Parity is the exception in college football, not the rule. The same teams tend to dominate season after season, and while a few newcomers manage to crash the BCS, the big-name powerhouses perennially contend. There's gridiron royalty, and there's everyone else.
Heading into 2012, that power structure seems largely secure. Seventeen schools have qualified for at least three BCS bowl bids since the advent of the system in 1998. Thirteen of those are ranked in the top 20 of the Coaches' Poll this preseason. (Ohio State is still on probation and thus ineligible to receive votes per AFCA policy.)
Every once in a while, however, a dark horse emerges and ruffles the national title picture. Kansas in 2007. Cincinnati in 2009. Auburn in 2010. With that in mind, here are five teams (listed alphabetically) not ranked in the Coaches' Poll Top 25 that have the potential to overcome the odds this year.
Sonny Dykes' squad turned heads in 2011 by pushing Mississippi State into overtime and narrowly falling to TCU in the Poinsettia Bowl. In 2012, the Bulldogs could be ready to take the next step. Senior quarterback Colby Cameron could flourish after coming into his own during last year's seven-game winning streak, and the offensive line returns four starters from a unit that allowed just 25 sacks. That's not to mention explosive wideout Quinton Patton (1,202 yards, 11 TDs) and an opportunistic defense that ranked 13th in the nation in turnover margin (+11).
Louisiana Tech's toughest game will likely be its first one, a showdown with Texas A&M in Shreveport, La. With a win there and subsequent victories at Houston and Virginia, the upstart Bulldogs could stay unbeaten -- and in improbable BCS-busting contention -- deep into November.
The knocks against Missouri are obvious: Its defense can be shaky and it's in for a bump in competition after moving to the SEC. Both are valid, well-reasoned points. Neither justifies overlooking the Tigers' high-powered offense, which ranked 12th nationally in 2011. Though it could struggle against some of the nation's premier defenses, an attack fronted by dual-threat quarterback James Franklin, wideout T.J. Moe and freshman man-child Dorial Green-Beckham (who hauled in a national-record 6,353 receiving yards at Hillcrest (Mo.) High) should partake in its fair share of shootouts.
Mizzou should also benefit from its schedule. If it can somehow squeak by either Georgia or South Carolina in September, the remainder of its slate -- save for a daunting Oct. 13 date with Alabama -- seems manageable. The Tigers skirt LSU and Arkansas and play just one preseason Top 25 team (No. 23 Florida) in their final five games.
Gary Pinkel and Co. have been knocking on the BCS door for a few years now. If Franklin's surgically repaired shoulder, which he injured during spring practice, heals according to plan, this could be the season the Tigers finally break through.
After struggling at the onset of last season, losing blowouts at Cincinnati and Florida State, NC State came together during its final three games, trashing Clemson and Maryland before beating Louisville in the Belk Bowl. And that momentum could carry over to 2012. Quarterback Mike Glennon returns after passing for 3,054 yards and 31 touchdowns, and the offensive line is expected to start four seniors, providing a source of much-needed experience.
Then there's the Wolfpack defense. Though it surrendered more than 350 yards per game, it tied for eighth in sacks (40) and ranked second in turnovers gained (39) last season, respectively. It's also buoyed by the return of its entire starting secondary, a group anchored by cornerback David Amerson, the Thorpe Award finalist who is projected as a first-round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft.
The offensive line and running game (ranked 109th in 2011) need to solidify, but the pieces are in place for NC State to shine. If all goes well, Tom O'Brien's team could challenge for its first 10-win season since the Philip Rivers era -- and possibly even more.
While Teddy Bridgewater's Louisville team appears to be the heir apparent to fill West Virginia's power void in the Big East, Pitt could be primed to make one final conference statement before leaving for the ACC. The Panthers boast an All-America caliber running back in Ray Graham (he was the nation's second-leading rusher before tearing his ACL last October), an instant-impact freshman in Rushel Shell (he rushed for a state-record 9,078 yards during his career at Hopewell (Pa.) High) and a new coach in Paul Chryst who has a reputation for effectively running the football. After a tumultuous two-year span, Pitt may finally be getting back to the ground-and-pound style that matches the city's blue-collar mentality.
Embattled quarterback Tino Sunseri has to improve his decision-making, the offensive line needs to play up to Chryst's expectations and the defense must rally around sackmaster Aaron Donald as it transitions to a 4-3 scheme. But if Pitt can topple Louisville and Rutgers at home, it could set up a Dec. 1 matchup at South Florida with major postseason implications. With a win in that contest, Chryst could conceivably earn a BCS bowl berth in his first season at the helm.
After adapting to life in a power conference last season, the Utes could be poised to make a major splash. Eight starters, including Morris Trophy-winning defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, return for a unit that topped the Pac-12 in scoring defense last season. Unheralded running back John White returns after rushing for a school-record 1,519 yards and 15 touchdowns, and Utah brings back its four leading receivers, headlined by senior DeVonte Christopher, who tallied 312 yards and three scores as the team won five of its final six games.
The biggest question remains under center, as junior quarterback Jordan Wynn looks to shore up a subpar aerial attack. He'll also have to adjust to a slightly revamped playbook, with 25-year-old quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson replacing Norm Chow as offensive coordinator.
But like Missouri's, Utah's schedule offers reason for optimism. Kyle Whittingham's squad avoids Oregon, plays USC at home and faces a very winnable early nonconference slate (Montana State, at Utah State, BYU). If it can take care of business against the rest of the Pac-12, Utah could remain in contention come December -- and, if USC makes a run at the national title, in potential consideration for an unlikely Rose Bowl berth.