We’re less than two months from the beginning of the college football season, and though I hate to be so fatalistic, the September game against Penn State is probably going to be when our hopes get crushed ruthlessly this year. Now, there’s plenty to watch for past that point, since this is a growing year anyway, but in the wake of that game I’m sure many will share my desire to find some underdog stories to root for besides the Fighting Illini.
Well, here’s a list of five teams from outside the Power 5 conferences that you might want to keep tabs on, as well as another team within their conference that could be a dark horse.
This is a different NIU team than the offensive powerhouses of the early 2010’s. After a bit of a down period following the departure of Dave Doeren, the Huskies rounded into form a little last year under Rod Carey and are poised to take advantage of a power vacuum that’s likely to form in the MAC West if Toledo’s losses to graduation are simply too much for them to overcome. Though the Rockets won the league last year, they lose quarterback Logan Woodside and a huge number of offensive skill players and this is going to be a transitional year for Jason Candle. The stars of the roster he inherited from Matt Campbell are largely gone.
NIU, on the other hand, returns by far the best defensive line in the MAC. Though defensive coordinator Kevin Kane is gone, his aggressive defensive philosophy will remain in place. The line will be led by All-American Sutton Smith, who led the nation in tackles for loss last year. This is the kind of defense Tim Banks tried to build at Illinois — one that will trade some huge plays for a disruptive presence in the backfield.
They could make some noise out of conference this year, with games against Iowa, Utah, Florida State and BYU. They’re certain to lose at least two, but winning any one of the first three would ruin their opponents’ season.
Super Woke MAC Pick: Miami Redhawks. After a long stint in the wilderness, Miami made a bowl game in 2016 and, though they regressed by one win last year, Chuck Martin has them poised to make a run at the East crown. They’ll have to get through Frank Solich’s Ohio Bobcats to do it though.
4. UCF Knights
The defending national champions should probably be higher on this list, but you already know about them if you were watching college football last year. Coach Scott Frost has departed for Nebraska, but quarterback McKenzie Milton remains and will have enough offensive firepower to light up the scoreboard. Former Oklahoma offensive coordinator Josh Heupel succeeds Frost as head coach, and with his pedigree I fully expect UCF to be impressive on offense again.
Though they have games against North Carolina and Pittsburgh, their most notable non-conference matchup is an absolute joy for connoisseurs of offensive shootouts that don’t care about the Big 12: a showdown with the Florida Atlantic Owls of Conference USA.
Super Woke AAC Pick: Houston Cougars. Though they’re not quite the playoff-buster they were thought to be a couple years ago, they still could make some serious noise due to surefire first-round pick Ed Oliver at defensive tackle and an offense built around a dynamic playmaking QB, D’Eriq King, who is a converted receiver like Greg Ward before him. Houston or Memphis could each challenge the Knights for the division crown, but the Cougars may be the more exciting dark horse.
3. Troy Trojans
Former Illini defensive coordinator Vic Koenning is now in the same position under head coach Neal Brown. His defense was instrumental in their defeat of what ended up being a good LSU Tigers team last year, and often forgotten is their so-close-but-no-cigar upset bid of eventual national champ Clemson in 2016. Troy’s defeat of LSU was no fluke: They controlled the game and looked like the superior team. Four-year starter Brandon Silvers graduated, but they have experienced upperclassmen fighting to replace him.
Troy starts off with a battle against established outsider power Boise State and then heads to Lincoln, Nebraska, where they might just deeply rattle the Husker faithful. I’m not saying they might win, I’m saying they might win emphatically. Don’t panic, Nebraska fans. This team is really really good.
Super Woke Sun Belt Pick: Arkansas State Red Wolves. Justice Hansen returns under center to sling the ball to an impossibly lanky receiving corps. They should in theory be on Troy’s level, and have a slim but still tangible shot at inciting riots in Tuscaloosa on September 8th when they travel to take on the Crimson Tide. Former Alabama player Dee Liner will be playing on Arkansas State’s defensive line as the most aptly named football player ever born.
The gold standard of outsider football programs in this era, the Broncos just keep rolling along under Bryan Harsin. QB Drew Rypien returns to lead a typically powerful and balanced offense down the hideous blue turf. They will likely win the Mountain West and will start the season by derailing the hopes of my No. 3 team to watch before going to Stillwater and schooling the Oklahoma State Cowboys.
Expect this team to enter the 20s of the rankings and stay there.
Super Woke Mountain West Pick: Any Number Of Teams. The second tier of the Mountain West has all kinds of interesting contenders, from Craig Bohl’s Wyoming Cowboys to the ever-present rushing attack of San Diego State to the suddenly resurgent Fresno State. Colorado State may be the best contender due to their deep roster of 3-star recruits.
1. Florida Atlantic Owls
This is not a team that’s flying under the radar thanks to Lane Kiffin fully leaning into his Charlie Sheen-ish party-like-a-rockstar anti-hero role. Star back Devin Singletary (who Kiffin notably swiped from Illinois) returns along with most of the offense. The Owls suddenly have a stranglehold on C-USA, and at this point it’s not even worth looking at their conference schedule.
I’ve already mentioned their game against UCF, but they open their season at Oklahoma and there is a nonzero possibility they catch the Sooners with some early-season lethargy trying to replace Baker Mayfield. I’m telling you, this is a game you need to watch because it’s very possible that Lane Kiffin breaks college football Twitter.
Super Woke C-USA Pick: North Texas Mean Green. Seth Littrell took North Texas to a bowl game and is rocketing up the shortlists of ADs all over the country. It’s a long shot to suggest that they could dethrone Joey Freshwater as the king of the C-USA, but they return most pieces of a pretty solid offense led by Mason Fine. I can see it now:
Third and nine
Sling it to the sideline one more time