It is easy to predict Oregon and Oklahoma to win their conferences, but it takes a lot more courage to take Arizona State and Texas A&M.
In this article I will predict a winner for each conference that is not the popular favorite—the teams that will be the story of the college football season if they can somehow upset the big dogs and win their leagues.
These are the dark horse conference champions from each FBS conference.
I am not too sure the ACC actually has a sleeper in 2011. Florida State looks to be the eventual champions, with Virginia Tech being the only other team that could knock the Seminoles off.
If anyone else could get it done, it might be North Carolina. The Tar Heels return plenty of talent on the defensive end, including defensive end Quinton Coples.
The concern with the Tar Heels is on offense, where they only return five starters from a season ago. The biggest loss will be quarterback T.J. Yates, who had a breakout season in 2010 for North Carolina.
Pittsburgh looks a lot like a sleeper team to me. The Panthers return key players from a solid defense, and they have a new head coach the program can get excited about.
Head coach Todd Graham is actually a defensive coach but came from a dominant offensive program in Tulsa. Hopefully for the Panthers, he can carry some of that success over to his new home.
Last season, Pittsburgh managed to go 8-5 and finished tied atop the Big East. It also had the 19th-best defense in the nation.
Pitt’s road to a Big East championship will travel through West Virginia. If the Panthers can win the Backyard Brawl, don’t be surprised if they find themselves at the top of the conference next season.
It is hard to consider anyone a dark horse in the Big Ten. The conference is so wide-open that there are a number of teams that can reasonably be considered the early favorites.
I chose Michigan as the dark horse because it showed promise at times last season. Its offense was one of the most potent in the nation, but its defense was worthless.
In response to that weakness, the Wolverines hired a defensive-minded coach named Brady Hoke.
However, not all is new in Ann Arbor. Michigan returns 18 starters from a season ago, including 10 from the offense alone. There is plenty of talent at Michigan, but it needs to learn to stop teams before it can make an impact.
Even though the Aggies may be ranked very high in most preseason polls, the Oklahoma schools are still viewed as the overwhelming favorites to win the Big 12.
Texas A&M is not a team to take lightly in 2011. Last season, it started the year off 3-3 but ended up winning the last six games of the regular season.
The reason was quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who took over for Jerrod Johnson midway through the year.
The Aggies return 18 starters from a season ago and look to prove that the second half of the 2010 season was no fluke. If they can somehow come out of the Big 12 as champions, they may even be BCS title dark horses.
Could the Pony Express finally be rolling again?
This conference seems like it should be dominated by Tulsa, but there are plenty of other teams that have a shot. Most of these teams are simply offensive juggernauts, but SMU is one of the more well-rounded in the conference.
The biggest reason to be excited about the Mustangs, however, is still their offense. Quarterback Kyle Padron led a very solid passing attack last season, and running back Zach Line managed to run for 1,494 yards last season.
Both are returning for the 2011 season along with 18 total starters from a season ago.
Before Al Golden split for Miami, he was changing the sorry image of Temple football. The team has had consecutive winning seasons, and it has a reasonable chance to take the conference crown this season.
Temple has hired former Florida offensive assistant Steve Addazio as Golden's replacement.
Last season, Temple had the 16th-best defense in college football, so this coaching hire is a direct effort to improve on offense.
Expect the offense to be much improved behind the running back duo of Matt Brown and Bernard Pierce. The rushed for a combined 1,558 yards last season for the Owls.
Most people would say that only TCU and Boise State have reasonable chances to compete for the Mountain West crown in 2011, and that is probably correct.
However, do not count out the San Diego State Aztecs. They are probably the best offensive team in the conference, other than Boise State, and they have a solid defense as well.
Quarterback Ryan Lindley had a breakout season in 2011 in which he threw for 3,830 yards and 28 touchdowns. But his great performance was often overshadowed by that of freshman running back Ronnie Hillman.
Hillman ran for 1,532 yards and 17 yards.
In the Pac-12, it is a near certainty that the champion will come from the North division. There is too much star power at Stanford and Oregon for those teams not to be great.
However, there still has to be a team that comes out of the South division, and it could be Arizona State.
The Sun Devils are returning 18 starters from a team that had Oregon, Stanford, Wisconsin and USC all on the ropes last season but just couldn’t connect with a finishing blow. If ASU can learn to finish, it will be a tough team to beat.
The Sun Devils are led by All-American linebacker Vontaze Burfict. He is one of the most feared tacklers in the nation and has been compared to Ray Lewis in the past.
If Arizona State can get to the Pac-12 Championship Game, anything can happen. Maybe it gets lucky and finds itself in the Rose Bowl next season.
There could be many possibilities for a dark horse winner in the SEC. Alabama and LSU are viewed as the favorites, but there are plenty of other capable teams.
The Razorbacks have reason to believe they are as capable as any.
Last season, Arkansas found itself playing in the Sugar Bowl and may have won if it were not for a late interception. This is a team with big-time talent and big-time expectations.
It has a Heisman candidate running back, Knile Davis, and a much-improved defense returning for the 2011 campaign.
If Tyler Wilson can live up to his hype and replace Ryan Mallett, the Razorbacks have a legitimate chances to win the SEC next season.
Last season, Troy and Florida International separated themselves as the top two teams in the conference. FIU was a bit of a surprise—will someone else have a similar road in 2011?
If anyone does, my money is on Louisiana-Monroe. The Warhawks return 20 starters from a season ago, including quarterback Kolton Browning.
They were just 5-7 a season ago, but experience should help the team improve somewhat.
With Boise State leaving the conference, the WAC has taken a huge hit. Depleted Nevada and Hawaii squads are the favorites to win the weak conference.
This gives Fresno State a reasonable chance. The Bulldogs are returning 14 starters from a team that finished 8-5 a season ago.
They are led by running back Robbie Rouse, who ran for 1,129 yards and eight touchdowns last season.