Notre Dame exceeded expectations this past season, going from an unranked program to No. 1 in the country after the 2012 regular season.
Ohio State also had a standout campaign despite having to sit out the postseason, as the Buckeyes ran the table in Urban Meyer's first year in Columbus.
So which teams could be primed to make a similar run next fall?
Let's take a look at five programs that could be surprise contenders in 2013.
Texas: The Longhorns have to be getting sick of being on preseason “surprise team” lists because fans in Austin expect conference titles and national championship game appearances. But the 'Horns have yet to get back to the top of the Big 12. Could 2013 be the year? Mack Brown's squad has the talent, but it has to be able to put all of that playmaking ability together for a full campaign. Major Applewhite will now call plays on offense with Bryan Harsin at Arkansas State, and he has a nice fourth quarter in the Alamo Bowl to build off of with quarterback David Ash, who struggled this season in the red zone. Defensively, coordinator Manny Diaz needs to see more of the unit that buckled down and held off Oregon State in the bowl game. End Jackson Jeffcoat will be back, joining cornerback Carrington Byndom on a unit that always gets re-enforcements from that year's recruiting class. Defense and the ground attack, led by Johnathan Gray, Joe Bergeron and Malcolm Brown, will tell the story of the 'Horns in 2013. But Ash must be consistent, and the team can NOT suffer another embarassing loss in the Red River Rivalry.
US PRESSWIREKain Colter will return to his do-everything role next season.
Northwestern: The Wildcats suffered three losses in 2012, but those defeats included a one-point loss against Nebraska and an overtime setback at Michigan. And Pat Fitzgerald's squad blew healthy leads in both of those contests. Trevor Siemian returns at quarterback next fall, and versatile Kain Colter will be back as well, so we can expect to see him line up at quarterback, running back and receiver. We know that the 'Cats will always be solid on offense, but the one area that Fitzgerald will need to continue to build is defense. NU may not be able to land top defensive talent across the Midwest or the country, but having good depth and enough playmakers on that side of the ball is essential for holding onto leads late in the game. Looking at next year's schedule, the 'Cats start with a road test at Cal and open Big Ten play at home against Ohio State. Road tests at Wisconsin and Nebraska loom, but this is a team that is capable of being in every game it plays. Fitzgerald's team is a Big Ten darkhorse if it learns to close games out.
North Carolina: The Tar Heels turned some heads at times this past fall in Larry Fedora's first season in Chapel Hill. UNC showed that it could score points, and that's important because the team adapted well to Fedora's complex offense. But the Heels suffered some bad ACC losses as well because of defensive issues. Still, Fedora recorded eight victories in his debut campaign, and that's something to build on in a Coastal division that will be winnable next fall. Quarterback Bryn Renner will return after a strong 2012 that featured a 4:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and top receiver Quinshad Davis will only be a sophomore in 2013. While top tailback/returner Gio Bernard is leaving early for the NFL, freshman Romar Morris averaged over 5.0 yards per carry, and he'll be joined in the backfield by veteran A.J. Blue. UNC fans also have to be intrigued by Fedora's work on the recruiting trail.
Oklahoma State: The Cowboys will get production out of the quarterback position no matter whether Wes Lunt, J.W. Walsh or Clint Chelf is on the field. Losing star rusher Joseph Randle hurts, as will losing coordinators Todd Monken and Bill Young. But the Big 12 could be wide-open in 2013, and the Pokes have a reasonable schedule with home games against Kansas State, TCU, Baylor and Oklahoma next fall. Mike Gundy's team was young this past season, so that inexperience could translate into a breakthrough 2013.
Michigan: Can Devin Gardner, who went 3-1 as a starter with 18 total touchdowns after moving back to quarterback from receiver, put together a strong full season next fall? The offense received a boost when star left tackle Taylor Lewan decided to bypass early entry into the NFL Draft. Defensively, Greg Mattison's unit finished No. 13 in the nation in total defense, and it will receive a boost as cornerback Blake Countess returns after missing the entire 2012 season with an ACL injury. Jarrod Wilson should slide into the safety spot vacated by Jordan Kovacs, while Jake Ryan, who finished 2012 with 16 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks, returns at linebacker. The schedule, which features Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State at home, is in the Wolverines' favor.