AC’s college football sleepers for 2015
North Carolina: The Tar Heels return 17 (10 7) starters to a team that quite frankly has underachieved the past few seasons. They’ve been sort of an enigma, and as a result, head coach Larry Fedora finds himself on the hot seat. Former Auburn head coach Gene Chizek was brought in to fix the defense, which has been the crux of the problem. There is talent on this team, and it should score a lot this season. Look for Chizek to shore up the defense and make UNC a player in the ACC this season.
Oklahoma St: The Cowboys return 16 (8 8) starters to a team that was up and down in 2014. The good news is those growing pains should pay off this season as so many young players gained valuable experience during some tough times. This team is solid across the board, and that experience should help cut down on the mistakes that plagued Oklahoma St last year. Look for marked improvement on 3rd down (33% off 42% def) as well, which should make Oklahoma St a dark horse in the tough Big 12 this season.
Middle Tenn St: The Blue Raiders return 13 (6 7) starters to a team that finished poorly last year to miss out on a bowl game. They simply made too many mistakes down the stretch. We look for that to change as there is talent on this team, at least by C-USA standards. Our main reason for optimism with this squad is the significant improvement on a defense that should be one of the best in C-USA. We’re not sure they are good enough to beat Marshall, but if they catch the Thundering Herd napping, they are Temple: The Owls enter the 3rd year of head coach Rhule, one of the better coaches you’ve never heard of. 19 (8 11) starters are back and don’t be surprised if Temple ends up with the top defense in the AAC. There is potential on offense, as QB PJ Walker looks to rebound from a subpar 2014. How subpar was it? Temple only converted 23% on 3rd down, and still won 6 games. We see a vast improvement at QB this season, and coupled with a very good defense, this team could make some noise in the AAC.
Utah St: It seems like we have the Aggies every year listed as a sleeper. Maybe it’s because QB Chuckie Keeton is back for what seems like his 10th season. Of course that can only mean the previous one ended in injury. Or, maybe it is because this team never seems to get any respect. 15 (9 6) starters are back and Utah St should once again boast one of the best defenses in the MWC. We also look for Keeton to help this team on 3rd down (32%). We don’t see Utah St finishing ahead of Boise, but this should be a competitive team week in and week out.
USC: It may seem odd for a team like the Trojans to be on this list, but they are here because we see them as a CFP sleeper. Most will have Oregon in the PAC 12, but this team, even though they may be a year away, has the talent to compete for one of those 4 spots. 14 (7 7) starters are back, including QB Cody Kessler. The depth isn’t there, and the front 7 needs to play to its potential, but if they can play like they did last season on 3rd down (49% off 35% def), this team will be difficult to beat. Penn St: The Nittany Lions are finally free of the NCAA sanctions. While those have certainly hurt the depth, Penn St does have an NFL QB in Christian Hackenberg. 15 (9 6) starters are back, and the Penn St defense should be stout once again. The question is, are there enough playmakers on this team? It may not be good enough to beat Ohio St or Michigan St, it is good enough to beat everyone else.
Western Michigan: The Broncos are one of our favorite teams this season. We will be one of the few that has this team winning the MAC, mainly because of head coach PJ Fleck and the talent he has brought to Western Michigan over the past few seasons. 16 (9 7) starter are back to a team that is poised to take the next step as a MAC power. They need to be better getting off the field on 3rd down (43%). Otherwise, this is a sound team all around Tennessee: This may not seem as big a pick since so many people seem to think like us that the Volunteers are ready to get back to being Tennessee. They are probably a year away from that, but that shouldn’t stop them from ruining someone’s season. With 16 (9 7) starters back, the talent is there to make this a season an excellent stepping stone for 2016 that will surely be loaded with expectations. We really like the job head coach Butch Jones is doing, especially with QB Josh Hobbs, who is tough to defend. They will probably have a loss that will leave you scratching your head, but this is a dangerous team in 2015.
Appalachian St: App St comes into its 2nd year of FBS as a legit contender for the Sunbelt title. 20 (10 10) starters are back to a team that finished the season strong last year, leaving some expectations for a strong 2015. They are solid in most areas, and if they repeat their play on 3rd down (47% off 33% def), we like them to win the conference, and scare someone in the non-conference.