17 Offseason Questions For ’17: No. 17
Who are the sleeper college football conference title contenders you need to know?
No. 17: The Sleeper Conference Championship Contenders Are … ?
You never thought Iowa was going to battle for the Big Ten championship two years ago, or that Penn State was going to win it last season.
And you really, really didn’t think Colorado was going to be in the Pac-12 title hunt or Wyoming was going to represent the Mountain Division in the Mountain West title game.
They’re the sleepers in each conference title chase, with the right blend of talent, experience, and/or schedule to become one of the stunners of 2017.
Who’s going to be this year’s Penn State, Colorado, or Wyoming? Who’ll be this year’s sleeper conference championship contenders to watch out for?
American Athletic: UCF Knights
South Florida will be the easy pick to take the conference, but UCF has the talent to take the East – at least on offense.
Scott Frost’s attack wasn’t anything great last season, but it was a young group that should be night-and-day better. Everyone of note returns – absolutely everyone.
Getting USF at home is the big break, but having to go to Temple should be a bit of a problem. Even so, the Knights have the upside – even if the defense needs help – the make another big jump up under Frost.
ACC: NC State Wolfpack
How does NC State possibly make any noise in a division with Clemson, Florida State and Louisville? It’s not going to be easy, but the Cardinals and Tigers have to come to Raleigh, and there’s no Virginia Tech or Miami to play from the West.
The defensive front might be the best in the ACC – if not the country – if everything breaks right. The offense has to replace RB Matthew Dayes, but eight starters are back from an attack that came really, really, really, really close to beating Clemson last year.
Big Ten: Minnesota Golden Gophers
The Gophers were in the Big Ten title chase right up until the end of the regular season, and now they should be even better – especially with a coaching upgrade.
P.J. Fleck was the hot guy at the right time, and even though it took an ugly scandal to eventually make it happen, that hot guy’s in Minneapolis now.
With a potentially devastating running game behind a great-looking line, while the defense gets half the season to get it right.
They have to go to Iowa, and they have to face Michigan and Michigan State from the East, but they get Nebraska and Wisconsin at home.
Big 12: Kansas State Wildcats
The linebacking corps needs work, and the defense loses a few other key stars, too, but the offense will be the Wildcat offense. The ground game will grind games down to a crawl, with eight starters returning to what should be yet another maddening O to deal with.
It’s almost as if Kansas State was able to pick its own Big 12 schedule, getting Baylor, TCU, Oklahoma and West Virginia at home. While going to Oklahoma State and Texas won’t be easy, there have to be some games away from Manhattan.
Conference USA: Old Dominion Monarchs
One of last year’s surprise teams might be ready to not only go bowling, but take over the East. It’s a division with WKU, Middle Tennessee, and Marshall to face, but the Monarchs are going to be every bit as dangerous if the right quarterback steps up.
The ground game will be dominant with Ray Lawry rolling behind a veteran line, while the defense should be just good enough to hold its own against the high-powered Hilltoppers – a home game – and Blue Raiders.
MAC: Miami University RedHawks
Once again, the East is the far easier of the two MAC divisions, and Miami University might be ready to take advantage.
Miami might have to go to Ohio, but it misses Toledo and Western Michigan from the West – that might be enough to get to Detroit to play for the title game.
Gus Ragland is the cool quarterback all the kids are talking about – or at least the geeky college football media types will be – to go along with nine starters back on defense. After a red-hot second half of last year, the RedHawks are going to be even better.
Mountain West: Hawaii Rainbow Warriors
If you’re going to make a move in the Mountain West, you 1) want to be in the West Division, not the Mountain, 2) want San Diego State in your park, and 3) want San Diego State in your park after getting a week off to prepare.
Second-year head man Nick Rolovich still has a whole lot of work to do with a flawed team, but with a favorable slate, a dangerous passing attack that’s more like the Hawaii we all know and love, and a defense that can’t be any worse, and here might be your 2017 version of 2016 Wyoming.
Pac-12: Arizona Wildcats
Arizona is the default sleeper team to be this year’s Colorado.
There aren’t any options in the North – it won’t be Cal or Oregon State – and Arizona State, Utah and UCLA have nastier schedules in the South. Arizona’s slate isn’t easy – going to USC is a problem – but there’s no Washington or Stanford from the North.
And remember, Arizona won the South two years ago.
This should be a far better team, especially if everyone can finally stay healthy. Nine starters return to an offense that should be stronger and back to form, with one of the Pac-12’s most dangerous ground games.
SEC: Texas A&M Aggies
You’ve been hurt before.
Texas A&M has teased you, promised you, excited you – and then let you down.
This year’s team has the athleticism and upside to make up for the losses on the defensive line and wide receiver, and there’s still enough explosion to hang around with just about everyone.
Texas A&M is going to be good enough to win the West – but it’s been good enough to win the West for a while, and it hasn’t happened.
The schedule works out, though, with Alabama and Auburn coming to College Station, and with the dangerous road games at Ole Miss and LSU coming at the end. By late November, if those two games matter for A&M in any way for the SEC West title, things will be going well.
Sun Belt: South Alabama
The Jaguars had a little bit of fun last year on the way to a bowl game, but this season they’ll have a more dangerous offense to go along with an improved defense that’ll be fine, even without a few stars up front.
The biggest key is the schedule, with no Appalachian State to deal with with with Louisiana-Lafayette and Arkansas State at home.