Polls often create the context for how we identify "dark horses" and "surprise" teams: Upwardly mobile teams in each tally give all of us sociopaths a tangible means to define which teams are performing above expectations (expectations that are developed through hive mind or groupthink in an amorphous reality). It's why we all looked at Loyola in 2012 and wondered what the hell was happening on Charles Street and if it could possibly continue through May. (It did. I have the DVR recordings as proof. As you know, we've always been at war with Eastasia.)
This phenomenon -- a team outpacing the groupthink that dominates the preseason -- always happens in Division I lacrosse, although the degrees to which this occurs is rarely as drastic as what Loyola did in 2012 to all of our head melons. With the game continuing to develop a deeper pool of talented teams capable of redefining the caste system that once ruled Division I play, surprise teams are more numerous than they've been in the past (and much more competitive). So, what teams should we all keep an eye on in 2012 as potentially making pre-spring prognosticators look like knuckleheads? Here are four teams, broken out by what their potential ceilings may be.
Note: I am aware that there is a strong likelihood that I will regret the entirety of this piece come late-April. They are aggressive in nature, but isn't a true surprise supposed to be, you know, surprising? Them's the breaks.
FINAL FOUR DARK HORSE: Pennsylvania
Notre Dame has built the blueprint: With a suffocating defense, timely offensive production, and a pragmatic pace, Championship Weekend is within reach. The Irish displayed that model in 2010 and 2012:
- 2010: Adjusted defensive efficiency rank -- second; adjusted offensive efficiency rank -- 37th; pace -- 33rd.
- 2012: Adjusted defensive efficiency rank -- first; adjusted offensive efficiency rank -- 33rd; pace -- 58th
If 2013 is any indication, the Quakers could follow the path that Notre Dame created: Pennsylvania finished last season ranked first in adjusted defensive efficiency (and lose only Anthony Santomo as a major contributor to that effort), 23rd in adjusted offensive efficiency (and lose only Tim Schwalje as a major contributor to that effort), and ranked 58th in pace. Moreover, the Quakers were similarly competitive from a metric-determination standpoint to the Irish in 2010 and 2012, holding a Pythagorean win expectation value of 71.94 percent (Notre Dame's Pythagorean win expectation values in 2010 and 2012 were 73.61 percent and 65.97 percent, respectively). In terms of candidates to make a "No freaking way!" trip to Baltimore this coming May, there's enough evidence to mark the Quakers as that kind of team given what the Irish accomplished in the not-too-distant past.
TOP 10 DARK HORSE: St. John's
The Johnnies filled this spot last season, and while the Red Storm lost a ton of big contributors from 2013 (including Jeff Lowman in the cage and Dillon Ayers at the pole), St. John's still has the potential to rise to the greatest heights in Division I lacrosse. I'm super serious, you guys: The Johnnies' schedule isn't overly oppressive (the only maniacal dates are against Denver, Yale, Syracuse, and Pennsylvania); the attack -- with Kieran McArdle, Kevin Cernuto, and Colin Keegan -- is elite and comprised of seniors; the defense lost valuable pieces but the strength of the team's offense (not unlike Albany last season) could buoy the team in shootouts; and Jason Miller has the program on an upward trajectory that hasn't shown heavy indicia of stalling. The Johnnies can play with anybody and an attention to avoiding "What the?" losses (the Red Storm had two notable instances of that last season -- defeats at the hands of Stony Brook and Georgetown) could put St. John's in elite territory.
TOP 15 DARK HORSE: Air Force
Everything could fall into place for the Falcons to assume a top 15-type of existence: The team is motivated (both to find a conference and to help heal head coach Eric Seremet's heart); the team has the potential to be very competitive (Air Force finished 2013 ranked 23rd in Pythagorean win expectation and return a host of major assets); and the schedule is fairly soft (the only games that the Falcons will play where Air Force will be a noted underdog is the season-opener against Denver and a late-season date against Ohio State). Circumstances are in place for Air Force to charge at the nation's top 15, but there may be a limitation in the team's pursuit of first-class accommodations: The Falcons have somewhat stagnated in their growth since the 2011 season. Regardless, Air Force could lurk as a team that makes moves without doing so conspicuously.
TOP 20 DARK HORSE: Colgate
I know what you're thinking: Suxa has been nosing through the medicine cabinet again. But here's the deal: The Raiders were fairly average last season (went 8-7 and held a Pythagorean win expectation of 44.14 percent (34th nationally)), but 2013 was a massive year of transition for the program with the graduation of Peter Baum. The Raiders weren't all that far from the top 20 last season, and the return of All-American caliber players in Ryan Walsh (The Dump Truck) and Bobby Lawrence (The Rattlesnake) gives Colgate the baseline talent necessary to return to the nation's top-third. The Raiders schedule is somewhat brutal (league dates against Lehigh, Bucknell, and Loyola will create difficultly in generating wins, as will nonconference dates against Cornell and Syracuse), but Colgate has the stink of a team that could hang around the back end of the polls after a season of lingering on the fringes.
Who do you guys think will make big moves and surprise this spring? Leave your thoughts in the comments.