College Football 2012: Surprise Teams That Could Capture Conference Crowns
The 2012 college football season hasn't even started yet and we are already picking our favorites to win conference titles.
But what's that old saying about the best laid plans?
While we all certainly have favorites to win each conference, invariably every season there seems to be a team or two that comes from nowhere to challenge the heavyweights for a shot a something more than a passing mention on the evening news.
Think of Auburn in 2010 or Clemson in 2011. Before those seasons began, there wasn't much attention paid to these programs (outside of their respective backyards).
Both ended up winning a conference title and earning a BCS invite.
So who has a shot at becoming the next surprise conference title contender?
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Is Tennessee ever going to catch a break?
With a whopping 19 starters returning from last season, the answer could easily be “yes” in 2012.
For the first time in what seems like forever, Tennessee has found some coaching consistency as Derek Dooley begins his third season as Vols head coach.
Of course, things better turn around for Dooley soon. He holds the dubious distinction of being the first Tennessee head coach to guide the team to back-to-back losing seasons since Zora Clevenger followed Andrew Stone's 3-5-1 record in 1910 with a 3-4-2 mark in 1911.
While winning the SEC title is a daunting task, especially for a team that finished 5-7 last year, Tennessee's schedule sets up as well as an SEC schedule can, as LSU, Arkansas and Auburn are all absent.
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With the clock seemingly running out on the Big East and it's automatic qualification status with the BCS (to say nothing of the BCS's own shelf life), it's starting to become a now-or-never type situation for teams like South Florida.
USF has emerged in just a few short years as a stable and, at times, powerful football program. South Florida played its first full FBS schedule in 2002, and by 2005 it had joined the AQ Big East. In 2006 USF won nine games, which began a span of five seasons where the Bulls won eight-or-more games each season.
Last season was a bit of a step back for the program, finishing just 5-7. But head coach Skip Holtz has enough talent returning (16 combined starters) to really shake things up in the Big East this season.
The absence of perennial conference contender West Virginia won't hurt, either.
Don't be surprised if you hear more and more about USF as the season wears on.
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Texas Christian has finally made the jump from the ranks of the “other guys” to the big time, joining the Big 12 after years of success in the Mountain West Conference.
We've already seen TCU beat teams like Boise State, Wisconsin, and Stanford, but now they'll be facing teams of that caliber on an almost weekly basis.
While there are some definite reasons for concern—not the least of which is the aforementioned week-in, week-out challenge of the Big 12—there's still a lot to like about the Horned Frogs.
First, Casey Pachall stepped in nicely at the quarterback position after four years of Andy Dalton. At the beginning of last season, quarterbacking was a big question mark for TCU. Now, we can safely say it's a strength.
TCU also has a talented running backfield, and Ed Wesley will be leading the way during his senior season at tailback.
The Frogs also field a strong defensive line that will be able to put enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks to remain competative in their new conference.
It might be too soon to bet on the Frogs to take the Big 12 title, but that doesn't mean they can't pull off a few upsets to do something they've never done before: win a BCS conference championship.
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Much to the chagrin of Florida State and Georgia fans, it really looks like all of the pieces are finally falling into place for the Florida Gators.
Head coach Will Muschamp will field a team in 2012 that will absolutely ooze experience and poise. The Gators return 18 combined starters from 2011, including 10 on defense in a conference where defense is the name of the game.
Florida could also benefit from a lack of focus by the rest of the conference. While everyone is eyeballing Alabama, LSU, Georgia and South Carolina, the Gators could easily—and quietly—begin working their way through the conference schedule before anyone notices.
Don't be surprised if a low-ranking Florida team in the preseason is cracking the top 15 by the time October rolls around.
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Say what you will about the Cowboys and their massive loss of talent following the 2011 season, but this is still a team packed with enough firepower to get the job done against any Big 12 team on any given Saturday.
Oklahoma State is coming off of what was easily the best season in program history, complete with a Big 12 title and Fiesta Bowl victory over Stanford.
When the Pokes take the field in 2012, there's no doubt that the team—particularly on offense—will look quite a bit different from last season. But Mike Gundy has eight of his defensive starters from last season returning.
Sure, the Big 12 isn't exactly home of great defense, but maybe all of that experience for Oklahoma State will give the Cowboys enough of an edge to chase down a second consecutive Big 12 championship.
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Since the end of World War II, no current member of the Big 12 has won fewer games than Kansas State.
The Wildcats are just 285-443-8 since 1945 for a league-worst .393 win percentage.
But history be damned.
Last season, Bill Snyder proved that he still has the magic touch in Manhattan, and his Wildcats were the feel-good story of 2011, finishing with a 10-3 record and trip to the Cotton Bowl Classic.
Big wins over teams like Baylor, Texas A&M and Texas were just part of a solid and surprising performance from a team absolutely no one was talking about in August.
In 2012, K-State won't be so lucky.
While they may have been able to sneak up on some teams last season, no one will ignore the Wildcats this year.
But that doesn't mean they can't still win big games.
With eight offensive and six defensive starters returning from last season, there will be enough talent and momentum left over from 2011 to have the Wildcats believing that they are capable of winning a conference as difficult as the Big 12.
While it's doubtful anyone is picking KSU as a favorite this year, it's probably wise not to sleep on the Wildcats.
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Michigan State won a share of the Big Ten title in 2010.
Unfortunately for the Spartans, Ohio State didn't vacate their victories (and title share) until after the season, so despite MSU beating Wisconsin head-to-head, it was the Badgers that got the invite to Pasadena.
In 2011, the Spartans again won 11 games, won the Legends Division, but fell just short in the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game.
No Big Ten team has won more games over the past two seasons than the Spartans, and MSU hasn't lost a home game since 2009.
That being said, the Spartans have their work cut out for them in 2012.
Michigan State returns just five offensive starters from last season. With the entire starting wide receiving corps gone and solid quarterback Kirk Cousins now competing for a starting spot in the NFL, a big chuck Sparty's offense is missing.
But it's not all dark clouds over East Lansing.
Michigan State's suffocating defense returns eight starters, and the offense still has the capable Leveon Bell carrying the ball on the ground.
Even with a tough schedule (which includes Boise State, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin and Nebraska), it's not crazy to think that MSU can find some way to claw its way back atop the Legends Division standings come season's end.
After all, Mark Dantonio is still calling the shots.
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It really underscores the depths to which the Longhorns have fallen when we talk about them as a surprise team in the Big 12.
It wasn't all that long ago that Texas was playing for the BCS crown. Now, the Longhorns are doing their best to rebuild a bowl streak that came to an end following the 2010 season.
If we know anything about Texas football, we know Mack Brown can win games. His 141-39 record at Texas speaks for itself.
But we also know that Brown's Longhorns have had a difficult time winning conference championships.
Under Brown, the Longhorns have won just two conference titles in 14 seasons. Compare that to rival Oklahoma, who have won seven Big 12 titles in Bob Stoops's 13 seasons.
So historically speaking, a Texas conference title would actually be somewhat of a rarity.
Still, it feels odd to look upon Texas as a dark horse in the Big 12.
If the Longhorns can figure out how to solidify their offensive attack week-to-week, there's nothing that says Texas can't overcome the obstacles of Oklahoma and West Virginia in 2012.