Friday Five: Ranking Power Five dark horses to win their conferences in 2016


Every Friday, the Friday Five will rank something in the world of college football -- anything and everything from the logical to the illogical. This week, we look at five Power Five teams that should be considered dark horse candidates to win their conference.

It happens rather often in the world of college football. While the same schools typically compete for a national title, there's usually one team that comes out of nowhere to either win its conference title, or come awfully close.

I don't think many people were pegging either Iowa or North Carolina to be playing in their respective conference title games last year, yet there they were, within shouting distance of a College Football Playoff berth.

For this week's Friday Five, I've decided to do a bit of digging to figure out which teams we may be overlooking now that could surprise us come November. Now, I'm not looking for the type of dark horse that's a bad team. For the most part, the five programs I chose are good to strong teams.

It's just, as good as they might be, it doesn't mean anybody is expecting them to compete for a conference title this season.

I've chosen one team from each of the Power Five conferences, and I want to make it clear that the order they're ranked in is not "least likely to win their conference" to "most likely." Instead consider it a "lightest horse" to "darkest horse" order.

We'll start out west for No. 5.

5. Washington: I can't lie to you. As I looked up and down the Pac-12, searching for a dark horse, I did everything in my power to avoid Washington. The Huskies just seem to be too obvious of a choice here. In the Pac-12 media's preseason poll the Huskies actually finished ahead of Oregon, receiving eight first place votes.

So when a team is receiving so much preseason love, it's hard to consider it a true dark horse.

The problem here is that it's hard to pick anybody else. I don't see anybody else from the North capable of doing it, and when you look at the South, it feels like every team in the division has as good a chance as anybody else. The only "dark horse" option there is Colorado, and I'm sorry, I'm not picking Colorado here.

So here we are with the Huskies. I suppose if there's any thing that makes this a worthwhile choice it's that I'm more bearish on the Huskies than many of my colleagues. I certainly get the thought process behind so many people thinking this team is poised for a breakout, I just think they're jumping on the bandwagon a year too early. So I guess that makes Washington my own personal dark horse.

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Washington has a good shot at winning the Pac-12 this year. USATSI

4. Nebraska: Mike Riley's first season in Lincoln looked like something of a disaster if you're only looking in from the outside. Nebraska fired Bo Pelini because it believed 9-4 records just weren't good enough to continue dealing with his personality, and it hired Riley who came in and went 6-7.

If you look closer, however, you see things weren't as bad as they may seem.

Yes, Nebraska lost seven games, but those seven losses came by a combined total of 31 points. Their biggest loss of the season was a 10-point loss against Purdue, and while that seems horrific -- it is, there's just no sugar-coating that one -- the truth is that Nebraska was a better team than its record suggested.

Also, Nebraska plays in the Big Ten West, which is the same division Iowa dominated last season. Well, would you be surprised if Iowa takes a step back in 2016? I know I won't be, and if Iowa does take that step back, Nebraska is best-positioned to be the team taking advantage of that slide.

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Nebraska fairly unlucky in 2015. USATSI

3. Florida: I have Florida here not just because I think it can win the SEC East, but because I truly believe that if the Gators get to Atlanta, they could pull off an SEC title.

As things stand now, Tennessee is the favorite to win the SEC East. Well, Tennessee hasn't beaten Florida in 11 years, which makes me a bit hesitant to put the Vols over the Gators just yet. Also, while Florida's had a miserable finish to the 2015 season, losing its last three games to Florida State, Alabama and Michigan by a combined score of 97-24, before that, the Gators were 10-1 on the season. They were also 6-0 before losing quarterback Will Grier.

Well, even if we don't know who Florida's QB will be in 2016 -- my money is on Luke Del Rio -- Jim McElwain has had plenty of success with his QBs in his coaching career.

Then there's Florida defense, which is really good. It was good last season until the end of the year when it just gave out after having to support a team with absolutely no offense. Seriously, the loss of Will Grier completely derailed Florida's season, even if it wasn't immediately obvious.

With a strong defense, and an offense that should be much closer to the early season Gators team we saw -- if not better -- I believe the Gators have a very good chance of getting to Atlanta, and once they get there, it's just one game.

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The Gators could be chomping their way to an SEC title in 2016. USATSI

2. Pitt: If you're looking for a dark horse in the ACC, you have to look in the Coastal. No offense to Louisville or anything, but in the Atlantic it's Clemson, Florida State or bust. Things aren't as crystal clear in the Coastal, where North Carolina put together a dark horse season last year.

The reasons I'm going with Pitt are rather simple. I've long been a fan of Pat Narduzzi since his days putting together fantastic defenses at Michigan State, and I know that in his second year at the helm of the Panthers, this defense is going to take a significant step forward. That's going to keep Pitt in every game.

On offense, the Panthers have Nathan Peterman, who is a senior in 2016, and is coming off a junior season in which he played rather well, even if he didn't get much attention. Qadree Ollison did a fantastic job of stepping in for James Conner last year, and he's back as well. If the Panthers can find somebody to replace Tyler Boyd in the passing game, this is a team that could easily win the Coastal.

Then, you know, it just has to beat Clemson or Florida State, but nobody said it's easy.

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The Panthers are primed to surprise some people in 2016. USATSI

1. Texas: The Longhorns have been flying so far below the radar this offseason. Yes, as the 2016 season edges closer, Charlie Strong will definitely enter on the hot seat. But, outside of Texas, how often have you heard people discuss Strong's status lately?

When it comes to the Big 12 this offseason, the headlines have been dominated by assault allegations at Baylor, and now Big 12 expansion.

All the while, Texas is poised to surprise a lot of people.

The Longhorns were picked to finish fifth in the conference this season, but I believe they're being a little overlooked. Remember a few years ago when TCU went from being strong defensive team to a squad that was suddenly posting 40+ points per game? Well, I'm not going to say the Horns will be putting up 40 every week, but with a shift in offensive philosophy, I would not be surprised to see the offense take a major step forward.

Combine that with what's always a strong defense, and a lot of returning experience, and this is a team that will be better in 2016. Then there's the cherry on top.

Texas gets both Baylor and TCU in Austin, and it's game against Oklahoma, as always, is at a neutral site.

It might seem crazy now, but don't say I didn't try to warn you if it happens.

CBS Sports Writer

Tom Fornelli has been a college football writer at CBS Sports since 2010. During his time at CBS, Tom has proven time and again that he hates your favorite team and thinks your rival is a paragon of football... Full Bio

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