Surprise in the Power Five: Sleeper Teams From Each Power Conference in 2014
Every year it happens. College football teams around the country will over-perform and under-perform to a certain degree.
But there are always a handful of teams that create the biggest surprises. Last season wasn't any different.
Fans watched in amazement as first year head coach Gus Malzahn took Auburn to the national championship after going winless in the SEC the season prior. Experts were shocked when Teddy Bridgewater and the heavily favored Louisville Cardinals could not beat out UCF for the outright AAC title (UCF went on to beat Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl). And viewers were in awe when a young Connor Cook helped Michigan State take down Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship and Stanford in the Rose Bowl.
There has never been a year in college football where at least one team did not exceed expectations and surprise everyone. The start of a new season is upon us, so here is a close look at one team from each Power 5 conference they may exceed what is expected of them:
People do not throw out the name ‘Mississippi State’ when talking about the most dominant teams in the SEC. The Bulldogs consistently stay in the same topic of conversation as Kentucky or Vanderbilt, but this year will be different. Dan Mullen is in his 6th year here and has exceeded expectations almost every season. I. He brings back 16 starters including quarterback Dak Prescott. Prescott has great mobility and improving arm strength that will compliment wide outs Jameon Lewis and De’Runnya Wilson nicely. Road games at Alabama, LSU, and Ole Miss will test the toughness of this team.
While that may seem difficult, they will benefit from only having to play Kentucky and Vanderbilt out of the East. The Bulldogs held most of their tough opponents to close games so do not be surprised if this team becomes a dark horse contender in the West.
Maryland’s move from the ACC to the Big Ten is official starting this season, and they may be a team to watch out for right out of the gate. Head Coach Randy Esdall struggled early at Maryland with quarterback injuries. At one point in the 2012 season, the Terrapins had started five different quarterbacks with one of those being a linebacker. Two years removed from that injury riddled season, Esdall thinks he has found a solid starter in CJ Brown. He will be throwing to the best receiving corps in the Big Ten as long as Stefon Diggs and Deon Long stay healthy. Unfortunately, the schedule is brutal.
The Terrapins are in the East Division with Ohio State, Michigan State, and Michigan. They also have to play Wisconsin and Iowa out of the West. The experience is there (17 returning starters) so expect Maryland to upset a few top teams and shake up the Big Ten East division.
North Carolina has had its very own struggles over the last few years (mostly related to NCAA violations). Larry Fedora has done well here including turning around last year’s disastrous start and turning it into a 7-6 team. In his third season as head coach, the pieces needed to put together his type of offense are starting to come together. The Tar Heels should pick up where they left off from last season with the return of quarterback Marquise Williams and running back Ty Logan. Their defense returns intact including last season’s team sack leader Norkeithus Otis.
North Carolina draws Clemson from the Atlantic Division and also has to play Notre Dame and Miami on the road, but the rest of the schedule works out in their favor. This looks to be the most talented team Larry Fedora has ever had so look out for the Tar Heels to win their division and quickly climb up the top 25 rankings.
Just glancing at what Washington has to offer, this year is not very appealing. They lose their quarterback and running back and will also be operating under a new head coach. Chris Peterson is no ordinary head coach. It is really easy to say that he left Boise State without knowing the true taste of defeat. That is why hiring Peterson may have been the best hire in all of college football last season. The Huskies will have to play with some younger skill players on offense. They do, however, return 4 of their top 5 tacklers on defense.
They have to play the in the tough PAC 12 North Division and also pick up UCLA out of the South Division. On the bright side, their only tough away game will be at Oregon and the rest of their tough opponents will be at home. It may be going to far to say that Washington will win the division, but Chris Peterson may be the best in the country at exceeding expectations.
One coach that does not get near the credit he deserves is Kansas State head coach Bill Snyder. He started turning this program around in 1989 and then retired in 2005 before coming back and turning it back around a second time. Looking at this year’s team, it seems like they do not have quite enough juice to compete with Oklahoma, Baylor, or even Texas. This could not be further from the truth. Snyder returns quarterback Jake Waters who is one of the best in the Big 12. Waters top target Tyler Lockett also returns. The number of returning starters is usually not relevant on A bill Snyder team because he picks up a lot of junior college players who are more prepared than players coming out of high school.
Road games to Oklahoma, TCU, and Baylor will be difficult, but Snyder has mastered the art of upsetting top ranked teams (Auburn travels to Manhattan in a Thursday night matchup that has upset written all over it). Do not be shocked if the Wildcats make a run at the Big 12 title this season.