It’s no secret 2016 was a down year in the SEC. While Alabama reached the national championship game, every other program in the league lost at least four games and no team outside of the Crimson Tide finished in the top 10 of the final Associated Press poll. Looking ahead to 2017, it’s easy to see the SEC reclaiming the No. 1 spot. Alabama is the favorite to win it all, Auburn is a projected top 10 team, with Georgia, Florida and Tennessee locked into a tight battle for the East title. The league’s depth is expected to improve with Mississippi State, South Carolina and Kentucky each projected to take a step forward in 2017.
With Clemson claiming the national championship, Florida State winning the Orange Bowl and Lamar Jackson’s Heisman Trophy victory, the ACC had a banner year last fall and claimed the No. 1 spot among conferences. Can the ACC do it again or will the SEC take the top spot? And watch out for the Big Ten. With Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin and Michigan all projected as top 12 teams this fall, there’s plenty of talent at the top of the league.
How do the 10 conferences stack up for 2017? Athlon Sports ranks all 10 leagues from best to worst.
College Football 2017 Conference Power Rankings
For the first time in recent memory, you could make a legitimate argument last season that the SEC was not the best conference in college football. That was last year. Moving forward, the league should reclaim its spot as the unquestioned king of the sport, thanks to the continued dominance of Alabama and the expected re-emergence of Auburn and LSU in 2017. It’s still too early to anoint any team from the SEC East as a legitimate threat to crack the national elite, but Georgia is recruiting at an Alabama-like level, Florida has won 19 games in two seasons under Jim McElwain, and Tennessee still has a roster stacked with talent.
Related: SEC Football Predictions for 2017
Life was good in 2016 for the ACC. Consider the following: The league produced a national champion (and that champion, Clemson, shut out Ohio State and knocked off Alabama en route to the title); an ACC player won the Heisman Trophy (Louisville’s Lamar Jackson); a team that finished 5–3 in league games (Pittsburgh) was good enough to beat the national champion (Clemson) as well as the champion from the Big Ten (Penn State); and ACC teams went a combined 8–3 in bowl games. That’s pretty impressive stuff. Still, we aren’t quite ready to crown the ACC as the No. 1 league in the nation. Florida State is a legitimate national title contender, and we have learned never to count out Clemson — no matter how many key players it loses. But there doesn’t look like a top-10 team beyond the Big 2. Louisville, Miami and Virginia Tech are top-25-caliber teams, but the ACC in 2017 won’t be quite as deep as it was a year ago.
Favorite: Florida State
Related: ACC Football Predictions for 2017
3. Big Ten
The rise of the Big Ten East has elevated the league’s profile in recent years. Michigan State has taken a step back, but Penn State’s emergence has given this division three teams — along with Ohio State and Michigan, of course — that look to be capable of making the College Football Playoff in any given season. The West has been a punchline in recent years, but Wisconsin has proven it has staying power under Paul Chryst, and two schools in the division made tremendous hires in the offseason — Purdue (Jeff Brohm) and Minnesota (P.J. Fleck). It’s the bottom half of the league — which contains too many bad teams — that prevents the Big Ten from challenging the SEC and ACC for conference supremacy.
Favorite: Ohio State
There are two teams with legitimate CFB Playoff aspirations — Washington and USC. Beyond that, the Pac-12 is loaded with good but hardly great teams. Stanford is Stanford (and that’s a compliment); Oregon should be much improved under Willie Taggart but is far from elite; UCLA has plenty of talent but can’t be trusted; Utah lost a lot of talent but can always be trusted; Colorado is eager to prove it wasn’t a one-hit wonder; and Washington State is fun to watch but can’t be considered a threat to win the league.
Related: Pac-12 Football Predictions for 2017
5. Big 12
No Power 5 league has slipped further in its standing in recent years than the Big 12. Oklahoma has remained relevant on the national scene, but it’s hard to find another program that is considered elite at this point. Oklahoma State has been a consistent winner but has been in the national title conversation only once during its recent run of success. The Big 12’s biggest issue: Texas. It’s tough to see the league making a move up the college football food chain until the Horns re-emerge as a national power.
Related: Big 12 Football Predictions for 2017
It was a difficult offseason for the AAC, which lost three of its top coaches to Power 5 schools — Matt Rhule (Temple to Baylor), Tom Herman (Houston to Texas) and Willie Taggart (USF to Oregon). This is still a really good “mid-major” league with some quality teams, but we can stop the talk of the AAC forcing the college football world to change Power 5 to Power 6.
7. Mountain West
Four teams went 6–2 in the Mountain West last season, and all four teams had a really bad non-conference loss on their résumés. Boise State dropped a 31–12 decision in the Cactus Bowl to a Baylor team that had lost its previous six games; San Diego State and New Mexico lost to teams that went 2–6 in the Sun Belt (South Alabama and New Mexico State, respectively); and Wyoming lost to Eastern Michigan. Not a good look.
Favorite: Boise State
8. Conference USA
The bottom of this league continues to be a mess, but there are some really solid programs at the top, most notably Louisiana Tech, Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee. Keep an eye on UTSA. The Roadrunners surprised a year ago, and Frank Wilson continues to upgrade the talent.
Favorite: Louisiana Tech
The MAC’s biggest problem is a lack of balance between the two divisions. You could make an argument that the fifth-place team in the West last year (Central Michigan) was better than the East champion (Ohio). (That argument is made more compelling by the fact that CMU beat Ohio, 27–20.)
Related: MAC Football Predictions for 2017
10. Sun Belt
Appalachian State and Arkansas State, who are both 20–4 in league games in the last three seasons, continue to rule the Sun Belt conference. The league welcomes Coastal Carolina from the FCS ranks this fall. Don’t be surprised if the Chanticleers become a factor in the next few years.
Favorite: Appalachian State