Ranking The Conferences: How do the leagues measure up coming into the season? Which ones are the strongest, and which ones aren’t quite there?
10. Sun Belt
The league could quickly boost up into the No. 9 spot with a little bit of luck.
Appalachian State, Arkansas State, Georgia Southern and Louisiana-Lafayette will all battle it out for the Sun Belt title, but they don’t all play each other – the two ASUs don’t face off. Those four are the stars, and then there’s a deep, deep divide, and that’s the problem – there’s no depth.
Texas State and ULM are undergoing coaching changes, and New Mexico State doesn’t have a defense. Idaho should be the shocker before it goes off to the FCS, and South Alabama and Troy will be in the hunt for a bowl game.
The MAC will be a whole bunch of fun with plenty of tremendous offenses, but the league needs the superstars to shine.
Western Michigan is loaded with a phenomenal offense, but Northern Illinois should be back to form and in the hunt for yet another MAC title game appearance. Toledo won’t skip a beat under new head coach Jason Candle, and Central Michigan and Ohio will be dangerous – all three will be deep in chase for the MAC title.
Central Michigan will be really, really good, but the schedule doesn’t quite work. Buffalo is the wild-card and should be bowl eligible, and Bowling Green will be fine even though the team was gutted in personnel and after losing head coach Dino Babers. But the bottom is the deep bottom.
Akron loses too much, Kent State doesn’t have an offense and Miami University, and Eastern Michigan and Ball State are still trying to find their way in the world.
8. Conference USA
There are plenty of good teams, but what about truly great ones?
WKU and Louisiana Tech have to replace several key parts, but the respective coaching staffs are good enough to keep the O rolling. However, this should be the year of Southern Miss and Marshall – the Golden Eagles have the schedule, and the Thundering Herd have the talent.
But then what?
Middle Tennessee will be in the thick of the fight with a fun offense, and the Florida schools – FAU and FIU – will have their moments, but the bottom of the league is way, way, low down with too many easy wins. That doesn’t mean Rice, Old Dominion, and UTEP can’t make their way into bowl eligibility by feasting on easy schedules against still-emerging Charlotte, North Texas and UTSA teams, but they’re just not that great.
7. American Athletic
It’s not the league it was last year when it turned into one of the most surprising stories of the season. But that doesn’t mean Houston can’t make its way into the playoff discussion with big showdowns against Oklahoma and Louisville – the easier AAC slate is actually a positive if the Cougars can get past their two nasty non-conference games.
Navy is Navy – you know what you’re getting – and Temple, Cincinnati, South Florida and East Carolina help take the conference to another level past most of the Group of 5 leagues. But to challenge the Mountain West, Connecticut needs to keep on improving – at least offensively – UCF has to be UCF again with Scott Frost taking over, and Memphis needs to keep on the right track even without Justin Fuente and Paxton Lynch. Tulsa is good enough to get into a bowl, and Tulane and SMU aren’t all that bad for teams likely picked to bring up the rear.
6. Mountain West
Yeah, Wyoming should be stronger in Craig Bohl’s third year, and Hawaii should be more interesting under new head man Nick Rolovich, and UNLV is improving, and San Jose State will have a dangerous offense, and New Mexico’s style on both sides of the ball makes it a difficult out, and Fresno State just can’t be as bad as it was last year.
But if all goes according to plan, all those teams are just along for the ride.
The same goes for Colorado State, Nevada and Utah State. They’re all good, and they’re all going bowling, but this season is all about the Mountain West’s big three.
Air Force is better than last year when it got to the conference title game, Boise State’s offense will be unstoppable, and San Diego State gets almost everyone back on its killer defense. The Broncos or Aztecs can realistically dream of the CFP – but they can’t screw up in the deep league.
5. Big 12
Where’s the true superstar killer? Oklahoma should take a wee step back, Baylor is about to take a giant leap back, and TCU loses QB Trevone Boykin. Is there a dangerous national title contender?
Oklahoma State is as strong as it’s been in a few years, Kansas State should be far better – especially on defense – and Texas has the thumping running game to finally turn the corner.
West Virginia has the offense to blow up, Texas Tech has its best team yet under The Kliff, and even Kansas and Iowa State should be a bit better. So, considering nine of the ten teams get back their starting quarterback – or at least the option to start him – and most of the teams are better, what’s the problem?
Again, the league’s big stars aren’t going to be quite as nasty as the other Power 5 stars, except for the deeper Pac-12.
Clemson, Florida State, and Louisville – really, watch out for the Cardinals to potentially shock the conference – are all fantastic on a national title contender scale, but is the rest of the ACC ready to step up?
The Coastal just isn’t as good, but Miami should be a player right away under Mark Richt. North Carolina will still be dangerous, Duke will have its moments, and Pitt and Georgia Tech will still be better, but with Bronco Mendenhall taking over Virginia, and Justin Fuente stepping in at Virginia Tech, the division has three new head coaches.
Wake Forest has its best team in years, the Syracuse offense should explode under Dino Babers, Boston College has the defense, and NC State is overdue, but again, the spotlight is on the Atlantic’s superstars.
The Pac-12 has a little of the same issue the Big 12 is facing – where’s the top dog?
Oregon is probably the best team, but that’s by default. Stanford is in a total rebuild around Christian McCaffrey, Washington State is Washington State – it’ll put up a ton of numbers, but it won’t be enough – and Cal seems to have the system in place. But the North should be more interesting because Oregon State will be better and Washington has the talent and coaching to break through under Chris Petersen.
The South is all full of wild cards. Colorado should be far, far better, but that might not matter much considering Utah isn’t going anywhere, Arizona State will be fine despite some key losses, and Arizona, as always, will be dangerous.
UCLA has just enough to take the division, but will it underachieve/have injury problems again? And then there’s USC, who has the skill, and the depth – finally – but is Clay Helton ready for primetime?
2. Big Ten
Three of the league’s mediocre teams – Illinois, Maryland and Rutgers – should get an instant infusion of better coaching with their respective changes, and Purdue has the best team yet under Darrell Hazell. And those are the most likely four-worst teams in the conference.
The West should be fascinating with Wisconsin the best team of the lot, but with a too-brutal schedule that’ll open the door for Iowa to do that again, or Minnesota to take advantage of a 2015 Iowa-like schedule to shock the world. Nebraska has a ton of holes, and Northwestern won’t get the same breaks twice, but both will go bowling.
Of course, all the attention is on the East, and not just because Indiana’s offense should keep on rolling. Penn State lost a ton, but the O will be better and the D will still be great. Michigan State will plug the holes in a hurry, Ohio State replaces its NFL starters with more NFL talent, and Michigan has the pieces in place to be the team Wolverine fans have been dying for.
Go ahead and make your case for another conference to be better. You’ll be wrong, but go ahead.
The proof will be in the first week pudding with the SEC playing so many high-profile games, but where’s the true weak spot?
Vanderbilt’s offense should be far better to go along with the nasty defense, South Carolina has a coach, Missouri will actually score, and Kentucky has enough experience to be even more competitive.
And those are the bad teams from last year, and they’re all in the East.
Florida, Georgia and Tennessee will battle it out for the division with this being the ninth-straight year – or at least it just seems that way – for the Vols to finally be fantastic. The Gators and Dawgs will hang around the top 15 in the polls all season long.
Once again, the SEC West is the best division in football, and that’s with Alabama seemingly losing everyone.
Of course the Crimson Tide will be outstanding again, but LSU is the nation’s best team going into the season – at least in terms of talent and experience.
Arkansas, Mississippi State and Texas A&M all have their flaws, but any one of them can beat anyone in the conference on the right day, while Auburn should have a stronger offensive attack and Ole Miss appears to have reloaded on D.
So, sorry, America. It’s the SEC’s college football world, and everyone else is just playing in it – except for parts of the Big Ten East.