As we enter the dog days of summer, there will be countless words written for upcoming college football season previews. Within them, media folks will give their best guesses for the underrated, dark horse teams in each conference. It's the offseason, after all, and everyone's 0-0. If you're going to call your shot, now's the time to do it.
But how many of those trendy dark horses end up being overvalued by the time the season starts? What about that next group of teams: the ones that are truly undervalued? These are the teams given long odds by bookmakers and overlooked by the rest of the college football world.
College football is nothing without unpredictability, and undervalued teams are almost always the source. With that in mind, I went through each Power Five conference to find the undervalued teams for the upcoming season. This doesn't mean the following teams are going to win their respective conferences, but they have enough pieces returning that warrants them a second look.
Championship odds below are provided via William Hill Sportsbook.
Odds to win ACC Championship: +3000
Why it's undervalued: Chalk it up to the mush that is the ACC Coastal race. Still, there's trendy pick out of that division every year and it's never been Pitt since coach Pat Narduzzi arrived five years ago. The Panthers have perpetually been picked by ACC media in the preseason to finish somewhere in the middle of the pack. Lower expectations don't typically yield disappointments, but not once in the past five years has Pitt finished below their preseason slotting; in fact, Pitt won the Coastal just two seasons ago after being picked fifth. With Miami, North Carolina and perhaps even Virginia Tech the likely preseason go-to choices for the Coastal crown, Pitt once again will probably find itself fourth-ish when this year's polling is released.
Reason for optimism: The Panthers should once again field one of the ACC's best defenses after finishing at or near the top of every major category in 2019. Defensive tackle Jaylen Twyman is coming off a season in which he had 12 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks, and he's just one piece of a deep and ultra-talented defensive line that's returning about 30 sacks of production from a year ago. There's experience everywhere, at all three levels.
Question mark: The defense will keep Pitt in games, but the offense has to produce. The Panthers haven't finished higher than 12th in the ACC in points per game since 2017. The team's best playmaker, Maurice Ffrench, is gone, too. Pitt's probably not going to win a bunch of shootouts, but if an offense that returns a lot of pieces can improve even slightly, it raises the ceiling of this team.
Schedule: Other than 2017 when the Panthers finished 5-7, you can generally rely on Narduzzi to produce winning seasons, with 8-5 being the program's ceiling. A cursory glance at the schedule, which is middle-of-the-road in terms of difficulty, and seven wins with a chance for eight seems reasonable. But there's also the "Pitt factor." The Panthers knocked off No. 2 Clemson and No. 2 Miami in 2016 and 2017, respectively, along with UCF in 2020 while striking fear in Notre Dame and Penn State in the past two seasons. The point being: Pitt is usually good to unexpectedly shake up the national landscape. This year's possibility? Oct. 17 vs. Notre Dame.
Big Ten: Purdue
Odds to win Big Ten Championship: +5000
Why it's undervalued: The Big Ten West was deep in 2019 with Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa all winning 10 games. The Gophers and Badgers are likely favorites to win the division this year. Purdue, on the other hand, has enjoyed two winning seasons since Joe Tiller retired and the Boilermakers were devastated by injuries last season. Among the sidelined were wide receiver Rondale Moore as well as quarterbacks Elijah Sindelar and Jack Plummer, while the blown lead to Nevada in Week 1 helped set the tone for a disappointing year. Still, all things considered, that team wasn't far from bowl eligibility. Jeff Brohm coached his tail off, and while I wouldn't peg the Boilermakers for a West title, a bounceback season seems in order.
Reason for optimism: Getting Moore back is huge. He was the best player on the field against Ohio State in 2018. Without him, you've lost a major matchup for which defenses no longer have to account. Overall, Purdue gets a lot of younger talent that had to step into bigger roles last season. Sophomore receiver David Bell is one of them, tallying six 100-yard receiving games in 2019 and now serving as a nice complement for Moore.
Question mark: The defense needs shoring up after finishing near the bottom of the Big Ten in most major categories. Bob Diaco joins the program as the defensive coordinator, but how will the shortened offseason affect growth on that side of the ball? The Boilermakers could be one of those teams affected more by the lack of practice time in the spring.
Schedule: For not catching Ohio State or Penn State, it's harder than you'd expect. The Boilermakers are likely dogs for every game in September (at Nebraska., vs. Memphis, vs. Air Force, at Boston College). The good news is that Purdue gets Wisconsin and Iowa at home. The bad news is they get them in back-to-back weeks in a three-week stretch late in the season that also includes a road game at Minnesota. It's not an impossible schedule, but getting back to bowl eligibility is going to be an uphill battle. My guess is Purdue will be one of those teams that's a little better than its record indicates.
Big 12: Baylor
Odds to win Big 12 Championship: +2500
Why it's undervalued: Because Oklahoma State (+600) and Iowa State (+1500) are the Big 12 dark horse darlings. That doesn't leave a lot of room for the Bears, even though they're coming off a Big 12 Championship Game appearance in which they nearly defeated Oklahoma for the second time in the 2019 season. Because Baylor lived a charmed life a year ago -- it won five games decided by eight points or less -- there's understandable skepticism that it would be able to repeat the same type of success this time around if it plays in another handful of coin-flip games. Still, there's enough returning on offense to not completely overlook this team.
Reason for optimism: It starts at quarterback. Charlie Brewer may not be the flashiest signal-caller in the Big 12, but he's hardly a game manager. This is a guy who's had a nice career with 69 total touchdowns. Only Texas' Sam Ehlinger, another senior and longtime starter, has more among Big 12 quarterbacks. He's been the foundation for this program's rebuild. And while leading wideout Denzel Mims is gone, there's plenty of production coming back at wide receiver and running back (John Lovett).
Question mark: Don't regurgitate the narrative that Big 12 teams don't play defense. Baylor fielded a legitimate top-20 unit last year by practically every metric. The downside is that experienced group is largely gone, with the Bears returning only a couple of starters, though leading tackler Terrel Bernard is among them. How will this year's defense look with fresh faces, a new coaching staff and an offseason cut short by COVID-19? Offense wins in the Big 12 and the Bears should be fine on that side of the ball, but this team was built from Matt Rhule's defensive cloth.
Schedule: It's winnable, but the road slate is tough with games at Oklahoma, Texas and Iowa State. On paper, those are three of the Big 12's top four teams. The other way to look at that is Baylor's most winnable games are generally at home. If the Bears can swipe one or two games on the road as a dog, they'll be back in the thick of the Big 12 title game race.
Odds to win Pac-12 Championship: +1800
Why it's undervalued: Of all the teams listed in this piece, Cal has the best case as an actual dark horse in its conference title race. To that point, it's fair to wonder if the Bears will be a touch overvalued as we get closer to the season. But Oregon and Washington suck up so much oxygen in the title race that Cal is still a bit of an afterthought. This is still a team that won eight games a year ago while missing starting quarterback Chase Garbers for almost half of them. Coach Justin Wilcox has raised the floor of this team in each of his three years, and has done arguably the best program-building job out west.
Reason for optimism: Experience. Cal brings back a lot, with the Bears projected to return 18 starters back from last year's team. While there were some growing pains along the way, Cal took a nosedive in the middle of the season when 1) Garbers got hurt and 2) when it played the toughest stretch of the season. When Garbers came back and the schedule eased up, the Bears won four of their last five games. The defense played well, overall, despite being put in a tough spot and this front seven may be the conference's next-best group outside of Oregon.
Question mark: You could talk about losing linebacker Evan Weaver, the nation's leading tackler a year ago by a country mile who was the heart and soul of the Bears' defense. That's a big void, without a doubt, but the Bears also lose starting safeties Ashtyn Davis and Jaylinn Hawkins. Not only did they lead the team in interceptions but were well-balanced defenders and big-time tacklers. While Cal doesn't lose many pieces, the quality of those pieces cannot be overstated.
Schedule: Cal is going to get its shots, that's for sure. Oregon and Washington are at home, as is a big nonconference game against TCU. However, the cross-division schedule doesn't give many freebies with a game against Utah and road trips to USC and Arizona State. That's easily every team in the top half of the conference.
Odds to win SEC Championship: +10000
Why it's undervalued: The SEC East has been the Florida-Georgia show as of late. The Bulldogs and Gators have won the last five divisional titles, all while Tennessee has either fallen short or been in rebuild mode. With Florida and Georgia being the favorites out of the East in 2020, don't overlook Tennessee as a longshot. Whereas Kentucky has overachieved in the past two seasons -- a credit to coach Mark Stoops -- Tennessee is still looking for its breakout.
Reason for optimism: The talent Coach Jeremy Pruitt has stockpiled is impressive. The Vols have a legit offensive line with a nice mix of proven veterans and young but promising tackles (Wanya Morris and Darnell Wright were SEC All-Freshman selections). The quarterback room is led by Jarrett Guarantano who, despite his ups and downs, has been good enough but there's more upside behind him with blue-chip freshman Harrison Bailey. If there's a Year 3 jump, it's in part because of the guys Pruitt has recruited.
Question mark: Who's going to be the breakout star? Top receivers Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway are gone so there's a lot of room for a freshman or sophomore to fill the void -- and the Vols have a bevy of talent waiting in the wings. Also, can sophomore running back Eric Gray take the next step after a strong finish to last season? There are a lot of possibilities for this offense.
Schedule: It's hard -- the early-season trip to Oklahoma sets the tone -- but there are opportunities for the Vols to be a CHAOS TEAM in SEC play. Florida, Missouri, Kentucky and Alabama all come to Knoxville. If Pruitt improves upon last year's seven-win regular season with Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Oklahoma on the schedule -- all four could be vying for playoff spots at the end of the season -- that will say a lot about the direction of the program.