Daily Blog •July 10, 2013

Who Will Be This Year’s Surprise Team?

Do you think it is easy picking a National Champ prior to the year?

Since 1994, only 3 times has the preseason #1 team gone on to win the National Title. However, I am happy that I have correctly pegged the national champ in two of the last five years!

In 2011, Oklahoma was the preseason #1 team but I had Alabama #1 and the Crimson Tide came thru for me by easily winning the rematch vs LSU in the national title game!  In 2008, Georgia was the preseason #1 team but I had FLORIDA to win the title and the Gators delivered for me!! Athlon was the only other source to have Florida #1.

Only in 1999 (everyone with Florida St), 2001 (two magazines with Miami, Fl), 2004 (everyone with USC) and last year (USA Today and Sports Illustrated) did any of the Big 9 preseason magazines correctly pick the National Champ.

Past Surprise Teams

In 2002, it was yet another Surprise Team taking home the National Title. Ohio St was not even ranked in the preseason Top 10. In fact, only three magazines even picked them to win the Big Ten, let alone contend for a National Title. I am pleased to report I had OSU at #7, which was higher than any other publication and when the smoke cleared, they had beaten Miami, FL in the Fiesta Bowl and took home the National Title.

In 2003, there was another surprise champ and that was LSU. If you read my 2003 College Football Preview, you know I had LSU pegged as my #2 Surprise Team in the country saying they had a great shot at going undefeated and attaining the National Title. At the start of the year, not only did 8 of the Big 9 magazines NOT have LSU as a National Title contender, but NONE had LSU even winning the SEC WEST DIVISION. That year LSU simply won the SEC outright and shared the National Title!! The other half of the National Title went to USC who I had listed as my #5 Surprise Team despite the fact they had to replace their Heisman Trophy winning QB Carson Palmer.

In '04 almost everyone including myself pegged USC and Oklahoma to play in the Orange Bowl game so there was no Surprise Team in the title game BUT Auburn made no major publication's Top 10 and almost got to the big game with its unbeaten season. I had Auburn listed as my #7 Surprise Team in '04.

In '05 the #1 and #2 preseason teams met in the title game so there was no Surprise Team. Penn St was not ranked in the preseason and finished #3 in the final polls after having a losing season in '04. While they did not make my Surprise List, they were my #3 Most Improved Team.

The 2006 season was a VERY GOOD year for my Surprise Teams and almost a GREAT YEAR! I say almost a GREAT year because my #1 Surprise Team was Louisville and they came within inches of playing for the National Title. When I wrote the magazine I had expected the "Derby City Duo" of RB Michael Bush and QB Brian Brohm to be one of the top QB/RB combos in the country. Bush was lost in the 3Q of the opening game and Brohm was injured a few games later. Brohm was only a few games back from injury when the #3 Cards blew a 25-7 3Q lead and lost to Rutgers on a FG on the last play (which was a 2nd chance FG after the first one was missed but the Cardinals were penalized for being offsides). Had they held on and won they would have been #2 in the BCS poll and we would have had a pair of unbeatens meet for the title. As we saw, the Buckeyes were greatly affected by their 51 day layoff and were a vulnerable team. Louisville could have been the fourth team in FIVE YEARS to merit National Championship consideration that was one of my Top 10 Surprise Teams. That is a pretty good record considering I do not pick any of the projected preseason Top 10 teams.

In 2007, I had Ohio St listed as my #4 Surprise Team and they entered the season #11 but played in the National Title game. I had USF (unranked preseason) as my #5 Surprise Team and they climbed as high as #2 in the polls. I had Georgia (#13 AP) as my #6 Surprise Team and they finished #2 and almost played in the title game. I had Oregon my #10 Surprise Team and they were #2 when QB Dennis Dixon was injured. Had Dixon not been injured, they likely would have been in the title game. I had Missouri my #9 Surprise Team and despite being UNRANKED in the AP preseason poll, they were #1 when they faced Oklahoma in the Big 12 Title game and finished #4! I also had Hawaii going unbeaten in the regular season and playing in the Sugar Bowl which is exactly what happened!

In 2008, I had Texas Tech my #3 Surprise Team and they got to 10-0 (#2) and came very close (3-way B12 South Division tie) to playing for the Big 12 Championship and possibly the National Title game. Penn St opened the year #22 in the AP poll but was my #5 Surprise team and had they not given away a 9 point 4Q lead vs Iowa they would have been in the title game.

In 2009, the title game was Texas vs Alabama (both top 5 prior to year) so there were no surprise teams.

In 2010, I had AUBURN my #5 surprise team and despite entering the year #22 in the AP poll they ran thetable and won the national title!

In 2011, the top 4 teams were all in the Top 20 at the start so there were no real surprise teams. Last year Florida was #23 at the start of the year but finished #3 in the BCS poll and was one play from playing in the National Title game. I had them my #5 surprise team. For the first time ever, a team played for the National Title that was not in the Preseason Top 10 and was not on my surprise list as I did not have Notre Dame (nobody did as they were unranked to start the year. I did have Ohio St as my #1 Surprise team but did not use them since they were ineligible for the title. 

So, what have we learned from all this information? Clearly, every year there has been an unexpected Top 10 team and some years there are big surprises like Oklahoma, Ohio St, LSU and Auburn who all took home the title after a 5-loss season (Auburn also had 5 losses in 2003 before going unbeaten in 2004). Now comes the question, "Who will be this year's Surprise Team?"
Each of the past four years, during the offseason, I have come up with a projected top 10 of the preseason AP poll on my website. My expected 2013 preseason top 10 included Alabama, Ohio State, Oregon, Stanford, Texas A&M, Georgia, Notre Dame, Florida, South Carolina and Louisville. It is likely those teams will make up the top 10 this year, so I did not use any of them as my surprise teams. However, with QB Everett Golson now gone at Notre Dame, the Fighting Irish will likely be outside the preseason Top 10 and Clemson will probably fill their spot.

The following are 5 programs that, while not as highly ranked, have the potential to shock the nation in 2013.

1. Florida St

The Seminoles were my preseason No. 1 team in 2012, and they were favored by at least 13 points in every game except against Florida, when they were "only" a seven-point favorite. They disappointed me by blowing a 16-0 halftime lead against NC State and then blew a 20-13 fourth-quarter lead against Florida. This season, they lose 11 players -- including five first- or second-round picks -- to the NFL. While a lot of talent departs, a lot returns as FSU ranks in my top 12 in the country in seven of eight positions. Two of the past four national champions have had first-year quarterbacks, and as long as Jameis Winston stays healthy, he could have a huge year.

Last year's schedule was tailor-made for a title considering FSU played its toughest opponents at home. However, in 2013, the Seminoles have to travel to both Clemson and Florida. They do have a bye before they play the Tigers -- and play lowly Idaho before the Gators -- so this very talented team is capable of running the table. I believe they have the best shot of any preseason non-top 10 team of winning the national title.

2. Texas

The Longhorns are actually No. 2 in my talent ratings (behind Alabama) this year, but will not be ranked in the top 10. They are deep at quarterback with David Ash, Case McCoy and spring sensation Tyrone Swoopes. They have not one but two running backs whom I ranked No. 1 coming out of high school, and they have my top-rated offensive line in the country. In 2011, Texas had the best defense in the conference, and, after injuries and poor tackling hurt it last year, should have the best defense in the Big 12 in 2013.

I know I had Texas as my No. 1 surprise team last year, but remember that I have not picked the Longhorns to be No. 1 in their division or conference since 2009 -- and usually have them rated lower than most. They do have to play BYU, Oklahoma, TCU and Baylor on the road, but with 19 returning starters, coach Mack Brown can no longer call the Longhorns a young team. They are one of the most experienced teams in the country.

3. USC

Last year, the Trojans were the preseason No. 1 team in the country. But not only did they not win the title, they were also the first preseason No. 1 team to finish unranked. While I did not have them playing in the championship game last year, they disappointed a lot of folks -- and their bandwagon, which was overcrowded in August 2012, is now almost empty.

This year, they lose quarterback Matt Barkley, and I only project them as No. 25 in the preseason AP poll. USC actually ranks No. 1 in the Pac-12 in my ratings in six out of nine categories, which says a lot about the Trojans' talent when the conference features perennial top 10 teams in Oregon and Stanford. USC does have to play both Arizona State and Notre Dame on the road, but it gets Stanford and UCLA at home while avoiding Oregon. Only one of my nine sets of power ratings calls for the Trojans to go unbeaten, but I think this year's squad is more talented and deeper than the 2012 preseason No. 1 squad. The Trojans are way under the radar heading into the 2013 season.

4. Oklahoma St

Just two short years ago, the Cowboys were the No. 3 team in the country at the end of the season, just missing out on playing in the BCS National Championship. After going just 8-5 in 2012, they will not be in the top 10 this year, but rank No. 10 in my Power Poll. Oklahoma State has a 2013 schedule that could allow it to go unbeaten at the end of the season.

The Cowboys' true road games are mostly winnable matchups against the likes of Texas-San Antonio, West Virginia, Iowa State and Texas Tech, with their toughest test coming at Texas (my No. 2 surprise team) on Nov. 16. They get the other Big 12 contenders (besides Texas) in Kansas State, TCU, Baylor and Oklahoma at home, where they are 29-6 over the past five years. Two of my nine sets of power ratings have them going undefeated, and clearly an unbeaten Big 12 team would have a great shot at playing for the national title.

5. Arizona St

Second-year head coaches have had great success in the BCS era. In 2000, Bob Stoops shockingly won the title after a five-loss season. Two years later, under head coach Jim Tressel, Ohio State was a surprise national title winner after a five-loss season in his first year. Urban Meyer, in his second year at Florida, took home a national title in 2006, and Gene Chizik (in his second year) won the title in 2010 after going 8-5 his first year at Auburn.

I will admit I really had the Sun Devils about eighth or ninth on my list, but they were the highest rated of the teams with a second-year head coach in Todd Graham (coming off an 8-5 season), and I wanted to keep with tradition. They do have my No. 4 set of running backs in the country as well as my No. 4 defensive line. While the Sun Devils have to play UCLA and Stanford on the road -- and Notre Dame at a neutral site -- they get USC and Wisconsin at home and could end up with only their third double-digit-win season in the past 25 years.

Want the complete list of my Surprise Teams?


Order my 2013 College Football Preview by visiting the PhilSteele.com store!

Only 50 Days Until the First College Football Game!!!