Non-Sleeper Teams: Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Florida, Georgia
The consensus amongst college football analysts and fans is that the SEC has become a boring conference. Clearly Alabama winning three straight titles while only losing one conference game over that stretch is the main driver behind that opinion. However, I think the biggest issue has been QB play. When was the last time the SEC had more than 2 or 3 solid quarterbacks? Maybe 2010 with Mallett/Murray/McElroy/Newton, but to me Murray and McElroy were pretty average. You can go back 15+ years and have trouble making an argument for any of the groups of QBs.
That almost certainly will change this season. If you look at the conference right now, there are 7-10 really solid starting quarterbacks. You can certainly make an argument for Hurts, Stidham, Fitzgerald, Allen, Bentley, Lock, and Eason as potential All-SEC players. Additionally, Shea Patterson may be the most talented QB in the conference, whoever wins the job in Florida is certainly capable of having a big year, and Kevin Sumlin will no doubt have a QB ready for the Aggies.
All that being said, SEC remains the top conference in football, albeit by a narrowing margin, and we should all be excited to see better offensive play coming from one of the most televised conferences in college football.
Our Favorite Sleeper: Missouri Tigers
Given as high as the public is on Jake Bentley and the Gamecocks, as well as the Kentucky Wildcats, I don’t think Mizzou would have been a popular pick as a sleeper in the East, let alone the entire SEC. That being said, I think this group will be able to score on just about everyone, and Barry Odom will have the defense improved this season.
Let’s start on offense. Drew Lock plays behind on of the most seasoned offensive lines in the country, a group that returns all five starters (63 career starts), coming off of a year where the led the FBS in tackles for loss allowed, just 35 tfl in 12 games. Lock also has an underrated group of receivers around him led by the SEC’s second leading receiver, J’Mon Moore. In fact, the Tigers return their top 4 pass catchers from a season ago.
Offense is easy with a team that averaged 31 PPG and returns 10 of 11 starters. It’s on the defensive side of the ball is where we expect to see the most growth. The Tigers gave up 38 PPG on the road last season, and 35 PPG in conference play. Some of those problems can be accredited to just bad luck, they lost almost their entire front 7 to injury last season.
Between Terry Beckner and Marcell Frazier, look for D-Line U to get back to doing what they do best this season, getting after the quarterback. They do return two upperclassman safeties, and 9 of their top 13 tacklers from last season. Odom has proven himself as a great defensive coach as the DC at both Mizzou and Memphis, so we do expect him to have them improved again this year, but will they be good enough to keep that potent offense in games? If so, look out for the Tigers this fall.
Non-Sleeper Teams: USC, UCLA, Washington, Stanford
We saw one of the craziest Pac 12 seasons in recent memory in 2016. While we actually predicted Washington making the college football playoff, what we didn’t expect to see is them just manhandle the Pac 12 the way they did, winning by an average score of 43-19 in conference play.
Another major story from last season was the out-of-nowhere meteoric rise we saw out of the Colorado Buffaloes. The team went from averaging 3 wins per season to winning the Pac 12 South. The losses of 8 starters on defense and Jim Leavitt, will keep the Buffaloes from repeating, but they certainly proved they will be a force moving forward.
Those stories aside, the clear headline from not only the Pac 12, but perhaps the country was Sam Darnold. If any sleeper is going to come out of this conference this season, they will have to go find a way to beat Darnold and USC… a task no team was up for after he was named the starter last season.
Non-Sleeper Teams: Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, Wisconsin, Northwestern
The big 4 in this conference are clear… Given the state of the programs and coaches running the programs, OSU, Michigan, PSU, and Wisconsin will likely be at the top of the Big 10 for the next decade. Northwestern may come as a surprise to some as a non-sleeper team, but the Wildcats were just too much of a low hanging fruit for the sake of this article. They are well coached, return 16 starters, and have one of the better QBs in the conference in Clayton Thorson.
I think some of the usual second tier teams from this conference could be hurting this season: Michigan State returns only 8 of 22 starters from a 3-9 team and still don’t have a QB. The Cornhuskers return 10 starters from a 9 win team, but lose Tommy Armstrong, Ryker Fyfe, Terrell Newby, and their 3 top tacklers. Iowa also loses their All Big 10 QB, CJ Beathard, but will likely contend in the West as they always do.
Our Favorite Sleeper: Minnesota Gophers
We really like the potential that the Indiana Hoosiers have this season. However, given the fact that they play a brutal Big 10 schedule, it was tough for us to roll with them over a team from the West. Additionally, I don’t love the Tom Allen/Mike DeBord hires. Allen did a great job as DC last season, but is he a head coach, and we already know DeBord can’t coach in the Big 10 so why bring him in?
The Gophers play an extremely favorable early schedule, with their first real test not coming until the middle of October. That gives PJ Fleck time to develop this team. Keep in mind he took a 1-11 WMU team, and went 29-11 from 2014-2016.
Fleck inherits an experienced offensive line and possibly the best 1-2 combo of backs in the country in Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks. While they lose both corners on defense, they return both safeties and a nice stable of pass rushers. New DC Robb Smith spent the last two seasons as the DC in Arkansas, with Bret Bielema, and should transition well into the Big 10 style of play.
The Big 10 West is wide open this season, and given just how favorable their schedule is, don’t be surprised to see a one or two loss Gophers team sneak into the Big 10 championship game this season.
Our Favorite Sleeper: Oregon Ducks
It’s tough to call the Ducks a sleeper. They have won more games in the Pac 12 than any other team over the past decade, a like USC, they return a sophomore QB that proved he can win in this conference. If Justin Herbert’s 19/4 TD/INT ratio last season isn’t impressive enough, the fact that they averaged 33 PPG with him at the helm should be.
Similar to Mizzou, the issue with the Ducks isn’t the offense, it’s the defense. Furthermore, the issue on defense wasn’t talent, they have top 40 recruits at just about every position. I think it was a combination of Brady Hoke’s midwest defensive mindset and scheme, and a lack of experience. This season they return nine starters, and bring in what I think is one of the top 3 or 4 DC’s in the country in Jim Leavitt.
Leavitt took Colorado from one of the worst defenses in the country to the best defense in the Pac 12 in just two seasons. At Oregon he has more talent, more resources, and has a leg up in that he has been a coordinator in this conference for the past two seasons.
Offensively, we all know what Willie Taggart does. He rebuilt the WKU program in 2 years, the USF program in 4 years, and brought in a great OC to work with him in Mario Cristobal. Cristobal’s experience as O-Line coach at Alabama makes him a perfect fit with what Taggart brings to the table in the passing game.
The schedule doesn’t do them any favors with games at Stanford, UCLA, and Washington, but if the Ducks are able to win 2 of those road games, they should be right in the discussion in the Pac 12. Regardless of where they finish in the Pac 12 this season, the Ducks will be one of the most improved teams in the country in 2017.
Non-Sleeper Teams: Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas
We are including Texas with the two Oklahoma teams, because they have somewhat of a perfect storm brewing. Strong not only left Herman a loaded roster, but a roster perfectly suited to run his system. He has 2 capable QB’s, 4 of 5 O-Line starters back, and 10 of 11 defensive starters back.
The Big 12 is clearly in the discussion as the most top-heavy of the Power 5 conferences. Baylor is rebuilding, WVU lost a ton this past year, Texas Tech will never be able to hold another Big 12 team under 50, and Iowa State and Kansas would struggle to compete in the Sun Belt.
While we love Bill Snyder, Jesse Ertz, and this season’s Kansas State team, we aren’t convinced they can score enough to compete in this year’s Big 12. Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas, and TCU look like they are going to not only have the high powered offenses we have seen in recent seasons, but be much more balanced with the majority of their defensive starters returning.
Expect to see 4 or 5 nine win teams out of the Big 12 again this season, with the rest of the conference hovering at or below the .500 mark.
Our Favorite Sleeper: TCU Horned Frogs
Oklahoma and Oklahoma State were able to just flat outscore everyone in the Big 12 last season, but if you look at how West Virginia and Kansas State were able to finish 3rd and 4th in the division, it was by playing solid defense. Each team gave up less than 25 PPG, while allowing under 160 rushing YPG.
Looking outside of the Oklahoma schools, which Big 12 teams can score enough to win in the Big 12, but are still good enough defensively to have a shot at winning the Big 12? To me it’s the TCU Horned Frogs, and I don’t think it’s that close of a call. Despite some of the recent issues he’s had in Big 12 conference play, Gary Patterson has proven he is one of the better defensive coaches in football, and isn’t a guy I would sleep on.
In total, TC returns 17 of 22 starters, including 10 starters on the offensive side of the ball. I would argue that their receiver corps: Taj Williams, KaVontae Turpin, John Diarse, Shaun Nixon, Emmanuel Porter, TY Slanina, Cole Hunt, and Omar Manning is the deepest and most talented in the nation. All Kenny Hill needs is a pulse to be able to hit Turpin, Diarse, and Nixon out of the slot, they are that tough to cover.
The group that will make this offense tick this season is the offensive line. A group that returns 75 career starts, and 9 of their top 10 from last season. This group is deep, experienced, and have had to compete throughout camp. The battles this group has had throughout camp with a defensive line that returns 6 guys with at least 3.5 sacks will make TCU one of the nations more underrated teams in the trenches this season.
An early road game in Arkansas could give TCU some much needed experience heading into a huge game at Oklahoma State on September 23rd. The Cowboys will be coming off a tough road game at Pittsburgh the week before. If TCU is able to win that game, they could run the table to a matchup with Oklahoma on November 11.
Non-Sleeper Teams: Florida State, Clemson, Louisville, Miami
While I still rank the ACC as just the 4th best Power 5 conference, you could certainly make an argument that the teams at the top of this conference (Florida State, Clemson) have been as good as anyone over the past 5+ seasons. While the class is still at the top, I think the ACC is slowly becoming a deeper football conference.
Pat Narduzzi clearly has Pitt headed in the right direction, and Max Browne should have a big 2017 season. While Florida State, Clemson, and Louisville are the stables at the top of the Atlantic, I think Dave Doeren has NC State ready to compete on that side of the conference.
If Mark Richt and Justin Fuente had somehow talked their quarterbacks into returning, I think Va Tech and Miami would both be in the AP top 25 heading into this year. Even with first year starters at QB, both teams will be in the discussion and are clearly trending in the right direction.
Our Sleeper Pick: NC State Wolfpack
Similar to the Big 10, where one division is clearly stronger than the other, our initial instinct was to hide somewhere in the Coastal. That being said, we would be shortchanging this Wolfpack team if we didn’t identify them as one of the top sleepers in the country.
The Wolfpack are so talented in the trenches this season, returning 4 of 5 offensive line starters, and an entire front four on defense that racked up 27 sacks a year ago. They flashed a year ago, holding Clemson to 24 points despite going to triple overtime, holding Florida State to just 24 points, and North Carolina to just 21 on the road.
However, it was the inconsistencies that come from a young team (return 17 of 22 starters this year) that were so frustrating. They gave up 33 to East Carolina, 54 to Louisville, and were held to 14 points or less on four occasions.
I think those growing pains are gone, and unlike the majority of the teams in college football, NC State has the ability on both lines to compete with FSU and Clemson in 2017.