Defining a “sleeper team” for the College Football Playoff isn’t easy. The definition of a “sleeper team” can vary among fanbases, and each preseason prediction or ranking has different views on the upcoming season. While certain teams on this list may not be sleepers to everyone, Athlon Sports has tried to identify 12 teams who could make a surprising run to the College Football Playoff. The usual suspects – Alabama, Clemson, Florida State, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Notre Dame – will be in the mix for a spot in the top four. However, the 12 teams mentioned below are ones who could steal the headlines throughout the year in the midweek rankings, pull an upset or two that impacts the top four or rates in December as a potential surprise in the final results.
College Football's Playoff Sleepers for 2016
Florida was the SEC’s biggest surprise last season by winning the East Division in Jim McElwain’s first year. Could the Bulldogs get a similar bump in 2016? While Mark Richt won a lot of games in Athens, a fresh start and a new coaching staff isn’t necessarily a bad thing for this program. Kirby Smart has a lot to prove in his first year as the head coach, but he hired a standout staff and managed to keep five-star freshman quarterback Jacob Eason in the fold. Eason’s development, the health of running back Nick Chubb and the improvement of the offensive line under Sam Pittman are three areas to watch on offense this season. The defense returns only five starters and features a revamped front seven. However, there’s no shortage of talent waiting to emerge. The schedule is also in Georgia’s favor. Tennessee has to visit Athens, and the Bulldogs have a bye before playing Florida in Jacksonville.
Related: Athlon Sports Top 25 for 2016
Tom Herman set the bar high in his first season, guiding the Cougars to a 13-1 finish and a victory over Florida State in the Peach Bowl. However, an even better season could be in store for Houston in 2016. The Cougars return 11 starters, including dynamic quarterback Greg Ward and transfers Duke Catalon (RB) and Ra’Shaad Samples (WR) add firepower at the skill positions. The defense allowed only 20.7 points a game in 2015 and returns a strong core of talent in the front seven. A plus-21 turnover margin won’t be easy to replicate, but Houston should be favored in at least 10 of its regular season games. The only two matchups it could be an underdog? Oklahoma in the opener in Houston and the Nov. 17 showdown against Louisville. Making the playoff as a Group of 5 team isn’t easy, but the Cougars already have an advantage by starting 2016 high in the polls and there’s two huge opportunities on the schedule to build a playoff resume. Houston needs to finish the regular season 13-0 to have a shot at the playoff in 2016.
The Hawkeyes were a goal-line stand away from winning the Big Ten title and a playoff spot last season. And with 13 returning starters back for 2016, another run at the top four isn’t out of the question. Coordinator Greg Davis needs to find a few playmakers at receiver for quarterback C.J. Beathard, but the offensive line is one of the best in the Big Ten, and there’s a solid trio of backs leading the way on the ground. The defense is loaded with eight returning starters, including standout cornerback Desmond King and linebacker Josey Jewell. Another reason to like the Hawkeyes? The schedule. Iowa does not play Ohio State or Michigan State in crossover play and catches key conference matchups against Nebraska, Michigan and Wisconsin in Iowa City.
Clemson and Florida State are projected to be playoff teams in most preseason polls, but if there’s a team that could derail the Tigers or Seminoles in the ACC – it’s Bobby Petrino’s Cardinals. Louisville won six out of its last seven games last season and three of its five losses in 2015 came by seven points or less. Dynamic sophomore quarterback Lamar Jackson is one of college football’s rising stars and is due for a breakout year after a full offseason to work under Petrino. The Cardinals also return a host of proven skill players, and the offensive line should improve with three starters back. The defense has ranked among the ACC’s best in each of the last two seasons and should be strong once again with eight returning starters. Devonte Fields and Keith Kelsey could be the best linebacker duo in the nation. If Louisville wants to challenge for a playoff bid, it should know where it stacks up by Oct. 2. The Cardinals host Florida State on Sept. 17 and travel to Clemson on Oct. 1.
Larry Fedora’s fourth season in Chapel Hill resulted in a breakout year. The Tar Heels won the ACC’s Coastal Division with an 11-3 record and a perfect 8-0 mark in the regular season in conference play. The No. 15 ranking in the Associated Press poll was the program’s first finish in the top 25 since 1997. North Carolina should open 2016 as the favorite in the Coastal, but there are a few roadblocks to a repeat. The schedule is tougher this season, and the Tar Heels still need more improvement out of their defense. While there are question marks, there is reason to believe North Carolina could be a better team in 2016 than it was last year. Quarterback Mitch Trubisky is a rising star in the ACC, and running back Elijah Hood returns after rushing for 1,463 yards last season. Additionally, four starters are back on the offensive line, and the receiving corps is among the best in college football. Question marks remain about the front seven, but the secondary boasts a talented cornerback duo in M.J. Stewart and Des Lawrence. As mentioned above, there’s little doubt the schedule is tougher. North Carolina has to play Georgia in non-conference play and catches Florida State in a crossover game with the Atlantic. However, those games offer an opportunity for the Tar Heels to pick up marquee wins and play their way into the playoff conversation.
Most preseason rankings indicate the Pac-12 is on the outside of the College Football Playoff picture for 2016. However, there’s plenty of time for a playoff contender to emerge. Oregon has won at least 10 games in seven out of the last eight seasons and just missed hitting the double-digit mark in 2015 with three losses by one score. Despite the departure of coordinator Scott Frost to UCF and a new quarterback taking over, the Ducks will have a high-powered offense once again. Running back Royce Freeman headlines a deep backfield, and there’s no shortage of playmakers at receiver. Shoring up the offensive line and deciding on a quarterback – FCS transfer Dakota Prukop or Travis Jonsen – are the biggest question marks for coach Mark Helfrich. The addition of Brady Hoke as the defensive coordinator should help a unit that surrendered 37.5 points a game last year. While the Ducks have road trips to Utah, USC and Washington State in league play, Stanford and Washington have to visit Eugene.
Oklahoma is widely considered the favorite in the Big 12, but a repeat trip to the College Football Playoff could be derailed by TCU. The Horned Frogs have won 23 games over the last two seasons and will be anchored by a standout defense and a talented group of skill players for 2016. Quarterback Trevone Boykin leaves big shoes to fill, but Texas A&M transfer Kenny Hill and sophomore Foster Sawyer are talented options and should keep the offense performing at a high level. Even if TCU’s offense doesn’t match its scoring average from 2015 (42.1 ppg), the defense could carry this team to 10 wins. Seven starters are back from a unit that improved throughout 2015, while end James McFarland, cornerback Ranthony Texada, safety Kenny Iloka and linebacker Sammy Douglas are back from injury. With Oklahoma and Oklahoma State visiting Fort Worth, the Horned Frogs will have a chance to surprise in the Big 12.
USC might have more overall talent than UCLA, but coach Jim Mora’s team has a few significant advantages over their crosstown rival. The Bruins return the Pac-12's most-talented quarterback (Josh Rosen), have a better coaching situation and feature a more favorable schedule. Rosen had a standout debut as a true freshman last fall and should be even better as a sophomore in 2016. Mora is tweaking the offense to help Rosen’s development, and the Bruins’ supporting cast is anchored by sophomore running back Soso Jamabo and standout left tackle Conor McDermott. Stopping the run was a challenge for the defense last season, but there’s hope for improvement with eight starters back, and the return of Eddie Vanderdoes from injury. UCLA will have a chance to prove right away it belongs in the playoff conversation. The Bruins play at Texas A&M to start the 2016 season and also play at BYU and host Stanford in the month of September. But the schedule gets a little lighter after that stretch, with Utah and USC visiting Pasadena in the second half of the season.
Entering Chris Petersen’s third season at the helm, expectations are rising for the Huskies. After an 8-6 record in Petersen’s debut (2014), Washington finished 7-6 last season. While seven wins may not seem like much, the Huskies were considered a top 25 team in advanced metrics. It’s easy to see where Washington could saw marked improvement this fall, as 17 starters are back, including talented sophomores Jake Browning (QB) and Myles Gaskin (RB). Browning was impressive as a true freshman last season, and the return of big-play receiver John Ross from a knee injury should bolster the passing attack. Despite losing a couple of key players from the 2014 unit, Washington’s defense led the Pac-12 in fewest points allowed (18.8 ppg). This unit could be even better in 2016, anchored by a secondary that features All-America candidates Sidney Jones (CB) and Budda Baker (FS). The schedule isn’t overly daunting, but the Oct. 8 trip to Oregon could play a huge role in deciding the winner of the Pac-12 North. Petersen’s rebuilding plan is on track entering year three. The Huskies are poised for a big jump in the win column – and the national polls.
A lot would have to go right for a team outside of Notre Dame or a Power 5 conference to make the College Football Playoff. However, BYU is a team to watch in 2016. The Cougars have a challenging schedule with six Power 5 opponents, including games at Michigan State, Utah and a home matchup against UCLA. New coach Kalani Sitake has personnel concerns to address on both sides of the ball this offseason, but two proven quarterbacks – Tanner Mangum and Taysom Hill – are back to lead the offense. If BYU finishes 12-0 with its 2016 schedule, it has to earn consideration for the playoff.
Nebraska’s 6-7 record in coach Mike Riley’s first season was a disappointment, but final victory tally wasn’t as bad as it seemed. The Cornhuskers had bad luck on their side with a minus-12 turnover margin, which played a huge role in the team’s six losses by eight points or less. Bad luck usually turns around into good fortune the next season, so Nebraska could pick up a couple of wins just by showing some improvement in turnover margin. But that’s not the only reason to like the Cornhuskers in 2016. The offense returns six starters, including quarterback Tommy Armstrong and one of the Big Ten’s top receiving corps. The schedule isn’t too daunting, and Nebraska hosts Oregon in a key non-conference game, with road trips to Ohio State and Iowa on tap. Reloading on both lines of scrimmage will be critical if the Cornhuskers want to challenge the Hawkeyes in the Big Ten West Division.
UCLA and USC are the preseason favorites in the Pac-12 South, but don’t overlook Kyle Whittingham’s team in 2016. The Utes are coming off their best season (10-3) since joining the Pac-12 and inked the No. 37 recruiting class by the 247Sports Composite in Feburary. That’s the program’s highest finish on the recruiting trail since 2012. It’s no secret the strength of Utah rests with its ground attack and defense. The Utes lose standout running back Devontae Booker, but senior Joe Williams is a capable replacement, and the offensive line is one of the best in the Pac-12. Both starting linebackers must be replaced, but the defensive line and secondary are among the best in the nation. Improving the offense is a must if Utah wants to challenge for the South Division title. Junior college quarterback Troy Williams and freshman Tyler Huntley will push Brandon Cox for the starting job in the fall. The Utes have to play at UCLA this season, but USC, BYU, Washington and Oregon all visit Salt Lake City.