College Football's Top 10 Surprises of 2012

Kansas State was one of college football's top surprises.

With college football’s 2012 regular season in the books, it’s time to take a look back at the highlights and lowlights from this year. There were plenty of surprises in college football this season, starting with the No. 1 team in the BCS rankings – Notre Dame. Athlon takes a look back at the top 10 surprises in college football, along with where those teams ranked in the preseason rankings.

College Football's Top 10 Surprises from 2012

1. Notre Dame
Preseason Prediction:
No. 20 overall in final 124

After back-to-back 8-5 seasons to begin the Brian Kelly era, Notre Dame broke through in 2012 with an unbeaten 12-0 mark and an appearance in the national title game. The Fighting Irish returned 15 starters from 2011 but lost safety Jamoris Slaughter early in the year to a torn ACL and had to deal with the ups and downs of new quarterback Everett Golson. While the offense was a work in progress early on, the defense has been dominant this year. Linebacker Manti Te’o helped to lead the Notre Dame defense to a rank of No. 1 overall nationally in points allowed and sixth in total defense, along with earning a trip to New York City as a Heisman finalist.

2. Kansas State
Preseason Prediction:
No. 27 in final 124

A case could be made the Wildcats are one of college football’s most underrated teams every year. Kansas State surprised most last season when it was outgained by 106.8 yards per game and still managed a 10-3 finish. The Wildcats started 10-0 this year and was in position to play for the national title until a loss to Baylor knocked them from the ranks of the unbeaten. Quarterback Collin Klein was picked as a Heisman finalist and averaged 281.7 yards per game of total offense. As long as Bill Snyder remains on the sidelines in Manhattan, Kansas State will be a dangerous opponent for the rest of the Big 12 – no matter how many returning starters it has or what the stats indicate from the previous season.

3. Oregon State
Preseason Prediction:
No. 61 in final 124

There’s no question Oregon State was one of Athlon’s biggest misses in the preseason rankings. The Beavers were expected to improve after a 3-9 record in 2011, but no one could have predicted a 9-3 mark in 2012. Despite some uncertainty at quarterback, Oregon State finished 34th nationally with an average of 442.7 yards per game. The rushing attack wasn’t flashy but improved by nearly 40 yards a game from 2011 (39.3).  The defense had a huge turnaround, ranking in the top four of the Pac-12 in rushing, total, pass and scoring categories. Two of Oregon State’s three losses came by four points or less, and it defeated Pac-12 champ UCLA 27-20 in late September. After going 8-16 in 2010-11, it’s clear the Beavers are headed back in the right direction under coach Mike Riley.

4. Stanford
Preseason Prediction:
No. 21 in final 124

No Andrew Luck at quarterback. No David DeCastro or Jonathan Martin on the offensive line. No problem. It’s hard to believe, but that’s exactly the scenario that played out at Stanford this season. The Cardinal had to replace a handful of key contributors from last season and still managed to win the Pac-12 title and earn an appearance in the Rose Bowl. Although the offense struggled at times, the insertion of redshirt freshman quarterback Kevin Hogan sparked this unit late in the season, while the defense ranked first in the Pac-12 in yards and points allowed. Stanford’s only losses were both by a touchdown or less, with one coming to Notre Dame – the No. 1 team in the BCS standings. Considering what Stanford lost, it’s a huge credit to the coaching job by David Shaw getting this team back in the mix for a Pac-12 title.

5. Florida
Preseason Prediction:
No. 26 in the final 124

The Gators were on the doorstep of making Athlon’s preseason top 25, so it wouldn’t have been a big surprise to see this team finish in the 15-20 range. However, Florida was one win away from playing in the SEC title game and a chance to compete for the national title. The Gators’ offense was only slightly better in 2012, but the defense ranked inside of the top 10 in yards and points allowed. Florida pitched two shutouts (Jacksonville State, Kentucky) this year and held Texas A&M to 17 points in the SEC opener for both teams. The Gators need to take the next step on offense to contend for the national championship in 2013. However, after a 7-6 mark in Will Muschamp’s first season, Florida seems to be back on track as one of the SEC’s top programs.

6. Ole Miss
Preseason Prediction:
No. 71 in the final 124

After a disastrous 2011 season, Ole Miss had nowhere to go but up in 2012. New coach Hugh Freeze was a perfect match for the Rebels, leading the program to a 6-6 mark and a bowl appearance against Pittsburgh in Birmingham. Ole Miss won three SEC games in 2012, which was more than the Rebels combined for in 2010 and 2011 (1-15). After finishing last in the SEC in total defense and 11th in total offense, Ole Miss improved to the middle of the conference in both categories. With most of the core returning intact for 2013, don’t be surprised if the Rebels make a run at eight victories.

7. Duke
Preseason Prediction:
No. 80 in the final 124

The Blue Devils started fast, opening up the 2012 season at 5-1 with a blowout victory over Virginia in ACC play. However, Duke tailed off in the second half of the season, losing five out of their final six games. Despite the sluggish end to 2012, the Blue Devils are making their first bowl trip since 1994 and had a chance to win the Coastal Division late in the year. Coach David Cutcliffe has done a good job of building the program over the last few seasons, and Duke is no longer an automatic out in conference play.

Preseason Prediction:
No. 42 in final 124

A team from Los Angeles was supposed to win the Pac-12 South title this year. However, most expected it to be USC – not UCLA. The Bruins made a surprising climb from a 6-8 finish last year to Pac-12 South champions in 2012. New coach Jim Mora seems to be a perfect fit in Los Angeles, while the emergence of quarterback Brett Hundley guided the UCLA offense to an average of 35.1 points per game. The Bruins lost two games by a touchdown or less and knocked off USC for the first time since 2006. With the Trojans losing Matt Barkley next season, UCLA should be the frontrunner to win the Pac-12 South in 2012.

9. Texas A&M
Preseason Prediction:
No. 32 in final 124

Considering Texas A&M had a new coach, was dealing with a transition to a new conference and had to replace first-round pick Ryan Tannehill at quarterback, most believed getting to seven wins and a bowl would be a successful season. However, the Aggies exceeded expectations in 2012, winning 10 games for the first time since 1998, while quarterback Johnny Manziel was named as a Heisman finalist in early December. After struggling in the second half of games in 2011, Texas A&M corrected those issues under new coach Kevin Sumlin and scored one of the season’s biggest upsets by knocking off Alabama in Tuscaloosa. With Sumlin in control at College Station, the Aggies are poised to emerge as a consistent top-15 program.

10. Kent State/Northern Illinois
Preseason Prediction:
No. 97 for Kent State, No. 85 for Northern Illinois

For the first time in the BCS era, a team from the MAC will play in one of college football's biggest bowl games. Northern Illinois managed to get into the top 16 of the final BCS standings and finished ahead of major conference champions Louisville and Wisconsin, which allowed the Huskies to play in the Orange Bowl against Florida State. Quarterback Jordan Lynch was one of the nation’s most underrated players this season, recording 4,733 yards of total offense and 43 overall scores. Although Northern Illinois’ defense allowed 356.7 yards per game, this unit forced 2.9 sacks a contest and generated 26 turnovers. Even though the Huskies are playing in the Orange Bowl, Kent State's 2012 season shouldn’t be overlooked. The Golden Flashes fell just short in double overtime against Northern Illinois in the MAC Championship but won at Rutgers 35-23 in late October. With its crazy, high-scoring mid-week games, the MAC has quickly emerged as one of the nation’s most entertaining conferences. And with Northern Illinois on the big stage in the Orange Bowl, it’s an opportunity for the MAC to prove it belongs right with the teams from BCS conferences.

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