College football roundtable: Sleeper playoff contenders

In six short months, the stretch run of college football begins, with the final two weeks of the regular season sure to shape the playoff pairings and races for major awards. All this week, we’re looking forward to late 2016 as the Power 5 conferences jockey for postseason position.

Up first: Which team is your sleeper to earn a spot in the New Year’s Eve College Football Playoff semifinals?

ACC: Louisville

Florida State and Clemson are givens. North Carolina won't merit serious discussion with two FCS teams on its schedule. That brings us to Louisville, a team with high expectations after an impressive bowl win over Texas A&M. The Cards return all their best players, including dynamic quarterback Lamar Jackson and hybrid end/linebacker Devonte Fields, the former Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year. Their schedule is a bear; they play preseason Top 25 Florida State, Clemson and Houston. If they can find a way to sneak past all three and make it to the ACC championship game undefeated, their strength of schedule should be enough to put them in the playoff discussion. It should also be noted that Louisville lost to Clemson by a combined nine points the past two seasons and hung with Florida State early in both games. Florida State and Clemson are still the best in the Atlantic, but Louisville cannot be completely discounted. -- Andrea Adelson

Big 12: TCU

It’s easy to write off TCU’s hopes of a first College Football Playoff appearance. Dynamic quarterback Trevone Boykin has moved on, and NFL first-round pick Josh Doctson will be making plays in Washington this fall, after being part of the duo that carried the Horned Frogs in several wins a year ago. However, a young and now experienced defense returns and gets some key pieces -- cornerback Ranthony Texada, defensive end James McFarland -- back from injury. With talented players ready to step in at running back and receiver, the quarterback is the final piece of the puzzle. TCU’s offense transformed into one of the Big 12’s big play behemoths when Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie arrived two seasons ago, so 2016 could be the test of whether Boykin or the new offense was responsible for TCU’s rise. Foster Sawyer and Kenny Hill are battling to replace Boykin, and if either signal-caller can keep the Horned Frogs' attack humming to combine with a defense that should be among the Big 12’s best, TCU could surprise and force itself into playoff contention. -- Brandon Chatmon

Big Ten: Michigan State

You know you want to doubt the Spartans. Connor Cook and Shilique Calhoun are gone. Michigan is rising. If you’re counting, the Spartans have won 36 games in three seasons and 65 in the past six. Quarterback Tyler O’Connor showed this spring that he is ready to lead. Running back LJ Scott is a ready-made star. Malik McDowell and Riley Bullough can power the defense. But MSU is a smart pick as a sleeper because of its potential path to the playoff. If Michigan State survives Week 3 at Notre Dame -- or, perhaps, if it shows well in a loss -- the conference slate sets up nicely, with the Spartans’ top competition in the East, Michigan and Ohio State, and most dangerous foes out of the West, Wisconsin and Northwestern, headed to East Lansing. Go ahead and count the Spartans out. That’s just how Michigan State likes it. -- Mitch Sherman

Pac-12: Utah

Although much of the preseason attention in the Pac-12 has drifted north, with Washington and Washington State seemingly rising to challenge Oregon and Stanford, a team that is getting overlooked -- again -- is Utah. Guess which Pac-12 team was the only one to post wins over Oregon, Stanford, USC and UCLA the past two seasons? Yep, the Utes. While USC has an impressive offensive line and Washington is strong on the defensive front, the Utes own the best combination on the line of scrimmage in the conference. That's a good start. Although there are plenty of questions, starting at quarterback but perhaps as pressing at linebacker, Utah showed with a 10-3 season last year that it is no longer a newbie in the Pac-12. It's a legit contender. -- Ted Miller

SEC: Ole Miss

No Laremy Tunsil, Laquon Treadwell or Robert Nkemdiche ... no problem? Not when you start the season in Orlando against Florida State and face both Alabama and Georgia in the month of September. But if the Rebs can get through a difficult early stretch, they could easily find themselves well inside the top 10 with legitimate championship aspirations. Why? Simply put, they have the most talented quarterback in the league in Chad Kelly, who threw for more than 4,000 yards last season. Although some of the stars of years past are gone, the overall health of the roster has never been better, with a veteran secondary, deep defensive line and plenty of weapons on offense, thanks to the returns of tight end Evan Engram and wideouts Quincy Adeboyejo and Damore'ea Stringfellow. -- Alex Scarborough