Dark-horse contenders for BCS bowls

If Matt Elam and the Gators can force more turnovers in 2012, they should be in the BCS mix. Kim Klement/US Presswire

Still down because your team was mediocre a year ago? Take heart. There's precedent for rapid improvements -- going from five-plus losses to a BCS bowl, in fact. Ten schools have done it in the past five seasons, including Clemson and Michigan in 2011. Before that, in 2010, five different 8-5 teams from 2009 -- national champion Auburn, Arkansas, Stanford, Oklahoma and Connecticut -- were in BCS games. The starkest of rebounds came in 2007, when Illinois went from 2-10 to the Rose Bowl. So it's possible.

Which 2012 teams are most likely to go from the toil of five (or more) losses to the BCS buffet? Here is a look at the top candidate from each of the six AQ conferences.

Florida Gators (SEC)

7-6 in 2011

Will Muschamp insists the Gators can win with either Jeff Driskel or Jacoby Brissett, both sophomores, at quarterback. Thrust onto the field last year as freshmen, they struggled. But that's what happens when freshmen land unexpectedly on the field. They've had months to prepare themselves for the reality of their roles in 2012 and will surely be more efficient than they were last season (a combined 46.6 completion percentage, two TDs, six picks).

The search continues for someone to move the ball at running back and receiver. Senior Mike Gillislee is experienced, but he's often banged up. Juniors Andre Debose, Jordan Reed and Trey Burton need to play to their potential, considering how highly touted they were as recruits. Freshman Latroy Pittman has earned some praise this offseason and could provide help.

The defense was good against the pass (third in SEC) and run (fifth) last season, but has the potential to be even better in 2012. One big reason is that, despite fairly consistent play, the Gators were 112th in the country with 14 turnovers gained in 2011, eight interceptions and six fumble recoveries.

Even a few more lucky bounces could cause those numbers to even out, but with ball hawks like Ronald Powell (when he's back from ACL rehab) and Antonio Morrison at linebacker among the 10 starters returning on D, there is an even greater chance that the Gators will turn over opponents a lot more often this season -- and provide easier scoring chances for a still-developing offense.

Games against South Carolina and Georgia, in back-to-back weeks in October, could tell the story for Florida in what should be a very winnable SEC East. Even a split could be enough for a division title. (And remember, as bad as things were at times for Florida last season, it lost by only four points to UGA and five to the Gamecocks. Expect, at a minimum, close games again this season.)

If the Gators can get back to Atlanta, with some confidence to accompany their elite-level talent, who knows what could happen in a one-game situation?

North Carolina State Wolfpack (ACC)

8-5 in 2011

Few teams on this level were hotter down the stretch than the Wolfpack, who smacked ACC champ Clemson at home and finished with four wins in their final five outings. The good news is the impetus for that strong finish -- namely blossoming quarterback Mike Glennon and an impressive secondary, with cornerback David Amerson and his 13 interceptions -- is back in 2012. Tom O'Brien enters a season with his highest level of expectation since taking the job in 2007 and moving down the Atlantic coastline from Boston, where he had taken BC to six consecutive bowl games.

The Tennessee game, the opener in Atlanta, will be pivotal -- not in terms of the ACC race, obviously, but really for setting the tone for the season ahead. Win, and momentum could surge forward into games against UConn, South Alabama and The Citadel. If NC State knocks off the Vols, it will likely be 4-0 going into a Sept. 29 ACC opener at Miami. FSU, in Raleigh, is the next week. Even a 5-1 start could provide the momentum needed to make a run at the ACC title (the last six games are manageable) for a program that has won more than eight games only once since 2004.

For the Wolfpack, a BCS bid is hitched just as much to the division favorites, FSU and Clemson, as their own play. If either the Noles or Tigers are hit with injuries, suspensions or both (they already have), it could crack the door for NC State.

Purdue Boilermakers (Big Ten)

7-6 in 2011

The college football world has seemingly ceded the Ohio State- and Penn State-less Leaders Division to Wisconsin. And not only is that no fun, but it also seems to overlook the fact that the Badgers are losing a star QB in Russell Wilson and several key performers on the offensive line, and are coming off a season in which they played decent-but-not-great defense (44th nationally in yards per play allowed).

UW is still the division favorite, mind you, but if it were to falter, that would open the door for Purdue, which last year won its first bowl game since 2007.

The Boilers might not get a lot of pub nationally, but they figure to start juniors or seniors at almost every position on both sides of the ball -- an important factor for turnaround teams.

That includes quarterback, where senior Caleb TerBush is still ahead of former Miami transfer Robert Marve. TerBush quietly had an efficient season, compiling a 130.7 QB rating with a 61.7 completion percentage and six picks in 277 throws.

It helps TerBush that the team's top three backs, who rushed for 1,480 yards and 14 touchdowns, return. Senior Akeem Shavers was the Little Caesars Bowl MVP; senior Ralph Bolden led the team with 674 yards, but he's still recovering from a late-season ACL tear; and home run threat Akeem Hunt, a 5-foot-9, 185-pound sophomore who averaged 8.7 yards a carry, is a perfect change-of-pace jitterbug.

Defensively, Purdue has to be better against the run after allowing 175 yards a game in 2011, but seniors like tackle Kawann Short, a first-team All-Big Ten performer last season, will work to close the running lanes.

The Boilers do get Michigan and Wisconsin at home, even if those games are on consecutive weeks. Trips to Ohio State and Illinois could be defining moments in the division race.

South Florida Bulls (Big East)

5-7 in 2011

It often doesn't make for the sexiest BCS game, but the Big East winner does still receive an Orange Bowl berth. South Florida makes sense because in a league without West Virginia, there is now a significant void at the top, and the Bulls' chances are as good as any.

With 15 returning starters -- and, as coach Skip Holtz pointed out this offseason, 20 redshirting players -- the Bulls should be among the most talent-rich programs in the conference. And that's for a team that lost four games (three in the Big East) last season by three points -- and six by an average of 4.7 points.

There are plenty of reasons on both sides of the ball to believe that fortune will shift in 2012. Holtz has a lot of faith in the leadership of quarterback B.J. Daniels; he joked at Big East media days that Daniels had been at USF since 2002. Holtz has similar confidence in running back Demetris Murray, defensive end Ryne Giddins, linebacker DeDe Lattimore and corner Kayvon Webster. Giddins, who had 5.5 sacks as a sophomore, could potentially vault to the All-American level.

The Bulls' BCS hopes could be defined by how they perform in games at Louisville (Oct. 20) and at Cincinnati (Nov. 23).

Texas Longhorns (Big 12)

8-5 in 2011

Mack Brown has not backed off from the suggestion that his team should jump back toward conference contention. That would put the Longhorns squarely into the BCS conversation.

Whether they do or not will ultimately come down to quarterback play. If David Ash -- and Case McCoy, since he's apparently going to play too -- can care for the ball and get it to playmakers like Malcolm Brown and Jaxon Shipley, the Horns will play enough defense to vie for the Big 12 title, with the potential to be good enough to enter the BCS championship race.

Look at the relative competition. Oklahoma is an overwhelming preseason favorite in the league, but each of the Big 12's top contenders is deeply flawed.

The Sooners haven't proved they can stop the pass or move the ball without Ryan Broyles, and they've lost two veteran offensive linemen in the past month. West Virginia, meanwhile, was highly inconsistent in the Big East -- especially on defense. So what makes anyone believe it would morph into a steady team in a tougher conference?

It circles back to QB play. My friend Kyle Porter, who runs the OSU site pistolsfiringblog.com, reminded me this week of the past few Big 12 winners' quarterbacks: Brandon Weeden, Landry Jones, Colt McCoy, Sam Bradford (twice), Vince Young, Jason White. Is Ash ready to join that class? Or does that mean it will be a Jones- or Geno Smith-led team that wins, continuing the trend?

OU-Texas, in early October, could decide the league by virtue of a December head-to-head tiebreak. It's also worth noting that if a two-loss UT team finishes second behind the eventual league champion, then the Horns could be a very attractive at-large pick for BCS bowls.

Utah Utes (Pac-12)

8-5 in 2011

The Utes moved last season to the Pac-12 believing they were immediately ready to compete in a BCS-level conference. There was evidence they were, and evidence they were not.

Were: Knocked off UCLA 31-6 and nearly won South Division. Were not: Defeated by Colorado, another first-year Pac-12 team, in the regular-season finale.

Fortunately for Utah, some of the illustration to the contrary revolved around the shoulder injury to Jordan Wynn. The Utes were without their established quarterback from the fourth game on, leaving a void at that position as they navigated the majority of the conference season -- their first in an AQ league. Wynn is now back and healthy to go along with 1,500-yard rusher John White and an offensive line that returns the bulk of its interior.

Utah has an excellent defensive line, which might be the most underrated in the country. Junior college product Star Lotulelei, now a senior, is expected to rocket up draft boards in the coming months. The Kruger brothers, tackle Dave and end Joe, are excellent complements to Lotulelei and another juco addition, Stone Tupouata.

The Utes were already 38th in the FBS in total defense, and that's expected to improve based on the fact that they're in their second year in the Pac-12. "There's a level of familiarity," coach Kyle Whittingham said. "There's a level of comfort beyond what we had a year ago."

Utah happens to share the same division as the preseason AP No. 1 USC, but the Utes host the Trojans for an Oct. 4 game in Salt Lake City that could be a lot closer than some might think. The strength of both Utes lines -- the offensive group returns all juniors and seniors -- would seem to at least provide for a challenge for USC, which won 23-14 in Los Angeles last season.

It's going to be tough for any team outside of USC or Oregon to win the Pac-12, but a favorable schedule and talent at key positions make the Utes a league contender.