Farrell's take: Teams off to surprisingly fast starts in 2017
The college football season is three weeks old, so we might as well delve into the teams that have surprised us and disappointed us so far. Let’s start today with the surprises, led by Dan Mullen and his Mississippi State Bulldogs.
Mark Pszonak contributed to this report…
1. MISSISSIPPI STATE
Expectations: The official SEC media poll had the Bulldogs sixth in the SEC West, ahead of only Ole Miss. Most publications agreed that Mississippi State would be battling the Rebels for the cellar of the division.
Reality: Even after cruising past Charleston Southern and Louisiana Tech, not many people outside of Starkville expected what was about to come against LSU. The 37-7 beatdown of the Tigers quickly put the Bulldogs on the national radar and raised expectations for the season. These expectations are helped with Nick Fitzgerald at quarterback, who has become one of the top dual-threats in the country. Aeris Williams has also quickly developed into a top SEC-level back, while the defense is led by Jeffery Simmons, Mark McLaurin, Dezmond Harris and Gerri Green.
Outlook: With road games coming up the next two weeks at Georgia and Auburn, a great deal more will be known about the Bulldogs by the end of September. If they can come out of these two games favorably, the rest of the schedule actually looks somewhat reasonable. Getting by Alabama, which is at home this season, is obviously never easy, but Mississippi State has positioned itself nicely after that win over LSU.
Farrell’s take: Dan Mullen has proven he can take quarterbacks and make them into stars. He did it with Alex Smith, a two-star out of high school who became the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft, Tim Tebow who was a five-star but had mechanical issues and Dak Prescott, a three-star from Louisiana that LSU didn’t really want. Now Fitzgerald is the next star under Mullen, but let’s not ignore the fact that Mullen also stays in his lane, is great delegating and always hires coaches who get the most out of players. Many of the stars on the team aside from Simmons are three-stars, which speaks to coaching and development.
Expectations: Vanderbilt was selected to finish in last place in the SEC East by the media. A majority of publications agreed that the Commodores were destined for a tough season.
Reality: Led by a defense that has allowed only 13 points in three games, Vanderbilt is currently undefeated. The highlight of this fast start is a tough 14-7 victory over No. 18 Kansas State, which was Vanderbilt’s first win over a ranked non-SEC team since 1946. Kyle Shurmur has been very reliable at quarterback, completing 71 percent of his passes while throwing eight touchdowns and no interceptions. Ralph Webb returned as one of the top backs in the SEC, and while he is only averaging 2.6 yards per carry, he has the experience and talent to help carry the offense during the tougher stretches of the season. The early season stars of the defense have been linebackers Emmanuel Smith and Charles Wright, who have totaled 42 tackles, eight tackles for a loss and five sacks.
Outlook: The Commodores don’t have too much time to bask in the glow of their win over Kansas State since No. 1 Alabama comes to Nashville this Saturday, followed by games against ranked Florida and Georgia. The schedule eases up after that, so no matter how the next three games go for Vanderbilt, they should have enough in the tank to have a much better season than initially expected and make back-to-back bowl games.
Farrell’s take: I thought Derek Mason was over his head when he was hired at Vanderbilt to replace James Franklin, and at times he has looked that way. But you can’t argue with the defensive prowess the team has shown, and that has been the key to success so far. The offense is efficient and doesn’t make mistakes, and the defense handles the rest. The offense obviously needs to improve for success to continue, but no one expected a 3-0 start.
Expectations: The official Big 12 media poll had the Horned Frogs fifth in the conference, between Texas and West Virginia, while a majority of publications agreed and had them in the middle of the pack heading into the 2017 season.
Reality: TCU is currently sitting 16th in this week’s AP Poll behind only Oklahoma and Oklahoma State in the Big 12. After a lopsided victory over Jackson State, TCU surprised some by easily handling Arkansas and then beating a better-than-expected SMU team by 20. The offense, which is averaging 49.0 points per game, is led by quarterback Kenny Hill. Hill, who transferred over from Texas A&M, had a rather pedestrian 2016 season, but is completing 75 percent of his passes with eight touchdowns and only two interceptions so far this season. The ground attack is led by Darius Anderson, who has 262 yards and three touchdowns, while KaVontae Turpin, Desmon White, Jalen Reagor, John Diarse and Shaun Nixon have become a reliable and deep receiving corps. Defensively, Ben Banogu, Travin Howard and Ridwan Issahaku have led an improving and opportunistic unit.
Outlook: That improved defense will get a serious test immediately as TCU travels to Oklahoma State this Saturday. This will be a measuring stick game for the Horned Frogs. The remainder of the schedule falls together pretty well, though, with Oklahoma not coming until Nov. 11 and the season ending with Texas Tech and Baylor. Chances are high that the Horned Frogs can have a much better than expected season this fall.
Farrell’s take: Gary Patterson is a great coach, we all know that. And when I named my top 10 coaches in college football and left him out, many people freaked. Last year wasn’t a great one for TCU, but here is Patterson with his Horned Frogs back on track and dangerous once again. Like Mississippi State and Vanderbilt, much of the talent on the roster are former three-stars, but they do have some key transfers like Hill and Diarse who were heavily recruited and have flourished under Patterson.
Reality: As seen above, expectations were very low for Purdue this season. Jeff Brohm took over in West Lafayette after a very successful stint at Western Kentucky and has quickly put the Boilermakers back on the Big Ten map. Purdue immediately opened some eyes this season during their tough 35-28 loss to Louisville. Then came an easy victory over Ohio and a dominant performance on the road against Missouri. Brohm has quickly awoken the Boilermaker offense, with quarterback David Blough, running back Tario Fuller and wide receiver Jackson Anthrop forming a formidable trio. Defensively, Ja'Whaun Bentley, Jacob Thieneman and Josh Okonye are just a few of the Boilermakers who have made big plays in the early stages of the season.
Outlook: Purdue has a huge opportunity this Saturday with a home game against Michigan. They also have the benefit of avoiding both Penn State and Ohio State this season. Playing in a West Division that still seems to have a number of question marks, Purdue has a chance to have a much better than expected season this fall.
Farrell’s take: Brohm has done a nice job early at a place where it’s hard to win. Hanging with Louisville was a surprise, and Ohio and Missouri aren’t great teams, but this is a Purdue program that could easily be 0-3 under a different coach. Brohm's offense will be exciting, and he’ll have to do it with overlooked recruits as the recruiting landscape in the Midwest is about as competitive as its ever been, but so far so good. Plus, Blough is an underrated signal caller.
Expectations: The official ACC media poll had the Blue Devils finishing sixth in the Coastal Division ahead of only Virginia. A majority of publications also had Duke finishing in the bottom third of the division.
Reality: Duke has raced out to an undefeated start, which was highlighted by a 24-point victory over Northwestern. While the victory over Baylor may not be as impressive as it could have been due to the Bears' horrible start, the Blue Devils are still off to a great start. The offense, which is averaging 45 points per game, is led by dual-threat quarterback Daniel Jones and the running back tandem of Shaun Wilson and Brittain Brown. T.J. Rahming is also a reliable threat in the passing game. After a big redshirt freshman season last fall, linebacker Joe Giles-Harris has become the leader of the defense. Already with 26 tackles, 4.5 tackles for a loss, one sack and one interception, he is quickly becoming a star.
Outlook: If Duke wants to continue its surprising season, their game against rival North Carolina this Saturday will likely go a long way toward accomplishing that. A win puts them in a good position, while a loss may quickly lower expectations, especially with Miami and Florida State also coming up in the next four games.
Farrell’s take: Despite academic restrictions, Duke has still been recruiting very well, and many of their impact players had other offers that were considered quite impressive. They do a good job of finding guys that fit, David Cutcliffe has proven to be a very good developer of talent on the offensive side of the ball and he’s well respected. Duke has pulled off some big recruiting upsets like Giles-Harris, and the roster talent shows it.
6. WAKE FOREST
Expectations: Wake Forest was picked to finish fifth in the Atlantic Division by the ACC media ahead of only Syracuse and Boston College. The majority of publications also had the Demon Deacons battling the Orange and Eagles for the cellar.
Reality: Wake Forest has cruised to three easy wins to start this season, including a road win at Boston College. Dual-threat quarterback John Wolford has returned to lead an offense that is currently averaging over 43 points per game. One of the biggest surprises for the Demon Deacons is the play of redshirt freshman receiver Greg Dortch, who already has four touchdown receptions. Defensively, Cameron Glenn, Jessie Bates and Jaboree Williams are all off to impressive starts in Winston-Salem.
Outlook: The Demon Deacons are favored against a dangerous Appalachian State team this Saturday before seeing their schedule get brutal in the following weeks. Consecutive games against Florida State, Clemson, Georgia Tech, Louisville and Notre Dame will definitely test the toughness and resolve of Wake Forest this season.
Farrell’s take: Dave Clawson is an excellent coach and led Wake to a bowl last year, yet the Demon Deacons are always thought to be an easy win on any team’s schedule. They have some offensive weapons and the defense is solid, so they can give people some trouble. Wolford has experience and was a nice get from Florida, just like many prospects on the roster. Does an ACC team do more with less when it comes to recruiting rankings?
7. SAN DIEGO STATE
Expectations: The official Mountain West media poll had the Aztecs winning the West Division, while a majority of publications agreed and had them playing Boise State in the conference championship game.
Reality: Expectations were high for the Aztecs in the offseason, but not many people had them ranked 22nd in the country after three weeks. This puts San Diego State only one spot behind South Florida as the highest ranked Group of Five team in the country. More impressive than their ranking is that the Aztecs have already defeated two Pac-12 teams this fall, Arizona State and Stanford. Leading the way on offense has been Rashaad Penny, who took over for record-setting running back Donnel Pumphrey. With Pumphrey now in the NFL, Penny has excelled with a nation’s best 588 yards plus four touchdowns. Quarterback Christian Chapman has also raised his level of play, while the defense, which has had top-level performances by Kameron Kelly, Ron Smith and Ronley Lakalaka, has been resilient and tenacious.
Outlook: Thinking about an undefeated season is definitely reasonable for the Aztecs. This Saturday’s road game at Air Force could be tricky, and the long trip to an improved Hawaii team may be another one to watch. San Diego State also avoids Wyoming and Colorado State in the regular season, while the Boise State game is at home.
Farrell’s take: I took San Diego State over Cal for the final spot on this list because it can run the table and be a New Year's Six team. Cal has been impressive as well, but SDSU’s win over Stanford sends a message to the rest of the country that they are for real. Cal beat UNC, but that doesn’t appear as impressive as it was at the time, and Ole Miss is a nice win, but the Aztecs would beat Cal outright because of their defense. Rocky Long does a great job and will have quite a few Power Five suitors this off season.