College football biggest surprises and disappointments this season – USA TODAY

It’s not surprising at all to see No. 1 Georgia atop the USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll and only slightly surprising to find No. 2 Michigan once again atop the Big Ten as the regular season winds to a finish.
Now, that No. 3 TCU and No. 4 Southern California are poised to round out the field for the College Football Playoff? That’s surprising.
But maybe not quite as surprising as Connecticut winning six games, Kansas making the postseason or Texas A&M going from the heights of early September to one of the most disappointing years in program history.
There were success stories and flops all across the Bowl Subdivision during the regular season, but some stand out from the pack. From the Horned Frogs and Trojans through the Aggies, Oklahoma and Michigan State, these teams represent the highest highs and lowest lows of 2022.
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The Huskies left September at 1-4 with a win against Central Connecticut, seemingly destined for another 10-loss season in Jim Mora’s debut. But UConn would go 5-2 the rest of the way, losing to Ball State and Army but beating Fresno State, Boston College and Liberty. The six wins nearly match the program’s total of seven wins across the previous four seasons.
Another new coach, former Notre Dame and Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mike Elko, pulled a winning season out of nowhere: Duke was one of five ACC teams to post a winning record in league play and the only Power Five team to win eight or more games after winning fewer than four games in 2021. Those three ACC losses — to Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Pittsburgh — came by a combined eight points.
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Expectations weren’t exactly basement level heading into James Madison’s FBS debut, given how the Dukes had been one of the dominant programs in the Championship Subdivision before making the leap. Still, they outpaced even the most optimistic projections by winning eight games and technically taking home the Sun Belt East over Coastal Carolina, though JMU is ineligible for the conference championship game and the postseason during this transition season.
Winners of five games in Bret Bielema’s debut, which qualified as a successful start given what he had inherited heading into 2021, Illinois nearly rode one of the nation’s best defenses to the Big Ten West championship. Stymied by a late losing streak to Michigan State, Purdue and Michigan, the Illini finished second in the division but built up some noticeable momentum heading into bowl play and postseason.
Once 5-0, Kansas barely squeezed into the postseason thanks to a win in early November against Oklahoma State. That doesn’t remove any of the good vibes coming out of a wildly unexpected bowl bid. The Jayhawks hadn’t reached postseason eligibility since 2008 and had won just eight Big 12 games since 2009. The future is bright under coach Lance Leipold, who recently agreed to a long-term contact extension.
The first of two Power Five teams poised to make the playoff under a first-year coach, USC has been carried by star quarterback Caleb Williams and incredible run of turnover luck. The Trojans were ranked No. 15 in the preseason USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll, so it’s not a Pac-12 championship would’ve come out of nowhere. But almost no one believed Lincoln Riley had the roster and defense to have this sort of home-run season right off the bat.
And if there were small pockets off USC believers in the preseason, absolutely no one bought into the idea that TCU would go from two losing seasons in the past three years to an unbeaten march into the Big 12 championship game. Right? In the face of middling expectations, new coach Sonny Dykes has imbued the Horned Frogs with the sort of confidence needed to win eight games by 10 or fewer points, several in the final minutes or seconds.
Willie Fritz had led No. 18 Tulane to three consecutive bowl from 2018-20 but saw his team bottom out at 2-10 a year ago amid an utter collapse on defense and a series of close losses. Picked in the preseason to finish seventh in the 11-team American, the Green Wave are 10-2 heading into the conference championship game against Central Florida and have had the program’s most successful season since 1998.
No one expected Florida to challenge Georgia in the SEC East under first-year coach Billy Napier. But the Gators finished fifth in the division by virtue of the head-to-head tiebreaker with Missouri and lost every game that mattered from a rivalry perspective: Kentucky, Tennessee, LSU, Georgia and  Florida State. Oh, and they lost to Vanderbilt.
Back in August, the Cougars were seen as one of the top options for the New Year’s Six out of the Group of Five and even a contender for an unbeaten or one-loss regular season. But Houston lost to Kansas and Texas Tech in September, gave up 77 points to SMU in early November and fell 37-30 to Tulsa in its regular-season finale.
In the same season, Miami lost 45-31 to Middle Tennessee State, 45-21 to Duke, 45-3 to Florida State, 40-10 to Clemson and 42-16 to Pittsburgh. Even with his deep job security, how does Mario Cristobal sell the future after one of the most uncompetitive and lackluster season in recent program history?
One of the breakout teams of 2021, the Spartans fell short of bowl eligibility in a year that included an early four-game losing streak and the ugly scene that unfolded following a rivalry loss to Michigan. The drop has been quick enough to question whether last season was the aberration or if hovering around six wins will be the norm under coach Mel Tucker.
Picked to win the MAC West in the preseason poll, Northern Illinois finished last in the division as one of just two MAC teams to win fewer than three league games, joining Akron. Fourth-year coach Thomas Hammock has sandwiched last year’s MAC championship with a combined 3-15 mark in 2020 and 2022.
OU hadn’t lost six or more games in a season since 1998, the year before Bob Stoops arrived and transformed the program back into one of the nation’s best. There were signs that this year wouldn’t go as expected under new coach Brent Venables, including a drastically remade roster too heavily reliant on new players and transfers, but few believed this would be the Sooners’ worst finish in decades.
From No. 7 in the preseason Coaches Poll to seven losses: A&M has had a historically awful season, to the point where Jimbo Fisher will be required to make major offseason changes on his coaching staff and in his offensive philosophy. Not even Saturday’s win against LSU can cover up the Aggies’ bellyflop to the bottom of the SEC West.


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