Editor's note: This article was adapted from Phil Steele's college football preview magazine, which is available here.
What constitutes a surprise team? For me, it's a team that isn't considered a consensus preseason top-10 team that could make a playoff run. This year, my projected preseason AP top 10 is Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Georgia, Oklahoma, Miami, Washington, Wisconsin, Auburn and Penn State.
A year ago, my No. 1 surprise team was Florida, but the Gators suspended nine key players before the opener against Michigan and never had a chance to fulfill expectations. However, my No. 2 surprise team, Miami, won 10 games for the first time in 14 years and came within an upset of Clemson in the ACC title game from making the playoff. My No. 7 surprise team, TCU, won 11 games and earned a spot in the Big 12 title game. I had Georgia as my No. 10 surprise team, and the Bulldogs went on to win the SEC and lose in the national title game by only three points in overtime.
What under-the-radar teams are in the running to make some serious noise in 2018?
1. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
In 2017, I pegged the Irish as my No. 1 most improved team and they delivered by rising from 4-8 to 10-3. One of those losses was a one-point heartbreaker to Georgia at home. My power ratings project an even better year this season for Notre Dame, which would put the team in serious playoff contention. The Irish are experienced at head coach, with ninth-year man Brian Kelly, and at quarterback, where Brandon Wimbush is a returning starter and backup Ian Book threw the game-winning TD pass in the Citrus Bowl defeat of LSU.
Overall, 15 starters return, including nine from a defense that ranks no lower than No. 21 on my three defensive top individual units. Even with the graduations of Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey, the offensive line is stocked with talent and will be stout. Finally, the Irish play only four true road games. Two of the toughest of those trips will be at Virginia Tech, which will be very young on defense, and at USC, which could struggle to effectively replace quarterback Sam Darnold. It won't take long to get a read on the 2018 Fighting Irish, who host Jim Harbaugh and Michigan in an opening-week revival of a rivalry that has been dormant the past three seasons.