Projecting Every College Football Conference's Surprise Team for 2017

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistJune 8, 2017

Projecting Every College Football Conference's Surprise Team for 2017

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    Unexpected successes make the best stories in sports, and every year college football features several teams that either outperform expectations or surge out of nowhere.

    We remember these programs fondly as surprise teams. The phrase must be taken as a relative term, though, because college football fans aren't going to see 10 programs ascend out of seemingly nowhere to reach double-digit victories.

    Rather, some rosters are built to contend in conference play, while others might be a seven-win squad that are capable of pulling an upset that shakes up the national rankings or league standings.

    If a respective program indeed becomes a sleeper team in 2017, it'll happen behind a couple victories in a select group of key matchups. We're highlighting that program's swing games, along with why you need to watch these schools.

AAC: SMU

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    Why they're under the radar: SMU has improved from one to two to five victories since the 2014 campaign. Though it's an encouraging trend for the program, eight wins over a three-year span won't result in much recognition.

            

    What makes them dangerous: Head coach Chad Morris' specialty is offense, and the Mustangs return plenty of production on that unit. Courtland Sutton, potentially the No. 1 receiver prospect for the 2018 NFL draft, highlights the scoring attack. The defense won't be great, but it has enough experience to give SMU some confidence.

            

    Key games: The Mustangs aren't quite a contender in the American Athletic Conference, partly due to an unfriendly road slate. They travel to Houston, Navy and Memphis in league action. However, a victory in any of those games, and SMU could affect the AAC Championship Game representatives while also earning the school's first postseason appearance in five years.

ACC: North Carolina State

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    Why they're under the radar: Can Clemson, the national champion, overcome massive losses? Will Florida State dethrone the two-time defending ACC Atlantic Division winners? Will having Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson be enough for Louisville? No matter the order of those questions, North Carolina State is no better than the fourth team discussed in the Atlantic.

            

    What makes them dangerous: The defense is loaded, particularly up front. Bradley Chubb is a lesser-known superstar ready to emerge, and the tandem of Justin Jones and B.J. Hill will be a burden to contain on the interior. The offense must take a step forward under Ryan Finley, but expect this defense to travel well.

           

    Key games: At the beginning of the offseason, this writer predicted six wins for NC State while expecting them to be a consistently competitive team. That might be short-selling the Wolfpack, who boast that potentially elite defense. Nonconference outings with South Carolina and Notre Dame are key toss-up games for the win total, but it seems likely NC State will upset one of Clemson, FSU or Louisville.

Big 12: TCU

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    Why they're under the radar: Inconsistent quarterback play led to a disappointing 2016. As a result, TCU is fighting to catch up with two-time reigning Big 12 champion Oklahoma, as well as offseason darlings Oklahoma State and Texas. West Virginia is coming off a 10-win campaign and likely upgraded at QB with Will Grier.

              

    What makes them dangerous: If Kenny Hill can finally string together a full season of reliable play—and the receivers stop dropping passes so oftenwatch out. The pass rush is a concern, but the Horned Frogs seem to have the right experience and depth at linebacker and in the secondary to defend the pass-happy Big 12.

            

    Key games: The defense held up pretty well in 2016. Unfortunately for TCU, the offense managed 10 points or fewer against each of West Virginia, Oklahoma State and Kansas State. Turn that around, avoid an upset loss, and the Horned Frogs could be looking at a nine-win regular season. That would also let TCU hang around in the Big 12 Championship Game race until November.

Big Ten: Northwestern

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    Why they're under the radar: Although Northwestern always rattles off a few victories in a row, the program never sustains that success for an entire season. Sure, head coach Pat Fitzgerald's team should be expected to contend for a bowl berth annually, but the Wildcats typically aren't a year-end factor in the Big Ten.

          

    What makes them dangerous: Clayton Thorson and Justin Jackson will have three returning starters up front, so Northwestern could sport its best offense in a half-decade. The defense lost a few important pieces, but there is experience on every level of the unit. Though admittedly unspectacular, it's a noteworthy combination because...

          

    Key games: ...the 'Cats avoid both Michigan and Ohio State in crossover play and welcome all of Penn State, Iowa, Michigan State and Minnesota to Evanston. Northwestern won't snatch the West Division unless it knocks off Wisconsin on the road, but the schedule could hardly be any more appealing.

Conference USA: UTSA

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    Why they're under the radar: Group of Five teams usually need both a dominant offense and a glamorous record to attract national attention. UTSA hasn't fit either category since the program joined the Football Bowl Subdivision five years ago, posting a 28-33 mark during that span.

          

    What makes them dangerous: Dalton Sturm doesn't need to look over his shoulder in 2017. That should benefit his development, and having his top four receivers all returnalong with running back Jalen Rhodesdoesn't hurt, either. Freshman All-American Josiah Tauaefa headlines what should be a reliable defense.

              

    Key games: Playing Houston and Baylor to open the season will test Tauaefa and Co., but neither result will affect UTSA's pursuit of a league title. Southern Miss and Louisiana Tech bookend the Roadrunners' season, but they have a tremendous opportunity to record six straight victories between then. One upset win, and UTSA should earn a spot in the Conference USA Championship Game.

MAC: Miami (Ohio)

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    Why they're under the radar: Miami started the 2016 season 0-6; that's a stellar way for a Group of Five team to remove itself from the national scene. Even though the RedHawks bounced back with six straight wins and a share of the MAC East Division crown, Western Michigan's 12-0 regular season dominated the conference's headlines.

           

    What makes them dangerous: Similar to SMU and UTSA, Miami returns its quarterback and a majority of the top offensive weapons. Heath Harding is also one of the nation's best cornerbacks, highlighting a superb back seven. There's no perfect blueprint to improving in the win column, but that's an ideal combination.

             

    Key games: Matchups with Bowling Green, Ohio and Akron will shape whether the RedHawks can achieve their MAC championship dreams. The East isn't as strong as the West, so winning intra-division tilts to secure the tiebreaker is imperative.

Mountain West: Colorado State

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    Why they're under the radar: The Mountain West's usual suspectsBoise State and San Diego Stateshould be strong. Wyoming has quarterback Josh Allen, who is heralded as a possible No. 1 overall pick for the 2018 draft. After a 7-6 season, Colorado State must play its win into the conversation.

           

    What makes them dangerous: Scoreboards may be broken. Over the final five games in 2016, the Rams averaged 547.2 yards and 49 points. Much of the offense is back, most notably a highly productive QB-WR duo in Nick Stevens and Michael Gallup. Putting up points won't be a problem for CSU.

             

    Key games: After beginning the season with a stretch that includes Oregon State, Colorado and Alabama, the Rams ease into Mountain West action. Then comes the gauntlet, pitting them against New Mexico, Air Force, Wyoming and Boise State in consecutive weeks. Anything worse than 2-2 will eliminate CSU from the Mountain West picture.

Pac-12: Washington State

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    Why they're under the radar: Washington and Stanford are fighting for the No. 1 spot in the North Division, but can they match USC's anticipated rise? Plus, Oregon is a trendy pick as a resurgent team, so that doesn't leave much room for Washington State. But head coach Mike Leach's club deserves a place in the Pac-12 conversation.

           

    What makes them dangerous: Luke Falk has garnered first-round buzz as an NFL prospect, the backfield and receiving corps are deep, and the offensive line is potentially elite. Hercules Mata'afa is a star on the defensive line, and the entire linebacking group returns. As long as the Cougars address their struggles in the secondary, there won't be a legitimate weakness on the roster.

               

    Key games: We'll know early if Wazzu can become the surprise team. USC heads to Pullman for a Friday night showdown to end September, and the Cougs travel to Oregon the following weekend. Should they split those meetings and survive October unblemished, the final month has season-defining tilts with Stanford and Washington.

SEC: South Carolina

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    Why they're under the radar: Alabama, Auburn and LSU are considered national championship contenders. Georgia, given its plethora of returning starters, is a popular breakout team and often chosen to dethrone Florida, the SEC East winner in 2015 and 2016. South Carolina, meanwhile, mustered a 6-7 record in Will Muschamp's first year at the helm.

            

    What makes them dangerous: Skai Moore's return will strengthen a defense that ranked 66th despite the team's rough season. The secondary is packed with experience, and Taylor Stallworth is one of the SEC's premier D-tackles. Perhaps most importantlythough least glamorouslythe offense can't really get worse. The Gamecocks won't repeat scoring 14 points or fewer seven times.

                

    Key games: South Carolina could not handpick a more favorable SEC slate, since it avoids each of Alabama, Auburn and LSU. However, the Gamecocks take on Georgia and Florida in consecutive weeks to begin November. They must navigate the conference schedule no worse than 4-2 before then in order to have a shot at pulling off a surprise in the East.

Sun Belt: Coastal Carolina

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    Why they're under the radar: Coastal Carolina is officially making the transition to the FBS this season. Perhaps the program's first game may garner some national interest, but the Chanticleers will quickly fade from the headlines. Fair or not, that's what happens to the Sun Belt unless it springs a dramatic upset like Troy nearly did on Clemson in 2016.

            

    What makes them dangerous: Quantifying this trait is impossible, but they know how to win. The program has compiled a 43-10 record over the last four years under head coach Joe Moglia. There won't be a lack of confidenceor a "just-happy-to-be-here" mentalityon this roster.

              

    Key games: Due to the transition period, Coastal Carolina will be ineligible for postseason play in 2017. The Chanticleers can still wreak havoc in the Sun Belt, though, challenging each of Appalachian State, Troy and Arkansas State, the league's top three contenders. They have eight-win potential during their FBS debut.

             

    All recruiting information via Scout. Stats from cfbstats.com or B/R research. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Bleacher Report CFB Writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.

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