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Surprise team candidates for 2013

Could Larry Fedora's Tar Heels, Brady Hoke's Wolverines or Steve Sarkisian's Huskies surprise in 2013? USA TODAY Sports

As much as it seemed improbable for Notre Dame to come from out of nowhere to play for the national championship, that's exactly what the Irish did this season. Coming into 2012, we suspected Notre Dame would be a better team, but not necessarily one capable of stringing together wins against a fairly difficult schedule.

It was ugly at times, no question, but the Domers did something no other postseason-eligible team did this season -- they won all of their games. In looking back, were there earmarks -- in recruiting or elsewhere -- that indicated a surprise season was coming?

Florida is another "surprise team of the year" candidate with Will Muschamp and first-year offensive coordinator Brent Pease taking the Gators from 7 to 11 wins and a return to the BCS.

Even though it's sitting at home this bowl season, I suppose Ohio State merits some recognition in this vein. It's not that Urban Meyer turned around a team that went 6-7 in 2011 -- that much was expected -- it's that OSU went undefeated.

Who will be next season's Notre Dame, Florida or Ohio State? I've selected primary and secondary candidates from each of the five major conferences that could be surprise contenders in 2013.

Primary candidates

ACC -- North Carolina Tar Heels

Ohio State isn't the only team that will again be postseason-eligible in 2013. Even with confounding conference losses this season to Wake Forest, Duke and Georgia Tech, the Tar Heels still managed eight victories in Larry Fedora's first season.

Offense is Fedora's strong suit, and he has a talented, improving QB in Bryn Renner (28-7 TD-INT ratio in 2012). Leading receiver Quinshad Davis (776 yards) is just a freshman.

Do-everything running back Gio Bernard says he will bolt for the NFL, leaving a hole in the backfield. Freshman Romar Morris, who averaged 5-plus yards a carry, showed promise, and durable RB A.J. Blue will be back for his senior season. Plus, Fedora has a commitment from in-state RB T.J. Logan, who ran for 510 yards and eight touchdowns in a high school game this season. Yeah, that happened in one game.

A top-10 recruiting class isn't out of the question for Fedora, especially with the days of postseason peril behind the program.

Big 12 -- Oklahoma State Cowboys

The QB derby of freshman Wes Lunt, redshirt freshman J.W. Walsh and junior Clint Chelf often worked, although it didn't really provide much clarity about the future of the position at OSU. That doesn't preclude the Cowboys from success next season, especially with RBs Joe Randle and Jeremy Smith returning next season (presuming Randle doesn't go pro).

Junior CB Justin Gilbert didn't have the season most expected from him, but that could be a bonus for the 2013 team. Oklahoma State will be one of a handful of teams getting preseason Big 12 buzz. With a few breaks (the schedule looks like it might set up well with home games against tough conference opponents TCU, Kansas State and Oklahoma) and growing confidence from its quarterbacks, this team could compete nationally.

Big Ten -- Michigan Wolverines

The midseason injury to QB Denard Robinson might have been the best thing to happen to the 2013 Wolverines since it moved Devin Gardner back to quarterback from receiver. Gardner went 3-1 as a starter, completing 63 percent of his passes as he readjusted to the position. With Gardner in control, the offense seemed to have more flow and balance.

The Wolverines' losses in 2012 were to the two BCS title game competitors (Alabama and Notre Dame), the Big Ten division champ (Nebraska), undefeated Ohio State and an 11-win South Carolina team (on a last-minute TD pass in the bowl game). If a couple of those losses turn into wins next season -- there's no Alabama on the 2013 schedule, and the Wolverines will get Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State all at home -- Michigan could at least be back in a BCS game.

Pac-12 -- Washington Huskies

A team that was correctly labeled as young, especially on the offensive line and defense, will not be able to make that claim in 2013. It certainly has enough talent, from quarterback Keith Price -- who took tons of chances because he didn't have tons of time -- to tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins to linebacker Shaq Thompson.

Both Seferian-Jenkins and Thompson are future pros, and Steve Sarkisian's staff -- now with recruiting ace Tosh Lupoi -- will continue to add similar talent, most of it from California. U-dub is looking at landing a top-15 or top-20 recruiting class.

With the good vibes of a renovated stadium, this is a team that could emerge as the '13 version of Oregon State. Expect Price, at the very least, to be one of the most improved players in the country next season. He wasn't as bad as his 2012 numbers -- 19 TDs to 13 picks -- would have you believe.

SEC -- Auburn Tigers

This wouldn't be nearly as far-fetched if not for that other team in the state, the one flirting with dynasty status. But the coaching moves, from head coach Gus Malzahn to defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, could create a shift in the Yellowhammer State's balance of power. Auburn will at least be a threat next season, and not in a one-hit wonder kind of way like the Cam Newton squad in 2010.

While the offense was stunningly bad in 2012 -- it ranked 115th in the country -- the Tigers have young pieces like QB Kiehl Frazier and RB Tre Mason to build upon. And the non-conference schedule -- Washington State, Arkansas State, Western Carolina and Florida Atlantic, all at home -- should provide a nice cushion.

As far as recruiting, wouldn't you be more excited to go to Auburn to play in Malzahn's offense? The staff should be able to hold the current list -- 12th overall, according to RecruitingNation -- and build on top of what's already a solid group.

Secondary candidates

ACC -- Clemson Tigers

The narrative entering 2013 won't be all that different for the Tigers than it was in 2012: If they can stop someone -- and beat rival South Carolina -- they could be in store for a really big season.

First-year defensive coordinator Brent Venables seemed to get more consistent play out of the defense this season, even if N.C. State put up 48 points on the Tigers in November. It is a young unit that should perform progressively better as it matures.

Offensively, Clemson held onto coordinator Chad Morris through another offseason wave of interest. Quarterback Tajh Boyd figures to return. Sammy Watkins wasn't even the best receiver on his own team this season, so he could have a huge bounce-back season as a junior.

This is a team that's been close to making a big leap, so it wouldn't be a giant surprise if it turns the corner next season. But it would be a surprise if it held together through the entirety of a season -- and beat South Carolina in the season finale. The Gamecocks, who have won four straight in the series for the first time since the 1950s, have Clemson's number.

Big 12 -- Texas Longhorns

We all know that the talent on both sides of the ball is present. But something's missing, and it isn't just former offensive coordinator-turned-Arkansas State coach Bryan Harsin. Until Texas actually proves something on the field, it's difficult to feel too optimistic about the Longhorns.

That said, talent alone makes Texas a threat next season in a conference that won't have a clear-cut favorite. As leery as I am of Mack Brown at this point, he told me all summer that the 2013 team was the one he really liked. A top-10 class (UT ranks 10th, with 13 commitments) would only bolster the Longhorns' strong returning roster. Defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat's chest injury means he'll likely return next season and CB Carrington Byndom should be back as well.

The offense, with QB David Ash settling in, will lean on the run, and it has excellent rushers in Johnathan Gray, Joe Bergeron and Malcolm Brown. Run, then play defense. It works in the SEC -- why not at Texas?

Big Ten -- Northwestern Wildcats

The Wildcats lost only three games in the regular season, including a one-point loss against Nebraska and an overtime defeat at Michigan. Quarterback Trevor Siemian is a sophomore and quarterback-running back-receiver Kain Colter is a junior. So there's returning talent. Plus, Pat Fitzgerald is one of the more underrated coaches in the country as he gets a lot out of what's on the roster.

Working against Northwestern, in addition to academic hurdles, is the fact that it was average in both scoring (ranked 42nd in the Football Bowl Subdivision) and scoring defense (ranked 32nd). There's no real identifiable quality to Northwestern football. Defense would seem to be it, with a former linebacker as head coach, but it isn't quite there. (It ranked eighth in the Big Ten in yards per play.)

Perhaps Colter is the key. If Mr. Versatility has another level, Northwestern could surprise the Big Ten -- and the country.

Pac-12 -- USC Trojans

Without the glow -- and pressure -- of the spotlight, the Trojans might loosen up next season. Besides, Lane Kiffin could recognize that he's coaching for his job.

Marqise Lee will be a Heisman contender as a junior and watch as another receiver, Nelson Agholor, continues to get comfortable. Just how much progress is made by quarterback Max Wittek could determine whether USC surprises in a season without many expectations.

The scholarship reduction will have an impact on the team, but Kiffin currently has the No. 4 recruiting class. As long as USC hits more often than not with the signees it gets, it will weather the NCAA storm. That's easier said than done, but the Trojans have recruited terrifically so far in the danger zone.

SEC -- Vanderbilt Commodores

This pick is out there, huh? James Franklin has figured out how to win games at Vandy, but to take the next step, it will require getting bigger wins. Look at Vandy's quality of losses in 2012: The Commodores lost to South Carolina, Northwestern, Georgia and Florida, all teams that averaged 10.3 wins in the regular season. And besides a 48-3 rout at UGA, Vandy lost the rest by an average of 9.3 points a game. The program isn't all that far off, even as Franklin continues to tailor the talent to his system.

The reason I included Vanderbilt, more than any other, is that the Commodores are in the top 20 in ESPN's recruiting rankings. Stop and think about that; maybe it says more about Vandy's 2014 team, but additional help is on the way for Franklin.