How does each league look coming out of spring football? Here’s the ranking of all the conferences going into the summer based on how strong they should be from top to bottom.
10. Sun Belt
This isn’t all that fair – the Sun Belt up top could be an absolute killer with teams good enough to compete with almost anyone. Idaho and New Mexico State have one year left in the league before getting the boot, but they’re each coming with their best respective teams since joining the league. ULM and Texas State will be a problem, but Louisiana-Lafayette is about to bounce back, South Alabama is okay, and Troy is ramping up the offense.
The key, though, will be the battle for the championship with Arkansas State, Appalachian State and Georgia Southern all terrific. It’s going to be a fun league fight before the configuration changes up.
Get ready for a good year from top to almost bottom – UMass is gone and Eastern Michigan and Miami University will still struggle. Western Michigan will be a killer, Toledo will be great under the new coaching staff, and Northern Illinois should be able to bounce back, but defending MAC champion Bowling Green will take a step back with so many huge losses.
Ohio could rise up and be in the MAC title game, and Central Michigan has an interesting offense led by QB Cooper Rush, Kent State gets everyone back on offense, Buffalo should be decent, and Akron is coming off a big year.
8. Conference USA
This might be a wee bit generous – there’s a chance the league could move down if the teams on the bottom of the pack don’t pick it up. Defending champion WKU is undergoing an overhaul of offensive talent and Louisiana Tech is rebuilding, but Southern Miss returns loaded and should be the league’s star along with a resurgent Marshall and a dangerous Middle Tennessee.
However, there’s a big bag of just okay in the middle with teams like UTEP and Rice likely to be in the bowl mix only because there’s so much junk in the Conference USA trunk – Charlotte, North Texas, Old Dominion and UTSA are going to struggle.
7. American Athletic
Last year was amazing with the rise up of team after team into national prominence. The problem is that all of them are about to take a massive step back – except for Houston. The Cougars should be the league’s bright shining stars, but Navy and Temple will be far worse, and Memphis should jump back into the pack.
On the plus side, UCF could be an instant bounceback program with Scott Frost at the helm, Tulsa will be okay, and East Carolina, Cincinnati and Connecticut form a strong midsection. If South Florida comes through with a big year like it should with so much returning talent, this will be another good year for the conference – it’s just not going to be 2015.
6. Mountain West
Crank up the expectations for the Mountain West to do for the Group of Five what the American Athletic did last season. Boise State and San Diego State are each good enough and experienced enough to roll through the year unbeaten – or come close to it. They’re the killers who need to make a national splash, while Air Force should be every bit as good as it was last year, New Mexico should continue to be solid, and Colorado State, Nevada and Utah State will go bowling.
But the other key will be the rise up of some of the struggling programs, with UNLV about to make a big boost up in Tony Sanchez’s second year, and with Wyoming, Hawaii and San Jose State all fun and interesting. If Fresno State can get its stuff together and get back to form after a rough year, the league from top to bottom should be a weekly fight.
5. Big 12
The league needs the mid-level to be better. Last year it was all about the big boys at the end, but with Texas about to rise up under Charlie Strong – at least it had better – and with Oklahoma State getting just about everyone back, and with Kliff Kingsbury having more than enough time to get rolling at Texas Tech, and with the West Virginia offense about to become dominant again, the Big 12 shootouts will keep on coming.
It’ll help the league’s overall cachet if Kansas State can be better, but, most importantly, TCU can’t take a big step back despite the personnel losses while Baylor and Oklahoma have to be just as good, if not stronger. Kansas can’t be any worse, and Iowa State should be feisty under new head coach Matt Campbell.
The league might have been a power across the board last year, but that parity turned into a problem being left out of the College Football Playoff. Defending champion Stanford loses just about everyone but Christian McCaffrey, but Oregon should be better in the North and Washington State isn’t going anywhere. Cal isn’t going to be better without the No. 1 pick in the draft winging it around, but Washington should be fantastic after a rebuilding year.
The South will be even more interesting with USC and UCLA each looking more explosive than last season, but Arizona State needs an overhaul and Arizona needs the defense to be better despite the loss of Scooby Wright. There are too many teams taking a wee step back to make the Pac-12 as good as it was in 2015, but the conference title race is wide open.
Give it a year, and then the ACC should be amazing with the coaching changes at Miami, Syracuse, Virginia and Virginia Tech needing a season to kick in full-force. Even so, the Hurricanes should be better under new head man Mark Richt in what should be a fascinating Coastal season. The Atlantic is going to be wild with Clemson and Florida State each national title-good, but with Louisville just strong enough and with just the right schedule to potentially take the division.
Boston College’s defense will be terrific, Wake Forest has vastly improved, and Georgia Tech is about to be back to being Georgia Tech again. Add all that with a solid North Carolina, a better NC State, and a offensively-dangerous Duke, and the ACC will be good – just not quite where it will be.
2. Big Ten
Can the West hold up its end of the bargain? Wisconsin will have a better team with a far worse record – the schedule is brutal – but Iowa should have another good-enough team with a great record thanks to its relatively okay slate. Can Nebraska stop screwing around and be a player again? Northwestern won’t do that again, but Minnesota should be steadier and Illinois should at least be better coached under Lovie Smith.
If all that happens, the Big Ten should be nasty with the East turning into an absolute killer. Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan are all good enough to fight for a playoff spot, while Penn State will be sneaky-strong with no one paying attention. It’ll be all about the big early non-conference dates to give the conference the national street cred, and the big boys need to come through.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, another year, another season when the SEC has the best conference. But the gap has closed between the rest of the pack – at least after the giant teams up top. The SEC is still on top because the best six teams are still going to be better than everyone else’s, and even the teams with some holes are just good enough to be dangerous. But on talent, the conference still rules the world.
LSU, Alabama, and at least in theory, Tennessee should be better than just about everyone else coming into the season, but the conference has some giant concerns. Florida and Missouri still have to find offenses, Texas A&M is still trying to find a better defense, and the mid-to-bottom half of the other Power 5 conferences are as good or better than Mississippi State, South Carolina, Kentucky and Vanderbilt. However, Arkansas is going to be a bear, Georgia is going to be dangerous, and Ole Miss has a boat load of talent – along with a lot of problems.