Spring college football has come to an end, so now we wait until later this summer for programs to kick into gear ahead of late August/early September season openers. It’s easy to say powerhouses like Alabama and Clemson will compete, but there are certainly some teams that could vault themselves into the College Football Playoff conversation in 2018. These are all big programs that might not be traditional sleepers, but not many people are expecting them to compete for a title.
Yes, Michigan has mostly been considered a championship contender from the moment Jim Harbaugh returned to Ann Arbor, but things have changed. It’s gotten to the point where some think Harbaugh should be fired if the Wolverines don’t compete this year. And considering people are starting to say Harbaugh is an overrated coach, it’s probably fair to put them on a list of sleepers. One big reason Michigan has a legitimate chance to win the Big Ten and make the Playoff is the arrival of former Ole Miss quarterback Shea Patterson. Harbaugh arguably hasn’t had a quarterback of Patterson’s caliber yet, and it’ll be fun to see them together.
After the job Tom Herman did at Houston, many thought he might’ve worked some similar first-year magic at Texas. Instead, the Longhorns went 7-6, though it did end in a convincing bowl win against Missouri. Quarterback is the big question mark for Texas, as junior Shane Buechele and sophomore Sam Ehlinger both played a good amount last season and will be competing for the starting job. Two quarterbacks can work, but it might be best if one of them seizes the job. If that happens, Herman might be able to get his offense clicking and putting points on the board in 2018.
Good coaches are a theme on this list, and Scott Frost obviously falls in that category. It might take some time, but it should be a matter of if—not when—Frost turns around his alma mater. If Frost can rally the Cornhuskers like he rallied his undefeated UCF squad last season, the program might have a quicker turnaround than anyone anticipates.
On Star Wars Day, it’s fitting that both the apprentice and master are on this list. So Scott Frost is Luke Skywalker, and Chip Kelly is Obi-Wan Kenobi—unless you want to go the dark side route with Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader. Either way, like Frost, Kelly will run an urgent, up-tempo program from top to bottom. The offense can make up for a shortage in talent, which could lead to immediate wins. Washington and their strong defense could give UCLA the most trouble, but the Pac-12 is winnable in 2018.
Texas A&M Aggies
Jimbo Fisher’s last season with Florida State was puzzling and borderline-surreal with how things just fell apart before he took the Texas A&M job. But he’s still one of the best coaches in college football and knows how to win big games, which he’ll need to do a lot of this season—including with early matchups against Clemson and Alabama. If the Aggies can somehow get past both of them (or even just one), they’ll immediately be in the Playoff conversation and could have a ton of momentum heading into October and November.