Winners and losers: Teams with surprising starts

While preseason top 15 teams like Clemson, Ohio State, Iowa State, North Carolina and Wisconsin have struggled and all lost at least one game, there are plenty of teams that have seemingly come out of nowhere to start the season undefeated.

Below are the most surprising undefeated teams in college football through four weeks of play.

Arkansas: It was pretty clear that the Razorbacks were headed in the right direction under Sam Pittman. But pulling off upsets over Texas and Texas A&M in the first month of Pittman’s second season? There aren’t many who expected that. Saturday’s 20-10 win over A&M was extremely impressive and now Arkansas is a serious contender in the SEC despite the toughest schedule in the country. Arkansas faces Georgia, Ole Miss, and Auburn over its next three games.

Baylor: BU was really underwhelming in Dave Aranda’s first season with a 2-7 record in 2020. This year, the Bears have started 4-0. The first three wins were against subpar competition, but Saturday’s win over No. 14 Iowa State was a statement that Baylor won’t be a pushover in Big 12 play this season.

Boston College: Given the first three opponents — Colgate, UMass and Temple — it’s not a huge surprise that Boston College is 4-0. But the fact that BC beat Missouri on Saturday with its backup quarterback is worthy of some praise. BC took a 34-31 lead with 25 seconds to play and went on to beat Mizzou in overtime, 41-34.

Boston College running back Pat Garwo III (24) is lifted by a teammate after scoring a touchdown during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Missouri, Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, in Boston. (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)
Boston College running back Pat Garwo III (24) is lifted by a teammate after scoring a touchdown during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Missouri, Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, in Boston. (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)

BYU: The Cougars lost a significant amount of production from that excellent 2020 team, including first-round quarterback Zach Wilson. It was natural to expect BYU to take a step back. So far, that assumption has been incorrect. Sure, the Cougars are nowhere near as explosive, but Kalani Sitake’s group has found ways to win. BYU even snapped a nine-game losing streak to rival Utah in Week 2 and beat Arizona State a week ago.

Maryland: Maryland won a combined five games in Mike Locksley’s first two seasons. Now the Terps are 4-0 to start his third year. Maryland opened the year with a win over a solid West Virginia team before blowing out Howard, squeaking past Illinois on the road and handling a pesky Kent State team on Saturday, 37-16. Saturday’s win sets up an intriguing showdown next Friday night when No. 5 Iowa visits College Park.

Michigan State: Mel Tucker is doing a heck of a job in East Lansing. The Spartans went 2-5 in 2020 but are now 4-0 to open the 2021 season. Michigan State has two good road wins, beating both Northwestern and Miami handily. On Saturday, MSU trailed Nebraska late in the fourth quarter but sent the game to overtime with a punt return touchdown. The Spartans then picked off Nebraska QB Adrian Martinez and won 23-20 with a field goal on their own possession.

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - SEPTEMBER 18: Kenneth Walker III #9 of the Michigan State Spartans runs with the ball against the Miami Hurricanes on September 18, 2021 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. . (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)
MIAMI GARDENS, FL – SEPTEMBER 18: Kenneth Walker III #9 of the Michigan State Spartans runs with the ball against the Miami Hurricanes on September 18, 2021 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. . (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)

San Diego State: How about some love for Brady Hoke and the Aztecs? SDSU is 4-0 with two wins over Pac-12 opponents. SDSU was expected to beat Arizona, but knocking off Utah in triple overtime is a good moment for a program that has played a bit below expectations over the past few seasons.

UTSA: In Jeff Traylor’s first season, UTSA notched five conference wins and played in a bowl game for the second time ever. In 2021, the Roadrunners look like legitimate Conference USA title contenders. UTSA opened the season with a win over Illinois, its second-ever over a Power Five opponent. On Saturday, the Roadrunners upset Memphis, a team that beat Mississippi State last week. The game was won on a walk-off 42-yard field goal as time expired.

Wake Forest: Maybe it’s time to get Wake Forest back in the Top 25. The Demon Deacons and Boston College are the only two undefeated teams remaining in the ACC. Wake Forest handled Florida State pretty easily last week before upsetting Virginia on the road on Friday night. The 37-17 win was Wake’s most impressive performance yet as the Demon Deacons did not punt until there was 8:37 left in the fourth quarter.

Here are this week’s winners and losers.

WINNERS

Notre Dame: The Irish aren’t winning pretty. But those wins are all that matter. Notre Dame is 4-0 after beating Wisconsin 41-13 at Soldier Field on Saturday. The win made Brian Kelly the winningest coach in Notre Dame history as he now has 106 wins with the Irish. The Irish defense forced five Wisconsin turnovers, including returning two interceptions for a touchdown. Notre Dame also returned a kickoff for a TD. 

NC State: Maybe this is the win that vaults NC State to the top of the ACC. The Wolfpack scored their first win over a top-10 team since 2012 when it beat No. 9 Clemson in OT on Saturday. QB Devin Leary was 32-of-44 passing for 238 yards and threw for four touchdowns while Emeka Emezie caught 14 passes for 116 yards and a score. NC State is now 3-1 and has Louisiana Tech ahead of a suddenly big clash against Boston College on Oct. 16.

Texas QB Casey Thompson: Thompson opened the season as the No. 2 QB in Austin and it’s hard to see how he’s going to be back in that spot anytime soon. Thompson threw for five TDs and rushed for another in Texas’ 70-35 blowout win over Texas Tech. Thompson was 18-of-23 for 303 yards while he rushed for 29 yards. Thompson replaced Hudson Card in the Longhorns’ loss to Arkansas and took over as the team’s starter after that. He has eight passing touchdowns and two interceptions and has also rushed for three TDs.

AUSTIN, TX - SEPTEMBER 25: University of Texas Long Horns Casey Thompson (11) runs the ball during the game against  the Texas Tech Red Raiders on September 25, 2021, at Darrell K Royal - Texas Memorial Stadium in Austin, TX. (Photo by Adam Davis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Casey Thompson scored six TDs on Saturday. (Photo by Adam Davis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Georgia Tech: A week after hanging tough with Clemson, Georgia Tech got its signature win under Geoff Collins. The Yellow Jackets easily beat No. 21 North Carolina 45-22 at home to improve to 2-2. Georgia Tech outscored UNC 35-7 in the second and third quarters as Jeff Sims threw for a TD and ran for three. Sims was 10-of-13 passing for 112 yards while he carried 10 times for 128 yards. Georgia Tech ran 43 times for 261 yards while holding UNC’s rushing offense to 63 yards on 35 attempts.

Oklahoma State: The Cowboys are 4-0 after beating Kansas State 31-20 at home on Saturday. OSU was up 31-13 at halftime and didn’t have to score in the second half as K-State’s offense had just 260 yards. The Oklahoma State defense did a great job stopping K-State’s rushing attack — Deuce Vaughn had just 13 carries for 22 yards. OSU QB Spencer Sanders was 22-of-34 passing for 344 yards and two touchdowns and also ran for a score. The Cowboys play Baylor in Week 5 in an intriguing game at the top of the Big 12.

SMU: SMU improved to 4-0 by upsetting in-state rival TCU on Saturday in Fort Worth. The Mustangs put up 595 yards of offense, including a ridiculous 350 rushing yards in the win. While Tanner Mordecai threw four TD passes, Ulysses Bentley and Tre Siggers posted 153 and 110 rushing yards, respectively. The Mustangs are going to be a tough team to deal with in the AAC. 

Mississippi State cornerback Emmanuel Forbes (13) knocks away a pass intended for LSU wide receiver Kayshon Boutte (1) during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, in Starkville, Miss. LSU won 28-25. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Kayshon Boutte has caught 8 TDs in 2021. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

LSU WR Kayshon Boutte: The sophomore wideout has eight TDs in four games after catching two scores in LSU’s 28-25 win over Mississippi State. Boutte had four catches for 85 yards and now has 24 catches for 309 yards so far in 2021. He’s caught a TD in all of LSU’s games this season and is going to be a popular double-team target for defensive coordinators as LSU gets deeper into conference play.

Louisville QB Malik Cunningham: If you haven’t watched Louisville since its season-opening loss to Ole Miss, you’ve missed a really good Malik Cunningham. He struggled in that Week 1 loss but has thrown four touchdowns and rushed for six since then as Louisville is now 3-1. Cunningham was 25-of-39 passing for 264 yards and two TDs and rushed 14 times for 56 yards and two TDs in Louisville’s 31-23 win at Florida State on Saturday.

Duke RB Mataeo Durant: Durant ran for 124 yards and a TD and had three catches for 62 yards in Duke’s 52-33 win over Kansas on Saturday. Duke scored 31 points in the second half after it entered halftime trailing 34-21. The Blue Devils are 3-1 after losing to Charlotte to open the season and Durant has rushed for over 100 yards in three of the first four games of the season.

LOSERS

Minnesota: The Gophers made the decision to run the ball a lot against Bowling Green and it simply didn’t work out. Minnesota ran the ball 45 times and passed it just 13 times in a 14-10 loss to the Falcons. The loss broke a streak of 21 consecutive non-conference wins for the Gophers as Tanner Morgan threw two interceptions in the final three minutes that sealed the upset. Minnesota was riding high after beating Colorado in Week 3 and absolutely laid an egg against a team that hadn’t beaten an FBS opponent since November of 2019.

Clemson: This is not the playoff-caliber Clemson we’re used to seeing. The Tigers’ offense is not nearly what it used to be and that showed in a 27-21 double-overtime loss to NC State. The Clemson defense gave up its first touchdowns of the season on Saturday and is playing at a championship level. The offense had just 214 total yards and lost freshman RB Will Shipley to an injury in the second half. D.J. Uiagalelei is clearly not close to the passer that Deshaun Watson or Trevor Lawrence was with the Tigers and Justyn Ross is the only playmaker outside. That’s not a great recipe for success.

Iowa State: The Cyclones’ College Football Playoff aspirations are pretty much done with. ISU has never won 10 games in a season and would have to run the table to get there after a 31-29 loss to Baylor. Iowa State hasn’t lost fewer than three games in a season since 1906 and 2021 seemed set for ISU to finally repeat that accomplishment. Instead, ISU is now 2-2 and is pretty much out of CFP contention.

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - SEPTEMBER 25: Graham Mertz #5 of the Wisconsin Badgers tries to get off a pass as he's hit by Blake Fisher #54 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Soldier Field on September 25, 2021 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Graham Mertz had a rough day on Saturday. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Wisconsin QB Graham Mertz: Under bettors in Wisconsin’s loss to Notre Dame were very unhappy with Mertz. He threw two pick-sixes in the final minutes of the 41-13 defeat to push the point total over the over/under of 46.5. Mertz threw four interceptions on the day, though he did throw his first touchdown of the season. He also lost a fumble. It feels like ages ago when Mertz lit up Illinois to start the 2020 season. Wisconsin’s offense is in a major funk right now.

Old Dominion: The Monarchs stormed back from a 35-7 halftime deficit to score a potential game-tying TD on fourth down with 19 seconds to go. Alas, we said “potential.” ODU got penalized 15 yards for celebrating the TD. That penalty pushed the game-tying extra point back from a 20-yard kick to a 35-yard kick. And you can guess what happened next. Yep, Old Dominion lost 35-34.

Vanderbilt: Vanderbilt entered Saturday’s game against Georgia as 34.5-point underdogs. Georgia covered the spread in the first quarter. The Bulldogs scored 35 points to start the game on the way to a 62-0 win at Vanderbilt. The game was so easy for Georgia that QB JT Daniels played just one quarter before taking a seat. Nine Bulldogs carried the football and five scored while nine different players also caught a pass. New Vanderbilt coach Clark Lea was going to have an overmatched team in 2021. But a beatdown like this was unexpected. 

Texas Tech: The Red Raiders got doubled up by the Longhorns in an absolute drubbing in Austin. Texas scored 10 touchdowns in the blowout win and six came in the first half. The Longhorns went up 70-28 at one point before finally stopping the TD assault with 13:23 left in the game. Texas had 639 total yards of offense as UT QBs threw for 303 and Texas rushed 52 times for 336 yards. The Red Raiders are still 3-1, but it’s hard to get optimistic of their chances in the Big 12 after that performance. 

Liberty: The Flames entered Friday night’s game at Syracuse as 6.5-point favorites and with a chance to score a big win at a Power Five opponent. That did not happen. Liberty never led in a 24-21 loss thanks to Andre Szmyt’s field goal as time expired. The Flames tied the game 21-21 with 14:31 to go but turned the ball over on downs and fumbled on its final two drives of the game.

Washington State: WSU blew yet another lead. The Cougars dropped to 1-3 with a 24-13 road loss to Utah on Saturday. Washington State had a 13-10 lead with under five minutes to go, but proceeded to allow a go-ahead touchdown run by the Utes and then Jarrett Guarantano threw a pick-six for good measure. WSU has had a second half lead in all three of its losses.