By Zac Ellis
Every year, preseason polls are released to an outpouring of analysis and reaction. And every year, many predictions are rendered laughable by season’s end. USC began the 2012 campaign with a No. 1 ranking and finished 7-6; Notre Dame entered September unranked and rattled off an undefeated regular season to earn a spot in the national title game. Non-AQ teams have snuck into the BCS as well: Northern Illinois followed in the footsteps of former party-crasher Boise State by landing an invite to the Orange Bowl at the 11th hour last season.
So who is this year’s Cinderella? That’s tough to say in early August. Still, here are five unranked teams in the preseason Coaches’ Poll, listed alphabetically, that could potentially make a run at the BCS in 2013.
Arizona State (8-5 in 2012)
The Sun Devils didn’t stand out in a fast-improving Pac-12 last season, but Todd Graham’s program could be poised to make national headlines this fall. Fourteen starters return across the roster, none more noteworthy than defensive tackle Will Sutton, who recorded 13 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss in 2012. Sutton is one of the country’s premier defensive linemen, and he’ll anchor a unit that finished second in the conference in total defense last year.
The offense has the potential to be explosive, too, as running backs Marion Grice and D.J. Foster make up dangerous duo that could flourish in Graham’s system. Quarterback Taylor Kelly, who passed for 3,039 yards and 29 touchdowns as a sophomore, could elevate his game to an even higher level as a junior.
At this time last year, USC was the prohibitive Pac-12 South favorite. Yet the Trojans’ struggles threw the division into chaos, and the Sun Devils could reap the benefits. Arizona State has the players to be one of the league’s most balanced teams in 2013. If it can navigate a brutal first month that includes games against Wisconsin, Stanford, USC and Notre Dame, Graham’s squad could challenge for a surprising BCS berth.
Fresno State (9-4)
Not many programs return 16 starters from a team that ranked among the top 25 nationally in total offense and total defense, but Fresno State is an exception. The Bulldogs’ most prominent returnee is quarterback Derek Carr, who passed for 4,104 yards and 37 touchdowns last fall to help the team go 7-1 in Mountain West play. Fresno finished 9-4, a major jump from its 4-9 record in 2011 and a testament to the job done by then-first-year coach Tim DeRuyter.
Experience should factor into Fresno’s BCS-crashing potential, but the Bulldogs’ schedule might be the biggest reason to believe. They drop nonconference meetings with Oregon and Tulsa -- two of Fresno’s four losses last season -- and instead open the year at home against Rutgers. With playmakers like Carr and receiver DaVante Adams (1,312 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns in 2012), DeRuyter has the talent to stay in the BCS hunt late into the year.
The Golden Hurricane took Conference USA by storm with one of the country’s most electrifying rushing attacks last season, and there’s no reason to think it won’t be equally productive in 2013. Tailbacks Trey Watts and Ja’Terian Douglas rushed for 2,044 yards and 10 touchdowns to help Tulsa average more than 34 points per game. The ground game steamrolled Iowa State in the Liberty Bowl, racking up 317 yards in an eventual 31-17 win.
Coach Bill Blankenship’s team is set to move to the American in 2014, so respect for the program continues to grow. But for a non-AQ school to sneak into the final BCS picture, it needs to take down a Goliath along the way. The Golden Hurricane’s Sept. 14 visit to Oklahoma could fit that bill; the Sooners return only four starters from the country’s 89th-ranked rushing defense in 2012.
Wait … Vanderbilt? That Vanderbilt? Once a perennial SEC bottom feeder, the Commodores have undergone a transformation in the past two seasons under headman James Franklin. The coach led Vandy to its first back-to-back bowl appearances in history, and his nine wins in 2012 were the most at the school in nearly a century. The ‘Dores aren’t a doormat anymore: They lost by just four points to South Carolina in last season’s opener, downed rival Tennessee by 23 points on Nov. 17 and topped NC State by two touchdowns in the Music City Bowl.
Franklin returns 13 starters from last year’s squad, including a host of key pieces from a defense that ranked fifth in the SEC and 19th nationally. Linebacker Chase Garnham, cornerback Andre Hal and defensive end Walker May are among the best at their respective positions in the conference. Throw in receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd -- the league’s most productive pass-catching duo last fall -- and the ingredients to sneak into the SEC East race are there.
The key will be surviving a daunting schedule. The Commodores travel to South Carolina, Florida and Texas A&M and face a tough test in their opener against Ole Miss.
Virginia Tech (7-6)
True, the Hokies' 7-6 record in 2012 was the program's worst in 20 years. And true, quarterback Logan Thomas looked lost against opposing defenses far too frequently in his junior campaign. But if Beamer’s program has proven anything in his two decades in Blacksburg, it’s that Virginia Tech won’t lay dormant for long. The Hokies have a chance to bounce back as a dark horse contender this fall.
A lot hinges on the team’s performance in the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff against Alabama. If Tech can escape without getting clobbered, it could do wonders for the Hokies’ reputation and morale. Improvement from Thomas will be crucial, and he’s been honing his mechanics with new offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler, who has previously worked with Tom Brady.
Virginia Tech benefits from a fairly wide-open ACC Coastal race and brings back nine starters from a unit that ranked 18th in the country in total defense. A return to a 10-win season -- something Virginia Tech did for eight straight years prior to 2012 -- would likely mean a spot in the ACC title game and a shot at the BCS.BAUMGAERTNER: Freshman 15: Impact newcomers to watch