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Unconventional Wisdom: Spotting College Football's Dark Horse Teams

In College Football, preseason polls are largely filled with the previous season’s best finishers. But each year dark horse teams emerge from well back in the pack to compete for a National Championship or win their conference. How can anyone predict where these teams will come from?

Using past examples, there are generally some common factors for dark horse teams.

Look for:

1. A team that lost close games

2. A team with an established QB or a great one that lost time or consistency due to injuries

3. A team with a good returning defense

4. A team with a softer non-conference schedule

Here are a few examples:

1. 1988 West Virginia: The Mountaineers finished the 1987 season with a 6-6 record--losing 5 games by a combined 15 points to Pitt, Maryland and Top 20 teams #18 Penn State, #4 Syracuse and #11 Oklahoma State. Behind returning starting QB Major Harris they finished 11-0 before falling to #1 Notre Dame in The Fiesta Bowl.

2. 2005 Penn State: The 2004 Nittany Lions finished 4-7 with a bunch of close losses to ranked teams Purdue, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Ohio State. An exceptional 2004 defense returned in 2005. Veteran QB Michael Robinson led an improved offense helping the team finish 11-1 with a #3 Final ranking.

3. 2012 Ohio State: After a 6-7 season led by an interim Head Coach, returning starting quarterback Braxton Miller found his stride in new head coach Urban Meyer’s system. The team was loaded with talent on both sides of the ball and finished 12-0.

4. 2014 TCU: TCU finished 2014 12-1 and #3 in the country after 2013’s 4-8 finish. QB Trevone Boykin had played a lot the previous two seasons, but he reached a new level. TCU’s epic run included winning 6 of 7 revenge games by outscoring those opponents by an average of 23 points.

5. 2016 Washington: The Huskies were a popular dark horse pick in 2016, because 5 of their 6 2015 losses were winnable games and they had a talented quarterback returning. Although they started 2016 ranked #14, few saw them as a College Football Playoff team.

So with history as our guide, who are potential 2017 dark horses? It is only March, and a lot can happen between now and the season, but here are some possible surprise teams.

1. LSU (8-4 in 2016): They could be the 2017 version of 2016 Washington. They return their quarterback, had one of the SEC’s better defenses and all 4 losses were by 10 points or less to good teams (Wisconsin, Alabama, Auburn and Florida). If the offense improves they could be the surprise of the SEC.

2. Northwestern (7-6 in 2016): They return their quarterback and the Big 10’s leading rusher. Last year they lost 3 games by 4 points or less. While they do play Penn State in Evanston, there is no Ohio State or Michigan. If they can split (or sweep) games at Wisconsin and at Nebraska they could capture the Big Ten West.

3. UCLA (4-8 in 2016): Last year UCLA lost starting Quarterback Josh Rosen and the Bruins suffered some tough losses including 6 by 10 points or less. On defense they yielded just 4.86 yards per play (15th in the country) and ranked 12th nationally in overall defensive efficiency. If Josh Rosen and an improved offense play to their potential this could be the surprise team of the Pac 12 setting up a late November showdown vs USC.

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