- Chris Fallica, ESPN Staff Writer
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Looking for that sleeper pick to win this year's national championship? Maybe you're interested in a team that is a little bit off the radar? Actually, that would be a good start. In three of the last four years, a team that had five losses in the previous season went on to win the national title. So, here are 10 candidates (all 8-5 in 2003) that could keep the trend alive in 2004.
10. Boston College Eagles
The forgotten team in the Big East may be Boston College. The Eagles are experienced at QB and have arguably the best defense in the conference. Three of BC's toughest games come away from Chestnut Hill, but by no means are they unwinnable.
Road blocks: at Pitt, at Notre Dame, at West Virginia.
Home cookin': UConn is the only 1-A team visiting Chestnut Hill that had a winning record in 2004.
9. Virginia Tech Hokies
After what could be considered three subpar seasons since Michael Vick departed, the Hokies are back in the beloved role of low national expectations. Frank Beamer's team avoids Florida State in its first ACC go-round and has most of its difficult games at Lane Stadium. However, the two toughest games -- USC and Miami -- both come away from home, although about 50,000 Hokies fans will do their best to make FedEx Field the Hokies home away from home on Aug. 28.
Road blocks: vs. USC in Washington D.C., at Miami.
Home cookin': The Hokies get everyone else at home -- NC State, West Virginia, Maryland, UVa -- and there's no Florida State on the schedule.
8. Missouri Tigers
Who isn't picking Missouri to win the Big 12 North? The Tigers have one of the best dual-threat QBs in the nation in Brad Smith. The defense improved by leaps and bounds last season and will need to continue that improvement if Mizzou plans on escaping Lincoln or Austin with a win and knocking off defending conference champion Kansas State for the first time since 1992. That's no small task for a team that has made three bowl appearances in the last 20 years.
Road blocks: at Texas and at Nebraska.
Home cookin': K-State and Oklahoma State come to Columbia and more importantly, there's no Oklahoma.
7. Oregon State Beavers
The best defense in the Pac-10 resides in Corvallis, but will it be enough to carry the Beavers to their second Pac-10 title in the last five years? If Derek Anderson can cut his turnover total, it may not be impossible. Oregon State faces LSU on the road, but gets USC at home. In fact, the Trojans visit Reser Stadium for the first time since 2000 when OSU shared the conference crown and beat the Trojans by 10. Cal and Oregon also visit Corvallis.
Road blocks: at LSU, at Boise State.
Home cookin': USC, Cal and Oregon visit Corvallis.
6. Auburn Tigers
The Tigers flopped in 2003 as a trendy national title contender, but they could be better off for it in 2004. Auburn still has one of the nation's top RBs in Carnell Williams and one can always expect Tommy Tuberville's defense to be athletic.
Road blocks: at Ole Miss, at Tennessee, at Alabama.
Home cookin': Both LSU and Georgia visit the Plains, and that's a huge plus.
5. Oregon Ducks
After a midseason tailspin in 2003, the Ducks rallied to win their final three regular season games before dropping the Sun Bowl in the waning seconds. Kellen Clemens is expected to be the next great Oregon QB, and the return of Haloti Ngata to the defensive line should make the Ducks that much better. Oh yeah, the Ducks' schedule also lacks the presence of co-national champion USC.
Road blocks: at Oklahoma, at Washington State, at Cal, at Oregon State.
Home cookin': No USC on the schedule.
4. Florida Gators
Year three of the Ron Zook era will begin with high expectations as sophomore QB Chris Leak showed much promise as a true freshman in 2003. If the Gators can regain the mammoth home-field advantage they owned in the Spurrier era, they'll be tough as Zook already has proven that he can win the toughies away from Gainesville. But that's important because that's where the games with Tennessee, Georgia and Florida State will be played.
Road blocks: at Tennessee, vs. Georgia in Jacksonville, Fla., at Florida State.
Home cookin': Defending champ LSU must come to the Swamp.
3. Virginia Cavaliers
Al Groh's team has experience at every position except one, but its an important one, QB. How Marques Hagan steps in for Matt Schaub will play a great part in Virginia's success. The defense, led by one of the best LB corps in the nation, will keep UVa in every game. If the Cavs can beat Miami in Charlottesville Nov. 13, the ACC title -- and possibly more -- could be in their grasp.
Road blocks: at Florida State, at Virginia Tech.
Home cookin': Miami, Maryland and Clemson all make the trip to Charlottesville.
2. NC State Wolfpack
Prolific passer Philip Rivers is gone, but T.A. McLendon and 16 other starters return. Two multi-OT losses and a two-point loss to Maryland cost the Pack a BCS shot last year, but Miami, Florida State and Ohio State all visit Raleigh in 2004. This could also be the year Chuck Amato's recruiting efforts finally pay off. Remember, Tennessee and USC each won a national championship after replacing a QB selected at the top of the NFL draft.
Road blocks: at Virginia Tech, at Clemson, at Maryland.
Home cookin': Ohio State, Miami and Florida State head to Raleigh.
1. West Virginia Mountaineers
The Mountaineers are ranked too high to get away with calling them a sleeper. The favorite in the watered-down Big East, West Virginia likely needs only survive a trip to Blacksburg, where it won in 2002, and beat Maryland for the first time since 2000. Overcome those obstacles and the BCS may have an interesting dilemma on its hands.
Road blocks: at Virginia Tech, at Pitt.
Home cookin': Boston College and Maryland visit Morgantown.
Chris Fallica is a college football reasearcher for ESPN.
22hSharon Katz, ESPN Stats & Information
1dAndrea Adelson and Matt Fortuna