polls after only a few weeks of the season.
Teams we thought we understood in June, July and August turn out to be imposters — or wolves in sheep’s clothing — by the time games begin in September.
Just last season, three teams that were unranked in the preseason AP poll (Mississippi State, TCU and Arizona) were ranked in the top 10 in the first poll in August. Preseason No. 18 Ole Miss tied with the rival Bulldogs at No. 3 in the Oct. 5 poll.
At the same time, five teams in the preseason top 16 started October unranked (South Carolina, LSU, Wisconsin and Clemson).
While some teams may be able to survive the September upset — Ohio State and Oregon still played for the championship, after all — other seasons soar or crumble based on September results. These are teams that are already at a crossroads during the first month of the 2015 season.
The entire month of September will be a test of Tennessee’s ability to avoid its own hype. Bowling Green might not be able to upset the Volunteers, but the Falcons are a MAC contender. Tennessee ran out of steam against Oklahoma last season in a 34-10 loss in Norman, and the Volunteers still lack the depth to match their standout frontline talent. The whole month, though, points to that critical game against Florida. The Gators have won 10 in a row, and it’s tough to buy the Vols as an SEC favorite if they can’t solve their Florida problem.
Tigers quarterback Jeremy Johnson is already being named as one of the top quarterbacks in the SEC even though he threw fewer than 40 passes last season. He’ll be challenged immediately by Louisville and LSU — both away from home. Louisville and LSU ranked in the top 20 nationally in yards allowed per play and in the top five nationally in pass efficiency defense. Both defenses expect to pick up where they left off last season. Throw in a match up against Dak Prescott to round out the month, and Auburn will know right away if it has the goods to win the SEC.
Stanford gets its share of tough games at home — Arizona, UCLA, Oregon and Notre Dame. The Cardinal makes up for it with only one home game in the first month of the season. A trip to Evanston figures to be tricky (even if a lesser Cal team was able to win there last season). The highlight, though, is a road trip to USC, the potential Pac-12 favorite that beat Stanford 13-10 last season.
Texas isn’t getting much hype in the Big 12 — and after a 6-7 season and back-to-back routs to end 2014, that’s with good reason. That said, if Texas is able to upset Notre Dame and South Bend, the Longhorns would shift the balance of power in the Big 12. More realistically, Texas will need to show it can beat a mediocre West Coast team after losing to BYU twice and UCLA in the last two seasons. A home date against rising Oklahoma State, a team that’s won three in a row in Austin is key. A 1-3 start would be disastrous for second-year coach Charlie Strong.
The Aggies have dropped from 11 wins to nine to eight and six SEC wins to four to three in the three seasons under Kevin Sumlin. While no one would suggest he’s any trouble, Texas A&M’s status as an “it” program may be in jeopardy if the Aggies can’t get off to a hot start, which essentially boils down to those two neutral site games against Arizona State and Arkansas. Sumlin brought in John Chavis to fix a defense that will immediately get tested against two wildly different schemes in Arizona State’s up-tempo spread with a strong-armed QB and Arkansas’ grinding run game.
Thanks to the new Playoff bowl assignments, Boise State doesn’t need to go undefeated to get to a major bowl game. The Broncos simply have to win the Mountain West and be ranked higher than champs in the American, Conference USA, MAC and Sun Belt. Boise State is already the favorite in the Mountain West and can wrap up the “highest-ranked” criteria with signature wins against power programs in September. With two road games and a new quarterback, that’s easier said than done.
Last season, BYU started 4-0 with Taysom Hill at quarterback. He won’t have a ton of opportunities to work himself into the lineup with three of the first four on the road. This opening slate against a defending Fiesta Bowl champ (Boise State), a veteran Pac-12 contender (UCLA) and a team that hasn’t lost a season opener since 1985 (Nebraska) is much more difficult than the one Hill sliced through to start 2014. Remember, as an independent, BYU has to finish in the top 10 or better to get a coveted New Year’s Bowl slot. Winning a couple of these early would be a good start toward that goal.
Louisville defensive coordinator Todd Grantham will earn his pay in the first month of the season facing arguably the best offensive coach in the SEC (Auburn’s Gus Malzahn), the offensive coordinator from the reigning national champions (Houston’s Tom Herman) and the best quarterback in the ACC (Clemson’s Deshaun Watson). Louisville had a standout season on defense a year ago and will use Power 5 refugees Devonte Fields (TCU) and Josh Harvey-Clemons (Georgia) to fill the gaps.
Cal’s big September essentially boils down to those two big road games at the end of the month, though a loss to San Diego State would limit any momentum Sonny Dykes has built. A road trip to face a standout Texas secondary could be a key moment for Cal quarterback Jared Goff. And beating Washington for the first time since 2008 would be a critical Pac-12 win for a Cal team that has to face Utah, UCLA and USC from the South and Oregon and Stanford on the road.
Even in a weak SEC East, Kentucky has an uphill climb to contend for the division. Mark Stoops’ team improved from 2-10 to 5-7 and stepped up in recruiting. If the Wildcats are going to deliver on that potential, September would be a good time to do so. South Carolina, which lost 45-38 in Columbia to UK last year, is as vulnerable as its been under Steve Spurrier. Florida figures to be offensively challenged again under a new coach, especially early. And Missouri’s strength along the defensive line has been diminished due to departures. Kentucky hasn’t won an SEC road game since 2009, so getting Florida and Mizzou in Lexington is critical.
Looking for a Group of 5 team not named Boise State to watch? Why not Western Kentucky? Quarterback Brandon Doughty — who led shootout wins over Marshall (67-66) and Central Michigan (49-48) to finish last season — is back. The Hilltoppers have a chance to beat two Power 5 teams on the road, albeit Vandy and Indiana, and knock out a Conference USA contender (Louisiana Tech) all before Sept. 20.