This week’s Friday Five took a look at. But what about 2017? Will there be a team to rise from nowhere and make a run, either at the conference or playoff level?
College football is a sport that heavily favors, well, the favorites. There are reasons for that. There’s no salary cap, no draft that gives the worst teams the opportunity to select best players, and no overall vision of equality. Even at the Power Five level, there’s noticeable separation. The best programs generally get the best athletes and have the most extensive resources.
About the only thing that binds two teams together is the scholarship limit. And with the way college football’s regular season and postseason are set up, the opportunities for Cinderellas to stand out are usually limited. Still, every once and a while, a team makes an improbable run and caps it off with a memorable win. Boise State did it as famously as any team in 2006-07.
With that in mind, here are five teams who could become college football’s Cinderella next season. This doesn’t mean the following teams will compete for, let alone win, a national championship. But it does mean they could be in for a surprise season that makes them a team du jour down the stretch.
Who better to take on the title of college football’s Cinderella than the team who arguably best personifies it? At the very least, BYU is on the short list for well-known “giant killers.” In the three years of the College Football Playoff, no team outside the Power Five has cracked the top four, but the Cougars have a chance with their schedule.
That, by the way, is heavily front-loaded. On Sept. 2, BYU plays LSU at a neutral-site game in Houston. The following week, it gets a home game against nemesis Utah. After that, it’s another home game vs. Wisconsin. October doesn’t let up much with back-to-back games against Boise State and at Mississippi State.
That’s a tough stretch, but the Cougars are talented enough to win many of those games. Furthermore, they don’t lose many starters off of last year’s team, though the quality of the losses cannot be overlooked. Leading rusher Jamaal Williams is gone as is top pass rusher Sae Tautu. Finding another bell cow back and rebuilding the defensive front will be top offseason priorities. Do that, and perhaps BYU can notch some impressive, and perhaps unexpected, early wins.
There are two layers to Kansas State that make the Wildcats the perfect Cinderella. The first is that this program continues to be Group of Five by trade and Power Five by title. You won’t find the Snydercats anywhere near the top of the recruiting rankings, yet they keep winning games -- about eight per year since coach Bill Snyder came out of retirement in 2009 -- and putting players into the NFL (the last time Kansas State was shut out of the draft was 1993).
The second layer is Snyder himself. At 77, he remains college football’s truest and most beloved wizard. When he took over the in 1989, Kansas State had the most losses by any Division I-A (now Football Bowl Subdivision) program and was in the midst of a 26-game losing streak. He not only turned K-State into a respectable program, he made them into a contender for Big 8/Big 12 titles. Now in his 26th season, Snyder could make 2017 a year to remember. There were already mounting murmurs about his inevitable second, final retirement, but those have only grown in the wake of his throat cancer diagnosis.
No one is sure what lies ahead for Snyder after the upcoming season, but a 10-win season and/or Big 12 championship -- maybe with a playoff appearance to boot? -- would be a hell of a story ... and a storybook ending if Snyder did opt to step away from the game. It’s not a stretch, either. The Wildcats have a young nucleus of players returning and the Big 12 title race is expected to be wide open.
The Bulldogs were a fun Cinderella team in 2014 when quarterback Dak Prescott led them to a brief No. 1 ranking and eventually a New Year’s Six game. With all the talk in the SEC of Alabama this and even Auburn that, Mississippi State is one of the many teams being given the back-burner treatment.
However, Mississippi State has something many other unheralded SEC teams do not: a quarterback. And his name is Nick Fitzgerald. There was a lot of inconsistency in his game as a first-year starter in 2016 but also a lot of promise. My gut feeling is MSU is still a year away from a more realistic run out of the West. However, with home games against LSU and Alabama, Dan Mullen’s team might get a big win to show the signs are there.
We still need a Group of Five team to round out this list and the American Athletic Conference has become a hotbed for underdogs. South Florida is already receiving buzz as a playoff hopeful and with good reason. This is a seasoned team with one of the better quarterbacks few people are talking about in Quinton Flowers. The schedule is more than doable with the toughest games on paper -- vs. Temple, Houston, Tulsa and Illinois, the lone Power Five opponent -- all at home. Plus, a big season would be a nice redemption story for first-year coach Charlie Strong after he was fired at Texas.
Cuse is placed in an awful division to make a Cinderella run. Clemson and Florida State every year? Are you serious? Still, coach Dino Babers showed in his first year that there was some potential left in this Northeastern program. The future is bright even after a 4-8 season. The two-deep was littered with freshmen and sophomores, and now they all have a year in Babers’ system under their belt. Quarterback Eric Dungey has some serious guts about him as well.
Beating Virginia Tech at home confirmed an ever-growing belief about the Orange under Babers: They were going to knock off somebody they shouldn’t. If Dungey can stay healthy, and if the defense can be even moderately better after finishing dead last in the conference in points per game allowed, this team is going to be a pain in the side for the rest of the ACC.