With the 2010 season rapidly approaching, I've received numerous questions lately from e-mailers, talk-radio hosts, bloggers, etc., about who my "dark horse" team is this year. Presuming this to mean "a team aside from usual suspects Alabama/Ohio State/Florida/Texas that could rise up and win the national title," I've been going with Miami. Jason McIntyre of TheBigLead.com took exception to this. On Twitter, he wrote of my choice: "Top 20 end of last year, top 15 preseason = dark horse?"
Well, yes -- going by recent BCS history, No. 13 Miami is as close to a "dark horse" as you'll find. It's been seven years since a team that low rose up and won the title (No. 14 LSU in 2003), and only one team with a lower ranking (No. 19 Oklahoma in 2000) has ever pulled it off. The average preseason ranking of the past six BCS champions: 3.8. Even with the circumstances ripe for a more parity-fueled season, it's still highly unlikely that a team ranked much lower than Miami will emerge as national champion.
However, if we change the topic from "BCS champion" to "BCS bowl participant" -- then we can ditch the "dark horse" connotations and start identifying true, off-the-radar "sleepers." Over the past four seasons, eight teams that were unranked to start the season ended the year with a BCS berth, including such out-of-nowhere teams as ACC champ Wake Forest in 2006, Kansas' 12-1 team in '07, Illinois' Rose Bowl team that same year and, believe it or not, Nick Saban's '08 Alabama team that very nearly played for the national championship.
I've got my eye on at least five candidates that could fit the BCS "sleeper" bill this year.
(Note: For the purposes of this column, I do not consider two-time BCS participant Cincinnati -- unranked though it may be -- a "sleeper." That's just stupid voting.)
Oregon is still my pick to win the Pac-10. USC is ineligible for the postseason. And Oregon State checks in at No. 22. After that, there are several similarly bunched Pac-10 teams -- Arizona, Stanford, Washington, Arizona State -- that could be poised for a breakout, but Mike Stoops' team is the only one I could see getting to 10 wins. And the Wildcats have a chance to make an early jump in the polls if they can knock off No. 10 Iowa at home on Sept. 18.
Arizona returns standouts at quarterback (Nick Foles) and running back (Nic Grigsby) and all-conference-caliber defensive ends (Ricky Elmore and Brooks Reed) and cornerbacks (Trevin Wade and Robert Golden). While last year's Top 25 defense lost seven starters, Stoops feels this unit will be faster and deeper thanks to some impressive juco transfers and redshirt freshmen. If the 'Cats can hold serve at home, they could be playing for the Rose Bowl when they head to Oregon on Nov. 26.
SI.com examines Pac-10 contenders Oregon, Oregon State and Arizona
The Huskies have won at least eight games in four of their six seasons since joining the Big East, even sharing a conference title with West Virginia in '07, but they've yet to climb that final hurdle and reach the 10-win plateau. This could be the year. Last year's team teetered ever so close, losing five games by a combined 15 points before closing with four straight wins, including a double-overtime thriller at Notre Dame and a 20-7 silencing of South Carolina in the PapaJohns.com Bowl.
UConn returns 16 starters, including its quarterback (Zach Fraser), top rusher (Jordan Todman), four offensive linemen, the front four on defense and standout linebackers Lawrence Wilson (140 tackles) and Scott Lutrus (106 in '08, injured much of last year). With a favorable conference schedule that includes home games against Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and West Virginia, the Huskies could conceivably earn the Big East's BCS berth.
Five other ACC teams appear in the preseason rankings. Fortunately for the Eagles, four of them (Virginia Tech, Miami, Georgia Tech and UNC) play in the opposite division and only two of them (Virginia Tech and Florida State) appear on BC's regular-season schedule. That alone gives Frank Spaziani's team an auspicious path to the ACC Championship Game in Charlotte, at which point an upset is certainly possible.
The Eagles have a bona fide stud at running back (Montel Harris) and All-America candidates at tackle (Anthony Castonzo) and linebacker (Mark Herzlich and Luke Kurechly). Herzlich, who missed last season while recovering from Ewing's sarcoma, still hasn't practiced due to a stress fracture in his right foot and may miss the Eagles' opener.
On the flip side, BC's offense was dreadful last season, with then 25-year-old freshman quarterback Dave Shinskie thrown into the fire out of desperation. Yet the Eagles still managed to win five ACC games. What might they do now with a more talented team?
With four Big Ten teams ranked in the preseason top 14 (No. 2 Ohio State, No. 10 Iowa, No. 12 Wisconsin and No. 14 Penn State), you're excused if you haven't given a passing thought to the Boilermakers. But perhaps you should reconsider. Remember, this is a team that handed Ohio State its only conference defeat last season, came within a last-minute two-point conversion at Pac-10 champ Oregon and lost three other contests by less than a touchdown.
Now in his second season, coach Danny Hope adds a lauded quarterback in Miami transfer Robert Marve to throw to the league's top returning receiver, Keith Smith. Sacks leader Ryan Kerrigan (13) returns as well. Admittedly, Purdue is a long-shot to reach the BCS -- it might not even win its opener at Notre Dame -- but with a friendly conference schedule that avoids both Iowa and Penn State, nine wins and a Jan. 1 bowl aren't out of the question.
Who says this year's "BCS buster" has to come from the Mountain West or WAC? The Midshipmen took a notable competitive leap last season. For the first time since their seven-year bowl streak began under former coach Paul Johnson, the Middies beat a BCS-conference foe (Missouri) in postseason play. In fact, they crushed the Tigers, 35-13, after previously taking Ohio State to the wire (losing on an intercepted two-point conversion) and beating Notre Dame.
Navy's triple-option offense returns six of last year's top seven rushers. The school is touting quarterback Ricky Dobbs as a Heisman candidate after he both rushed and passed for 1,000-plus yards and set an NCAA record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback (27). And then there's the schedule. Navy plays three ACC teams -- but they're Maryland, Duke and Wake Forest. Undefeated Navy playing in the Rose Bowl? Don't laugh. It could happen.
A few other teams and items worth noting:
• There are no SEC teams on this list simply because so many of them (six) are already ranked. No. 21 Georgia and No. 23 Auburn might otherwise have qualified as sleepers, and I don't have any particular faith in South Carolina or Kentucky.
• There are no Big 12 teams on this list because, outside of Texas, Oklahoma and Nebraska, the Big 12 is not going to be very good.
• I strongly considered Notre Dame. Both of the Irish's last two coaches, Tyrone Willingham (10-3 in 2002) and Charlie Weis (9-3 in '05), produced major improvement in their first seasons, and Brian Kelly is inheriting a more talented squad than either of them. The schedule's just too tough, though, to forecast anything better than eight or nine wins and the Champs Sports Bowl.
• Finally, a few other non-AQ "sleepers" to consider: Houston (10-4 last season, though a Nov. 27 return trip to Texas Tech a week before a potential date in the Conference USA title game comes at a tough time); Air Force (8-5 last season and creeping up on TCU/Utah/BYU in the Mountain West); and SMU (8-5 last season, and playing for a coach, June Jones, who has gotten it done before).