10 College Football Teams That Could Be Cinderellas in the 2018 Season
As the basketball world searches for Cinderella in the NCAA tournament, college football fans can look ahead to the 2018 season and attempt to pick similar teams.
Last year, UCF followed up a six-win campaign with a dominant 13-0 year and became the darling of the season. Could there be a similar outburst this year from an average squad from 2017?
While Power Five conference schools such as South Carolina, Virginia Tech and West Virginia will be considered sleepers or breakout teams, we're focused on programs in Group of Five conferences.
Granted, for these leagues, the College Football Playoff isn't much of a possibility. Consequently, our focus is identifying teams that could make a run at the New Year's Six Bowl berth—though in some cases, the objective is a conference championship.
Teams that finished 2017 with 10-plus wins were not considered. That eliminates Army, Boise State, Florida Atlantic, Fresno State, San Diego State and UCF.
Georgia Southern Eagles
2017 Record: 2-10
Starting off with a ba—WHAT?
The likelihood of Georgia Southern putting together a one-year turnaround is not high. We are not expecting it. Do not mistake this inclusion for confidence in a Sun Belt championship.
But we're intrigued.
From the beginning of 2016 through an 0-6 start to 2017, the Eagles strayed too far from their option-based offense. Soon after dismissing Tyson Summers as head coach, though, Georgia Southern posted 350-plus rushing yards in two games. And most of the offense returns.
The Eagles making a charge up the standings would be akin to a No. 15 seed reaching the Elite Eight, and they have our attention.
Tulane Green Wave
2017 Record: 5-7
After dropping four one-possession games in 2017, Tulane is poised for an ascent if a little luck follows.
In a matter of two years, head coach Willie Fritz has lifted the Green Wave from 317.0 yards per game to 341.4 and then 391.5. Plus, last season, they registered 5.8 yards per snap—the program's highest mark since the Shaun King-led undefeated campaign of 1998.
That improvement should be sustainable because dual-threat quarterback Jonathan Banks and the entire offensive linemen return.
Key losses at every level of the defense are worrisome, but that's where luck comes in. Every successful team receives a couple of fortuitous breaks, and the defense being opportunistic could propel Tulane into the AAC West Division conversation.
Northern Illinois Huskies
2017 Record: 8-5
Led by All-American defensive end Sutton Smith, Northern Illinois is positioned to control the MAC once again.
After reaching the conference championship game in six straight seasons from 2010 through 2015, the Huskies had a rough 2016 (5-7, 5-3 in the MAC) but rebounded last year. They assembled a 6-2 MAC record, losing only to eventual champion Toledo and at Central Michigan.
Since Toledo is losing quarterback Logan Woodside, the West Division is wide-open. NIU has a couple major departures—notably standout tackle Max Scharping—but the coaching staff relied on a considerable group of younger players in 2017.
The nonconference slate of Iowa, Utah and Florida State lowers the Huskies' ceiling, but the Huskies are among the contenders in the MAC.
Louisiana Tech Bulldogs
2017 Record: 7-6
If Louisiana Tech can replace 1,000-yard rusher Boston Scott and 500-yard producer Jarred Craft, its offense has everything else.
J'Mar Smith threw for 2,974 yards and 16 touchdowns with only five interceptions, adding 378 yards and six scores on the ground. Three of his top four targets return, as does four offensive linemen—two of whom secured All-C-USA honors.
Hopefully that continuity will result in more consistency and more points. Tech was 5-1 when putting up 27-plus points but a mere 2-5 below that mark.
The secondary must reload, and transition on the back end could become the Bulldogs' biggest flaw. But an above-average offense with a respectable defense is a good starting point for 2018.
2017 Record: 8-5
One of the best stories of 2017, the Blazers rose from nonexistence to eight wins in their first season after a two-year absence from the sport.
UAB finished a perfect 6-0 at home while boasting a 6-2 conference record. The team finished one game behind North Texas in C-USA's West Division, losing to the Mean Green 46-43.
To accomplish all that so soon was impressive. And in 2018, practically the entire offense is back. All-conference lineman Chris Schleuger is basically the only departure on the unit.
The Blazers' run defense must be more effective after ranking 80th last year, but there are enough experience and talent on both sides of the ball to consider them a C-USA contender. It's simply remarkable they've earned that perception so quickly.
2017 Record: 6-6
Buffalo's six-win team did not receive a bowl bid. That will likely serve as motivation and could help their breakout storyline.
After a 2-2 start, the Bulls dropped three of the next four while Tyree Jackson was unavailable due to a knee injury. During the last four games, Jackson amassed 1,363 passing yards and nine touchdowns to two interceptions.
Johnson connected with standout receiver Anthony Johnson 27 times for 532 yards and eight scores, helping Buffalo finish 3-1. If that duo is healthy together, the Bulls can shred opponents.
Plus, 154-tackle linebacker Khalil Hodge highlights a senior-heavy defense. There's a lot to like about Buffalo in 2018.
Arkansas State Red Wolves
2017 Record: 7-5
Arkansas State ranked 12th nationally with 38.7 points per game in 2017, and Justice Hansen will reprise his role behind center. He totaled 4,390 yards of offense and accounted for 44 touchdowns.
The scoring attack also returns leading rusher Warren Wand, top receiver Justin McInnis and a couple of experienced wideouts in Omar Bayless and Kendrick Edwards. Four offensive linemen are also back, including two All-Sun Belt honorees.
We know the Red Wolves will score. Now, can they defend?
The departures of Ja'Von Rolland-Jones, Dee Liner, Kyle Wilson and Blaise Taylor, among others, are significant. However, if the unit can recover enough to complement Hansen and the offense, it's ASU's year for a Sun Belt crown.
North Texas Mean Green
2017 Record: 9-4
Similar to how Fritz has lifted Tulane's offense in a short time, Seth Littrell has sparked a resurgence at North Texas.
The year before he arrived, the Mean Green ranked 119th in yards per play. They inched up to 114th in his debut, but the experience that season provided Mason Fine was hugely beneficial. Last year, North Texas was 36th nationally in the category.
Fine shattered school records, throwing for 4,052 yards and 31 touchdowns as a sophomore. And next year, five of his top six receivers return, as well four offensive linemen and a key reserve.
Although each level within the defense lost an important starter, an offense that regularly scores 40-plus points—something Fine and Co. did six times last year—can overcome most struggles by the unit.
2017 Record: 4-8
A little defense would go a long way for Louisiana-Monroe.
Last year, the Warhawks surrendered the third-most yards per snap (7.31) and fifth-most points per game (41.0) in the nation. They ranked 117th in third-down percentage allowed (46.0).
What if ULM simply had an average defense? Well, that should be the target for 2018, because this offense should be great.
Caleb Evans recorded 3,447 yards of total offense and accounted for 30 touchdowns as a sophomore. Four of the top five receivers are back. On the line, three starters and two part-time starters return. Alabama transfer Derrick Gore could have a breakout year.
The Warhawks might score 38 points per game; can they prevent opponents from putting up 40?
2017 Record: 9-4
Unlike several teams on the list, Ohio isn't featured because of continuity. No, this is all about the quarterback.
Nathan Rourke quickly claimed the starting job during his first season in Athens, leapfrogging fellow sophomore Quinton Maxwell after a couple of weeks. Rourke amassed 3,115 total yards, threw for 17 touchdowns and scampered for 21 more.
He'll spearhead a scoring attack that returns 1,000-yard rusher A.J. Ouellette and leading receiver Papi White.
Eight of Ohio's top 13 tacklers were seniors, so they leave a considerable void on defense. But if Rourke and the offense are as lethal as anticipated, the unit will atone for that as long as the drop from being ranked 44th nationally in scoring defense isn't substantial.