The 2015 college football season is just over a month away, and as usual, schools like Alabama and Ohio State are expected to be among the nation’s best. But while the Crimson Tide and Buckeyes certainly have reason to believe they’ll be returning to the College Football Playoff, each Power 5 conference has at least one team capable of sneaking up on the competition. Here’s a sleeper to watch in each conference:
N.C. State (ACC)
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After going winless in conference play during head coach Dave Doeren’s first season at North Carolina State, the Wolfpack were arguably the conference’s most improved team last season by nearly tripling its win total. N.C. State should be solid on offense with quarterback Jacoby Brissett, running back Shadrach Thornton and wide receiver Bo Hines all returning. Defensively, the Wolfpack return its top two tacklers along with safety Josh Jones — the team’s leader in interceptions. N.C. State will have to travel to face Florida State but gets Clemson and Louisville at Carter-Finley Stadium.
Oklahoma State (Big XII)
Oklahoma State finished just 7-6 a season ago but suffered a number of key injuries, including to starting quarterback J.W. Walsh early in the year. Walsh returns as do the team’s top three leading receivers. Rennie Childs is a speedster out of the backfield, and on defense, the Cowboys bring back leading sack man Emmanuel Ogbah, leading tackler Jordan Sterns and interceptions leader Ramon Richards. Oklahoma State will also have the luxury of playing Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma in Stillwater.
Penn State (Big Ten)
Despite all the NCAA sanctions, Penn State recorded a 10th straight winning season last year. The Nittany Lions bring back quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who looks to have a bounce-back season. Akeel Lynch is a load to bring down at running back, and the Penn State defense was stellar in 2014, yielding fewer than 19 points per game. Penn State will be replacing leading tackler Mike Hull, but defensive tackles Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson give the Nittany Lions perhaps the best duo of interior linemen in the Big Ten.
Stanford was one of the nation’s biggest underachievers last season, finishing just 8-5, but the Cardinal should be much better in 2015. Stanford is one of the few Pac-12 contenders that return its starting quarterback with experienced senior Kevin Hogan coming off a career year. Stanford ranked second nationally in fewest points allowed and returns linebacker Blake Martinez, who led the team in tackles and interceptions a season ago. Oregon and Washington are likely to be Stanford’s stiffest competition in the Pac-12 North, but both those of those contests will be at home.
Tennessee finished the 2014 season strong, winning four of its final five games to complete its first winning season in five years. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs gave the team a spark, accounting for 17 touchdowns in six games, and will have both leading rusher Jalen Hurd and leading receiver Pig Howard at his disposal this season. The Volunteers did struggle defensively, but both Curt Maggitt and Derek Barnett return after combining for 21 sacks a season ago.