Biggest Sleepers in Power 5 College Football Conferences in 2016

Brian Leigh@@BLeighDATFeatured ColumnistFebruary 21, 2016

Biggest Sleepers in Power 5 College Football Conferences in 2016

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    Sleepers such as Iowa, North Carolina and Florida made power-conference championship games in 2015.

    They started outside the preseason rankings but rose thanks to a mixture of underrated talent, favorable scheduling and quality coaching. Their success seems normal in hindsight but would have sounded crazy last winter.

    This happens more often than we realize, which begs an obvious question: Who will follow their footsteps in 2016?

    To answer that, we looked at SB Nation's offseason consensus rankings, which tabulate polls from various media sources (Bleacher Report included), and picked teams from outside the list with the best chance to compete for power-conference titles.

    Sound off and let us know where you disagree!

Not Considered 'Sleepers'

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    As mentioned on the previous slide, we used SB Nation's offseason consensus rankings to decide which teams count as sleepers. If they ranked inside the Top 25, they couldn't be on this list. That eliminated the following teams from contention:

    ACC

    • Clemson
    • Florida State
    • North Carolina
    • Louisville 

    Big Ten

    • Michigan
    • Ohio State
    • Michigan State
    • Iowa

    Big 12

    • Oklahoma
    • Baylor
    • Oklahoma State
    • TCU 

    Pac-12

    • Stanford
    • Oregon
    • USC
    • UCLA 

    SEC

    • Alabama
    • LSU
    • Tennessee
    • Ole Miss
    • Georgia
    • Florida
    • Arkansas 

    If your team is on this list, please understand why it's not deemed a "sleeper." Expectations are already set high.

ACC: Virginia Tech

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    Virginia Tech should not be a sleeper, but in Year 1 under new head coach Justin Fuente and on the heels of losing 23 games in the past four seasons, not much is expected from the Hokies outside of Blacksburg.

    But Tech should improve under Fuente, a legitimate offensive mastermind, especially after landing JUCO quarterback Jerod Evans, the highest-rated JUCO passer since Zach Mettenberger in 2011.

    Throw Evans among a decent cast of skill players, a (hopefully) improving line and a defense still coached by Bud Foster, and it's easy to envision the Hokies winning the ACC Coastal. They would enter the conference title game as giant underdogs against Clemson or Florida State, but anything can happen in 60 minutes.

Big Ten: Nebraska

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    I wrote at length about Nebraska earlier this offseason, but in short, the Huskers' case goes like this:

    • They've been a Top 25 team in each of the past five seasons.
    • They lost 4.81 points per game last year because of turnover luck, according to Football Study Hall.
    • They lost six of nine one-score games last year.
    • They play in the Big Ten West.

    Those are all compelling points that point directly to improvement. So is returning a four-year starting quarterback—even if that quarterback, Tommy Armstrong Jr., has sometimes been hard to count on.

    The Huskers came together in a bowl win over UCLA, and if they carry that momentum into next year, they are strong candidates to reach the Big Ten title game. Considering they beat last year's Big Ten champion, Michigan State, during a season in which they lost seven games, it would be foolish to count them out.

Big 12: Texas Tech

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    With Patrick Mahomes at quarterback and Kliff Kingsbury on the sideline as head coach, Texas Tech will field another explosive offense. Even with some losses, it will be good enough on that side of the ball to compete for a Big 12 title.

    The question is whether its defense, in Year 2 under coordinator David Gibbs, will improve enough or force enough takeaways to finish middle of the pack instead of down near the bottom nationally.

    Based on recent history, that's unlikely. But it's not impossible. Prior to joining the Red Raiders, Gibbs' Houston defense forced 73 turnovers in two seasons—the most in FBS over that span (2013-14).

    Stranger things have happened than a fluky-good defensive year, especially from a team that beat Arkansas and nearly upset TCU (and would have if not for running back Aaron Green's last-second fourth-down touchdown catch) last season.

Pac-12: Washington

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    Washington was better than you realized last season. Despite going 7-6, the Huskies ranked No. 13 in Football Outsiders' F/+ ratings. For context, that put them one spot ahead of Baylor, four spots ahead of USC and 10 spots ahead of rival Oregon.

    What's more, they posted those numbers with a pair of true freshmen, Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin, at quarterback and running back, respectively. Both return as sophomores under head coach Chris Petersen, who should field his best offense since leaving Boise State in 2014.

    The defense will also be strong under coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski, one of the best assistant coaches in America, and with the help of rising juniors Budda Baker, Sidney Jones, Darren Gardenhire, Azeem Victor, Keishawn Bierria and Elijah Qualls.

    "Big things are expected from the Husky defense in 2016," wrote John Sayler of SB Nation's UW Dawg Pound, "largely because of these six players making the ascent to experienced upperclassmen."

SEC: Auburn

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    We might have been one year too early on Auburn—the "we" being college football media. Assuming Jeremy Johnson would excel at quarterback and coordinator Will Muschamp would fix the defense, we hyped up the Tigers as playoff threats. Suffice it to say, they weren't.

    But Auburn has fared better—at least in recent history—when expectations are lowest. Consider the 2013 team, which won the SEC and reached the BCS National Championship Game after finishing 3-9 the season prior. Those Tigers ranked fifth in the preseason SEC West media poll.

    This year's team has similarly low expectations, but the talent is there in bunches. What if Johnson finally puts things together? Even if he doesn't, there are other options at quarterback in Sean White, Tyler Queen and JUCO transfer John Franklin III. There's especially something to build around at running back, where Jovon Robinson broke out late last season and looks like an immediate workhorse.

    "My performance throughout the last part of the season, I think was a testament to my work ethic and during the summer and during the spring and during the winter," Robinson said after winning MVP of the Birmingham Bowl, per AL.com's Brandon Marcello.

    "I had experienced a slight injury that kinda injured me a little bit," he continued, "but I felt like I had support of my teammates and just pushed through adversity. I was able to be successful."

    Don't fall victim to recency bias.

    Head coach Gus Malzahn's team still has the goods.

    Note: All recruiting info refers to 247Sports' composite ratings.