College football is weird. It's a sport in which teams come out of nowhere. Just this past year, we saw Notre Dame make an unexpected run to the BCS title game, and in 2010, Auburn rode a JUCO transfer quarterback all the way to a championship.
I think I've picked out a few teams that have a shot to do it. But first, a few guidelines.
- The team must be member of a major conference: It's not that I think a team from a smaller conference can't be just as good, but realistically, a team has to play in a BCS conference to have a shot.
- Must play good defense: I detest the old adage of "defense wins championships," but it's more or less true. A defense doesn't have to be world beaters if its offense is a killing machine, but it can't be bad.
- Must have a lot of returning starters: "A lot" is an amorphous term, but I'm not going to arbitrarily draw a line in the sand. Obviously, the more returning starters, the better, as it's generally difficult to make a lot of progress from one season to the next while replacing upperclassmen with young kids.
- One of those returning starters must be the quarterback: It's impossible to predict a Cam Newton bursting onto the scene, so it seems that a returning starter at quarterback would be essential.
- Probably shouldn't have a lot of coaching turnover: This isn't a hard and fast rule, since losing a coordinator may actually help a team get to new heights. By and large, though, a bumpy first year should be expected.
So with all that in mind, here are the teams that could make a surprise run to the title in 2013, listed in order of likelihood. I'm not saying I'd take these teams over Alabama. These are simply some teams that could make surprising runs that most fans wouldn't really expect.
The Frogs acquitted themselves alright during their first season in the Big 12, but struggled on offense without suspended quarterback Casey Pachall. Well, Pachall is back with the team in 2013, and so are nine starters on a defense that was absolute hell on wheels at times in 2012 despite major offseason attrition.
The Horned Frog defense finished in the top 30 in both points allowed per game and yards per play, and finished 12th in Football Outsiders's defensive F/+ metric. Those are some gaudy numbers to put up against high-powered Big 12 offenses, and almost every starter from that defense is returning, including top pass rusher Devonte Fields.
Offensively, TCU gets seven starters back from a unit that really struggled in 2012, but has to improve almost by default. With Pachall back in the fold, the team might be able to reclaim its Rose Bowl form and put together a serious run. In some ways, maybe his absence was a positive for the Horned Frogs, as it allowed Trevone Boykin to get a lot of experience running the offense. You could make the arguments now that TCU has two capable quarterbacks and that both of them bring very different skill sets to the table.
The Horned Frogs also have an advantage by playing in the Big 12, which appears to have a vacant throne at the moment. Defending champ Kansas State has to replace major pieces on both sides of the ball, including quarterback Collin Klein, and should take a step back in 2013. Oklahoma, while still dangerous, will be replacing the capable Landry Jones with Blake Bell, who has yet to prove that he can effectively throw the ball. Texas has talent, but is stuck in a rut. The door is open for TCU.
TCU does have a major non-conference hurdle: LSU in the season opener. However, the game will be played at Cowboys Stadium, which despite the travelling prowess of the LSU fanbase, at least gives Frogs players home-field advantage. This could be the most vulnerable LSU team in years, as it will be breaking in a mountain of talent on defense. If TCU can win that game, it might be past its biggest obstacle after only one week.
The Frogs play Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Kansas State on the road, but will host Texas, Baylor, and West Virginia at home. It's not the easiest schedule in the world, but if things break their way, the Horned Frogs can maneuver it.
Of all the teams that could make a surprise run at the title in 2013, I think TCU is the prime candidate. They have all the ingredients, they just need the ball to bounce the right way. Also, horned frogs can shoot blood from their eyes, which is A) indescribably metal, and B) good for at least a field goal in big games.
Unlike most of the other teams on this list, the Beavers actually had a pretty good offense in 2012. Oregon State finished in the top 25 in both offensive and defensive F/+ and rebounded nicely from a disappointing 2011 season. However, with Oregon, Stanford and USC taking up most of the spotlight in the Pac-12, the Beavers are once again under the radar nationally. With 15 starters returning, maybe they shouldn't be.
The Beavers have an easy non-conference schedule, but have to play USC, Stanford and Oregon. The good news is that both USC and Stanford have to come to Corvallis, where a lot of weird things happen for highly ranked visitors. If OSU can nick both of those games, the Civil War vs. the Ducks at the end of the year will be absolutely massive. The bad news? That game is in Eugene. However, no one is sure how Oregon will respond without Chip Kelly, so pegging that game as an automatic loss may be a bit too bold.
Oregon State probably has the most difficult conference schedule of any of these teams, so the chance of it getting through the regular season without a loss is pretty slim. However, these aren't supposed to be sure things, and I think with a couple breaks, the Beavers have a good shot at stealing the conference title.
I had a couple hundred words pounded out about how Michigan State was wildly unlucky last year and due for a big rebound in 2013. The defense lost some key personnel, but any regression on that side of the ball would be more than compensated by the growth on offense. Combine that with a Big Ten schedule, and you've got yourself a prime candidate to bounce back into double digit wins. Sounds great.
Then they went and hired Jim Bollman as offensive coordinator. The same Jim Bollman that survived at Ohio State by virtue of being Jim Tressel's friend, not because he was any good as a coach. The same Jim Bollman whose stewardship drove the Buckeye offensive line into mediocrity, a situation fixed within a year after Urban Meyer took over. Rather than read me drone on about it, you should probably just read Ramzy Nasrallah's piece on Bollman at Eleven Warriors. It's everything you need to know.
TL;DR - I'm not as high on Michigan State anymore, but felt I needed to include them for the sake of honesty. Also, Mark Dantonio should listen to the internet before doing anything.
And now, honorable mentions for some candidates that briefly piqued our interest, but ultimately are playing against a stacked deck:
Boise State quietly ended in the top 20 last year. Even if they go undefeated in 2013, they will get dinged for being in the Mountain West. I ultimately don't think they will go undefeated, though, as they lose seven starters on defense and have tough road games against Washington and BYU.
Like Boise State, BYU is a BCS outsider. However, that status as an independent allowed the Cougars to put together a formidable schedule, which includes Texas, Notre Dame, Boise State, Wisconsin, Georgia Tech, Virginia, Utah, and Utah State. The defense should take a step back in 2013 after putting an absolute hurting on teams last year, as only five starters are coming back. Between the attrition on defense, poor offense, and tough schedule, it's just not likely the Cougars can put together a title run.
The Scarlet Knights lose a lot from a very good defense in 2012, and are replacing both coordinators. Combine that kind of turnover with a weak Big East schedule, and the numbers simply don't add up.
I love James Franklin and the Commodores, but they're playing against a stacked deck in the SEC. I expect Vandy to continue to punch above their weight for the foreseeable future, but losing Jordan Rodgers and Zac Stacy is going to hurt in 2013.
What do you think?