Philadelphia, PA – There are some that could argue that college football has become predictable in the last few years. For seven straight seasons a SEC team has been crowned national champion, including two straight for Alabama.
However, for as much as things have stayed the same, without fail, there are still plenty of surprises.
In 2012, Notre Dame wasn't in many national preseason polls, but by season's end the Irish were battling the Crimson Tide for a national championship. Meanwhile, Mid-American Conference darling Northern Illinois crashed the BCS party.
Both of those teams followed in the footsteps of squads like the 2011 Baylor Bears and the 2010 Auburn Tigers, who went from teams thought to be rebuilding in the summer to forces to be reckoned with come December.
In 2013, the favorites include Alabama (again), Oregon and Ohio State, while Clemson, Louisville and Texas A&M, hope to keep the momentum going following a strong 2012.
However, as recent history has shown, there are others flying under the radar right now that won't be so quiet later in the year.
Although the SEC is hands down the best conference in the country, the Pac-12 is slowing closing the gap. There are teams bursting with talent up and down the standings. Most would point to Oregon and Stanford as the teams destined to represent the league in the BCS, but disregarding teams like Arizona, Arizona State, UCLA and perhaps even Washington would be a mistake.
The Wildcats are a team that absolutely steamrolled opposing defenses last season. In its first season in Rich Rodriguez's run option scheme, Arizona set school records in total yards (526.2 pg) and points (38.2 pg). Though quarterback Matt Scott has moved on, running back Ka'Deem Carey, who led the nation in rushing last year, is back and ready to keep the stampede going. If the majority of starters back on defense, a weakness last season, improve, Arizona could be playing in January.
Arizona and Arizona State don't often like to be grouped together, but the heated rivals share some similarities. The Sun Devils are bursting with talent both on offense with versatile backs Marion Grice and D.J. Foster, and on defense with disruptive playmaker Will Sutton, who may just be the most imposing linemen in the country not named Jadeveon Clowney. Games at Stanford and against Notre Dame will test their mettle but if they can hold their own. 10 wins could be in range.
The talent in the league isn't all in the desert though. With each team led by talented quarterbacks, Brett Hundley for UCLA and Keith Price for Washington, the Bruins and Huskies could each find themselves in the BCS conversation quickly. UCLA needs to get over the loss of star running back Johnathan Franklin, while Washington needs Price to recapture his 2011 form and possibly overcome a suspension to Austin Seferian-Jenkins, arguably the best tight end in the country.
The best dark horse teams are not just out west. The Big Ten is another conference that receives as much, if not more, veneration for its history as the SEC. However, though it has been a member of the esteemed conference since its inception in 1896, Northwestern isn't associated with football success like fellow league members Ohio State and Michigan.
That has begun to change recently and could continue in 2013. The Wildcats actually went 10-3 last season thanks to one of the most impressive offenses in the conference. The QB-tandem of Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian as well as all-conference running back Venric Mark will be back to fuel the high-octane Wildcats. It also doesn't hurt that Northwestern's schedule is favorable with no non-conference game against a Top 25 squad and some of its toughest league matchups (Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State) at home.
Speaking of changes, last season saw a big one that may not have been noticed by many. For the first time in nine years Virginia Tech finished the season with fewer than 10 wins. Getting back to double digit wins and a possible BCS berth won't be easy, but it is certainly something the Hokies could accomplish if everything falls into place. The defensive line is ferocious and should keep the Hokies competitive. Doing more than just staying in games will mean quarterback Logan Thomas will have to live up to his considerable potential. A neutral site game against Alabama to start the year could give an early preview of how ready the Hokies are. Skipping out on playing Florida State and Clemson will also help the cause.
As Northern Illinois proved last year, and Boise State and TCU did in prior years, it is possible to bust the BCS from a non-power conference. In 2013, NIU will attempt to do it again, thanks to the return of Heisman candidate Jordan Lynch under center.
San Jose State could make some noise this season with their own prolific quarterback in David Fales. Last year the Spartans went 11-2, while Fales torched opposing secondaries for 4,193 yards and 33 touchdowns. The degree of difficulty will be greater this season as the Spartans move from the Western Athletic Conference to the Mountain West, but this is a team that has already showed it can hang with tougher competition. Fales and company will get to show off their potential when they host Stanford, a team they lost to by just three points a year ago, in September.
Another intriguing non-BCS conference squad that has the type of skill to at least threaten to get into the national rankings is Marshall. Of the teams listed, the Thundering Herd are certainly the longest shot. However, Rakeem Cato is a multi-talented quarterback with a ton of athleticism who shines in the Herd's spread offense. Cato threw for 37 touchdowns and 4,201 yards in leading the nation's best passing offense last season. For Marshall to compete for more than just a C-USA title, it will need huge strides by the defense.
Just having the potential for breakout years doesn't mean much if it is not fulfilled.
However, any of these teams can look at the 2012 season (Notre Dame and Northern Illinois) and think - Why not us?