The 5 best chances for a non-Power 5 team to take down an SEC squad in 2021
I’m saying there’s a chance. Last year, there literally wasn’t a chance.
From that totally vague sentence, obviously you could tell that I was referring to the chance of a non-Power 5 team beating an SEC foe. Those were wiped off the schedule, along with the rest of nonconference play.
This year, though, those games are back on the table. There are usually about a half dozen chances for that upset to happen.
Don’t worry. This isn’t my way of saying I believe these upsets are inevitable, but it’s just a reminder that there are no guarantees at this level. It still comes down to matchups.
Here are the 5 non-Power 5 teams that are capable of taking down SEC foes in 2021:
1. MSU vs. Memphis
Will Memphis be favored? I’m only half-joking when I ask that.
Ask Ole Miss about going to Memphis. It’s by no means a gimme. If we’re using ESPN’s FPI, no, Memphis won’t be favored (Vegas doesn’t use FPI, either). But this is a tricky spot in what’ll be MSU’s first road game of the year. Memphis finally has to replace Brady White at quarterback. That could end up being a job for LSU transfer Peter Parrish, though he didn’t set the world on fire in Memphis’ spring game. Arizona transfer Grant Gunnell is the clubhouse leader.
The key matchup is Mike Leach’s Year 2 offense against Mike MacIntyre’s Year 2 defense, which was much better post-October after battling COVID issues early on in 2020 (18.6 points allowed in last 5 games). That’s the type of matchup I know MacIntyre is already scouting for. That group will be better with 73% of its production returning.
If Memphis can do what so many teams did to MSU last year — consistently generate pressure with a 3-man rush — that’s obviously a problem for the Bulldogs. One would think it can’t be as bad as it was up front last year for the fightin’ Leaches. If MSU can’t block, it won’t matter if it’s Will Rogers or Southern Miss transfer Jack Abraham back there. Memphis’ secondary is good enough to force takeaways and stall the Air Raid.
Last year, Leach suffered what was deemed an embarrassing loss to an Arkansas squad that hadn’t won an SEC game in over 1,000 days. Memphis wouldn’t be an embarrassing loss, but it wouldn’t be the best way for Leach to sell the Year 2 bump.
2. Liberty vs. Ole Miss
Hugh Freeze’s return to Oxford has me fired up in a way that very few SEC vs. Group of 5 matchups ever have. This could easily be a pair of Top 25 teams to start off the season. It’s too bad we have to wait until November to get this matchup.
Wait a minute. You want me to give Liberty “independent” status on par with Notre Dame? Meh. Call me when that schedule has more than a handful of Power 5 opponents and then we can talk. They’re built like a Group of 5 team, though Liberty could once again look the part of a Top 25 team.
The Flames rank No. 6 in FBS in percentage of returning production, and they’re No. 2 on the offensive end. Former Auburn quarterback turned Liberty star Malik Willis is a big part of that.
Former Auburn QB Malik Willis continues to excel for 5-0 (and soon-to-be 6-0) Liberty.
Through 25 minutes of game action today, has already thrown for 192 yards and four touchdowns. Has also run for 56 yards, including 23 on this impressive scramble.
— Matt Zenitz (@mzenitz) October 24, 2020
He’ll test this defense, which was the SEC’s worst against the run last year. Granted, Ole Miss should be much improved on that side of the ball.
But my question is how early do you think Freeze began game-planning for this one? Mid-January? December?!? I wouldn’t put it past him, though he’ll downplay the reunion at every turn.
And for those saying Liberty will undoubtedly be overmatched, last year’s squad went 10-1 with 2 wins against Power 5 teams, both of which were from the ACC. That lone loss was a 15-14 game at NC State. Liberty, as an independent, looked like it could’ve been one of the better ACC teams last year. This is a monumental game for the suddenly rising program, and the very much back-on-the-map Freeze.
3. Central Michigan vs. Mizzou
Hey Alexa, play “Return of the Mack.”
That’s right. Jim McElwain is back coaching against the SEC. It’s Year 3 for McElwain at CMU, but in some ways, it’ll probably feel more like Year 2 after 2020 only yielded a 6-game schedule. The Chippewas are No. 17 in FBS with 81% of their production back. Kobe Lewis will lead a backfield capable of testing a Mizzou defense that will be in its first game with new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks (it’s worth noting that CMU has a new offensive coordinator after Charlie Frye left to go be Tua Tagovailoa’s quarterbacks coach with the Dolphins).
It’ll also be the first game of the post-Nick Bolton era. How up to speed will Mizzou be in the front 7? It wasn’t long ago that the Tigers went to Wyoming and struggled mightily in a season-opening loss. Granted, that was under Barry Odom. All Eli Drinkwitz’s group did last year was surpass expectations, and unlike the upset loss in 2019, this game is at home, where Mizzou went 4-2 with the losses coming to top-10 teams Alabama and Georgia.
And for what it’s worth, I think I’m higher on Mizzou than most. Connor Bazelak’s development is an under-the-radar SEC storyline, and I thought Drinkwitz made a savvy move in hiring Wilks. If there’s an East team that can rise above some somewhat lackluster national expectations and earn a surprise Top 25 finish, it’s Mizzou.
But season-openers against veteran Group of 5 teams are often trickier than we expect. CMU returns 24 guys who started a game last year. This won’t be a cupcake to kick off the season for Mizzou.
4. Georgia State vs. Auburn
Something I try to think about with predicting these upsets is timing. Tell me the significance of where the Georgia State game falls on Auburn’s schedule:
- Sept. 18 — at Penn State
- Sept. 25 — vs. Georgia State
- Oct. 2 — at LSU
- Oct. 9 — vs. Georgia
So let’s recap that. Auburn should be coming off an extremely physical game with Penn State. Then, it has a Group of 5 game before it starts SEC play with LSU and Georgia. How much time will be spent on Georgia State compared to those other 3 teams? I couldn’t tell you.
On top of that, it’s a new coaching staff with a quarterback trying to learn from his third offensive coordinator in as many years. Auburn might be a work in progress in a variety of areas, particularly in the passing game.
Georgia State is coming off a year in which 3 of its 4 losses were by 1 score, and the 1 that wasn’t was against national darling Coastal Carolina. GSU returns 80% of its 2020 production, including 85% on defense. Granted, it was a defense that struggled a lot throughout 2020.
But if you recall, the last time Shawn Elliott’s team went to a big SEC venue, it won at Tennessee to kick off the 2019 season.
What a moment for former USC coach Shawn Elliott. Georgia State def. the Vols 38-30. First home loss in a season opener for Tennessee at home since 1983. pic.twitter.com/dDwdTVg1zs
— Mike Uva (@Mike_Uva) September 1, 2019
Would you get more on board with this if I told you that Elliott was also an assistant on the Appalachian State squad that pulled off the Michigan stunner in 2007? I’m just sayin’.
5. Troy vs. South Carolina
I promise I’m not letting Troy’s 2017 stunner at LSU fuel this potential upset selection. It’s an entirely different coaching staff and offense at Troy compared to 4 years ago. The Trojans didn’t even have a winning record last year despite the fact that it didn’t face a single Power 5 opponent because of COVID.
But … yeah. Don’t sleep on this one.
A lot of this is dependent on how much the South Carolina offense can figure things out early with Marcus Satterfield. Troy ranks No. 2 in America in percentage of returning defensive production from a group that was in the top 1/3 in FBS last year. Luis Medina is capable of wreaking havoc and leading a front 7 with plenty of pass-rushing options.
Of course, Troy has a different kind of challenge ahead slowing down Kevin Harris. If MarShawn Lloyd is able to make a full recovery, the Gamecocks might not need to have the passing game figured out by the time this one rolls around in the first week of October.
One would think that between the ground game and South Carolina’s talented defensive front that the potential holes in Shane Beamer’s team in Year 1 won’t be exposed.
Just don’t rule out the possibility of an embarrassing loss like this early on in the Beamer era.