One dark-horse 2023 college football team for each Power Five conference

2K1E4DX September 17, 2022: Kansas quarterback Jalon Daniels (6) waits for the snap during an NCAA college football game between Houston and Kansas on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022 in Houston. The Jayhawks won 48-30. (Credit Image: © Scott Coleman/ZUMA Press Wire)

• Jalon Daniels leads a sneaky Kansas team: Daniels earned a 78.8 grade last season and helped lead the Jayhawks to their first bowl game appearance since 2008.

• A new head coach and quarterback enter for Wisconsin: Luke Fickell and Tanner Mordecai have a chance to bring a conference championship back to Madison.

• What can KJ Jefferson and Arkansas accomplish in an always tough SEC? Jefferson was one of only nine Power Five quarterbacks to earn a 90.0-plus grade last season, and he has offensive firepower around him.

Estimated Reading Time: 6 minutes

College football is wide open. Look no further than TCU, a team picked to finish in the middle of the Big 12 last season but that managed a run all the way to the national championship game.

Could we see another program make an unexpected playoff push in 2023? Only time will tell. But here’s a look at one dark horse team from each Power Five conference that could surprise this upcoming season.

ACC: Duke

Duke was one of the most improved teams in the country last season, going 9-4 after amassing five combined wins in the two seasons prior. Head coach Mike Elko has completely revamped this program. On paper, this should be the best team Duke has had in quite some time.

It’s going to ultimately rely on the success of starting quarterback Riley Leonard, who returns for his third year. Leonard broke out a season ago, throwing for nearly 3,000 yards and rushing for another 700 on his way to a 77.8 PFF grade. If Leonard can build on last season and take that next step as a passer, the Blue Devils will be in good hands. It certainly helps that his top wide receiver, Jalon Calhoun, will be back. It’s also a huge plus that most of the Blue Devils' offensive line returns, including star left tackle Graham Barton, who posted an 88.2 PFF grade in 2022.

Read more: Process over results: Graham Barton’s journey to becoming one of the best offensive linemen in college football

Duke should be much improved on defense, as well, with big DeWayne Carter manning the interior. The problem is that the Blue Devils face a tough schedule, opening with Clemson, then battling Notre Dame only a few weeks later. However, if they can somehow upset the Tigers in a primetime Week 1 affair, look out for the Blue Devils the rest of the season.

Big 12: Kansas

No, this is not an article on the top college basketball teams. Yes, the Kansas Jayhawks football program is on the rise. Don’t forget that this team was 5-0 and ranked 19th entering Week 6 last year before star quarterback Jalon Daniels went down with an injury. The Jayhawks subsequently ended the season on a losing streak, finishing 6-7. Now it’s time to turn the page and build on the positives.

Daniels is certainly one of those positives, as he was quietly in the Heisman discussion early in 2022. He’s as electric and dynamic as they come at the quarterback position. The Jayhawks' offense was firing on all cylinders when Daniels was healthy, so 2023 could be a big year for Kansas as he pairs back up with his top two receivers, Lawrence Arnold (75.2 PFF grade) and Luke Grimm (78.7 PFF grade).

While the Big 12 is known for high-scoring games, Kansas will still have to clean up its defense if the program is to take that next step. The Jayhawks cannot afford to give up 33 points per game. Last season was the first time they clinched a bowl game since 2008, so expectations will be even higher in 2023. And who knows, if Jalon Daniels can play like a Heisman contender, it’s not crazy to think this team could compete for the Big 12 championship.

Big Ten: Wisconsin

New head coach Luke Fickell has been busy setting up his team and coaching staff, and Wisconsin football is now set to look far different. They’ve always had a tremendous run game combined with an elite defense, but poor quarterback play has hampered the team throughout the past decade.

The Badgers are hoping that will change this year, as they’ve brought in veteran Tanner Mordecai from SMU. Mordecai is an experienced and solid player who threw for more than 3,500 yards and 30 touchdowns in each of the past two seasons. He earned an 80.0-plus passing grade in both of those campaigns. If he can show some leadership and consistency, this could be the best Wisconsin offense in quite some time.

The run game will be dominant as usual, with Braelon Allen and Chez Mellusi returning. Allen is a man amongst boys as one of the best running backs in the entire nation. He comes in as the fifth-best returning running back in college football, per PFF's Max Chadwick.

Wisconsin was a perfect fit for Fickell, given his prior success on defense and the program's legacy. The 2023 unit will feature Maema Njongmeta, who was PFF’s fifth-highest-graded linebacker in 2022. Wisconsin has a fairly easy path to the Big Ten championship, as they are in the weaker division and, luckily, avoid Michigan and Penn State in the regular season.

Pac-12: Oregon State

It's an exciting time in Corvallis after the Beavers went 10-3 a season ago. Jonathan Smith has turned this program around in only a few years and appears to be just getting started. Oregon State has high expectations for 2023 but is still only the fifth-ranked team in the Pac-12 heading into the fall. That may be a fair rating in a challenging conference, but the team could easily shatter those projections.

The Beavers struggled in the passing game over the past few seasons but received a boost in the transfer portal, landing former Clemson prodigy DJ Uiagalelei, who posted a career-high 5.7% big-time throw rate in 2022 with the Tigers.

The offense already has a star running back in Damien Martinez, who finished last season with a 90.0-plus rushing grade. Oregon State’s defense, which was very good in 2022, did take a hit with multiple key starters departing, especially in the secondary. It’s important that coordinator Trent Bray continues to build on that side of the ball so they do not take a step back. He’ll certainly need defensive backs Kitan Oladapo and Ryan Cooper to take a leap.

The Beavers have a mostly favorable schedule until the end of November, so it’s not out of the question for them to have only one loss or to be undefeated before then. If they can upset rival Oregon once again, they could clinch a spot in the Pac-12 championship game.

SEC: Arkansas

Scoring points will not be the issue for Arkansas in 2023; it's their defense. They allowed an average of 29 points per game last year but have a solid pair of defensive backs returning in Dwight McGlothern and Hudson Clark, both of whom could make massive strides to improve this secondary. They’re going to have to if they want to compete, as the Razorbacks' pass defense ranked in the bottom 15 in 2022.

Arkansas is the pick here because of an elite offense led by KJ Jefferson, one of the most underrated quarterbacks in college football. He was one of only nine Power Five quarterbacks to earn a 90.0-plus grade last season. Bowling Green transfer Tyrone Bolden should help the passing attack, and Raheim Sanders, who ran for more than 1,400 yards in 2022, will also be back for the Razorbacks.

Any SEC schedule is daunting, but Jefferson could turn some heads this year. He’s a dark-horse Heisman candidate. And if he plays like that, it’s going to lead to a lot of wins for the Hogs.

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