Ten True Dark Horse Candidates for the BCS Title
The Football Gods and the BCS Chieftains crowned Alabama with a national title last year. It was Bama’s 12th overall (sorry Bama fans, I don’t count 1941, since you didn’t even win the SEC that year). It was also Bama’s second in the last 30 years.
Over the past decade the teams that have won, or were in contention for, the national championship have been the usual suspects…Bama, USC, Ohio State, LSU, Texas…the traditional powers in the game.
2009 saw a year in which we have had some runs by the outsiders…Cincinnati, TCU and Boise State all had years last year that managed to get them some consideration, as did Utah two years ago.
So what dark horses will make a run for it this year…teams that have not traditionally been amongst the elite, or who have not been in those lofty circles for a while.
Here are my picks for the top ten outsiders that will make some noise and spend at least some of 2010 in the top ten, and have an outside shot at that elusive national championship.
Time was when the Huskies from the Northwest corner of the country struck fear into the hearts of opponents, playing a tough, physical brand of football more akin to the Big Ten than the Pac-10.
Hard times came a knocking on the program, and it has been a while since opponents truly feared a confrontation with Ewe Dub.
2010 may be a bit different.
The Huskies has another losing season last year, but did manage some signature wins including over USC and California. While young and very inconsistent, they still did manage to show some dramatic improvement over previous years.
This upcoming year, they return 20 starters, including virtually their entire offense (10 starters returning). With a year of extra maturity and work in the weight room, the Huskies should be poised to make some noise.
And they are not shying away from a challenge. The Huskies open their season with a very tough BYU team, an improved Big East Syracuse team that also returns 20 starters, and take on Big 12 Nebraska.
Then, after a bye week, it’s USC.
So, like most early season tough schedules, it’s a double-edged sword. Do poorly and the team can lose confidence and tailspin out of control. Win, however, and the opposite can occur; the team can build momentum and get themselves on track for a special season.
The seasoned leadership of the Huskies should keep them on an even keel for 2010, with a 8 or 9 win season a minimum goal. And, if they can run the first four, perhaps a continued run at the big prize may occur.
With a lot of the Pac-10, including the Trojans, in rebuilding mode, this may be the year to make a move.
Stranger things have happened.
Back in the 70’s, the ‘Burgh was the city of champions. The Steelers won four Super Bowls. The Pirates took two World Series. The Penguins sucked (hey, two out of three ain’t bad).
And the Pitt Panthers, led by Tony Dorsett, won the college football national championship in 1976.
Fast forward to the current era. The Steelers have won a couple of recent Super Bowls. The Penguins won Lord Stanley’s Cup. The Pirates suck. Two out of three pro teams again.
And Dave Wannstadt’s Pitt Panthers are making noise again, winning 10 games in 2009. This was their best season since back in 1981, when they had some kids by the name of Dan Marino, Bill Fralic, Hugh Green and Mark May playing ball for them.
The current Panthers have something in common with the 1970’s version: a tailback who is taking names and kicking butt. The new version is Dion Lewis.
Lewis, a true freshman, was a consensus All-American, Big East offensive player of the year, and garnered a slew of other honors thanks to a 1,799 yard year. This broke the Pitt freshman record held by, you guessed it, Tony Dorsett (1,686 in 1973).
But it’s not just Lewis. It’s taken Wannstedt a few years, but he has slowly rebuilt the Panthers recruiting and talent pool.
The stellar class of 2006, ranked at or near the top of the nation by many evaluators, is now bearing fruit, and the most recent class may be even better.
Included in the class is Mark Myers, ranked as the top quarterback in the state of Ohio. He is a pro-style thrower who may get the chance to start.
As such, the team has started to produce the consistent results, both offensively and defensively, that one would expect from a top-tier program.
Pitt has some tough out of conference games against Notre Dame, Utah and Miami in addition to a couple of patsies and their conference schedule. Wins against these programs would certainly help to kick them up into the Top 10.
Given that the Big East is a BCS conference, an undefeated season would probably garner an invite to the championship.
A lot of people have not noticed, but TCU was in the top ten for two years in a row now.
Yep, the Horned Frogs from Fort Worth ended up #6 in 2009 and #7 in 2008. Not too shabby for Gary Patterson’s program.
The Frogs return 16 starters from last season, including quarterback Andy Dalton. The team is, as usual, loaded with raw speed, as Patterson continues to recruit athletes based on their overall physical capabilities and then mold them to his system.
The Frogs' defense has to replace some key starters from 2009, including a couple of players expected to go in round one of two of the NFL draft (DE Jerry Hughes and LB Daryl Washington).
The defense, however, should be its usual solid self. Patterson, after all, had to replace seven starter for 2009 and the unit ended up ranked No. 1 in the nation.
As a matter of fact, the Frogs' D has ended up ranked in the top five in seven of the last ten years.
The Frogs have a couple of big hurdles, however. One is a very talented Utah team and an always dangerous BYU squad to get by in Mountain West play.
Two, a potential upset may loom from some of the improving mid tier Mountain West teams, such as Air Force or Wyoming. And three, a weak out of conference schedule.
The Frogs play a decent Oregon State team, and a Conference USA SMU team that did win a bowl last year. Other than that, they play Big 12 weakling Baylor and have an open slot that will likely be filled by Division 1-AA Tennessee Tech.
If they do run the table, it may not be enough to get them to the big dance.
Coach Randy Edsall has quietly built a nice little program up there in the Constitution State…one that may be primed for a breakout season.
The Huskies overcame all sorts of obstacles on their way to an 8-5 season last year that culminated with a bowl victory over South Carolina. One of those obstacles was the horrific murder of one of their players at a campus function.
What few people noticed during the season is that the Huskies were playing very good ball. Of their five losses, two were by four points, one by three, and a couple by two points.
In other words, the Huskies were tantalizingly close to an undefeated season…a total of 15 points close.
The team returns 16 starters, including the bulk of an aggressive and talented defense. But what really helps the Huskies is their schedule.
They open with Michigan, who have not been setting the world on fire with Rich Rodriguez as their coach. If they get by that, they then get Texas Southern, Temple, Buffalo and Vanderbilt before starting Big East competition.
Thus, the Huskies could easily run to a 5-0 start, creating momentum for a big run. Knock off Big East foes West Virginia, Rutgers and Pitt, and they could be looking like version 2.0 of Cincy’s 2009 run.
6. Texas A&M
Two words…Jerrod Johnson.
The Aggie quarterback, who threw for over 3,500 yards and rushed for another 500+, returns to lead a loaded A&M offense this year.
He is as talented as any returning QB in the nation, creates space, and is the type of player who can make special thing happen.
How loaded is that O? The Aggies return eight starters from a unit that led the Big 12 in scoring last year, including two of their leading recievers and leading running back Christine Michael. All of the tools are there.
A&M also returns nine starters on defense…a D which will hopefully improve over a woeful 2009 campaign.
Still, with all that returning beef and a bench stockpiled with recruiting classes that have been ranked in the top ten nationally for three years running, the Aggies should have the talent to compete.
Some people will question my inclusion of A&M as an outsider, given the support of their faithful and traditions of Aggieland.
But the one and only time they won a national championship face masks were still not in use…it was 1939. So it’s been a long time since they went to the well.
The Aggies have one tough out of conference opponent in Arkansas, another dark horse for a run at the trophy. If they can get by them and run their Big 12 schedule, then Reveille might be barking on the sidelines come January 2011.
There’s a lot to like about the Badgers in 2010, starting with an offense that returns 10 players. This is an offense that led the Big Ten in scoring, rushing and yards.
The Badgers are particularly deep at offensive line, where they return all five end of season starters plus one. Travis Frederick, who started the year at Center but went down with an injury, will be back.
These guys allowed bruising tailback John Clay, who at 6’1” and 248 is built for destruction, to churn out 1,517 yards in 2009.
Defensively, the Badgers return six starters. Outstanding recruit Beau Allan, at 6’2” and 300, should add some immediate help at defensive line, which was hit with a few losses to graduation.
The Badgers also have some help from the schedule this year. In out of conference play, they play a decent Arizona State team, a UNLV who they should handle easily, and tasty cupcakes San Jose State and Austin Peay. In the Big Ten, they do not have to play Penn State this year due to the schedule rotation.
Everything is pointing to a Big Ten championship for these guys if they take care of business…can they do that one better and play for the national prize?
4. Boise State
The ultimate outsiders.
The question is not whether Boise State will be top ten material for 2010 since they’ll start the season there.
The question is; if they run the table and end up undefeated, will they get consideration for a national championship?
The Broncos play an out of conference schedule with well publicized match ups against Virginia Tech and Oregon State. They also take on a bowl winning Wyoming team from the Mountain West, and Toledo of the MAC.
Other than that, however, their schedule pretty much sucks, given that they play in the WAC.
The WAC, not noted as the strongest of conferences, should have some decent teams with Fresno State and perhaps Nevada and Idaho will again be OK this year. No one is going to mistake the league as the second coming of the SEC, however.
So if BSU runs it, we’ve got a team who on one hand would not have lost a game in two straight seasons and had defeated a couple of good BCS teams.
On the other hand, they would also have had arguably the softest schedule amongst any contenders.
With an amazing 21 starters returning from their undefeated 2009 season, this is a question that has a significant probability of coming to fruition next December.
The last time the Razorbacks won a national championship, the year was 1964, they were in the SWC, and they had a kid who was a reserve offensive lineman named Jerry Jones on the team.
Now it’s 2010, the Razorbacks play in the SEC, the SWC no longer exists, and this Jones guy is still involved with football. Go figure.
The Hogs are led by Ryan Mallet, who threw for over 3,600 yards in 2009 and has the skills and physique to play at the next level.
He’ll be accompanied by 18 returning starters, including four members of a veteran and very good offensive line from last years 8-5 team.
Like most of the SEC, the Hogs play one decent out of conference game and three buttercups at home. Arkansas gets a talented Texas A&M team at a neutral site; aforementioned alumni Jerry Jones Cowboy’s Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Other than that, their non-conference schedule is a complete lay down.
The Hogs SEC slate includes league weaklings Mississippi State and Vandy, a rebuilding Ole Miss, a decent South Carolina team, and the big boys LSU, Georgia, Auburn, and Alabama.
If the Hogs can put it together, and with their SEC schedule, they would have a very good chance of entering the promised land for the first time in over 40 years.
They certainly have the returning talent, and a quarterback like Mallet will keep you in just about any game.
When you have nine starters on offense and nine on defense returning from an eight-win team, expectations are high.
Add to that an out-of-conference schedule that is a complete lay down with all games played at home, and expectations get even higher.
And finally, add in the fact that you play in what is perceived as the weaker part of the Big 12, the North…and expectations get sky high.
The Tigers have what should be six easy wins coming right out of the gate. That leaves six games against quality opponents.
Can Missouri win the first national championship in the long history of the program this year?
They return four starters on their O line, virtually all their skill positions including a very good quarterback in Blaine Gabbert (3593 yards passing, 2nd in the Big 12) ,leading rusher Derrick Washington (865 yards) and virtually their entire defense. The only truly key departure is receiver Danario Alexander, who is taking his skill set to the NFL.
The team should be able to move the ball on just about anyone. If they can conjure up some improvements on defense, an undefeated regular season is not out of the question at all given the relative paucity of their schedule.
They still do, however, have to get by Nebraska….and a pretty good A&M team. Still, they certainly have the capabilities.
The University of Utah began playing football way back in 1892. And in all those years, the Utes have not won a national championship.
Lately, however, they’ve come close.
In 2004, under then Coach Urban Myer, the Utes capped off a perfect regular season by becoming the first BCS buster, playing in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl. They then demolished Big East representative Pitt 35-7.
“Oh, Pitt was just 8-3 coming in” the experts said. Utah finished ranked 5th in the nation.
In 2008, under current Coach Kyle Whittingham, the Utes ran the table again and were invited to the Sugar Bowl. There the 6th ranked Utes took on the 4th ranked Alabama Crimson Tide.
Utes 31, Bama 17. After the game, the BCS ranked the Utes 4th while the AP ranked them 2nd. SEC apologists said that Bama wasn’t “motivated” since they were not playing for the national championship. Uh-huh.
This year, the Utes return seven on offense and only four on defense. But the program has evolved to the point where vacancies that open up are immediately filled by talented players.
Much like both TCU and BYU, who also play in the much maligned Mountain West, the team seems to be able to fill holes without significant performance drop offs.
Perhaps, the “experts’ will agree, they’ve reached the so-called big time.
The 2010 version returns sophomore quarterback Jordan Wynn, who capped off his freshman year with a stellar performance in their bowl victory over Cal that finished off a 10-3 campaign.
The offensive line and backfield all return, as does a very physical defensive front. If the Utes can find a few receivers and some linebacking and backfield help,( which I am betting they will), they could be the surprise BCS team of the year.
They are playing a schedule that will open some eyes. Out of conference, they have one patsy, San Jose State. They also host Big East power Pitt, and visit Big 12 Iowa State and the Fightin’ Irish in South Bend. Wins over these foes will certainly move them into top ten.
In the Mountain West they have two teams that are likely to be top twenty, if not top ten; TCU and BYU. And they get both at home.
Throw in victories against two or three mid-tier Mountain West teams that have bowl eligible seasons, like Air Force, Wyoming and perhaps UNLV, and you have the makings of a very good strength of schedule.
Combined with their past history of success in the BCS bowls, the schedule could propel the Utes into the picture for a national championship...provided, of course, that they run the table.