The more one watches college football, the more he learns to expect the unexpected. Data frequently becomes meaningless as the college football gods subject us to their nonsensical whims, seemingly altering the very laws of physics to plant dissonance and absurdity in the least reasonable places.
College fantasy football is subjected to those same whims, of course, and winning or losing largely depends on how well you anticipate the improbable. This is a sport where a freshman can leave spring camp as the underdog in his team's quarterback competition, get arrested in summer for fighting and giving police a fake ID, and then win the Heisman Trophy in autumn with one of the greatest college football performances of all time.
As Johnny Manziel reminded us last year, placing your bets solely on the obvious won't get you far. College football's regular season is short, and the fantasy playoffs are always closer than you think. Each loss is a significant strike to your chances of making the postseason, so you'll need to hit home runs constantly to stay in the hunt. If you're going to match your opponents' firepower, even your late-round picks and waiver-wire additions will need to perform heroically.
The following list provides a small sample of sleepers to target in the late rounds of draft, as well as a parallel list of busts who are liable to give you a disappointing return on your early round investments.
DaMarcus Smith, QB, Western Kentucky
Smith is a dual-threat Central Florida transfer who hasn't officially won the starting quarterback role for Western Kentucky, but given that his competition is Brandon Doughty (13-of-22 for 106 yards and an INT in 2011), Smith should be considered the favorite. Head coach Willie Taggart left WKU for South Florida this offseason, and the Hilltoppers replaced him with Bobby Petrino. Before setting it on fire in April last year, Petrino initially built up his reputation and endeared himself to the state of Kentucky by leading Louisville to a 41-9 record from 2003 to 2006, creating high-powered offenses year after year. After a regrettable one-year stint with the Atlanta Falcons, Arkansas hired Petrino in 2008, and he helped make Ryan Mallett and Tyler Wilson two of the nation's most productive quarterbacks. Smith should be Petrino's next star quarterback, particularly in a talented offense that plays a favorable Sun Belt schedule.
Brandon Mitchell, QB, North Carolina State
Mitchell wanted to play quarterback for Arkansas this season, but new coach Bret Bielema didn't think Mitchell was a quarterback at all. N.C. State coach Dave Doeren felt the opposite, however. So Mitchell transferred to N.C. State, where Doeren will attempt to implement the same run-heavy spread offense that made Chandler Harnish and Jordan Lynch fantasy superstars at Northern Illinois. Given his vastly superior athleticism to Pete Thomas, Mitchell's primary competition for the starting quarterback spot, Mitchell looks like the best fit for the scheme. If he wins the job, Mitchell should rack up a lot of rushing yardage, giving him added fantasy value.
Brandon Cottom, RB, Purdue
Akeem Hunt is the more obvious breakout running back for Purdue after making numerous huge plays the last two years, but there's room for another star in the Purdue backfield. An oversized tank of a running back at 6-foot-4, 258, Cottom looks like the best bet to emerge as Purdue's power runner in new coach Darrell Hazell's run-heavy offense, which featured two distinct positions at Kent State between a speed runner (Dri Archer) and power back (Trayion Durham). Hunt will take the Archer role, while Cottom is the on-paper fit to play the bulldozing position, a role that saw Durham total 14 touchdowns last year for Kent State. Cottom might actually have more upside than Durham, because Cottom showed a lot of big-play ability last year, averaging 9.1 yards per rush and scoring twice on 23 carries while taking seven catches for 79 yards and two scores.
Dominique Brown, RB, Louisville
Brown switched from quarterback to running back on short notice in 2011 and struggled to learn the new craft, running for just 3.8 yards per carry despite possessing promising raw rushing skills. He took a redshirt in 2012 to study the position and improve his vision and confidence in reads and cuts. The timing couldn't be better. Star runner Senorise Perry suffered a torn ACL last November that should keep him out about a third of the season, and Jeremy Wright left for the NFL this offseason, which suddenly leaves Brown as the projected starting running back in Louisville's high-powered offense.
Dominique Williams, WR, Washington State
Like all of the Washington State offense, Williams really struggled early in 2012 as the team worked out the kinks in its new Air Raid offense. After receiving considerable hype for his spring performances, Williams went on to total just three catches for 48 yards in the first six weeks. The light turned on against California on Oct. 13, though, as he went on a six-game spree in which he caught 31 passes for 498 yards and three touchdowns, finally displaying the field-stretching ability that excited the team in spring. Williams should take on that expanded role this season because top 2012 receiver Marquess Wilson is now trying his hand at the NFL.
Quan Bray, WR, Auburn
Bray has been a bust for Auburn, as the Tigers haven't found a way to get him the ball in space. While he's fast-footed and speedy, Bray is too small to be an SEC running back and hasn't shown the polish necessary to get on the field as a receiver. But he looks like a good breakout candidate this year because he reportedly is the starting slot receiver entering camp. New coach Gus Malzahn made heavy use of the slot receiver at Arkansas State, turning J.D. McKissic into a 100-catch, 1,000-yard player. Bray is more likely to catch 60 passes than 100, but he's also expected to get occasional work as a running back and wildcat quarterback.
Jordan Leggett, TE, Clemson
Brandon Ford was one of the top fantasy tight ends last year, catching 40 passes for 480 yards and eight touchdowns. Dwayne Allen was similarly productive in that role a season earlier, snagging 49 passes for 592 yards and eight scores. Now Leggett is poised to earn the starting tight-end job in 2013, as a true freshman, an accomplishment that will also earn him high expectations. That's particularly true given that he was one of Clemson's top players this spring, turning heads with seven receptions for 97 yards and a touchdown in the spring game.
Taylor Kelly, QB, Arizona State
Kelly threw for 3,040 yards, 29 touchdowns and nine interceptions last year while running for 520 yards and another touchdown, so it's easy to see why he might be mistaken for one of this year's top fantasy quarterbacks. While Kelly will likely continue to play effectively for Arizona State, his job isn't necessarily secure. The shadow of Michael Eubank looms large as one of 2011's top quarterback recruits, and Eubank got his foot in the door last year by forcing a platoon with Kelly, throwing for 330 yards, four touchdowns and three interceptions while running for 223 yards and four more scores. Eubank expects more playing time in 2013, and if Kelly continues to struggle against good defenses (four touchdowns and eight interceptions against Missouri, Oregon, Oregon State and USC last year), coach Todd Graham will have a good reason to give Eubank more snaps at Kelly's expense.
Cody Fajardo, QB, Nevada
Fajardo is a good quarterback who should have some big games and a strong season, but his production likely won't justify his draft-day price, which is based on one of last year's top performances. Fajardo threw for 2,786 yards and 20 touchdowns in 12 games last season and, more important, ran for 1,121 yards and 12 touchdowns, undoubtedly putting him on a number of championship fantasy squads. But with the loss of three-fifths of his offensive line and star running back Stefphon Jefferson (1,883 rushing yards, 24 TD), defenses will be gunning for Fajardo more often and more successfully on zone-read runs, likely stifling his production. What's more, legendary coach and perfector of the pistol offense Chris Ault retired. Holdover offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich will keep the pistol in place with new head coach Brian Polian, but losing Ault has to hurt. Fajardo also faces a tough schedule this year with road matches against UCLA, Florida State, San Diego State and Boise State, as well as a home match against BYU in the fantasy championship round.
Kenneth Dixon, RB, Louisiana Tech
This one is too easy, because almost any running back who scores 28 touchdowns (27 rushing) in 12 games is bound to disappoint fantasy owners the next year. Dixon is a classic case of setting the bar too high. His 2013 owners will have to pay the 28-TD price to get him, but a 14-touchdown season is far more probable, primarily because of the departure of coach Sonny Dykes, the offense's main architect. Louisiana Tech's new playcaller, Tony Petersen, co-coordinated a Marshall offense that totaled 24 rushing touchdowns last year. Dykes' offense, meanwhile, ran for 47. Dixon accounted for 57.4 percent of Louisiana Tech's rushing touchdowns; that share would net him 14 rushing scores in Marshall's 2012 offense. Dixon faces further obstacles in that Louisiana Tech is replacing all but one of its five starters from last year's offensive line, and the return of Tevin King from an ACL tear (336 yards, five TD in three games) figures to eat into Dixon's workload.
Carlos Hyde, RB, Ohio State
Like Dixon, Hyde should be a useful fantasy player this year, but he's unlikely to live up to the standards that fantasy owners have come to expect. Hyde totaled 17 touchdowns (16 rushing) in just 10 games last year, including 15 touchdowns in the final seven weeks. If you invest in Hyde expecting him to produce two touchdowns per game, you will be let down. Even in a superb offense with a strong offensive line, Hyde would be hard-pressed to maintain that rate with a monopoly on Ohio State's running-back role, and he won't have anything close to a monopoly this year. The trio of Rod Smith, Bri'onte Dunn and Warren Ball is very talented. Indeed, each might be better than Hyde. And each will steal carries from Hyde this season.
Nick Harwell, WR, Kansas
Harwell has been one of the nation's best fantasy receivers the last three years, catching 229 passes in 34 games to total 3,166 yards and 23 touchdowns. If he hadn't gotten himself kicked off the Miami, Ohio, team, he'd be one of the absolute best fantasy receivers this year, too. But he did get kicked off the team, and Kansas was apparently the best landing spot offered him. This is an offense that completed 47.3 percent of its passes last year for 1,784 yards and seven touchdowns. The arrival of BYU transfer and former five-star recruit Jake Heaps might seem like a cure-all at a glance, but then you remember that Dayne Crist (Notre Dame transfer and former five-star recruit) completed 47.7 percent of his passes for four touchdowns and nine interceptions last year, and everything seems hopeless again. Because it probably is.
Josh Stewart, WR, Oklahoma State
Keep Stewart near the top of your wide-receiver rankings in PPR leagues. He's Oklahoma State's primary chain-mover and is likely to approach 85 catches in his 11 fantasy-eligible games this year. If you're not in PPR, however, Stewart's yardage and touchdown totals might disappoint. Although the Oklahoma State passing game should stay strong this year, Blake Jackson and the Moores (Charlie and Tracy) will demand more targets than they received last year. That's particularly true in the case of Tracy, who missed one game to suspension and eight games due to injury last year but might be the team's best receiver when healthy. That's not to minimize Jackson or Charlie Moore, however, because Jackson is one of the nation's best tight ends and Moore showed a lot of improvement last year, scoring five weeks in a row.
Kyle Carter, TE, Penn State
Carter is one of the nation's most promising tight ends and understandably could be the recipient of many breakout predictions this year. But despite catching 36 passes for 453 yards and two touchdowns in just nine games last year, Carter is unlikely to be a top-12 fantasy tight end in 2013. The Penn State passing game as a whole is likely to take a step back due to the graduation of quarterback Matt McGloin, who threw for 3,271 yards and 24 touchdowns last year, and Carter has a lot of competition for targets in an offense loaded with skill position talent. The most notable target hog is star wideout Allen Robinson, who caught 77 passes in 12 games last year, but fellow tight ends Jesse James and Matt Lehman may be the most direct threats to Carter's production. Lehman caught 24 passes for 296 yards and three scores last year, and James in particular is a concern after snagging 15 passes for 276 yards and five touchdowns in 11 games.