College football’s major conferences date back to the 19th century and represent regional allegiances/rivalries that run deep. SEC fans haven’t thought much of PAC-12 teams since Alabama beat Washington in the 1926 Rose Bowl. The Big Ten has played host to the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry since 1918. Even separate from national competition, winning these conferences is an achievement every member school has on its goal sheet going into the season.
Winning a conference title is supposed to be an important stepping stone towards the College Football Playoff. That’s because the committee lists conference championships as a preference, but they also selected Ohio State over Big Ten-champion Penn State last year, so take that with a grain of salt.
Now bring your sodium-filled body with me as I preview the favorites for all five power conferences.
The SEC is probably the best conference in college football but also the least balanced. The West division has won the Conference Championship game every year since Tim Tebow was a collegiate athlete, which if you lost track, was nine years ago. There’s a couple reasons for this, most of them related to Will Muschamp and the hiring of Nick Saban’s assistants. If you haven’t figured it out, it means whoever wins the West will probably win the conference, and that will likely be Alabama. LSU’s not to be ignored, though, in the first full year of Ed Orgeron’s tenure without “interim” on his business card.
Any team from the West division: 1/3
Any team from the East division: 3/1
The ACC is where things really get interesting. Three teams are set to compete for the national title. They’re all in the Atlantic division and scheduled to play each other in the regular season. The three-way fight for Atlantic supremacy will have serious title implications and it’s not entirely clear who has the advantage.
Florida State has one of the best defenses in the nation and an exciting offense led by sleeper Heisman pick Deondre Francois. Louisville has a mostly competent defense and a stunning offense led by reigning Heisman-winner Lamar Jackson. Clemson has the national title and some big shoes to fill. I’m listing FSU as the favorite because with defense comes consistency and with this roster comes great defense.
In the coastal division, UNC loses Mitch Trubisky, while transitive national champion Pitt looks ready for another breakout season. Playing Pitt in a conference title game would be no easy task, even for the Atlantic division powerhouses.
Any team from the Atlantic division: 2/3
Any team from the Coastal division: 3/2
For years the PAC-12 was little more than a vendetta between Oregon and Stanford with each doing everything they could to spoil the other’s championship runs. Someone would lose a key game to an Arizona team, and USC teams with a lot of hype and a scion of the Pete Carroll coaching tree would fail to produce. Now, though, with Washington resurgent in the North division and USC looking mighty dangerous in the South, the PAC-12 looks to be one of the most balanced and competitive conferences in the game.
Washington is keeping the core of its offense but losing a lot of its defense, so might not be in quite the same shape it was in last year. Still, consider them to be a threat. Oregon, having hired its first outsider head coach since 1976, is looking to rebound after a 4-8 season. If it can fix its many problems as quickly as they arose, the Ducks will be a contender in the north again.
Stanford returns basically everyone except Christian McCaffrey, and its steady brand of slow, physical football will challenge the other teams in the North. USC looks set for a better start than they’ve had in years, with a clear starting quarterback and a more manageable early schedule. Even UCLA looks promising: Josh Rosen’s back from injury, and the offensive line that looked so shaky will improve if for no other reason than it cannot possibly get worse.
Any team from the North division: 2/3
Any team from the South division: 3/2
The Big Ten didn’t take long to get loaded. There are three honest-to-god playoff contenders in the East division, plus former playoff participant Michigan State. On that note, the playoff has been up-and-down for the Big Ten, returning either national titles or first-round shutouts and nothing in between.
For all its struggles in the postseason, Ohio State still has a stellar offense and veteran quarterback JT Barrett. Michigan loses more players to the draft than any other team, including multi-role star Jabrill Peppers, but is also coming into stride on a recruiting renaissance, so should have more talent in the cupboard. Penn State returns star running back Saquon Barkley and deep-ball hero Trace McSorley. We’ll see the same brilliant offense they flashed last year.
Michigan has a tough schedule, travelling to Wisconsin and Penn State and playing Ohio State at home in The Game. Ohio State’s road schedule is a lot more manageable, featuring only Iowa and Nebraska.
Ohio State: 7/3
Penn State: 6/1
Any team from the East division: 1/3
Any team from the West division: 3/1
The Big 12 is holding its first conference championship game this year, mostly as a reaction to a series of events that left Baylor and TCU as “co-champions” at the end of 2014 season with neither team getting a playoff berth. The Big 12 actually only has 10 teams, which play each other in a round-robin format instead of the divisional format that’s more common. That guarantees the conference championship game will be rematch.
The Big 12 is led by the Oklahoma Sooners, who made the playoff two years ago and retain the quarterback who led them there. But don’t pencil them into the title game just yet; they’re losing their head coach to retirement and replacing him with the young but undoubtedly talented Lincoln Riley.
Oklahoma State, which ended 2016 with one of the best offenses in the country (and one of the worst defenses), hopes to find some consistency while maintaining its explosive potential on offense.
The ultimate sleeping giant of college football, Texas, looks ready to finally awaken, with new head coach Tom Herman taking advantage of his predecessor’s quality recruiting and installing a version of the offense that won Ohio State its most recent national championship.
Oklahoma State: 3/1
Photo credit: Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire
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