In 2015, conference bragging rights seem to mean so much, yet so little.
For most of last season, one division — much less one conference — seemed to reign over all others. Yet on the night of the national championship game, the SEC West was nowhere to be found. Instead, the Big Ten’s era of darkness came to an end with Ohio State defeating champions from arguably the two most daunting leagues in the country, the Pac-12 and SEC.
Meanwhile, the power conference with the fewest members, the Big 12, had two teams in the Playoff conversation up to the final minute before the semifinal pairings were revealed.
So what does all this mean? We’re not quite sure how large a role conference strength will play in the College Football Playoff era, but we’re certain having quality teams playing each other week in and week out makes for a more interesting season.
Here’s how that race might shake out during the 2015 season.
The SEC’s national championship drought has extended to — gasp! — two seasons. Yet even if a non-SEC team claims the 2015 national championship, the SEC is poised to be the top conference from top to bottom again. The SEC had seven teams ranked in the final College Football Playoff top 25 before the bowls and six in the final AP top 25 after the postseason. All seven teams from the SEC West went to a bowl and finished with a winning record. Expect more of the same for this 14-team behemoth of a conference. The Athlon preseason top 25 contains a whopping nine SEC teams.
The Pac-12 finished with four teams (Oregon, Arizona, Arizona State and UCLA) with 10 wins or more, tied with the SEC for the most in the country. The league sported a winning record against three Power 5 conferences (3–1 against the ACC, 2–1 against the Big 12 and 6–2 against the Big Ten) but never faced the SEC head-to-head. That’s a little frustrating because the Pac-12 has remade itself into the solid No. 2 conference behind the SEC with potential to further narrow the gap. Remember, USC is just now exiting the worst of NCAA sanctions and should be a player in the national title race.
The same league that seemed hopeless in Week 2 — the week Michigan State lost to Oregon, Ohio State lost to Virginia Tech and Michigan was shut out by Notre Dame — knocked off three Power 5 conference champions during the bowl season. That said, a national championship doesn’t by default elevate an entire conference. Ohio State won the first College Football Playoff and is built to contend for another title in 2015. The question for the Big Ten is if anyone can catch up to Ohio State this season. The hires of Jim Harbaugh at Michigan and James Franklin at Penn State in the last two seasons set up those programs to eventually challenge Urban Meyer’s juggernaut.
These are interesting times for the Big 12. Baylor and TCU became Playoff contenders last season, ultimately falling short on selection Sunday. Was it the lack of a conference championship game or the lackluster non-conference schedules that did in the Bears and Horned Frogs? Or was it that they were Baylor and TCU and not Texas and Oklahoma? The Big 12 finished 2–5 in bowl games and went 6-11 against the other Power 5 conferences last season. Will that change in 2015? Baylor and TCU are built to contend again, and Oklahoma and Texas can’t stay down forever.
This could be a challenging season for the ACC. Not only does the league’s national title contender the last two seasons, Florida State, lose its Heisman-winning quarterback, but Clemson also moves on without its offensive mastermind (Chad Morris) and key figures on defense. Depth in this league is an eternal struggle. More than half of the league finished 7–6 or worse last season, and while a 4–0 sweep of SEC rivals during Thanksgiving weekend (plus Georgia Tech’s Orange Bowl win over Mississippi State) may help bragging rights, the ACC as a whole has a long way to go to catch up to the rest of the Power Five.
The American Athletic Conference adds Navy, meaning the AAC will split into divisions and host a league title game. That may be a positive for a league that should have at least one team vying for the Group of 5’s automatic bid in a major bowl game. Last season, the AAC had a three-way tie for first with one of these teams (UCF) not having played the other two (Memphis and Cincinnati). Division races could be heated in 2015 with Cincinnati, Temple, UCF and East Carolina vying for the East and Houston, Navy and Memphis battling for the West.
The Mountain West produced four 10-win teams last season, same as the SEC and Pac-12, but that shouldn’t be seen as a sign of depth. The West Division champion, Fresno State, finished 6–8. The top of the league is where the action is. Boise State should contend for a major bowl slot and a top-25 finish. The Broncos have a veteran cast, but they lose a starting quarterback and a superstar tailback. Utah State also returns a veteran team that could contend for the title if the Aggies can beat Boise State in Logan.
Could this shape up for another year of mid-week MACtion madness? Of the 10 league quarterbacks who passed for 2,000 or more yards last season, only two were seniors. And Bowling Green’s Matt Johnson, who threw for 3,467 yards in 2013, returns after missing all but one game last fall. The league’s top three rushers, Toledo’s Kareem Hunt, Western Michigan’s Jarvion Franklin and Buffalo’s Anthone Taylor, are also back. The usual powers — Toledo, Northern Illinois and Bowling Green — are the teams to beat.
Six different teams have won the Conference USA championship in the last six seasons. Our projected champion, Western Kentucky, would make it seven in seven years. Granted, three of those champions (East Carolina, UCF, Tulsa) are in another conference now, but that’s just another indication of the rotating cast of characters in C-USA. The high-powered Hilltoppers are the favorite, but they’ll need to watch out for Marshall and Louisiana Tech.
A year ago, league newcomers Georgia Southern and Appalachian State finished in the top three of the league, the former going 8–0. Yet because they were new to FBS, neither team was eligible for bowl games. That’s life in the Sun Belt these days. The league is forever stuck at the bottom of the FBS ranks and carries considerable dead weight at the bottom (New Mexico State, Idaho and Georgia State went a combined 4–31 last season).