Last season, no team surprised more people across the college football landscape than the Colorado Buffaloes.
Many were openly discussing who Colorado would hire next in its latest effort to turn the program around. Head coach Mike McIntyre had gone 10-27 through his first three seasons in Boulder and was on the hot seat. Although it looked like the program was heading in the right direction, the Buffs would have likely let McIntyre go if he couldn’t at least break the school’s eight-year bowl drought.
Fortunately for McIntyre, he did just that—and more. He led the Buffs to a 10-4 mark and a Pac-12 South title, and he received a lucrative contract extension this summer.
Heading into the 2017 campaign, who are the most underrated teams that could be this year’s version of Colorado?
1. UCLA Bruins – UCLA slipped under the radar when it came to discussing the most disappointing team in 2016. The Bruins went just 4-8 but most of the criticism went to Notre Dame and Michigan State in the offseason instead.
This team has the talent to compete for the Pac-12 South title in 2017. Josh Rosen might be the most talented quarterback in the country, and he could be primed for a big year with a more experienced offensive line and his top two wideouts from last season back.
The big question revolves around the offensive line. Four starters return from last year, but the unit must improve. UCLA’s running game ranked second-to-last in the country with just 2.9 yards per carry in 2016. The offensive line’s inability to block led to Rosen seeing plenty of defenders drop into coverage, and he was unable to improve on his numbers from his freshman season when he was healthy. But he could be in store for a big 2017.
2. TCU Horned Frogs – No one is talking about TCU heading into this season. After going a combined 23-3 in 2014 and 2015, the Horned Frogs are off everyone’s radar following a 6-7 campaign last year.
Few teams can turn it around as quickly as TCU, though. Gary Patterson’s squad lost almost all of its offensive production at the end of 2015, so it was expected to see its numbers tank a little. This season, 10 starters return, including Kenny Hill. The quarterback had his ups and downs in his first season on the job, but he should have a better grasp of the offense now. The Horned Frogs will be underdogs against the two Oklahoma schools, but they could be favored in every other game.
3. SMU Mustangs – Chad Morris is entering his third season on the job at SMU, and the team showed considerable progress in his second year. SMU looked much better than it did when he first arrived on campus, and the offense started to produce. The Mustangs averaged 37.7 points per game over their last three games and nearly knocked off an 11-2 South Florida team during that stretch.
Most importantly, the defense continues to take big steps forward. The Mustangs had one of the most porous units in the country in 2015, but the numbers were much better across the board last year. Although the team was blown out by Navy in its season finale, defensive coordinator Van Malone has this side of the ball trending upward.
4. Missouri Tigers – Missouri is considered an afterthought in the SEC East with people calling for Florida and Georgia to compete for the right to play Alabama in the SEC Championship Game, and others focusing on the successful seasons from Kentucky and Vanderbilt.
The Tigers had a very successful season on offense last year, averaging 31.4 points per game despite returning just three starters. Drew Lock seems to be the real deal at quarterback even though he had some trouble against the best defenses in the conference. He is one of 10 starters returning to an offense that should be even better in the second season with offensive coordinator Josh Heupel.
Look for the defense to improve, too, after a collapse in 2016. Head coach Barry Odom is as sharp as they come on the defensive side of the ball. He let his focus slip a little last season in his first year as head coach, but he will make sure the Tigers are back to being one of the best in the conference this year. If defensive tackle Terry Beckner can stay healthy, he will be a monster in the middle of the line.
5. Syracuse Orange – Dino Baber-coached teams have been vastly better in his second season on campus in both of his previous stops. At Eastern Illinois, he went from 7-5 in his first season to 12-2 in the second, and at Bowling Green he went from 8-6 in his first season to 10-3 in his second.
The Orange have a ridiculously tough schedule this season, though, so the improvement might not be seen by just glancing at the win/loss record.
Syracuse returns 19 starters from last year, and the go-go-go pace of the offense is going to give opponents fits all season long. Don’t be surprised if the Orange end up claiming a few wins over Top 25 teams this season.