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TCU shocked the world and pushed its way from failing to earn a bowl bid in 2021 to the College Football Playoff National Championship in the span of just one season under first-year coach Sonny Dykes. Can anyone replicate that sort of feat in the 2023 season? Well, today we’re going to take a deeper look into the group of dark horse candidates who have a chance to crash the party in the final year of the four-team CFP format.
To limit our scope of “dark horse” teams, we’re excluding the 17 teams with better than 50-1 odds. That list includes Ohio State, Notre Dame and Oklahoma. In an unpredictable offseason fueled by the transfer portal being more prevalent than ever, that still leaves nearly 50 teams with an opportunity to prove the oddsmakers wrong.
When we ran this exercise last season, the results were pretty good. Penn State and Washington were both right at the edge of the College Football Playoff discussion despite long odds. Baylor and Arkansas ultimately disappointed, while the other team just might appear once again in 2023.
So let’s take a peek at teams from each Power Five conference that could shock the world and make the field as dark horse candidates. Odds provided via Caesars Sportsbook.
NC State earned a spot on this list last season for being among the national leaders in returning production. After quarterback Devin Leary went down with an injury, however, the Wolfpack lost four of their last seven games. They rank among the lowest teams in returning production entering this season, but a shrewd set of offensive decisions by coach Dave Doeren just might push NC State back into contention.
Two years ago, quarterback Brennan Armstrong led the nation with 4,449 yards and 31 touchdowns while playing for coordinator Robert Anae at Virginia. Now, the pair reunites in Raleigh with a chance to revitalize the NC State offense. Doeren’s defenses have ranked top 25 nationally each of the past two seasons, so Armstrong and the Wolfpack offense holding up their end of the bargain could push NC State into contention.
No team is going through a bigger overhaul than Wisconsin after coach Luke Fickell opted to move away from the power-run offense that has defined the program for decades. Considering Fickell was the first coach to ever lead a Group of Five program — Cincinnati — to the College Football Playoff, he just might be onto something.
Fickell identified quarterback whisperer Phil Longo as the perfect fit as offensive coordinator to lead the program through a transition. He added sixth-year quarterback transfer Tanner Mordecai from SMU, along with four strong receivers. With a great defense and standout running back Braelon Allen still on the roster, there’s a chance this roster pops much faster than expected.
The Red Raiders have not won an outright conference title since 1955 as a member of the Border Conference. They haven’t played for a conference championship since divisions were established after losing a tiebreaker to Oklahoma in 2008. But unlike those previous teams, this Texas Tech squad is led by Joey McGuire.
McGuire is a former Texas high school coach who led the Red Raiders to their best record since 2013 in his first season. More importantly to the fanbase, McGuire’s team beat Texas and Oklahoma in the same season for the first time in program history. Texas Tech has some key pieces to replace defensively, but a strong recruiting class mixed with a few targeted transfers gives the Red Raiders a chance to have a strong sophomore campaign.
Oregon State barely meets our cutoff at 50-1 odds on the dot, but the Beavers might be the most underrated team in the country. The program won 10 games for the first time since 2006 behind a stout defense coordinated by rising assistant Trent Bray and an impressive rushing performance from freshman Damien Martinez.
Despite the success, Oregon State ranked No. 105 nationally with fewer than 200 yards passing per game. Now, the trump card comes in the form of a transfer quarterback DJ Uiagalelei, who was rated the No. 1 pro-style quarterback in the country coming out of high school by the Top247 rankings. Beavers coach Jonathan Smith’s motion offense should maximize Uiagalelei’s skillset and take Oregon State to new heights.
Picking an SEC squad is especially difficult as five teams are excluded from consideration. So ultimately, we’re going way off the board and betting on Hugh Freeze to be a wild card in the SEC West with a revitalized staff and dynamic energy. The path through the SEC — which includes Alabama and Georgia — makes things more complicated, but it also presents a major opportunity.
The Tigers ranked No. 18 in 247Sports Talent Composite in 2022, far ahead of their 5-7 results. Furthermore, Auburn fortified the passing game by adding veteran Michigan State signal caller Payton Thorne and Ohio State wide receiver transfer Caleb Burton. A fresh coaching staff and key pieces in the passing game could lead to a quick turnaround if Freeze can get everyone on the same page.
The Horned Frogs opened at 200-1 odds to win the national championship in 2022 and ultimately fought their way to the College Football Playoff National Championship. So in the spirit of that stunning accomplishment last season, here are three far long shots with 200-1 odds or worse entering the 2023 campaign.
Colorado (200-1): How can you not include the Buffaloes on this list? No coach has ever tried to flip a roster like Deion Sanders in one offseason, but most teams don’t add potential first-round picks like Travis Hunter, Shedeur Sanders and Cormani McClain at the same time. There’s massive bust potential here, but we’ll be along for the ride.
Iowa State (200-1): The 2022 season was a bust, but don’t sell all your Matt Campbell stock just yet. The offensive line is filled with upperclassmen and quarterback Hunter Dekkers was quietly pretty darn good. Six of the eight losses came by fewer than one score. Luck can flip in a Big 12 that’s been as wide open as ever in recent years.
UTSA (500-1): With three AAC stalwarts joining the Big 12, arguably the best Group of Five team in the nation plays in San Antonio. The Roadrunners are 24-5 over the past two years and finished with a spot in the final CFP Rankings. The AAC will be a tougher test, but Jeff Traylor has never backed down from a challenge.
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