Unlike college basketball, it’s often been said that college football is not a sport built for Cinderellas. While that statement has plenty of truth in it, our perspective skews that truth.
When discussing Cinderellas in college basketball, we cite teams that make surprising postseason runs, possibly knocking off a couple blue blood programs along the way. College football doesn’t have the postseason structure to support such a run, nor is the sport itself as open to outliers due to how the game is designed.
But there are Cinderellas in college football. The difference is that they’re found in the regular season.
A team expected to win only six games surprises everybody with a 10-win campaign, perhaps even reaching its conference championship game. Sometimes, it even wins that championship. But like nearly all Cinderella stories, the clock eventually strikes midnight.
Every season, we see a prior year’s Cinderella become this year’s disappointment. Then a new Cinderella pops up, and the process begins anew. It’s unfortunate, but it’s the cycle of life in college football.
Let’s figure out which Power Five programs experienced such success in 2021 that will be difficult to maintain in 2022.
Full disclosure: I had a few programs in mind when I first conceptualized this subject. Kentucky wasn’t one of them. I admire the program coach Mark Stoops has built in Lexington and do not think its recent success is a fluke. While that’s still the case, there were plenty of aspects to the 2022 season that will be hard to repeat.
Good teams find ways to win close games, and Kentucky has gone 16-8 in one-score games since 2017. But they exceeded even their own pace last year. After going 11-7 in such games from 2017-20, the Wildcats were 5-1 last year. That includes a 3-0 mark in the SEC with two of those wins against teams they’ll face on the road this year in Florida and Missouri. Their lone one-score defeat was a three-point loss at home to Tennessee, who the Wildcats have to face in Knoxville, Tennessee, this year. Kentucky also gets a road trip to Ole Miss that may prove tricky.
UK was in this same situation in 2018 when it went 10-3 only to follow it up with an 8-5 mark in 2019. The Wildcats went 3-1 in one-score games during that 2018 season, outscoring their opponents by five points in those four games. In 2019, they went 2-2 in one-score games. Don’t be surprised if 2022 looks a lot like 2019.
The Spartans are going to be an interesting study in 2022. Coach Mel Tucker has sent a jolt of electricity through this program as he hit nothing but grand slams in the transfer portal last season and helped lead the Spartans to the Peach Bowl. He’s been active in the portal again this offseason, and the Spartans are also experiencing plenty of success on the recruiting trail with a top-10 class thus far in the 2023 cycle. After finishing last season ranked No. 9 in the AP Top 25, this team is a lock to start 2022 in the top 15, if not higher. But we shouldn’t assume everything that worked in 2021 will continue to work in 2022.
What’s fascinating about Michigan State is that it had so much success in the portal — Kenneth Walker III finished sixth in Heisman Trophy voting — but the portal is still a new tool. We don’t have enough evidence to suggest one way or another if being so reliant on it is a stable way to maintain success. What happens to the Spartans if the players they’ve added via the portal this season don’t have the kind of success Walker experienced?
Even if we ignore that, like Kentucky, Michigan State was terrific in one-score games last season, going 4-0. Those four wins (Nebraska, Indiana, Michigan and Penn State) came by 15 points combined. If not for a +3 turnover margin in those games (talk about something hard to predict and rely upon), one or two of those games swings the other direction, and we have a much different view of Michigan State’s 2021.
Finally, the schedule presents a few obstacles. There’s a road trip to Washington in September that could be tough, and after getting Michigan and Penn State in East Lansing last season, the Spartans will face both on the road in 2022. They also draw Wisconsin and Minnesota (18-8 combined last year) to go along a road trip to face an Illinois team that showed signs of no longer being the pushover it’s long been considered last season.
The Cowboys finished 2021 a yard short of a Big 12 title, falling 21-16 to Baylor. They followed it with an impressive comeback victory against Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl to finish 12-2, making the 2021 season only the second time in program history the Cowboys won 12 games. The first was in 2011 when the Cowboys were a weeknight trip to Ames, Iowa, away from a BCS Championship Game berth. But while that 2011 team made a habit of blowing teams out — eight of its 12 wins were by 20+ points, four of those by 30+ — the 2021 team played in a lot of nailbiters.
Oklahoma State began 2021 with a 6-0 record, but those six wins came by a total of 42 points. After a three-point loss to Iowa State (again in Ames), OSU blew out Kansas, West Virginia, TCU and Texas Tech before finishing with three more close games. And why were the Cowboys able to win so many close games? Unlike in 2011, when the team averaged 48.7 points per game, the 2021 Cowboys scored 31.1. It was their defense that allowed a Big 12-best 18.1 points per game, keeping them alive so often.
Unfortunately, the architect behind that defense, Jim Knowles, left to become the defensive coordinator at Ohio State. While that doesn’t guarantee the Oklahoma State defense will have the bottom drop out, coach Mike Gundy’s teams were never known for their defenses before Knowles arrived in Stillwater.
Unlike Kentucky, who was not an expected inclusion on this list, Pitt was the poster child for the concept. In my mind, the Panthers are the most obvious candidate for a program to take a step back in 2022, and I don’t think it takes any kind of unique insight to figure out why.
Nobody expected the Panthers to win the ACC in 2021, but that’s what they did. They went 11-3 behind a Heisman finalist performance from veteran quarterback Kenny Pickett and a Biletnikoff Award-winning performance from Jordan Addison. Both Pickett and Addison are gone. (Well, Pickett’s just next door, but Addison’s across the country.) Offensive coordinator Mark Whipple was called over to Nebraska in hopes he can perform the same kind of miracle makeover of the Cornhuskers offense that he did with the Panthers.
As for Pitt, while there are underlying statistical concerns about other teams on this list, the Panthers’ issues are mostly personnel based. They were 2-2 in one-score games last season, and their other nine wins came by an average of 26.9 points. This has not proven to be a fluky team. It was just a good team that played well and took advantage of the opportunities presented. But without Pickett, Addison and Whipple, it’s hard to imagine the offense will perform at the same level to lead this team to another ACC title. Coach Pat Narduzzi has done too much work building a foundation for this program to think things fall apart, but saying that an ACC title is the ceiling for this Pitt program doesn’t feel like some kind of hot take that will make me look foolish in the future.
Ask around Big Ten country for a sleeper team in the conference this season, and you’ll hear Purdue mentioned a lot. The Boilermakers are coming off their first nine-win season since 2003 and have Aidan O’Connell back at QB after an outstanding campaign. It’s the first time in the Jeff Brohm era that Purdue enters the summer without questions about who will be the team’s starting signal caller. Still, while I understand the buzz and belief that the Boilermakers are poised to surprise in a Big Ten West without a clear favorite, I’m pumping the brakes a bit.
Like others on this list, Purdue had success in one-score games, going 3-1. The wins came by a total of 12 points against Illinois, Nebraska and Tennessee (combined 15-22 record). While it had a seven-point loss at home to Minnesota, Purdue’s other three losses to Notre Dame, Wisconsin and Ohio State came by an average of 19.7 points with the closest being a 14-point defeat at the hands of the Fighting Irish.
Purdue must also replace its most dependable player on offense in WR David Bell and its most disruptive force on defense in pass rusher George Karlaftis. Finally, the schedule doesn’t offer many breaks. While they avoid Ohio State and Michigan from the East, the Boilermakers will be on the road for games against Syracuse, Minnesota, Maryland, Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana. In other words, a lot of the winnable games will be played outside West Lafayette, Indiana, and home games against Penn State and Iowa won’t be cakewalks. It took 18 years for Purdue to win nine games again after 2003, and while I don’t think it’ll take another 18 for it to happen again, it’s probably going to take at least two.