Earlier this week, I noted the strength of each conference at the top. Each one has a team well set up for the playoff race and most have more than one. Looking at each conference, you can identify the 2 or 3 favorites:
SEC: Alabama, LSU, Georgia
ACC: Clemson, Louisville, Virginia Tech
Pac-12: USC, Washington, UCLA
Big 12: Oklahoma, Oklahoma St.
Big Ten: Penn State, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio St.
Thats not an exhaustive list of favorites, but its a pretty good idea of which teams we expect to hear from at the end of the season. Yet, each conference has a team that, through two weeks, looks like it might be able to unexpectedly get into that conversation. These sleeper teams are ones I see with shots to get to their conference championship games, which will have them in the New Year’s six discussion–if not more.
Derek Mason has improved the Commodores record every year since he took the helm in 2014, getting Vandy to a bowl last season. This year, led by a stout defense and QB Kyle Shurmur (the Vikings’ offensive coordinator’s son), they look ready to make some noise. They already put the clamps on a good Middle Tennessee State team and crushed an FCS foe like they should. It’s tough sledding to have Alabama, @Florida and Georgia in consecutive weeks, but the SEC slate is always difficult. The SEC East is wide open and if they can pull an upset and get to 9-3 they have a shot to get to Atlanta.
This week: I love Vanderbilt +4 against Kansas State. K-State is a tough matchup for anybody, but the game is in Nashville and Vanderbilt is ready to get a big win heading into their Bama game next week.
David Cutliffe may have something special in Durham this year. The Blue Devils rolled a Northwestern team that was a pre-season darling and they have an NFL prospect at quarterback in Daniel Jones. They also have the schedule to make a run. The Coastal is the weaker half of the ACC and a cross-division game against the Seminoles doesn’t look as challenging after the Deondre Francois injury. The Coastal may come down to Duke’s visit to Virginia Tech in late October.
This week: Stay away from Duke -14.5 vs. Baylor. Duke is a much better team than the reeling Bears, but Baylor switched quarterbacks and will be throwing the kitchen sink at this game. I don’t want to lay that many points against a desperate team.
The Buffaloes are coming off a terrific 2016, but still seem to be under the radar. They contained a powerful Colorado State offense and Phillip Lindsay has been a stud for them at running back. If QB Steve Montez can limit turnovers, Colorado will have a chance to shock Washington next week and make a run at the Pac-12 North title.
This week: A cupcake matchup with Northern Colorado. Look for them next week hosting the Huskies.
Big 12: West Virginia
It’s tough to peg a sleeper in this conference where TCU, Kansas State and even Texas Tech all look promising through 2 weeks, but I will take the Mountaineers. They shouldn’t be sneaking up on anybody, but they already lost a tough one to Virginia Tech and may fade from the national scene until late October when they face Oklahoma State. It is a tall order, but if they can win 2 out of 3 on the road against TCU, Kansas State and Oklahoma, they will have a shot at the conference championship game.
This week: Walkover game against Delaware State (might be tougher than next week against Kansas…)
Big Ten: Minnesota
The sleeper in the Midwest almost has to come from the conference’s West division. It is just too much to ask for a team (say: Maryland) to leapfrog all 3 of Penn State, Michigan and Ohio State (Michigan State is not quite a sleeper). Looking in the West, P.J. Fleck’s crew seem like the pick. They have to go to Ann Arbor, but they get Wisconsin at home in the battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe. They had the Badgers on the ropes last year and if they can close the deal this year they may row the boat to Indianapolis.
This week: A suspension at quarterback is a red flag and Middle Tennessee State is not a gimme game to begin with. Stay away from the Gophers -9.
Overall, identifying sleepers basically involves finding teams in weaker divisions of the conference who have the schedule or early-season-look to make a run. I won’t be shocked if any of these teams are playing during Championship Week. My favorite of these sleepers is Vanderbilt, but I fear their schedule is too tough. If I had to pick one of these teams to actually win their conference championship and make a New Year’s appearance I would go with Colorado.
Week 3 Picks:
Oklahoma State -14 @ Pittsburgh
Purdue +7 @ Missouri
Vanderbilt +4 vs. Kansas St.
Texas Tech -7.5 vs Arizona St.
Louisville +3.5 Clemson (riding Nick’s pick on this one)
Last Week: 4-0-1