The best of other leagues are catching up, but the SEC still reigns supreme
In the last three seasons, there’s been a sense that the SEC’s dominance is showing vulnerability.
Florida State beat Auburn for the final BCS championship in 2014, and Ohio State eliminated Alabama on the way to the first College Football Playoff title in 2015. The Big Ten is having a resurgence as a national player with Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State all in various stages of being reliable top-10 programs or better. The last undefeated teams standing at the end of the last three regular seasons have come from the ACC.
None of that seemed to matter when Alabama beat Michigan State in a semifinal last season and then pulled away from Clemson in the final moments of a national championship game thriller.
After a two-year absence, an SEC team finished the season as national champions.
The trends in the rest of the Power 5 landscape still seem to reflect more depth and a handful of teams better equipped to face the best the SEC has to offer at the end of the season.
The big question is if such strides will matter in the playoff.
Until another conference makes a compelling case to wrestle the top spot from the SEC, this league remains the dominant force in college football. In the CFB Playoff, Alabama crushed Big Ten champion Michigan State and handed Clemson its only loss of the season to claim an eighth national title in 10 years for the SEC. The brag sheet continues: The entire SEC West went to bowls for the second year in a row, the league went 9–2 in the postseason as a whole, and the conference had five teams in the final AP top 25. The East, which has not produced the league champion since 2008, could start to make up ground if Tennessee becomes a title contender, if Florida continues its improvement under Jim McElwain, and if Kirby Smart brings Georgia the edge it needs.
2. Big Ten
The Big Ten produced six teams that won at least 10 games — more than any other conference — but that couldn’t mask that most of the power resides in the East division. The addition of Jim Harbaugh to a division that already included Urban Meyer, Mark Dantonio and James Franklin raised the recruiting profile of the conference and has ensured that the Big Ten won’t fall behind the rest of the Power 5. The West is a different story. With the exception of the Hawkeyes’ performance in the Big Ten title game, Iowa (12–2) and Northwestern (10–3) were not competitive in their biggest games of the year. Wisconsin won 10 games with smoke and mirrors, and Nebraska couldn’t get out of its own way on the way to a 6–7 season.
Favorite: Ohio State
What will College Football look like in 2026?
Two schools in the North (Stanford and Oregon) have produced the conference champion in each of the last seven seasons. This could be the season that trend comes to a halt. Stanford and Oregon should be solid again. But Washington is poised to return to the national stage, and UCLA has the league’s best quarterback in Josh Rosen. Talented USC can’t be counted out, either. With Oregon State’s Seth Collins moving to receiver, the Pac-12 returns only five starting quarterbacks, making it the only Power 5 conference that must replace more than half of its starters at the position.
The ACC has become a two-team league with Clemson and Florida State claiming each of the last five conference championships. In each of the last three seasons, either the Tigers or the Seminoles have gone into bowl season as the nation’s last undefeated team. That said, Dabo Swinney and Jimbo Fisher can’t get too comfortable: A handful of ACC teams have plans in place to catch up. North Carolina emerged from the always-competitive Coastal Division last season and shows no signs of slowing down. Miami and Virginia Tech made coaching hires that should return both to solid footing.
Favorite: Florida State
5. Big 12
Even Oklahoma’s appearance in the College Football Playoff couldn’t end speculation that the Big 12 will someday, somehow expand. As it is, the Big 12 remains — stylistically speaking — the most up-and-down conference in the country. The league produced four of the top seven offenses and six of the top 25. The Sooners, ranked 39th, were the league’s only top-40 defense. Oklahoma will be a playoff contender again. TCU must replace dynamic quarterback Trevone Boykin but still has the look of a potential contender. Meanwhile, Baylor — now under Jim Grobe — may be one of the most volatile teams in the country. The conference will look to Oklahoma State to take a step forward and for Texas, 11–14 under Charlie Strong, to show some signs of life.
The AAC is coming off the best season in its short history with Houston, Temple, Navy and Memphis leading the way on the national stage. Those four teams accounted for wins over Florida State, Ole Miss, Penn State, Louisville and Pittsburgh. The league must replace some outgoing quarterback and coaching talent, but there’s enough remaining to keep the AAC the leader among the Group of 5 conferences. Houston’s coach-QB tandem in Tom Herman and Greg Ward Jr. would be the envy of a majority of Power 5 teams.
The Mountain West started last season with a thud as the league lost 22 consecutive non-conference games through the first three weeks. It’s no surprise that a league that lost TCU, Utah and BYU over the years is still trying to find its way. The MW will need San Diego State to build upon its 11-win season in 2015 and for Boise State (9–4) to continue to be a thorn in the side of the power players. Air Force and Utah State will be tough outs.
Favorite: Boise State
MACtion is alive and well on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights in November, but in the big picture, the MAC may be little more than a pleasant diversion. The best teams in the league last season, Bowling Green and Toledo, lost their coaches to Power 5 schools. Quarterback talent and experience at Central Michigan, Northern Illinois and Western Michigan will set up a heated race in the West.
Favorite: Western Michigan
Two departures, one expected (WKU quarterback Brandon Doughty) and one abrupt (Southern Miss coach Todd Monken) could hold Conference USA back from producing a CFP host bowl contender. Nevertheless, this remains a league with exciting offenses at the top. But half the league could be among the 30 worst teams in college football.
Favorite: Southern Miss
10. Sun Belt
The addition of Appalachian State and Georgia Southern has been a stroke of genius. Both were national champions at the FCS level and have made a seamless transition. Defending Sun Belt champion Arkansas State has perfected the formula of winning at this level.
Favorite: Appalachian State