Under-the-Radar College Football Teams That Could Become Surprise Contenders
Alabama, Ohio State and USC will be popular choices in College Football Playoff predictions, and recent seasons have showed it's reasonable to expect a couple of the preseason favorites to eventually reach the four-team championship tournament.
But in 2016, Washington surged from its No. 18 spot in the initial Coaches Poll to No. 4 in the final CFP rankings, earning a featured place on the national stage.
Is there a program capable of making a similar jump this season? The best teams seem to have been properly ranked in the first 2017 Amway Coaches Poll, but if a "sleeper" emerges from the bottom—or outside—of the rankings, it will be one of these schools.
No team inside of the Coaches Poll Top 15 or with futures odds (per OddsShark) at plus-5000 or better was considered.
Preseason ranking: Unranked
Reasons for hope: Justin Jackson is a dependable running back, and Clayton Thorson put together an encouraging sophomore year following a slow September. The defense—despite losing Ifeadi Odenigbo and Anthony Walker Jr.—should also improve thanks to a collection of returning starters and experienced reserves.
Biggest obstacles: What is the offense's upside? Northwestern was no better than average at creating 10-, 20- or 30-yard gains and well below average at anything beyond that. The 'Cats averaged 36.9 points in seven wins and 13.3 over six losses. Dropping five games when allowing 24 points or less must have been extremely frustrating, and there's no guarantee that trend changes in 2017.
CFP chances: For a program that's never won more than 10 regular-season games, the CFP is a super-extra lofty goal. But if Northwestern navigates a soft nonconference slate, clips Wisconsin on the road and stuns Penn State on homecoming, the schedule eases up significantly. This is a "keep them in the back of your mind" team.
Preseason ranking: Unranked
Reasons for hope: TCU returns a whole bunch of production and experience at every position. That includes four All-Big 12 honorees, highlighted by a pair of tackling machines at linebacker in Travin Howard and Ty Summers. Four starting offensive linemen and an insanely deep group of receivers are back, too.
Biggest obstacles: Will the first calendar change affect Kenny Hill again? The unpredictable quarterback threw for 375-plus yards in four of TCU's opening five games last season, then never topped 250 yards throughout the next eight contests. Plus, drops have plagued that rotation of wideouts. That combination is a huge problem.
CFP chances: By the end of September, the Horned Frogs will have exposed their ceiling. Road trips to Arkansas and Oklahoma State will show if they're talented enough to win away from home. If they're not, well, the CFP was a fun thought while it lasted. If they are, TCU must eventually repeat the feat against Kansas State and Oklahoma. The CFP isn't likely, but a consistent Hill would make an experienced team a real threat.
Preseason ranking: Unranked
Reasons for hope: Luke Falk is one of the nation's most efficient passers. In both 2015 and 2016, he completed at least 69.4 percent of his passes and threw 38 touchdowns in each season. Washington State also has a top-tier tackle and guard in Cole Madison and Cody O'Connell, respectively. The front seven remains almost entirely intact, as well.
Biggest obstacles: Wazzu's pass defense ranked 112th last year and lost much of its depth. Unless the starters make a major collective improvement, the secondary will be a glaring weakness. Plus, the Cougs have a crossover tilt with USC in addition to yearly contests with Stanford and Washington. The schedule does them no favors.
CFP chances: This might be Mike Leach's best team in Pullman. At worst, Washington State is trending the right direction, and that's a significant step for the program. However, it would take a couple of fortuitous bounces to survive the schedule. Don't expect the Cougs in the conversation late, but they might wreck a Pac-12 contender's year down the stretch.
Preseason ranking: 22
Reasons for hope: Defense. Bud Foster's unit needs to retool up front and replace safety Chuck Clark, but Virginia Tech will have a classic, aggressive defense. Though the offense lost key contributors at every position, returning players such as Cam Phillips and Wyatt Teller give the Hokies a respectable foundation to build around.
Biggest obstacles: Head coach Justin Fuente recently announced Josh Jackson, a redshirt freshman, will be the starting quarterback. That's a promising sign for the program's future, but Tech will meet West Virginia at a neutral site in the season opener and end September against Clemson. Will Jackson be ready for the big stage?
CFP chances: The difference between ACC and national contender is blurred due to the Coastal Division. In other words, Tech's record could be better than its actual performance compared to the nation's elite—yet wins are what matter most. If the Hokies beat Miami, they should reach the ACC championship game. A win in Charlotte plus a bit of chaos elsewhere could be a perfect mayhem formula for Tech.
Preseason ranking: 21
Reasons for hope: Few defenses on USF's schedule can stop Quinton Flowers, an elite college dual-threat quarterback. Speaking of that slate, Florida State is nowhere to be found. Instead, the Bulls have four winnable nonconference tilts, the toughest of which are UConn and Illinois. Nothing is easy, but that's a favorable outlook.
Biggest obstacles: How much will the transition from Willie Taggart affect the offense? The Flowers-led unit will look somewhat different in style, and a legitimate concern is execution may follow in a negative manner. And while shootouts on the scoreboard are fun to watch, giving up 30-plus points nearly half the time is an excellent way to lose. The defense cannot be a sieve opposite top competition again.
CFP chances: If an undefeated, dominant Western Michigan team couldn't rise higher than 17th in the College Football Playoff rankings, what will it take for South Florida to merit consideration? The Group of Five is at a major disadvantage in the CFP discussion, and a soft schedule won't promote the Bulls' resume. But of all non-power-conference teams, USF has the best chance to finish 12-0.
Preseason ranking: 20
Reasons for hope: Will Grier made Florida's offense look dangerous in 2015. There's little reason to suggest he won't accomplish the same under head coach Dana Holgorsen this season, especially since West Virginia should lean on the running game. Justin Crawford and Kennedy McKoy are a superb one-two punch in the backfield.
Biggest obstacles: Grier is eligible. Neat. Basically everyone else is gone. Not good. The offensive line, defensive line and secondary are all reloading, and the receiving corps might be without Jovon Durante, who would be the No. 2 returning target.
CFP chances: Common sense says West Virginia is dealing with too much transition to compete in the Big 12, let alone nationally. But a quarterback such as Grier can stabilize a program right away. If the Mountaineers dispatch Virginia Tech, they should roll to 4-0. Then, it's a matter of navigating a brutal finish that includes Oklahoma State, Kansas State, Texas and Oklahoma. Improbable, yes, but Grier's presence makes it possible.
Preseason ranking: 18
Reasons for hope: The front seven is among the best units nationally, and a couple of transfers should solidify the secondary. Miami's defense will be tenacious, while the offense boasts two of the ACC's best skill-position weapons in Mark Walton and Ahmmon Richards. Five of the Hurricanes' final seven games are at home, too.
Biggest obstacles: No matter which quarterback wins the competition, Miami will be breaking in a new full-time starter. And that signal-caller will only have two contests before a road trip to Florida State, the biggest game of the season. Losing the rivalry clash would eliminate the U's margin for error—with nine games remaining.
CFP chances: Should the 'Canes topple FSU, however, they're suddenly in an interesting spot. Toledo is the MAC's premier team, Virginia Tech is the other top Coastal Division contender and Notre Dame is a wild card, but all three games are at home. Miami could be favored in every matchup after Florida State, and that—despite being an imperfect measurement—should not be discounted.