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 2012 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 2012? Using Athlon's projected top 25 for 2012, the criteria was simple - the teams must be ranked anywhere outside of the top 10 to qualify. Although Georgia and South Carolina are popular sleeper picks, both teams are ranked inside of Athlon's projected top 10.
Do Preseason Rankings Matter for College Football National Champions?
(Athlon’s projected 2012 final rank in parenthesis)
1. Texas (11)
Why They Will: If the adage of a strong running game and defense win championships is correct, the Longhorns will be in great shape. Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron combined for 1,205 yards and 10 touchdowns as freshmen last season. This duo should only get better in 2012 and will face competition for carries from incoming freshman Johnathan Gray. The defense returns six starters off a unit that ranked sixth nationally against the run and 11th in yards allowed. The defensive line and secondary should be among the best in college football.
Why They Won’t: Quarterback play. Regardless of how well Texas can run the ball and play defense, it needs to bolster the passing attack. The Longhorns averaged just 189.9 yards per game through the air last season and enter 2012 with uncertainty under center. David Ash appears to have an edge over Case McCoy but this position is still a question mark for coordinator Bryan Harsin. The schedule isn’t too overwhelming, but the Longhorns catch Oklahoma State, West Virginia and Oklahoma in their first three Big 12 games - not exactly the best news for a team struggling to find a starting quarterback.
2. Virginia Tech (16)
Why They Will: How’s this for success: The Hokies have won at least 10 games every year since 2004 and recorded five BCS bowl appearances during that stretch. The offensive line was hit hard by departures, but quarterback Logan Thomas is poised to build off a solid sophomore season. The defense should be among the best in the nation, especially with a defensive line that has speed, depth and talent at each position. Virginia Tech’s schedule is very favorable, as it could be 7-0 heading into a road test at Clemson on Oct. 20. An away date at North Carolina on Oct. 6 will be tricky, but the Hokies catch a break by hosting Florida State on Nov. 8.
Why They Won’t: Despite the promise surrounding quarterback Logan Thomas, four new starters on the line are concerning. Center Andrew Miller is a good place to start rebuilding but there’s very little experience and depth at the other positions. Depth is also an issue in the secondary, but the starting group is one of the best in the ACC. Special teams are usually a strength in Blacksburg, but the Hokies struggled to find a consistent punter last year.
3. Wisconsin (17)
Why They Will: The defending Big Ten champs suffered some losses, but the cupboard is far from bare. Running back Montee Ball is back after rushing for 1,923 yards and 33 touchdowns last season, while six starters return from a defense that ranked third in the Big Ten in yards allowed. The offensive line lost some of the unit’s top players, but center Travis Frederick and tackle Ricky Wagner are two of college football’s top linemen. The non-conference slate should allow Wisconsin to begin the year 4-0 and there’s really only one tough conference road game (Nebraska). With Ohio State and Penn State banned from the conference title game, the Badgers are a clear favorite to return to Indianapolis and a win over Michigan, Michigan State or Nebraska would be a solid boost in the polls on the final weekend of action.
Why They Won’t: Although 11 starters are back, the Badgers have some holes to fill. Although quarterback Danny O’Brien has starting experience from his time at Maryland, he’s no Russell Wilson. O’Brien is more of a pocket passer and won’t give Wisconsin the dual-threat potential that Wilson brought to the table last year. As if breaking in a new quarterback wasn’t enough, the Badgers will have a new offensive coordinator – one of six new assistants on the Wisconsin coaching staff. The Badgers will also have a new starter at kicker and punter, which could be a concern in close games this season.
4. Michigan State (18)
Why They Will:Replacing quarterback Kirk Cousins and three key receivers won’t be easy. However, the Spartans aren’t short on talent on offense, as running back Le’Veon Bell is back after rushing for 948 yards and 13 touchdowns last year. The offensive line should be improved with four starters returning. The defense should be among the best in college football, as junior William Gholston, linebacker Max Bullough and cornerback Johnny Adams could earn All-American honors in 2012. The schedule is challenging but also brings plenty of opportunities to earn marquee wins.
Why They Won’t: The balance of power in the Big Ten is clearly with the Legends Division. If Michigan State can knock off Michigan and Nebraska, it would take a big step forward in the conference title race. However, beating both teams won’t be easy with a road date in Ann Arbor. The schedule doesn’t get any easier with dates against Boise State, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Wisconsin. Needless to say, if Michigan State finishes the regular season unbeaten, it will have earned a spot in the national title game. New quarterback Andrew Maxwell is talented but has very little experience. Although Maxwell should be a solid passer, there could be a few bumps in the road as he gets acclimated to the starting role – especially with new faces taking over in the receiving corps.
5. Louisville (23)
Why They Will: If you are looking for a team on the rise, look no further than Louisville. Sure, the Cardinals record is just 14-12 in the last two years, but the program is on the right track under coach Charlie Strong. Louisville has also played a handful of young players over the last two seasons, including sophomore quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. As a freshman last year, Bridgewater threw for 2,129 yards and 14 touchdowns. He should only get better in 2012, especially with a talented group of young receivers returning. The defense should rank among the best in the conference, and the incoming recruiting class will bolster the depth and talent on each level, particularly at linebacker with Nick Dawson and Keith Brown. The Cardinals have some tricky games on the schedule but should be favored in each contest.
Why They Won’t: Even if the Cardinals can navigate through the season with one loss or an undefeated record, it’s a longshot they would climb high enough in the BCS standings to play for the national title. The Big East does not have a strong reputation right now, which will hurt Louisville in terms of national respect. In order for the Cardinals to make a run at the national title game, they need some help from their Big East foes. Getting Pittsburgh, Rutgers, and South Florida to make a run into the top 25 would help the conference’s reputation and give Louisville a boost in schedule strength. The biggest personnel issue for Louisville is youth. Eleven sophomores could earn starting spots in the two-deep, while there’s only six seniors expected to see significant snaps in 2012.
6. Boise State (24)
Why They Will: With just seven returning starters, the Broncos are flying under the radar in most preseason rankings. Boise State is predicted to finish 24th in Athlon’s 2012 rankings but have finished outside of the top 16 in the Associated Press poll just twice since 2002. Despite only one starter returning, the Broncos should have one of the Mountain West’s top defenses, while there’s plenty of firepower on offense if a quarterback emerges. The schedule is favorable, especially if Boise State can find a way to win on road trips against Michigan State and Nevada.
Why They Won’t: Although there’s a lot of promise with the returning roster, Boise State lost some key players. Quarterback Kellen Moore, running back Doug Martin, defensive tackle Billy Winn, end Shea McClellin and safety George Iloka were all key cogs in Boise State’s recent success and expired their eligibility after the 2011 season. Boise State reloads fast but there are a lot of losses to overcome. Joe Southwick and Nick Patti appear to be capable quarterbacks but winning on the road in East Lansing for the first start in your career is not easy. The Broncos are probably underrated in Athlon’s 2012 rankings but seem to be a year away from pushing for a BCS bowl appearance.
-By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
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