What do Georgia, Ohio State, Oklahoma, USC, Clemson, and West Virginia have in common? Most college football prognosticators are picking them to win their respective conferences.
While some are bigger favorites than others, each one will face some stiff competition from a “sleeper” team in their conference.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a sleeper as “someone or something unpromising or unnoticed that suddenly attains prominence or value.” This season the “sleeper” could very well cause some upheaval in the BCS.
The biggest threat to Georgia’s title hopes could very well be the Florida Gators. The Dawgs may be cursed with one of the toughest schedules in college football, while their biggest competition is blessed with one of the easiest (as far as SEC schedules go).
The showdown in the “The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party” will most likely decide who will represent the Eastern Division in the SEC title game. However, before the Dawgs get to the “Cocktail Party,” they will face a tough test at Arizona State and another one two weeks later at home with the Tennessee Volunteers.
My sleeper pick for the SEC is sandwiched between those two games. The Georgia Bulldogs better not overlook the Nick Saban-led Alabama Crimson Tide. I know, I know...Bama?
While everyone is pointing towards the future for Alabama, considering its epic recruiting class, the time might actually be now to start winning big.
The Tide come into the 2008 campaign with a veteran quarterback in John Parker Wilson, a great combo at tight end with Nick Walker and Travis McCall, a trio of good running backs with Terry Grant, Glen Coffee, and Roy Upchurch, and a strong offensive line led by left tackle Andre Smith and center Antoine Caldwell.
New offensive coordinator Jim McElwain will utilize the talent he has on offense by running the ball more, using those great tight ends, and giving John Parker Wilson a chance to succeed by calling quicker, shorter passes.
Bama will have a run-stuffing defense led by nose tackle Lorenzo Washington and speedy linebackers, including Rolando McClain. Look for star recruit Jerrell Harris to make an impact in year one. Senior Rashad Johnson will lead a defensive backfield that will get plenty of picks and plenty of big stops this season.
This team, though younger, will be better than last year's team that finished 7-6, and the Tide will be in the thick of the SEC West title hunt. A huge win over Georgia would give Bama a load of confidence.
For Georgia, a loss in this game would be disastrous. With their schedule, they cannot afford to lose one they are supposed to win.
Can anyone in the Big Ten threaten the Ohio State Buckeyes? While the Buckeyes are far and away the choice to win the conference, the Big Ten will be a tougher road to navigate this season. Wisconsin, Penn State, and Illinois return teams that could all pose a threat to Ohio State’s dominance, but the sleeper in the Big Ten is the Michigan State Spartans.
The offensive line is huge, running back Javon Ringer is special, the receivers—while inexperienced—are fast, and quarterback Brian Hoyer is a good veteran who won't get much publicity because he isn't fancy.
The defense has the potential to be fantastic, with Cincinnati transfer Trevor Anderson likely to be as good as, or better, than departed defensive end Jonal Saint-Dic. Future draft pick Otis Wiley appears to be home at strong safety after struggling the first part of last year at free safety.
The defensive front seven, led by linebacker Greg Jones, is fast and will get to the ball in a hurry.
Mark Dantonio has the blend of speed and power that he needs, and now the close wins have to start going Sparty’s way. All six of Michigan State’s losses last season came by seven points or fewer. Veteran, confident teams win the close games, and this year’s Spartan team is more experienced and more confident. Most of all, they’re better.
While it might take more than one year to become a true Big Ten Championship contender, there are enough pieces in place to cause some problems for the Buckeyes, who must travel to Spartan Stadium.
Most pundits have already placed Missouri and Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game. But as Lee Corso would say...not so fast, my friend. My Big 12 sleeper will get both of those teams back to back: Missouri at home and Oklahoma in the Red River Rivalry.
That’s right, my sleeper pick is the Texas Longhorns. Texas has never exactly been known as a tough, punch-you-in-the-face, nasty program that’s willing to get its hands dirty. But they are known for being ridiculously talented, and Austin has basically been an NFL farm system for years.
Something clicked on December 27, 2007. When Arizona State quarterback Rudy Carpenter started the trash talking, the Texas powder keg was lit. A jacked-up Texas team ran for 300 yards on the Sun Devils in a 52-34 rout, and the defense treated Carpenter like a rag doll.
The Longhorns suddenly seemed to realize that if they combined a nasty edge with all-star talent, big things could happen.
New defensive coordinator Will Muschamp will crank the aggression factor up to 11. If there was any question about the defense being aggressive, edgy, and physical before, it will now certainly be answered.
The offense quietly finished 13th in the nation in yards and 14th in scoring. Even with huge losses at running back (Jamaal Charles) and in the receiving corps (Limas Sweed, Nate Jones, and tight end Jermichael Finley), the production should keep on coming with promising replacements at the skill spots and a strong, veteran line that should be even better after a decent 2007.
Conducting the show is the underappreciated Colt McCoy, who's one of the Big 12's better quarterbacks but gets lost in the shuffle. The receiving corps includes senior Quan Cosby and Jordan Shipley, but it will rely on the expected contributions by speedsters DeSean Hales and Antoine Hicks, as well as Dan Buckner, who may have the best hands on the team.
If the Longhorns can play with the same edge they showed against the Sun Devils in last season’s bowl game, they may surprise more than a few people and end up in a rematch with Missouri for the Big 12 crown.
No current college football program has held a stranglehold on their conference’s championship like the USC Trojans. The Trojans will be looking for their seventh straight Pac-10 title, and most pundits are pointing to their stiffest competition being the Arizona State Sun Devils. But my Pac-10 sleeper could very well beat both USC and Arizona State.
The Oregon Ducks will look to build off of a 56-21 thumping of South Florida in last season’s bowl game.
The new breed of Oregon quarterback is a dual-threat who’s equally as dangerous with his legs as he is with his arm, and probable starter Nate Costa fits the bill. Costa will be put in a position to succeed right away in Chip Kelly's spread option attack, and he has the tools to put up solid numbers.
The running game won't see much of a drop-off as former super-sub Jeremiah Johnson looks to blossom into a dynamite full-time player. He's the total package who does all the little things well and will be running behind a veteran offensive line.
Subs Andre Crenshaw and LeGarrette Blount will share backup duties, as the Ducks will utilize the talents of three different running styles.
The Ducks boast a dominating left side of the line that will be the focus of the offense’s running plays and quarterback’s rollouts. Junior tight end Ed Dickson and senior receiver Jaison Williams lead a group of young but talented receivers.
The Ducks lose little from Nick Aliotti’s ball-hawking unit, retaining all six of the players who earned all-conference recognition a year ago. Up front, ends Nick Reed and Will Tukuafu are talented pass rushers who can also defend the run.
The Jerome Boyd-led linebackers have a chance to be the best group in Eugene in years. The secondary, featuring Patrick Chung, Jairus Byrd, and Walter Thurmond, will be among the best in the West.
If the Ducks can pick up steam through their first few games, they will be a tough bunch to beat.
The anointed one this season in the ACC has been the Clemson Tigers, but the ACC Atlantic Division has another team that could give the Tigers a run for their money. My sleeper in the ACC is last season’s Atlantic Division Champs: the Boston College Eagles.
Jeff Jagodzinski’s squad has been mostly overlooked this offseason. Losing an all-everything quarterback to the NFL, as well as last season’s top two rushers, a top offensive lineman, and three second team All-ACC defensive players will make people overlook you. But a closer look at the Eagles reveals that the cupboard isn’t nearly as bare as first thought.
Stepping in for Matt Ryan will be fifth-year senior Chris Crane, who is surprisingly quick at 6’4” and 236 pounds, and who has a more than capable arm and two invaluable seasons as Ryan’s backup. The Eagles return three players that caught at least 50 passes from last season’s receiving corps.
Boston College is rarely lacking in big, physical linemen who hold up well at the point of attack. This season will be no different. A year after leading the ACC in sacks allowed, the Eagles will again be solid.
After yielding just 75 yards a game on the ground, the Eagles might be even stingier this year now that defensive tackle B.J. Raji and linebacker Brian Toal are back in the fold. The front seven is among the toughest in the country, meaning the secondary had better be prepared for plenty of attention. Teams will have to throw to win.
The matchup with Clemson on Nov. 1 is at Boston College and could very well determine the Atlantic Coast champ in the ACC.
The West Virginia Mountaineers have quickly become the Kings of the Big East, but they haven’t been exactly dominant the last few seasons. Even with all their talent, the Mountaineers have dropped at least two conference games in each of the last two championship seasons.
This season West Virginia will have to contend with South Florida, Pittsburgh, and last season’s co-champ Connecticut—but it could be my sleeper, the Cincinnati Bearcats, that surprises the entire conference.
While the NCAA denied quarterback Ben Mauk a sixth season of eligibility, senior Dustin Grutza has the experience to lead the team—and there are few coaches in the nation that can get more out of the quarterback position than Brian Kelly, who will move forward with his "Cat Attack" offense.
The Bearcats have not one, but two, big physical backs who can move the pile and soften defenses between the tackles. The Cincinnati receiving corps is loaded, led by the duo of Dominick Goodman and Marcus Barnett, while top reserve Charley Howard caught everything in sight in the offseason.
The Bearcats retain many of the key parts from last season’s stingy, ball-hawking defense that led the nation in takeaways, including three All-Big East performers. With defensive tackle Terrill Byrd back to clog the middle of the line and cornerback Mike Mickens cutting off half the field for opposing quarterbacks, Cincinnati could be one of the toughest defenses in the nation.
While everyone talks about West Virginia and South Florida, Cincinnati has quietly become a Big East title contender.