We can't see them right now, but they're out there, lurking quietly in the double-digit rankings -- or maybe outside the Top 25 altogether.
Just beyond the shine of the bright lights, a team is working on something big. A team the wise guys have overlooked and undervalued. A team that will win more games than any of us envisioned. A team that will complain about being disrespected, then steadily climb the rankings, then crow about shocking the college football world.
It happens every fall. Last year it was Auburn (preseason No. 17 AP, postseason No. 2). The year before that it was LSU (preseason No. 14, postseason co-national champions). In 2002 it was Ohio State (preseason No. 10, postseason a unanimous No. 1). In 2000 it was Oklahoma (preseason No. 19, postseason unanimous No. 1).
So if your team is not ranked in the top 10 today, don't despair. It can still get there from here.
But the sleeper needs more than just the cover of low expectations. It needs a certain set of characteristics to make that climb from overlooked to overpowering. Looking back at the past few years, ESPN.com has built a "Profile of a Sleeper Team."
The key ingredients:
1. A reason to be overlooked.
They might be coming off an underachieving season (see: Auburn, 8-5 in '03). They might still be building under a new coach (see: Ohio State was 7-5 in its first year under Jim Tressel in '01, and Oklahoma was 7-5 in its first year under Bob Stoops in '99). They might have experienced injuries the year before, or have a quarterback who hasn't yet put it all together (see: LSU, 8-5 in '02 with Matt Mauck as a first-year starter).
"They tend to be really good programs with really good players who, for whatever reason, lost three-plus games the previous year," said NC State assistant coach Manny Diaz. "So they tend to be under-ranked."
Colorado coach Gary Barnett has shocked college football twice with sleeper teams. His 2001 Buffaloes went from unranked in August to No. 3 heading into the bowls. And then there was the greatest sleeper since the Woody Allen film: the 1995 Northwestern Rose Bowl miracle.
Those two Barnett teams had several things in common, including losing records the previous season.
"Both teams had come off very disappointing years," Barnett said. "Both were in the early stages of transformation -- a change of coaches, philosophies, styles. And both had a lot of injuries the year before."
2. A championship bond.
Everybody says they have great chemistry, a team-first attitude and a united locker room. Not everybody is telling the truth.
Unselfishness isn't infused into teams by signs and slogans so much as by actual on-field example. Exhibit A: Auburn running backs Ronnie Brown and Carnell Williams.
Both were star-level players, yet neither transferred. Neither turned pro early. Neither created a public disturbance by pouting about a lack of carries. Happy ending: They shared the ball, shared the position and wound up with a 13-0 senior season and first-round NFL money. Talk about win-win.
"Those two backs epitomized the attitude of our team," Auburn offensive coordinator Al Borges said. "We had unselfishness and chemistry from the head coach to the equipment room. Everyone was on a mission.
"You can win eight or nine games with good talent. To win more than that, you have to have more than that."
3. Upperclass leaders.
Another ancient team-sports bromide, but there's a reason it's been around forever. It's true. Teams that lack maturity and peer leadership don't generally get that far.
"We knew we had leadership," Barnett said of his Northwestern and Colorado breakthrough teams. "We had a lot of fourth- and fifth-year players. Leadership was probably the biggest factor in both. That is something that a sportswriter can't predict. The intangibles are what usually make the difference and it is the intangibles that people outside of the programs never see."
We might not see it in August, but we can recognize it by season's end. It's no coincidence that Auburn had 20 seniors on last year's team, most in the Tommy Tuberville Era on The Plains. And Ohio State's current seniors recall arriving on campus as freshmen and being confronted by senior safety Mike Doss, who laid down the expectations immediately.
"Day one we walked in and Mike Doss is saying, 'We're going for the national championship,'" linebacker A.J. Hawk recalled. "I was just trying to learn the defense."
"The seniors came right up and told us that was our goal," center Nick Mangold said. "You think everyone says that, but you could tell these guys had a sense of urgency and excitement. As soon as you got in camp that was the mindset, and as every game went on and you thought of that next step, we were one step closer to getting it done."
4. First-round talent.
You can have all the intangibles you want, but it takes good players to make them work. Big, fast and strong are nonnegotiable elements to a successful season.
Auburn had a mere four first-round picks last season, including the No. 2 overall pick (Brown), the No. 5 pick (Williams) and the third defensive player chosen (defensive back Carlos Rogers at No. 9). Offensive tackle Marcus McNeill seems a good bet to hear his name called in the first round next April.
LSU had a pair of first-round picks on its '03 team (receiver Michael Clayton and defensive end Marcus Spears) and could have more after this season.
Three players from Ohio State's '02 champs have been first-round picks (defensive end Will Smith, cornerback Chris Gamble and wide receiver Michael Jenkins). A few guys who played as true freshmen on that team could be selected in '06.
Oklahoma had two first-rounders from its 2000 team (safety Roy Williams and cornerback Andre Woolfolk).
5. An experienced, intelligent QB poised for a career year.
Josh Heupel was a fifth-year senior at Oklahoma. So was Jason Campbell at Auburn. Mauck of LSU was only a junior -- but he was also 24 years old, after taking a run at pro baseball. Craig Krenzel of Ohio State was a junior, too, but the molecular biology major had the brain of a 50-year-old coach.
All started in games prior to their big seasons, yet all had left lingering questions about how good they could be -- no small reason why their teams were viewed with some skepticism. All four came through beyond the nation's wildest expectations.
Heupel, whose arm strength was questioned, went on to become Heisman Trophy runner-up to Chris Weinke. Campbell set the Auburn single-season pass efficiency record. Mauck set the LSU season record for TD passes, and had the highest completion percentage in school history by a full-time starter. Krenzel threw for 2,100 yards and made a succession of huge plays in the Fiesta Bowl national championship upset of Miami.
"Everybody made a big deal of the fact that Jason had four coordinators in four years," Borges said of Campbell. "But that actually made the transition easier. He'd been exposed to a lot of football, and he was ready to put it all together."
It should be noted that all four QBs not only could play the game, they could think it, too. Heupel is now on the Oklahoma coaching staff. Mauck and Campbell were academic All-SEC selections. And Krenzel was an academic All-American.
Of course, it helps if the offensive line is loaded with veterans, and the defense is so good, the quarterback rarely has to win shootouts. Which brings us to our next point
6. A potentially dominant defense.
Auburn led the nation in scoring defense last season, allowing just 11.2 points per game. LSU did it the year before at 11.0. Ohio State never allowed more than 21 points in a '02 regulation game. Oklahoma climaxed its '00 title run with a defensive tour de force that held Florida State to two points in the Orange Bowl.
The common denominator with all four teams: It was easier to decode the human genome than to run the ball against those defenses. Ohio State and LSU probably had the best defensive lines in the country those years. Oklahoma had fast, run-stuffing linebackers, plus Roy Williams playing Terminator at safety. By season's end, Auburn was holding heavyweights Georgia, Alabama and Virginia Tech to an average of 70 rushing yards.
7. Special teams that can win games -- or avoid losing them.
In 2003, LSU was sixth in the nation in punt returns, 13th in net punting, led the SEC in punts inside the 20-yard line and scored two TDs on special teams. Ohio State's national title would never have happened without the heroics of punter Andy Groom and All-American kicker Mike Nugent.
8. A few breaks from the scheduling gods.
General rule of thumb: A sleeper doesn't stress itself in nonconference play.
Auburn's non-SEC schedule last year consisted of Louisiana-Monroe, Louisiana Tech and the Citadel. (The previous two years the Tigers played USC -- and lost.) Auburn's two highest-ranked opponents at the time they played (No. 5 LSU and No. 8 Georgia) both came to Jordan-Hare Stadium.
LSU's only nonconference game of consequence in '03 was at Arizona -- at a time when the Wildcats were bottoming out under (and quitting on) John Mackovic. Georgia, Florida and Auburn all came to Baton Rouge. Tennessee was off the schedule.
Ohio State had a room-service schedule in '02. The Buckeyes didn't leave the state until October, and they were 5-0 by then. Every ranked opponent came to Columbus, and a very good Iowa team was off the schedule.
Oklahoma's 2000 nonconference lineup: UTEP, Arkansas State and Rice. A nice way to limber up for the Big 12.
So there you have it. Eight simple rules for finding the Sleeper among us. Do it now, before they're saying "Told ya so" in January.
Pat Forde is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.