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Bracket busters: Potential wild-card teams for CFB playoff

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Garry Jones/Associated Press
Louisville wide receiver DaVante Parker could put up big numbers in Bobby Petrino's new offense.

OK, so all the preseason top 25s are in and the 1-128 countdowns are over, and though the season hasn't even kicked off, the focus already has turned to the four teams that will make the playoff field.

Conventional wisdom is that Florida State is a lock, with Oregon, Stanford, UCLA, Oklahoma, Baylor, Alabama, Auburn, South Carolina and Michigan State the most likely candidates to join the Seminoles in football's final four.

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Those teams already have been dissected enough. Today, let's look at one team from each of the "Power Five" leagues that could surprise and play its way into the field. Truthfully, if any of these teams make it in, it would be a surprise. But there is hope -- and perhaps more than you think.

As for a team outside the Power Five making it in, let's pause while we all chuckle. Not going to happen, though one of those teams is guaranteed a spot in one of the "big" bowls.

Here are the potential surprises.

ACC: Louisville

Three reasons to believe:
1. Skill-position talent: WR DeVante Parker is a big-time athlete with 80-catch potential in this offense, and there are numerous solid complementary targets, including Eli Rogers and James Quick. RB Dominique Brown is a downhill runner who also is an effective receiver. And if backup RB Michael Dyer is fully invested, Louisville will have the best running back duo in the ACC and one of the best in the nation. Dyer was a key figure on Auburn's 2010 national title team, but on- and off-field issues have derailed his career. If he gets it back on track, there will be an embarrassment of riches surrounding QB Will Gardner.
2. Linebackers: The Cardinals are moving to a 3-4 set from a 4-3, and one reason is the amount of talent at linebacker. Senior Lorenzo Mauldin had 9.5 sacks last season and is a threat to get to 12 as an outside 'backer this season. James Burgess is solid against the run. And if Keith Brown, who missed most of last season with an injury, is 100 percent healthy, he has All-ACC talent. Depth is good, too.
3. Play-calling: Say what you want about Bobby Petrino as a person, the guy is a play-calling genius. When he truly gets on a roll, his offenses become unstoppable. Gardner has an extremely strong arm, and obviously will benefit from Petrino's tutelage.

Big Ten: Iowa

Three reasons to believe:
1. Easy schedule: The toughest non-conference game is at Pitt, which should be a middle-of-the-road ACC team. The Big Ten division crossover games are against Indiana and Maryland, which means the Hawkeyes avoid Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State and Ohio State. Frankly, Iowa should start 10-0 -- and the last two games are in Iowa City, against Wisconsin and Nebraska. Those are the only truly tough games on the schedule.
2. Line play: Iowa might have the best offensive tackle in the nation in Brandon Scherff. He heads a deep, experienced offensive line. And Carl Davis at least is in the discussion about the best senior defensive tackle in the nation. He is one of three starters back along the defensive front, and he teams with the underrated Louis Trinca-Pasat to give the Hawkeyes a tough tandem in the middle.
3. Running game: Iowa under Kirk Ferentz has been at its best when the running game produces. While there is no true standout at tailback, three guys should get a healthy number of carries -- and they should produce. Iowa averaged 179.9 rushing yards per game last season; it wouldn't be a surprise to see that number increase by 50 per game this season. And if QB Jake Rudock is able to use play-action extensively, he could get into the mid-20s in TD passes even without a true go-to receiver.

Big 12: Kansas State

Three reasons to believe:
1. Bill Snyder: He's not exactly Mr. Personality, but he is a phenomenal coach who generally pushes all the right buttons. His teams don't beat themselves and usually are able to win once or twice per season against a team they have no business beating when it comes to sheer talent.
2. Underrated talent: Outside of explosive senior WR Tyler Lockett, this isn't a team filled with well-known players. But C B.J. Finney, DE Ryan Mueller, OT Cody Whitehair and QB Jake Waters are among the best players in the Big 12 at their positions, and there is solid talent surrounding them, too.
3. Veteran quarterback: Waters is heading into his second season as the starter, and he performed admirably replacing Collin Klein last season, tossing 18 TD passes and also running for 312 yards and six TDs. But get this: The Wichita Eagle did some research that shows that each of the past five times that Snyder returned his leading passer from the previous season (1998, 2000, 2002, 2003 and 2012), the Wildcats won 11 games. Will history repeat?

Pac-12: Washington

Three reasons to believe:
1. Chris Petersen: We're not belittling Steve Sarkisian when we say "Coach Pete" is a coaching upgrade. Petersen did fabulous work at Boise State. While the competition level is much higher in the Pac-12 than it was in the Mountain West or the now-defunct WAC, Petersen never has had this much overall talent to work with, either.
2. Experienced defense: The focus rightly was on RB Bishop Sankey and the offense last season, but the Huskies' defense was competent. It should be better this fall. The front four returns intact, and NT Danny Sheldon and DE Hau'oli Kikaha are studs. Sheldon is a human wall in the middle, while Kikaha might be the most underrated pass rusher in the nation (he had 13 sacks last season, yet remains under the radar). OLB Shaq Thompson is a big hitter who covers a ton of ground. And while CB Marcus Peters is the only returning starter in the secondary, he also is the second-best corner in the league, behind only Oregon's Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. Plus, a good front seven should ease some of the pressure on the rebuilt secondary.
3. Offensive line: Washington ranked 15th nationally in rushing last season, and Sankey's presence was the main reason. Still, all five starters return along the offensive line, and if you're breaking in a new quarterback (Cyler Miles) and a new tailback (either James Callier or Dwayne Washington), it sure helps to have an experienced offensive front. Even better: Four of the five returning starters are seniors, and the other is a junior. These guys have played a lot of football -- and at a high level.

SEC: Florida

Three reasons to believe:
1. Overall talent: Yes, Florida was 4-8 last season. But the Gators went 11-2 in 2012 and it's not like all their talent vanished into thin air. Florida annually reels in top-ranked recruiting classes, and key injuries were one of the reasons for last season's swoon. CB Vernon Hargreaves III might be the nation's best at his position, and DE Dante Fowler Jr. is another big-timer. As for the guys who haven't produced much offensively? It's not as if Florida was the only school recruiting those guys, and RB Kelvin Taylor, WR DeMarcus Robinson and OT D.J. Humphries, in particular, seem in line for big seasons.
2. Scheme change: One reason Florida has struggled offensively the past three seasons -- actually, "struggled" is too kind -- is that the key talent on hand was ill-suited for a pro-style attack. The move back to a spread attack should especially help QB Jeff Driskel, who was an Urban Meyer recruit. Driskel is a big, physical guy with a strong arm, but he is a spread quarterback, not a dropback guy. His comfort level seems way up in fall camp, and that should mean at least a competent offense for the first time since the 2009 season.
3. The SEC East is a mystery: South Carolina and Georgia are considered the top two teams in the division, but both have flaws. Both have star tailbacks, but the quarterbacks are a concern at both schools. In addition, South Carolina's defensive front is a question, and Georgia's secondary looks quite messy. Division foes Missouri, Vanderbilt, Tennessee and Kentucky also have holes (a lot, in fact, at Vandy, UT and UK). Florida has flaws, as well. But it's not as if Florida is in the SEC West or Pac-12 North; the SEC East is winnable for the Gators if everything breaks right.

Mike Huguenin can be reached at mike.huguenin@nfl.com. You also can follow him on Twitter @MikeHuguenin.

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