Under-the-Radar CFB Teams That Can Alter Championship Races

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistAugust 9, 2021

Under-the-Radar CFB Teams That Can Alter Championship Races

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    Matt Corral
    Matt CorralBruce Newman/Associated Press

    When the regular season is over, the powerhouse programs are usually in position to challenge for a national title. One of college football's best appeals, however, is the potential for an upset of Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma or other big-name teams along the way.

    And that "Any given Saturday" danger can ruin a season.

    Entering the 2021 campaign, per DraftKings, 20 teams hold +8000 odds or better to win the national title. Our focus is on programs beyond the list that are built to derail those championship pursuitsand might even contend for a conference crown.

    Organized alphabetically, the list is subjective but considers 2021 schedule, returning production and projected performance.

Arizona State Sun Devils

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    Herm Edwards
    Herm EdwardsSteve Dykes/Associated Press

    For many reasons, it's risky to use 2020 as a barometer of a team. That's especially true for Arizona State, which had a 28-day gap between its first two games of the year. Considering the sample size and context, it was simply a lost season.

    From a national perspective, though, it removed Arizona State from the conversation. Predictions for the upcoming season typically have Oregon, USC and Washington at the top of the Pac-12.

    But when Herm Edwards arrived in 2018, the Sun Devils embraced a youth movement. The four-year plan, in theory, should pay dividends this season. Led by quarterback Jayden Daniels, linebacker Merlin Robertson and safety Evan Fields, Arizona State has a ton of experience on both sides of the ball.

    Navigating trips to UCLA (Oct. 2) and Utah (Oct. 16) is key, but Arizona State hosts USC on Nov. 6 in a matchup that may decide the South Division champion.

Iowa Hawkeyes

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    Spencer Petras
    Spencer PetrasCharlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Iowa has the potential to be extremely pesky. Although the Hawkeyes won't play Ohio State in the regular season, their schedule is loaded with "second-tier" competition.

    Nationally, that means Iowa State (Sep. 11). Iowa's in-state rival is aiming to contend for the College Football Playoff, and an early loss to the Hawkeyeswho boast five straight wins in the serieswould put an immediate dent in Iowa State's hopes.

    In the Big Ten, Iowa hosts Indiana (Sep. 4) and Penn State (Oct. 9). Both teams, along with Michigan, are trying to end Ohio State's reign. But if Iowa wins, the Buckeyes will have an even greater chance at a fifth straight trip to Indianapolis.

    While it's unlikely the Hawkeyes compete for a CFP berth, their impact could be felt in the Big Ten and beyond.

Kansas State Wildcats

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    Deuce Vaughn and Skylar Thompson
    Deuce Vaughn and Skylar ThompsonCharlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Oklahoma knows all too well about Kansas State.

    Since the 2012 season, Oklahoma has suffered only 13 conference losses. Kansas State is responsible for four of themincluding one in each of the last two seasons. Skylar Thompson propelled the Wildcats in both upsets, and the dual-threat quarterback returns in 2021 alongside star running back Deuce Vaughn.

    This year, K-State hosts both top Big 12 contenders. Oklahoma travels to Manhattan on Oct. 2, and the Wildcats have an idle weekend before Iowa State makes the trip on Oct. 16. That's a prime opportunity to throw a curve into the conference race.

    Kansas State typically falls short of truly competing for a Big 12 title, and 2021 shouldn't be much different. But a physical offense and competent defense make the Wildcats a real thorn.

North Carolina State Wolfpack

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    Emeka Emezie
    Emeka EmezieEthan Hyman/Associated Press

    Clemson is unquestionably the ACC favorite, and it would be brazen to suggest otherwise. But if any program alters the race, it'll most likely be North Carolina State.

    After finishing 8-4 last season, the Wolfpack return a strong majority of their offensive weapons around quarterback Devin Leary. He put together a strong four-game stretch before a leg injury sidelined him for the rest of the year. Factor in a highly experienced defense, and this roster is built to perform well immediately.

    Good thing, too. NC State hosts Clemson on Sep. 25 in a showdown to determine the front-runner in the Atlantic Division.

    Yes, Clemson will be the favorite. Yes, Clemson will probably win. But if the Wolfpack spring the upset, all assumptions about the ACC will be completely destroyed in the opening month.

Oklahoma State Cowboys

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    Mike Gundy
    Mike GundySue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Given that the program has attained bowl eligibility in 18 of the last 19 years, Oklahoma State won't be sneaking up on anyone in the Big 12. This is always a competitive team.

    However, rival Oklahoma has dominated the Big 12 lately. Iowa State is expected to make another run at a league title—perhaps even more. The arrival of new Texas coach Steve Sarkisian has the Longhorns as a popular breakout choice.

    So, while not unnoticed, Oklahoma State is a bit of an afterthought. But a mid-October stretch with Texas (Oct. 16) and Iowa State (Oct. 23) could change that outlook rapidly. The results will determine the top contender to Oklahoma, which doesn't play Iowa State or Oklahoma State until late November.

    If the Cowboys split those matchupswhich they've done in three straight yearsthey'll set up a wild finish to the Big 12 season.

Ole Miss Rebels

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    Matt Corral
    Matt CorralChris O'Meara/Associated Press

    The one-sentence version of Ole Miss is awfully fun. This defense will cause the Rebels to lose about a handful of games, but this offense is built to agitate any opponent.

    Matt Corral, who totaled 3,843 yards of offense and 33 touchdowns in 2020, is one of the nation's most exciting quarterbacks. Last year, the Rebels lost two gamesto Alabama and LSUdespite scoring 48 points. They put up 35 on Florida, too. If the 2021 defense can even be a below-average unit instead of a complete sieve, Lane Kiffin's squad is fully capable of pulling a major upset.

    Alabama (Oct. 2), LSU (Oct. 23) and Texas A&M (Nov. 13) are most likely to qualify as a "major" result, and the Rebels' trip to Auburn (Oct. 30) at least has that potential.

    Ole Miss isn't going to win the SEC West, but the Rebels could provide a fascinating twist in October or November.

Utah Utes

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    Britain Covey
    Britain CoveyRick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Few teams return more experience than Utah, which brings back 19 starters this season.

    While the Utes need a new quarterback, Baylor transfer Charlie Brewer was a four-year starter in the Big 12. It's more a matter of assimilation than talent. Regardless, if either Brewer or Cameron Rising is a reliable QB, the Utes will be a serious threat to both Pac-12 division favorites.

    And based on the short history of the College Football Playoff, one loss is heavily damaging for Pac-12 teams.

    After an idle weekend, Utah travels to USC on Oct. 9a contest that ends six straight games for the Trojans without a bye. And on Nov. 20, the Utes host national-title hopeful Oregon.

    Utah has loftier goals than an upset or two, but those matchups could be the downfall of USC's or Oregon's aspirations in 2021.


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