College Football 2011: Sleeper Picks for Each BCS AQ Conference
Each year when college football preseason rankings come out, all the media ever talk about are the favorites. Aside from teams such as Oklahoma, Alabama and Oregon, there are a number of teams that could challenge for a conference championship in 2011.
Many of the small-market schools are relatively ignored in preseason polls, but are just as capable on the field. And in a down era for teams like USC and now Ohio State, other teams are getting their chance in the spotlight.
Check out the top sleeper in each of the big six conferences.
Big Ten: Northwestern Wildcats
Northwestern's football program has made a solid comeback over the past half decade thanks to head coach Pat Fitzgerald, and it even made a January bowl game two years ago.
Now the Wildcats are looking to take the next step.
The offense will be one of the best in the Big Ten, thanks to 2010 First-Team All-Big Ten quarterback Dan Persa. He was the most accurate passer in the FBS last season and can also make plays with his feet.
Northwestern also boasts a solid offensive line and good supporting players such as wide receiver Jeremy Ebert in the passing game.
The defense needs work, but looked much improved this spring, and with an "easy" schedule—the Wildcats miss Wisconsin and Ohio State—this could be the year Northwestern breaks through for a Big Ten Championship.
Big East: Syracuse Orange
After a long postseason drought, Syracuse made it back to the bowls last year and came up with an exciting, but controversial win over Kansas State in the Pinstripe Bowl.
The Orange appear to be on the upward swing, and in a weak Big East, they have a chance to make some noise.
The defense needs work, but the offense, especially the passing game, should be improved. Ryan Nassib returns at quarterback, and the offensive line and wide receivers should be solid.
With a fairly manageable conference schedule, including West Virginia at home, the Orange have a shot to reach a BCS bowl.
ACC: Maryland Terrapins
Florida State or Virginia Tech will be everyone's favorite in the ACC, but after a rebound season in 2010, Maryland could be headed for better things.
The offense is led by sophomore quarterback Danny O'Brien, who is a star on the rise. The defense should be solid as well and is led by star linebacker Kenny Tate who moved from safety this offseason.
With no Virginia Tech on the schedule, this year sets up nicely for Maryland to make a run in the ACC.
SEC: Mississippi State Bulldogs
After a solid regular season in 2010, Mississippi State proved it is here to stay by demolishing Michigan in the Gator Bowl.
Now the Bulldogs are hoping to take the next step.
Head coach Dan Mullen has done an outstanding job with the MSU program on both sides of the ball. The offense returns eight starters, including quarterback Chris Relf and running back Vick Ballard. The defensive front could struggle, but the secondary should be outstanding.
With both Alabama and LSU at home, this could be the year the Bulldogs take the SEC title.
Big 12: Texas A&M Aggies
It's hard to consider Texas A&M a sleeper since the Aggies may be ranked in the top 10 of the first AP poll. However, they may be picked to finish third in the Big 12 South and will certainly be an afterthought to Oklahoma.
With 18 starters returning from a team that made it to the Cotton Bowl last year though, A&M has a chance to win the Big 12.
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill is back, along with star running back Cyrus Gray and star wide receiver Jeff Fuller. Losing Von Miller on defense will definitely hurt, but there is still a lot of experience, especially in the secondary.
We'll know a lot more after Oct. 1 once the Aggies have played Oklahoma State and Arkansas.
Pac-12: Arizona Wildcats
With only 12 starters returning, most experts are picking Arizona to have somewhat of a down season. But in the crazy Pac-10/Pac-12, the Wildcats have a chance to make some noise.
Quarterback Nick Foles is back, along with star wide receiver Juron Criner. The offensive line will be brand new though and will need to develop quickly. The defense also needs to improve.
With such a high-powered offense, Arizona proved it can hang with anyone. And for a program that has recently been on an upward swing, this could be the year they break through.