Biggest Sleepers in Power 5 College Football Conferences in 2017

Christopher WalshCollege Football National ColumnistFebruary 17, 2017

Biggest Sleepers in Power 5 College Football Conferences in 2017

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    Not too many people would have predicted Penn State would play in the Big Ten Championship Game, much less win it, before the start of the 2016 season.
    Not too many people would have predicted Penn State would play in the Big Ten Championship Game, much less win it, before the start of the 2016 season.Bobby Ellis/Getty Images

    In 2016, the buzz was about college football programs like Colorado and Penn State.

    Not too many people were talking about them at the end of the previous season, and both coaches were widely believed to be on the hot seat. Instead, they surprised the college football world in a big way, and with magical years the teams played for conference championships.

    In sports, they're called sleepers.

    According to Vocabulary.com, a sleeper is "something that succeeds when no one thought it would." That definitely describes the Buffaloes and Nittany Lions.

    Yet not all sleepers are created equal. Whereas Washington would have been a good pick to be a sleeper in the Pac-12 and went on to land a spot in the College Football Playoff, Louisville would have been one too despite coming off an 8-5 season, along with Georgia Tech following a 3-9 year.

    The tricky part is picking next season's sleepers beforehand, not just overall, but in each Power Five conference and division. Some of these will be a little more obvious than others, but all appear to be programs going in the right direction.

ACC Atlantic: Syracuse

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    Before taking over Syracuse, Dino Babers led Bowling Green to the 2015 Mid-American Conference championship.
    Before taking over Syracuse, Dino Babers led Bowling Green to the 2015 Mid-American Conference championship.Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

    Syracuse has been a struggling program for years with one 10-win season since 1992. The last time the Orange finished ranked in the Associated Press Poll was 2001 (the 10-3 season).

    Enter head coach Dino Babers, who led a 4-8 season in his first season and brought some offensive excitement back to the program. Quarterback Eric Dungey improved his completion percentage to 64.8, and it should continue to rise as he enters his junior year.

    Syracuse will score points. The bigger question is the defense, which gave up 463 points last season, allowing 38.6 points and 501 yards per game.

    If senior linebackers Zaire Franklin and Parris Bennett can avoid injuries, the Orange could see significant improvement in 2017.

ACC Coastal: Miami

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    As a high school quarterback, Mark Richt was called “All Turnpike’’ because of all the awards he won around the state of Florida.
    As a high school quarterback, Mark Richt was called “All Turnpike’’ because of all the awards he won around the state of Florida.Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    The popular sleeper choice in this division will be either Georgia Tech or Pitt, but considering their records last year (9-4 and 8-5, respectively), they'll be hard pressed to move up in the standings.

    Moreover, the Yellow Jackets have to replace both quarterback Justin Thomas and center Freddie Burden, in addition to linebacker P.J. Davis. Pitt will have a new quarterback too, plus tough back-to-back nonconference foes Penn State and Oklahoma State on the schedule.

    Miami head coach Mark Richt will have a new quarterback, but the roster already boasts Jack Allison, one of the nation's top recruits last year. Additionally, the Hurricanes have an impressive young defense that includes cornerback Trajan Bandy and defensive linemen Jonathan Garvin and D.J. Johnson.

    Miami went 9-4 and knocked off No. 16 West Virginia for its first bowl victory since 2006.

    Under Richt, the Hurricanes may just be getting started.

Big 12: Kansas State

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    Bill Snyder hit the 200-win milestone last season. His record at Kansas State is 202–105–1.
    Bill Snyder hit the 200-win milestone last season. His record at Kansas State is 202–105–1.Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

    Although head coach Bill Snyder has been diagnosed with throat cancer (the 77-year-old Hall of Fame coach issued a statement that he's not planning on missing any spring practices), the Wildcats could be poised for a big year.

    Kansas State won six of its final seven games in 2016 to finish 9-4 and knocked off Texas A&M in the Texas Bowl, 33-28.

    It has nearly every key player back, including quarterback Jesse Ertz, running back Alex Barnes and wide receiver Byron Pringle. The defense, which is usually the backbone of Snyder teams, allowed the fewest points in the conference. It lost some veterans but could do so again.

    A lot of the preseason buzz in the Big 12 will be about Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, but Kansas State could end up topping them.

Big 12: Texas

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    After posting the state's best record in 2016 (9-4), Tom Herman was lured away from Houston by Texas.
    After posting the state's best record in 2016 (9-4), Tom Herman was lured away from Houston by Texas.Richard Carson/Getty Images

    Although new head coach Tom Herman's first recruiting class wasn't stellar—No. 28 according to Scout.com, though he didn't have much time to put it together after being hired in late November—he inherited a lot of talent from Charlie Strong.

    It includes sophomore quarterback Shane Buechele (who threw for 2,958 yards and 21 touchdowns in 2016) and three top-notch wide receivers. Running back Chris Warren should help ease the departure of D'Onta Foreman following his 2,000-yard rushing season.

    The defense also returns a lot of key players, so the Longhorns should improve as the season progresses and finish much better than last season's 5-7 record.

Big Ten East: Maryland

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    D.J. Durkin has an unusual history in that he has worked for both Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh.
    D.J. Durkin has an unusual history in that he has worked for both Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh.G Fiume/Getty Images

    Maryland opens the 2017 season at Texas, so even though both teams are on this list, one is going to start with a loss.

    Head coach D.J. Durkin's first season resulted in a 6-7 record, and replacing quarterback Perry Hills won't be easy. Even with him, Maryland was blasted during its three-game stretch against Michigan, Ohio State and Nebraska, 149-13.

    However, Durkin made big waves in recruiting (No. 12 according to Scout.com), and although they went 1-5 down the stretch, the Terrapins showed signs of not being too far off. For example, running back Ty Johnson ran for 159 yards against Boston College, which is known for its run defense.

    Maryland is getting better, fast. It's more a question of if it will start to show on the field this season or next.

Big Ten West: Northwestern

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    In three seasons at Northwestern, Justin Jackson has 4,129 career rushing yards and 582 receiving.
    In three seasons at Northwestern, Justin Jackson has 4,129 career rushing yards and 582 receiving.Adam Hunger/Getty Images

    Although departed wide receiver Austin Carr was the Northwestern player to make the biggest splash in 2016, just about everyone else is back on offense.

    Quarterback Clayton Thorson is coming off a 3,000-yard year during which he had 22 passing touchdowns compared to just nine interceptions. Running back Justin Jackson was the MVP of the Pinstripe Bowl with 224 rushing yards and three touchdowns against Pitt.

    Led by safety Godwin Igwebuike and defensive end Xavier Washington, the defense should be in good hands.

    Northwestern also has a favorable schedule in 2017. It doesn't have to play Michigan or Ohio State, and it will face Penn State, Iowa, Michigan State and Minnesota at home.

    If Northwestern gets through its first three conference games (at Wisconsin, Penn State and at Maryland) with a win or two, it should challenge for the division title.

Pac-12 North: Oregon

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    Willie Taggart coached at Western Kentucky and South Florida before joining Oregon as the lead man.
    Willie Taggart coached at Western Kentucky and South Florida before joining Oregon as the lead man.Jason Behnken/Getty Images

    Oregon State was nearly the pick here, but the offense will have a new quarterback and three new starters on the line, while the defense has numerous holes to fill as well. Keep an eye on Gary Andersen's team for 2018.

    Instead, it's Oregon.

    The Ducks are coming off a 4-8 season after which only one player was invited to participate in the NFL combine, tight end Pharaoh Brown. New head coach Willie Taggart got off to a rocky start, and a lot of college football fans will want to write off Oregon for 2017. Don't.

    The staff still includes defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt and co-offensive coordinator Mario Cristobal, who helped the Ducks land seven recruits out of the Sunshine State.

    Leavitt has his work cut out on defense, but quarterback Justin Herbert looked promising as a true freshman, the offensive line returns four freshmen who played a lot last year and running back Royce Freeman could be poised for a big senior season.

    Look for Oregon to bounce back in a big way and be the most improved team in the league.

Pac-12 South: UCLA

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    UCLA is 12-13 with Josh Rosen on the roster, 11-8 with him starting at quarterback.
    UCLA is 12-13 with Josh Rosen on the roster, 11-8 with him starting at quarterback.Harry How/Getty Images

    Trying to pick a sleeper team in the Pac-12 South is like attempting to catch a fish with bare hands. USC is the clear favorite, and Colorado and Utah will both try to match last year's strong showings, but each of the other three teams could go in any direction.

    After two consecutive losing seasons and missing out on a bowl in 2016, Arizona State has the potential to make the big jump in the standings if the offensive line improves.

    But the pick here is UCLA.

    The Bruins won just one of their final seven games after quarterback Josh Rosen suffered a shoulder injury. If the defense can come close to last year's numbers and Rosen stays healthy, UCLA should be back near the top of the division.

    In six games, Rosen passed for 1,915 yards, 10 touchdowns and five interceptions. Since then, head coach Jim Mora has overhauled the offensive staff and hired away Jedd Fisch, Michigan's passing game coordinator, in an attempt to maximize his quarterback's potential during what could be his final college season.

SEC West: Auburn

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    Gus Malzahn's continuing search for a quarterback has now added Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham, who didn't play last season.
    Gus Malzahn's continuing search for a quarterback has now added Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham, who didn't play last season.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    With established quarterbacks, Arkansas and Mississippi State should be better, yet they still don't see much improvement in terms of record.

    Auburn could challenge Alabama for the division title if quarterback Jarrett Stidham meets expectations.

    Of course, he still has to win the starting job for new offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey against Sean White, John Franklin III and Woody Barrett.

    Stidham didn't play last season after transferring from Baylor, where in 2015 he completed 75 of 109 passes for 1,265 yards and 12 touchdowns while having just two attempts intercepted.

    End Carl Lawson and tackle Montravius Adams are big losses on the defensive line, yet coordinator Kevin Steele should have one of the league's better defenses again.

    The offensive line is solid, and running back Kamryn Pettway remains a force in the backfield. But the quarterback position has been the biggest difference between Auburn's being an average team in the division and being one of the top teams in college football.

SEC East: South Carolina

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    Will Muschamp's defenses have a reputation for being much better in year two .
    Will Muschamp's defenses have a reputation for being much better in year two .Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    Kentucky was the league's sleeper team of 2016, as the Wildcats went into November 4-2 in SEC play before losing to Georgia 27-24 and closed the regular season with a victory at Louisville.

    Consequently, the nod for next season goes to the Gamecocks.

    Considering what head coach Will Muschamp inherited, South Carolina's 6-7 finish and bowl game appearance were among the most impressive and overlooked accomplishments of the 2016 season.

    When Muschamp was at Florida (2011-14), his defense made significant strides in year two, finishing No. 5 nationally in total defense, and the Gators went from a 7-6 team to 11-2.

    Muschamp added to the momentum with his recent recruiting class that included junior college defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw, who could make an immediate impact.

    South Carolina has a brutal November with Georgia, Florida and Clemson on the schedule, but it might be playing for something when that stretch arrives.

     

    Christopher Walsh is a national college football columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @WritingWalsh.