Perhaps more than any other sport, parity seems to be – for lack of a better word – a rarity in college football. Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Auburn, etc. seem to always be near the top of the standings, while teams at the bottom of the barrel tend to remain there for years, even decades. But every so often a team climbs from the ashes and shocks the world. They surprise their respective college football Power 5 Conference and come close to – if not actually – winning their conference. The ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, and SEC all have sleeper teams in the mix for 2019.
Washington State was one of the best examples of that last season. Led by transfer quarterback Gardner Minshew, the Cougars nearly won the PAC-12 crown and finished well within the top-25 despite projections having them near the bottom of the conference in the preseason.
Which team could make the WSU leap in 2019? Here is one option for a college football Power 5 surprise team in each conference. Consider them the proverbial dark horses.
College Football Sleeper Teams 2019
ACC: Virginia Cavaliers
Virginia was projected to finish sixth in the ACC by USA TODAY, but that feels like it could end up being a mistake if quarterback Bryce Perkins can build off his ridiculously excellent 2018 season.
Perkins proved to be one of the more dynamic players in college football last season, throwing for 2,680 yards with 25 touchdowns and nine interceptions, and running for 923 yards and nine scores.
The team will need to replace running back Jordan Ellis and receiver Olamide Zaccheaus, no easy task, but they do return nine starters to a defense that allowed the 20th fewest points last season.
A top-3 finish in the ACC seems very plausible for Bronco Mendenhall’s squad.
BIG-10: Minnesota Golden Gophers
Minnesota has a lot of things going for them in the BIG Ten, and could be a scary team if things go their way. For starters, they have one of the easiest schedules in college football, and could easily find themselves 5-0 in October.
Second, they return nine starters on offense and seven on defense, which includes receiver Tyler Johnson and a pair of former 1,000-yard rushers in Mohamed Ibrahim and Rodney Smith.
The Gophers finished 2018 winning three out of four, and could realistically challenge for a BIG-10 championship this season if things go right for P.J. Fleck and company.
BIG-12: Baylor Bears
Baylor went from one win in 2017 to seven wins in 2018, the second year under coach Matt Rhule. USA TODAY has them 22nd overall, so it’s hard to call them a dark horse necessarily, but Rhule’s squad is only picked to finish fourth in the BIG-12, and I think they can challenge for the top spot.
The Bears have one of the deepest groups of wide receivers in the country, and quarterback Charlie Brewer is coming off a season where he threw for over 3,000 yards with 19 touchdowns.
With an offense poised to do some damage through the air, and a team that has continued to improve in the last few seasons, Baylor has a chance to make some noise in 2019.
PAC-12: UCLA Bruins
Chip Kelly has proven he can win at the college level. His offensive style is no longer as unique and unknown as it was when he was leading Oregon to prominence a half-decade ago, but there’s reason to believe that the Bruins will begin to hit their stride in the second year under Kelly.
After all, the Bruins did show improvement in the second half last season, and they are returning a good chunk of starters on both sides of the ball.
While they have one of the toughest schedules in the entire college football landscape this year, they could certainly surprise some people heading into conference play.
USA TODAY has them ranked ninth in the PAC-12, and a top-five finish wouldn’t surprise me at all.
SEC: Tennessee Volunteers
The Vol’s may have lost defensive lineman Emmitt Gooden, but they still have a packed house upfront – especially if they can get Michigan transfer Aubrey Solomon cleared before the opener.
The defense should be solid, but this team’s ability to succeed next season will depend on how quarterback Jarrett Guarantano develops under new offensive coordinator Jim Chaney.
Guarantano had some electric performances last season, particularly against Kentucky, which helped make him the 21st ranked quarterback in college football according to Pro Football Focus.
However, poor offensive line play limited his playmaking ability, and that is something that Tennessee will need to improve if they want to rock the boat in the stacked SEC conference.
These college football Power 5 sleeper teams may not win their conference but they will win games that decide who does.