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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.
Much of the Big 12 Conference was on a bye last weekend, so you’ll notice a little change up with this week’s power rankings. While just four teams played last weekend, the result was what we expected, with Texas Tech defeating an improved Kansas team, and Oklahoma defeating a beleaguered TCU. So for this week’s Power Rankings The Remix, we’ll be bringing you recap of which teams are trending up or down, and reports from around the Big 12 conference.
Texas Tech is trending up and in a big way. After defeating the Kansas Jayhawks on Saturday, a major statistic emerged, that through four games of Big 12 conference action: Texas Tech has allowed the least amount of points at 89. What’s more, teams that were lauded for their defenses headed into the season in West Virginia and TCU have allowed 92 and 114 points, respectively. More interesting statistics about Texas Tech’s defense, are that the Red Raiders have surrendered 20 or fewer points in three of their four conference games thus far, all of which have ended in victories.
Offensively, Texas Tech has proven why head coach Kliff Kingsbury is heralded as one of the offensive geniuses of this era. During the preseason, most (if not all) media outlets were drawing concern to several key areas on the offense, including how Texas Tech would perform with unproven quarterbacks, and whether those quarterbacks could even come close to comparing to the Patrick Mahomes era, which has had a lasting hangover on Texas Tech fans since his departure to the NFL two seasons ago. It’s safe to say that true freshman quarterback Alan Bowman has quashed those sentiments, as he’s already broken Mahomes records set as a freshman, and even through Bowman’s partially collapsed lung, backup Jett Duffey has made tremendous plays when they mattered.
This is Texas Tech’s best start since Kingsbury’s first season as Tech’s head coach, where he became the first, first-year coach to win his first seven games in Big 12 history–a record he still holds. Tech is certainly showing it has the fortitude to truly be competitive this season, and that’s largely in part to the consistency they’ve had since the arrival of Strength and Conditioning coach Rusty Whitt and Director of Speed and Power Scott Salwasser four years ago.
Texas Tech had a touchdown wiped on a holding call on the offensive line, which isn’t surprising as Tech is one of the most penalized teams in the nation at No. 114, with 59 penalties for 525 yards. Those yards have proven costly through several games, so if Tech is to continue to trend upward, discipline is a major issue that must be fixed.
Also trending up…
Texas Tech faces Iowa State this week, and it’s a team that others only really starting respecting until two years ago. On other sites, I warned that the Cyclones had become one of the more improved teams, and it wasn’t until Texas Tech faced the Cyclones in 2016 that the warning was truly heeded when the Red Raiders were blown out at home, 66-10.
Iowa State is that team where once you feel confident that they’re not as good as the stat sheets tell you, they attack and make you regret everything you ever wrote or said badly about them. In other words, they’re silent but deadly, and you feel their sting long after they’ve left you and your coordinators scrambling for answers.
This season didn’t start out the strongest for the Cyclones, but since defeating Oklahoma State 48-42, and No. 6 West Virginia, 30-14, the Cyclones have come alive, and just in time to face the Red Raiders, which are now tied for second place in the Big 12 Conference, and looking in on a potential trip to Dallas if things pan out.
If history repeats itself, however, any trips to Dallas for the Big 12 Championship will be through Ames, and the Cyclones are already a -3.5 favorite according to ESPN.
Reports from the League:
TCU already faced some serious issues having lost two of its last games to Texas Tech and Oklahoma, but the Horned Frogs are now without leading wide receiver and return man, KaVontae Turpin. Turpin was arrested and charged with assault on a woman earlier this week and dismissed from the TCU program on Tuesday. The woman who alleges the assault says she was romantically involved with Turpin for several years. She claims that Turpin assaulted her after he suspected she was sending photographs of herself to people. She was able to break free and find help. The Star-Telegram reported that a similar incident occurred in March, and according to TCU officials, Turpin hid that from them. According to the Star-Telegram, ” if convicted, Turpin could face up to one year in prison and a $4,000 fine.”
In the March incident, a bench warrant was issued to Turpin who failed to appear to a July 16 pre-trial. He was participating in the TCU Program the entire time, apparently, unbeknownst to anyone at TCU.
According to Anwar Richardson, quarterback Sam Ehlinger is on schedule and progressing with his shoulder injury rehab he sustained in the first quarter against Baylor.
Texas football coach Tom Herman said QB Sam Ehlinger is on progressing on schedule. He threw a Nerf football 10 times on Sunday and a real football 20 times. He’ll try to throw a real football 30 times today. Herman will know more after Tuesday’s practice.
— Anwar Richardson (@AnwarRichardson) October 22, 2018
According to Richardson, Texas head coach Tom Herman also said, “It is easy to plug-and-play quarterbacks in his offense. Does not believe Texas needs to change its offensive game plan if Shane Buechele has to.”
In the Longhorns’ 23-17 victory over the Bears two weeks ago, Buechele threw for 20-34 for 185 yards, one touchdown, and one interception. The Longhorns were able to make some noise on the ground with freshman running back Keaontay Ingram, who carried the rock 19 times for 110 yards. Texas was just 9-18 on third down conversions, so if Buechele is a go on Saturday against Oklahoma State, those conversions will be critical, as this is a night game, and we all know how weird those get in the Big 12 conference.
Big 12 Football is an interesting beast, but non-conference matchups should provide a solid glimpse as to where teams could perform throughout the season.
In the world of Big 12 Football, you have a team on one hand that just can’t seem to find its rhythm regardless of athletic dominance in other sports, and on the opposite side of the spectrum, you have teams that are used to competing for the conference title. In the middle, are a stable of teams that just can’t break into the top of the conference, and it’s leaving a lot of room for discussion on the coaching carousel grab and dump we see every offseason.
With two coaches in the conversation for the hot seat, and several programs trying to plug in specialists to take over for dynamic playmakers, the conference really comes down to a few metrics this season. But for all 10 teams, those metrics are going to be particularly difficult to overcome, as several of the top production teams are starting new quarterbacks.
Kansas faces an interesting situation this weekend against Nicholls State, which ranks No. 17 in the FCS preseason poll. The Colonels return the majority of its playmakers from last season, and has earned notoriety for pinning FBS teams against the wire, as was the case with Texas A&M last season, and Georgia in 2016.
For David Beaty’s Jayhawks, this should be intimidating, especially considering that Kansas’ only won one game last season. With the majority of Kansas blogs expressing more interest in discussing Beaty’s replacement in 2019, it could be a long season.
Baylor is led by sophomore quarterback Charlie Brewer, and has a stable of receivers that could have a break out season under second-year head coach Matt Rhule. The defensive side of the ball, however, is kind of a wild card. The Baylor defense ranked 111 nationally last season in total defense, and few playmakers emerged. While the Bears could get back to bowl contention this season, it might have to rely heavily on one side of the ball for that to happen.
As for Week 1, Baylor faces Abilene Christian in Waco, and already appears to hold an advantage, as ACU seems slightly enamored at the size of the atmosphere they’re entering on Saturday. While stadium capacity is a significant adjustment, ACU’s biggest obstacle against Baylor will be the speed of the Big 12, which is notorious for scoring fast and frequently. If Brewer gets in a rhythm early, perhaps defensive deficiencies won’t matter.
Is Texas back? Who knows, but that’s been the question for over a decade now, and yet the Longhorns continue to break into preseason Top 25 polls with little merit, aside from brand recognition. Ask most true Texas fans that, and they’ll agree.
The No. 23 ranked Texas Longhorns face a Maryland team that’s been embroiled in unfortunate incidents and storylines this Summer. With key members of the Terrapins’ staff (including the strength and conditioning coach) resigning or being investigated throughout Fall Camp, it makes you wonder if Maryland will be organized on Saturday. This could be advantageous to the Longhorns, which have two quarterbacks in Shane Buechele and Sam Ehlinger, compared to Maryland, which hasn’t quite figured that out.
Herman is looking for a revenge game, and if Texas wins, they should move up. But all things considered with Maryland right now, let’s keep the ‘Texas is back” conversation in the bag for a few more weeks.
7. Iowa State
Iowa State has been a fun team to watch in recent years, and 2017 set the bar incredibly high for the Cyclones. With the NCAA granting an extra year of eligibility to quarterback Kyle Kempt, the offense shouldn’t have skipped a beat.
Defensive coordinator Jon Heacock has done an exceptional job figuring out Big 12 offenses, and might have found a way to flatten production–a feat few teams have been able to accomplish. With confidence higher than ever for the Cyclones, it’s in the best possible position to make a serious run for the conference title.
Unfortunately, head coach Matt Campbell had to suspend four freshmen last week for poor conduct, but that shouldn’t impact depth. As for Iowa State’s placement in this preseason ranking, it’s difficult to see where South Dakota State at home helps to make the case for mind-blowing metrics early on. SDSU finished last season at 11-3, losing in the semifinal round of the FCS Championship. While that’s impressive, it’s also a reminder that in order to truly measure talent, strength of scheduling among Power 5 conferences should be the standard. (Looking at you, SEC…)
6. Texas Tech
Texas Tech returns 10 of 11 starters on the defensive side of the ball, and has plenty of depth under fourth year defensive coordinator David Gibbs. While Texas Tech’s biggest issues last season were on special teams, first-year special teams coordinator Adam Scheier brings a lot of talent which will hopefully fix the kicking issues people suspect took the wind out of Tech’s momentum on several winnable games last season.
While Kliff Kingsbury’s notoriety as the “QB Whisperer” will perhaps, be tested the most this season, quarterbacks and receivers don’t step foot in Lubbock without knowing what’s expected of them, and in his sixth year as head coach, Kingsbury certainly knows which prospects will work in his system.
Tech opens the season at Reliant Stadium in Houston against Ole Miss on Saturday–a team that is tested and has a stout offense. This is a weird juxtaposition because it’s usually Tech’s offense that makes headlines, but this time, its defense appears to be the backbone while Tech figures out the QB situation. Tech certainly gets points for scheduling a dynamic SEC team, but Kingsbury is 1-1 against the SEC, and last season, Tech started a perfect 3-0. If Tech can pull off the W this Saturday, many of the questions about Texas Tech this season should be answered.
For more on Texas Tech, click here.
5. Kansas State
Kansas State signed head coach Bill Snyder to an extension this summer, which gave the Wildcats confidence in leadership–a vital recruiting tool considering how shaky college athletics can be. With calm waters, it’s allowed K-State to focus on things that mattered, like developing the QB tandem in Skylar Thompson and Alex Delton, and fine-tuning its offensive line, which is slated to be the best in the conference, next to Texas Tech.
K-State faces another FCS team to open the season, in the South Dakota Coyotes, which finished at 8-5 overall last season. It’s advantageous for FCS teams to play Power 5 schools for several reasons, including money and exposure, but considering the contention to make it to the Big 12 Football Championship, teams like K-State should strive to schedule as many tough Power 5 teams as possible.
I anticipate Snyder will use this game to work kinks out, but so far, many of these Big 12 Preseason betting lines have Big 12 teams poised for some serious blowouts.
4. Oklahoma State
Oklahoma State opens its season against the Missouri State Bears, which only won three of its last five games last season. Another FCS opponent, and another anticipated blowout should give Cowboys’ head coach Mike Gundy plenty of time to figure out his quarterback situation, with the departure of Mason Rudolph to the NFL.
While Oklahoma State has plenty of talent at specialty positions like running back and receiver, the explosiveness and depth of the offense this season rides on whether a quarterback emerges who can truly command the team. If Rudolph’s successor emerges, anything is possible this season.
3. West Virginia
Quarterback Will Grier is the only quarterback in the entire Big 12 Conference that had a Heisman campaign launched in the Summer. That’s kind of crazy considering just how many playmakers have emerged in the conference as a whole throughout the last 4-5 seasons. You have to believe that had coach Dana Holgorsen is riding that momentum, as West Virginia also has Biletnikoff Award finalist David Sills returning at wide receiver, as well as Gary Jennings.
The offensive line could be another story, but with WVU opening the season in Charlotte, N.C. against Tennessee, the Mountaineers won’t have an FCS dress rehearsal as an advantage. Considering how long the Tennessee coaching search lasted in the offseason, it could work to the Mountaineers’ advantage, but the win probability dial is more neutral, especially considering this game isn’t in Morgantown.
The Horned Frogs could emerge as a team to beat this season. Then again, when years of player and talent development come together the way they have for TCU in recent years, it makes you wonder when offensive coordinator Sonny Cumbie will leave for a head coaching job, or perhaps, if head coach Gary Patterson leaves for the NFL.
In any event, TCU is stacked this season. Next to Texas Tech, TCU is the only program in the conference that has people talking defense in a typically formidable offensive league. Returning, are the majority of its defensive line, including senior defensive end Ben Bonagu, who earned the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year award last year.
Like many teams in the conference this season, TCU’s biggest red flags come in the form of untested quarterbacks, and an offensive line that hasn’t been proven. Thankfully for the Horned Frogs, they start the season against the SWAC’s Southern Jaguars, which finished at 7-5 last season. This should give Patterson’s team plenty of plays to shuffle the OL, and try to find that QB-receiver synergy.
Baker Mayfield is now with the Browns, but it didn’t take very long for his backup, Kyler Murray to earn his spot leading the Sooners’ offense. Despite a failed run to the National Championship last season, head coach Lincoln Riley did what few first-year head coaches can, but he did so with a roster and coaching staff that was championship-caliber. With the same mechanisms in place for 2018, this season should be no different, regardless of position switch ups.
Oklahoma starts its season against Lane Kiffin’s FAU, who already said, “These are the guys you want to play the least.” While FAU finished the 2017 season at 11-3 with some monster numbers offensively, Kiffin might not want to play teams like Oklahoma, but it certainly provides both teams with fairly substantial talent to square up against.
The level of difficulty is certainly there, but the scoring potential could also provide Big 12 opponents a solid litmus test as to where the Sooners’ defense is this season.