With the start of the 2011 just around the corner, it's time to revisit the conference power rankings. The SEC claims the last five national titles and should reign surpreme once again this year. However, the Big 12 should be in great shape this year, especially with three teams picked in the top 12 of Athlon's 2011 Top 25.
The Favorite: Alabama
Auburn became the fourth different SEC school to win a BCS title in the past five seasons, joining Florida (2006, ’08), LSU (’07) and Alabama (’09). The best bets to extend the league’s streak to six are Alabama and LSU, which figure to fight it out in the highly competitive SEC West. South Carolina, which celebrated its first SEC East title last fall, has plenty of talent once again, but don’t be surprised if Georgia emerges as the team to beat.
2. Big 12
The Favorite: Oklahoma
The new-look 10-team Big 12 should be rock-solid in 2012 despite the loss of Nebraska to the Big Ten and, to a much lesser degree, Colorado to the Pac-12. Oklahoma should contend for a national title, and four other league teams (Texas A&M, Oklahoma State, Texas and Missouri) are ranked in the preseason top 25. Three more teams (Baylor, Texas Tech and K-State) played in bowl games last season.
3. Big Ten
The Favorite: Nebraska
The losses of Jim Tressel and Terrelle Pryor have clouded Ohio State's outlook in 2011. The Buckeyes still have talent, but the ongoing NCAA controversy and uncertainties at quarterback push Ohio State down in the Big Ten pecking order. With former NC State quarterback Russell Wilson landing at Wisconsin, the Badgers should be the favorites to win the the Leaders Division. Michigan State and Big Ten newcomer Nebraska appear to be the two best teams in the Legends Division. Michigan, with Brady Hoke now in charge, could be a factor if the defense improves.
The Favorite: Oregon
Our preseason top 25 includes only three teams from the new-look (and renamed) Pac-12, but one of them — Oregon (No. 3) — is a national title contender. The Ducks and the Stanford Cardinal are clearly the class of the North Division. USC, which is still on probation, is the pick to win the South Division, with Arizona State and Utah next in line.
The Favorite: Florida State
We’ve been teased before, but this looks like the year Florida State will return to prominence and contend for a national title. The Noles should be stout on defense, and the offense will be in the capable hands of quarterback E.J. Manuel. Tom O’Brien’s solid NC State club could be FSU’s top competition, though schizophrenic Clemson is always a threat. In the Coastal, Virginia Tech is the team to beat despite the loss of quarterback Tyrod Taylor. Miami and North Carolina will be waiting if the Hokies slip up.
6. Big East
The Favorite: West Virginia
West Virginia is the most talented team in the league, but the Mountaineers could be in for an awkward season with head coach-in-waiting Dana Holgorsen calling the plays in Bill Stewart’s final season. There don’t appear to be any other top-25-caliber teams in the league, though South Florida, Pitt and Syracuse should be solid.
7. Mountain West
The Favorite: Boise State
The addition of Boise State is a nice boost, but the MWC takes a big hit with the departure of Utah (Pac-12) and BYU (Independent). The Broncos must replace some talent at wide receiver, but quarterback Kellen Moore returns, and the defense should be formidable. TCU figures to take a small step back with quarterback Andy Dalton no longer around.
8. Conference USA
The Favorite: SMU
June Jones has done an amazing job building SMU into a winner, and this could be the year the Ponies capture their first league title since the Pony Express (or excess) days of the 1980s. Houston, with quarterback Case Keenum back after his ACL tear, should be SMU’s biggest threat in the West. UCF and Southern Miss will battle in the East.
The Favorite: Nevada
The league is wide open with bully Boise State (eight titles in nine seasons) off to the Mountain West. Nevada is the team to beat, but Hawaii, with quarterback Bryant Moniz back under center, and Fresno State will also be in the hunt.
The Favorite: Toledo
With a ton of talent back on both sides of the ball, Toledo is poised to knock Northern Illinois from atop the MAC food chain. However, NIU, now guided by former Wisconsin assistant Dave Doeren, will still be formidable. Ohio, Miami and Temple will wage a three-team battle in the East.
11. Sun Belt
The Favorite: Troy
Long-time Sun Belt power Troy and league upstart FIU tied for the conference title last year with identical 6–2 records. Expect more of the same this year, though don’t be surprised if Arkansas State, with head coach Hugh Freeze, factors into the title chase.