Phil Steele's 2013 College Football Preview is out and one of the biggest surprises in the magazine was his list of surprise teams.
In order, he has these eight teams: Florida State, Texas, USC, Oklahoma State, Arizona State, Nebraska, Clemson and Oklahoma. That list sort of leaves a bad taste in one's mouth.
Almost all of those programs—Oklahoma State, Arizona State and Clemson are exceptions—are traditional powerhouse football programs. They have combined to win 29 national titles.
Having a great season should never surprise. Having a poor one should.
Last year Texas, USC, Nebraska and Florida State had unexpected mediocre seasons. Texas lost to West Virginia, Oklahoma, TCU and Kansas State. It scraped by Baylor and Kansas.
USC was the No. 1 team in preseason polls, but finished 7-6. It lost to Stanford, Arizona, Oregon, UCLA and Notre Dame. It had a particularly ugly loss to Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl.
Nebraska allowed Ohio State to score 63 points on its defense. It did the unthinkable by yielding 70 points to Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship.
Florida State lost to an eventual 7-6 North Carolina State. The Seminoles have been preseason favorites for three years, but their weak schedules have undermined their value to the pollsters.
All of these programs had unexpected losses because of the high expectations placed upon them every year. Every program has a readjustment period as players cycle through. But for elite programs, there should never be a year where their improvement is a surprise—it is simply a return to normalcy.
The SEC has caused a stunting of growth. Time has stood still for traditional powerhouse teams.
Although the SEC is a strong conference, it is beatable.
LSU lost 25-24 to Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Bowl and Florida lost 33-23 to Louisville in the Sugar Bowl.
Georgia went 1-2 against the only three ranked teams on its regular season schedule: South Carolina, Florida and Alabama. If Georgia had been playing in the Big Ten or Pac-12, would it have received a final No. 7 BCS ranking? Probably not.
Different standards for different conferences is partly why college football is so shaky. Disparity in polling should never be accepted with resignation. Could it be that the teams who had mediocre seasons played schedules more difficult than originally thought?
Northwestern did beat Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl. Didn't Michigan hang with South Carolina in the Outback Bowl? At halftime in the Capital One Bowl, Nebraska led Georgia 24-23. After three quarters, the game was tied 31-31.
The Big Ten was disrespected but its so-called weak teams played well against SEC bowl teams. The Pac-12 was also subjected to some bias.
No. 1 (AP) Oregon dropped four spots when it lost to Stanford. No. 1 Alabama only dropped three when it lost to Texas A&M. Stanford finished with a final ranking of No. 6 while Texas A&M finished at No. 5.
For the last seven years, nobody has dislodged an SEC team from its lofty perch. Maybe that is why SEC teams get rewarded more for their occasional losses. It is not fair, but it is understandable.
For teams on the outside looking in, there is no way to ascend unless an SEC team falters. Their footing is on a slippery slope while the SEC's is at the pinnacle. That imbalance means programs that once ruled college football are now looking up.
The view is not pretty.
Florida State, Oklahoma, Texas and USC were given statuses by Steele that should shock the heck out of us. But they do not. Seeing Alabama on that list would.
Three of those four teams could have undefeated records. If that were to happen, they would still not leapfrog an undefeated Alabama or South Carolina in the BCS poll. That will not have surprised us.
The tremors across college football's shaky landscape will continue.