5 Dark-Horse BCS Title Contenders for 2013 College Football Season

Lee SchechterContributor IIIMay 16, 2013

5 Dark-Horse BCS Title Contenders for 2013 College Football Season

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    The start of football season is under four months away, so that means it is time to look ahead at dark-horse BCS title contenders.

    Teams like Alabama, Ohio State, Oregon and Stanford are frontrunners to earn a shot at the BCS national championship.

    But, who is this year's Notre Dame?  

    Who can make an under-the-radar run at bringing home a BCS title to their school?  

    College football season is all about the excitement of big games, rivalries, and, as with all sports, the underdog story. The criteria for being a dark-horse contender is overall potential of growth over the course of a season, ease of schedule and momentum.   

    Here is a list of five dark-horse BCS title contenders for the 2013 college football season.   

South Carolina Gamecocks

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    The South Carolina Gamecocks have been a rising force in the SEC ever since head coach Steve Spurrier took over the team.  

    Now, Spurrier has an impressive talent pool with huge potential for the 2013 football season.  

    The Gamecocks also have the nation's best player in Jadeveon Clowney. Clowney is a total game-changer and constant defensive threat. He is also bigger, stronger and faster for 2013, which makes him that much scarier to matchup with.  

    South Carolina has some replacements to make on the defense, such as replacing the starting linebackers and D.J. Swearinger. There is a lot of youth on the defense, but throughout the course of a season, defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward will have his team in good form.  

    T.J. Gurley will be key to have back from injury in the secondary, and the Gamecocks will also need a leader to emerge amongst the middle linebackers. If the youngsters can improve throughout the season and build up their confidence by riding the upperclassmen's leadership and experience, the South Carolina defense will be of a championship caliber.  

    As for the offense, Spurrier has a very deep team with a lot of skill to go around.  

    Connor Shaw leads the offense, though backup quarterback Dylan Thompson has a great arm and can provide a different look to the offense. Shaw will run the shotgun, read-option sets while Thompson will primarily find action under center in pro-style formations. Both quarterbacks are spectacular leaders and possess great confidence in themselves and in their teammates.  

    These quarterbacks need to make use of the extremely athletic pair of tight ends, Rory "Busta" Anderson and Jerell Adams. Anderson and Adams are an amazing tight end duo who can block and use their speed, incredible body control and size to make a variety of catches. They also pose huge matchup issues, which can also open up the field for the wide receivers.

    Bruce Ellington is going to be the experienced wide receiver on the team, though Shaq Roland should emerge as a prime target. The Gamecocks have a lot of options and depth at the position. 

    Replacing Marcus Lattimore was a major concern until Mike Davis set himself apart as the team's premier back. Davis has speed and power, which will make him a big part of the offense. Brandon Wilds is also very good as his backup.  

    South Carolina has a favorable schedule to go along with a talented team. A big game against North Carolina at the start of the year could set the tempo. They play Florida at home and Georgia on the road, which should be tough, competitive games.  

    If the Gamecocks can get their momentum going for those games, and then their final season game against Clemson, South Carolina could be in for a special season.  

Michigan Wolverines

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    With the Denard Robinson era now in the past, Michigan looks to the future with Devin Gardner at quarterback.  

    Gardner took over the quarterback job after Robinson suffered a nerve injury in his right arm. Heavily recruited as a quarterback, Gardner is back at the quarterback position after spending some time last year at wide receiver.

    Playing wide receiver provided him with more football intelligence and a better understanding of the quarterback-to-wide-receiver connection. Gardner has a powerful arm and the agility to make plays with his feet. Also, Gardner fits into the pro-style offense that is going to be employed by offensive coordinator Al Borges.  

    The offensive line sees the return of top tackle prospect Taylor Lewan and the introduction of some younger players, but the recruiting by head coach Brady Hoke and his staff have helped to secure solid youth and development all along the line.  

    Gardner will need help from his wide receivers, especially Jeremy Gallon. Gallon is the most productive receiver who is returning, though Gardner will have some other solid targets in Drew Dileo, Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh.  

    Arguably his best target will be tight end Devin Funchess. Funchess is very athletic, tall and has good, soft hands. He makes acrobatic plays and is a potent red-zone target. The Gardner-to-Funchess connection could be a key to the offense.  

    Running back was in turmoil after Fitzgerald Toussaint's ugly leg injury last season. Now, Toussaint is recovering well from the injury, and the Wolverines landed the nation's No. 1 running back recruit, Derrick Green. Green has the power, speed and patience to thrive in the pro-style offense and have an immediate impact on this football team.  

    Defensively, Michigan is replacing some linemen and safety Jordan Kovacs. The return of cornerback Blake Countess is huge, after he missed essentially all of last season due to injury.  

    The pass rush will be key, as well as finding someone to fill in for star linebacker Jake Ryan as he recovers from an ACL tear.  He could be back after the bye week in October to face Michigan State on November 2, which would be a fast recovery.  

    Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison has worked miracles as he has turned around the woeful Rich Rodriguez defenses into top-caliber defenses. Now, Mattison has some of his own recruits in place, so the ceiling is high for the team.  

    The Wolverines play Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State at home, where the Big House could play a major factor in the outcomes, as Michigan has played very well at home in the Hoke era.  

    Tough road tests will be Penn State, Michigan State and Northwestern.  

    If Michigan can get off to a fast start, have consistent quarterback play from Gardner and hold off long enough on defense until Jake Ryan returns, Michigan could absolutely turn some heads in the Big Ten season and contend for a BCS title.  

Clemson Tigers

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    Head coach Dabo Swinney's Clemson Tigers are lucky to have quarterback Tajh Boyd back. Boyd is returning for his senior year and it could turn into huge success for the Tigers.

    Boyd may have lost DeAndre Hopkins, but he still has another star wide receiver in Sammy Watkins. These two could produce huge statistics this season and anchor a fast and deadly offense.  

    Depth is key for the Clemson offense in 2013. The Tigers have a deep team and will need multiple players to produce outside of Boyd and Watkins.  

    The backfield has potential with "Hot" Rod McDowell, D.J. Howard and Zac Brooks. A lot of the offensive success will rely on Boyd producing big time for Clemson and leading them through pressure situations.  

    It is no question that Clemson will continue to put up points on offense. According to Brian Fremeau of ESPN.com, "The explosive tandem of quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins lead the way for an offense that scored 3.1 points per drive last year (eighth nationally)."

    The question for Clemson is whether or not the defense can limit big plays and step up in big games. According to Brian Fremeau of ESPN.com, "In each of coach Dabo Swinney's four seasons, Clemson has given up a higher percentage of explosive drives (possessions that average at least 10 yards per play) than the year before."

    Clemson needs to stop the regression and get fierce on defense. Transforming into a stout defense over the course of the season is very important, which they did last year. 

    According to Mark Schlabach of ESPN.com, "Last season, the Tigers were one of the country's most improved defenses in the second half of the season; they allowed only 4.9 yards per play in their final seven games."

    Progression and momentum are key throughout the season, especially since the Tigers have a tough final game on the road against another BCS title hopeful, South Carolina.

    Clemson can make or break its season right out of the gate with a big home win against Georgia. Georgia is a really good team, and there is no room for mistake in this opening game of the 2013 season with big implications.  

    The ACC schedule is fairly easy, and Clemson should find a way to run the table. The toughest ACC schedule game is playing Florida State at home, a game the Tigers should be able to win in Death Valley.  

    Finding a way to win against Georgia and South Carolina during the year will be very difficult tasks, but Clemson has the offensive power and defensive potential to pick up the big victories and play for a BCS title.   

TCU Horned Frogs

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    The Horned Frogs are a bit more of a long-shot, dark-horse BCS title contender than the other teams, but the potential is there. 

    TCU sees the return a ton of players from an overall disappointing season last year, based on the school's recent football success.  

    According to Mark Schlabach of ESPN.com, "The Horned Frogs bring back 17 true freshmen who played last season, as well as 21 of their top 23 defenders."

    The young talent, combined with a returning group of players, can lead to consistency and good team chemistry—especially on the defensive side of the ball.  

    TCU does need to overcome a great deal of adversity to start off the season, after recent news broke that the team was suspending star defensive end Devonte Fields for the first two games of 2013. The loss of Fields at the start of the year could alter the course of TCU's first game of the year against LSU at Cowboys Stadium.

    Losing Fields is devastating, but if the team can rally together and find a way to pressure Zach Mettenberger, TCU could start the season in prime form.

    Luckily, TCU has depth at the position and young talent on the defensive line, specifically with Tevin Dawson. According to Brent Sobleski of ESPN.com, "He [Dawson] is listed as a defensive lineman by the Horned Frogs. Lawson has the size and athleticism to play either defensive end or defensive tackle."

    Overall, the Horned Frogs are a defensive team and had success in 2012, and they will hope to build on that in 2013.  

    According to Mark Schlabach of ESPN.com, "They know defense is still their strength, after leading the Big 12 in total defense, allowing 323.9 yards per game."

    The secondary is good and the defense can hold their own against air-raid, pass-heavy Big 12 offenses.

    The offense is where TCU needs to gain momentum as the season goes on. Troubled quarterback Casey Pachall has a chance to become the team's starter again. Pachall can flat out play. He makes plays all over the field and barring off-field issues, Pachall could lead TCU to great things in 2013.  

    If Pachall does not become the team's starter, there is hope in Trevone Boykin.  

    According to Mark Schlabach of ESPN.com

    The offense struggled without quarterback Casey Pachall, who was suspended from the team after four games because of off-field issues. After spending time at an alcohol and drug treatment facility, Pachall rejoined the team in January. He hasn't been named the Horned Frogs' starting quarterback for this coming season, but he seems to have an edge over sophomore Trevone Boykin, who went 3-6 as a starter in 2012.

    Pachall's ability to win the starting job, maintain his form on the field and avoid off-field distractions will make or break TCU's offensive success.  

    TCU runs a balanced offense that utilizes both the run and the pass, so many different players can have a chance to be impact players.  

    The Horned Frogs open with the brutal non-conference showdown with LSU, but if they get by that game, the Big 12 regular season is wide open.  

    TCU will have to find ways to win on the road against Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Kansas State and the always difficult at-home Iowa State Cyclones. 

    There are a lot of ifs to the Horned Frogs 2013 season.

    They need Casey Pachall to play at the level he is capable of. 

    They need options at the pass rush until Fields returns from suspension.  

    They need to stay focused and play as a cohesive unit that is stout on defense and efficient on offense. 

    TCU cannot look ahead in games, because they do have a tough schedule.

    If the Horned Frogs can steal a win against LSU and then gain momentum with some signature wins, all while Pachall improves and Fields gets into form, TCU could be in for a run at a BCS title as a true dark-horse contender. 

Louisville Cardinals

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    Louisville has huge potential to make the BCS title game, though it should still be considered a dark horse due to the recent history of the Big East struggling to gain recognition for the BCS national championship.

    The Big East is viewed as a weak football conference, and this season is no different. With the exception of Louisville, the Big East does not have any teams in the ESPN preseason Top 25 released by Mark Schlabach. 

    In 2012, the Cardinals shocked the football world by upsetting the Florida Gators in the Sugar Bowl and will look to pick up where they left off.  

    The Louisville offense starts off with Heisman hopeful Teddy Bridgewater, who is the total package when it comes to quarterbacks.

    According to Mark Schlabach of ESPN.com:

    With 19 starters coming back in football, including Heisman Trophy candidate Teddy Bridgewater, the Cardinals are more than capable of duplicating last season's success. Bridgewater picked up where he left off in the spring game, completing 16 of 20 passes for 214 yards. Louisville has added more weapons around him, including Florida transfers Robert Clark and Gerald Christian and tailback Dominique Brown, who sat out last season with a knee injury.

    The returning starters, combined with added targets for Bridgewater to throw the ball to, makes the Louisville offense extremely dangerous over the course of the season and as a contender for a BCS title.

    Bridgewater can really air the ball out, and if Brown can establish a running game, Louisville's offense will be very good. Bridgewater may also be a strong enough quarterback both mentally and physically to carry his team to a national title.  

    According to Travis Haney of ESPN Insider:

    Bridgewater's QBs coach and coordinator Shawn Watson told me a few weeks ago that his pupil shines in the pressure situations (throws in the second half, when trailing, third downs, things like that) he monitors and records. In those scenarios, Bridgewater has a 160.0 QB rating, averages 13 yards a completion and connects on 70.4 percent of his passes.

    Pressure situations and the ability to rely on a quarterback to make big plays is essential when trying to compete for a national title. Bridgewater has the confidence of his coaches and teammates, as well as the clutch abilities to do amazing things in 2013. 

    On paper, the talent pool may not be of elite status for the Cardinals, but they sure know how to utilize players and get the most out of them.   

    Defensively, Louisville allowed 23.8 points per game which was good for 36th in the nation.  That is a solid defense as a whole, though the Cardinals will clearly look to improve in 2013 if they hope to compete for a BCS national championship.

    Louisville also has a very good coach in Charlie Strong, who clearly knows how to motivate his players, especially after the big win over Florida. Strong is the right coach to lead this team as they try to contend for a BCS title.  

    While Louisville is no doubt a very good team, let's get down to the bulk of why it is a dark-horse contender with huge potential. The Cardinals have a very easy schedule, specifically with a weak non-conference schedule and the benefits of playing in the Big East.  

    The non-conference schedule is easy against Ohio, Eastern Kentucky, Kentucky and Florida International. The only potentially tough games would be anything on the road, but Louisville should be able to win at Temple, South Florida, Connecticut and Cincinnati.  

    With such an easy schedule and arguably the nation's best quarterback, Louisville could make a run at a BCS title.