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 2014 season - and neither can be projected.
The impact of preseason polls on the national title race is overrated, but there’s no denying it’s better to start high than have to climb from outside of the top 25. However, starting outside of the top 10 isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Florida State and Auburn both ranked outside of that range in the first preseason poll in 2013 and met for the national championship in Pasadena.
While most of college football's national title winners are likely to come from within the top 10 of most preseason polls, there are always a few dark horses sneaking into the discussion.
What teams might fit that mold in 2014? Let’s take a look at 10 teams to watch for the upcoming season:
College Football’s Top 10 Dark Horse National Title Contenders for 2014
Returning Starters:Offense: 5, Defense: 6
Key Games: 8/30 at Georgia, 9/20 at Florida State, 11/29 South Carolina
Replacing quarterback Tajh Boyd and receivers Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant won’t be easy, but the Tigers won’t take a huge step back in the win column. Clemson will turn to senior Cole Stoudt and true freshman DeShaun Watson at quarterback, while the receiving corps is stocked with promising talent. And as long as Chad Morris is calling the plays, the Tigers should be fine on offense. Six starters return from a defense that allowed just 22.2 points per game in 2013. Vic Beasley is one of the nation’s top defensive linemen, and the secondary will get a boost from a healthy Mackensie Alexander at cornerback. Settling the offensive line and getting Stoudt acclimated to the starting lineup will be two areas to watch early in the year. Unseating Florida State in the Atlantic is a tall order, but Clemson isn’t short on talent and has opportunities for key victories against the Seminoles, in-state rival South Carolina and SEC opponent Georgia in the opener.
Returning Starters:Offense: 3, Defense: 7
Key Games: 9/20 at Alabama, 11/1 Georgia, 11/29 at Florida State
Sure, Florida was a massive disappointment with its 4-8 record in 2013. However, there’s certainly no shortage of talent in Gainesville, and the Gators catch key East Division swing games against Missouri and South Carolina at home. Coach Will Muschamp is squarely on the hot seat and improving the offense was his top priority this spring. New coordinator Kurt Roper plans to speed up the tempo on offense and allow quarterback Jeff Driskel to work more out of the shotgun. Those changes should help an offense that averaged just 18.8 points per game last year. Driskel has to play better for Florida to challenge in the East, but a bigger problem on offense is the offensive line and the inconsistent play of the receivers. Lost in the struggles on offense last year was a defense that led the SEC in fewest yards per play allowed in conference games (5.09). Florida should be strong on that side of the ball once again in 2014, led by standout cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III and end/linebacker Dante Fowler.
Returning Starters:Offense: 5, Defense: 9
Key Games: 8/30 Clemson, 9/13 at South Carolina, 11/15 Auburn
Everything that could go wrong seemed to go that way for Mark Richt’s team in 2013. The Bulldogs suffered a rash of injuries on offense, ranked near the bottom of the nation in turnover margin (-7) and lost four games by a touchdown or less. Expect Georgia to rebound in 2014, as 14 starters return, and the addition of Jeremy Pruitt as defensive coordinator should pay immediate dividends. New quarterback Hutson Mason gained valuable experience after Aaron Murray suffered a torn ACL late last year, while the Bulldogs have one of the SEC’s top collection of skill talent if running back Todd Gurley and receiver Malcolm Mitchell stay healthy. Georgia’s secondary is a significant concern – especially with Clemson and South Carolina to open the year – but the front seven should thrive under Pruitt’s watch.
Returning Starters: Offense: 6, Defense: 5
Key Games: 9/18 Auburn, 10/18 at Oklahoma, 12/6 at Baylor
Never count out Bill Snyder’s team in the Big 12 discussion. The Wildcats finished 2013 on a tear, winning six out of their last seven games. During that stretch, Kansas State’s only loss was a 10-point defeat to Oklahoma. There’s plenty of optimism in Manhattan after the strong finish, as quarterback Jake Waters returns after throwing for 2,469 yards and 18 touchdowns in his first season with the Wildcats, and dynamic receiver Tyler Lockett is one of the best in the nation. Anchored by center B.J. Finney and tackle Cody Whitehair, Kansas State’s offensive line should be one of the best in the Big 12. Even with new faces set to emerge at running back, scoring points shouldn’t be a problem for the Wildcats. However, there are concerns for a defense that returns only five starters. First-team All-Big 12 safety Ty Zimmerman will be missed, and linebacker Blake Slaughter departs after recording 110 stops last year. How quickly the new faces in the front seven emerge could be the difference in contending for the Big 12 title. With games against three projected top 10 teams (Auburn, Oklahoma and Baylor), Kansas State has a chance to build a strong case as a playoff team with victories in each contest.
Returning Starters: Offense: 6, Defense: 6
Key Games: 10/4 at Auburn, 10/25 Ole Miss, 11/8 Alabama
It seems strange to place LSU in the dark horse national title category. After all, the Tigers have won at least 10 games in four consecutive seasons. However, most believe LSU is due to take a step back in 2014, as this program has lost a significant amount of talent to the NFL over the last two years. Sure, this team will be young in a few spots, but Les Miles’ team isn’t short on talent. The passing attack may struggle early in the year with a new quarterback (Anthony Jennings or Brandon Harris) under center, along with a revamped receiving corps. Expect to see the Tigers lean on one of the SEC’s top offensive lines and a backfield that features top freshman Leonard Fournette. Similar to the offense, defensive coordinator John Chavis will be relying on several underclassmen to improve a defense that allowed 5.7 yards per play in SEC contests last year. The biggest concern for Chavis has to be at defensive tackle, as the Tigers lose Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson. Cornerbacks Tre’Davious White and Rashard Robinson are two of the rising stars in the SEC.
Returning Starters: Offense: 4, Defense: 5
Key Games: 10/4 Stanford, 10/18 at Florida State, 11/29 at USC
The Fighting Irish’s hopes of a return trip to the national championship in 2013 were derailed with Everett Golson’s season-long suspension. Brian Kelly’s team still finished 9-4 last year, but most in South Bend expected a trip to a BCS bowl. Golson is back under center for Notre Dame this season, and his return should provide a boost for an offense that struggled with consistency in the passing attack in 2013. Golson will have plenty of help from a solid offensive line, along with an intriguing group of playmakers at running back. New defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder has to rebuild the front seven, as nose guard Louis Nix III and defensive end Stephon Tuitt departed for the NFL. Sophomore linebacker Jaylon Smith is an emerging star, and cornerback KeiVarae Russell could challenge for All-America honors. Notre Dame will have strength of schedule on its side, playing 10 bowl teams from 2013. The Fighting Irish need their offense to carry the team early, but key matchups against Stanford, Florida State and USC are later in the year, which should allow Kelly’s team plenty of time to reload.
ReturningStarters: Offense: 5, Defense: 9
Key Games: 10/4 Alabama, 10/25 at LSU, 11/1 Auburn
The Rebels have made steady improvement under Hugh Freeze, winning 15 games over the last two seasons. The talent level in Oxford is also on the rise, as Ole Miss recruited the No. 8 class in 2013 and the No. 15 haul in 2014. With more talent and depth, combined with the roster turnover at Texas A&M and LSU, the Rebels are ready to make a move in the SEC West. The defense should rank among the best in the SEC, as the continued development of tackle Robert Nkemdiche should help a unit that allowed only 23.7 points per game last year. Safety Cody Prewitt is one of the nation’s most-underrated players. Depth on the offensive line is one of Freeze’s biggest concerns this season, but a healthy Bo Wallace at quarterback should make a big difference for the offense. With Auburn and Alabama visiting Oxford in 2014, Ole Miss will have a chance to play spoiler in the West.
Returning Starters:Offense: 3, Defense: 8
Key Games: 10/4 Oklahoma, 10/11 at Baylor, 11/8 Kansas State
Transitioning to the Big 12 from the Mountain West is a difficult assignment, and as expected, TCU has suffered its share of ups and downs over the last two years. But after a 4-8 mark last season, the Horned Frogs could be ready to turn a corner in 2014. Seven of TCU’s eight losses were by 10 points or less, with four coming by a three points or less. After struggling to win close games in 2013, coach Gary Patterson decided to switch schemes on offense, hiring Sonny Cumbie (Texas Tech) and Doug Meacham (Houston) to install a no-huddle, up-tempo attack. The scheme change should help TCU’s offense improve, especially if Texas A&M transfer Matt Joeckel settles into the starting quarterback role. The offense will be a work in progress in 2014, but the defense is one of the best in the Big 12. The Horned Frogs led the conference in rush defense and allowed only 4.8 yards per play in league contests last year. Expect another stingy defense from Patterson, while an improving offense should help TCU win their share of close games after struggling in that category in 2013.
Returning Starters:Offense: 7, Defense: 7
Key Games: 9/27 Stanford, 10/18 at Oregon, 11/8 UCLA
Chris Petersen was one of the top hires of the 2014 coaching carousel, and the former Boise State coach inherits a Washington team that made steady improvement under Steve Sarkisian. Petersen is tasked with elevating the program to the next level, and the Huskies could be a factor in the Pac-12 North race this year. Cyler Miles is expected to start at quarterback, but the sophomore was suspended in spring practice due to an off-the-field incident. Miles was reinstated in time for summer workouts and should return to the top of the depth chart after serving a one-game suspension. While a new go-to running back must emerge to replace Bishop Sankey, the Huskies could have one of the Pac-12’s top offensive lines. Seven starters return from a defense that allowed only 22.8 points per game in 2013. This unit could be even better in 2014, as linebacker Shaq Thompson, cornerback Marcus Peters, end Hau’oli Kikaha and tackle Danny Shelton are all among the best defenders in the Pac-12. Petersen has work to do on both sides of the ball, but with UCLA and Stanford visiting Seattle, the Huskies can play spoiler in the North.
Returning Starters: Offense: 5, Defense: 3
Key Games: 8/30 LSU, 11/15 Nebraska, 11/22 at Iowa
The Badgers return only eight starters from last year’s nine-win team, but a favorable schedule should soften the blow of the overhauled depth chart. As expected at Wisconsin, the offensive line and rushing attack will lead the way. Running back Melvin Gordon is a Heisman contender, and the line could be the best in the Big Ten. Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy are battling to start under center, and the Badgers need new faces to emerge at receiver with the departure of Jared Abbrederis. The revamped front seven on defense will get an early test with a matchup against LSU to open the season, but coach Gary Andersen has promising talent in freshmen ends Chikwe Obasih and Alec James, along with sophomore linebacker Vince Biegel. Helping Wisconsin’s case as a sleeper team in the playoff mix is a schedule that does not include Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan or Penn State in crossover play with the East Division.