We are officially under three weeks until the start of the college football season. Everyone has started to pick their conference champions, but I wanted to take a different approach to some of the teams. We are taking a look at the most intriguing team in each conference – these are the teams likely to make a splash and finish near the top of the conference. None of these teams have the expectation of winning their conference, nor do I believe any of them will. Each of these teams has the capability to win at least 10 games in the regular season and be an exciting team.
ACC: NC State – NC State has been a consistent bowl team under Dave Doeren and should continue to be one once again. Devin Leary departs NC State for Kentucky, but a familiar ACC face is looking to lead the Wolfpack. Brennan Armstrong transfers in from Virginia after a disappointing 2022 campaign. Armstrong was being considered for every major quarterback award in 2021, but then 2022 happened, where he threw more interceptions than touchdowns. Armstrong is hoping a change in scenery can help him rediscover the 2021 magic. NC State’s top two receivers from 2022 departed the program, so Doeren looked into the portal for help. He found Dacari Collins from Clemson, who should be an immediate impact player. NC State’s three biggest games this season are against Notre Dame, Clemson, and North Carolina. The Wolfpack have the luxury of having all three games at home, increasing the likelihood of an upset. Double-digit wins are certainly obtainable for NC State this season.
Big Ten: Wisconsin – What if Wisconsin actually throws the ball around this year? Luke Fickell is making changes to the team, and they may not be the traditional ground-and-pound team we are used to seeing. Fickell brought Phil Longo in as his offensive coordinator. Longo most recently was the offensive coordinator at North Carolina, where he helped Drake Maye and Sam Howell succeed. Now he will have Tanner Mordecai to work with. Mordecai transferred in from SMU after tossing 72 touchdowns over the past two seasons. Braelon Allen returns as one of the best running backs in a loaded conference. The offense should be vastly improved with the modernized style and playmakers on the team. The defense returns all three linebackers along with most of the defensive line. The secondary is unproven, but luckily the schedule does not have many high-powered passing attacks other than Ohio State. A Halloween weekend game against Ohio State could be full of intrigue.
Big 12: Kansas – How many people remember Kansas started the season 5-0? Kansas took TCU to the wire even after Jalon Daniels was injured in the first half. Daniels returned for the final two games of the regular season but was not back to full form until the bowl game. Daniels threw for over 500 yards and five touchdowns against Arkansas in a 55-53 loss in triple overtime. The Jayhawks return nearly every playmaker on the offensive side of the ball and even add a few additional weapons. The offensive line was strong and should improve with the additions of Logan Brown (Wisconsin) and Spencer Lovell (Cal). Lance Leipold knows the defense must improve, as the Jayhawks ranked 100th or worse in most major categories. A combination of transfers and returning contributors should help Kansas improve to a respectable level. The media picked Kansas to finish 9th in the conference, and they should surpass those expectations this season.
Pac-12: UCLA – What if I told you a true freshman could lead UCLA to a potential appearance in the Pac-12 Championship? Dante Moore could be that guy. Moore was a five-star recruit in the class of 2023. Moore may not be the guy to start the season, but Chip Kelly will quickly realize he is the most talented quarterback on the roster. The Bruins lost Zach Charbonnet but were able to find a valuable replacement in the transfer portal. Carson Steele joins UCLA after transferring from Ball State. Steele was the MAC’s leading rusher and should find success in the Pac-12. Kelly knows his team has to improve on the defensive side of the ball, so he brought in a new defensive coordinator. D’Anton Lynn was the safeties coach for the Baltimore Ravens for the past two seasons. Lynn is hoping to implement a system that confuses opposing quarterbacks. The defense will take time to learn the system, but seeing incremental improvements could help vault UCLA to double-digit wins. The schedule is also manageable as the Bruins avoid both Oregon and Washington.
SEC: Ole Miss – Ole Miss is going to go as far as Quinshon Judkins will take them this year. He registered over 1,500 yards and 16 touchdowns as a freshman for the Rebels. The offense will run through Judkins as the Rebels are replacing both of their leading receivers. The main question is who will be the one taking snaps this season. Lane Kiffin is having a quarterback battle between incumbent starter Jaxson Dart and Oklahoma State transfer Spencer Sanders. Sanders started more than 40 games for the Cowboys and would provide a reliable option for Ole Miss. Dart has a higher ceiling and can take the Rebels to a new level, but if he cannot find consistency, then Sanders is the better option. The biggest concern for Ole Miss is the schedule. A trip to Tulane is set up for an upset after the Green Wave defeated USC in the Cotton Bowl. Ole Miss will also visit Alabama and Georgia. LSU, Arkansas, and Texas A&M will make trips to Oxford. Ole Miss can manage this schedule, but they could have a great season and still have two losses.