5 darkhorse national champion contenders

Heading into the 2012 season, numerous preseason polls and projections will have familiar names atop their lists of potential national championship contenders.

Alabama, LSU, USC, Oregon and Oklahoma are five teams that likely will figure prominently on such lists.

Today, let's take a look at five teams that are going a bit under the radar yet could be positioned to make a run at the BCS national championship game if they catch a few breaks.

Virginia Tech: Quarterback Logan Thomas could be in store for a huge year because he will have a deep receiving corps to utilize, and the Hokies always have a running back to step up when a star moves on. Defensive coordinator Bud Foster will return his entire front seven, and the Hokies’ toughest non-conference games are against Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. Frank Beamer's squad must be able to conquer Clemson, however, which it was unable to do in two meetings last year. Going to Death Valley will be its toughest test of the year. Still, their schedule is the reason why the Hokies could find themselves in another BCS bowl game at the end of the year, and it could very well be the BCS national championship game.

Marcus LattimoreICONA healthy Marcus Lattimore will pace the South Carolina offense this fall.

South Carolina: Steve Spurrier may have actually found a quarterback he’s comfortable with in Connor Shaw, who is an established rusher and an improving passer. Marcus Lattimore will continue to run the football with great effectiveness, as he should be 100 percent healthy after having his 2011 season cut short due to a knee injury. And defensive lineman Jadeveon Clowney is ready to become even more beastly, which is a scary thought for opposing SEC O-Linemen. Back-to-back road games against LSU and Florida loom in mid-October, and a season-ending trip to Clemson will make things difficult. But this will be Head Ball Coach's best team yet at Carolina.

Michigan State: The Spartans will once again have one of the best defenses in the nation under coordinator Pat Narduzzi, and LeVeon Bell will pace a strong rushing attack. The biggest question will be how Andrew Maxwell responds to adversity after taking over for veteran Kirk Cousins under center. The Spartans did receive good news this spring when Tennessee wide receiver transfer DeAnthony Arnett was cleared to play right away by the NCAA. Getting past Boise State in its opener, however, will be a tough task. While the game will be in East Lansing and the Broncos have lost Kellen Moore as well as Shea McClellin, Billy Winn and others, Chris Petersen's squad has defeated Oregon, Virginia Tech and Georgia in his tenure. Mark Dantonio's squad will also be tested by back-to-back road trips to Michigan and Wisconsin in October.

Georgia: The Bulldogs return much of the team that ran off 10 straight wins after an 0-2 start in 2011. Most importantly, they have a 3-4 defense that was one of the best units in the nation last fall, led by linebacker Jarvis Jones. However, the secondary is thin and will need to survive some key early-season suspensions. The rebuilt offensive line must also gel right away. Looking at the schedule, the 'Dawgs avoid Alabama, Arkansas and LSU for a second straight regular season. They do have to travel to Auburn, Missouri and South Carolina, however, but a second straight SEC East title could be there for the taking. With a seasoned quarterback in Aaron Murray, perhaps even greater things are on the horizon for Mark Richt's bunch.

Clemson: Receiver/returner Sammy Watkins showed as a freshman that he’s a stud, and the offense coordinated by Chad Morris could be even more prolific in its second season, especially with DeAndre Hopkins pairing with Watkins to give the Tigers and quarterback Tajh Boyd potentially the top receiver duo in the country outside of Robert Woods and Marqise Lee at USC. There’s material on defense, but consistency is the key. And that's what new Tigers defensive coordinator Brent Venables will have to make happen. Their lone tough ACC road game is against Florida State, but the Tigers match up well athletically with the Seminoles. This could be a very motivated Clemson squad, especially after the disastrous showing in the Orange Bowl.

Email dave.miller@nationalfootballpost.com or follow me on Twitter at Miller_Dave

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