10 College Football Teams That Could Be Cinderellas in the 2017 Season
It's that time of year in which the term "Cinderella" is commonly referred to in the sports world, especially in regards to the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament.
It's part of what makes the Big Dance cliche so applicable to this annual event.
The Cinderella term can be used in college football as well, and a number of teams are poised to wear glass cleats for the upcoming 2017 season.
But before revealing them, a bit of an explanation of what constitutes a Cinderella team.
For the most part, we're talking about schools that a lot of fans may not know what conference they play in, or where the school is specifically located.
Additionally, there's a difference between a sleeper team and a Cinderella. A sleeper is a team that succeeds when few people thought it would. A Cinderella is a surprise by a team from seemingly out of nowhere.
So, in terms of the men's basketball tournament, Baylor is a good example of a sleeper this season as it's a high seed after receiving no votes in the preseason Associated Press Top 25.
Florida Gulf Coast in 2013, which as a No. 15 seed knocked off Georgetown and San Diego State to reach the Sweet 16, was a Cinderella.
Similarly in football, Penn State was a sleeper last year, while Western Michigan was a Cinderella.
Here are 10 teams that hope to fit that description in 2017, for a variety of reasons.
OK, no one is expecting UAB to be in a bowl game at the end of the 2017 season, but the resurrected program is certainly like something out of a football fairy tale.
When every coach in the game says that he doesn't have a depth chart this spring, head coach Bill Clark will be the only one who means it. After the program was cut at the end of the 2014 season, he's basically starting from scratch.
The roster is full of former junior college players, but there are no expectations for this fall. Anything but last in Conference USA West will be considered a magical season, and if school officials can follow through on plans for a new football stadium, the program could quickly be on the rise.
It will be interesting to see how long it takes for the FAO headlines to be more about the players than the coaches.
The announcement of Lane Kiffin's latest coaching stop shocked a lot of people in college football, and he subsequently brought in the controversial Kendal Briles from Baylor as offensive coordinator.
Kiffin also brought in his brother, Chris, from Ole Miss to head the defensive side, and their father, Monte, will serve as a defensive analyst/NFL liaison.
On the field, the player to watch may be quarterback De'Andre Johnson, who was kicked off the team at Florida State and played last season at East Mississippi Community College. He's expected to compete with Jason Driskel and Daniel Parr for the starting job.
Defensively, FAU was porous last year, yielding a league-worst 477 points, but most of the players return. Linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair and safety Jalen Young are among those the coaching staff will look to for leadership.
Even though Florida Atlantic finished 3-9 last season, should everything come together this is a team that could contend for a bowl spot and even more in 2018. There's obviously a lot that could go wrong as well.
There was a lot more to the Redhawks than their 6-7 record last season.
Miami got off to a 0-6 start and then won six straight to become bowl-eligible. It took a blocked field goal for Mississippi State to escape with a 17-16 victory at the St. Petersburg Bowl.
Head coach Chuck Martin's team returns a lot of key players, including the established starter at quarterback heading into his junior year. During the seven games he played last season, Gus Ragland passed for 1,537 yards and 17 touchdowns, with just one interception.
The top three rushers (Alonzo Smith, Kenny Young and Maurice Thomas) are all expected back, along with leading receivers James Gardner and Jared Murphy.
Led by cornerback Heath Harding, the defense gave up just 168 points in eight conference games. If players like linebacker Junior McMullen continue to improve, it could be even better in 2017.
The Bulls aren't much of a Cinderella for anyone who watched them last season, but this year's team has the potential to play in a New Year's bowl as the top Group of Five team. Should it crash that party, it will proudly wear the Cinderella moniker.
With a favorable schedule, South Florida might be the best bet in Division I to go though the regular season undefeated.
New head coach Charlie Strong has inherited a lot of talent, including quarterback Quinton Flowers, who passed for 2,807 yards and 24 touchdowns last season, and ran for 1,530 yards and 18 more scores.
The defense will be led by defensive linemen Deadrin Senat and Bruce Hector, and linebacker Auggie Sanchez.
SMU returns nine starters on offense, including quarterback Ben Hicks, who threw for 2,930 yards as a freshman but had 15 passes intercepted. Junior college transfer D.J. Gillins, the former Wisconsin player who didn't want to give up on playing quarterback, should challenge.
Two offensive standouts to keep an eye on are running back Braeden West and wide receiver Courtland Sutton, who are both coming off 1,000-yard seasons in rushing and receiving, respectively.
The Mustangs were 7-17 during head coach Chad Morris' first two seasons but soundly defeated Houston last year, 38-16. After just missing out on a bowl, SMU should achieve that goal in 2017 if the offense continues to progress.
Tulane has had one winning season since 2002 (7-6 in 2013), which led to Willie Fritz being hired away from Georgia Southern last year in hopes of breathing some new life into the program.
The Green Wave finished 4-8 in 2016, with a six-game losing streak in conference play as the offense struggled with the spread-option offense led by quarterback Glen Cuiellette. He attempted just 237 passes, with 101 completions (42.6 percent) for 1,309 yards, 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
Tulane brought in junior college player Jonathan Banks—the former Kansas State quarterback who may be a better fit—to challenge in the spring.
With the leading running back and wide receiver—Dontrell Hilliard and Terren Encalade—both returning, Tulane figures to have a good chance to play in its fourth bowl game since 1987.
Troy isn't a pure Cinderella because the Trojans were a good team in 2016. They went from 4-8 the season before to 10-3, and they defeated Ohio in the Dollar General Bowl. Two of the losses were by seven points or less, including an early-season 30-24 defeat to eventual national champion Clemson.
In his third year, head coach Neal Brown will have his first veteran team. Not only is efficient quarterback Brandon Silvers—who in 2014 broke Sam Bradford's NCAA record for completion percentage by a freshman—back, but so is every other offensive playmaker. That includes running backs Jordan Chunn and Josh Anderson and wide receivers Emanuel Thompson, Deondre Douglas and Tevaris McCormick.
The strength of the defense are defensive tackles Seth Calloway, Baron Poole and Trevon Sanders, who make it tough to run against the Trojans.
The biggest concerns are offensive line and linebacker, but this might be the team to beat in the Sun Belt.
While Scott Frost has been somewhat overshadowed by the other big name head coaches who have recently taken over programs in the state, last year he took a team coming off an 0-12 season to a bowl game.
Granted, the Knights lost 31-13 to Arkansas State in the AutoNation Cure Bowl in Orlando, but that's still a remarkable turnaround.
If freshman quarterback McKenzie Milton—who completed 57.7 percent of his passes while throwing for 1,953 yards—continues to develop, UCF might be South Florida's biggest challenger in the American Athletic East. Fittingly, they close the regular season against each other on Nov. 24.
The other big question is the secondary, where UCF will have all new starters.
Despite losing quarterback Garrett Smith to a season-ending knee injury in October, ULM still managed to win four games in 2016. While that doesn't seem overly impressive, it is when you consider that the Warhawks finished 2-11 the previous season.
Head coach Matt Viator will be looking to build on that if the offense can find some much-needed continuity. A lot of players got experience last year, which should translate into depth this season.
While the defense used a lot of freshmen and sophomores, ULM was last in the FBS against the run. Led by linebackers and David Griffith, there should be some improvement, and with the addition of three junior college players in the secondary, the pass defense could also be better.
After adding one of the Sun Belt's best recruiting classes, ULM aims to take another step forward and challenge for a bowl spot this season, and continue to build on that in 2018.
Frank Wilson had the reputation for being a top-notch recruiter, but no one knew how well he would do as a head coach. Taking the Roadrunners to their first bowl game (a 23-20 loss to New Mexico in the New Mexico Bowl) during his first season answered a lot of those concerns.
While Wilson adds to the talent base, quarterback Dalton Sturm returns along with his top four receivers, including Josh Stewart (seen above). Replacing running back Jarveon Williams won't be easy, but Jalen Rhodes was right behind him in rushing yards (900 to 827). The offense should have a lot more continuity in general.
Linebacker Josiah Tauaefa and defensive end Marcus Davenport are expected to lead the defense, which returns four of its top five tacklers. If it can be more consistent, UTSA could be in the hunt to win the Conference USA West.
Christopher Walsh is a national college football columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.