Here are college football's most surprising teams this season

It's hard to believe, but the 2023 college football season is more than halfway over.

In the Week 8 edition of Winners and Losers, we highlighted some of the most disappointing teams in the country, led by Clemson and USC.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are some teams that have already surpassed preseason expectations. Here are the teams that have caught our eye and have been major surprises so far this season.

Arizona (4-3, 2-2 Pac-12)

Arizona has the look of a team that nobody in the Pac-12 wants to face. The Wildcats nearly upset both Washington and USC before blasting then-No. 19 Washington State 44-6 in Pullman. Coming off a bye, the Wildcats have the chance to pull another upset with No. 11 Oregon State coming to town on Saturday. Even if that doesn’t happen, the path to the program’s first bowl game and winning record since 2017 is very realistic. Jedd Fisch is doing a great job.

Colorado (4-3, 1-3 Pac-12)

Colorado is in a significantly better place now under Deion Sanders than it was last fall. Blowing a 29-0 lead vs. Stanford was a massive hit to CU’s bowl hopes, but the fact that we’re even talking about a possible bowl berth is a testament to the work Sanders has done. CU went 1-11 last year and was the worst Power Five team in the country by a huge margin. The Buffs were the biggest story in sports as they started 3-0. It’s been a struggle since, and it will be fascinating to see how Sanders’ team responds through a five-game gauntlet to close the season.

Colorado head coach Deion Sanders has the team headed in a positive direction after taking over a program that finished 1-11 the season before. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
Colorado head coach Deion Sanders has the team headed in a positive direction after taking over a program that finished 1-11 the season before. (AP Photo/LM Otero) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Florida (5-2, 3-1 SEC)

Florida felt like a bit of a mystery entering the season. UF went 6-7 in Billy Napier’s first season and lost star QB Anthony Richardson to the NFL. The 2023 season got off to a shaky start with an ugly loss at Utah, but the Gators have since won five of six. The second half of the schedule is very difficult. Four of the five teams remaining on the schedule are ranked, including No. 1 Georgia and No. 4 Florida State. If Florida can pull off an upset or two and have a good showing in a bowl game, this season will represent a promising step for Napier as he tries to elevate the Gators back into an elite SEC program.

Georgia State (6-1, 3-1 Sun Belt)

After three straight bowl trips from 2019 to 2021, Georgia State’s 4-8 record in 2022 seemed like a major step back. Not much was expected from the Panthers in 2023 in a Sun Belt East division that also includes James Madison, App State, Coastal Carolina and Marshall. Instead, Shawn Elliott’s team is already bowl eligible as it enters a big Thursday night game vs. Georgia Southern. With JMU still ineligible to play in the Sun Belt championship, this is a huge game in the race for the East division title.

Iowa State (4-3, 3-1 Big 12)

Iowa State finds itself tied for second place in the Big 12 entering Week 9. You won’t find many who expected that after the Cyclones lost several key players amid a gambling investigation, including their starting quarterback. The season started with losses to Iowa and Ohio, but the Cyclones have since won three of four to open conference play. With winnable games ahead (Baylor, Kansas and BYU) before facing Texas and Kansas State, Iowa State could end up playing a big role in the Big 12 race.

James Madison (7-0, 4-0 Sun Belt)

James Madison has excelled since moving up to the FBS level. Through a season and a half in the Sun Belt, the Dukes are 15-3 overall and 10-2 in conference play. JMU lost some major contributors from last year’s team, but it is one of just nine FBS teams without a loss at this point in the season. The Dukes will finally be able to compete for Sun Belt championships and beyond next season after the NCAA-mandated two-year transition period comes to an end.

Louisville (6-1, 3-1 ACC)

Louisville has typically been a middle-of-the-pack team in the ACC, but Jeff Brohm has UL in contention for a conference title midway through his first season on the job. There aren’t many programs where a coaching change portends immediate winning, but Brohm has pieced together a roster good enough to get the Cardinals out to a 6-1 start. The high mark was the 33-20 home win over Notre Dame to get to 6-0, but that was followed up with a dud — a loss at Pittsburgh. Everybody is chasing Florida State in the ACC, but Louisville avoids both FSU and North Carolina on its schedule. The path to the ACC title game is very viable.

Louisville's Quincy Riley (3) and Jarvis Brownlee, Jr. (2) celebrate after a play during the Cardinals' win over Notre Dame on Oct. 7. (Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Louisville's Quincy Riley (3) and Jarvis Brownlee, Jr. (2) celebrate after a play during the Cardinals' win over Notre Dame on Oct. 7. (Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) (Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Missouri (7-1, 3-1 SEC)

Missouri is on the verge of its best season since it won back-to-back SEC East titles in 2013 and 2014 under Gary Pinkel. Since then, the high-mark was winning eight games back in 2018. The Tigers have not had a winning season since — until this season's breakthrough in Eli Drinkwitz’s fourth year on the job. Not many pegged Mizzou as the top contender to Georgia in the SEC East but that’s been the case through eight games. The Tigers are firmly in the SEC title race and will head to Athens after the bye week likely with first place in the division on the line.

Oklahoma State (5-2, 3-1 Big 12)

Not much was expected from Oklahoma State this season. The Cowboys lost five of six games to close out 2022 and then longtime starting QB Spencer Sanders transferred. The QB situation was a major question mark, but things have solidified with veteran Alan Bowman taking the reins. After a 2-2 start that included an ugly loss to South Alabama, OSU has won its last three games and is 3-1 in Big 12 play. Four of OSU’s final five games are against the newcomers in the Big 12, plus what could be the final edition of Bedlam vs. Oklahoma for the foreseeable future. Like Iowa State, OSU will be a factor in the Big 12 race.

Rutgers (6-2, 3-2 Big Ten)

Rutgers is already bowl eligible after notching its sixth win of the season on Saturday by beating Indiana, 31-14. Rutgers was a COVID replacement in the Gator Bowl in 2021. Before that, the last bowl berth for RU was back in 2014. That’s the last time Rutgers finished with a winning record. With four games to play, Rutgers has already tied its most conference wins (3) as a member of the Big Ten. It will take an upset to get to four (RU closes out the season with Ohio State, Iowa, Penn State and Maryland), but this is already a major step forward for Greg Schiano’s program.

Texas State (5-2, 2-1 Sun Belt)

Since moving up to the FBS in 2012, Texas State has just one winning season and has never played in a bowl game. G.J. Kinne is on the verge of accomplishing both of those feats in his first season coaching the Bobcats. Texas State is 5-2 overall and tied for first place with Troy and South Alabama in the Sun Belt West. The Bobcats entered this season on a streak of eight consecutive losing seasons, dating back to 2014. During that stretch, the best record the program had was 4-8. Kinne revamped the roster with transfers and needs one more win to get the Bobcats bowl eligible. That’s impressive.

UNLV (6-1, 3-0 Mountain West)

One of the most under-the-radar stories of the season is the emergence of UNLV in its first season under Barry Odom. UNLV beat Colorado State 25-23 on a last-second field goal Saturday to improve to 6-1 on the season. UNLV is headed to a bowl game for just the second time since the 2000 season. The Rebels have finished with a losing record in 18 of the last 19 seasons but are currently one of just two teams without a loss in MWC play, joining No. 19 Air Force.

Honorable mention

  • Air Force (7-0, 4-0 MWC): Air Force was one of the Mountain West favorites entering the season, but to still be this good after losing a three-year starter at quarterback and the second-leading rusher in program history is mighty impressive.

  • Duke (5-2, 2-1 ACC): Duke was one of the biggest surprises in the sport last year, going from 3-9 in 2021 to 9-4 in 2022 in Year 1 under Mike Elko. Even with a much tougher schedule, the Blue Devils have remained one of the better teams in the ACC with their only two losses coming to Notre Dame and Florida State.

  • Jacksonville State (6-2, 4-1 C-USA): The transition from FCS has gone quite well for Rich Rodriguez and Jacksonville State. The Gamecocks are 6-2 and have won four of their last five, including last Tuesday’s last-second victory over Western Kentucky. The competition in the new-look C-USA isn’t great, but the Gamecocks deserve recognition for finding ways to win several close games.

  • Nebraska (4-3, 2-2 Big Ten): Nebraska has quietly rebounded since an ugly 0-2 start. The Huskers have won four of five and look like a much more disciplined team with Matt Rhule in charge. Can they end their seven-year bowl drought?

  • South Florida (4-4, 2-2 AAC): It took Alex Golesh eight games to reach the win total Jeff Scott achieved across his three seasons at USF. Can the Bulls get to a bowl game for the first time since 2018?

  • West Virginia (4-3, 2-2 Big 12): Neal Brown entered the season firmly on the hot seat, but that chatter cooled some after WVU started 4-1. Two losses followed, including to Houston on a Hail Mary, but the Mountaineers have still been far more competitive than many expected. A winning season is very possible.