When spring practice broke last year, there would be no way to guess that Michigan and Cincinnati would be in the College Football Playoff field with Clemson and Oklahoma sitting at home. College football always hands us the unexpected, but it's never too early to call our shots with dark horse contenders for this upcoming season's CFP.
To limit our scope of "dark horse" teams, we're excluding the 14 teams with 50-1 or better odds, including Alabama, Notre Dame, Utah and a number of other options. Don't worry, that still leaves more than 50 teams jockeying for position to overcome the odds and play for the national championship at season's end.
Here are teams from each Power Five conference that fit our dark horse criteria that could shock the world and make the field. Odds via Caesars Sportsbook.
ACC: NC State (150-1)
The Wolf Pack have hovered right on the edge of good and great for effectively the last decade. Dave Doeren's squad has won between seven and nine games all but one season since 2014, including a 9-3 year in 2021 that could have led to more if not for the bowl game being canceled.
Now, North Carolina State is the only postseason top 15 squad to rank top-15 in returning production. Specifically, the Wolf Pack rank No. 5 in defensive returning production, but potential All-ACC quarterback Devin Leary will ensure that the offense keeps moving.
NC State was right on the edge of competing for the conference championship in 2021 but came just short. Circle a matchup on the road against Clemson on Sept. 30 – it could decide the ACC Atlantic.
Big Ten: Penn State (75-1)
Penn State is a quarterback away, again. Unlike last season, the Nittany Lions have more than one serviceable signal-caller in the room to raise the floor.
Sean Clifford is back for another opportunity to rewrite the Penn State record books after an injury-plagued season. However, all eyes will be on freshman Drew Allar, the No. 1 quarterback and No. 3 overall prospect in the Top247 rankings. Additionally, backup Christian Veilleux has shown some encouraging signs.
Penn State has built a consistent defensive reputation and should be able to keep it going after losing two star defenders in the second round of the draft. However, the deep roster of options at quarterback could be what Penn State finally needs to enter the playoff mix.