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Top 10 sneaky contenders -- Auburn, Northwestern, UNC and more

Every November, there might be a few teams that make you say, "I had them nowhere near my preseason Top 25." And there they are, quietly ascending and eyeing a conference divisional crown with a few games to play.

They are sneaky contenders. And because you shouldn't have to wait until November to know who will make an unexpected jump, below is a list of 10 teams bubbling under the surface, maybe teams you know could be decent but don't consider true contenders.

Northwestern, for example, is the only team on this list in the Top 25 of the preseason coaches poll.

I'm not saying these teams are destined for a BCS bowl just yet. I'm also not saying Auburn, which is on this list, will win the SEC West. But the schools have a real chance to exceed expectations. Some might even throw up 10 or 11 wins with a few breaks.

Northwestern: I picked the Wildcats to finish third in the Big Ten Legends, as did a few of my colleagues, and I'm starting to feel conflicted about it. Last season, Northwestern lost three games in the final minutes and still won 10. The Kain Colter-Venric Mark combo is lethal on the ground, and if Kyle Prater can fulfill his five-star potential on the edge, this offense will give Ohio State problems on Oct. 5 in Evanston. Replacing starters on the offensive line will be crucial for this team.

Arizona State: Taylor Kelly is a quarterback the Sun Devils believe in. Todd Graham can coach when he actually re-ups on a 12-month lease. Fifteen starters return, including beastly defensive tackle Will Sutton. Shore up a weak run defense and turnover margin and the Sun Devils can show the Pac-12 South championship doesn't have to reside in Los Angeles this year. This is a team that could win six games or 10 games and I wouldn't be shocked either way. Who said Graham was predictable?

Vanderbilt: You will wave at the James Franklin train, but you won't hop on with both feet. I know. It's hard to do with Florida, South Carolina and Georgia in the SEC East. Heck, I picked Vandy fourth, too. But don't be shocked if Vandy knocks off at least one of those three and builds on its nine-win campaign from a year ago. The Commodores have one of the league's best receiving corps. They believe Wesley Tate can be a breakout star in the backfield. The pass defense is solid, even if the defensive front remains hard to figure out. And though they must break in probable starting quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels, a Wyoming transfer, Franklin knows quarterbacks. He'll make it work.

Auburn: Admittedly wasn't overjoyed by the Gus Malzahn hire, but this can work on three fronts: 1) Gus can make quarterbacks hum; 2) Ellis Johnson is the ideal defensive coordinator to redirect what has looked like a lost unit at times the last three years; 3) Gene Chizik didn't leave Malzhan with a mess. The Tigers have recruited well. Malzhan could be taking over at the right time assuming the quarterback (possibly juco transfer Nick Marshall) flourishes in his system. Part of Malzahn's job early on will be instilling belief in a group that got pounded for most of 2012. Maybe I've bumped my head, but outside of Alabama, I'm thinking the SEC West could be more wide open than people think.

Washington: Oregon State would be too obvious of a Pac-12 North choice because the Beavers made a mini-run last year, but consider Washington has been sitting on seven wins in each of the past three seasons under Steve Sarkisian. There's enough talent on the roster to finally break through -- maybe not a sizable, beat-Oregon-and-Stanford type of jump, but sizable improvement. Seventeen starters return, and quarterback Keith Price wants to return to his 2011 form. The Huskies have recruited well in recent years and need more standouts from the past two classes to emerge.

Central Florida: If you don't know about quarterback Blake Bortles, you will. He's the one who might give Louisville's defense problems on Oct. 18. For all the heat George O'Leary has taken in Orlando, he has three seasons of double-digit wins with the Knights and wants a third career conference crown before he retires. The transition to the American Athletic Conference should be relatively smooth for the Knights, who are physical up front and have recruited enough talent to offset the lack of experience (replacing 11 starters).

Kansas State: Losing 10 starters on defense is brutal. But it's far too early to write off a team with 21 wins the past two seasons. If Daniel Sams wins the quarterback job, the Wildcats can get creative with his elite running ability. They still have running back John Hubert. And they still have Bill Snyder, who combs the junior college ranks well enough to mold a few defensive standouts by late September. The Big 12 title race will be too wide open for K-State not to have a say in it.

West Virginia: Baylor would make sense in this spot but seems too obvious. The Bears are a trendy pick nationally. Meanwhile, maybe West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen is developing a system similar to where he coached at Oklahoma State under Mike Gundy, a pipeline of steady offensive play no matter who's in the lineup. The Mountaineers can't recreate the Geno Smith-Tavon Austin combo, but transfer quarterback Clint Trickett (competing with Ford Childress for the starting job) could flourish in the offense and there are enough new playmakers -- transfer running back Charles Sims and juco receiver Kevin White come to mind -- to ease his transition. The WVU defense, atrocious a year ago, has nowhere to go but down (as in, maybe 10 points down from last year's 38.1 points allowed per game).

Penn State: Here's to freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg making throws Matt McGloin couldn't last year. It will be fascinating to watch what Bill O'Brien can do with the heralded frosh. Having wideout Allen Robinson certainly helps. Replacing losses on the defensive front seven will be challenging. In Year 2 under O'Brien, PSU has a chance to ride the wild momentum of 2012 without the NCAA scholarship reductions affecting immediate roster needs just yet. This is another team that might hover around .500 or make a push for 10 wins. Still hard to tell, but O'Brien's team has gobs of potential.

North Carolina: It's easy to peg the Tar Heels in the No. 3 hole in the ACC Coastal behind Miami and Virginia Tech, but I think Larry Fedora's crew will push for contention here. Quarterback Bryn Renner will be a name NFL scouts remember by season's end. Eric Ebron is one of the country's best tight ends. From what I've heard, the UNC staff is higher on the post-Gio Bernard playmaking cast than most. UNC always has talent. Still not sure this hybrid 4-2-5 defense can stop anybody, but the offense might be good enough to pull out eight or nine wins despite the D. Fedora got some head-coaching looks last year but stayed in Chapel Hill. I think he knows he has a pretty good team.

Sneaky honorable mentions: Arizona, Mississippi State, San Jose State, Rutgers, Michigan State, Southern Miss, Ball State, Maryland

 
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