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--- It is strange (but understandable) seeing LSU as a darkhorse contender for the SEC title.
Much of the attention of the college football world this time of year is paid to the impact that recent recruiting battles will have on the long-term conference championship prospects of many programs.
But while the spotlight is on those teams, are there any programs slightly below the radar that have set themselves up to make a jump this season?
Here are five sleeper conference championship candidates for the 2013 season:
It might seem odd to list LSU as a sleeper SEC championship contender. The Tigers finished only one game out of first in their division last year (the best division in college football, mind you), and just two seasons ago they went undefeated in conference play en route to a berth in the BCS National Championship.
But you could make the argument that the Tigers are under-the-radar this offseason. After all, they lost three games in 2012 (including their bowl game), lost 11 players to early NFL draft declarations and rank sixth in ESPN SEC blogger Chris Low's early 2013 power rankings.
So how will they close the gap? It starts with young talent, as Mark Schlabach noted in the first version of his Way-Too-Early 2013 Top 25 that the Tigers played 28 freshmen last season, a total that tied them with TCU for the most in the country in that category. Having that type of experience among the young players who will be stepping up is very beneficial, and keep in mind, this is a team that has been a top-15 scoring defense in each of the last four seasons. While the draft losses will certainly hurt, LSU has a recent history of reloading.
The Tigers' long history of creative play calling -- something at which Les Miles has been very adept in the past -- will certainly be a factor and could be augmented by the addition of Cam Cameron as offensive coordinator. His latest season with the Baltimore Ravens notwithstanding, Cameron has a long history of getting quality production out of his passers, and in Zach Mettenberger, Cameron has a quarterback who got better as the 2012 season progressed. In his slate of November games (all against SEC opponents), Mettenberger tallied a 61.8 completion percentage and 8.2 yards per attempt.
The highlight of those contests was a terrific game against Alabama that saw Mettenberger go 24-for-35 for 298 yards and a touchdown. That dominant showing was overshadowed the next week when Johnny Manziel had his great game against the Tide, but with Cameron guiding the way, the odds are strong Mettenberger will have many games with similar numbers in 2013.
It should also be noted that LSU has most of its toughest SEC games at home (Florida, Texas A&M, Arkansas) and that Alabama's talent losses were nearly as significant as the Tigers' losses.
Arizona State Sun Devils
The Sun Devils weren't that far from participating in the 2012 Pac-12 title contest, as they finished only one game out of first place in the Pac-12 South and might have won the division if not for a last-second loss to UCLA.
Making another run at the division title looks to be a strong possibility since Arizona State returns eight starters from a defense that ranked second in the conference in yards per play allowed and ranked second nationally in tackles for loss. (Will Sutton, second in the nation in TFLs, is among the returnees.)
The Sun Devils also return quarterback Taylor Kelly, who ranked second in the Pac-12 in passing yards per attempt, completion percentage and passer rating last season. He led an offense last season that ranked fourth in the league in yards per play, behind only Oregon, USC and Arizona.
The schedule is daunting early on, with games against Wisconsin and Notre Dame bookending contests against Stanford and USC, but the bulk of their tough conference games are at home, so getting a sixth conference win that evaded them last season is a strong possibility and could be enough to earn them a spot in the 2013 Pac-12 title game.
Michigan State Spartans
The Spartans may have the toughest conference championship case of the five teams listed here, if for no other reason than they had a 3-5 Big Ten record last year that placed them fourth in the Legends Division and four games out of first place.
Having noted the steepness of its climb, Michigan State looks to be well-equipped to make the journey. The Spartans have 15 returning starters, including seven returning starters from a defense that ranked first in the Big Ten and fifth nationally in YPP allowed.
Losing Le'Veon Bell, who ranked second in the conference in rushing yards last year, looks daunting at first glance, but a closer look at his performance shows that his metrics were mediocre in some ways. He might be easier to replace than most think. In addition, as noted by Brian Fremeau, a modicum of offensive statistical improvements could easily go a long way toward adding at least two wins to the Spartans' total. This is an offense that was terrible last season, ranking 110th in the nation in scoring offense with just 20 points per game. It's fair to say that there is nowhere to go but up.
Another element that could assist Michigan State's turnaround attempt is a favorable schedule. Nebraska and Michigan are the only really tough opponents on the 2013 docket, and the Michigan game is at East Lansing.
The Hurricanes ended last season with a mediocre 7-5 mark, but they do return a nation-best 19 starters from a squad that could have played in the ACC title game last season if not for a self-imposed ban.
Part of the reason last year's Canes looked to be ACC title game-bound is that they played in a fairly weak division, and that won't change this year. Virginia Tech is returning only four starters on offense, Georgia Tech has to replace starting quarterback Tevin Washington, and North Carolina lost the ACC's leading rusher in 2012, running back Giovani Bernard, to the NFL draft.
Winning the division would only be part of the road to the ACC title, as Miami would then have to beat the Atlantic Division champion. But there are reasons why the Canes shouldn't necessarily be fearing the two most likely Atlantic winners -- Florida State and Clemson. For one, they swiped former FSU quarterbacks coach James Coley to be their offensive coordinator -- called "hands down the ACC's best hire of the offseason" by ESPN ACC blogger Heather Dinich. And it's not as if the Canes' offense was lacking for success last year, as Miami ranked third in the conference in offensive YPP. Coley's addition and the fact that Florida State returns a conference-low 10 starters from last year's team could be just the move to tip the balance between these teams toward the Hurricanes.
As for Clemson, Miami can take comfort in the fact that Clemson's defense ranked ninth in the ACC in YPP allowed versus conference foes last season. As a sleeper candidate, I like the Canes in the ACC.
TCU Horned Frogs
Before going into TCU's case as a Big 12 contender, it's worth pointing out that the league could be wide open this season. In writing that the Horned Frogs could be the Big 12's most talented team in 2013, ESPN Big 12 blogger David Ubben noted that the conference as a whole may be at the competitive nadir of its 17-year existence.
What's more, TCU returns nine starters off a defense that allowed an amazingly low 4.9 YPP last season despite playing in a conference that had six teams place in the top 22 in offensive YPP (Oklahoma State, Baylor, West Virginia, Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Texas).
Putting up offensive production to take advantage of the strong defensive effort was an issue last season, but that could change if quarterback Casey Pachall, who is returning after being suspended in October following a DUI arrest, can return to his 2011 form that saw him rank 12th nationally in passer rating.
The path to the title is tough schedule-wise, as TCU has to play games at Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Kansas State, but the lack of a clear conference favorite should open the door for the Horned Frogs to possibly claim a Big 12 title, even with a conference loss or two.
KC Joyner gives his five sleeper conference champion candidates for the 2013 season.
"You can learn more character on the two-yard line than anywhere else in life." - Former LSU Coach and AD Paul Dietzel
^^^^ We need to tell this to all the young recruits out there!!
Proud to support everything Louisiana
I also believe LSU benfits from getting rid of a lot of baggage as well, especially at the RB position. I just think LSU had too many different back and could never find a rhtyhm. Now with 3 studs in Hill, Blue, and Hilliard, I think those guys will be more productive than almost six guys trying to get carries.
Damn Strong Football Team
It will also benefit to be the hunters and not the hunted
Guys I know I am a nobody. But I have a GREAT feeling about this up coming season. I think LSU will be in the hunt for the NC.
The offense will be greatly improved. We all know the defense has lost a lot of guys but I really believe the new guys are ready to step up and make a name for themselves. I think the defense will start out a little slow but they will improve week to week and be very good by mid season.
The offense better be because that is going to be the difference in an 8-4 type year or having something to play for in November. I'm pumped too
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