Everyone loves a good underdog. Preseason unranked Notre Dame in 2011, fourth seeded Ohio State in the 2014 playoff, Vince Young and Texas in 2005, and many more. The surprise factor along with the ‘David vs Goliath’ mentality makes it hard for anyone to root against the underdog in a big game. This year there are more than a few candidates to be a sleeper pick, but here are the top choices from each of the power 5 conferences.
ACC: North Carolina State- This years Wolfpack team is loaded with both experience and talent, two factors that have proven to be key to success in college football. They return eight starters on each side of the ball, including all four components of a stacked defensive line. Bradley Chubb, the senior defensive end comes back after totaling 10.5 sacks last season. Along with Chubb, Justin Jones and BJ Hill hold up the interior part of the line, and are both great against the run. Last year the Wolfpack ranked 8th nationally in rushing defense, and a large part of that comes from the two defensive tackles. On offense, Ryan Finley enters his second year as the starter, after winning the job over last summer following his transfer from Boise State. Last season he completed 60.4% of his throws to go along with 3,059 yards and 18 touchdowns. There is depth at receiver for the first time in recent history for NC State, with Jaylen Samuels, Stephen Louis, and Kelvin Harmon all set to be key contributors. A tough first game may dictate how the season goes for the ‘Pack, but if they can pull off a win against South Carolina in week one, they may be off and running, and should surprise a lot of people.
SEC: South Carolina- Will Muschamp, despite being widely disliked and thought to be a subpar football coach, has done a great job so far at South Carolina. After inheriting a 3-9 team that was the broken remains of the Steve Spurrier era, he immediately exceeded expectations, took the Gamecocks to a bowl game and finished 6-7. His problem at Florida was always the offense, but this years Gamecock offense is loaded with young talent and promise. Ten starters return headlined by rising star quarterback Jake Bentley. The sophomore still has much to learn, but the weapons around him should surely help him out. With three serviceable running backs in Rico Dowdle (sophomore), Ty’son Williams (Junior) and AJ Turner (sophomore) the ground game should not be a problem. At receiver, junior Deebo Samuel and sophomore Bryan Edwards are both set to improve upon their respective 783 and 590 yard seasons, and highly touted freshman OrTre Smith should see immediate action. Carolina also has one of the most under appreciated tight ends in the country by the likes of Hayden Hurst. The 6″5′ 250 lb. junior is coming off a breakout season where he totaled over 600 receiving yards. The defense looks to have a question mark in terms of the pass rush, but their above average linebacking corps should help cut the slack. The secondary also returns three out of four, and should improve as well. South Carolina looks to set the tone early with a big matchup week one, and if things go right, do not count them out of the running for a division championship in the shaky SEC East.
Big 12: West Virginia- The Mountaineers may be a total hit or miss this season. Coming off a 10-3 season, they only return seven total starters from last years team. The X-Factor this year will definitely be Will Grier, the junior quarterback who transferred from Florida. He started six games in Gainesville, guiding the Gators to a 6-0 (4-0 SEC) record, 1,200 yards and 10 touchdowns. Being that SEC defense is tremendously better than the Big 12 as a whole, and West Virginia runs a nice spread, up-tempo offense, Grier may have an amazing season statistically. Also in the backfield is senior running back Justin Crawford, who rushed for almost 1,200 yards a year ago. Two key receivers return in Ka’Raun White, brother of NFL WR Kevin White, and Javon Durante. The defense has a lot of unknowns and new faces, but with a solid linebacking group and plenty of talent going around in the secondary, they should be able to hold up their end of the bargain. Free Safety Dravon Askew-Henry returns after missing last season with a torn ACL, and should assume his role as an impact player on the defense. The anchors are in the middle, being linebackers Al-Rasheed Benton and David Long. It’s up to the defense and Will Grier, but if they can both pull it together don’t be surprised if West Virginia makes a run at the Big 12 title game this fall.
Pac-12: Arizona State- This years team in Tempe is loaded with talent. Landing former 5-Star quarterback transfer Blake Barnett from Alabama will do wonders for the Sun Devils. Along with Barnett, N’Keal Harry, another top recruit returns at receiver after a 659 yard 5 touchdown season as a freshman. At Running back, two seniors return in Demario Richard and Kevin Ballage after both having large roles last season and both should improve. Look for the offense to score a lot of points this season. On defense, eight starters return from last year. New defensive coordinator Phil Bennett comes in and should immediately show improvement. Head coach Todd Graham was previously calling the defensive plays, and having his own coordinator should take a lot of weight off his shoulders. Outside linebacker Karon Crump comes back after his 9 sack season last year and should have a big impact. The secondary sees three out of four starters return, and should improve mightily after giving up the most passing yards per game in the nation last year. The linebackers might prove to be problematic, but DJ Calhoun returns should hold up the middle to be serviceable at the least. The Pac-12 south is a tough division to play in this year, and having crossover games include Oregon, Stanford and Washington doesn’t help. However with a high octane offense and what should be a much improved defense, Arizona State will be much better than many people give them credit for.
Big 10: Northwestern- Northwestern has never been a football school, but head coach Pat Fitzgerald has gone above and beyond where the Wildcats have been in years past. He has won 10 games twice already, and may do so again this year. The offense returns eight from last year, including star running back Justin Jackson. He went off for over 1,500 yards and 15 scores last fall. Next to him at quarterback will be junior Clayton Thorson, who had a solid season last year with 3,182 yards, 22 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. The offensive line may be the heart of the team, and returns four of five starters. The receiving group is a question mark, but they do have junior Flynn Nagel to lead them. Defensively, the Wildcats should be solid. they run a nice scheme and were top 30 nationally in scoring and rushing defense a season ago. They return seven starters, most importantly senior safety Godwin Igwebuike. His 108 tackles in 2016 was a team high. Also in the secondary, junior CB Montre Hartage comes back following his 5 interception campaign last fall. A mediocre schedule and a sound team all around should combine to put the Wildcats near the top of their division.