No one seriously expects No. 24 West Virginia to win the BCS Championship in 2011.
Same goes for No. 17 Michigan State, and a handful of other potential, but not serious contenders.
One of these teams would do about anything to become this year’s Auburn—a preseason long shot. The Tigers proved to everyone that it can be done, but Gene Chizik’s team is from the SEC.
A real dark horse would come from the ACC or Big East.
It can happen, though. Let’s take a look at the 10 greatest dark horse champions in history.
The Terrapins entered the season ranked ninth after going 7-2 in 1952. A year earlier, the 1951 Terrapin squad was probably the best Maryland team under Jim Tatum after it went 11-0 and upset No. 1 Tennessee in the Sugar Bowl.
In 1953, Maryland had just joined the newly formed ACC and a championship didn’t seem like a reality.
Yet, Maryland outscored its opponents 298–38 and recorded six defensive shutouts. Clearly the Terrapins were never seriously challenged in 1953.
That is until they played No. 4 Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, and the Sooners won a defensive battle 7-0.
It was normal practice in the 1950s to release the final poll before the bowl games, so Maryland was named national champs.
Coach: Jim Tatum
Last Game: Lost to Oklahoma 7-0 (Orange Bowl)
Minnesota entered the 1960 season just looking for a winning season under Murray Warmath. The previous two seasons the gophers went 1-8 and 2-7.
The 1960 season was a breakout year for a program with a storied history.
Minnesota finished the polls on top with an 8-1 record and a Big Ten championship. The Gophers rolled to a 7-0 start and knocked off No. 1 Iowa 27-10 on Nov. 5 to take over the top spot.
A week later the Gophers slipped up against Purdue 23-14 to drop to No. 4. Yet, a win over Wisconsin in the regular season finale was enough to get them back on top.
Today, Minnesota would have never held on to the championship as the Gophers lost to No. 6 Washington, 17-7, in the Rose Bowl. But in 1960, the final poll came out before the bowls.
The best player on the team was consensus All-American guard Tom Brown, who finished second in the Heisman voting.
Coach: Murray Warmath
Last game: Lost to Washington 17-7 (Rose Bowl)
Syracuse struggled to gain its footing during the 1930s and 1940s. Then Ben Schwartzwalder took over in 1949 and the Orangemen became an eastern power.
But Syracuse was not really taken seriously on the national scene. Schwartzwalder had some great players, including All-American Jim Brown, but the Orangemen lost two Orange Bowls and a Cotton Bowl.
When the 1959 season began, Syracuse was expected to have a great season, but no one considered the Orangemen a national title challenger.
But sophomore Ernie Davis burst onto the scene and led Syracuse to a perfect 10-0 season and the top ranking. Syracuse faced Texas in the Cotton Bowl and most football people felt the Longhorns would win.
Instead, Syracuse pulled out a 23-14 win for its lone national championship in program history.
Coach: Ben Schwartzwalder
Last game: Beat Texas 23-14 (Cotton Bowl)
In Jim Tressel’s second season in Columbus, the Buckeyes were coming off a 7-5 season that ended with a loss to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl.
Expectations were still high for Ohio State and it entered the season ranked No. 13. Not exactly a spot that anyone expects a team to play for a championship.
But Tressel’s team returned some talented and experienced players that believed they could succeed.
Led by quarterback Craig Krenzel, Ohio State opened with a 45-21 victory over Texas Tech. Even as the Buckeyes kept winning they had many outsiders who didn’t believe.
Close wins over Cincinnati (23-19), Northwestern (27-16), Wisconsin (19-14), Penn State (13-7), Purdue (10-6), Illinois (23-16 in OT) and Michigan (14-9) made many experts question the Buckeyes legitimacy.
In the Fiesta Bowl, the Buckeyes were an underdog against No. 1 Miami. However, Ohio State played a physical and impressive game against the Hurricanes.
It still took a questionable interference call in overtime, but Ohio State pulled off a major 31-24 upset in double overtime.
Coach: Jim Tressel
Last Game: Beat Miami 31-24 (Fiesta Bowl)
Unlike a lot of other teams discussed here, Tennessee was coming off an 11-2 season and an SEC championship the year before.
But the Volunteers were expected to fall off after losing All-American quarterback Peyton Manning and linebacker Leonard Little.
The athletic Tee Martin took over at quarterback and he delivered for the Vol Nation.
Entering the season, Tennessee was ranked No. 10 and picked to finish behind Florida in the SEC East.
The Vols’ season was almost derailed in the opener No. 17 Syracuse, but Tennessee pulled out a 34-33 win.
Two weeks later Martin did something Manning struggled to do—he led Tennessee to a 20-17 victory over No. 2 Florida in overtime.
From there the Volunteers rolled to the SEC Championship, including a 24-14 win over Mississippi State in the conference title game.
Tennessee entered the Fiesta Bowl on top of the polls, but many felt the Vols would lose to No. 2 Florida State. But Phil Fulmer’s team would have nothing to do with that and won 23-16.
Coach: Phil Fulmer
Last Game: Beat Florida State 23-16 (Fiesta Bowl)
Leading up to the start of 2010, Auburn was not being seriously discussed as a championship contender.
The Tigers had Gene Chizik in his second season, and Cam Newton had yet to see any serious action outside of junior college.
No. 22 Auburn opened with a 52-26 win over Arkansas State behind a huge game from Newton. Each week the Tigers continued to impress, even with close wins over Mississippi State (17-14), Clemson (27-24 in OT) and South Carolina (35-27).
It wasn’t until a 52-3 win over Louisiana-Monroe on Oct. 2 that Auburn broke into the top 10.
There were a few more extremely close calls, including a come-from-behind 28-27 victory over rival Alabama in the Iron Bowl. Yet, Auburn rolled past South Carolina in the SEC Championship that set up a huge showdown with Oregon.
Newton claimed the Heisman Trophy before the title game, and he then led Auburn past the Ducks 22-19 in a wild finish.
Coach: Gene Chizik
Last Game: Beat Oregon 22-19 (BCS Championship)
Coming off a 6-5 season, Clemson wasn’t even ranked in the preseason polls. It wasn’t until the fifth week of the season that the Tigers were finally ranked at No. 14.
The Tigers were led by All-ACC quarterback Homer Jordan, who ran the option. Clemson’s defense was led by All-American defensive back Terry Kinard.
Clemson won a lot of close games in 1981, including 13-5 over Tulane and 13-3 over No. 4 Georgia.
The Tigers also beat No. 9 North Carolina 10-8 in Chapel Hill after moving up to No. 2 in the rankings. Clemson didn’t reach the top spot until it played No. 4 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl.
The Cornhuskers took a 7-6 first-quarter lead, but Clemson responded with 16-straight points to take a 22-7 lead and eventually won 22-15.
Coach: Danny Ford
Last Game: Beat Nebraska 22-15 (Orange Bowl)
Georgia Tech opened with five consecutive wins and Bobby Ross’ team was still only ranked No. 11 when it tied North Carolina 13-13 on Oct. 20.
The Yellow Jackets won their next five games to finish the season 10-0-1 and won the ACC.
Still, the best bowl game Georgia Tech could manage was the Citrus Bowl and a game with Nebraska.
Tech came up big with a 45-21 win over the Cornhuskers and the Yellow Jackets finished the season as the only team without a loss.
Still, Georgia Tech won a split title. Colorado was No. 1 in the AP rankings, while the Yellow Jackets finished first in the UPI poll.
Coach: Bobby Ross
Last Game: Beat Nebraska 45-21 (Citrus Bowl)
The unranked Hurricanes opened the 1983 season with a humiliating 28-3 loss to No. 7 Florida. Miami actually kicked a late field goal to avoid the shutout.
Miami rebounded with solid wins over Houston (29-7) and Purdue (35-0) behind freshman quarterback Bernie Kosar. In the fourth game of the season, Miami really started to believe and the nation took notice when the Hurricanes upset No. 15 Notre Dame 20-0.
The next week against Duke, Miami cracked the rankings for the first time at No. 15. The Hurricanes kept winning and continued to move up the polls. There was a big showdown with No. 12 West Virginia in the Orange Bowl, but Miami answered the call 20-3.
Miami had a big scare the next two weeks against East Carolina (12-7 win) and at Florida State (17-16 win). The Hurricanes finished the regular season 10-1 and ranked fifth.
Miami got to stay home and face No. 1 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl—a game the Cornhuskers were heavily favored to win. The Hurricanes jumped out to a 17-0 first quarter lead, but Nebraska cut that deficit to 17-14 by halftime.
The Canes didn’t back down and entered the fourth quarter with a 31-17 lead. Nebraska fought back and trailed 31-30 when Nebraska coach Tom Osborne chose to go for a two-point conversion and the win.
Miami stepped up big and denied Nebraska for a huge upset.
The Hurricanes were also helped when No. 2 Texas lost to Georgia earlier in the day in the Cotton Bowl, and No. 3 Auburn barely got by Michigan so the voters jumped the Hurricanes over the Tigers for the title.
Coach: Howard Schnellenberger
Last Game: Beat Nebraska 31-30 (Orange Bowl)
BYU opened the season unranked, and opened at No. 3 Pittsburgh. The Cougars rallied for 11 points in the fourth quarter, including a 50-yard touchdown pass by Robbie Bosco with less than two minutes to play to record the 20-14 upset.
The Cougars rocketed up to No. 13 in the rankings and just continued to win—even if many of the victories were not that impressive.
On Nov. 24, BYU took over the top spot in the rankings and finished the season with wins over Utah State (38-13) and a 6-5 Michigan team (24-17) in the Holiday Bowl.
The big programs hated to see BYU win the championship, but since the Cougars were the only undefeated team (and it was well before the BCS system was established) BYU was named champs.
Coach: LaVell Edwards
Last Game: Beat Michigan 24-17 (Holiday Bowl)