Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma and Florida State enter the regular season as the prohibitive favorites to qualify for this year’s College Football Playoff. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be a surprise (or two) during the season.
For the sake of clarity, we’ll define a dark-horse team as any unit not ranked in the top 20: all eight playoff-qualifying teams have ranked inside the top 20 of AP’s preseason poll, so we’re talking about accomplishing something that’s unprecedented.
North Carolina Tar Heels
Preseason ranking: No. 22
National title odds: 100-to-1
Strength of schedule: No. 47
Returning starters: 14 (No. 52 in Steele’s experience chart)
Lost in the nail-biting drama of the national championship game was the fact that Clemson was one possession away from not being there at all. Had a successful onside kick not been negated by a questionable-at-best offsides penalty in the waning moments of the ACC championship game, Larry Fedora’s group would’ve had a chance to tie the score and potentially keep the Tigers out of the College Football Playoff.
However, the call was made and UNC went on to lose its bowl game. Then Marquise Williams graduated, leaving the team without 32 percent (1,083 yards) of last season’s rushing production and 83.6 percent (3,072) of its passing attack.
That holding true, Fedora returns an experienced group, including Elijah Hood, arguably the most underrated running back in the country and the No. 8 draft-eligible back in the nation, according to Steele. Not only did he lead the team in rushing a season ago, his 95.7 elusive rating was seventh best in the country and his 4.1 yards-after-contact average ranked second.
The offensive line returns players with 131 career starts, tied for the second-most of any team in the country. That should give new starting quarterback Mitch Trubisky, a player who has had four years to absorb the system, ample time in the pocket. Trubisky threw 47 passes last season, completing 40 of them (85.1 percent), made more impressive by the fact that he was 11 of 16 on throws 10 or more yards. He has a top-25 receiving corps, according to Steele, including six of the top seven receivers from 2015. Mack Hollins, one of his numerous targets, led the country last year with 24.8 yards per reception.
Gene Chizik’s defense allowed 24.5 points per contest in 2015, more than two touchdowns fewer than it allowed in 2014. Opponents completed 54.5 percent of their passes against UNC’s defense, the best mark for the program since 2001.
In total, Fedora will oversee five top-25 units — running back, receiver, offensive line, defensive backs and special teams—this year, according to Steele.
UNC has at least a 40 percent likelihood of winning each game on its regular season schedule, save for its Oct. 1 matchup with Florida State (14.3 percent), according to ESPN’s Football Power Index. TheTar Heels don’t have to play Clemson or Louisville, two of the better teams in the conference, and at 9.3 percent they have the third-best odds of winning the conference.
Preseason ranking: No. 24
National title odds: 50-to-1
Strength of schedule: No. 36
Returning starters: 11 (No. 102 in Steele’s experience chart)
Oregon finished 2015 with its fewest single-season wins (nine) since 2007, when Mike Bellotti ran the show in Eugene. According to College Football Reference’s Simple Rating System, which adjusts margin of victory for strength of schedule, last season ranked No. 23 in program history, far below the team’s typical level.
A rebound could be coming — and Dakota Prukop is ready to provide it. With 22 collegiate starts, the Montana State graduate transfer has more experience than any quarterback on Mark Helfrich’s roster, and is working alongside a treasure trove of talent.
Royce Freeman could potentially shatter the program’s all-time record book this season, and is the seventh-best draft-eligible back in the country, according to Steele. He’s 1,772 yards shy of the program’s all-time record in career rushing and will play four defenses that ranked outside of the top 95 in rush defense a year ago.
Devon Allen, who finished fifth in the 110-meter hurdles at the Rio Olympic Games, returns, as does Darren Carrington and Charles Nelson, who each rank in the top-25 among receivers on Steele’s draft-eligible board. Each has track speed, and Carrington is the second-highest graded receiver returning to a Power-Five school. Nelson is a Swiss Army Knight who has found use in the return game, on designed runs and deep routes.
Oregon has at least a 42 percent chance of winning all but two games — Nebraska, Southern California — this season, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index. The Ducks host Stanford and Washington this year, and have a .928 home winning percentage (64-5) over the last seven years.
Preseason ranking: Unranked
National title odds: 100-to-1
Strength of schedule: No. 12
Returning starters: 15 (No. 56 in Steele’s experience chart)
What a story it’d be: the long-recognized juggernaut of college football returns to prominence after six consecutive seasons failing to reach double-digits in wins. Charlie Strong’s Longhorns didn’t qualify for a bowl game last season, marking just the third time in the past two decades.
He returns the second-most starters of any team in the Big 12 Conference. The schedule is difficult, yes, but Texas plays just one ranked opponent on the road (the Red River Shootout is played at a neutral location every year). Much is expected of Strong’s third season in Austin; Steele went as far as to name Texas his No. 1 most improved team heading into this year. In 1999, he picked Hawaii and the team went on to have the NCAA’s largest turnaround on record. In 2012, he picked UCF, and the team turned a five-win 2011 campaign into a 10-win one.
Quarterback turmoil has stained every season since Colt McCoy graduated — and last season the Longhorns had the same number of passing touchdowns (nine) as triple-option-running Navy. Shane Buechele, one of the most sought-after quarterback recruits in his class, comes to Austin, as does a top-10 recruiting class.
Strong hasn’t publicly announced whether Buechele or Tyrone Swoopes will get the starting nod against Notre Dame in the season opener, but either is a considerable upgrade over Jerrod Heard, who was converted to wide receiver after throwing the same number of interceptions (five) as touchdowns last season. Buechele was one of the highest-graded quarterbacks of his class and Swoopes was far superior to Heard in short-yardage and third-down situations, where Texas ranked 101st in conversion rate.
Defensively, Texas was uninspiring last season, allowing more than 30 points per contest. This is the same defense that contained the Sooners to a season-low 278 total yards. Eight starters return, however, including linebacker Malik Jefferson, who won Big 12 freshman defensive player of the year honors and finished second on the team with 61 tackles. Improvements are expected, particularly in the ability to defend against the run.
The Longhorns bested two top-15 programs — Oklahoma and Baylor — last season, and get Baylor and TCU, two of its toughest games, at home, where the Longhorns are 77-21 (.786 winning percentage) over the last 15 years. Consistency has been hard to come by in Austin in recent years, but Texas is more talented this season than any in recent memory, and could take a legitimate stab at relevancy in 2016.