Under-the-Radar Storylines That Will Decide BCS National Championship
What will be the 2013 equivalent of such surprising 2012 stories as top-ranked Kansas State's lopsided upset loss to Baylor, Johnny Manziel’s out-of-nowhere Heisman run and Notre Dame’s totally unexpected perfect regular season?
Though it’s almost impossible to predict these storylines in the preseason, they each prove that in college football something unexpected is bound to happen.
Yes, whether it be Florida State’s bizarre loss to N.C. State or LSU’s dramatic loss to Alabama, it’s going to happen, and it’s going to occur when it's least expected. Suddenly, the BCS title picture will be altered in a way that never could have been imagined.
This is why it’s so easy to fall in love with college football.
Braxton Miller’s Health is More Crucial than Johnny Football’s Eligibility
Coming into fall camp, there is no bigger storyline than Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel and his eligibility.
But as crucial as Manziel’s playing status is to the Aggies, Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller’s health is even more important to the Buckeyes.
While Manziel accounted for 71 percent of Texas A&M’s offense in 2012, Miller accounted for 65 percent of Ohio State’s. This makes both guys invaluable to their respective teams, but what gives Miller the edge is the Buckeyes’ title chances.
Yes, while Texas A&M (even with Manziel) will have to face the gauntlet that is the SEC to make it to the BCS title game, Miller and friends have a much easier path in the Big Ten.
So while the world dissects the impact of Manziel’s eligibility on the 2013 season, the bigger concern from a national title perspective is Miller’s health.
Florida State’s Defense Takes a Step Backward
One of the less-advertised coaching changes this offseason was Mark Stoops' move from the defensive coordinator job at Florida State to the head role at Kentucky.
Yes, plenty has been written about the Wildcats' chances with their new head man, but less has been said about what the Seminoles do without him.
Stoops spent three seasons running the Florida State defense. In that time, he took a unit that ranked No. 94 in scoring defense in 2009 to a No. 20 ranking in 2010, a No. 4 rank in 2011 and a No. 6 rank in 2012.
So, the big question is, what does a Seminole defense—with only four returning starters—do without Stoops at the helm? Could this be one of the biggest assistant coaching losses in the nation, and how will it impact Florida State’s run at the ACC and BCS titles?
Beyond that, if Florida State’s defense tanks and takes the team with it, which ACC team will be there to take up the slack?
The Miami Hurricanes' Potential
Yes, at least by the numbers, the Hurricanes seem like contenders who could shake up the ACC and BCS pictures in 2013.
Miami returns 19 starters (tied for No. 1 nationally), ranks No. 13 in offensive line starts and in the top 25 in the number of tacklers and yard-earners returning.
This all from a squad that finished 7-5 last season with one of the least-experienced teams in the country.
So, what if Miami is better than advertised? What if the ‘Canes knock off Florida in Week 2 and then run the table on their way to a place at the BCS table?
South Carolina vs. Georgia
Though you could argue that the Gamecocks vs. the Bulldogs is never an “under the radar” affair, this game is played early enough for everyone to have forgotten its impact by November.
But what if the SEC East is the division that sends forth the BCS title representative in 2013 (it was one play away last season)?
If so, it seems safe to say that South Carolina's Week 2 game at Georgia may decide who that is going to be.
This could be one of the 10 most impactful games of the season.
The Mountain West Title Game
In the final season of the BCS, wouldn’t it be nice if Boise State—or another non-BCS team—did the usual job of busting the scheme’s chops?
What may get in the way of this scenario is a new twist in the now two-division Mountain West: the first conference championship game.
Yes, in 2013, if a Mountain West member wants to bust the BCS, it will have to win an extra game against the best squad in the other division. It will be West versus Mountain in a game played at the home field of the team with the highest BCS ranking.
This additional hurdle could well be the difference between a perfect Boise State team eyeing the title game and one that goes back to the Las Vegas Bowl for the fourth straight year.
Oregon State’s Rush Defense
On paper, Oregon looks like the best team in the Pac-12 coming into 2013.
The Ducks have it all: speed, returning talent and a schedule that doesn’t include USC or Arizona State from the South.
The one element that may trip up Oregon on its way back to the altar is not new head coach Mark Helfrich or Stanford’s stingy defense. No, this threat is a lot less recognized or appreciated.
Oregon State had the No. 28-ranked rushing defense in the nation last season and returns seven starters to a unit that should only get better. To add fuel to the fire, the Beavers had the No. 22-ranked scoring defense, allowing a mere 20.6 points per game.
What if Oregon State’s defense winds up being the unforeseen factor that changes the face of the Pac-12 and BCS races in 2013?
The Timing of the Aggies’ Games with LSU and Alabama
Regardless of what happens with Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M has an interesting scheduling twist in 2013 that deserves mention.
In 2012, the Aggies met both LSU and Alabama after the two SEC West giants had played huge, emotional games.
Texas A&M got LSU directly off its dramatic 23-21 win over South Carolina. Even though the Tigers beat the Aggies, it was close. As for Alabama, the Aggies faced the Tide just after they nipped LSU 21-17 in the final moments of the game in Baton Rouge.
In both cases, A&M faced teams that were emotionally battered.
In 2013, the Aggies will square off with LSU and Alabama after both teams have enjoyed a bye week.
This scheduling tweak changes the dynamics of both matchups, regardless of who is under center for the Aggies.
Ohio State’s Pass Defense
Vegas Insider has Ohio State at 5/1 odds to win the BCS title in 2013. The only team which the money-handlers have with better odds is Alabama at 5/2.
This makes the Buckeyes' No. 78-ranked pass defense from a year ago seem like a much bigger deal.
Ohio State returns three of four starters to its defensive backfield, causing many prognosticators to deem the issue of allowing more than 240 passing yards per game magically fixed.
But this is still unit that gave up 352 yards through the air in its 52-49 near-loss to Indiana.
Though it’s difficult to argue that a Big Ten foe will burn the Bucks with a stellar passing game in 2013, the Week 3 game at Cal may be scarier than it looks.
With only nine starters returning, the Golden Bears may be a wolf in sheep’s clothing for Ohio State, especially given the offensive pedigree of their new head coach. Yes, Sonny Dykes might not have a lot in his cupboard in Berkeley, but he did manage to lead Louisiana Tech to a No. 3 national ranking in pass offense a year ago.
Add in that Ohio State is 2-3 versus non-conference BCS teams on the road in the last five tries, and suddenly the No. 2 preseason ranking seems shakier than advertised.
Oklahoma State’s Offensive Line
Regardless whether Texas lives up to its potential in 2013, Oklahoma State is likely to be a factor in the Big 12 race.
While the Cowboys may not win the conference, they’ll play a key role in who does.
While prognosticators like Phil Steele (in his preseason magazine) have Oklahoma State finishing No. 2 in the Big 12, there is one big hurdle to overcome for this to be realistic. The Cowboys 2013 offensive line shares only 38 starts among them, a number that gives them the No. 109 national ranking.
Even given the defenseless nature of the Big 12, Oklahoma State’s prolific offense will need an effective front line to score enough points to be a difference-maker.
Baylor Going 7-0
With Baylor suffering another major bout of personnel turnover on offense, it’s safe to say that not many folks will be looking to the Bears to do more than make another bowl game.
But a closer look at Baylor’s schedule indicates that this may be a team that is undefeated going into November. And regardless of how good they really are, a perfect record in November will have implications on which Big 12 team could ascend to the BCS title game.
The Bears open up vs. FCS Wofford, welcome Buffalo in Week 2, have a bye in Week 3, host Louisiana-Monroe in Week 4, have another bye in Week 5, welcome a young West Virginia team in Week 6, travel to Kansas State in Week 7, celebrate homecoming vs. Iowa State in Week 8 and then travel to Kansas in Week 9.
A 7-0 scenario makes games vs. Oklahoma on Nov. 7, vs. Texas Tech in Arlington on Nov. 16, at Oklahoma State on Nov. 23, at TCU on Nov. 30 and vs. Texas on Dec. 7 suddenly seem much more intriguing.
Will any of these teams—especially a perfect Texas squad—buy in to the idea that Baylor is as good as its record?
Nebraska Fixes Turnover Issues
The most blaring statistic from Nebraska’s 10-4 finish in 2012 is the Huskers No. 92 ranking in rush defense.
This is a unit that allowed 192.5 rushing yards per game and 539 rushing yards to Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game.
But, the “other” stat that may be even more alarming is the Huskers No. 108 ranking in turnover margin. Nebraska had 23 takeaways last season versus 35 turnovers, netting the Huskers a dismal minus-12 turnover margin.
While there is no doubt that Bo Pelini and crew will try to shore up the rushing defense in 2013, if the Cornhuskers can improve their margin on turnovers, watch out.
To illustrate, Notre Dame finished No. 118 in turnover margin in 2011 and went 8-5. In 2012, the Irish improved to a No. 29 ranking and went 12-1.
It could be the difference between a BCS title run and a horrific loss in the conference championship game.
Michigan State’s Defense
Why is it that Spartans seem to be off the radar every season?
These are the same Spartans who managed to make it two of the last three Big Ten title games (they took last year off) and the same squad that lost only two league games from 2010 to 2011.
This is the Michigan State team that fielded one of the youngest squads in the nation last year but still managed seven wins.
What’s gotten the Spartans to the finish line under Mark Dantonio is defense. In 2010, Michigan State finished No. 39 in scoring defense, and in 2011 it was ranked No. 10. And as for 2012, the “off year,” the Spartans' defense finished at No. 9, allowing 16.3 points per game.
In 2013, Michigan State returns seven on defense and a hefty eight on offense.
The Spartans will likely fly straight under the radar again this season and either upset another Big Ten team’s BCS run or finally ascend to the tippy, tippy top all by themselves.
Even though Bet Vega recently dropped Johnny Manziel’s Heisman odds all the way down to 15/1—taking him from the lead spot to No. 10—he’s still ranked a couple slots above Clemson’s Tajh Boyd at 16/1.
Its official: Boyd is flying under the radar.
His 165.58 passer rating made him the No. 5 quarterback in the nation last season, and don’t forget that he led a team that won 11 games.
If Boyd and Clemson explode in 2013, a likely scenario, he could throw a wrench into the BCS title picture…and win the Heisman Trophy.