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The SEC still reigns supreme, but the Pac-12 is gaining
The prevailing nation, especially in certain segments of the country, is that the College Football Playoff will give the SEC yet another chance to flex its muscles.
The SEC may be the best-positioned league to send two (or more) teams to the Playoff, and the grind of the regular season will have that team best prepared to advance. Both may be true. Indeed, the SEC is not short on teams that could finish in the top four if things break right.
But the SEC also might not be alone. The Pac-12 has gained ground in recent seasons on the SEC with Oregon and Stanford holding their own on the national stage. With USC, UCLA and Washington ascending, could this be the season the Pac-12 takes over as the nation’s top conference?
We say not so fast. The SEC remains the to league in the land, but the Pac-12 will have the edge in quarterback play. That’s no small bit of information, but we’ll stick with the SEC for now.
The SEC’s run of seven consecutive national championships ended, but the league is well positioned for success in the College Football Playoff era. We’ve picked Florida State at No. 1 overall, and have only one SEC team projected for the semifinals (No. 2 Alabama), but Auburn, Georgia and South Carolina also are in our top 10. If the league doesn’t send two teams to the Playoff, expect the New Year’s Day bowls to be filled with SEC representatives. The quarterback play in the league will drop off with Johnny Manziel, AJ McCarron and Aaron Murray gone, but the SEC is still loaded with elite talent on defense and innovative offensive coaching minds. If LSU and Florida can field credible offenses and Ole Miss continues its ascent, the SEC will have a deep bench of teams with top-10 potential.
Oregon and Stanford have captured the last five league titles and will continue to be in contention for Playoff spots, but other Pac-12 teams are on the doorstep of national relevance. UCLA won 10 games and finished a season ranked for the first time since 2005, and Washington has the foundation to start challenging for the crown in the North. USC and Washington hired new coaches, both of whom could be upgrades. This could be the nation’s top quarterback conference with Brett Hundley at UCLA, Marcus Mariota at Oregon, Taylor Kelly at Arizona State, Sean Mannion at Oregon State and Connor Halliday at Washington State.
3. Big Ten
Favorite: Ohio State
The Big Ten adds Maryland and Rutgers this season and ditches the Legends and Leaders divisions for the more conventional East/West designations. The power of the league appears to be in the East, where the conference’s defending division champions (Michigan State and Ohio State) and the league’s top quarterbacks (Braxton Miller and Christian Hackenberg) play. If Michigan can improve its consistency on offense, the East will be even more of a gauntlet. Wisconsin is the favorite in the West despite having only eight returning starters. Like Michigan, Nebraska is still fighting to regain its stature as a national power.
4. Big 12
The league enjoyed tremendous balance a year ago with three teams in conference title contention going into the final week of the season. After Oklahoma and Baylor, no other Big 12 team has the look of a top-10 squad in the preseason. Kansas State continues to overachieve, and now Bill Snyder knows who his quarterback will be to start the season. Oklahoma State has weathered personnel losses before, but Mike Gundy will be put to the test with a rebuilding defense. Texas, though, is the mystery team in the league in the first season under Charlie Strong.
Favorite: Florida State
With Jameis Winston and 12 other starters returning, Florida State has a chance to repeat as national champion. One thing is certain in the ACC: No team in a major conference is a more prohibitive favorite in its league than FSU. In the Atlantic, Clemson is rebuilding without Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins, and newcomer Louisville enters the league with a new coach, Bobby Petrino, and new quarterback, Will Gardner. The Coastal is a mystery. Four teams — Duke, Virginia Tech, Miami and Georgia Tech — finished within a game of first place last season, and the same thing could happen again this year.
UCF’s Blake Bortles is gone to the NFL, and Louisville is gone to the ACC. To replace Louisville, the American adds East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa this season. The lineup changes in the Big East/American have all but ended its status as a major conference. Instead of fighting for an automatic BCS bid, teams like Cincinnati, East Carolina and UCF will compete with the champions from Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West and Sun Belt for a single spot in the premier New Year’s bowl games. In a scheduling quirk, two of the top three teams in the league, Cincinnati and UCF, won’t face each other.
7. Mountain West
Favorite: Boise State
The Mountain West will be in a state of transition at the top. Bryan Harsin, a former Boise State assistant, will attempt to keep the Broncos rolling in the post-Chris Petersen era. Fresno State also moves on without quarterback Derek Carr. Several programs are on the rise, including Colorado State, Nevada and Wyoming, but the team to watch may be Utah State following the return of a healthy Chuckie Keeton at quarterback.
Favorite: Bowling Green
Bowling Green was the only MAC team in the top 30 nationally in total offense and total defense and will be the league favorite under first-year coach Dino Babers. Toledo, Northern Illinois and Ball State are in our top 80, but Ohio and Akron, led by veteran coaches Frank Solich and Terry Bowden, respectively, can’t be counted out.
9. Conference USA
Realignment has decimated Conference USA, but this year the league might get the last laugh if Marshall can snag a New Year’s Day bowl. The Thundering Herd run one of the fastest offenses in the country, return a fourth-year starter at quarterback in Rakeem Cato and face a paper-thin schedule. Marshall is ranked 40th in our countdown. No other C-USA program is in the top 80.
10. Sun Belt
Favorite: UL Lafayette
The Sun Belt welcomes back two teams from the defunct WAC (Idaho and New Mexico State) and invites two FCS powers (Appalachian State and Georgia Southern). As such, the Sun Belt has five of the last seven teams in our rankings. With upstart coach Mark Hudspeth and returning quarterback Terrance Broadway, UL Lafayette will be one of the few teams worth watching from a distance.