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Picking college football's conference dark horses for 2016

You already know the likely favorites, so Peter Berkes picks one sneaky contender for each Power 5 conference and looks at the Group of 5. Add your favorite underdogs in the comments!

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The favorites: Clemson and Florida State

The Tigers are coming off a trip to the title game, where they gave Alabama all they could handle, and Florida State has gone to a BCS/Playoff/New Year's Six game for four straight years.

The dark horse: North Carolina

After years of unfulfilled promise, the Tar Heels finally broke through in 2015, going 11-1 before falling just short of upsetting Clemson in the ACC Championship, which ended under bizarre circumstances.

Why them?

North Carolina's biggest issue is the loss of longtime quarterback Marquise Williams. Former four-star recruit Mitch Trubisky has been slotted into the starting job, but he'll be a junior with only 125 attempts.

The good news is that he'll have plenty of weapons. Workhorse Elijah Hood returns, and Quinshad Davis is the only departure from an extremely productive group of wide receivers that includes dangerous return man Ryan Switzer.

The defense finished 70th in Defensive S&P+ in 2015, but that was a big improvement over their No. 99 finish in 2014. Another year under coordinator Gene Chizik will help. The offense should give the defense a wide margin for error, and UNC has a good chance to keep improving on defense.

How's the schedule?

The Heels avoid Clemson, but a trip to Tallahassee is book-ended by tough home games against Pitt and Virginia Tech.

Big Ten

The favorites: Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State

Sticking the Spartans here may seem like a stretch, but they're the defending champions. In light of the way Mark Dantonio has rebuilt that program in his grimacing image, I choose to wait before throwing dirt.

The dark horse: Nebraska

The Huskers jettisoned Bo Pelini, who couldn't get them over the nine-win hump, and dropped to 5-7 in Mike Riley's first year, needing a waiver to play in a bowl. But when you dig a little, there's reason to believe we could see a big bounce.

Why them?

The Huskers' numbers weren't as bad as their record would indicate. They finished only one spot behind Iowa in S&P+, and the Hawkeyes nearly won the Big Ten. Nebraska returns 15 starters, including basically every skill position. They must deal with turnover up front, which could hurt a line that gave up only 14 sacks last season.

Part of the reason for that low number is quarterback Tommy Armstrong, who isn't one to sit back in the pocket. Armstrong has always been better with his legs than his arm, but his completion percentage has crept up every year. Considering Riley's record of productive quarterbacks at Oregon State, it's reasonable to think 2016 will be Armstrong's best yet.

Also, a defense that only lost three of its top 14 tacklers could be less prone to shaky second halves.

How's the schedule?

The Huskers' only difficult Big Ten East game is at Ohio State. Inside the Big Ten West, Wisconsin is a heavyweight, but the Badgers have a brutal schedule for once and are facing major roster turnover. Iowa seems primed to regress back toward Earth. Northwestern went 10-3, but only returns five starters from an outstanding defense.

The Huskers would probably get creamed in the Big Ten Championship, but when you're looking for an unexpected winner, you need some unlikely things to happen.

Big 12

The favorite: Oklahoma

At this time last year, most figured the Big 12 would come down to the Frogs and the Bears, but the Sooners made the Playoff. This year the Sooners are alone at the top, with personnel turnover at TCU and Baylor falling into complete disarray.

The dark horse: TCU

TCU has major questions, but the Frogs have the ingredients. They were ravaged by injuries last year, but that means new starters have plenty of experience.

Why them?

The race to replace QB Trevone Boykin is between Foster Sawyer and Texas A&M transfer Kenny Hill, he of September Heisman and "Kenny Trill" fame. Co-offensive coordinators Sonny Cumbie and Doug Meacham are both back.

TCU's biggest asset might Gary Patterson, though. If I had to bet on any Big 12 staff getting a team to perform above expectations, I would bet on TCU's.

How's the schedule?

The road schedule looks pretty favorable. They travel to Baylor, but it's impossible to tell what Baylor will be. They also have a trip to Morgantown, which can be tricky.

TCU hosts Oklahoma on Oct. 1, which breaks up what is normally a back-loaded Big 12 schedule. They still have at Baylor, Oklahoma State and at Texas in November, but on the spectrum of late-season Big 12 schedules, you take that.


The favorite: Stanford

With Oregon taking a step back, Stanford took back over as the Pac-12 heavyweight. And even though they have to replace Kevin Hogan, they still have Christian McCaffrey.

The field behind Stanford is thick. Oregon could have a bounce-back year, USC is the defending Pac-12 South champion and UCLA might have one of the best quarterbacks in the country.

The dark horse: Washington

It may seem funny to put stock in a team that hasn't won more than five conference games since 2001, but here we are. UW's 9-4 2013 was their best record since 2000, but despite win totals falling to eight and seven in Chris Petersen's first two seasons, the Huskies are getting better.

The advanced stats loved the Huskies' 2015, in which they improved their S&P+ rank from 75th all the way to 12th. They only went 7-6, but they were in every game except for their 31-14 loss to Stanford, which isn't that terrible, considering what Stanford was doing to most opponents.

Why them?

The Huskies' defense lost three first-round picks heading into 2015, but went from 56th to 9th in Defensive S&P+, so it's difficult to expect much of a step back under coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski.

On offense, the Huskies look like they have a nice QB-RB combination between Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin. Browning's true-freshman numbers don't jump off the page, but outside of a clunker against Arizona State, he played much better as the season went along.

How's the schedule?

Washington has lost 12 straight games to Oregon, a team it will surely need to beat to contend for the Pac-12 North. That game is in Eugene, the week after the Huskies host Stanford.

After that, things lighten up somewhat. UW finishes at Utah, at Cal, vs. USC, vs. Arizona State and at Washington State.


The favorites: Alabama, LSU and Tennessee

The defending national champions again lose a lot of talent to the pros, while LSU and Tennessee return almost everybody.

The dark horse: Florida

Yes, the team that lost three straight games at the end of last season and nearly dropped a fourth to Florida Atlantic. The team whose offense disintegrated after quarterback Will Grier got suspended.

Why them?

The SEC East champions' defense ranked No. 6 in S&P+ and returns enough to have another top-25 defense. CeCe Jefferson had 8.5 tackles for a loss as a true freshman and should be able to replace Jonathan Bullard at defensive end. Despite losing Vernon Hargreaves III to the first round, the secondary is still loaded with playmakers, starting with Jalen Tabor.

Florida's hopes hinge on Jim McElwain's touch with quarterbacks. The likeliest starter is Luke Del Rio, who should have a more seasoned group of weapons and a much better line.

How's the schedule?

The only back-to-back road games are at Tennessee and at Vanderbilt. The Gators get LSU at home, Georgia in Jacksonville as usual, and don't have to play Alabama or Ole Miss, and the other most difficult date may be a trip to Arkansas in Novembert. There are much worse schedules in the conference.


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The Group of 5

Can anyone stop Houston's run to a New Year's Six bowl?

Each non-power conference has its own underdogs, but they're all competing for the same prize: a trip to a New Year's Six bowl. The Cougars powered to a Peach Bowl win over Florida State last year and are favorites again, so the question is which team is next in line.

If another team takes the spot, chances are decent it will come from inside the American. Temple and USF are primed to compete for the East. The Owls finished just ahead of the Bulls last year, but Temple lost a lot of talent on defense. The Bulls made a huge run last year that saved Willie Taggart's job, but we don't know yet how sustainable that was.

Conference USA may have been the worst conference in the country by the numbers, but Western Kentucky was really good. The Hilltoppers spent 2015 ripping defenses to shreds, and in bigger games they beat Vanderbilt and lost by three to Indiana. They're moving on without star quarterback Brandon Doughty.

Boise State, which has long been the class of The Rest of College Football, wasn't up to normal standards. It's hard to see them staying down for too long, so maybe they can shoot back to the top.

MAC dynasty NIU's ceiling probably isn't high enough to mount a serious New Year's Six bowl challenge, and that goes for the rest of the conference as well. Toledo and Bowling Green are both replacing head coaches. Western Michigan?

In the Sun Belt, Appalachian State, Arkansas State and Georgia Southern will probably do too much damage to each other to allow one team a chance at postseason glory.