The SEC is once again college football's best conference.
Once again, the SEC ranks as college football's best conference. LSU and Alabama are expected to be national title contenders, while Georgia and South Carolina should finish the year ranked as top-10 teams. While the SEC is college football's No. 1 conference, the Big 12 isn't too far behind. Oklahoma is the favorite to win the conference title, but Texas is on the rise, and the league welcomes West Virginia and TCU as new members in 2012.
The league has produced the national champion in each of the past six seasons. And while USC out of the Pac-12 is our preseason No. 1 team, there are four SEC schools in the top 10, so don’t be surprised if the league extends the streak to seven next January in Miami Gardens. The West will be a battle once again, with LSU and Alabama both well-positioned to make a title run. A favorable schedule — plus a talented roster — makes Georgia the favorite in the East, but don’t count out South Carolina, which welcomes back Marcus Lattimore.
2. Big 12
The Big 12 isn’t as formidable as the SEC at the top — Oklahoma appears to be the only legit national title contender — but the league has great depth. Including OU, six league teams can be found in Athlon Sports’ preseason top 25, including newcomers West Virginia (No. 12) and TCU (No. 22).
3. Big Ten
If Michigan and Ohio State continue to recruit at their current rate, another ‘Ten Year War’ could soon be in store between these two traditional powers. Ohio State is ranked higher in the preseason top 25, but the Buckeyes aren’t eligible for postseason play and thus can’t play in the Big Ten title game. Nebraska and Michigan State figure to give Michigan a battle in the Legends Division, while Wisconsin poses the biggest threat to Ohio State in the Leaders.
The Pac-12 boasts two of the elite teams in the nation in USC and Oregon, but there is a significant drop-off after those two. Stanford figures to take a step back with Andrew Luck now with the Colts, but the Cardinal will still be strong. It should be a tight race for second place in the South. Utah is our pick, though UCLA should be improved under first-year coach Jim Mora.
Favorite: Florida State
Florida State once again looks rock-solid on paper, but we’ve been through this drill before. Is this the year the Seminoles finally break through? Clemson, the defending ACC champ, has the talent to return to a BCS bowl. Virginia Tech is once again the favorite in the Coastal Division.
6. Big East
West Virginia’s departure to the Big 12 makes Louisville the favorite in the Big East. Charlie Strong has done a masterful job in two short years and has his program well-positioned for the future. Rutgers and South Florida figure to be in the hunt as well, and don’t count out Pitt under new boss Paul Chryst.
7. Mountain West
Favorite: Boise State
Star quarterback Kellen Moore is gone, but Boise State remains the class of the Mountain West. The loss of TCU to the Big 12 will hurt, but the addition of Hawaii, Nevada and Fresno State should add some beef to the middle of the league. This year, watch out for Wyoming, which returns 13 starters from a team that won eight games in 2011.
8. Conference USA
Watch out for the usual suspects in the final year of Conference USA football as it’s currently configured. Houston and Tulsa are the favorites in the West, while UCF and East Carolina appear to be the teams to beat in the East.
Ohio is the easy pick to the win the MAC East, thanks to a talented roster and a schedule that does not include the top teams in the West. Western Michigan loses elite wideout Jordan White, but the Broncos’ attack should still be explosive with quarterback Alex Carder running the show. Toledo will also score a ton of points.
10. Sun Belt
Favorite: Arkansas State
Arkansas State, the defending Sun Belt champ, made big news in the offseason by hiring Gus Malzahn to replace Hugh Freeze. FIU should bounce back into contention after going 5–3 in the Sun Belt last year. And UL-Lafayette, which won nine games in ’11, will be strong again.
Favorite: Louisiana Tech
The WAC has been gutted in recent years, losing Boise State after the 2010 season and Fresno State, Hawaii and Nevada after the ’11 campaign. Louisiana Tech is the best of the leftovers, followed by Utah State.
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