The pecking order among college football conferences going into the 2019 season is fairly stable. As expected (and once again), the SEC ranks as college football’s No. 1 conference. Alabama is Athlon's pick to win the 2019 national championship, with Georgia checking in at No. 3 and Florida, LSU and Texas A&M projected to finish inside of the top 10. The Big Ten ranks second and is led by two playoff contenders (Michigan and Ohio State) and a solid middle class (Iowa, Penn State, Wisconsin and Nebraska). Clemson - the reigning national champion - bolsters the ACC up to the No. 3 spot. The Big 12 checks in at No. 4 and the Pac-12 ranks No. 5. The American Athletic Conference ranks No. 6 overall and is No. 1 among Group of 5 leagues.
How do the 10 conferences stack up for 2019? Athlon Sports ranks all 10 leagues from best to worst.
CFB 2019 Conference Power Rankings
Alabama may have been knocked from its national perch by the upstarts from Clemson, but the Tide still reign over college football’s Cadillac conference. The SEC can boast five teams in Athlon Sports’ projected top 10 for 2019 and seven — half of the league — in the top 25, with another two (South Carolina and Mississippi State) knocking on the door. Even perennial also-rans Kentucky (coming off a 10-win season) and Vanderbilt (six bowl appearances since 2008) have contributed positively to the conference’s profile of late.
Related: Complete SEC Predictions for 2019
2. Big Ten
It’s past time for Jim Harbaugh to justify the hype by contending for a national title. If that happens this season — and we think it will — then the Big Ten East can truly stake a claim as the nation’s toughest division. Ohio State won’t fall far (if at all) under Ryan Day; Penn State is showing staying power through elite recruiting; and Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio is too good a coach for the Spartans to ever lie dormant for long. In the West, Scott Frost could contend for a division crown in only his second year at his alma mater.
If you remove Clemson, then the league slips behind the Pac-12 into fifth place among the Power 5 conferences. But you can’t really do that, can you? Dabo Swinney & Co. own two of the last three national titles and were last seen humiliating the sport’s Evil Empire in the National Championship Game. The Tigers are college football’s current gold standard. After that, though, things get a little sketchy. Syracuse, despite some key personnel losses, could be the league’s second-best team. Florida State and Miami are far removed from the glory days of their rivalry. And Virginia Tech is trying to reverse a mystifying slide under Justin Fuente.
Related: Complete ACC Predictions for 2019
4. Big 12
The biggest losers in the most recent round of college football realignment, the Big 12 has clung to national relevance on the strength of its flagship program. Oklahoma is a perennial Playoff contender and can claim the last two Heisman Trophy winners. From there, the picture gets a bit muddled, but one development could help clear things up: a truly resurgent Texas program. If the Longhorns can return to their place of national prominence, then the whole conference will benefit. Worth watching: the new hires at West Virginia, Kansas and Kansas State.
Related: Complete Big 12 Predictions for 2019
The Pac-12 is probably not as bad as its national reputation: Washington and Stanford are solid programs with exceptional head coaches; Washington State has progressed light years under Mike Leach; Oregon could be on the verge of recapturing its Chip Kelly-era glory; and Cal and Arizona State look like up-and-comers. The elephant in the room comes in the form of the league’s former kingpins, the L.A. schools. Kelly showed some progress in his first season at UCLA after a dismal start, but the Bruins still have work to do. And USC is a far cry from the title-contending NFL pipeline it had become under Pete Carroll.
Related: Complete Pac-12 Predictions for 2019
It helps your profile when your flagship program goes 25–1 over a two-year period, although UCF might take a small step back this season. Memphis has maintained its momentum post-Justin Fuente, and Houston and Cincinnati are on solid footing. If slumbering mid-major stalwarts USF and ECU can re-awaken, the league could improve its reputation even more.
7. Mountain West
Boise remains the bell cow — although the program has regressed slightly in the post-Chris Petersen era — but the job that Jeff Tedford is doing in Fresno has helped the conference’s profile significantly. The league could use a bounce-back from old reliable Air Force, which has slumped of late.
Favorite: Boise State
8. Conference USA
C-USA may lack quality at the top, but the conference will be as competitive as ever this season. Marshall marches on under Doc Holliday; FAU and FIU can draw from Florida’s sizable talent pool; and Seth Littrell has North Texas on a positive trajectory.
Ohio’s Frank Solich may be the nation’s most unsung great coach. His Bobcats have posted only two losing MAC seasons in his 14 years in Athens. Perennial contenders Toledo, Western Michigan and Northern Illinois figure to fight things out in the MAC West.
Related: Complete MAC Predictions for 2019
10. Sun Belt
The little conference that could. The Sun Belt has played an entertaining brand of football and produced some notable coaches in recent years (Scott Satterfield, Neal Brown and Gus Malzahn, among others). Blake Anderson (Arkansas State), Chad Lunsford (Georgia Southern) and Billy Napier (Louisiana) appear ready to join that list.
Favorite: Appalachian State