Every year in sports we are surprised. Things don’t go as planned, for better or for worse. It’s a big reason we keep coming back for more. You’ve read all the magazines and all the online articles, now I present college football conference sleepers. Teams that may shock you and everyone in the sport this year by doing the unexpected and winning their conference.
It doesn’t mean I think all of these things will happen. I am just giving you what I think are some long-shot surprises that have a chance to happen. Auburn winning the SEC last year is the great example. Coming off an 0-8 season, that was a stunner! Baylor last year would be a good example winning the Big XII. To a lesser degree, Michigan State winning the Big 10 or UCF winning the AAC would qualify.
So I present my sleepers this year.
Ole Miss (8-5, 3-5 last year) Ranked 18/19 preseason- The Rebels defense was hit by injuries last year which hurt their production. This year they return 9 starters, numerous others that played, their top 5 tacklers, and their entire secondary. The offense is led by senior QB Bo Wallace who has a stud to throw to in WR Laquon Treadwell. Last year they had to play Texas, Alabama, Auburn, Texas A&M, and LSU 5 straight weeks!!! The schedule is better spaced out this year and they get Bama at home.
North Carolina (7-6, 4-4 last year) Ranked 23/23 preseason- Anybody but FSU would be surprise this season in the ACC. Anybody in the wide-open Coastal division would work, but I like UNC. Peyton Manning gave his seal of approval to QB Marquis Williams at his Manning QB camp in the offseason. The Heels bring back 15 starters from a team that finished hot, winning 6 of 7 with a close loss to Duke the only blemish. There is plenty of talent in Chapel Hill to make this happen.
Michigan (7-6, 3-5 last year) Unranked preseason- Kind of unbelievable to have the Wolverines on a sleeper list, but they are being picked as a distant 3rd in the East division of the Big 10. They started fast and ended terribly last year, but looking a little closer they suffered some close beats. 4 of their 5 regular season losses were incredibly close, including a 4 OT loss to Penn State and a one-point defeat to then unbeaten Ohio State. Their defense should be excellent. They play Sparty and the Buckeyes on the road, but winning one of them will give them a chance to win the conference.
TCU (4-8, 2-7 last year) Unranked preseason- 16 starters return from a team that lost games by 3, 2, 3, 3, 10, 10, and 14. Gary Patterson can coach, but he’s had inexperience, injuries, and troubled players the last couple seasons. This team should resemble some of their elite defensive teams from the MWC. They only leave the state of Texas TWICE all season which should help guard against wear and tear.
USC (10-4, 6-3 last year) Ranked 15/15 preseason- Like Michigan, it’s funny to see “sleepers” and “Trojans” in the same sentence. But after Pete Carroll left the Pac-12 has been all about Oregon and Stanford. Even in-city rival UCLA is getting more attention with a higher ranking. USC has a new (better) coach, 14 starters back, NFL talent all over the field, and a team that lost 4 games, but one by 3 and the other by 4. They’ll be an underdog at Stanford in week 2, but probably not again until November 22 at UCLA.
USF (2-10, 2-6 last year) Unranked preseason- Way out on a limb here. UCF, Cincy, and Houston are consensus top 3, with East Carolina an obvious forth so looking for a sleeper team is somewhat tricky. The Bulls certainly fit the bill coming off a dreadful first season under Willie Taggart. So why them? Year 2 for a coach is almost always a marked improvement. The Bulls bring back 10 starters on offense, including QB. They recruit as well or better than everyone in the conference. They get UCF, Houston, and ECU at home which could help their cause.