One of the most interesting things about the College Football season is watching teams come from the back of the pack and assert themselves into the conversation, in an effort to get an invite to the BCS National Championship game.
At least a couple of teams outside of the preseason top 10 rankings are going to start the season with six or seven wins and everyone will begin salivating over the prospect of a dark horse team busting up the BCS party.
More times than not, the last stage of the hill to climb for these dark horse candidates is transformed into an insurmountable mountain, and they aren’t able to finish the last quarter of the race.
While I fully expect the script for this year’s college football season to honor the past tradition of having one if not two teams from the USA Today preseason top 10 play for the BCS Championship game, I offer up the following 10 teams that are currently not on the radar but have an outside shot of crashing the BCS Championship party.
No. 16 LSU may have the toughest schedule in the country. The Tigers play six preseason ranked teams in No. 1 Alabama, No. 3 Florida, No. 18 North Carolina, No. 19 Arkansas, No. 23 Auburn and No. 24 West Virginia. Mississippi is also on LSU’s schedule, and the Rebels received more than 30 votes in the preseason poll.
Which long shot has the best shot?
If LSU can survive the gauntlet of tough games on its schedule with only one loss, the Tigers with a win in the SEC Championship game could find themselves in the BCS Championship game.
Coach Les Miles believes that he has the best cornerbacks in the conference in Patrick Peterson and Morris Claiborne. If LSU can get early leads in games, their cornerbacks may be able to smother any hope of LSU’s opponents to get back into the game.
Yes, the Spartans had numerous off-season issues to deal with, but their schedule is favorable in that they start with Western Michigan and Florida Atlantic to allow them to get their feet underneath them before taking on Notre Dame at home. The Spartans have to travel to No. 10 Iowa and No. 14 Penn State, but they do get to play No. 12 Wisconsin at home and avoid No. 2 Ohio State.
While Michigan State has a young offensive line, they have a very good experienced quarterback in Junior Kirk Cousins, who has solid weapons to throw to in receivers Mark Dell, B.J. Cunningham, Charlie Gantt and Brian Linthicum. Additionally, the Spartans return two sophomore running backs in Larry Caper and Edwin Baker.
The No. 14 Nittany Lions will have earned the right to play in the BCS Championship game if they survive their road schedule this year. Penn State plays No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Ohio State and No. 10 Iowa on the road.
Most pundits believe that Coach Joe Paterno’s squad, with a new quarterback and young offensive line, will be lucky to win one of the three above games. But, if Penn State can shock the college football world in Tuscaloosa on September 11, all bets are off on their ceiling.
The key player to watch is running back Evan Royster, who is just 480 yards shy of becoming the all-time leading rusher in Penn State history. If Royster can break off a couple of long runs against Alabama, he could put himself into the Heisman race.
The schedule for the No. 24 Utes sets them up perfectly to stay on the minds of voters. Utah begins the season with a statement game against No. 15 Pittsburgh on September 2, which can raise their profile.
The Utes then get a chance to bolster their resume with wins over conference foes before they play No. 7 TCU on November 6 at home. A victory over the Horned Frogs could propel Utah into the role of the best team in the country not to play in a BCS Power Conference. After playing TCU, Utah will still have a chance to enhance its resume with games against Notre Dame and BYU.
If Utah gets it done, it will likely be as a result of its offense. The Utes return nine starters, including an experienced quarterback in Jordan Wynn, All-MWC running back Eddie Wide, and four starters from their offensive line.
The No. 23 Auburn Tigers have not been in the hunt for the National Title for several years, but if they can generate a couple of upsets this year, they could sneak into the race through the back door.
Auburn plays No. 1 Alabama, No. 16 LSU, No. 19 Arkansas, No. 21 Georgia and Mississippi, who will likely be ranked at some point in time during the season. Auburn will clearly get a chance to put several good wins on its BCS resume.
The Tigers have a new quarterback, Cameron Newton, leading them into battle. Newton, a former Florida recruit, will have four starters returning from the offensive line to give him time to find standout wide receiver Darvin Adams, who caught 60 passes, 10 touchdowns, and accumulated 997 yards. The key for Auburn will be how much their defense has improved from last year.
The No. 24 Mountaineers, in contrast to the Tigers, have a much more manageable schedule. They play two ranked teams: No. 16 LSU and No. 15 Pittsburgh. They also play two teams that received more than 30 votes in the preseason poll: Cincinnati and Connecticut.
The good news for Mountaineer fans is that they will not have to engineer a huge upset during the season to finish undefeated. Of course, the flip side of the good news is that West Virginia is similar to Cincinnati last year. The Mountaineers may finish just short of the BCS Championship game, because voters may hold it against them that they did not defeat a top 10 team.
If the Mountaineers get it done, Noel Devine may be invited to the Downtown Athletic Club at the end of the year. Devine had a great year last season, rushing for 1,465 yards and 13 touchdowns.
The No. 23 Beavers are perfectly positioned to be the ultimate gate crashers at the BCS Championship party.
Oregon State opens the season at home against No. 7 TCU on September 4. Is there a better way to announce that you are a quality team to be reckoned with than upsetting a top 10 team on the first Saturday of the college football season?
Two weeks later, the Beavers will get a chance to show that it was no fluke and put themselves into the top 10 by traveling to Idaho to take on No. 5 Boise State.
The Beavers can then continue to steadily accumulate points by taking care of business within the PAC-10 schedule. When pollsters begin to wonder if the Beavers are for real, they'll get a chance to seal the deal with games against USC, Stanford and No. 11 Oregon to end the season.
Oregon State has talent on the team and a couple of players that will be playing on Sunday next year. The question is likely whether they believe they have arrived as an elite football program. Coach Mike Riley has never led the Beavers to anything better than a four loss season.
Of course, optimistic Oregon State fans are saying that there always has to be a first year and now is as good a time as any to start.
The schedule of No. 18 North Carolina is as brutal as LSU's. The Tar Heels play five ranked teams: No. 16 LSU, No. 17 Georgia Tech, No. 13 Miami, No. 20 Florida State and No. 6 Virginia Tech. Clemson is also on North Carolina’s schedule, and Clemson received more than 30 votes in the preseason poll.
The apparent strategy coming out of Chapel Hill is that if their opponents can’t score, they can’t win. The Tar Heels have six defensive players that will likely be drafted into the NFL this spring.
If Coach Butch Davis can generate enough offense to avoid losing more than one game, North Carolina might get to the BCS Championship with a victory in the ACC Championship game.
Because No. 19 Arkansas plays in the SEC, their schedule is loaded with several tests throughout the season. Arkansas plays four ranked teams in No. 1 Alabama, No. 16 LSU, No. 21 Georgia and No. 23 Auburn. Mississippi is also on Arkansas’ schedule, and the Rebels received more than 30 votes in the preseason poll.
The Hogs play the Crimson Tide during the last week in September and it could rocket Arkansas directly into title contention with an early upset of the defending national champion. Of course, Arkansas will have little time to enjoy an upset over Alabama, as their next three games are against Texas A&M, Auburn and Mississippi.
Fortunately for Hogs fans, their team can likely sustain one loss and get to the BCS Championship game, provided they win the SEC Championship game.
Arkansas will not be off the BCS Championship radar for long, as the defense returns seven starters and the Razorbacks' Quarterback Ryan Mallett is a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate, leading a high-powered elite offense.
I know what you are thinking. It's not much of a stretch saying the No. 12 in the preseason poll has a shot to get to the BCS Championship game. However, be honest: if you aren’t a Badger fan, when was the last time you thought you would see Wisconsin in the BCS Championship game?
The Badgers' road to the BCS Championship game will likely be determined in October, when they play No. 2 Ohio State and then travel the following week to Iowa City to play the No. 10 Hawkeyes. Wisconsin does not have to play No. 14 Penn State this year, but they do have to avoid an upset against Michigan State in East Lansing in the Big Ten opener.
The offensive line of the Badgers has the most depth and experience in the conference, with two All-Big Ten starters returning. Wisconsin is led by fifth year senior Scott Tolzein, who connected on more than 64 percent of his passes.
John Clay, the Big Ten’s offensive player of the year, returns to run the ball for the Badgers. One of Tolzein’s favorite targets, Nick Toon, is also back, with his 54 catches and 805 receiving yards.
The key question in Madison is whether the defense will be able to create enough turnovers and limit mistakes to allow the offense to control the game.
Why the Oregon teaser in the photo? The Ducks, while out of the top 10, are not a long shot. Yes, they play USC and in-state rival Oregon State on the road, but any kinks in their system should be long resolved, as they don't play their two toughest games until very late in the season. The Ducks play the Trojans on October 30, and end the season against the Beavers.
Somewhere CEO Phil Knight and Oregon alumni are smiling, as Oregon is a legitimate BCS Championship Game contender.