College football dark horse contenders to win each conference

We all know the Alabamas and Ohio States of the world, but who are the top college football dark horses to win each conference in 2022?

While we expect the Alabamas and Ohio States of the world to remain competitive each season, parity reigns supreme in college football. Surprise teams always come out of seeming obscurity to steal conference crowns. Which programs are college football dark horse contenders to win each FBS conference in 2022?

College football dark horse contenders to win each FBS conference title

Each team selected was outside of the top four betting favorites to win each conference and held odds of +1000 or longer at BetMGM.

ACC: Louisville Cardinals (+3000)

Louisville joined the ACC in 2014 and have yet to win more than nine games in a season. But they can take the next step in 2022. Malik Cunningham is coming off his best campaign yet, throwing for 2,941 yards and 19 touchdowns against six interceptions. Additionally, he torched defenses for 1,031 rushing yards and an asinine 20 scores.

Now, three of Louisville’s top five receivers left, but transfers Dee Wiggins (Miami) and Tyler Hudson (Central Arkansas) provide a necessary influx of talent. Tight end Marshon Ford, four of five offensive line starters, and a solid stable of running backs surround Cunningham. The other side of the ball isn’t too far behind, with DT Jermayne Lole, EDGE YaYa Diaby, CB Kei’Trel Clark, and S Kenderick Duncan bolstering the unit.

The Cardinals’ final three games will likely decide their fate: at Clemson, vs. NC State, and at Kentucky.

Big 12: TCU Horned Frogs (+1400)

It’s the Sonny Dykes era in TCU, and I don’t think the Big 12 is ready. Dykes turned SMU into an offensive juggernaut in his five years with the program, and he brought his OC Garrett Riley with him to Fort Worth, Texas.

With Max Duggan under center, Kendre Miller in the backfield, and Quentin Johnston out wide, this is an offense to fear in 2022. Not to mention first-team All-Big 12 center Steve Avila, transfer SMU starter Alan Ali, and promising OT Andrew Coker are slated to start up front.

The defense also sports one of the best CB duos in the nation in Noah Daniels and Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson. That should make DC Joe Gillespie’s job easier as he overhauls a defense that will have a new look since 1998 with Gary Patterson out. Typically, profound change is viewed as a negative for a program. But in TCU’s case, it could be the catalyst toward Big 12 superiority.

Big Ten: Minnesota Golden Gophers (+2500)

It feels like a century ago that Tanner Morgan, Tyler Johnson, and Rashod Bateman dissected defenses en route to an 11-2 finish in 2019. While Johnson and Bateman are now in the NFL, Morgan remains and aims to bounce back to his 2019 form after two lackluster seasons. Health will be the … *in DJ Khaled’s voice* … “major key” in 2022.

Can Chris Autman-Bell, Daniel Jackson, Mohamed Ibrahim, and Trey Potts stay on the field? If so, Morgan will be out of excuses, especially with John Michael Schmitz returning to anchor the front five. Dylan Wright is a breakout candidate at receiver, and the 6’7″ Brevyn Spann-Ford could ascend into a consistent chain-mover.

Defensively, Minnesota was in the top 10 in scoring (17.3 points per game) and total defense (278.8 yards per game) in 2021. However, four starters and six of the Golden Gophers’ top eight pass rushers are out. Replicating their elite production will be difficult, but even if they regress, an offensive explosion could catapult Minnesota toward the top of the Big Ten.

But let’s be honest. All that to say, the Gophers are vying for No. 2 in the conference, as there is barely a non-zero chance anyone makes it passed Ohio State.

Pac-12: Stanford Cardinal (+5000)

All the hype surrounds USC entering 2022, and for good reason. Lincoln Riley, Caleb Williams, and Jordan Addison are in town, and they brought friends. The reigning Pac-12 champion Utah Utes aren’t far behind and return significant pieces all over the roster. But those are the favorites. Despite their bright white and red uniforms, the Stanford Cardinal are the dark horse in the conference.

Some view QB Tanner McKee as a first-round prospect, and although I don’t agree just yet, he is still an anticipatory passer. He can spread the football around and hit his weapons in stride. Injuries robbed them last year, but at full health, Brycen Tremayne, Elijah Higgins, Michael Wilson, and Benjamin Yurosek can cause headaches for the opposition. Furthermore, E.J. Smith (Emmit Smith’s son) looks to be the next great Stanford running back.

The trenches aren’t spectacular on either side of the ball, but the team’s defensive back seven is among the best in the Pac-12. The secondary is filled with athleticism and length (see: Kyu Blu Kelly). They simply have to avoid the sideline. Stanford possesses a talented roster. Going from 3-9 to a conference title may seem unlikely, but that’s what a dark horse is, after all.

SEC: South Carolina Gamecocks (+12500)

Like with the Big Ten, the probability of a team other than Alabama owning the top spot in the SEC is slim to none. But let’s entertain the idea. Arkansas and Ole Miss aren’t true dark horses anymore. Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee are the favorites in the East. Yet, my pick to rise from the ashes is the Gamecocks.

In Shane Beamer’s first year, South Carolina went 7-6 and won the Mayo Bowl. That’s a solid campaign for a relatively dormant program, and reaching contention isn’t as far as oddsmakers and fans believe.

QB Spencer Rattler transferred from Oklahoma, reuniting with his former OC in Beamer. TE Austin Stogner followed, creating one of the best TE tandems in the country with Jaheim Bell. Three other transfers could make an impact in Wake Forest RB Christian Beal-Smith, James Madison WR Antwane Wells Jr., and Arkansas State WR Corey Rucker.

The defense is also strong, as Cam Smith should be one of the first CBs chosen in the 2023 NFL Draft. Furthermore, the Gamecocks bring in the No. 24 recruiting class, according to 247Sports — up from No. 79 in the previous cycle.

Nevertheless, South Carolina’s season comes down to Rattler’s perceived upside. This time last year, you couldn’t read an early 2022 mock draft without Rattler going in the top five picks. He will need to reach that potential to upset Georgia in the SEC East, let alone Alabama in the title match.

college football dark horse
Oct 14, 2021; Memphis, Tennessee, USA; Memphis Tigers quarterback Seth Henigan (14) passes the ball to Memphis Tigers tight end Sean Dykes (5) for a touchdown during the first half against the Navy Midshipmen at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. Credit: Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

AAC: Memphis Tigers (+1500)

Memphis is fresh off their eighth straight season of six or more wins. But they are aiming much higher in 2022. Head coach Ryan Silverfield isn’t content with just six wins, so he hired former Marshall OC/QBs coach Tim Cramsey and Ohio State DBs coach Matt Barnes to run their sides of the ball.

Cincinnati’s historic run may have overshadowed Seth Henigan’s 3,322-yard and 25-touchdown campaign, but he certainly caught the AAC’s attention as a freshman. His top two targets — WR Calvin Austin III and TE Sean Dykes — moved to the pros, but there is veteran talent in the receiving corps. The offensive line is solid, and they should be able to spring Brandon Thomas loose in the running game.

Defensively, All-Conference safety Quindell Johnson bolsters a squad looking to set the tone in 2022 and beyond. DBs Rodney Owens and Sylvonta Oliver are taking advantage of their sixth seasons, and Syracuse transfer Geoffrey Cantin-Arku headlines the second level.

Memphis will miss Cincinnati and face Houston and UCF at home in 2022. Depending on how the rest of the year goes, their AAC title hopes could come down to the final regular-season match: on the road against SMU.

C-USA: North Texas Mean Green (+1500)

Austin Aune? Grant Gunnell? JD Head? Stone Earle? Jace Ruder? “If you have two quarterbacks, you actually have none.” Well, what if you have five? Of course, likely only two or three are really battling for the QB1 role, but not having a set starter is concerning heading into 2022. Regardless, if North Texas can find a steady hand under center, they can make some noise in the C-USA.

Eight starters return on offense, including four up front. Whoever throws passes will have Roderic Burns, Damon Ward, Jyaire Shorter, and a loaded arsenal to rely on. The defense is a bit more spotty, especially as the Murphy brothers (Grayson and Gabriel) take their pass-rushing prowess to UCLA. But three of four starting DBs return, as well as first-team C-USA LB KD Nixon.

The defense has shown it can hold its own, but the offense will be the difference between North Texas challenging for the conference crown or wallowing around mediocre for another season.

MAC: Eastern Michigan Eagles (+1000)

Embarking on Year 9 of Chris Creighton’s tenure as head coach, Eastern Michigan is on the precipice of reaching above-average territory. That’s a high mark for a program that dwelled at the bottom of the MAC cellar until 2016. Ben Bryant and Preston Hutchinson transferred out, leaving the QB room up to Troy transfer Taylor Powell. Powell has a strong arm and can keep plays alive in and outside of the pocket.

Hassan Beydoun and Dylan Drummond are excellent receiving options, and Darius Boone Jr. and Samson Evans should provide stability on the ground. Moreover, first-team All-MAC guard Sidy Sow, second-team tackle Brian Dooley, and two other starts return along the offensive line. On defense, DT Alex Merritt, EDGE Jose Ramirez, and LB Tariq Speights fortify the front seven. The secondary is a bit less secure as the Eagles rotated a lot of bodies last season. Nonetheless, Blake Bogan and Kempton Shine are names to know.

The MAC is one of the more open conferences this year. So if Eastern Michigan is going to make a run for the top, now is the time.

Mountain West: San Jose State Spartans (+3000)

San Jose State won the Mountain West Championship just two years ago. But coming off a disappointing 2021 season, they are the sixth betting favorite in the conference heading into 2022. Their dark horse contention comes down to the most important position: quarterback. Nick Starkel is out, and Nick Nash struggled with accuracy and holding onto the ball too long. So, the Spartans looked in-conference for their next signal-caller in Hawaii’s Chevan Cordeiro.

Cordeiro is a threat with his legs and can make beautiful throws downfield. That should open up the offense, offering RB Kairee Robinson room to operate on the ground and as a receiving threat. Meanwhile, Elijah Cooks and Justin Lockhart are transferring in from Nevada, adding to an already impressive receiving corps. From center to right tackle, the Spartans will trot out new faces, but the OL should remain reliable in pass protection.

SJSU’s run defense was stout last season, and with nine returning starters, the sky is the limit. Viliami Fehoko and Cade Hall are the top pass-rushing duo in the Mountain West. The linebacker unit is filled with tackling machines, led by Kyle Harmon. And Nehemiah Shelton, Kenyon Reed, and Tre Jenkins power a talented DB room. If the defense lives up to expectations and Cordeiro supercharges the offense, the Spartans could win two conference titles in three years for the first time since the 1980s.

Sun Belt: Troy Trojans (+1500)

In 2022, the Fun Belt’s dark horse hails from Troy. It’s Jon Sumrall’s turn to call the shots for the Trojans. He was the assistant head coach to Neal Brown, who led Troy to three straight 10+ win campaigns and three bowl victories before taking up a co-defensive coordinator at Kentucky.

At his disposal are two game wreckers off the edge in Javon Soloman and Richard Jibunor, as well as longtime DT Will Choloh on the inside. The linebacking corps is just as dangerous, with Carlton Martial less than 100 tackles away from breaking the NCAA career tackles record. KJ Robertson is no slouch next to him, and TJ Harris is strong from the SPEAR (box/slot) position. And Reddy Steward and Zion Williams are stellar cornerbacks on the outside.

Under Sumrall’s tutelage, this talented defense could be one of the best in the nation, not just the conference. But let’s not forget the offense. New OC Joe Craddock comes from UAB, a team notorious for slinging the rock. That’s a much-needed change, with starter Gunnar Watson owning the lowest average depth of target in 2021 (6.2 yards).

Tez Johnson is the top target, but Jabre Barber and Deshon Stoudemire are more than serviceable secondary WRs. The tight ends should feature more as well (Craddock is a former TE coach), so watch out for Deyunkrea Lewis in 2022, as he scored three TDs a year ago. Four offensive line starters are back for one more season, and Kimani Vidal has earned back-to-back All-Sun Belt honorable mentions. 2022 could be the year of the Trojan Horse.

James Fragoza is a Writer and News Editor at Pro Football Network. You can read his other work here and follow him on Twitter @JamesFragoza.

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