It’s one of the biggest “My Dad can beat up your Dad” arguments in all of sports: Conference comparisons. While only Alabama, LSU, Florida and Auburn have Crystal Balls in their trophy case the past few seasons, you wouldn’t know it if you stopped in Lexington, Athens or Knoxville. The SEC has been the cream of the crop in college football the last few seasons and it’s an identity they are proud of. Other leagues may have had their years they were stronger than others and then you have leagues like the Sun Belt that have had no problem occupying the basement year in and year out. Is this the year the Sun Belt finally moves up? What about the ACC and Big East? Can they shed the label of second-tier BCS leagues? It’s simple here. We’ll take the entire conference, see how many national title contenders they have, see how many top 25 caliber teams they have and try to create a totem pole of sorts for the 2012 season. This may have been the most whined about part of my preview last year. Honest, you think people don’t care about this? Just post your rankings in a public forum and see the negativity you’ll get back. Lets rank some leagues.
But before we get there, if you’re a new reader or just need a refresher in what we covered earlier this offseason, check out the earlier parts of this offseason and what I’ll look brilliant or buffoonish for later this season:
Post National Signing Day Top 25
Also Parts 1-8 of the offseason preview that preceded this one can be found below:
Part 1: Ten Teams on the Rise
Part 2: Ten Teams Due For a Fall
Part 3: New Coaching Faces
Part 4: Replacing 2011′s Stars (CFB Replacements)
Part 5: Top 5 Non-AQs Not Named Boise St.
Part 6: Coaches Feeling The Heat
Part 7: Top Storylines Entering 2012
Part 8: Five Weekends to Circle
Part 9: Ranking The Conferences (#’s 11-12)
Part 9: Ranking The Conferences (#’s 9-10)
Part 9: Ranking The Conferences (#’s 7-8)
Part 9: Ranking The Conferences (#’s 5-6)
4. PAC-12 Conference
National Title Contenders: USC and Oregon
Potential Top 25 Teams: USC, Oregon and Stanford
Potential Bowl Teams: Everyone except Colorado, Oregon St. and Arizona St.
Game of The Year: November 3rd- Oregon at USC
I think the PAC-12 is trash. I’ve felt that way for three years now but unlike last year when I felt Stanford was a fraudulent title contender, this year with Oregon and USC as serious title contenders, that’s an edge I’ll accept over the ACC which like the PAC-12 is mediocre in the middle. While USC and Oregon is the game of the year in the PAC-12 and one of the top three games in the country, it’s likely just a tuneup for the conference championship game which should see a rematch.
The Ducks lose Lamichael James and Darron Thomas but with Kenjon Barner and DeAnthony Thomas are more than equipped to continue slicing defenses up in Chip Kelly’s up-tempo offense. The Trojans on the flip side keep defenses at bay with their prolific passing game. When Matt Barkley announced he was returning to school for his senior year, USC shot up the polls and with Robert Woods and Marqise Lee become perhaps the best passing attack in the country. Personally I’m waiting to see how the ground game and defense compliment that aerial assault before I crown them and in fact I like the Ducks as the PAC-12 favorites. After those two there’s not much I like.
Stanford loses Andrew Luck and now becomes a very run-heavy offense with questions at the QB position regardless of who takes over. With a trip to Eugene, I’ll be stunned if they found a way to win the North. But they’re in no danger of a major fall. Eight wins is the floor, but 9-3 or 10-2 seems more realistic. Some love Washington because of Keith Price, the athletic quarterback who played well a year ago taking over for Jake Locker. However with Chris Polk gone and a dreaded defense still in the loop Washington has the scent of the classic 8-4 team who is significantly overrated going into bowl season. They get the bulk of their tough PAC-12 games at home with Oregon being the one true elite road game.
Washington St. and Mike Leach will be one of the most entertaining teams. How that translates to wins we’ll see. They have bowl sleeper potential with a prolific offense even before Leach got there and with no USC in cross-division play and two easy non-conference wins, if they can upset BYU in the season opener or pull off one PAC-12 upset to get to 4-4 in league play, I really think they’ll get to the six win mark. Oregon St. is still rebuilding under Mike Riley and this may be a make or break year for him as they fall further and further back in the PAC-12 North pecking order.
In the South Utah appears best equipped to take second in the division as no team seems capable of challenging USC for the division title and with the Trojans off sanctions, we’re guaranteed no six-win UCLAs in the PAC-12 title game this year. Jordan Wynn hopes to stay healthy and if so then DeVonte Christopher and him could do some damage and be a 7-8 win team. Arizona under Rich Rodriguez is a wild card in the division. They’ll lose Nick Foles and Juron Criner but perhaps its a blessing in disguise as it allows Rich Rod to go straight into the offense he likes to run as oppose to trying to figure out what to do with a more traditional quarterback. They have a tough schedule with some tough road games and get the cream of the crop from the North in cross-division play. Six wins may be a stretch in Rodriguez’s first year.
Arizona State moves on from Dennis Erickson and has a lot of turnover from a team that seemed to have a lot of potential a year ago but never put it together. Asking them to replenish that production in one year seems like a task too tall. Colorado should be able to improve on last year’s 3-10 record with six returning starters on each side but higher than 5th in the South is unforeseen in my opinion.
3. Big Ten Conference
National Title Contenders: Wisconsin (could really argue none)
Potential Top 25 Teams: Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska, Ohio State
Potential Bowl Teams: Everyone except Penn St, Ohio St. (both sanctions), Indiana and Minnesota
Game Of The Year: October 20th- Michigan State at Michigan
The Big Ten is a good solid football league that won’t get its due because it doesn’t possess any team that some think could be elite. Well, some think Michigan could be elite but once Alabama stomps their head in that will end so in reality I should say after Week 1 they won’t have any team people think could be elite. The Leaders Division should end up being a bore. Wisconsin probably isn’t as good as the team they had last year that went to the Rose Bowl but with no Ohio St. or Penn St. to worry about, there’s little reason to think they won’t be back in the Big Ten Championship Game. Montee Ball returns as arguably the best (or most fortunate) RB in America. With Danny O’Brien in the fold, the Badgers solved their QB problem after Russell Wilson’s graduation and are primed to defend their division title.
While Ohio St. can’t play for any meaningful championships due to sanctions, I think there’s a good chance they end up being the best team in the Leaders Division. Urban Meyer has a lot left defensively, has a quarterback in Braxton Miller geared to succeed in his system and has a strong recruiting class coming in. They have a couple of tough back to backs with Michigan State then Nebraska in late September/early October, before getting Wisconsin and Michigan the final two games of the year. They have the potential to win ten games right away.
After that the Leaders division doesn’t offer much. Penn State is a complete wild card. They aren’t going to contend for a division title like they did last year, but I don’t necessarily think they’ll fall off a cliff like some expect. Still, with the recent postseason ban handed down to them, it really doesn’t matter whether they hang around or fall off. Like Ohio St. they can’t play for a Big Ten title. Illinois has some talent coming back with six offensive and seven defensive starters but they have a brutal road slate in the Big Ten with games at Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio St and Northwestern. If they can even squeeze out one win in that set (not guaranteed), they have Penn State and an improving Purdue team at home. 4-4 may be their ceiling in league play.
Purdue as mentioned came on strong late last year and has some nice pieces to work with. Eight offensive starters and seven defensive are back for a team who has a real front-heavy schedule. If they can get 3 wins in the first seven weeks, it would put the pressure on them in the final five, but that should put them in a comfortable position to get to the six wins needed. Indiana had a terrible first year under Kevin Wilson who realized quickly he wasn’t in Norman, Oklahoma anymore. Still, they were a young team a year ago and with 17 combined starters back, they should be more competitive in 2012.
The Legends Division is where the fun starts. Michigan will likely get the royal treatment as the favorite but I think it’s a legitimate coin toss between them and the Spartans. While Michigan State did lose Kirk Cousins and just about every meaningful receiver, they return the league’s best defense and have Le’veon Bell in the fold who they can rely on early in the year. Michigan again returns Denard Robinson and Roy Roundtree but the defense still isn’t great with some losses in the front four and the road games are tougher this year. I’ve said all offseason I think Michigan loses three games at least.
Nebraska is closest to the Michigan schools, but the biggest question for them is what defense shows up. Bo Pelini had himself a nasty defense a few years ago with Suh but last year was not what anyone expected when he was brought in. Taylor Martinez has to figure it out in the passing game. While Denard Robinson has made a career off being a terrible passer, Martinez clearly can’t get away with it and as a result Nebraska’s offense struggles. If the defense turns it around and Martinez and Rex Burkhead carry the offense, this team can contend for a Legends title. Anything short of that and they’re likely peaking at third in the division again.
Iowa is a bit like Georgia Tech as a team who I really like as a sleeper in 2012 but unlike the ACC Coastal has too many superior teams to overcome to potentially win the division. Still, I’ve been a big fan of James Vandenberg going back to last preseason. The question is did he lose too much around him on offense to get results? The graduation of Marvin McNutt and dismissal of Marcus Coker means two of his safety nets are no longer in the fold. The defense took some hits as well with only five returning starters. They miss Ohio State and Wisconsin in cross-division play. I think there’s a real chance they could win eight, nine if they steal a tough road game as they should be able to get to seven or eight wins before the final two games against Michigan and Nebraska unless they just don’t overcome the defensive losses.
Northwestern has bowl potential, not much more and shouldn’t factor into any division races. Minnesota will likely battle Indiana for worst team in the league and with no head to head game could come down to if either can pull an upset.