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Andy Wittry | | September 27, 2021

7 of the biggest September surprises in college football

Arkansas jumps to No. 8, Clemson falls in latest AP college football poll

The first month of the college football season is in the books. Through Week 4, only 26 of the 130 FBS teams are still undefeated, the school that has the longest active streak of making the College Football Playoff has a season winning percentage that it has never had during that streak, and the top 20 of the latest AP poll includes two FBS independents and teams from the AAC, Mountain West and Sun Belt.

Here are seven September surprises that we didn't see coming before the season.

Ken Ruinard | USA Today Sports Images Clemson is 2-2 at the end of September.

Clemson is .500

Since the start of the 2015 season, which is when Clemson made the College Football Playoff for the first time, the Tigers haven't lost more than two games in a regular season. They've now lost that many games through the first month of the 2021 season, after falling to NC State 27-21 in double overtime in Week 4. The loss ended Clemson's 36-game winning streak against unranked opponents — the equivalent of three consecutive regular seasons' worth of wins.

The last time Clemson had a record of .500 in a season was after its Week 4 game in the 2014 season, which was a campaign that, like this year, started with a loss to Georgia. Two weeks later, the Tigers lost to No. 1 Florida State. Both of those defeats came on the road. Clemson rattled off six wins in a row after its loss to Florida State dropped its record to 1-2 on the season and the Tigers finished the 2014 season 10-3 with a 40-6 win over Oklahoma in the Russell Athletic Bowl.

Clemson's offense over the last five to 10 years has been full of future NFL players at quarterback, running back and wide receiver, but the Tigers' offense has struggled this season. Through Week 4, they're averaging just 295.5 yards per game, which ranks 121st nationally, and their average of 4.73 yards per play ranks 115th, per Quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei has completed just 56.3 percent of his passes on the season for 5.2 yards per attempt, while throwing as many interceptions (three) as touchdowns.

Uiagalelei has 36 rushing attempts this season, including sacks, which ranks second on the team, but he has gained just 110 yards on those carries and reserve running back Lyn-J Dixon recently announced that he is transferring.

Clemson currently owns the longest streak in the country of making the College Football Playoff with six consecutive appearances, dating back to the 2015 season, and since a two-loss team has yet to make the CFP, the Tigers' streak is in jeopardy with eight regular-season games to play.

Scott Wachter | USA TODAY Sports Images Iowa State fell out of the AP poll in Week 5.

2020 darlings dip from the discussion

The 2020 college football season featured some new names in the AP Top 25 poll, at least relative to the numbers next to those names. Texas A&M finished at No. 5 in the final CFP rankings and No. 4 in the postseason AP poll — its highest final AP ranking since 1939. Iowa State had arguably its best season in program history after going 9-3, playing for the Big 12 Championship and winning the Fiesta Bowl. Indiana beat Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State and Wisconsin in the same season for the first time ever as the Hoosiers went 6-1 in conference play, a remarkable feat for a program whose history says it's much more likely to win only one Big Ten game in a season than lose only one conference game.

In the 2021 preseason AP poll, Texas A&M was ranked No. 6, Iowa State was No. 7, North Carolina checked in at No. 10, Miami (FL) was ranked No. 14, USC was No. 15, Indiana was ranked No. 17 and Washington appeared at No. 20.

Six of those teams have already lost twice, as Iowa State, North Carolina, Miami, USC, Indiana and Washington each have a .500 record of 2-2. Texas A&M lost to upstart Arkansas in Week 4 and in arguably the toughest division in college football, the SEC West, the Aggies already have as many conference losses this season (one) as they suffered all of last year.

It's only September, which means there's still roughly two months of the season to play, but each team has work to do in order to reach the heights of last season.


Jerome Miron | USA TODAY Sports Images Arkansas defeated Texas A&M in Week 4.

Calling the Hogs

Arkansas made an eight-spot jump in the AP poll from No. 16 to No. 8 after it defeated then-No. 7 Texas A&M on a neutral field. It's the Razorbacks' highest AP ranking since 2012, when they started at No. 10 in the preseason, peaked at No. 8 after a Week 1 win over Jacksonville State, then lost their next four games amid a 4-8 season.

The Hogs are big and physical and this might be the best Arkansas team since 2011, when it finished ranked No. 5 in the postseason poll. When Arkansas lost its 2020 season opener to Georgia, it was the Razorbacks' 20th consecutive conference loss and coach Sam Pittman & Co. have quickly turned things around in his second season.

Matthew O'Haren | USA TODAY Sports Images Penn State climbed to No. 4 in the latest AP poll.

The Big Ten East is back

Four of the seven teams in the Big Ten East are 4-0, which shouldn't necessarily be surprising on its face, but when four-time reigning Big Ten champion Ohio State isn't one of them, and neither is reigning Big Ten East runner-up Indiana, then the division has even more depth than preseason projections may have suggested.

No. 17 Michigan State currently sits in first place in the division as the only 2-0 team in the Big Ten East and the Spartans' non-conference schedule has included a win over a Miami (FL) team that was ranked at the time. Maryland is also 4-0, having allowed just 57 points this season.

Five teams in the conference are ranked in the latest AP poll, including four in the East — and Maryland is second among "others receiving votes" in the latest AP poll. Wisconsin and Rutgers also received votes.

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Adam Cairns | USA TODAY Sports Images Ohio State is No. 11 in the AP poll for Week 5.

But the Buckeyes aren't the Big Ten's best (according to the AP poll)

The Big Ten has two teams ranked in the top five, but neither is named Ohio State. Penn State jumped to No. 4 in the latest AP poll, after Week 4, while Iowa checks in at No. 5.

The Buckeyes are ranked No. 11, ahead of No. 14 Michigan and No. 17 Michigan State. Ohio State's only loss came to Oregon, which is now ranked No. 3, by seven points, so the Buckeyes might be rooting for the Ducks the rest of the regular season.

Cary Edmondson | USA TODAY Sports Images Fresno State is 4-1 through September.

West Coast wonders

The aforementioned Ducks are the Pac-12's last undefeated team through Week 4 and their road win at Ohio State projects to be one of the best of the regular season. At No. 3, they're the highest-ranked West-Coast team, but that's not a huge surprise, as Oregon started at No. 11 in the preseason poll.

What wasn't foreseen, however, was BYU's 4-0 start, despite losing quarterback Zach Wilson to the 2021 NFL Draft, where he was the second overall pick, and Fresno State's 4-1 record through September. The Cougars are 3-0 against Pac-12 opponents this season, including Utah and Arizona State teams that were ranked at the time of those matchups. BYU's defense held each of those Pac-12 teams to 17 points or fewer, and the Cougars have allowed just 77 points through four games. Wilson's replacement, Jaren Hall, has thrown for seven touchdowns, while averaging more than eight yards per carry.

Fresno State, meanwhile, has been led by quarterback Jake Haener, who has thrown for 1,842 yards and 15 touchdowns, while completing 73 percent of his passes. The Bulldogs' road win over then-No.13 UCLA likely added some fans to the Fresno State bandwagon and their only loss this season was on the road against Oregon by seven points.

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