Who might challenge the Tide dynasty?
The Alabama Crimson Tide have won three of the last four national titles. That much, of course, is no secret, and neither is the fact that the rest of the country has been stuck playing catch-up behind the recruiting and coaching machine that is Nick Saban.
However, with spring practices finally having kicked off throughout the college football world, teams from Seattle to Miami and everywhere in between look towards that crystal ball and are excited at the prospect of raising it themselves.
But just because everyone wants to win it does not mean everyone actually has a chance to do so.
All the usual suspects will be in the hunt: Texas A&M squares off against Bama in Week 2 in an early meeting for SEC West supremacy. LSU, Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina are all also in the hunt for an SEC and national title. Ohio State and Michigan are primed to duke it out, old-school, Big Ten-style for a shot at the Coaches' Trophy. Of course, all Big 12 eyes are always on Texas and Oklahoma. One Cardinal, in Stanford, and a Cardinals, in Louisville, also have shots out of the Pac-12 and Big East, respectively.
We're not looking at those teams, and a few others. You already know about them, and you will hear plenty about them as the offseason wears on.
No, we're looking at the little guys -- the dark horses. No one expected Notre Dame to run the table in the regular season after kicking off Week 1 unranked.
By no means are we saying it's going to happen, but which teams have a shot at shocking the world in 2013?
TCU Horned Frogs
Coach Gary Patterson's squad served themselves fairly well in 2012, its first season as members of the Big 12. The team finished with a 7-6 overall record, but the Horned Frogs were looking spectacular at the beginning of the season, with star passer Casey Pachall under center.
And therein lies the problem.
Pachall left the team and school altogether in order to check into drug and alcohol rehab. In his stead, Patterson was forced to turn to Trevone Boykin, who performed well as a true freshman but obviously took his lumps. Pachall is clean, back on campus, and will be given every opportunity to win back the starting role. Boykin, with his extra experience in 2012, should provide the type of change-of-pace offense that will keep opposing defenses on their toes.
Speaking of defense, TCU returns nine starters from a unit that finished in the national top 30 in both points allowed per game and yards per play. Playing against the air-it-out, wide-open offenses of the Big 12, those tenacious defensive stars, including soon-to-be sophomore superstar Davonte Fields, that experience and talent could shoot this squad to the top of the conference ranks.
Plus, look around the conference. Texas is good, but Mack Brown's coaching has come into question. West Virginia, Oklahoma, Texas Tech, Baylor and Kansas State all break in a new starter at quarterback next year.
An undefeated run and trip to the BCS title game is improbable, but not out of the question.
Even Northwestern fans might be surprised to find themselves on this list -- not because of the 2012 season's results, but because of the 90 years of results prior to that.
Yes, of course, there were a few great years sprinkled in there, but the reality of the situation is that without Pat Fitzgerald, this program has more or less been garbage. As a player in the mid-90's, he earned All-American honors in leading the Wildcats to a Rose Bowl.
Now he is his team's coach, and he has the 'Cats poised for greatness. The team finished 10-3 last year, including a win over Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl. The team was not used to winning, however, and it showed in choking up second-half leads in all three losses, to Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan, respectively.
The team returns eight starters on offense and another seven defensively, meaning the majority of the guys who took the jump to double-digit wins are returning and are hungry to lead their program over Michigan, Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin to a Rose Bowl or even the whole thing.
One guy who is not technically a starter is Trevor Siemian. He and dual-threat starter Kain Colter split time under center. Whereas most teams struggle in such a situation, both young men understood their roles and thrived.
Both are expected to show improvement, and it might just be enough to make an undefeated run.
All eyes in the ACC will be on Clemson and Florida State, but the 2013 season may be all about The U. Of course, putting the Canes on this list presumes that the program will be allowed to participate in the postseason in the first place.
Miami should have been able to take on Florida State in the ACC title game in 2012, but was unable to after voluntarily holding itself out of the postseason.
We're not going to get into that now. Instead, we're going to regale you with tales of the one and only Duke Johnson.
As a true freshman, Johnson racked up 947 yards and 10 touchdowns. He is primed to dominate in 2013, which will take some pressure off of soon-to-be senior quarterback Stephen Morris, who doesn't need the pressure taken off of him. Morris can pass, pure and simple.
Beyond those two, the Canes are tied for tops in the nation with 19 returning starters. That number is not always a guaranteed predictor of success (Bowling Green is also returning 19, for example) but in this case, it could quite a bit. The ACC suffers a major drop-off in terms of talent after Clemson and Florida State, meaning Miami could make a move.
Combine that with the fact that coach Al Golden is: (1) Fantastic and (2) Finally able to motivate his guys with postseason glory, and it might be enough to shock the world and bring back some of that Miami swagger.
Oregon State Beavers
Oregon State is not supposed to be able to compete against the likes of Stanford, Oregon, UCLA, USC, Arizona State and Arizona in what is expected to be a very strong Pac-12 conference in 2013. However, the Beavers were not supposed to win nine games in 2012, either.
More to the point, there is a reason why the members of this list are called 'dark horse candidates'.
Coach Mike Riley has not one, but two excellent quarterbacks to chose from in Cody Vaz and Sean Mannion. Mannion has the prototypical size (6-foot-5, 212 pounds) and the big arm teams are looking for. However, he is injury prone, thus opening the door for the 6-foot-1, 198-pound, extremely scrappy Vaz.
Whomever wins the job in the Spring and Summer will be handing the ball off to Storm Woods, one of the nation's most underrated freshmen in 2012. The 6-foot, 202-pound Texas native ripped off 940 yards on the ground and piled up another 313 yards through the air while scoring 13 total times. Brandin Cooks surpassed the 1,000-yard barrier receiving as a sophomore last season. High-powered attack, anyone?
Defensively, the team's top five tacklers from 2012 all return, led by undersized linebacker Michael Doctor and his 83 total tackles. The team does lose star defensive back Jordan Poyer's seven interceptions, but Rashaad Reynolds and Sean Martin hauled in three and two, respectively, as juniors a year ago.
It won't be easy, but the pieces are in place. Nine wins should not have satisfied this up-and-coming program.
Boise State Broncos
If this feels like a cop-out, well, it should and it shouldn't.
By now, every college football fan is familiar with the little engine that could in Boise State. Yet, despite all the wins against programs of every size and shape, the Broncos have yet to garner the type of national respect that can build into a run at the crystal ball.
The Mountain West is going to be stronger than ever in 2013 with the additions of Utah State and San Jose State, two teams that won 11 games apiece a season ago. Quarterback Joe Southwick took his lumps replacing the legendary Kellen Moore. Another offseason as the team's full-time starter should help him improve upon his 2,730 yards, 19 touchdowns and seven interceptions in his junior year.
Coach Chris Peterson simply wins games. His program quietly finished within the top 20 nationally, despite suffering a relatively down year.
An undefeated run is not out of the question. In 2012, Notre Dame was the only unbeaten team in the nation. If every SEC and big-time conference school has losses, will the improved competition in the MWC be enough to push Boise over the hump and into the title showdown?
There is only one way to find out.