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Five Sleeper Teams That Could Emerge As Legit Contenders

Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire

The group of teams in contention for College Football Playoff spots toward the end of the season is going to look a lot like the top part of the various rankings being released in advance of the upcoming season. Most people agree those squads are good, and their performance should bear that out over the next couple of months.

But there are always a handful of teams that exceed preseason expectations. These are the outfits that, for whatever reason, weren’t given much of a shot at winning many games or competing for a prestigious bowl. The only (totally arbitrary) criterion for SI.com’s list of sleepers is that the chosen teams fall outside of the top 20 of our preseason Top 25. The five squads below probably won’t be in the conversation for a CFP berth come Selection Sunday, but we feel poll voters and media outlets are undervaluing them.

North Carolina State

The Wolfpack wouldn’t be flying this far under the national radar had they won one of two close games last season. The first was a 24–17 overtime loss at eventual national champion Clemson in October in which NC State kicker Kyle Bambard missed a 33-yard field goal at the end of regulation. The second was a four-point home defeat to Florida State in November wherein the Wolfpack led deep into the fourth quarter, only for Seminoles quarterback Deondre Francois to hit NFL-bound wideout Travis Rudolph for a 19-yard touchdown with just over three minutes remaining one play after nearly throwing a potentially game-sealing interception.

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NC State takes just one of those close decisions, and it heads into this season as the clearest threat to shake up the ACC’s duopoly. Instead, the Wolfpack have been reduced to scrapping for “Others receiving votes” love, and Dave Doeren is showing up on coaching hot seat lists. Doeren needs to offer evidence of progress in 2017; the Wolfpack have posted a 25–26 record during his four years in Raleigh, and they haven’t notched anything that remotely qualifies as a signature win. That drought ought to end this year, as NC State hosts both Clemson and Louisville, our No. 7 and No. 14 teams, respectively.

But looking beyond their potential to wreak havoc in the upper reaches of the division standings, the Wolfpack should be able to handle business against the ACC’s middle class without much fuss. Their defensive line is big and ferocious, and it’ll stop opposing running games in their tracks while stud end Bradley Chubb causes problems off the edge.

NC State is experienced on the other side of the the trenches, where second-team all-conference guard Tony Adams returns, and offensive coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz will have two fun playmakers (Jaylen Samuels and Nyheim Hines) and a returning starter at quarterback (Ryan Finley) to work with. If NC State can turn even one of 2016’s close losses into a W and avoid a head-scratching toe stub on the order of its 21–14 home loss to Boston College, it’s hard to imagine 2017 not being Doeren’s most fruitful campaign in Raleigh to date.

Notre Dame

The jokes began hours after the season-opening loss to Texas, multiplied after a 12-point defeat to Michigan State two weeks later and crescendoed into a sort of schadenfreude that felt harsh even by the standards of the long tradition of poking fun at every Notre Dame misstep after a late-September loss to Duke. The Fighting Irish never righted the ship in 2016, dropping five of their last seven games, but their record of 4–8—college football’s version of the “Warriors blew a 3–1 lead” meme—shrouds how close they came to a much better final win-loss mark.

Let’s review: A 50–47 loss to the Longhorns in double overtime, an eight-point loss to Michigan State, a three-point loss to the Blue Devils, a seven-point loss to the Wolfpack in a rainstorm, a seven-point loss to Stanford a week later, a one-point loss to Navy, a three-point loss to Virginia Tech. The close Ls papered over how well the Fighting Irish were actually playing: According to Football Study Hall, Notre Dame recorded 7.2 second-order wins, a statistic that seeks to render the number of victories one would expect based on performance.

As much joy as most fans derived from Notre Dame’s misfortune last season, if a couple of those tight games break the other way in 2017, the Fighting Irish will be as insufferably successful as ever. Last year’s starting quarterback, DeShone Kizer, is a Cleveland Brown now, but replacement Brandon Wimbush has drawn rave reviews going back to his time as a Penn State verbal commitment. Junior Equanimeous St. Brown gives Wimbush a big-time target outside, former blue-chip tight end Alizé Mack is back in the fold after being ruled ineligible for the 2016 season because of academics and junior tailbacks Josh Adams and Dexter Williams should get plenty of touches in new offensive coordinator Chip Long’s uptempo system.

First-year defensive coordinator Mike Elko has bigger issues to address on his side of the ball, but he comes well-regarded from his stint at Wake Forest. The linebacking corps is battle-tested, though things could get shaky in the back end, particularly if Navy safety transfer Alohi Gilman isn’t granted immediate eligibility. Brian Kelly’s mandate to win, and win big, is clear, but there’s cause to believe he’ll deliver.

Oregon

The case for an Oregon revival seems dubious based on the competitive landscape it faces and its schedule. The Ducks are looking up at three of our top 25 teams (No. 9 Washington, No. 15 Stanford and No. 22 Washington State) in their division, they meet two of them on the road (the Huskies and the Cardinal) and they face a pair of non-conference tests before the start of Pac-12 play (at home against Nebraska on Sept. 9 and at Wyoming on Sept. 16). Throw in the year of transition time first-year coaches often need, and the likelihood that Oregon falls flat for a second consecutive season seems pretty high. There’s also the fact that first-year coach Willie Taggart went 2–10 in his maiden campaigns at his two previous stops (Western Kentucky and South Florida). We’re hopping on the Ducks’ bandwagon despite all of that, primarily because of two things.

First, their offense has the capacity to char every defense on the schedule, including the Stanford unit SB Nation’s Bill Connelly projects to rank in the top-10 nationally. Quarterback Justin Herbert is ready to take a big step forward after getting thrown to the fire as a true freshman last season, and dangerous playmaker Charles Nelson can prop up a green pass-catching corps that saw leading receiver Darren Carrington get dismissed last month following a DUI arrest. If Herbert doesn’t become the pinpoint distributor new co-offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Marcus Arroyo is counting on to field the sort of efficient, pace-pushing attack the Ducks need to overcome their deficiencies on the other side of the ball, they should be fine feeding bellcow back Royce Freeman and burner Tony Brooks-James.

The second thing involves those defensive deficiencies mentioned above. They definitely exist, but new coordinator Jim Leavitt should do a whole lot better managing them than Brady Hoke did in 2016. Oregon is going to end up playing a lot of games in the 40s, but teams will run out of gas trying to keep up, even if the Ducks have a hard time stanching the bleeding when they don’t have the ball.

Jeffrey Vest/Icon Sportswire

TCU

Watching TCU hemorrhage points while failing to crack the Football Outsiders S&P + defensive top 50 in consecutive years has been disorienting. The Horned Frogs’ work on that side of the ball turned them into a Mountain West power last decade and put them in position to claim the Big 12’s first playoff spot in 2014. Patterson should be able to shore up that unit if a couple of disruptive presences emerge up front to replace the Horned Frogs’ two sack leaders (Josh Carraway, Aaron Curry) and their co-leader in tackles for loss (Carraway). Senior cornerback Ranthony Texada is a candidate for All-Big 12 honors, and senior linebacker Travin Howard is a tackling machine ready for a killer final season after increasing his total from 105 to 130 a year ago.

The Kenny Hill experiment mostly flopped in 2016, but drops and receiver health were major culprits. Both of those issues can turn around this season, putting Hill in position to play more like the Heisman Trophy candidate he was early in his college career than the guy who tossed only four more touchdowns (17) than interceptions (13) and posted the third worst QB rating among qualifying Big 12 signal-callers last season. Co-offensive coordinator Doug Meachem left this offseason to run Kansas’s offense, but TCU did tab former Cal coach and Air Raid disciple Sonny Dykes as an offensive consultant/analyst.

If Hill can get into a groove after a rough first go in Fort Worth, this offense should be able to trade blows with every Big 12 unit save Oklahoma’s and Oklahoma State’s. The defensive slide is worrisome, but given Patterson’s track record, this feels more like a temporary blip than the start of a prolonged downward spiral. The Horned Frogs return more production than every other Power 5 conference team this season, according to Connelly. That production may not have gotten them very far in 2016, but it does set the table for a major upturn. And though the conference schedule isn’t favorable (road games against Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Oklahoma), TCU has a credible argument as the Big 12’s No. 3 squad behind the Sooners and Cowboys.

Virginia Tech

Year One of the Justin Fuente era worked about as well as Virginia Tech could have hoped. The Hokies overcame a turnover-dotted loss to Tennessee at Bristol Motor Speedway in September to rip off a 6–2 mark in the ACC before pushing Clemson in a seven-point loss in the conference title game. It’s not unreasonable to think the Hokies can get back there in 2017.

The second, third and fourth-place finishers in the ACC Coastal are all replacing their starting quarterbacks: North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky was the first quarterback taken in this year’s draft, Miami’s Brad Kaaya was a sixth-round selection and Pitt’s Nathan Peterman was picked one round earlier. Yes, Virginia Tech will have to make do with a new face under center, too, after Juco transfer Jerod Evans surprisingly announced he was headed to the NFL (and wasn’t chosen in the draft). But Fuente’s history of grooming quarterbacks, from Andy Dalton at TCU to Paxton Lynch at Memphis to Evans last season, suggests he’ll be able to mold Virginia Tech’s next starter into, at the very least, a serviceable distributor for his spread attack. Fuente hasn’t settled on a No. 1 guy yet; redshirt freshman Josh Jackson is still trying to beat out two other inexperienced options (Juco transfer A.J. Bush and true freshman Hendon Hooker). Whoever gets the nod, having arguably the league’s top receiver, senior Cam Phillips, is a luxury that should ease any early turbulence.

Junior linebacker Tremaine Edmunds and veteran defensive backs Greg Stroman and Terrell Edmunds will set the tone for what should be another top-20 (if not top-10) defense under longtime coordinator Bud Foster, and look for former big-time recruit (and current 335-pound redshirt sophomore) Tim Settle to add some punch to a front that loses first-team all-conference honoree Woody Baron. The Hurricanes stack up as the Hokies’ primary challenger in the Coastal, but Virginia Tech’s ACC slate is manageable outside of a visit to Hard Rock Stadium in early November. In a division with a lot of unknowns, you can feel good about buying into a team with a suffocating defense and an elite coach with a well-earned reputation as an ace quarterback developer.

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