Note: This is part of our ongoing “FCS Week” feature here at ITB. Continue to check back this week for more news and analysis from around the Football Championship Subdivision (I-AA.)
For fans of college football’s top teams, this is usually the time of year when we obsess about preseason rankings, compulsively assess the situation of our teams’ conference rivals, and often completely forget to worry about that small state or private school down the road that was given a half million dollar check to essentially be blown out in a warm-up performance. Yet for the fans of those schools, and for the fans of Football Championship Subdivision (formerly I-AA) schools everywhere across the country, the prospect of such a game presents the challenge of the lifetime, and a chance to rise from relative obscurity to national prominence for at least one Saturday afternoon. Last year we were given a crash course in just what an inter-subdivision upset could mean, with Corey Lynch’s blocked field goal against Michigan serving as the iconic image of the season. While this year’s matchups may not present the kind of earth-shattering implications as Appalachian State’s upset of Michigan did, beginning on August 28th dozens of these FCS teams will be chasing that same dream, and trying to play the role of David against their respective Goliath’s. Over the next week we’ll be counting down the Top 10 most likely FCS over FBS upsets of 2008, as well as discussing the trends of these upsets and just what it takes for these smaller programs to take down even proven FBS winners. Keep in mind this list is just an assessment of the FCS teams with the best chances to take down certain FBS teams; meaning, among other things, that there could be more or less upsets than the ten I have listed here. Today we’re looking at my tenth through eighth most likely upsets for 2008, and starting at a very familiar place…
Louisiana State University is fresh off of a National Championship in which the Tigers won the SEC and pounded Ohio State 38-24 to take the title of the number one team in America. Surely such a team would be unstoppable against a lowly FCS team, wouldn’t it? The answer is probably a very solid “of course,” but when discussing Appalachian State one almost needs to throw all of last season’s accolades out the window. So let’s start with what we know. LSU has a quarterback “situation” after Les Miles finally booted oft-troubled quarterback Ryan Perrilloux from the team this spring, with redshirt freshmen Jarrett Lee and former Harvard transfer Andrew Hatch in the mix for the starting job come August 30th. The Tigers return thirteen starters overall but do lose some key players to the NFL, most notably Outland trophy winner Glenn Dorsey at DT, leading rusher Jacob Hester at RB, and top tacklers Craig Steltz and Ali Highsmith on the defense. Starting quarterback Matt Flynn also departs, as does wide receiver Early Doucet and both starting cornerbacks. While LSU certainly has the talent to eventually replace these players (with the possible exception of Dorsey) it won’t be easy, and despite a fairly light slate in September it’s not unreasonable to expect the Tigers to go through some growing pains, especially on defense. It’ll be interesting to see if this lack of championship experience at critical positions like quarterback and safety effects the way Les Miles runs his team. We all know he’s a gambler in every sense of the word, but without his most trusted offensive and defensive tools the Tigers may not find the kind of returns they expected on their early season gambles.
By now every college football fan in America is acquainted with the Appalachian State Mountaineers, and thankfully no longer on account of the Boone, North Carolina school’s reputation for being “hot, hot, hot.” I could go on documenting the 2007 Mountaineer season in detail but frankly it boils down to this; upset Michigan, make it to the playoffs, win a third straight FCS National Championship game. The fact that ASU lost conference games to Wofford and Georgia Southern almost seems irrelevant, but it does prove one thing, and that is that the Mountaineers are by no means invincible. While the offense was the top ranked in the country last season (averaging 488 yards per game) the Mountaineers only return five starters for ‘08 and must find a way to replace a 1000-yard rusher in Kevin Richardson, their three top reeivers (including second round draft choice Dextor Jackson), as well as three All-American offensive lineman. This is an extremely tall order and although Appalachian State remains one of the most talented teams in the FCS it is unlikely that they’ll be able to come out with the same explosiveness that they did against Michigan last season. Things look a little clearer on the defensive side of the ball as Appalachian State returns seven starters including all three linebackers in Jacque Roman, DJ Smith, and Pierre Banks. Nevertheless, there are still questions surrounding the defense, which finished the year a ho-hum 70th in the country while allowing 380 yards per game. ASU loses all four starting members of the secondary including All-American and NFL-bound safety Corey Lynch, who was the cornerstone upon which ASU’s championship defenses had been built. The fact that three of those starters were three-year starters cannot be overlooked, and despite an infusion of young talent this group looks impossible to replace and likely will struggle against a very good LSU receiving corps. Even with the secondary concerns this is still a talented team led by what some are calling a legitimate Heisman trophy contender in QB Armanti Edwards, and as always they are very well coached and well schemed in the spread offense which gave Michigan’s supposedly more talented defense fits last year. With the entire front seven back on the defensive side of the football they should improve against the run, which will be critical if they’re to stifle an LSU running game which could lean heavily on Keiland Williams and Trindon Holliday. Jerry Moore refuses to let this team get complacent and while they’re not going to sneak up on LSU like they did Michigan, they certainly have no shortage of self-confidence.
I know what you’re thinking; lightning couldn’t possibly strike twice, could it? In all honesty it likely won’t, as even a quarterback depleted LSU presents considerable problems for an Appalachian State team which figures to compete for a fourth consecutive National Championship. Nevermind this SEC speed fallacy everyone keeps talking about, the real difference between LSU and Michigan will be attitude and outlook. Simply put nobody is going to underestimate the Mountaineers after last year, and playing under the lights in a nationally televised contest like this could be a much bigger issue for a more inexperienced ASU team. Despite the fact that LSU’s quarterback position remains uncertain, the Tiger’s have talent and depth at all the skill positions and matchup considerably well against the Mountaineer secondary. Armanti Edwards is going to look good against virtually anyone, but it will be interesting to see how he does without the majority of his supporting cast from last year’s upset, particularly his top-three pass catchers. By the same token it will be interesting to see how the LSU quarterback, whether it be Lee or Hatch, comes out against ASU’s defense, and whether or not LSU plays a more conservative brand of offense. This should be a competitive game and although this LSU team is not nearly as vulnerable as Michigan was last year the Mountaineers have proven they don’t back down to anyone and that’s why I give Coach Moore and his squad at least a fighting chance against the defending FBS National Champions.
#9: Wofford at South Carolina (September 6th)
Is this the year Steve Spurrier finally gets the Gamecocks to the top of the SEC East standings? Upon first inspection it very may well be, as South Carolina returns seventeen total starters including ten on the defensive side of the ball from a team that went 6-6. But it seems like you never can tell with Spurrier and SC and despite an infusion of talent in the program they’ve still had their ups and downs during his tenure. Case in point the offense, which has failed to eclipse 24 points per game during Spurrier’s three years here, largely due to inconsistent quarterback play. While the good news for 2008 is that presumed starter Chris Smelley has experience (six starts in two years) the bad news is that he’s been inconsistent and doesn’t have the mobility Spurrier would prefer. SC’s other options may be limited however, as highly touted redshirt freshmen Stephen Garcia’s legal troubles have continued and he was suspended for the spring, while last year’s third string QB Tommy Beecher has struggled with accuracy and interceptions in limited duty. The fact that Smelley and Beecher combined for a mind-boggling eight picks in the spring game is cause for concern, especially considering the team lost its top offensive playmaker (RB Corey Boyd) to the NFL. Fortunately the defense returns virtually intact, but questionable performances against Louisiana-Lafayette (252 rush yards), LSU (290 rush yards), and Arkansas (541 rush yards) last year underscore potential matchup difficulties against run-based offenses. South Carolina has been a streaky team over the past few seasons and while they haven’t lost to an FCS school under Spurrier they did barely survive a 27-20 scare against Wofford in a 2006 season which was Spurrier’s best here.
Wofford is actually the fourth smallest school in Division I but you wouldn’t have known it by the way their football team played last year. The Terriers, who won the Southern Conference championship in 2007, have been something of a minor power in the FCS under head coach Mike Ayers, who has been named conference coach of the year four times since 2000. Wofford runs an old-school meets new-school wingbone offense along the lines of what Paul Johnson ran at Navy, with the South Carolina school typically among the FCS leader’s in rushing yard per game (second in the country at 309 ypg in 2007.) Last season was a landmark year for the Terriers, who went 9-4 with wins over FCS heavyweights Appalachian State and Montana before losing in the quarterfinals of the playoffs to Richmond. While they don’t return a majority of starters from offense or defense from last year’s team (10 full time returning starters) they do get back 43 letterwinners and six “nonstaters” who started at least two games. While Wofford loses its top rusher from last year there is a precedence of plugging in pieces to the offense as the team has had to replace its top rusher four of the last five seasons. Likewise, even though Wofford will have to break in a new quarterback in 2008 they won’t exactly be going with a bright-eyed freshmen, as senior Ben Widmyer, who actually started against NC State last season, will have the inside track to win the job in the fall. He’ll be pushed by a talented group of young players, including Navy transfer and option protégée Robby Davis. Even with the losses to graduation this remains a potent and well coached offense, and because of the uniqueness of its scheme and ability to “plug and chug” it has the potential to give South Carolina problems.
I admit this pick may be going out on a limb (especially when you consider Wofford’s last win against the Gamecocks came in 1917) but I swear that until South Carolina and Spurrier can establish some constancy at the quarterback position this team is going to be schizophrenic. Yes South Carolina is an SEC program which returns 17 starters and yes they managed wins against Kentucky and Georgia last season, but the reality of the situation is that they’ve been slow starters under Spurrier and their run defense has been mediocre. Spurrier and his team barely survived a Wofford upset bid in 2006 where Wofford came within a 4th and five conversion of tying the game at 27. Instead the Terriers fell 27-20 but they proved they could compete with South Carolina. This year Wofford gets two weeks to prepare for this game and because of their unique offense and the fact that South Carolina will be coming off a tough home game against Georgia I give the Terriers and their 1,350 student enrollment a fighting chance against Spurrier’s Gamecocks, making this my ninth most likely upset of 2008.
Maryland is one of those teams that is tough to get a read on. Ralph Friedgen did an absolutely amazing job here between 2001-2003 as he lead the Terps to three consecutive 10-win seasons including an ACC championship in 2001 and two impressive bowl wins in 2002 and 2003. Yet they’ve been streaky the past four seasons, finishing 5-6 in 2004 and 2005, 9-4 in 2006, and 6-7 last season. Much of this has been due to offensive inconsistency and mediocre quarterback play, which seems ironic considering both the legacy of Maryland quarterbacks of the past and the offensive background of Friedgen (hmm, remind you of another Maryland football team?) The starter on opening day is anyone’s guess, as three quarterbacks once again will take the battle into camp to see who will lead the Terps for at least the start of 2008. Remember that this was a team which was up and down in 2007, finishing the regular season off 6-6 before losing a tight game in the Emerald Bowl to Oregon State. They had their moments of dominance in wins over then 8th ranked Boston College and 10th ranked Rutgers, but they also lost to a mediocre North Carolina team and looked just o.k. against Villanova and Florida International. This year the Terps return eight starters on offense including four on the line, which to be fair dealt with a number of injuries last season. In addition to this they get five starters back on defense including middle linebacker Dave Philistin, an absolute beast who should be on track for all-conference honors. Nevertheless, the Terps have questions in the secondary with the loss of three starters, and will have to answer them in a hurry against what is traditionally one of the best passing attacks in the FCS. Talent wise the Terps are better than people give them credit for, but just like South Carolina their offense will only go so far as their up-to-now inconsistent quarterback play will take them, especially with the loss of their top two running backs from last season.
Delaware is coming off yet another successful season under head coach KC Keeler in which the Blue Hens went 11-4 and made it all the way to the National Title game before falling to Appalachian State. Offensively UD was among the Nation’s very best in 2007, finishing sixth in the country at 460 yards per contest. They do lose an outstanding quarterback in Joe Flacco to the NFL but they get another potential NFL prospect via transfer Rob Schoenhoft, who spent last year as the backup for Ohio State. Schoenhoft is a former four-star quarterback out of high school who happens to be a perfect fit for Coach Keeler’s offense with his 6’6 frame and strong arm, and should adapt well with a veteran cast of pass catchers around him (including former Pitt transfer and NFL prospect Robbie Agnone at TE.) While UD does have to replace three offensive lineman there is a tradition of developing solid O-lines here and I don’t see any reason for that not to continue in 2008. A talented group of running backs waits in the wings; including Wisconsin transfer Jerry Butler, who sat out 2007 with a leg injury. Defensively Delaware should be much improved, as nine starters return to a defense which ranked 50th in the nation last year, including former Notre Dame DE Ronald Talley. In case you haven’t gotten the picture by now, this is a team and a program which thrives off of getting FBS transfers.
I think the perception out there right now is that Delaware will be in a rebuilding year with the loss of a quarterback like Flacco and a runner like Omar Cuff. I don’t totally disagree with that notion but you have to remember that KC Keeler is very good at getting his teams fired up to play FBS opponents and that the Blue Hens remain one of the most talented squads in the FCS. Delaware put up 581 yards of total offense in a win at bowl-bound Navy last year and typically bring a large number of fans to mid-Atlantic contests (Maryland, in contrast, does not usually draw well for OOC games.) While Maryland does return eight starters on offense they have been a traditional slow-starter under Friedgen and haven’t shown great offensive production early in the year. I’m not sold on any of the quarterbacks here and even though they do get Josh Portis back he hasn’t taken a “live-fire” snap since 2005 and he’ll have to do against a Delaware defense which returns nine starters. Maryland’s heavy losses in the secondary are the most concerning aspects of this game as the Blue Hens return three starting wide receivers and a legitimate NFL prospect in the tight end Robbie Agnone. If the Blue Hens can protect Shoenhoft up front then he may very well be the next Flacco as he has the size, arm strength, and accuracy to play on the next level. Because of Keeler’s track record and the overall talent on Delaware’s roster I give them a good chance against the Terrapins, who will likely struggle out of the blocks offensively with continued questions at the quarterback and running back positions.
Check back tomorrow for my seventh through fifth most likely upsets!