College Football’s Dark Horse Contenders
College football is a month away and I know everyone is excited. We get so much content throughout the off-season about who the top teams are with pre-season rankings and Heisman list contenders, but what about the dark horses? Here is my list of teams from each power five conference you need to watch out for.
ACC: NC State
The Wolf Pack had a 9-3 season in 2021 and just missed out on a chance to play in the ACC Championship game. This is a veteran led team that brings back there starting quarterback in Devin Leary. They also rank top 5 in defensive returning production. With an ACC conference that is not particularly stacked from top to bottom, NC State could make a run at conference title and even a playoff spot. They play Clemson on September 30 in a big early season match up that could determine how the season goes for these two squads.
Big Ten: Penn State
It seems like every year Penn State has high expectations, but this is not the case for most in the college football world after a 7-6 season last year. The Nittany Lions are returning a lot of defensive production from last season, which they are going to need if they want to knock off that Ohio State offense. They also return three-year starter Sean Clifford. Clifford struggled in the later part of last season, but many hope that his veteran leadership gives the Nittany Lions an edge.
Big 12: Kansas State
The Wildcats are flying under the radar with teams like Oklahoma, Texas, and Baylor being the favorites to win the conference. They return a veteran heavy squad that went 8-5 last season and are looking to continue building in the right direction. They also return star running back Deuce Vaughn. Keep an eye on him as you're going to hear his name a lot during the season as has become an electric do it all back for the Wildcats. Kansas State also adds a sneaky good quarterback from the transfer portal in Adrian Martinez. Many had high hopes he would be a star a Nebraska, but the team lacked as a whole. While Martinez has had his struggles, he has enough talent to help this team make a run.
Pac 12: UCLA
The Bruins started last season with a big win against the LSU Tigers an finished with a 8-4 record. The Bruins aren’t getting much attention due to USC and Utah being named as the favorites to win the conference. UCLA has been constantly improving under head coach, Chip Kelly, and saw their best record under him last season. The bruins are returning their star quarterback and leader in Dorian Thompson-Robinson. He lead the way for that dynamic offense last year and brings tons of experience as he looks to start his fourth straight season for the team. Star running back Zach Charbonnet also returns and was a huge part of their run game. Look for this team to be at the top in terms of contention for the Pac 12.
You could have really picked a few teams from this conference to be a surprise contender, but I think Kentucky’s path gives them a more realistic shot. They don’t have to face SEC west giants like Alabama or Texas A&M, and the east isn’t as loaded with only Georgia being the top contender. The Wildcats will play the Dawgs at home this season, so that will give them an advantage. They return a veteran heavy defense which was the staple of the team reaching nine wins a season ago. They also return star quarterback Will Levis. Levis was a phenomenal dual threat weapon for this squad last year and he was even picked as a top Heisman contender in a lot of pre-season polls this year. If this Kentucky team can beat Georgia at home this season, look for them to be in playoff contention talks.