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Surprising Dark Horse Teams For Each College Football Conference

While the favorites for preseason conference championship odds are usually accurate, which teams might be undervalued in each conference?

Let's take a look. I'm using FanDuel odds for this article.

Dark Horse Conference Contenders

ACC: Virginia Tech +1500

ACC Dark Horse Title Contender Virginia Tech
ACC Dark Horse Title Contender Virginia Tech

Virginia Tech is a team flying under the radar in the ACC. Despite starting 1-3, the Hokies finished the season strong, winning six out of their last nine games to end with a 7-6 record.

The Hokies have the most returning production in the country, with 95% of the offense and 77% of the defense coming back.

Eight out of the eleven offensive starters are seniors, and ten out of the eleven defensive starters are seniors. In that group, quarterback Kyron Drones is set to return after his breakout season, amassing 2,084 passing yards, 17 passing touchdowns, 818 yards on the ground, and five rushing touchdowns.

Big 12: Oklahoma State +1000

Big 12 Dark Horse Title Contender Oklahoma State
Big 12 Dark Horse Title Contender Oklahoma State

With Texas and Oklahoma joining the SEC, the Big 12 conference is now wide open. Oklahoma State is well-positioned to capitalize on the opportunity after being the runner-up, losing to Texas in the Big 12 Conference Championship.

The Cowboys return the fourth-most production in the country from a team that made the Big 12 Championship. They boast the nation's top running back, Ollie Gordon II, and the top returning offensive line in experience and production. Each member of the offensive line has at least 20 starts, totaling 172 combined starts as a unit.

Quarterback Alan Bowman will return for his seventh season and second consecutive year as the starter. Although the Cowboys' defense ranked No. 122, they still made it to the Big 12 title game. Improving the defense's performance could propel the Cowboys into contention for the Big 12 Title.

Sun Belt: Marshall +1600

Sun Belt Dark Horse Title Contender Marshall
Sun Belt Dark Horse Title Contender Marshall

Marshall had a down year last season, going 6-7 in 2023 after a 9-4 campaign in 2022. I have a hard time seeing them having two back-to-back bad seasons.

They added a strong transfer portal class, bringing in the No. 2 ranked portal class in the Sun Belt and adding multiple playmakers.

They have a tough out-of-schedule conference, playing at Virginia Tech and Ohio State. However, avoiding Texas State, Louisiana, and South Alabama on the conference slate makes for a manageable schedule for the Thundering Herd.

AAC: North Texas +2300

AAC Dark Horse Title Contender North Texas
AAC Dark Horse Title Contender North Texas

The portal taketh and the portal giveth.

The Mean Green lost quarterback Chandler Rogers, rushing leader Ayo Adeyi, and receiving leader Ja’Mori Maclin. However, they added former quarterback Chandler Morris (TCU), running backs Tre Bradford (LSU) and Zach Evans (Minnesota) to offset those losses.

The question for North Texas isn't about the offense but the defense. When the defense allowed less than 245 rushing yards last season, the Mean Green were 5-1.

If the North Texas defense can be just average, the Mean Green could make a year two push for the AAC under Eric Morris.

SEC: Auburn +5500

SEC Dark Horse Title Contender Auburn
SEC Dark Horse Title Contender Auburn

Hugh Freeze has a trend of teams making large jumps in his second season.

In 2011, Freeze took on his first head coaching position with Arkansas State, leading the Red Wolves to an 11-2 season, a considerable leap from their 4-8 record the year before. A year later, he became the 37th head coach for the Ole Miss Rebels, achieving a 7-5 record in his first year.

The following year, he further improved the Rebels' performance, securing a 9-3 record and marking a historic victory over Alabama in Tuscaloosa for the first time since 1988. Later, with Liberty, Freeze attained a 7-5 record in his first year and an impressive 10-1 record in the following season.

With Auburn overhauling its roster with experienced and young talent, the Tigers' only remaining question is whether Payton Thorne can perform well enough for Auburn to make its mark in the SEC.

Big 10: Nebraska +6500

Big Ten Dark Horse Title Contender Nebraska
Big Ten Dark Horse Title Contender Nebraska

In a season where the Cornhuskers lost seven games, it still had one of the nation's top defenses, top 15 in total, and scoring defense.

So, I bet you're asking why it matters; they still lost seven games. It matters because the defense kept them in almost every game, with five of the seven losses by one score. They'll bring back most of that defense, having the third-most returning production in the country. If Nebraska averaged 25 PPG instead of 18 PPG, they would've had a 10-2 record instead of a 5-7 record.

The question now is, can the offense help the defense in these one-score games? The offense last season was held back by its passing attack, averaging a measly 135.9 yards per game, good for 126th in the country.

Enter freshman quarterback Dylan Raiola. Raiola was a five-star, the No.2 ranked quarterback for the class of 2024, who was committed to the University of Georgia. Two days later, he signed his letter of intent to Nebraska. If Raiola can live up to his five-star rating, Nebraska could be in a position to take a massive year two leap under Head Coach Matt Rhule.

Read More College Sports News From Stadium Rant Here: College Sports News


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