Conference realignment strandees, transfer portal titans and recently struggling programs have consistently secured major victories, featured in the AP poll and surged to the top of conference standings in a chaotic 2023 season. Here's a look at the seven most surprising programs — big and small — from around the sport:
Washington State (4-0)
Washington State has evolved into a stalwart of mediocrity in recent years, finishing a perfect 11-11 in conference play over the last three seasons, and most prognosticators expected more of the same in Pullman — the Cougars were picked seventh out of 14 in the Pac-12 Media Poll this offseason.
WSU instead took a surprising, notable step forward this season, and said growth has been on display since the second week of the year. Welcoming then-No. 19 Wisconsin, the Cougars offered Luke Fickell a rude introduction to Power Five football and opened up a dominant, decisive 24-6 halftime lead. Wazzu would cement Martin Stadium as a house of horrors two weeks later, outlasting then-No. 14 Oregon State 38-35 in a shootout that thrust quarterback Cameron Ward into the Heisman conversation.
Following the path blazed by great Cougar gunslingers Drew Bledsoe and Gardner Minshew, among others, Ward was nearly flawless against the Beavs with 404 yards and four touchdowns on 28 of 34 passing. Through just four games, Ward has accumulated a stat line many QBs would embrace for the entire season, totaling nearly 1,400 yards and 13 touchdowns (add three more rushing scores as well), all with zero interceptions and the eight-best QBR in FBS.
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Texas State (4-1)
Buried within a largely forgettable 4-8 campaign in San Marcos two years ago lies a surprisingly competitive matchup with Baylor, where Texas State trailed by just 7 within the final minutes before ultimately falling 29-20 to the Big 12 program. So as the Bobcats entered Waco in Week 1 as overwhelming underdogs, they parlayed the belief from 2021’s near upset into a stunning result, beating the Bears 42-31 to kick off a magical start to the season.
The Bobcats have already matched their largest win total since 2014 and have picked up their early season wins in impressive fashion. Texas State hung 77 points on Coach Prime’s former squad Jackson State, handled Mountain West foes Nevada and took a critical step toward unexpected Sun Belt West glory with a 50-burger against Southern Miss.
LSU transfer TJ Finley has embraced a fresh start in south Texas, also throwing for nearly 1,400 yards and currently maintaining a higher QBR than household names Shedeur Sanders, Jack Plummer and Cade Klubnik.
Speaking of Shedeur Sanders, the son of Coach Prime has staked a compelling claim as the most valuable transfer in all of college football. The sophomore joined a Colorado team comprised of more than 50 fellow newcomers, and even the most avid Deion enthusiasts could only imagine a modest improvement from the Buffs’ 1-11 season a year ago.
That was until Shedeur and Colorado’s crop of electric receivers stepped foot onto the 106-degree turf in Fort Worth in Week 1, shredding the defending national finalists for 510 yards through the air and stunning a national FOX audience by beating then-No. 17 TCU 45-42. Similar success ensued the following two weeks, bettering their illustrious neighbors Nebraska and escaping a chippy rivalry affair in double overtime against Colorado State.
The Pac-12 gauntlet has produced a pair of disappointing but entirely expected losses against No. 10 Oregon and No. 8 USC, and the Buffs likely played their best half of the season against the Trojans this past weekend, surging back from a 27-point deficit only to have their onside kick fail in a 48-41 loss.
Duke lingered on the precipice of modern history in Durham with less than a minute remaining against then-No. 11 Notre Dame last Saturday. Following the program’s first ever College GameDay celebration, the then-No. 17 Blue Devils held a 14-13 lead and had trapped Notre Dame into a desperate 4th-and-16 scenario, almost assuring the just their third ever win over the Irish and highest AP ranking win since 1962. Instead, Notre Dame QB Sam Hartman scampered just past the distant chains and Audric Estime managed a 30-yard touchdown moments later, a brutal ending to an exceptional opening five weeks for Duke.
In just his second season around the Research Triangle, Mike Elko has already forged a warning, hard-hitting stifling just about every offense unfortunate enough to meet the Blue Devils — Duke has averaged just over 11 points allowed through five games, good for sixth in FBS.
This imposing defense announced itself on the national stage in week 1, forcing three turnovers against then-No. 19 Clemson in a stunning 28-7 victory. Quarterback Riley Leonard was also heroic versus the Tigers and has totaled over 1,200 all-purpose yards so far, but he did suffer a high-ankle sprain in the closing seconds against Notre Dame and could miss the next several weeks.
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West Virginia (4-1)
2023 served as an unquestioned “prove it” year for Neal Brown and his staff, entering his fifth year in Morgantown with a 22-25 record.
Brown’s crucial campaign started unconvincingly in Happy Valley, losing a mismatched 38-15 affair against Penn State, but FCS Duquesne and the Backyard Brawl breathed much needed life into the West Virginia defense. Forcing Pitt quarterback Phil Jurkovec into three interceptions and just 81 yards of passing, West Virginia limited the Panthers to just 6 points in a sorely needed, two-score rivalry win.
The Mountaineer defense has remained remarkably stout since, holding typically high-powered offenses Texas Tech and TCU to 13 and 21 points, respectively, and surging to the top of the Big 12 with a 2-0 record.
Jacksonville State (4-1)
Rich Rodriguez has been, with a few maize and blue exceptions, a serial winner across his 17-year FBS coaching career, but his role leading Jacksonville State this season appeared unambiguously to be the toughest of his career. Along with the ingrained challenges of leading the Gamecocks into their first season of FBS football, JSU was picked to finish seventh in Conference USA, both ultimately negligible challenges as the Fightin’ Rich Rods have surged to a 4-1 start.
The Gamecocks won their first-ever FBS — and coincidently first CUSA — game against UTEP 17-14 and have fallen only to the notoriously hostile teal turf of Coastal Carolina. ULM transfer Malik Jackson has been a superstar in Rodriguez’s ground-and-pound attack, averaging close to seven yards per carry and leading a Jax State rushing stable that has already accounted for 1,100 yards this season.
If the Gamecocks can see off 1-4 Middle Tennessee, a massive tilt vs. Liberty ensues for potential control over the CUSA, an unthinkable proposition two months ago.
Georgia Southern (4-1)
Despite making a Camellia Bowl appearance a year ago, conference media ultimately proved skeptical toward similar success in Statesboro, projecting the Eagles to finish just fifth in the Sun Belt East division. GSU took this preseason pessimism out on The Citadel, trouncing its FCS opposition before securing a 49-35 victory over UAB that has come to look more impressive following the Blazers' near upset over Group of Five darlings Tulane.
Even in a losing effort at Wisconsin, the Eagles' high-octane passing attack out-gained Tanner Mordecai and the Badgers by more than 140 yards, and, were it not for Davis Brin's five interception afternoon, likely would have pushed their Big Ten opposition to the brink.
Brin has played interception-free football since, leading to a 40-3 beatdown of Bowling Green, a comfortable 38-28 win over Coastal Carolina and a 1-0 start in Sun Belt play.