The first USA Today Coaches Poll of the 2013 season was released on Thursday — coincidentally, so was the first FanSided Top 25.
Every year, teams emerge from preseason obscurity to finish ranked. Some exceed expectations at an even greater level, ascending from preseason unranked status to BCS bowls.
A few candidates:
The uncertainty an NCAA investigation brought to Miami coincided with Al Golden’s arrival, and has lingered over his brief tenure. This should be the season that the Hurricanes break through though, with two of the ACC’s premier offensive players leading the way in coveted NFL quarterback prospect Stephen Morris, and explosive running back Duke Johnson.
Defense is Miami’s primary weakness, particularly up front. Should defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio shore up the Hurricane front seven, this team could make a run at a BCS bowl.
Washington is one of the most veteran teams in the conference. UW returns its starting quarterback for a third year running the offense, an elite running back, most of the primary receivers and a completely rejuvenated defense.
The Huskies play a particularly difficult schedule, opening with Boise State and traveling to Pac-12 North divisional contenders Stanford and Oregon State. UW also faces South up-and-comer Arizona State on the road. But having such a lofty challenge should make it all that much more meaningful if this is the year UW returns to the pinnacle of the Pac.
Much is contingent on a quarterback adapting to Butch Jones’ new scheme, but Tennessee does have the making of a surprise, breakout team after languishing for the last few years.
Coaches typically harp on games being won in the trenches, and to that end UT boasts one of the nation’s best front fives. Whomever wins the quarterback duel can rely on a backfield tandem of Raijon Neal and recently reinstated Marlin Lane.
Offense wasn’t UT’s problem last season, though. The Vol defense struggled mightily, but new coordinator John Jancek has pieces with which to work. A.J. Johnson is an outstanding inside linebacker, and tackle Daniel McCullers is a beast up front. The Vols play five of the preseason top 10 — four in conference, and Pac-12 heavyweight Oregon — so that makes them the deepest of sleepers.
Arizona State Sun Devils
ASU just might be the nation’s best kept secret, but America will get to know Will Sutton and Co. during a four-game stretch early on.
Taylor Kelly seemed to truly master the offense by season’s end. He has a dynamic backfield duo on which to rely as well, returning D.J. Foster and Marion Grice.
Michigan State Spartans
A team with major question marks at quarterback, which also just lost its 300-carry workhorse running back, and needed a late score in its bowl game to finish above .500. Hmm.
Voters’ likely reasons for leaving the Spartans off their ballots are certainly logical, but Mark Dantonio has exceeded expectations before. He also has one of the most tenacious defenses in all of college football, which should give MSU a chance to win any game.
North Carolina Tar Heels
NCAA sanctions kept the Tar Heels out of last December’s ACC championship game. This year, North Carolina is eligible for the Coastal Division crown and the postseason. Might Larry Fedora’s team contend for the program’s first BCS bowl?
Quarterback Bryn Renner’s success under Fedora’s offensive scheme garnered little attention, though it probably should have. He threw for 3358 yards and had a 4:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Combine Renner’s leadership of the explosive offense with a talented defense, and the Tar Heels can make noise in the ACC. Week 1′s contest against against South Carolina should reveal a lot.
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
Since winning the ACC in 2009, Georgia Tech has under-performed. Expect that to change this year. Vad Lee’s much-anticipated arrival as starting quarterback comes at a good time, because he’s surrounded by returning veterans. Among them is David Sims, the next great Georgia Tech running back.
The defense is also stacked with returning talent, chief among it linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu.
Notice the Jackets are the third ACC Coastal team on this list? This division should be a lot of fun to watch in 2013.
Invariably, voters neglect the teams outside of the BCS conferences, save Boise State and the occasional trendy pick. This year, Chris Petersen’s Broncos are the only honorees beyond the Group of Five (plus one) to crack the Top 25.
Yet, five such teams finished 2012 ranked. The other four should all be comparable to, if not better than, last year’s squads.
• Northern Illinois Huskies: Winners of 11-plus games each of the last three seasons, and the first MAC team ever to reach a BCS bowl. NIU returns do-everything quarterback Jordan Lynch.
• Utah State Aggies: USU fell mere points shy of an unbeaten season, and likely securing the BCS bid that went to Northern Illinois. Linebacker Zach Vigil said they haven’t forgotten that. Vigil leads an outstanding defense, while quarterback Chuckie Keeton returns to captain a potent offense.
• San Jose State Spartans: Last year’s 11-win campaign was no fluke. Look for SJSU to contend immediately in the Mountain West Conference. Quarterback David Fales is among the nation’s best. He is throwing to a deep and talented receiving corps that includes Noel Grigsby.
• San Diego State Aztecs: Rocky Long has done an admirable job adding to the foundation Brady Hoke laid at SDSU, last year winning a share of the program’s first Mountain West championship. I have long contended SDSU is a sleeping giant, and this season could see it really wakes up. Stud running back Adam Muema nicely complements one of the nation’s hidden gems, the Aztec defense.
• Fresno State Bulldogs: Derek Carr has built buzz around the Fresno State program not seen since his brother was leading a top 20 team in 2001. The Bulldogs will be one of the most explosive passing offenses in the nation, and boast an elite secondary on the other side of the ball.
• BYU Cougars: One of the nation’s best defenses calls Provo home. Led by future first round NFL draft picks Kyle Van Noy and Cody Hoffman, this year’s Cougar team should easily be the program’s best since 2009. BYU will have to be especially good though, playing one of the most impressive schedules in college football.
• Kent State Golden Flashes: KSU was playing for a berth in the Orange Bowl when it met Northern Illinois in last December’s MAC championship game. Dynamo Dri Archer and bruiser Trayion Durham form a true thunder-and-lightning backfield.
• Tulsa Golden Hurricane: Tulsa is the picture of consistent, a program regularly finding its way into the final Top 25 poll after double-digit-win seasons. Trey Watts and Ja’Terian Douglas are as dangerous a running back combination as there is, with former Nebraska quarterback Cody Green flourishing at quarterback.