College football is back! Well, technically last week was Week 0 with Miami and Florida playing hot potato trying to give the game away, but Week 1, when the real action starts, is here! Since everything is still on the table, the boys from 4 Down thought that this would be the perfect time to call our shot. Alabama and Clemson are the overwhelming favorites to return to the Big One with Georgia and Oklahoma nipping at their heels, but Granny Maybell doesn’t move into a new house in Malibu by betting on favorites. No, no these are sleepers, some might even say dark horses. Some quick ground rules. Chris, Sam, Levi and Ross each submitted four sleeper teams. One of those teams could be ranked between 12 and 25. The other 3 had to be outside of the top 25. Those submissions were then ranked in a top 10 based on most likely to make the playoff with a synopsis of that team by their submitter. Without further ado, let’s get to it.
1. Utah Utes
Sam: Utah is my pick to win the Pac-12, so naturally I have to consider them a playoff contender. The Utes are going to have the best defense in the conference, led by an outstanding defensive line. The Pac-12’s reputation may be all offense all the time thanks to Chip Kelly’s Oregon teams, the West Coast offense and Reggie Bush, but that paradigm has definitely shifted in recent years. Washington and Stanford, two programs foundationally built on defense, have combined to win 5 of the last 7 Pac-12 titles. Also, for all the talk of Jacob Eason and Justin Herbert, Tyler Huntley is a pretty good college quarterback in his own right, and he has a stout backfield mate in Zack Moss.
2. Oregon Ducks
Levi: Justin Herbert is a potential top 10 pick in the NFL Draft at quarterback and the team returns four offensive linemen. The defense is radically improved over the last two seasons and plenty of veterans should provide a balanced team. In addition, Oregon brings in one of its best recruiting classes in recent memory.
3. Auburn Tigers
Ross: I am an unapologetic Auburn homer. Don’t @ me. But I am also reasonable and can see things outside of orange and blue glasses. Auburn is one of my sleeper teams, but this season has the makings of one of those magical Auburn runs that Gus pulls out of his ass every so often. Let’s start with the bad. The schedule is brutal, and brutal may be too kind. Open with #11 Oregon. Road trips to top-10 teams in LSU and Florida, as well as a trip to #12 Texas A&M. Not to mention playoff favorites Georgia and Alabama to close out the season. That’s a murderers’ row that would make Hitler, Hirohito and Mussolini look like Boy Scouts. Now let’s move on to the good. The defense is good. Like one of the best in the nation good. The offense line returns a lot of experience, albeit not a lot of depth. The running back room is full of playmakers. Wide receivers are talented led by Seth Williams and track-star Anthony Schwartz. If Bo Nix can live up to his 5-star rating and preseason hype, the Tigers may be in business. The good thing about playing such a difficult schedule is that going 10-2 probably gets Auburn in the playoff conversation. It’s a tough road no doubt but, Gus Malzahn has pulled off crazier feats in the past.
4. TCU Horned Frogs
Ross: How quickly people forget just how good TCU has been over the last decade. Just two years ago this team won 11 games and was the talk of the college football playoff after being on the outside looking in. Gary Patterson is a good coach and has a stud in wide receiver Jalen Reagor. Outside of Oklahoma and Texas, the rest of the Big-12 is up for grabs. TCU hosts Texas the week after the Red River Rivalry, so the Horned Frogs could catch a physically and mentally drained Longhorn squad at the right time. Oklahoma and Texas are the clear favorites, but a bounce or two in the right direction could have TCU back in familiar territory.
5. Syracuse Orange
Chris: Syracuse are 1-1 in their last two matchups against Clemson. With an early game on September 14, the Orange have a prime-time opportunity to shock the world. The rest of the schedule is pretty easy after that. Coming off of a 10-win season where Syracuse was one of only six Power 5 teams that averaged more than 40 points per game (the others being Ohio State, Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma and West Virginia), if they can unseat Clemson, they’ve got a chance to punch their ticket to the CFP.
6. Florida State Seminoles
Levi: One of only 16 teams in the country with a blue-chip ratio exceeding 50%. The Seminoles add Kendal Briles’s proven offensive philosophy to boost production from James Blackmon. A dynamic scheme shift should aid the maligned offensive line.
7. UCLA Bruins
Chris: In his first season at UCLA, Chip Kelly more than doubled his previous college football loss total as a head coach (3-9). The offensive mastermind may have lost the first five games of the season (the worst start to a UCLA season since 1943) but the second half of the season showed remarkable improvement – especially on offense. The team returns 17 starters and numerous reserves with game experience. While they are a long shot to make the playoff, mark UCLA down as a lock to be the most improved team in the PAC-12.
8. USC Trojans
Ross: It has been a long time since the glory days of USC when Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush and company were dominating college football. Clay Helton is putting all of his eggs into a new Air Raid offensive system. He’s either going to look like a genius or get canned at season’s end. Highly ranked quarterback JT Daniels looks to improve on his disappointing freshman campaign, but the Trojans still recruit well and have athletes all over the field. An early season matchup against Utah in the LA Coliseum will have a huge impact on which direction this season goes for the Men of Troy. But a win could catapult them right into the playoff conversation.
9. Purdue Boilermakers
Levi: Purdue ranked 3rd in yards per play in conference play last season and brings back Rondale Moore, arguably the nation’s most underrated player. Last season they played in 6 games decided by 7 points or less and went 2-4 in those games. They defeated Ohio State 49-20, so there is definitely the capacity for this program to push up against perceived ceilings. Jeff Brohm is an excellent coach and should have the Boilermakers in contention at season’s end.
10. Boise State Broncos
Sam: Doesn’t it feel most appropriate for the Group of Five team that finally breaks the proverbial “glass ceiling” and breaks into the playoff be Boise State? If the committee has made anything clear with its treatment of UCF, Group of Five teams are still considered vastly inferior to Power Five teams. Boise State might be the one Group of Five program with the national cache to change that. Granted, with the announcement that the Broncos are going with true freshman Hank “The Cow Dog” Bachmeier under center to start the year, maybe this isn’t the most likely Boise State team to crack into the playoffs. But be forewarned: the Boise State team you sleep on is the one that kicks your ass.
Cover Photo Courtesy of Trent Nelson/The Salt Lake Tribune