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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Wednesday, August 21, 2013 at 6:13 PM

To say the very least, it's truly been a strange preseason so far in the National Football League.

Forget the won/loss marks midway through this 2013 exhibition sked and focus on all the uncertainty that's out there ...

Who's gonna start at quarterback for the New York Jets?

What will the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens look like without seven defensive starters from last year's title team?

And what impact will the league's eight new head coaches have on the gridiron landscape - and can any of them (and we're thinking Chicago's Marc Trestman and/or Arizona's Bruce Arians) pull their team into the post-season and then maybe even go deep into the playoffs?

Hey, one thing we all have learned the first two-plus weeks of this year's Preseason is that injuries have haunted many of the game's top players from the Detroit Lions WR Calvin Johnson, to Green Bay Packers wide-out Randall Cobb to New York Giants' TD-maker wide receiver Victor Cruz and that is why depth is oh-so-important in this here-and-now version of the NFL but the $64,000 question is just how many teams do you consider being "deep" ... maybe the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks come to mind first, wouldn't you say?

Now that we head into the "dress rehearsal games" - a/k/a the Preseason Week 3 tilts - you know the drill:

Beginning with the pair of Thursday night games - that's New England at Detroit and the ESPN bash between Carolina at Baltimore (see our Jim Sez previews in tomorrow's column) - get set to watch most starters go three quarters or so deep into these games but be aware that some coaches will continue to sit key players ... don't look for QB Robert Griffin III in Washington's home game against Buffalo this Saturday afternoon and a smattering of other star QBs (see Denver's Peyton Manning) probably will be limited in their Preseason Week 3 action too.


No doubt you've been studying up on all 125 FBS College Football teams out there - the Associated Press was the latest to weigh in and you saw their Top 25 that starred Alabama, Ohio State, Oregon, Stanford, Georgia, South Carolina, Texas A&M, Clemson, Louisville and Florida as the wire service's top 10 teams.

But who out there in college football-land is about to proclaim that someone other than these heavy-hitters could well come away with a conferences crown?
In today's Jim Sez, we give a shout-out to a fistful-plus teams that might make college football experts blink this year.

Here's the conference-by-conference look at potential dark horse teams to win a championship ...

The one-and-only team from this mish-mash new league that sports an AP Top 25 berth is #9 Louisville as the loaded Cardinals are considered a slam-dunk to win this 10-team league that is part Big East and part Conference USA in nature but don't sleep on SMU.

Okay, so the Ponies are projected to finish somewhere in the middle of the American Athletic pack under sixth-year head coach June Jones but QB Garrett Gilbert (formerly of Texas) could be a major star if he cuts back on some of his bad throws and note SMU plays everyone inside its new league except aforementioned Louisville. Hmmm.

The Favorite: Louisville
The Dark Horse: SMU


The now 14-team ACC (welcome to Syracuse and Pittsburgh) remains top-heavy in nature with #8 Clemson and #11 Florida State considered the giants in a league that has really wobbled on its feet the past couple of years while not winning any big-name non-conference or bowl games. Now, everyone and his Tobacco Road buddy believes it will all come down to the FSU at Clemson game on October 19th but not so fast, my friends!

The North Carolina Tar Heels - now entering Year Two in the Larry Fedora Era - are bowl eligible once again and QB Bryn Renner (29 TD passes last year) might be the best quarterback that nobody talks about on a national level. If the Heels can squeeze out a couple of road wins - and remember they don't play either Clemson or Florida State this fall - then Renner could be in top form by the time we get to the ACC Championship Game in December.

The Favorite: Clemson
The Dark Horse: North Carolina


BIG 10
If you rattle off the AP Top 25 teams inside this ancient conference you come up with #2 Ohio State, #17 Michigan, #18 Nebraska, #22 Northwestern and #23 Wisconsin. In other words, the media folks believe this year will be all about the Buckeyes ... and then everyone else!

True, second-year Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer has a loaded and star-studded team on board in Columbus and it sure seems that everyone out there thinks the 'Eyes will go through yet another unbeaten campaign before getting a shot in this year's BCS Championship Game but road games at Northwestern (in early October) and Michigan (in late November) are no gimmes even if QB Braxton Miller is playing like a Heisman Trophy candidate. Hey, just to let you know that Miller is now rated the "favorite" for the Heisman over much-discussed Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel. Yup, we're shaking our heads about that one, too!

Meanwhile, beware of the Northwestern 'Cats who - okay, they're Top 25 material - still must be considered a dark horse as is any Big 10 team when compared with this mighty Ohio State bunch. And beware of Northwestern RB Venric Mark (1,366 yards rushing, a 6.0 ypc average and 12 TDs last year) who might be Heisman Trophy material by the middle of this 2013 campaign.

The Favorite: Ohio State
The Dark Horse: Northwestern

BIG 12
There's four squads from this 10-team league that scored AP Top 25 positions including #13 Oklahoma State, #15 Texas, #16 Oklahoma and #20 TCU and so the media folks pretty much are letting you not to expect anyone from the Big 12 to play for a national championship this year but might Baylor be a slip-between-the-cracks team?

No doubt the Bears - who averaged a haughty 44.5 points per game a year ago in their post-RG3 Era - have major talent back in Waco including Heisman Trophy wanna-be RB Lache Seastrunk and winning either of the team's two tough conference road games (at Kansas State or at Oklahoma State) could get 'em nudging out the likes of Okie State, Texas and/or Oklahoma from first place.

The Favorite: Oklahoma State
The Dark Horse: Baylor

One-fifth of this aforementioned preseason AP Top 25 is comprised of Pac-12 teams: Up near the poll's top there's #3 Oregon and #4 Stanford and way down below it's #21 UCLA, #24 USC and #25 Oregon State and so this league is well-represented but is everyone out there forgetting about Arizona State?
After all, the Sun Devils - who last year won their first bowl game since 2005 - scored 40-plus points in seven different games and second-year boss Todd Graham believes QB Taylor Kelly (29 TD passes) might be ready to take that next step towards super-stardom.

If Arizona State plans on getting to this year's Rose Bowl game, than winning at UCLA in late November is critical ... got it? Tell us right now if Arizona State is gonna average 35 ppg or more and we'll tell you whether they have serious/shocking title hopes ahead.

The Co-Favorites: Oregon, Stanford
The Dark Horse: Arizona State

How 'bout this for SEC representation inside the original AP Top 25 poll this year? There's #1 Alabama, #5 Georgia, #6 South Carolina, #7 Texas A&M, #10 Florida and #12 LSU - that's six SEC teams listed inside the top 12 in case you had somehow thought the league had taken a step back or two ... no way, Jose!

Naturally, all the buzz has been about whether anyone can unseat a 'Bama bunch that's won back-to-back BC Championship Games and three of 'em in the past four years and - oh, yeah - there's been a little summertime talk about Heisman Trophy-winning QB Manziel and the A&M Aggies too but this just in:
The Ole Miss Rebels could be ready to make a major move on the upper crust teams in this league and second-year boss-man Hugh Freeze has more than just a few weapons including WR Donte Moncrief (10 TDs last year) who elicits all those "Feed Dante" signs at Ole Miss games.

Naturally, the Rebels' schedule is fraught with trouble spots but consider they do get two weeks to prep for Alabama (yes, the game is in Tuscaloosa) and Freeze's club is home for games against Texas A&M, LSU and Arkansas.

The Favorite - Alabama
The Dark Horse - Ole Miss 

Note: Get all our NFL Preseason News/Notes plus NCAA Football in all of this month's Jim Sez columns - football's here and every day it's must-read material right at this very web site!

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