Staff picks: Which underdog can shake up the 2020 college football season with a massive upset?
The 2020 college football season is inching closer to reality. Earlier this week, the NCAA Council voted to allow its moratorium for on-campus activities to expire at the end of the month. The SEC followed that up on Friday by announcing it was reopening its athletic facilities for voluntary workouts beginning June 8. Still, it's not clear what the actual schedules will look like in the fall as each school is tasked with determining its own course of action.
One result of this may be an even more topsy-turvy season than we're traditionally used to. Training, conditioning, coaching and general preparation are being thrown for a loop. So don't be surprised if the weekly results depict this madness. While upsets are commonplace in every college football season, 2020 could be even more shocking. With those things in mind, our staff delivered their boldest picks on which underdog is prime to pull up a massive win no one sees coming, with many of those selections affecting the national landscape.
Ben Kercheval: North Dakota State over Oregon
Date: Saturday, Sept. 5
Fun fact: North Dakota State has won its last six games against FBS opponents dating back the last decade. None of them were as notable as a potential victory over Oregon projects to be in 2020 — Iowa ranked No. 13 at the time of their game in 2016 — but this is still a precarious spot for the Ducks. Expectations are high even without star quarterback Justin Herbert and a home game against what could be a top-ranked Ohio State on the calendar for the following week. To be sure, this isn't a look-ahead game for Oregon; as eight-time NCAA Division I national champs last decade, nobody's sleeping on the Bison. Still, Oregon is breaking in a new quarterback (perhaps Anthony Brown from Boston College) and loses some key pieces along the offensive line.
Oregon has a clear edge talent-wise, but the name to watch for North Dakota State will be quarterback Trey Lance, who had 2,786 yards passing and 1,100 yards rushing along with 42 total touchdowns in 2019. Lance is getting some early 2021 NFL Draft buzz as well. On paper, this game should be a win for Oregon, maybe even by a comfortable margin. Be careful, though, Ducks. Scheduling North Dakota State has not gone well for FBS teams recently.
Chip Patterson: Pitt over Notre Dame
Date: Saturday, Oct. 17
Looking at Notre Dame's schedule, it's easy to get lost focusing on the brightest and shiniest games on the slate. Everyone around that program has already considered the possibilities of what a home date with Clemson in November could mean for the Irish's College Football Playoff hopes or envisioned the epic "neutral-site" showdown with Wisconsin at Lambeau Field. But to focus too much on those headliners is to ignore the most dangerous trap spot on the schedule: at Pitt on Oct. 17.
Notre Dame will have the Wisconsin game in the rearview and enter the contest after hosting traditional rival Stanford at home. On the other side of the Pitt game is an off week that will be much-needed for a team that will want to be as healthy as possible for that Nov. 7 date with Trevor Lawrence and the Tigers. It's a game where survival will be the primary goal, but surviving isn't always when there's the risk of Pitt happening.
Pitt happens. It just does. And no one should know this more than Notre Dame, who escaped with a 19-14 home win against the Panthers in 2018 en route to an undefeated regular season and College Football Playoff appearance. Of all the stops on the road to the playoff, that grinder was one of the toughest tests the Irish had to pass. We'll start the season thinking about that playoff rematch with Clemson in November, but those playoff stakes won't exist if the Irish can't get by Pitt in October.
Date: Saturday, Oct. 24
I am a firm believer that Tennessee is going to get somebody this season. I don't think Jeremy Pruitt has done enough with the program to consider the Vols a legit contender in the SEC East yet, but they've reached a level where at least one upset should be expected. There are certainly plenty of chances, too, as the Vols play Oklahoma, Florida, Alabama and Georgia this coming season. Well, if you're going big-game hunting, you might as well go for the biggest prize of them all. Tennessee is beating Alabama this year. It's happening! That third Saturday in October is going to see a Tennessee win over the Tide for the first time since 2006 (Nick Saban took over in 2007).
This year, things set up very well for the Vols. Not only are they playing the game in Knoxville, but Tennessee has a bye the week before. Alabama does not. Alabama's game against Tennessee will be its eighth contest in as many weeks. It will also be Alabama's third road game in four weeks. All the ingredients are there for a major Tennessee upset, so don't forget who told you it was going to happen five months ahead of time.
Barrett Sallee: TCU over Oklahoma
Date: Saturday, Oct. 31
Oklahoma usually has a Big 12 game where it struggles to wake up, sleepwalks through a half or so and can't finish off a rally late in a game. That game will be against TCU this year. The Sooners will be playing their sixth straight game and will to travel to Fort Worth one week after the Bedlam rivalry with Oklahoma State. While it's true that the Horned Frogs will be on similar rest, playing a game against Baylor — even though it's an in-state rivalry — pales in comparison to Bedlam. The Horned Frogs defense, led by all-everything defensive back Trevon Moehrig-Woodard, will rattle Sooners quarterback Spencer Rattler (pun intended … I'm not sorry) and give the Sooners no margin for error in the race to return to the College Football Playoff for a fourth consecutive year.
Date: Saturday, Nov. 21
You can see it now: A late-season noon kickoff that only diehard fans of the teams involved are tuned in for, initially. The stands are only half full (if fans are allowed at all). But Liberty will hang around, and by the time it's over, everyone watching a college football game anywhere in the country will have had their broadcast momentarily interrupted for a 15-second studio hit that features Freeze receiving an ice bath from his players after the biggest win in program history.
Despite everything else he's known for, Freeze can still coach. He led Liberty to an 8-5 season, including a bowl win, in its second season as an FBS program last year. The Flames are projected to lose 12 starters, but by the time Nov. 21 rolls around and they take on NC State, the cohesiveness will be there. Liberty will know what to expect after playing two ACC teams in Virginia Tech and Syracuse earlier in the season, and the third time will be the charm.