It’s always fun to debate what conference is the best in college football. As part of our 2017 season preview series, we’re here to give our side of the argument entering the 2017 season. And for good measure, we’re going to rank all 10 FBS conferences. Got a gripe with us? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter.
10. Sun Belt
The Sun Belt is far from a laughingstock. Putting the SBC here at No. 10 isn’t a slight, but someone has to be last. The Sun Belt has a lot of parity through the middle of the conference, but it’s not a bunch that will all go 8-4 or 9-3. Appalachian State — and maybe Arkansas State — is the only team that stands out among the 12. Don’t be surprised if the Mountaineers give Georgia a scare in Week 1.
And a reminder, the Sun Belt is losing two pretty decent teams after 2017. Idaho is dropping down to the FCS level while New Mexico State is going independent. But they were more Sun Belt members out of convenience rather than geographical fit anyway.
9. Conference USA
Welcome to the land of offense. If the Big 12 is the high-powered member of the Power Five conferences, the designation falls to Conference USA. Eight teams averaged over 29 points per game in conference play and 11 teams gave up more than 29 points a game. Defense doesn’t happen too much here, though the quarterbacks may have something to do with it. Western Kentucky’s Mike White and Middle Tennessee’s Brent Stockstill may be two of the most productive quarterbacks in the country this year.
8. Mid-American Conference
Western Michigan’s undefeated run was pretty improbable in 2016. We doubt someone from the MAC will be able to repeat it in 2017. Toledo should give the Broncos a run in the MAC West and Ohio, Miami (Ohio) and Akron are contenders in the East.
But while the conference should produce a fair number of teams with six or more wins, there’s a decent chance for a few with three or fewer too. Teams like Buffalo, Ball State and Kent State will be trying to duplicate the bowl run Eastern Michigan went on in 2016 after the Eagles scored nine wins in the previous four seasons combined.
7. Mountain West
While college football fans are familiar with the rise of Boise State, San Diego State is joining the Broncos as a top-tier program in the Mountain West after two-straight 11-win seasons. And Wyoming may have the best non-Los Angeles-based NFL quarterback prospect in Josh Allen.
So why the heck is this conference not the best of the Group of Five? Well, a conference is more than just three members.
Utah State took another step back in 2016 and Air Force returns just seven starters from a 10-win team. And over in the West Division, it’s anyone’s guess who will be the No. 2 team to San Diego State. Nevada? Hawaii, which went to its first bowl game in six years after last season? It’s probably not Fresno State, which hired former Cal coach Jeff Tedford after a 1-11 season in 2016.
The American’s push to make the Power Five the “Power Six” is both noble and adorable. Being given an automatic bid to the New Year’s Six would mean more revenue for the conference. You can’t blame the AAC for wanting that.
But it’s still a decent step behind the Big 12 even with South Florida — a member of our preseason top 25 — and teams like Houston, Memphis and Navy.
Cincinnati’s last two years under former coach Tommy Tuberville were a far cry from the three-straight nine-win seasons the program produced from 2012-14. And UConn hasn’t gone .500 in a season since it made an appearance in the Fiesta Bowl in 2010 and was shellacked by Oklahoma. Perhaps new (and former) coach Randy Edsall can recapture the magic.
5. Big 12
Does the Big 12 have a national title contender? You can answer that question affirmatively without question for every other Power Five conference. We’re not so confident in saying yes about the Big 12.
We’re fans of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State’s offenses, even without the Sooners’ loss of Dede Westbrook, Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine. But both teams need to shore up defenses that struggled at times in 2016. And strong non-conference opponents (Oklahoma visits Ohio State, while Oklahoma State travels to Pitt) could lessen each team’s margin for championship error.
You can make a pretty good case for teams Nos. 3-7 in almost any order between Kansas State, Texas, TCU, West Virginia and Baylor, but then there’s a dropoff to Texas Tech, Iowa State and Kansas. Eight bowl-eligible teams is a win for the Big 12.
This is where it gets fun. You can make a compelling case the Pac-12 is higher than No. 4 if Oregon and UCLA bounce back from disappointing seasons a year ago and Colorado maintains the success it found in 2016.
But not everyone can be good, and the bottom of the Pac-12 may be pretty bad. Arizona and Arizona State are hoping for huge turnarounds after disastrous seasons in 2016 and Cal does return eight starters on defense. Problem is, the Bears defense gave up nearly 43 points a game last year. Can new coach Justin Wilcox work some magic? It doesn’t help that Cal plays Oregon, Washington and Stanford all on the road while drawing USC, UCLA and Colorado from the South.
Assuming the two Arizona teams are Nos. 5 and 6 in the South, someone has to be No. 4. A clear hierarchy could be established behind preseason favorite USC, or the Trojans could run away with the division while UCLA, Colorado and Utah are all mediocre.
Yes, we don’t think the SEC is the best conference in the country. It wasn’t last year, and there are too many questions about the conference to automatically assume that it’s going to reclaim the throne as the best in football.
Let’s start in the West, where it’s Alabama and everyone else. We’re bullish on Auburn and new quarterback Jarrett Stidham, but what about LSU post-Leonard Fournette? Will RB Derrius Guice continue his success in new offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s offense? The Tiger defense needs to replace six starters.
If those three teams are at the top, it’s a drop to Texas A&M and Arkansas in the middle. After three-straight 8-5 seasons, a fourth should be considered a success. And here’s where Ole Miss’ dropoff hurts. Not only are the Rebels a program in turmoil, they don’t have the talent they’ve had in previous seasons.
In the East, Florida won’t be a true national title contender until it finds a quarterback who can play a full season. Georgia may have a QB in Jacob Eason, but needs to improve on special teams and count on a defense with 10 returning starters. We’re also not sure Kentucky and Vanderbilt can count on repeat bowl appearances either.
The ACC was the deepest conference in college football last season and shouldn’t slip too far. Both Clemson and Florida State are top-10 programs and Louisville may be too if it wasn’t in the same division as the Tigers and Seminoles. Remember, Lamar Jackson won the Heisman in 2016.
NC State has developed a sneaky-good defensive line under coach Dave Doeren and returns 17 starters, though it too is in the same division as FSU and Clemson. The Wolfpack could be a contender in the Coastal.
Speaking of the Coastal, there’s not a true standout program in the bunch. But there are a lot of good teams to choose from. And, more importantly, there may not be any bottom-feeder programs if you think Duke will get back to its winning ways under David Cutcliffe and Bronco Mendenhall will start to turn around Virginia.
1. Big Ten
Let’s get this out of the way, the Big Ten has a few bad teams. Rutgers and Illinois both have second-year coaches and will probably be on the losing end of a few blowouts. Jeff Brohm has a returning quarterback in David Blough, but asking for a bowl berth in his first year at Purdue is also a bit much.
But damn, this conference is deep. Let’s start at the top, where Ohio State and Penn State could both be national title contenders too. Michigan is perhaps a bit overinflated because of its reputation and coach Jim Harbaugh, but he’s recruited too much talent to Ann Arbor for the Wolverines to fall outside the top 20.
Meanwhile, Michigan State can’t be as bad as it was last year (right?) and Maryland ended 2016 at .500.
Over in the West, things aren’t as rosy when it comes to the top of a national top 25, but Wisconsin and Northwestern are both very good. P.J. Fleck inherits a Minnesota team that returns its top two rushers and Iowa may have the toughest schedule in the country. The Hawkeyes will be a team better than its record indicates. Iowa hosts Ohio State and Penn State and has to travel to Wisconsin and Northwestern.
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