10 Teams That Could Be 2013's Version of Notre Dame
Notre Dame's rise to the top of the college football food chain was swift and unexpected by all but the most diehard Irish fans.
So who has a shot at pulling a Notre Dame in 2013?
The 10 teams on this list sure do.
Not all of them will be as unexpected as the Irish were this season, but all of them are dark-horse national title candidates or have the talent to dominate on defense and become one of the nation's most effective defensive units.
All other potential resemblances aside, there is no team on this list that will have a leprechaun as a mascot in 2013, although it certainly couldn't hurt.
10. UCLA Bruins
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It's not difficult to see the UCLA Bruins making a statement in 2013 on a national scale, even though they fell short of that season.
A nonconference trip to Nebraska looms large, and the Pac-12 schedule is bound to have the Bruins facing at least two ranked opponents in conference play, but this team is heading the right direction, and a breakthrough could come sooner rather than later.
Brett Hundley will return to lead the offense with more experience, and the Bruins defense is littered with young talent, such as linebacker Eric Kendricks and all-conference linebacker Anthony Barr (assuming Barr doesn't leave for the NFL).
Hundley also receives some returning help in the form of a solid offensive line.
This team is trending upward, not downward, and with the talent UCLA is fielding, the sky is the limit in 2013.
That is, if the team has a few breaks go its way.
9. Ole Miss Rebels
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Raise your hand if you predicted Ole Miss would improve to 6-6 this season and make a bowl game.
Not many hands are up.
Realistically, the Rebels' chances of pulling a Notre Dame and running the table in 2013 are very small with their conference schedule featuring Alabama, Texas A&M and LSU.
But this seems an appropriate place to predict this team to show us even more improvement next season.
Quarterback Bo Wallace is severely overlooked by most of us. The man scored 27 total touchdowns and was the catalyst as a sophomore for an offense that improved by leaps and bounds over its 2011 iteration.
Undefeated might be a bit ambitious, but a nine-win team is very possible, especially if Wallace cuts back on his 15 interceptions.
8. North Carolina Tar Heels
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After you get done laughing out loud, take a second and think about this one.
The Tar Heels will be back from their postseason ban.
The team finished this season with just four losses.
Leading passer Bryn Renner should return in 2013, and the defense, which struggled at times in 2012, has a year to mature.
With a few breaks, UNC could finish atop the ACC Coastal Division again in 2013.
With a nonconference victory over South Carolina to open the season, the Heels would make a big statement and pave the way for an incredible year.
While the defense is not going to be near as dominant as Notre Dame's, the Tar Heels have many of the pieces needed to make a run at an undefeated season in 2013.
7. USC Trojans
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Many of you love to hate the Trojans, especially SEC fans who feel as if they were personally slighted by head coach Lane Kiffin.
Get over it.
Kiffin has done a solid job recruiting, and Matt Barkley's replacement at quarterback, Max Wittek, appears poised for an excellent season once he starts practicing with the starting offense.
With Marqise Lee returning at wide receiver and a defense that will be improved by virtue of experience gained, the Trojans could be that surprise team in 2013 that finishes as the undefeated Pac-12 champ.
Without all the preseason hype and expectations, things might get a little easier for Lane Kiffin.
6. Florida State Seminoles
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Here is where this team resembles 2012 Notre Dame: Both are elite programs that have fallen from the ranks of the top teams in the nation and have been struggling to return.
Jimbo Fisher has been reeling in recruit after recruit, and even though EJ Manuel and other upperclassmen who play on the defensive side of the ball are going to be gone, the Seminoles have some talent returning.
Devonta Freeman, who averaged 6.5 yards per carry this season, will be back, and the Seminoles have a deep rotation on defense that will allow guys to step into gaps next season and continue to help this defense play at an elite level.
If this team can avoid its apparently annual tradition of faltering to an unranked foe, it is going to be in excellent shape next season for running the table.
Unlike Notre Dame, the Seminoles are not going to come out of nowhere, but like the Irish, they will have an excellent defense.
5. Wisconsin Badgers
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Yes, it's difficult to see a team reeling off a perfect season after losing a head coach.
The fact is, however, that Wisconsin plays a style of football that is timeless and effective, regardless of which coach is at the helm.
Montee Ball will be gone, but James White and Melvin Gordon will be back, and this rushing attack will not miss a beat.
Quarterback Joel Stave will be in his second season at the helm, and Jared Abbrederis will be back at receiver as Stave's primary target.
Sure, they've lost five games this season, but three of them were overtime losses, and the other two, against Nebraska and Oregon State, were by a combined six points against tough opponents.
While they would have to beat a great Ohio State team next season, with a little tweaking and some more experience, the Badgers are primed for a great season.
4. Texas A&M Aggies
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Yes, the Aggies finished 10-2, but with the number of great teams in the SEC, they were never considered title contenders after their loss to Florida early in the season.
Then Johnny Manziel matured right in front of us.
Kevin Sumlin's style is already leading to some big recruits for the Aggies, and Manziel is returning to build on his Heisman-winning season.
The Aggies proved in 2012 that they are not just along for the ride as a new member of the SEC, and they will make a run at the conference title in 2013.
3. Louisville Cardinals
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Louisville won the Big East this season and must face Florida in the Sugar Bowl.
It might not be pretty.
Next season, the Cardinals will be looking to repeat as conference champs and have the potential to run the table.
Senorise Perry will be back at running back, Teddy Bridgewater will be a Heisman contender and the Cardinals play a very winnable nonconference schedule composed of Ohio, Kentucky, Eastern Kentucky and FIU.
If they do run the table in 2013, the last season of the nightmare that is the BCS, the Cardinals are going to have a tough time cracking the national title game over an undefeated or one-loss team from the Pac-12, Big 12, Big Ten or SEC.
But with Bridgewater leading the way and a few breaks, this talented unit could run the table.
2. Stanford Cardinal
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David Shaw has already proven his worth, and as long as he is at the helm of this program, the Cardinal are not to be taken lightly.
This team has developed a persona, an intense personality that is reflected in the physical style the team plays on the field.
Quarterback Kevin Hogan has been superb this season, and given an offseason to develop, he will be even better in 2013.
The Cardinal have loads of talent, and Shaw has demonstrated that he knows how to replace talent with talent, reloading the way that elite teams do.
Next season could be the season the Cardinal take that next step to prove they are at that elite level.
1. South Carolina Gamecocks
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Even with Marcus Lattimore leaving for the NFL, South Carolina is going to be stacked next season.
Of course, the SEC is loaded, and winning out is never easy.
That said, Steve Spurrier has turned the program into a recruiting machine, and the Gamecocks defense is going to be one of the top in the nation, especially with guys like Jadeveon Clowney returning to build on an excellent 2012 season.
The offense needs some work, but this season, with the starting quarterback and running back both down large parts of the year with injury, the Gamecocks somehow turned in a 10-2 season.
A run to the title game next season is not difficult to imagine.