The SEC ranks as the No. 1 conference once again
The SEC once again ranks as college football’s No. 1 conference. The league took both spots in last year’s national championship matchup, as Alabama edged Georgia in overtime to win its fifth title in nine years. Both the Crimson Tide and Bulldogs are both projected by Athlon Sports to earn a repeat trip to the CFB Playoff in 2018, with Auburn and Mississippi State headlining the next tier. The SEC is Athlon’s pick as the best league for 2018, but the Big Ten isn’t far behind. This conference boasts five of Athlon’s projected top 12 teams for the upcoming season. Ohio State is the pick to win the Big Ten, with Michigan, Penn State, Wisconsin and Michigan State next in line. The ACC takes the No. 3 spot among conferences, with the Pac-12 and Big 12 rounding out the Power 5 rankings. The American Athletic Conference is Athlon’s pick to rank as the top Group of 5 league this fall.
How do the 10 conferences stack up for 2018? Athlon Sports ranks all 10 leagues from best to worst.
College Football 2018 Conference Power Rankings
The SEC is facing some stiff competition -- mainly from the Big Ten -- for its spot as the No. 1 conference in the nation. We all know that Alabama, Georgia and Auburn are in great shape for the immediate future; for the league to maintain its elite status going forward, programs such as LSU, Florida, Tennessee and Texas A&M must reach their potential in the next few years. In 2018, Georgia looks like the overwhelming pick in the East, though don’t be surprised if Florida -- rejuvenated under first-year coach Dan Mullen -- or South Carolina mounts a legitimate challenge. In the West, it’s Alabama and Auburn followed by Mississippi State.
Related: SEC Football 2018 Predictions
2. Big Ten
The Big Ten East has replaced the SEC West as the most challenging division in college football. Over the last three seasons, the East has placed seven teams (Ohio State three times, Penn State twice, Michigan and Michigan State once) in the final AP top 10; in the same span, five SEC West teams (Alabama three times, Auburn and Ole Miss once) finished in the top 10. Wisconsin retains its spot as the top team in the West, but Nebraska -- with Scott Frost running the show -- will emerge as an annual contender in the very near future. Iowa, as usual, will be solid, and both Purdue and Minnesota are on the uptick with bright young coaches.
Favorite: Ohio State
Related: Big Ten Football 2018 Predictions
Clemson will be a consensus pick to win the ACC in 2018. But this league features quality depth. Miami and Virginia Tech are both trending up under their respective third-year coaches, and Florida State will no doubt bounce back quickly from its uncharacteristic mediocre season now that Willie Taggart is in charge. The key question for the ACC: Can the middle part of the league (teams such as Louisville, NC State, Georgia Tech, etc.) emerge as top-25 caliber teams as opposed to top-40-ish teams?
Related: ACC Football 2018 Predictions
4. Big 12
The Big 12 might lack a true national championship contender in 2018, but no league figures to have more parity. Oklahoma is the easy pick for No. 1 again despite suffering key personnel losses. Texas gets the nod at No. 2 thanks to solid quarterback play and what should be the league’s best defense. Pencil Kansas in at No. 10. Other than that, it’s wide open, especially with teams 3 through 7. We settled on West Virginia, TCU, Oklahoma State, Iowa State and Kansas State as our predicted order, but you can make an argument for any of those teams to finish third.
Related: Big 12 Football 2018 Predictions
The Pac-12 is a bit of a mystery thanks to some extreme coaching turnover; six of the 12 teams will be under new leadership. Washington has the best coach in the league (Chris Petersen) and should have the best team. Stanford and Oregon are next in line in the North. USC is the pick in the South, though Utah poses a serious challenge. UCLA made one of the top hires of the offseason, but it might take Chip Kelly a few years to get the Bruins in position to win a championship.
Related: Pac-12 Football 2018 Predictions
The AAC had one team win a New Year’s Six Bowl (UCF) and two others finish the season ranked in the top 25 (South Florida and Memphis). UCF lost its coach -- Scott Frost returned home to Nebraska -- but should still be among the top Group of 5 teams in the country. South Florida and Temple will be worthy competitors in the East. The West is wide open; Memphis, Navy and Houston appear to be the top three.
7. Mountain West
Fresno State’s resurgence under Jeff Tedford has been a positive development, but the Mountain West still lags behind the AAC for the unofficial title as the top Group of 5 league.
Favorite: Boise State
8. Conference USA
FAU made a huge leap in Lane Kiffin’s first season, racing through the C-USA slate with an 8-0 mark and dominating North Texas in the league title game. Expect more of the same.
The power still resides in the MAC West, where Northern Illinois and Toledo figure to fight it out for the division title. Ohio and Miami appear to be the top two teams in the East, but don’t count out upstart Buffalo.
Related: MAC Football 2018 Predictions
10. Sun Belt
The Sun Belt will now have two five-team divisions after the departure of New Mexico State and Idaho. Troy and Appalachian State are the class of the East. Arkansas State is the pick in the West.
Favorite: Arkansas State
Related: Sun Belt Football 2018 Predictions