College Football's Top-10 Darkhorse National Title Contenders

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Florida State is a sleeper to watch for the national title.

College Football's Top-10 Darkhorse National Title Contenders

Predicting college football's national champion is never an easy task. In addition to combing through schedules, returning starters, players lost and statistics, there are several factors impossible to account for. Injuries and luck will have a major impact on the 2013 season - and neither can be projected. 

Most of college football's national title winners will come from within the top 10 of most preseason polls, but there are always a few darkhorses sneaking into the top 10 at some point during the season. 

What teams could be a darkhorse national title contender in 2013? Using Athlon's projected 125 for 2013, the criteria was simple - the teams must be ranked anywhere outside of the top 10 to qualify

College Football's Top-10 Darkhorse National Title Contenders

Arizona State
Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 8

Why Arizona State is a Title Contender:
Hiring Todd Graham paid immediate dividends for Arizona State last season. The Sun Devils improved their win total by two games and cut down on the mental mistakes that plagued this team in recent years. After closing out 2012 on a three-game winning streak, hopes are high in Tempe for Arizona State to win the Pac-12 South. Provided the offense develops a few playmakers at receiver, the Sun Devils could average over 40 points a game. The defense returns eight starters, including All-American tackle Will Sutton and linebacker Carl Bradford (11.5 sacks last year). The schedule isn’t easy, but allows for marquee victories by Arizona State. Games against Stanford and Notre Dame should be opportunities to pull upsets against top-10 teams.

Why Arizona State Isn’t a Title Contender:
Making the leap from an eight-win team to an 11 or 12-win team isn’t easy. Despite the talent in the front seven, Arizona State ranked 10th in the Pac-12 against the run. The Sun Devils also need to find more depth at cornerback this fall. While the schedule allows for some huge victories, winning at Stanford, UCLA and in a neutral site affair against Notre Dame won’t be easy. Arizona State is certainly a longshot to play for the national title, but Graham and his staff clearly has this program moving in the right direction.

Florida State
Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 4

Why Florida State is a Title Contender:
EJ Manuel was a first-round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, but there’s not much concern about quarterback play for the Seminoles. Redshirt freshman Jameis Winston is a potential superstar and even though there will have some growing pains, he is expected to be one of the top quarterbacks in the ACC this year. Winston is surrounded by one of the nation’s top offensive lines, and there’s no shortage of weapons at running back and receiver. The defense lost a handful of players, but there’s talent waiting in the wings. Sophomore end Mario Edwards Jr. is due to become a prominent factor in the pass rush, while the secondary – despite the loss of Xavier Rhodes – will be stingy. Florida State’s national title hopes are certainly helped by a favorable schedule, as the Seminoles should be favored in at least 10 games this year.

Why Florida State Isn’t a Title Contender:
As mentioned above, the Seminoles have plenty of fresh talent waiting to step into the starting lineup. But what if it takes that talent longer to develop than some may expect? The coaching staff also has six new assistants, including defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. Florida State cannot afford an injury on its offensive line, as there’s very little proven depth behind the starting five.

Kansas State
Returning Starters: Offense – 8, Defense – 2

Why Kansas State is a Title Contender:
Two words: Bill Snyder. Never count out Kansas State in the Big 12 title picture as long as Snyder is on the sidelines. The Wildcats have to replace quarterback Collin Klein and linebacker Arthur Brown, but haven’t we heard this story before when it comes to Kansas State? Key players leave, new stars emerge. The Wildcats have a quarterback battle between Daniel Sams and Jake Waters set to begin this fall, but the offense should be in good shape regardless of which player starts. The skill players are solid, and the offensive line could be the best in the Big 12. Road trips to Texas and Oklahoma State won’t be easy, but Kansas State can make up some ground in the Big 12 with November home dates against Oklahoma, TCU and Iowa State.

Why Kansas State Isn’t a Title Contender:
Although Sams and Waters appear capable of leading this offense, Klein’s leadership and play will be missed. A slight drop off on offense should be expected. But the bigger question mark for Kansas State has to be a defense that must replace a handful of key contributors. Linebacker Arthur Brown, cornerback Nigel Malone, defensive ends Meshak Williams and Adam Davis won’t be easy to replace. Brown’s departure is huge, but the return of Tre Walker and Blake Slaughter has eased the concerns about the linebackers. With a wide-open Big 12, can the champion of the conference climb high enough in the polls to make a run at the national title? There’s a ton of parity in the league this year, so a 9-3 or 10-2 record might win the conference title.

Michigan
Returning Starters: Offense – 5, Defense – 5

Why Michigan is a Title Contender:
After an 11-2 mark in coach Brady Hoke’s first season in Ann Arbor, the Wolverines took a step back in the win column last year. A tougher schedule resulted in an 8-5 mark in 2012, with three losses by a touchdown or less. The future looks bright at Michigan, especially as Hoke continues to reel in elite talent. The Wolverines return only 10 starters, but there’s plenty of capable players waiting to step into the lineup. Quarterback Devin Gardner shined after taking over for an injured Denard Robinson last year and should be even better in 2013 with an offseason to work as the starter. Gardner is a better fit than Robinson for what Michigan wants to do on offense, and there’s some potential in the receiving corps with sophomore Amara Darboh and senior Jeremy Gallon. The defense finished 13th nationally in yards allowed last season and even though a handful of players must be replaced, the Wolverines have the talent to rank near the top of the Big Ten. The pass defense will get a boost with the return of cornerback Blake Countess, who missed nearly all of 2012 with a knee injury.

Why Michigan Isn’t a Title Contender:
With most of the roster slated to return in 2013, Michigan may be a year away from contending for a national title. And even though there’s talent stepping into the lineup, it may take some time for it to perform at an All-Big Ten level. The offensive line should be solid with the return of tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield, but the interior will feature three new starters. Linebacker Jake Ryan is also out until at least October with a torn ACL. The schedule is backloaded, which isn’t a bad thing for a team breaking in a handful of new starters. However, Michigan has to make trips to Michigan State and Northwestern – two of its top contenders in the Legends Division. 

Nebraska
Returning Starters: Offense – 7, Defense – 4

Why Nebraska is a Title Contender:
Offense, offense and offense. The Cornhuskers led the Big Ten in total offense at 460.8 yards per game last season. And the same cast of characters returns for 2013. Quarterback Taylor Martinez made significant strides last year, and running back Ameer Abdullah filled in admirably for an injured Rex Burkhead. Nebraska has one of the Big Ten’s top receiving corps, and the offensive line is solid with the return of three starters. Considering the Cornhuskers have a handful of players to replace on defense, the offense may have to win some shootouts in Big Ten play this year. The biggest factor working in Nebraska’s favor is the schedule. If the Cornhuskers get by UCLA on Sept. 14, they could be 7-0 going into November. The final month isn’t easy, but Northwestern and Michigan State – two of the top contenders in the Legends Division – will visit Lincoln.

Why Nebraska Isn’t a Title Contender:
There’s no question Nebraska’s offense will be outstanding in 2013. However, the defense is littered with concerns. The Cornhuskers allowed 115 points over their final two games last year and return only four starters. The front seven needs to be revamped, and several young players could be pressed into action. Kicker Brett Maher won’t be easy to replace, which is a concern as Nebraska heads into a difficult November schedule.

Oklahoma
Returning Starters: Offense – 7, Defense – 4

Why Oklahoma is a Title Contender:
The talent level may have slipped just a tad in recent years, but the Sooners remain a dangerous team in the national title picture. The Big 12 is wide-open, with no clear preseason favorite. Quarterback Blake Bell has yet to prove he can be an every-down option, but the junior has upside and could develop into one of the Big 12’s top offensive players with more experience. Oklahoma also has one of the nation’s best offensive lines, along with a deep receiving corps and a talented group of backs. The defense is a work in progress, but coordinator Mike Stoops should be able to find some answers this fall. The schedule isn’t easy, although the Sooners will have an opportunity to earn a marquee non-conference win at Notre Dame in late September.

Why Oklahoma Isn’t a Title Contender:
Defense. Even though Mike Stoops is a good coordinator, the Sooners are thin on proven talent (and bodies) on the defensive line. Cornerback Aaron Colvin is one of the Big 12’s best defense players, but the secondary is a concern with the departure of safety Tony Jefferson and cornerback Demontre Hurst. The schedule isn’t overly challenging. However, matchups at Baylor, Kansas State, Notre Dame and Oklahoma State are all potential losses.

Oklahoma State
Returning Starters: Offense – 5, Defense – 7

Why Oklahoma State is a Title Contender:
Considering how wide open the Big 12 is, you could list the predicted top six teams for 2013 in this article. Oklahoma State is Athlon’s projected Big 12 champion this season, but the Cowboys are picked to finish outside of the top-10 in the final poll before bowl games. New offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich should keep Oklahoma State’s offense among the best in the Big 12, and running back Jeremy Smith is a capable replacement for Joseph Randle. The defense returns seven starters, including one of the Big 12’s top linebacking corps. With Glenn Spencer promoted to coordinator, the Cowboys expect a more aggressive defense in 2013. And a secondary that ranked 110th nationally against the pass will be improved.

Why Oklahoma State Isn’t a Title Contender:
The uncertainty at the top of the league certainly makes for an interesting title race, but it could also hurt the champion of the Big 12. Too much parity could hurt the conference in the polls, leaving the champion on the outside of the top five. While quarterback Clint Chelf played well in limited action, can he handle the starting job for a full season? While the pass defense should be better, Oklahoma State is thin on depth and proven talent at defensive end. A road game at Texas could decide the Big 12 championship.

TCU
Returning Starters: Offense – 4, Defense – 8

Why TCU is a Title Contender:
As expected, the transition from the Mountain West to the Big 12 wasn’t easy. And despite losing quarterback Casey Pachall early in the year due to a suspension, the Horned Frogs finished a respectable 7-6. With Pachall returning to the team, TCU’s passing attack will be more dangerous in 2013. The Horned Frogs have a good group of receivers returning, while the ground game will get a boost with Waymon James back at full strength from a knee injury. Nebraska transfer Aaron Green is expected to help James and B.J. Catalon shoulder the workload in the backfield. Defense is always a strength under coach Gary Patterson, and TCU allowed the fewest yards per game in conference play last year (323.9). Nine starters are back on defense, including the Big 12’s top secondary.   

Why TCU Isn’t a Title Contender:
While the return of Pachall and James will help the offense, the line is a major concern. Tackle Tayo Fabuluje quit the team in the summer, leaving the Horned Frogs with just two starters returning up front. Although the defense should be one of the best in the Big 12, end Devonte Fields is suspended for the first two games, which will leave the pass rush shorthanded against LSU. If TCU wins the Big 12, it will certainly earn it, as road trips to Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Kansas State are brutal.

Texas
Returning Starters: Offense – 8, Defense – 9

Why Texas is a Title Contender:
The Longhorns are the most difficult team to figure out this preseason. There’s no question coach Mack Brown has assembled elite talent, but Texas is just 22-16 over the last three years. Did this team turn a corner in the bowl win over Oregon State? For Texas to top last year’s nine victories, it all starts at the quarterback position. David Ash showed progress last season, but is he ready to make the jump to be an elite quarterback in the Big 12? The Longhorns don’t need Ash to be Colt McCoy, especially with one of the nation’s deepest backfields at his disposal. The offensive line has made progress in recent years and all five starters are back. The defense underachieved in 2012 but nine starters are back, and linebacker Jordan Hicks returns after missing most of last season with an injury. Texas also has one of the most favorable schedules in the Big 12, as Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech all visit Austin.

Why Texas Isn’t a Title Contender:
Can Texas be trusted? That’s the key question when it comes to preseason picks in the Big 12. The Longhorns have the most-talented roster in the conference, but questions still remain about this team’s ability to take the next step. Ash doesn’t have to be one of the nation’s top quarterbacks for Texas to win the Big 12, but he also has to cut down on his mistakes (seven interceptions in eight Big 12 games). Not only does the defense have to get tougher against the run, it has to eliminate some of the mental mistakes, including a plethora of missed tackles last year. The best barometer of Texas will likely come on Oct. 12 against Oklahoma. The Longhorns have lost 118-38 in their last two meetings against the Sooners.

USC
Returning Starters: Offense – 8, Defense – 7

Why USC Is a Title Contender:
Last year was a huge disappointment for USC. But there’s no question the Trojans have plenty of talent on the roster to make a quick rebound. If Max Wittek or Cody Kessler settles into the starting quarterback role, the offense should rank in the top half of the Pac-12 once again. Silas Redd is capable of rushing for 1,000 yards, and the receiving corps is loaded at the top with the return of Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor. The defense struggled last year, but coach Lane Kiffin’s decision to hire Clancy Pendergast as the coordinator should pay dividends. USC does not have to play Oregon this year and UCLA, Arizona and Stanford all come to the Coliseum.

Why USC Isn’t a Title Contender:
Even though athletic director Pat Haden gave Kiffin a vote of confidence, what happens if things start to go bad early in the year? The Trojans fell apart in the bowl loss to Georgia Tech and have to regain the form that saw this team finish 10-2 in 2011. Although Kessler and Wittek are talented quarterbacks, USC needs to settle on one and not go through an entire season of changing starters. The offensive line has to play better, which will be a challenge with the departure of center Khaled Holmes. The Trojans are thin in the secondary, but the additions of freshmen Su’a Cravens and Leon McQuay should help.

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