Scanning the college football rankings from last season, there’s something that draws more glares than Lane Kiffin at a Tennessee sports bar.
... No. 13 Florida, No. 14 LSU, No. 15 Western Michigan, No. 16 Virginia Tech… wait, Western Michigan?
Every year college football produces some small-school football program which wins its conference and nearly completes an undefeated season.
Correctly identifying which teams have the best chances of becoming this season’s small-conference juggernaut can help bettors immensely during the college football campaign.
In the last five years, teams that only hardcore college football fans would follow about have gained national attention because of near-perfect seasons and shocking results in bowl games against serious competition.
Here’s a look at four teams we think have a good shot of becoming this season’s small conference giant.
South Florida Bulls
2016 record: 11-2 SU, 8-5 ATS
This was the best team in the AAC a year ago despite placing behind Temple in the conference standings. The Bulls return 16 starters including their leading tackler on defense (LB Auggie Sanchez), and star quarterback Quinton Flowers, who threw and ran for a combined 4,337 yards and 42 touchdowns in 2016.
South Florida's schedule isn’t too daunting, particularly its non-conference opponents, but the AAC will be competitive. The biggest test will come at home against Temple on September 21.
Charlie Strong didn’t waste much time taking this head coaching job after Texas cut him loose. Strong’s expertise is on the defensive side of the ball, which is where the Bulls need the most help. South Florida allowed 286 passing yards and 25 first downs per game (fourth highest in the nation).
The team finished inside the Top 20 in both the AP and Coaches Poll last year and many preseason forecasts place USF in similar position for 2017.
The Bulls are 20-point favorites against San Jose State on the road Week 1.
Colorado State Rams
2016 record: 7-6 SU, 10-3 ATS
The Rams’ strong second half in 2016 was capped with a 63-31 victory over 10-win San Diego State as 12-point underdogs. It’s a clear sign of improvement when a team covers 10 out of 13 games.
Nick Stevens proved to be an effective and accurate quarterback in the season’s final six games, when he compiled 17 TD passes against just three INTs. He’ll be throwing often once again to Mountain West Conference All-Star receiver Michael Gallup. The senior wideout found the end zone 14 times and racked up 1,272 receiving yards last fall.
There's a lot of competition in the Mountain West, particularly in the Mountain Division where the Rams will face challenges against Boise State, Air Force and Wyoming. Still, this is a deep and talented group that should win its conference and maybe even keep things respectable when it plays Alabama on September 16.
The Rams open the season as 3.5-point favorites against the visiting Oregon State Beavers.
Brigham Young Cougars
2016 record: 9-4 SU, 9-4 ATS
OK, BYU doesn’t technically belong to a small conference – or any conference for that matter – but it fits the small program mold. It’s not like we’re talking about the Fighting Irish here.
The Cougars beat Mississippi State, Michigan State and Arizona, and lost by a combined seven points to West Virginia, UCLA and Utah a season ago. Their schedule this year isn’t as loaded especially after the first four games.
Brigham Young supporters are happy to see Taysom Hill hit the road and should be excited about the quarterback Tanner Magnum leading the offense. The Cougars need to find a new bell cow back, but with a strong offensive line that shouldn’t be too much trouble.
Appalachian State Mountaineers
2016 record: 10-3 SU, 7-6 ATS
The Mountaineers are 21-5 straight up over the last two seasons and return a fourth-year starter at QB in Taylor Lamb. They also own a relatively easy schedule outside of their Week 1 matchup against Georgia and should run away with the Sun Belt crown.
Appalachian State’s backbone is a solid defense and a dynamic running attack. The offensive line returns three starters and running back Jalin Moore should be able to improve on the 1,402 yards he rushed for in 2016 now that he’s the clear No. 1 back.
The biggest concern for the Mountaineers is Lamb’s propensity to throw too many picks and the offense failing to convert on third down. If the team improves in both of these areas, it should be playing in a marquee bowl game this winter.