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  • Every conference has a team whose unpredictability makes it especially dangerous. We pick the most likely candidate for each Power 5 league this year.
By Scooby Axson
September 12, 2018

Through the first two weeks of the season, the smoke is beginning to clear on which teams are bona fide contenders and which teams might have been the offseason’s most overrated commodities.

Alabama and Georgia might not lose until they meet in Atlanta for the SEC title game; the same scenario is on the table for Ohio State and Wisconsin in the Big Ten. The other Power 5 conferences have defending champions (Clemson and Oklahoma) or perennial contenders (Stanford) setting the pace early on.

And then there are the teams that no one has a good read on, liable to lay an egg on any given Saturday but also capable of spooking the best teams in the nation. These are 2018’s chaos teams—after the mold of the Syracuse, Pitt, Iowa and Iowa State squads of ’17—which could throw a wrench into the plans of teams everyone has penciled into the College Football Playoff conversation.

SEC: Ole Miss

After a slew of transfers and scholarship restrictions in the wake of NCAA sanctions (including a bowl ban that ends after this season) and Hugh Freeze’s undignified exit, the Rebels have spent the past calendar year picking up the pieces with a eye toward a bright future under Matt Luke.

With Shea Patterson off to Michigan as part of that transfer exodus, quarterback Jordan Ta’amu has taken control of an explosive offense, with stud wideouts A.J. Brown, DaMarkus Lodge, D.K. Metcalf and Braylon Sanders all capable of going off. The Rebels pulled away quickly in a Week 1 shootout with Texas Tech, then put up a video game–like 76 points against FCS cannon fodder Southern Illinois.

Ole Miss is averaging 403 passing yards, 61 points a game and leads the nation in yards per play (9.39). Now for the bad news: The defense is a nightmare.

In two games, the Rebels have given up 1,115 yards, left receivers wide open down field, struggled to force turnovers and tackled horrendously. All that explains why the defense has been on the field for a staggering 188 plays, by far the most in the conference.

Ole Miss gets Alabama and Auburn at home this season—the Crimson Tide on Saturday, the Tigers in late October—and will face road tests at LSU (Sept. 29) and Texas A&M (Nov. 10). At least one of those SEC West contenders may struggle to keep up if the Rebels turn it into a track meet.

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Pac-12: Arizona State

Is Arizona State for real? Only time will tell, but Saturday’s 16–13 upset win over Michigan State has earned the Sun Devils national attention for reasons few people expected a month ago.

The Herm Edwards hire was widely criticized. Many predicted an all-out train wreck when the school announced the hiring of the 64-year-old former NFL coach who had been out of the college game for almost 30 years.

Edwards has been able to rely on experienced stars in senior quarterback Manny Wilkins and his top target N’Keal Harry, who at 6'4" and 220 pounds poses problems for any secondary. A surprisingly stout defense has been excellent against the run.

Maybe more people should have seen that Week 2 win coming: ASU has won 10 straight home games against Big Ten opponents. The Sun Devils’ spoiler potential only increases from here after a visit to San Diego State this weekend, with road trips to Washington and Colorado coming up in the next month, plus a home test against Stanford and a trip to USC to close out October. Going .500 in this stretch would be considered an accomplishment and would almost certainly ruin someone else’s season along the way.

Big 12: Oklahoma State

For years, people have wondered when Oklahoma State will take the next step and compete for a Big 12 title—or for that matter, beat Oklahoma, something that has only happened twice since 2003 and 18 times in 112 all-time meetings between the in-state rivals. Despite winning 10 games in each of the past three seasons, the joke around Big 12 country at the beginning of every season is that the Cowboys are gearing up for another run at the Alamo Bowl.

Through two weeks, Oklahoma State is again near the top of every offensive category, but the quality of its defense has always determined how legitimately the Cowboys can think about playing for championships. This season’s new 4-2-5 scheme put in by new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles has not been pushed by Missouri State and South Alabama.

Quarterback Taylor Cornelius has taken over admirably for program legend Mason Rudolph, and with electric runner Justice Hill back for another year, a special season could be in store for the offense if Cornelius can rein in his early turnover problems and the O-line can curb its tendency to give up sacks at inopportune moments.

We’ll get a better measure of Mike Gundy’s crew when Boise State comes to town this weekend. If the Cowboys win that one, they can start dreaming of knocking Oklahoma and TCU off track in their path to a Big 12 title game rematch.

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Big Ten: Maryland

With coach D.J. Durkin on administrative leave as the investigations continue into the death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair and the culture fostered within the football program. In his place, offensive coordinator Matt Canada has taken the reins and done an admirable job with an overlooked squad.

The Terps could have called it a day, packed it in and looked forward to next season, but after defeating Texas for a second straight year and pulling away from Bowling Green on the strength of a 444-yard rushing effort, the schedule sets up in a way that they could be undefeated when they visit Michigan on Oct. 6.

It’s obvious that Maryland has taken to Canada’s offensive system, but their issues with penalties run the risk of cratering any upcoming upset bids. The Terps have been flagged 22 times already this season, the fourth-most in the nation behind only Texas State among teams that have played just two games. Maryland will need to show more of the discipline it did against the Longhorns to make waves in the Big Ten East.

ACC: Duke

Only one person out of the 148 media members that voted in the ACC preseason poll picked the Blue Devils to win the up-for-grabs Coastal Division. But Duke’s 2–0 start is worth taking seriously, even without the short-term services of quarterback Daniel Jones, who is out indefinitely with a fractured clavicle, and preseason All-ACC cornerback Mark Gilbert, who is done for the year with a hip injury.

The offense will now be led by redshirt junior Quentin Harris, who has only thrown 15 passes in his college career. Harris is more of a running threat than Jones, and coach David Cutcliffe claims there will be no drop-off with Harris under center.

The Blue Devils don’t do one particular thing well, are in the bottom third of the nation in total offense, don’t possess the ball for any significant amount of time and are middle-of-the-pack statistically on the defensive side. But they don’t turn the ball over and have been good at keeping teams off the scoreboard, which can scare any inconsistent contender in their path.

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