Under-the-Radar College Football Teams That Could Become Surprise Contenders

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystAugust 13, 2019

Under-the-Radar College Football Teams That Could Become Surprise Contenders

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    Penn State DE Yetur Gross-Matos
    Penn State DE Yetur Gross-MatosDoug McSchooler/Associated Press

    Everyone knows by now which teams are "supposed" to be in the mix for the 2019 College Football Playoff, but Penn State, Utah and several other under-the-radar squads might upset the apple cart by playing their way into that conversation.

    If you're sick and tired of reading about how Alabama and Clemson are going to steamroll through another season—or if you just enjoy making futures bets on improbable but slightly feasible outcomes—you should enjoy this.

    Teams with national championship odds of 75-1 or better, per Caesars, were not eligible for this list. That means all of the following were not considered because each isn't nearly far enough below the radar: Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Michigan, Texas, LSU, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Florida, Washington, Auburn, Oregon, Miami and Texas A&M.

    That's quite a "sweet 16" to immediately cross off when looking for viable title contenders, but we were still able to find a handful of teams worth examining.

    Simply put: These squads aren't expected to win nine or more games this season, but based on a combination of returning talent, young potential and difficulty of schedule, they might mess around and flirt with perfection.

    Now, who's ready to discuss Minnesota football?

Honorable Mention: South Carolina Gamecocks

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    Jake Bentley
    Jake BentleyRichard Shiro/Associated Press

    Coaches Poll: Not Ranked

    Championship Odds: 500-1

    There's a lot of talent on this South Carolina roster.

    Jake Bentley is back for a fourth year at starting quarterback. He lost Deebo Samuel at wide receiver, but he still has a pair of big-play threats in Bryan Edwards and Shi Smith. And in addition to the return of last year's top two running backs (Rico Dowdle and Mon Denson), the Gamecocks got former Clemson Tiger (and former top-30 recruit) Tavien Feaster via the transfer portal. The defense is also in good shape with T.J. Brunson, Javon Kinlaw and Jaycee Horn back to lead that group.

    Against an average schedule, South Carolina would have reasonable aspirations for 10 wins with an outside shot at getting into the playoff picture.

    But the Gamecocks don't have an average schedule. Far from it, actually. They will play home games against Alabama, Clemson and Florida as well as road games against Georgia and Texas A&M. That murderers' row will inevitably keep South Carolina from vying for a national championship.

    It's worth noting the Gamecocks here, though, because they could play a major part in how that College Football Playoff quartet is assembled.

    If the Gamecocks go 0-5 in the aforementioned games, then, no, they won't matter in the grand scheme of thingsand they might not even qualify for a bowl game. However, an upset of Alabama, Clemson or Georgia would rattle the national landscape to its core.

Utah Utes

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    Zack Moss
    Zack MossRick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Coaches Poll: 15

    Championship Odds: 75-1

    If you're looking to place a substantial bet on just one of these under-the-radar teams to reach the College Football Playoff, the smart money is on Utah.

    If you neglected to pay any mind to this team until last year's Pac-12 Championship Game and subsequent performance in the Holiday Bowl, don't let those poor showings on offense fool you.

    The Utes scored at least 40 points in each game in October prior to losing quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss to injury. And with that duo (as well as top wide receivers Britain Covey and Jaylen Dixon) returning in 2019, they should be more than capable of scoring in bunches again.

    They should also be among the Pac-12's best on defense, albeit maybe not as good as initially projected.

    They lost linebackers Cody Barton and Chase Hansen as graduates and attempted to replace them via the transfer portal with Manny Bowen (Penn State) and Mique Juarez (UCLA). However, Bowen abruptly retired to pursue business opportunities right before the start of fall camp, and Juarez won't be available until 2020 while he finishes his degree at UCLA. Utah usually only plays two linebackers in its defensive scheme, but that looks like a potential point of weakness now.

    Fortunately for the Utes, the D-line is loaded with Bradlee Anae, Leki Fotu and John Penisini leading that charge. A secondary anchored by Julian Blackmon and Jaylon Johnson should also be solid. It might not be one of the best defenses in the nation, but it should be the top one in the Pac-12 South.

    Frankly, Utah's biggest concern is needing to replace kicker Matt Gay and punter Mitch Wishnowsky. There were a combined total of four kickers and punters selected in the 2019 NFL draft, and Utah was responsible for two of them. It's not hard to imagine special teams becoming an issue this season.

    But after a presumed 3-0 nonconference start against BYU, Northern Illinois and Idaho State, the Utes still look like the clear favorite to win their division. Maybe they lose at USC or at Washington, but a 12-1 record punctuated by a Pac-12 championship isn't far-fetched and would put them in the playoff hunt.

Minnesota Golden Gophers

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    P.J. Fleck
    P.J. FleckCarlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Coaches Poll: Not Ranked

    Championship Odds: 300-1

    There are a lot of reasons not to buy stock in Minnesota as a contender. Foremost among them is the fact that the Golden Gophers have suffered at least three losses in 52 consecutive seasons. It's also more than a little troubling that they allowed an average of 43.2 points in their first six Big Ten contests last year, giving up 48 to Iowa, 53 to Nebraska and 55 to Illinois. Yikes.

    But if you're looking for a Hail Mary futures bet, here are a few reasons why Minnesota to win it all at 300-1 might not be the worst idea.

    For starters, head coach P.J. Fleck knows a thing or two about leading a program to new heights. Western Michigan had never finished a season with a winning percentage greater than .750 when he rowed the boat to the Cotton Bowl with a 13-0 record three years ago. That's why the Golden Gophers went out and signed him to a five-year, $18 million deal, hoping he could work similar magic for them.

    Secondly, Minnesota brings back a 1,150-yard rusher (Mohamed Ibrahim) and a 1,150-yard receiver (Tyler Johnson). No other team in the country can make that boast. The Gophers also still have redshirt seniors Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks, who had more than 5,500 combined career yards from scrimmage before suffering torn ACLs early last season. Minnesota hasn't averaged 30 points per game since 2005, but this should be one of the best offenses in the Big Ten.

    And the biggest reason you might want to take a flier on this squad is its schedule.

    Aside from Illinois as the presumed bottom feeder, the Big Ten West is a crapshoot. Nebraska and Wisconsin are probably the two best teams in the division, but Minnesota gets both of them at home and doesn't need to deal with Michigan, Michigan State or Ohio State in a cross-division showdown. There's not a game on the calendar that stands out as an obvious loss waiting to happen.

Pick a Non-Clemson ACC Team

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    Virginia QB Bryce Perkins
    Virginia QB Bryce PerkinsMark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Best Coaches Poll: Syracuse (22)

    Best Championship Odds: Miami (60-1)

    Every rational, not-trolling-for-clicks college football analyst has Clemson winning the ACC and reaching the College Football Playoff. That's partially because the Tigers are laughably loaded with returning talent on offense and have consistently been one of the most physically overwhelming defenses in recent years. But it's also because there isn't another team in this conference that stands out as a likely threat to win 10 or 11 games.

    That doesn't mean it couldn't happen. This is still college football, after all.

    The "old guard" options to get it done are Florida State, Miami* or Virginia Techeven though FSU's game at Death Valley is the only chance any of them will get at an upset of the Tigers. Both the Seminoles and the Hokies are trying to bounce back from sub-.500 seasons chock-full of lackluster defensive efforts, so Miami should have the best shot from that bunch, provided the Hurricanes can figure out their quarterback situation.

    Virginia is another viable option with dual-threat QB Bryce Perkins and standout defensive back Bryce Hall leading the charge. The Cavaliers are the consensus preseason pick to win the Coastal Division. However, they lost a 1,000-yard rusher (Jordan Ellis), a 1,000-yard receiver (Olamide Zaccheaus) and a do-it-all safety (Juan Thornhill) who thrived as Hall's partner in crime for the past three seasons.

    The top candidate to end Clemson's run atop the ACC is Syracuse. The Orange should have a high-caliber defense led by Alton Robinson, Kendall Coleman and Andre Cisco. It's just a question of whether Tommy DeVito can and will take the reins at quarterback with Eric Dungey out of the picture.

    Not only will Syracuse host Clemson for a gigantic opportunity in Week 3, but the Orange will also not draw Miami, Virginia or Virginia Tech during the regular season. If the stars align and they're able to upset the Tigers in mid-September, there's a good chance they would finish the season with zero or one ACC losses to take Clemson's presumed spot in the conference championship game.

    *Technically we shouldn't mention Miami here because it has 60-1 title odds, but the Hurricanes are at least a little under-the-radar since they aren't in the preseason coaches poll.

Iowa State Cyclones

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    JaQuan Bailey
    JaQuan BaileyDavid Purdy/Getty Images

    Coaches Poll: 24

    Championship Odds: 100-1

    Oklahoma and Texas are the heavy favorites to duke it out for the Big 12 championship, but don't forget about Matt Campbell's Iowa State Cyclones.

    After nearly two decades without winning eight or more games in a season, the Cyclones have gone 8-5 in back-to-back years. That included colossal victories over No. 3 Oklahoma and No. 4 TCU in 2017 and a statement beatdown of No. 6 West Virginia this past season. And with Brock Purdy back after a spectacular true freshman season, their quarterback situation is as promising as ever.

    Defense has been their calling card during this two-year stretch of elevated play. Iowa State led the Big 12 in scoring defense in 2018 and held opponents below 350 total yards per game (33rd out of 130 FBS teams). And with defensive end JaQuan Bailey and linebacker Marcel Spears Sr. back as senior leaders, the Cyclones ought to remain one of the best defenses in the conference.

    Whether they legitimately make a run at the Sooners and Longhorns will depend on their ability to replace David Montgomery and Hakeem Butler.

    The former rushed for at least 1,100 yards and 11 touchdowns in each of the past two seasons. The latter averaged 22 yards per reception en route to more than 1,300 receiving yards in 2018. That duo combined for 2,691 yards from scrimmage and 22 touchdowns last year. No other Cyclone had more than 420 or five, respectively, so there's not an obvious successor to the throne at either position.

    But between Campbell's coaching, Purdy's dual-threat play and the potential for greatness on defense, the Cyclones are legitimate threats. Plus, they won't face Texas or Oklahoma until November, so they might be 8-0 and dripping with momentum by the time they reach that portion of the schedule.

Stanford Cardinal

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    K.J. Costello
    K.J. CostelloJohn Hefti/Associated Press

    Coaches Poll: 23

    Championship Odds: 250-1

    Stanford's 2019 schedule is a paradox. It's empirically one of the toughest in the country, but it's also a 12-game slate against which a top-15-caliber team could go undefeated. There aren't any Alabama, Clemson or Georgia types of haymakers, but it's a steady stream of body blows, bookended by nonconference home games against Northwestern and Notre Dame.

    This naturally begs the question: Is Stanford a top-15 team?

    Both the coaches poll and common logic say no. The Cardinal are coming off a relatively disappointing 9-4 season, and they need to replace their top rusher (Bryce Love), top two tacklers (Bobby Okereke and Sean Barton) and their top three receivers (JJ Arcega-Whiteside, Trenton Irwin and Kaden Smith). A drop-off to a 6-6 struggle seems more likely than a bounce back to the usual double-digit win total from the first half of this decade.

    There are some beacons of light giving Stanford CFP potential, though.

    The Cardinal still have an outstanding coach in David Shaw. K.J. Costello is back for a senior season after serving as the Pac-12's most efficient quarterback last year. He lost a lot of his top targets, but he does have a few potential breakout stars in tight end Colby Parkinson and wide receiver Osiris St. Brown. And cornerback Paulson Adebo might be the best individual defender in the entire conference.

    If the offensive line can stay considerably healthier this season, Stanford should be in business. It was never able to establish the running game in 2018, averaging a much-worse-than-normal 3.65 yards per carry behind a starting offensive line that changed on an almost weekly basis. If Walker Little and Co. can stay on the field, Stanford just might be the best in the Pac-12.

    Couple that with potential nonconference wins over Northwestern, UCF and Notre Dame, and you've got a title contender.

Houston Cougars

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    D'Eriq King
    D'Eriq KingTim Warner/Getty Images

    Coaches Poll: Not Ranked

    Championship Odds: 1000-1

    After winning 25 consecutive games, UCF still only finished at No. 8 in the CFP rankings at the end of this past season. There's no question that the deck is stacked heavily against teams from the Group of Five.


    In both of those undefeated seasons, UCF had a game against a Power Five opponent rained out and ended up not playing anyone worth noting. (Aside from the win over Auburn in the Peach Bowl, of course, but that game had no relevance for the CFP ranking.)

    This Houston team opens with a true road game against Oklahoma, followed less than two weeks later by a neutral-site affair with Washington State. It's safe to say this Group of Five squad would get an awful lot of credit if it happens to open the season with a 3-0 record.

    Now, the odds of that happening are slim to none. Most sportsbooks have the Cougars listed as 25-point underdogs against the Sooners. They'll be expected to lose to Washington State too, albeit not as badly. That's because this defense was a straight-up calamity last year, allowing at least 45 points in all five losses.

    Assuming dual-threat quarterback D'Eriq King is healthy, though, Houston is at least going to put up points against those foes. The Cougars scored 41 or more in 10 of his 11 games played last season, and he gets back his top running back (Patrick Carr) and his top three wide receivers (Marquez Stevenson, Keith Corbin and Courtney Lark).

    If those Power Five offenses breaking in new quarterbacks aren't firing on all cylinders in early September, this season could get weird in a hurry. After the Cougars knocked off Oklahoma to open the 2016 campaign, they jumped to No. 6 in the AP poll. If they hadn't later lost three regular-season games, they would've at least been in the conversation for a spot in the playoff.

    I'm not saying it's going to happen, but if it's going to happen for any Group of Five team in 2019, it's this one.

Penn State Nittany Lions

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    Micah Parsons
    Micah ParsonsJustin K. Aller/Getty Images

    Coaches Poll: 14

    Championship Odds: 80-1

    After back-to-back seasons in the preseason AP Top 10, Penn State figures to debut a few spots lower in that poll this year, thanks to wholesale changes on offense.

    Three-year starting quarterback Trace McSorley is gone, and so is his primary backup from those three seasons, Tommy Stevens. That leaves redshirt sophomore Sean Clifford and his seven career pass attempts as the de facto belle of the ball at the position. The Nittany Lions also lost running back Miles Sanders as an early entrant to the NFL draft and two of their top wide receivers (Juwan Johnson and DeAndre Thompkins).

    But let's not pretend the cupboards are barren. KJ Hamler is a stud, both as a wide receiver and in the return game. Tight end Pat Freiermuth had eight touchdowns last year as a true freshman. Running back Ricky Slade and wide receiver Justin Shorter are obvious breakout candidates as guys who were 5-star recruits in the 2018 class. True freshmen Noah Cain and Devyn Ford will also be in the mix as immediate-impact performers in the backfield.

    If Clifford is even remotely adequate at quarterback, this offense will be better than average.

    And with a defense like the one Penn State has, "better than average" on offense translates to championship potential.

    Defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos and linebacker Micah Parsons are the household names, but this entire 11 figures to be dominant. We had Penn State at No. 2 in our projection of the nation's top defenses earlier this summer, and that's without assuming that their top 2019 recruit, inside linebacker Brandon Smith, becomes an instant leader. Scoring three or more times in a game against Penn State is going to be a challenge.

    There is the not-so-minor problem of the schedule. After a cream-puff nonconference slate, Penn State has road games against Iowa, Michigan State, Minnesota and Ohio State, as well as a brutal home game against Michigan. Getting through the Big Ten title game with zero or one losses—the presumed requirement for CFP consideration—doesn't seem likely. It's not impossible, though.