College Football's Sleeper Teams to Watch in 2014
Yes, this is a sleeper teams slideshow. Yes, this inevitably means all of these teams will fall flat on their faces in 2014 because jinxing power knows no prejudice.
For that, I am so, so sorry.
But it's June, and it's still fun to think outside the usual favorites to find a team that could break out. How many folks had Michigan State finishing the 2013-14 season as one of the four best teams in the country? Or Duke making it to the ACC championship?
Which teams will emerge as sleepers this year? Our answers are in the following slides.
Yes, the same team that lost to Georgia Southern.
Okay, not the exact same team. Florida is healthy and has a new offensive coordinator, Kurt Roper, who should help the Gators score more points. It shouldn't be that hard. Florida did finish with the worst offense in the SEC, after all.
The defense is loaded with players like defensive end Dante Fowler and defensive back Vernon Hargreaves III. If the offense can even be serviceable, this team goes back to a bowl game. If the offense really takes off, this can be an SEC East contender.
Of all the sleepers, Florida has the chance to have the biggest turnaround. The talent is certainly there. The schedule is daunting, though. Games against Alabama and LSU out of the SEC West are coupled with a top-heavy SEC East plus Florida State.
Oklahoma should be the preseason favorite to win the Big 12 following its surprising Sugar Bowl win over Alabama. Baylor, despite numerous departures on both sides of the ball, will undoubtedly receive some first-place votes as well.
But don't overlook Kansas State. The Wildcats have come a long way from losing to North Dakota State, winning six of their final seven games last year. The only loss? To the Sooners.
K-State returns a number of key players this year, including quarterback Jake Waters, receiver Tyler Lockett and defensive end Ryan Mueller. The transfer of quarterback/athlete Daniel Sams is a tough blow, but he usually wasn't the cornerstone of the offense.
For the 2014 class, head coach Bill Snyder recruited 10 JUCO transfers to fill in holes in the secondary and along the offensive line.
In other words, K-State should have a group ready to compete for a Big 12 title.
Louisville probably isn't going to win the ACC Atlantic this year. The Cardinals probably don't even have an outside chance. Florida State and Clemson should be locked in a battle for that division.
Still, first-year coach Bobby Petrino can pull off an upset somewhere, and the Seminoles do travel to Louisville on Oct. 30.
Replacing Teddy Bridgewater, Calvin Pryor and Marcus Smith—three first-round draft picks—will be a tall order. Bridgewater was a once-in-a-generation player for the program, and the Cardinals defense under former coach Charlie Strong played with intensity and a bad attitude.
But Strong also left the program in a great spot, and Petrino is another intense coach who expects perfection from his players.
It would be surprising, then, to see Louisville lose its edge.
With a good chunk of the offensive line coming back, there's a good foundation for the offense. If the defense can be rebuilt, the Cards will be a tough opponent in their first season in the ACC.
It's odd to think of Michigan as a sleeper. But it's 2014, and one of college football's traditional powers hasn't been so powerful in recent years.
In fact, the Wolverines have trended downward under head coach Brady Hoke.
To reverse that trend, Hoke hired Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. There are capable playmakers on offense—quarterback Devin Gardner, tight end Devin Funchess and running back Derrick Green, to name a few—but the biggest question mark is offensive line.
It's the key to either a 10-plus-win season or another disappointment.
Similarly, the defense has talent but hasn't really played up to its potential.
2014 is a year that, if the Wolverines can put it all together, they'll be in the running for a Big Ten title. It is a legitimate question to ask, though, whether this team has given anyone any reason to believe that will be the case.
We know, we know. Mississippi State has been a sleeper since head coach Dan Mullen arrived. And there's probably nothing worse than declaring the Bulldogs a sleeper.
That's the kind of talk that gets you a 5-7 record.
But there's talent in Starkville, and it starts with quarterback Dak Prescott. The junior is already generating some preseason Heisman buzz and is one of the more promising dual-threat quarterbacks anywhere in the country.
The Bulldogs return just about everyone on defense, which finished in the top half to top third of the SEC in most major defensive categories. There's so much depth on that side of the ball, which is important down the stretch.
Mississippi State has, all things considered, a manageable schedule. Games against LSU, Texas A&M and Auburn in successive weeks during late September and early October will provide a glimpse into how real this team is.
Including Northwestern on this list seems like a bad idea at first.
The Wildcats were a sleeper last season and initially validated those predictions with a 4-0 start. Then, the wheels flew off the wagon, and everything blew up into a ball of radioactive fire.
(Thanks, Ohio State!)
Northwestern lost seven straight games and finished 5-7. Because the collapse was so epic, Northwestern's stock is much lower this year. However, a sizable chunk of last year's starters return. Though quarterback Trevor Siemian wasn't technically the starter—that was Kain Colter—he still saw significant playing time.
The schedule is favorable too. The Wildcats get Wisconsin, Nebraska and Michigan at home.
So consider this a good team to buy at a low price.
Like with Michigan, it feels odd to call USC a sleeper. But talk in the Pac-12 South seems to be focused on Arizona State, last year's divisional champ, and UCLA.
This leaves the Trojans in a position where they have to prove some folks wrong.
First-year coach Steve Sarkisian has talent at his disposal. That's not an issue. Getting the most out of that talent is—or, at least, was—an issue for Lane Kiffin.
The Trojans have tough road games at Stanford, Arizona and Washington State, plus games against UCLA and Notre Dame to end the season.
USC is stacked on defense with returning starters like defensive lineman Leonard Williams and linebacker Hayes Pullard.
The questions surround the offense and whether quarterback Cody Kessler can take the next step in his development.