Athlon Sports has unveiled its projected Top 25 for the 2016 college football season. The top four teams are all familiar faces when it comes to winning conferences titles and appearing in the College Football Playoff during the first two years of its existence. Perhaps more so than any other major sport, however, college football has an element of unpredictability that draws us in and makes us watch — almost rooting for chaos.
These five teams have what it takes to shock the nation, throw all preseason rankings out the window and win their respective Power 5 conference titles in 2016.
Dark Horses to Win Each Power 5 Conference in 2016
SEC — Ole Miss
This is of course barring any sanctions or penalties that may or may not be levied by the NCAA in light of recent events. The Rebels are in a good spot in the SEC West. Defending champion Alabama has once again had a mass exodus of talent and will be vulnerable early in the season. Ole Miss lost its share of talent, but returns the SEC's best quarterback in Chad Kelly along with a couple of capable receivers and backs. Defensively, they'll field one of the more seasoned cornerback duos in the country, along with one of the better pass rushers in the conference. Hugh Freeze has recruited well enough for Ole Miss to simply reload like the Alabamas of the world have been known to do.
ACC — Virginia Tech
The Hokies made the biggest head coaching splash of the offseason by hiring Justin Fuente away from Memphis. Fuente will immediately install his up-tempo, spread offense in Blacksburg. To help ease the transition, he is inheriting eight returning offensive starters — including Isaiah Ford. Ford should be among the best receivers in the nation in 2016. Defensively, it's another version of Bud Foster's deadly scheme, led by a sound and experienced defensive backfield that will be tough to gain yards against consistently. If the offense can pick up what Fuente is laying down quickly and the Hokie defense can figure out a way to muster a decent pass rush, Virginia Tech is going to be a tough out for all comers.
Pac-12 — USC
It will have been a largely drama-free offseason for a talented Trojan squad, allowing them to focus on the field instead of the sports tabloids. USC is loaded with talent on offense, returning both running back Justin Davis (902 yards, 7 TDs) and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (1,454 yar, 10 TDs). They'll join nine other returning starters on offense — including all five offensive lineman. On defense, the Trojans will feature three All-American-caliber players in linebacker Cameron Smith and cornerbacks Adoree' Jackson and Iman Marshall. Quarterback Max Brown will be the biggest question mark. If he can play well and avoid mistakes early, his confidence will grow and the uber-talented offense around him will thrive.
Big 12 — Oklahoma State
There is going to be a lot of parity in the Big 12 this season, but anytime you can return a 3,700-yard passer and a pair of receivers that combined for more than 1,800 yards and 15 scores, you are probably in good shape. The Cowboys return five lineman with starting experience, which should result in an improved rushing attack. Defensively, the Cowboys return seven starters, a group led by Vincent Taylor, who could develop into one of the elite defensive tackles in the nation.
Big Ten — Michigan State
Don't think that because Connor Cook is gone, the party is over in East Lansing. Senior Tyler O'Connor will step in under center for the Spartans, and he'll have a fierce group of skill players to distribute the ball to — in both the running and passing games. Don't be shocked if you see LJ Scott evolve into the Big Ten's top back, running behind a line led by center Brian Allen, who might just be the best pivot man in the conference behind Ohio State's Pat Elflein. Defensively, the Spartans have three of the best players in the country at each level with defensive tackle Malik McDowell, linebacker Riley Bullough and free safety Demetrious Cox. Additionally, they also have about as favorable schedule as they could hope for, playing host to Wisconsin, Northwestern, Michigan and Ohio State.