On Campus: Bucking the trend
Philadelphia, PA – The SEC has won each of the last seven BCS championships, with Alabama reigning supreme in three of the last four seasons.
Sportsbooks across the country have spoken loud and clear in regard to the 2013 season and with five of the top eight favorites residing in the SEC, is there any reason to look outside of the conference for a real contender?
Nick Saban's Crimson Tide are sitting atop their lofty perch once again heading into 2013. With plenty of existing star power on both sides of the football, veteran leaders that know how to win tough games on the biggest of stages and a steady influx of blue-chippers, conventional wisdom suggests that Alabama's run will continue for the foreseeable future.
Still, it's nice to think outside the box every now and then. With that in mind, here are the programs that have a puncher's chance of knocking off the champs both in and out of the SEC.
OHIO STATE: Urban Meyer's Buckeyes were the only team that ran the table last season, but were not eligible to play in the postseason. That all changes this year, as Ohio State is ready for an encore performance. Ohio State is loaded on offense, with a difference maker under center in Braxton Miller. Recent off-the-field concerns regarding starting running back Carlos Hyde and All- American cornerback Bradley Roby may leave the team at less than full strength early on, but the schedule is more than forgiving, with a light non-conference slate early, followed by favorable Big Ten matchups, the toughest of which come in Columbus. The Buckeyes are more than capable of running the table again and with a Big Ten title in tow, could find themselves opposite the Tide in the Rose Bowl come Jan. 6 if others falter along the way.
OREGON: There's a new sheriff in town in Mark Helfrich, but not much should change in Eugene, as the talent level is still present for at least one more run at the championship. Helfrich takes over for the departed Chip Kelly and while things may change a little in terms of Kelly's break-neck tempo both in practice and on the field, winning games utilizing speed will remain. The Ducks are loaded on offense, from star QB Marcus Mariota to sophomore tailback Byron Marshall to the nation's most explosive weapon in junior RB/WR/KR De'Anthony Thomas, and lighting up the scoreboard will once again come naturally. The team went 12-1 last season, with the lone loss coming in overtime to Stanford. An early November trip to the Farm may be the only thing standing in the way of Oregon's shot at the BCS title.
STANFORD: It might now be safe to say that David Shaw knows what he is doing in Palo Alto. The Cardinal enjoyed unprecedented success with Andrew Luck at the helm, but that success continued in the post-Luck era with last season's 12-2 finish, including a win over Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl, the team's third straight BCS Bowl appearance. Kevin Hogan came on strong down the stretch as the team's offensive leader under center. Although Stanford needs to find some suitable replacements at the skill positions, this is a team that will dominate on the defensive side of the ball, as the front seven for Stanford could produce numerous All-Americans. November will tell the tale though, as the schedule late is daunting to say the least. It starts with a home game against Oregon, then a road trip to USC. The regular season closes with arch- rival California and Notre Dame both at home.
CLEMSON: It seems at the start of every season lately, the Tigers are mentioned as potential national title contenders. This season is no different, as the offense has a chance to be every bit as good as last year's Clemson squad that set a school record for scoring and ranked among the ACC's best ever. The result was an 11-2 season, with the losses coming to Florida State and South Carolina. The team did show its mettle, following a loss to an SEC power with a win against an SEC power, topping LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl (25-24). All-American Tajh Boyd is back under center and has proven to be one of the nation's premier playmakers. The hope is that former All-American Sammy Watkins will return to form as one of the nation's top targets downfield. The Tigers open with the Georgia Bulldogs in Death Valley, the result of which could either fan the flames of a national title run or douse them prior to September.
FLORIDA STATE: Remember when Florida State was in the hunt every year for a national title? Jimbo Fisher is now in his fourth season at the helm in Tuscaloosa and his Seminoles are slowly starting to creep back into the conversation. Last year's squad found its way to the top of the ACC (first title since 2005), finishing 12-2 overall, including routing Northern Illinois (31-10) in the Orange Bowl. The team returns just 10 starters on offense and defense combined, but that shouldn't slow the Noles' roll. The arrival of redshirt freshman signal-caller Jameis Winston has been met with a mountain of optimism and excitement, as the youngster has a chance to break out and be a star right away. He will be aided by talented depth at the skill positions, but more importantly, by an offensive line that features a couple of All- American candidates. The team has a good shot at reaching its annual season- finale against rival Florida unscathed. Getting past the Gators could land the Seminoles in a showdown with the Tide come season's end.
SOUTH CAROLINA: A lot of people think that if there is an SEC team out there that is ready to knock off Alabama it will be Texas A&M, or even Georgia. However, Steve Spurrier knows his way around the conference and the "Ol' Ball Coach" has South Carolina nearing the apex of the sport. USC went 11-2 last season, including a 33-28 win over Michigan in the Outback Bowl. The team has a veteran under center and a budding star on the outside, but it is the infectious play of All-American defensive end Jadeveon Clowney that fuels the Gamecocks. Barring an injury or some off-the-field issues, Clowney is expected to be the top pick in next year's NFL Draft. For now though, he gets to terrorize the FBS ranks one more time and bring his talented teammates along for the ride. The schedule plays right into the hype surrounding South Carolina, as the team avoids the SEC West's top teams (Alabama, Texas A&M, LSU) altogether and gets Florida and Clemson at home in late November.
TEXAS A&M: The Aggies were the only team to hand the Crimson Tide a loss last year and Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel had a lot to do with that. With "Johnny Football" under center in 2013, A&M may just have Alabama's number again this season, especially since the game comes early in College Station. Matching last year's unprecedented run to the Heisman isn't realistic, but with Manziel's ability to elude pressure and make plays, the Aggies should give the Tide problems again. After winning 11 games last season, Kevin Sumlin's squad could actually increase its win total this year. The non- conference slate will hold little mystery (Rice, Sam Houston State, SMU, UTEP), while the rest of the schedule shapes up nicely outside of the Alabama game and a late November trip to Baton Rouge to take on LSU.
FLORIDA: The Gators seem to always be in the mix prior to the start of the season and are usually still hanging around the conversation late. Last year was no different as Will Muschamp's squad posted 11 wins. The team dropped a hard-fought contest against Georgia (17-9) but bounced back with four straight wins to close out the year. The team earned a spot in the Sugar Bowl as a result, but fell to Louisville (33-23), ending a strong season on a sour note. Talent isn't the problem in Gainesville, as Florida is once again loaded on both sides of the ball. The Gators will benefit from not having Alabama or Texas A&M on the schedule, but do have to travel to both LSU and South Carolina, while the always tough Georgia Bulldogs present a stiff challenge each year in Jacksonville. The road will tell the tale for Florida this season and momentum late could prove key to the Gators' chances.
GEORGIA: Mark Richt's squad was embarrassed at South Carolina last season (35-7), but pulled it together after that en route to the SEC East crown. The Bulldogs gave it their all in the SEC Championship Game, taking Alabama to the limit in a 32-28 loss. Georgia ended the year on a high note with a big win over Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl and finished with a 12-2 record. The team returns nine starters on the offensive side of the ball in 2013, including a couple of stars in quarterback Aaron Murray and tailback Todd Gurley. Georgia's fortunes will be told early on, as there may not be a harder two-game set to start the season in the country. The Bulldogs open with a road trip to Death Valley against Clemson, before returning home for an SEC East showdown with South Carolina a week later.
LSU: Counting out the Tigers in the SEC would be unwise to say the least. Les Miles' squad may have had a down year in 2012, but a down year in Baton Rouge still resulted in 10 wins. The team returns a ton of talent on both sides of the ball, including eight starters on offense. Zach Mettenberger has settled in under center for LSU and should be improved over last year, as his top two tailbacks and top four receivers are back in the fold. If the Tigers are in the mix late, they would have to be considered a favorite to win it all, considering the schedule is peppered with pitfalls. Road trips to Georgia and Alabama and home dates with Florida and Texas A&M will determine LSU's fate in 2013.