When the regular season is over, the powerhouse programs are usually in position to challenge for a national title. One of college football's best appeals, however, is the potential for an upset of Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma or other big-name teams along the way.
And that "Any given Saturday" danger can ruin a season.
Entering the 2021 campaign, per DraftKings, 20 teams hold +8000 odds or better to win the national title. Our focus is on programs beyond the list that are built to derail those championship pursuits—and might even contend for a conference crown.
Organized alphabetically, the list is subjective but considers 2021 schedule, returning production and projected performance.
Arizona State Sun Devils
For many reasons, it's risky to use 2020 as a barometer of a team. That's especially true for Arizona State, which had a 28-day gap between its first two games of the year. Considering the sample size and context, it was simply a lost season.
From a national perspective, though, it removed Arizona State from the conversation. Predictions for the upcoming season typically have Oregon, USC and Washington at the top of the Pac-12.
But when Herm Edwards arrived in 2018, the Sun Devils embraced a youth movement. The four-year plan, in theory, should pay dividends this season. Led by quarterback Jayden Daniels, linebacker Merlin Robertson and safety Evan Fields, Arizona State has a ton of experience on both sides of the ball.
Navigating trips to UCLA (Oct. 2) and Utah (Oct. 16) is key, but Arizona State hosts USC on Nov. 6 in a matchup that may decide the South Division champion.
Iowa has the potential to be extremely pesky. Although the Hawkeyes won't play Ohio State in the regular season, their schedule is loaded with "second-tier" competition.
Nationally, that means Iowa State (Sep. 11). Iowa's in-state rival is aiming to contend for the College Football Playoff, and an early loss to the Hawkeyes—who boast five straight wins in the series—would put an immediate dent in Iowa State's hopes.
In the Big Ten, Iowa hosts Indiana (Sep. 4) and Penn State (Oct. 9). Both teams, along with Michigan, are trying to end Ohio State's reign. But if Iowa wins, the Buckeyes will have an even greater chance at a fifth straight trip to Indianapolis.
While it's unlikely the Hawkeyes compete for a CFP berth, their impact could be felt in the Big Ten and beyond.