5 Biggest Dark-Horse National Title Contenders for 2014

Alex SimsCorrespondent IIIJanuary 8, 2014

5 Biggest Dark-Horse National Title Contenders for 2014

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    Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

    The Florida State Seminoles and the Auburn Tigers weren't high on the list of national title contenders going into 2013—but they put together remarkable seasons and earned trips to Pasadena.

    Looking forward to 2014, which squads are capable of earning their way into the first College Football Playoff?

    We'll break down five serious possibilities—teams that didn't end 2013 where they hoped, but are poised for a turnaround next year.

    Note: Teams that finished in the Top 10 this season or those that were in the national title conversation down the stretch in 2013 were not eligible for consideration.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

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    Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

    2013 Record: 9-4

    Notre Dame's 2014 outlook is one of the more peculiar in the country.

    The logical place to start is with the return of quarterback Everett Golson, who played a crucial role in ND's run to the 2012-13 national title game.

    As the Fighting Irish welcome Golson back, they'll bid adieu to top playmaker TJ Jones, as well as their best offensive lineman, Zack Martin. However, ND will also bring back its entire running back corps.

    The biggest questions will come on defense, where the Irish will lose several key contributors, including Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix, Bennett Jackson and Dan Fox.

    It'll be on to the next wave of Notre Dame defenders, like Jaylon Smith and Elijah Shumate, to take on lead roles. The biggest obstacle for the Irish will be their schedule.

    They'll take several top foes, including Stanford, Louisville and Michigan, at home—but they'll have to make trips to Florida State and Arizona State.

    On a positive note, the College Football Playoff could play perfectly into the hands of Notre Dame. If the Irish post some big wins throughout the season and come to play their best football late in the season, they could very well sneak into the four-team bracket. 

Texas Longhorns

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    Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

    2013 Record: 8-5

    Could Charlie Strong put Texas into the national title picture in just one season?

    It isn't out of the question. In fact, with all the Longhorns are bringing back, it's a definite possibility.

    UT will bring back eight starters on defense, all of which will benefit from Strong's notoriously tough coaching. The 'Horns will also return a full complement of running backs, star receiver Jaxon Shipley and two quarterbacks with some experience: David Ash and Tyrone Swoopes.

    With Baylor coming to Austin, Texas' Big 12 slate is navigable.

    The conference is always up for grabs and UT could very well be the one to pull down the league title and enter the national title conversation in the process.

Wisconsin Badgers

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    Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

    2013 Record: 9-4

    Wisconsin will have one major test to start the 2014 season. The Badgers will meet LSU in Houston and, if they can make it out of Reliant Stadium with a victory, they'll be set up very nicely to make a national title run.

    UW won't play Ohio State, Michigan State or Michigan and will have Nebraska and Minnesota at home.

    Along with a breezy schedule, Wisconsin will also return quarterback Joel Stave, star running back Melvin Gordon, another talented back Corey Clement. The Badgers started just one senior on its offensive line this season and nearly tallied 3,700 rushing yards—making the outlook for that ground game looking brilliant for 2014.

    The only issue is on defense, where they will have to replace seven starters.

    Again, the key is beating LSU. If UW can pull that off, it'll be right on track to make the playoff.

UCLA Bruins

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    Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

    2013 Record: 10-3

    Really only two obstacles came between UCLA and the national title picture this season: schedule and injuries.

    The Bruins faced their two toughest tests—Stanford and Oregon—on the road in consecutive weeks, which figures to change next year.

    Early in the season UCLA was looking like a legitimate national title contender, but its explosive offense faltered once starting running back Jordon James went down. Without a serious rushing threat, the Bruins struggled.

    With James coming back, along with several key defenders including Myles Jack and Eric Kendricks, UCLA will head into 2014 with plenty of optimism.

    But of course, the biggest source of optimism is the return of starting quarterback Brett Hundley. He'll be in the Heisman Trophy conversation, and the Bruins will be in the national title picture.

Florida Gators

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    Michael Chang/Getty Images

    2013 Record: 4-8

    Florida was expected to compete for the SEC title and perhaps the national title before a horrible rash of injuries struck last season.

    After taking an offseason to heal up, the Gators should be right back in the conversation next year.

    Thanks to the injuries, UF will actually boast a lot of depth and experience, as several reserves had to take on starting roles.

    With those original starters returning, including quarterback Jeff Driskel, running back Matt Jones, Florida will be a formidable team in the SEC.

    The biggest tests for that group will be trips to Alabama and Florida State, but it'll have LSU, Missouri and South Carolina at home.

    With Will Muschamp perhaps coaching for his job, look for Florida to have a big year.