Publish date:

College Football 2021 Conference Power Rankings

Ranking the 10 college football conferences for the 2021 season

How do the 10 conferences stack up for 2021? Athlon Sports ranks all 10 leagues from best to worst.

Alabama Crimson Tide, 2020 SEC champions

Led by defending national champion Alabama, the SEC maintains its status as college football's top conference

The pecking order among college football conferences going into the 2021 season is relatively stable. The SEC ranks as college football’s No. 1 conference once again. Alabama is Athlon's pick to win the 2021 national championship, with Georgia and Texas A&M also projected to finish inside the top 10. Ohio State sits atop the Big Ten, with a solid middle class (Iowa, Penn State, Wisconsin and Indiana) in place this fall. Clemson lifts 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. However, the Mountain West isn't far behind with the emergence of Nevada and San Jose State and the steady performance of Boise State.

How do the 10 conferences stack up for 2021? Athlon Sports ranks all 10 leagues from best to worst.

College Football 2021 Conference Power Rankings

1. SEC

It may have grown boring for the rest of the nation, but the SEC is still enjoying its perch atop the college football world. The league has sent at least one team to the College Football Playoff every season, producing historically great teams the last two seasons in 15–0 LSU (2019) and 13–0 Alabama (2020). Bama has some holes to fill, but when you recruit at a Nick Saban level, plugging holes is the least of your worries. Jimbo Fisher and Texas A&M have steadily built a power that is poised to assume the throne in the event that the king goes down. In the East, Florida is the defending champion, but Georgia is the favorite on the basis of its recent recruiting prowess — although we all keep waiting for the Dawgs’ success on the field to match their success in the living room.

Related: SEC Predictions for 2021

2. Big Ten

Ohio State has settled into an annual habit of conference dominance and national title contention. This season should be no different, although you should watch out for Michigan, which just completed a highly successful recruiting cycle, and Penn State, which is looking to build on the momentum of a strong 2020 finish. Indiana is also projected by Athlon Sports to finish in the top 25 and should post another winning mark after going 6-2 last year. In the West, Paul Chryst’s Wisconsin Badgers and Kirk Ferentz’s Iowa Hawkeyes are well-coached Big Ten prototypes that practice old-fashioned power football. Northwestern is the defending West champion, and Nebraska, facing a critical season under Scott Frost, is perhaps the league’s most intriguing team in 2021.

Related: Big Ten Predictions for 2021

3. ACC

When perennial playoff participant Clemson is your standard-bearer, you’re in pretty good shape. The Tigers showed some unexpected vulnerability in a disjointed 2020 campaign, but they continue to recruit at a high level and are clearly the Alabama of the ACC. North Carolina is thriving under Mack Brown and may produce the 2021 Heisman winner in heralded quarterback Sam Howell. Miami is on the cusp of returning to its former glory, and Florida State is never more than a couple of good recruiting classes away from contending.

Related: ACC Predictions for 2021

4. Big 12

The Big 12 has welcomed the rise of Iowa State to national prominence under Matt Campbell. The Cyclones and Oklahoma Sooners could stage an epic battle for a conference title and playoff berth this season, and both teams boast legitimate Heisman candidates (OU QB Spencer Rattler and ISU RB Breece Hall). The league’s perennial wild card is Texas, which will be under new management in the person of Steve Sarkisian. TCU is a sleeper contender to watch, and West Virginia will continue to improve under coach Neal Brown.

Related: Big 12 Predictions for 2021

5. Pac-12

USC has fallen on relative hard times in the last several seasons due to coaching instability and general Left Coast apathy, but there are signs of life in Troy, as Kedon Slovis is among this season’s Heisman frontrunners. Up north, the Oregon Ducks are as intriguing as ever, and Jimmy Lake got off to a promising start at Washington. A NCAA investigation has clouded Arizona State's outlook in the South, but coach Herm Edwards' team has potential. Look for Utah to push the Sun Devils and Trojans for the top spot in the division.

Recommended Articles

Related: Pac-12 Football Predictions for 2021

6. AAC

The AAC is riding the strength of league frontrunner Cincinnati, which is a legitimate playoff threat in 2021. The Bearcats appear to be in a league of their own in the context of their conference counterparts, though. Tulsa had a shockingly good 2020 but is poised to take a step back. SMU and Tulane will be dangerous again, and UCF amped up the league’s intrigue factor by hiring Gus Malzahn. Houston doesn't play Cincinnati and UCF in the regular season. Can coach Dana Holgorsen deliver a breakthrough year?

Related: American Athletic Football Predictions for 2021

7. Mountain West

San Jose State shocked the college football world by going unbeaten in MW play. The Spartans will look to defy the odds again, but as usual, Boise State will have a say in who wins this league. Led by a high-powered offense, Nevada is Athlon's pick to win the West Division. Watch out for San Diego State, which is recruiting well under Brady Hoke. Also, look for Fresno State to improve in coach Kalen DeBoer's second season.

Related: Mountain West Football Predictions for 2021

8. Sun Belt

SBC fans had better enjoy Louisiana’s Billy Napier and Coastal Carolina’s Jamey Chadwell while they can because their level of G5 success inevitably leads to coach-poaching. For now, they’re the flagship programs of a highly respectable and fast-rising conference. Appalachian State will be strong again, and Georgia State is intriguing behind a high-powered offense. Can Arkansas State rebound under new coach Butch Jones?

Related: Sun Belt Football Predictions for 2021

9. Conference USA

Bill Clark continues to work wonders in Birmingham; his UAB Blazers are 34–16 since the school resurrected its football program in 2017 following a two-year hiatus. UTSA has the necessary pieces to push UAB in the West, especially with All-American Sincere McCormick returning at running back. Marshall is a slight favorite in the East under new coach Charles Huff. Florida Atlantic, WKU and Louisiana Tech are among the teams to watch in 2021.

Related: Conference USA Football Predictions for 2021

10. MAC

It’s business as usual in the MAC, where the in-conference competition will be stout but a top 25 team is probably a stretch. Buffalo and Ball State were the division kingpins last season, and both should contend again, but watch out for Toledo, which has outrecruited its conference brethren lately. While the Bulls bring back several key cogs from last year's team, the departure of coach Lance Leipold to Kansas has added some uncertainty. Also, Ohio coach Frank Solich retired in July to add even more mystery to the East Division. 

Related: MAC Football Predictions for 2021

Podcast: What Do Coaches Really Think About Your Team in 2021?