College Football 2012: 11 Dark Horse BCS Title Contenders
Four of the past five national champions have started the season in the top five of the polls, with only Auburn in 2010 making a major rise en route to the national title. The usual suspects—Alabama, LSU and Oregon, among others—will be the preseason favorites to bring home the crystal ball.
However, there is always the possibility of a team duplicating what Auburn did in 2010, or LSU in 2003 or Oklahoma in 2000. There is no formula for finding that surprise team, but coaching, line play and a favorable schedule all can fuel a title run.
Here are 11 candidates for a team who will likely start the season outside of the top five, but could find itself, to channel my inner Brent Musburger, playing for all the oranges on Jan. 7 in Miami.
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Would it really shock anyone if the Broncos walked into Spartan Stadium on Aug. 31 and upset Michigan State, even without Kellen Moore? After their success in recent openers against Oregon, Virginia Tech and Georgia, it’s hard to bet against Chris Petersen with time to prepare.
The losses are severe in both quantity and quality for Boise State. In addition to Moore, defensive starters Shea McClellin, Billy Winn and George Iloka all must be replaced. However, Petersen has built depth in recent years to help overcome all of the departures.
With a win in East Lansing, the Broncos should be favored in their final 11 games. There’s no TCU to deal with since the Horned Frogs are headed to the Big 12, so Boise State is still the clear favorite in the Mountain West.
I cringed writing Clemson. I really did. I just know it's going to go all Clemson on us and lose to a 4-5 team in a game with a 12:30 start on the ACC Network, but it’s hard to ignore the offensive firepower the Tigers possess.
Chad Morris’ offense is ready to rock in year two with the best receiving corps outside of Los Angeles, led by star sophomore Sammy Watkins. There are concerns in the trenches, but they can be masked more so in the ACC than in the SEC or Big Ten.
Three of the four road games are Boston College, Duke and Wake Forest, and the trip to Florida State is early enough that Clemson could lose and still find itself back in the title picture by season’s end.
Despite a 7-6 record in 2011, the Gators have a lot of similarities to many recent national title winners. Their front seven is dominant, they have a second-year head coach and they have a first-year starting quarterback.
Of the past five national champions, only Florida in 2008 did not have a first-year starter under center. While Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel won’t be mistaken for Cam Newton, or even A.J. McCarron, the Gators are surrounded by talent that started to come together with a strong bowl game and solid spring.
None of Florida's three toughest SEC games—Georgia, LSU and South Carolina—are true road games. Trips to Texas A&M and Florida State won’t be fun, but the only other road games are Tennessee and Vanderbilt. Florida does not leave the Sunshine State after their Oct. 13 game in Nashville.
Mark Richt pulled himself of off the hot seat with 10 straight wins last season after an 0-2 start, but the best win in that stretch came against an Auburn team that finished 8-5. However, the defense appears to be close to the level that it was in the early part of last decade under Brian VanGorder.
If the Bulldogs can survive early suspensions to many of their key defensive backs, the schedule sets up well for a second straight SEC East title and perhaps a run at the national title. Road trips to Auburn, Missouri and South Carolina won’t be fun, but they’re all at least four weeks apart.
For a second straight year, Georgia avoids Alabama, Arkansas and LSU. With the only third-year starting quarterback in the SEC in Aaron Murray, it’s hard not to be high on the Bulldogs.
A Big East team in national title contention? Sure, why not? Charlie Strong is building something special at Louisville after Steve Kragthorpe ruined what Bobby Petrino left him. Sophomore quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is a budding star, and Strong is close to having the defense to look like what he envisioned.
There’s some talent at receiver for Bridgewater to throw to, and the secondary is the best in the Big East and one of the better units in the country. The Cardinals shared the Big East title last season and played their best football in November.
Cincinnati, North Carolina and USF all come to Papa John’s Stadium. Road games include Pittsburgh, Rutgers and Southern Miss, but all three have new coaches this season.
Did Michigan overachieve last season? Yeah, probably. It had no business winning games against Notre Dame and Virginia Tech, but it’s hard to argue with 11-2 in the first year of entirely new systems on both sides of the ball.
The Wolverines won’t go 12-0 with having to face Alabama, Nebraska, Notre Dame and Ohio State all away from home, but two of those games are in September, allowing enough time to suffer a loss and still return to top of the polls.
Greg Mattison is not just a good defensive coordinator, but a great one. While Denard Robinson can’t be relied on as a consistent passer, he and offensive coordinator Al Borges are on the same page with what the team wants to do offensively.
Steve Spurrier hasn’t won an SEC title at South Carolina, but he’s accomplished things never before seen in Columbia. The Gamecocks won their first ever SEC East title in 2010, and followed that up with their first ever 11-win season last year.
Marcus Lattimore returns for what likely will be his final season after missing six games last year with a knee injury. The roller coaster ride with Stephen Garcia is finally behind them, with Connor Shaw poised for a strong junior season.
South Carolina draws both LSU and Arkansas from the SEC West, but the Gamecocks can afford a loss and still contend for the national title. Georgia, Missouri and Tennessee all come to Williams-Brice Stadium.
Last year was supposed to be the year Texas returned to glory, but it didn’t quite happen, as the Longhorns stumbled to an 8-5 record. The quarterback position appears to finally be stable, as David Ash has all but won the starting job from Case McCoy.
The three-headed monster at running back of Joe Bergeron, Malcolm Brown and dazzling freshman Johnathan Gray is as good as any unit in the country. Quandre Diggs and Carrington Byndom are the best cornerback duo in the Big 12, and the defensive front is loaded.
While the Longhorns must go to Kansas State and Oklahoma State, TCU and West Virginia both come to Austin, and the Oklahoma game is of course at the Cotton Bowl. Anything short of 10 wins will be a major disappointment.
You can always count on Frank Beamer’s Hokies to win at least 10 games. One or two really big games will decide whether Virginia Tech is a legitimate national title contender. Last year, it fell flat in two spotlight games with Clemson, scoring just 13 total points in the two games.
The defense should be one of the best in the Bud Foster era, as many players who missed time with injuries last season have healed. Logan Thomas loses most of his weapons, but he should be good enough in his second year as a starter to carry the Hokies offense.
While Virginia Tech has to go to Clemson, Miami (FL) and North Carolina, it gets Florida State at home on a Thursday night in November. Georgia Tech is the season opener, so there is ample time to prepare for the Yellow Jackets' triple option.
The Mountaineers appear to be an ideal fit in the pass-happy Big 12, as head coach Dana Holgorsen and senior quarterback Geno Smith hope to build on their 70-point performance in the Orange Bowl. Speedy receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey also return.
Colorado, Nebraska and Utah all struggled last season in their first seasons in new leagues, so there might be some growing pains for West Virginia. However, Holgorsen comes from a Big 12 background as an assistant at both Oklahoma State and Texas Tech.
The schedule is favorable, beginning with three easy non-conference games. Kansas State, Oklahoma and TCU all come to Morgantown, with the toughest road game coming at Texas in early October.
The Badgers have been close each of the past two years. If their pass defense didn’t completely break down at the end of losses to Michigan State and Ohio State, Wisconsin would have played for the national title last season.
Continuing its trend of singing free agent quarterbacks, Wisconsin has added Maryland transfer Danny O’Brien to direct an offense that should flourish with Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball at running back.
The Badgers also have an ideal schedule for a run at the national title, with their only difficult road game at Nebraska. Michigan State and Ohio State both come to Madison, and there’s no Iowa or Michigan to deal with at least until the Big Ten Championship Game.