7 Surprise Teams to Watch in College Football 2017


Like a 250-pound running back barreling out of Alabama’s backfield, The Open Man College Football Preview Listapalooza simply cannot be stopped!

The emergence of surprise contenders is one of my personal favorite inevitabilities of any college football season. Who could have predicted Troy ascending to the Top 25 a season ago — and I like the Trojans a lot again this year — or Colorado appearing in the Pac-12 Championship Game? More on that in a moment.

College football’s unpredictability is part of what makes the fall so exhilarating. Listapalooza pin points seven teams that could provide that excitement in 2017.

Colorado Buffaloes

Does the reigning and defending champion of its division, a 10-game winner that had a legitimate gripe about being passed for the Rose Bowl, and the biggest surprise of last college football season really qualify as a surprise this year?


USC is a universal choice to win the Pac-12 South in 2017 — and, I would be remiss if I didn’t note the Trojans beat Colorado last October in the Coliseum. However, Colorado isn’t being taken all that serious as a threat to USC per the bevy of preseason previews. Utah’s widely considered the most likely contender to the Trojans, and even UCLA — coming off a 4-8 finish — is generating more buzz than the Buffs.

Mike MacIntyre has a few issues to address, namely the graduation of quarterback Sefo Liufau and key players from an outstanding secondary, as well as defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt’s departure for Oregon. However, new quarterback Steven Montez has invaluable experience after relieving Liufau several times in 2016. He’s also surrounded by an excellent offense, particularly at the skill positions. The Colorado wide-receiving corps may be the best in college football, and running back Phillip Lindsay has Heisman potential, should Colorado again find its way into the Playoff discussion near season’s end.

Being overlooked seems to suit Colorado just fine, but it may not last long. After a soft non-conference slate, the Buffs get a Pac-12 Championship rematch on Sept. 23.

Iowa Hawkeyes

Two seasons removed from a surprise run to the Big Ten Championship Game and Rose Bowl, Iowa could be primed to do so once more.

Head coach Kirk Ferentz returns 15 starters — seven on offense and eight on defense — from last year’s eight-win lineup. Among them is running back Akrum Wadley, an undercover candidate for the Heisman should the Hawkeyes have a breakout year. Wadley averaged 6.43 yards per carry in 2016 — more than Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, Donnel Pumphrey or D’Onta Foreman — and was a reliable receiving threat with 36 receptions.

He’ll have support in the backfield with the late arrival of Nevada transfer James Butler. Butler finished No. 21 in the nation last season in rushing yards at 1,336 and reached the end zone 12 times. The addition of Butler gives Iowa a dynamic and deep backfield, which was a cornerstone of the Hawkeyes’ 2015 run.

Combine that with a defense that ranked No. 13 nationally in points allowed last season returning eight starters, and Iowa just might be the surprise of the Big Ten once again.

Kentucky Wildcats

Predicting the SEC East is a fool’s errand. Remember a year ago when just about everyone was convinced it was finally Tennessee’s year? Most Vols would happily trade in their Champions of Life gear for a December trip to Atlanta.

Georgia seems to occupy the preseason role Tennessee dominated a season ago. The Bulldogs return 17 starters and the roster’s bursting with talent after years of recruiting success. But are we really ready to cast our lot entirely behind second-year head coach Kirby Smart? More specifically, are we prepared to entrust Jim Chaney to coordinate a championship offense?

I don’t intend to make this about Georgia, or any other SEC East team beyond Kentucky. Rather, this is important context to set the scene: Kentucky absolutely can win the division in 2017.

Mark Stoops returns a lineup as veteran as that of Georgia’s, with eight starters back on offense and nine on defense. The nine on the defensive end are of particular importance in Kentucky’s breakthrough forecast, as the UK defense made significant strides over the course of a 2016 that began dismally. After allowing 44 (Southern Miss), 45 (Florida) and 42 (New Mexico State!) to open the campaign, the Wildcats held their next four divisional opponents after Florida to a combined 71 points. The defense also played a critical role in the regular season-ending upset of Louisville, garnering four turnovers.

The Wildcats boast numerous playmakers in the front seven, headlined by linebackers Jordan Jones and Josh Allen; and defensive end Denzil Ware. Generating pressure on opposing quarterbacks should be no issue with that trio leading the way, and I like the secondary’s ability to turn that pressure into takeaways. Cornerback Derek Baity was someone I pinpointed as a potential breakout star in 2017.

Head coach Mark Stoops was an outstanding defensive coordinator in stops at Arizona and Florida State previously, and he now has all the ingredients for an excellent defense at Kentucky.

Oregon State Beavers

A coming theme with a few of these teams is playing in either a wide-open division, or an entirely wide-open conference. Oregon State’s a notable exception.

The Pac-12 North is stacked, with defending champion Washington retaining several critical pieces, and longtime standard-bearer Stanford returning a veteran lineup. Washington State, which has been in the hunt for each of the last two seasons, looks the best on paper it has in Mike Leach’s tenure as head coach. Competing for a divisional championship may not be in the cards for Oregon State, but Gary Andersen has a team that can prevent others from doing so — and turn some heads nationally in the process.

The first signs that Oregon State was turning around in Andersen’s second year became evident late last season. The Beavers entered the 2017 offseason on a positive trajectory, winning their last two games by a combined 35 points. The double-digit margin victories over Arizona and Oregon capped a thoroughly unimpressive 4-8 final mark. However, considering the weekly blowouts the Beavers were sustaining a season prior en route to 2-10 (and 0-for in the Pac-12), progress was abundantly evident.

Moreover, Oregon State lost games against Minnesota, Utah and Washington State by a combined 16. Those three teams combined to win 26 games.

Fifteen starters return in Corvallis, led by standout running back Ryan Nall. I named Nall the Pac-12’s most difficult ball-carrier to bring down in my Pac-12 preview for Lindy’s — AVAILABLE AT NEWSSTANDS NATIONWIDE, OR FOR MAIL ORDER HERE! — and Pro Football Focus’ research supports the nomination.

Rival Oregon is the more en vogue choice to surprise in 2017 — but that sorta ruins the surprise element of it, doesn’t it? Plus, I personally like the Beavers just a little bit more, especially on defense. Linebackers Bright Ugwoegbu, Andrzej Hughes-Murray and Titus Failauga combine to form one of the more underrated units in the Pac-12.

Pittsburgh Panthers

Much like the SEC East, projecting the ACC Coastal is often an exercise in futility. Four different teams have won the division in the last four seasons — though never Pitt. There are popular choices pegged for the right to meet the winner of college football’s toughest division: first-timer Miami seems like the most en vogue, though defending Coastal champ Virginia Tech is getting some love.

A veteran Georgia Tech squad is probably the third-most discussed contender out of the wide-open Coastal. That leaves Pat Narduzzi’s Pitt Panthers looming in the background.

For indication of just how slept-on this Pitt team is, consider South Point Las Vegas gives the Panthers a staggering 19 points in their Week 2 matchup with Penn State. Not exactly a strong endorsement of Pitt’s prowess.

However, new coordinator Shawn Watson inherits an offense that put up 40 points per game a season ago, with several of the key figures in that unit returning for 2017. Qadree Ollison was a breakout sensation in his 2015 freshman season, and should regain that form when he returns as primary back. Quadree Henderson also functions also an effective ball-carrier, giving Pitt a one-two combination on the ground that should pick up the load left behind by James Conner.

Max Browne’s performance at quarterback is the biggest X-factor. He struggled in his three starts for USC, but the former 5-star prospect has the tools to be the latest transfer to settle in nicely upon arrival at Pitt (Tom Savage and Nate Peterman were solid after making similar transitions). Tre Tipton’s injury depletes the wide-receiving corps some, but The Open Man’s preview has touted the lofty potential of Jester Weah.

TCU Horned Frogs

Gary Patterson-coached teams thrive on playing the underdog role. Throughout his career, the Horned Frogs have defied expectations repeatedly — particularly coming off seasons when they fell short of standards.

Last season’s 6-7 finish was decidedly disappointing, but the return of a Big 12-most 19 starters has TCU poised to bounce back. That might seem self-explanatory — give Gary Patterson a veteran lineup and anticipate wins — but the general punditry has TCU slated firmly for the middle road in the Big 12.

Patterson returns the most starters of any Big 12 team with 17, including 10 on offense. A diverse stable of rushers, headed up by running back Kyle Hicks and quarterback Kenny Hill, should restore some of the pop to the Horned Frog offense. Much is contingent on the progression of Hill as a passer — and of his receivers as pass-catchers. TCU led the nation in dropped passes a season ago.

Resolving that issue alone could fundamentally change the outcome for a team that lost four games last season by one possession — including three by three points each.

Linebacker Travin Howard is back anchoring a veteran defense that finished 2016 respectably enough (No. 64 nationally in points allowed) despite falling on the negative side of both time of possession and turnover margin.

Tulane Green Wave

Longtime readers of mine — I swear, there are a few out there! — know all about my championing of Willie Fritz. I covered FCS when Fritz was at Sam Houston State, and he immediately transferred the Southland Conference also-ran into a Playoff mainstay and national championship contender.

Fritz later led Georgia Southern in its transition to FBS, winning 17 games in two seasons with the Eagles. It was seemingly just a matter of time before Tulane began realizing its potential under Fritz, and Year 2 could bring a breakthrough.

Fritz’s SHSU and Georgia Southern teams were both noteworthy for their potent offenses, albeit in somewhat different fashions. Both relied primarily on the rushing attack via an option approach, though the Sam Houston State offense featured much more passing. Tulane’s look in Fritz’s first season was more comparable to Sam Houston State than Georgia Southern, with quarterback Glen Cuiellette attempting 100 more passes than both of GSU’s 2015 quarterbacks.

JUCO transfer Jonathan Banks took the lead ahead of Cuiellette for the starting job in the spring. Banks could be the catalyst that ignites the Green Wave offense.

The defense must replace two All-AAC performers in Tanzel Smart and Nico Marley, but the rest of the starting defense remains in tact.

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