It’s late July. We’re creeping toward college football. Here is a look at potential sleeper teams from the major conferences. The SEC gets two, because it’s special. These teams have flaws, warts and roadblocks ahead. They have long odds for a reason. But, it’s conceivable, with a run of good fortune, they could get into their respective conference title races.
ARIZONA STATE SUN DEVILS
Why They’re a Sleeper: The Sun Devils are fresh off consecutive 10-win seasons. They reached double-digits last year, amidst substantial transition. On offense, they have a good quarterback, Mike Bercovici, and a playmaker in RB/WR D.J. Foster. ASU’s defense has a number of player’s back, who should be more experienced. The schedule’s not easy, but the Sun Devils avoid Stanford and play USC, Oregon and Arizona at home.
Why They’re Not a Favorite: ASU only loses a few players, but they were cornerstones. Star wideout Jaelen Strong left for the NFL Draft. Jamil Douglas, an All Pac 12 left tackle and four-year starter, departed. On defense, the Sun Devils lose Marcus Hardison and Damarious Randall, who combined for 24.5 TFL last year. Octane alone can’t win conference titles. Todd Graham needs new contributors to step forward off the bat. ASU opens with Texas A&M and meets USC, UCLA, Utah and Oregon in the first two months.
Why They’re a Sleeper: There’s a huge chasm between Ohio State and Michigan State/Wisconsin. There’s another between those teams and the rest of the conference. Michigan, on paper, recruited talent and depth to play “Jim Harbaugh” football. Two Top 10 overall recruiting classes are now upperclassmen. The Wolverines return depth at RB (two former five-star recruits), and all five starters from an improved line. They add a potential superstar, Jabrill Peppers, to an experienced defense. Competent and coaching and the rivalry games at home could go a long way in a shallow B1G.
Why They’re Not a Favorite: The Wolverines have two glaring question marks. Their probable starting QB is an Iowa transfer who arrives in the fall. They lose substantial disruption up front on defense. Jake Ryan and starting DEs Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer left. The trio combined for 35 TFL last year. Answering those questions is a big if. Harbaugh and his staff will turn Michigan around. It may not be in 2015.
N.C. STATE WOLFPACK
Why They’re a Sleeper: The Wolfpack jumped from three to eight wins (and 92nd to 55th in F/+) under Dave Doeren in 2014. They return a lot on offense, notably talented QB Jacoby Brissett. They have depth at running back. N.C. State also brings back the entire secondary in a 4-2-5 defense. The non-conference schedule is soft. They get both Clemson and Louisville at Carter-Finley stadium.
Why They’re Not a Favorite: N.C. State is a team that could make a run in the Coastal division, trapped in the Atlantic with Florida State, Clemson and Louisville. They do lose their top two receivers and both starting OTs. There’s also substantial change up front on defense. The Wolfpack’s overall record impressed last year. Their collection of wins did not. Their best win was…against a 6-7 UNC team? 24-23 over Georgia Southern? Title contention may require another great leap forward.
OKLAHOMA STATE COWBOYS
Why They’re a Sleeper: 2014 was a rebuilding year for Oklahoma State, losing 28 seniors. 2015 should see the Cowboys bounce back. Mason Rudolph had his redshirt burned, but looks like the QB of the future, after beating Oklahoma and Washington to close last season. OSU returns every receiver. They have depth and talent on defense. The schedule gives them TCU, Baylor, Oklahoma and Kansas State at home. When Gundy has the pieces he produces Top 20 SRS teams.
Why They’re Not a Favorite: OSU optimism is based on projection and track record. TCU and Baylor look loaded and got it done last year. Oklahoma is still Oklahoma. The Cowboys surged late. But, they still lost by three touchdowns to every good Big 12 team outside Oklahoma. Will a transfer lineman and a JUCO back be enough to solidify a run game, which ranked 109th in yards/carry in 2014?
Why They’re a Sleeper: The Vols have a profusion of young talent and the most returning starters in the SEC. On offense: running backs, receivers, a returning quarterback and an offensive line that should improve. On defense: potentially dominant defensive line and solid secondary (two players on our Top 50 list). The raw material to compete now is there. This team fought for Butch Jones when it wasn’t.
Why They’re Not a Favorite: Tennessee has a long way to go and a number of formidable opponents in front of them. Last season left them brimming with optimism? Their went 3-5 in conference. They beat South Carolina (overtime), Kentucky and Vanderbilt (by a touchdown). This team must settle in quickly. They play Georgia, Arkansas, Florida (away) and Oklahoma before their mid-October bye. After that comes a road trip to Tuscaloosa. The stretch from Halloween onward still includes road trips to Kentucky and Missouri.
TEXAS A&M AGGIES
Why They’re a Sleeper: Texas A&M has ridiculous receiver talent and a budding star at QB. They should be able to score, in a conference where many teams have offensive uncertainty. The Aggies have a soft, by SEC West standards, schedule. They drew South Carolina and Vanderbilt from the East. They get Alabama and Auburn at home. Texas A&M leaves the state once during the first 11 weeks of the season. If the offense hums and John Chavis can improve the defense into something reasonable, they could make a run.
Why They’re Not a Favorite: This team still has concerns. A&M has lost a lot of inherited talent on the offensive line. It showed last year, with the Aggies ranking 11th in both sacks allowed and yards/carry in SEC play. Then there’s the defense. Pick your metric of choice. The Aggies were terrible last year. Hope for improvement rests in Chavis’ magic wand. Kevin Sumlin still has the swag copter running. But, his paper resumé looks eerily similar to Brady Hoke’s heading into his fourth season.