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)
10. Mid-American Conference
National Title Contenders: None
Potential Top 25 Teams: Ohio
Potential Bowl Teams: Ohio, Toledo, Northern Illinois, Miami, OH, Ball St, Western Michigan, Kent St.
Game Of The Year: October 27th- Ohio at Miami, OH
A league many fell in love with last year, the MAC may not have the highest level of play all the time (although they did go 4-1 in bowl season), but they provide some exciting, surprising, unimaginable games. In 2012 the Ohio Bobcats enter as the favorites with a very experienced team returning from winning the Eastern Division a year ago and have a very manageable schedule. In fact if the Bobcats can pull off a win in Happy Valley in Week 1, they have three more very winnable non-conference games before MAC play starts. In MAC play they avoid both Northern Illinois and Toldeo in cross-division play. Essentially a 10-2 type season is definitely in play for the Bobcats on paper alone. Miami, OH should have a bounceback season after going 5-7 a year ago. Zac Dysert returns for his senior season and WR Nick Harwell is back, a preseason Biletnikoff watch list member. They came back to earth after a terrific 2010 season. Like Ohio, the Redhawks avoid Northern Illinois and Toledo as well in cross-division play so the winner between the two could wind up as East champ. Out West Northern Illinois and Toledo should continue to battle it out for division supremacy. The thing to be weary of with Toledo is not only the loss of the dynamic Eric Page but they also lost head coach Tim Beckman to Illinois and we all saw how that impacted Miami, OH last season. Northern Illinois has quite a bit of turnover on offense which will make this season interesting. Last year they finished 10th nationally offensively and a lowly 85th nationally defensively so unless the defense picks it up, they’ll need to find a way to replace the production lost on offense if they want to compete in the West Division again. Outside of the big two in each division you have more depth in the West Division where Western Michigan, Ball St. and Eastern Michigan all won six games or more last year and Central Michigan, despite only three wins a year ago does return 16 starters in a must-win year for head coach Dan Enos. On the other side Kent State perhaps is best equipped of any team to step up and battle the Ohio schools. Umass-Amherst also joins the MAC for its first year, replacing Temple who left for the Big East. One interesting tidbit on the MAC this year is every team except Toledo and Northern Illinois return at least 13 of their 22 offensive and defensive starters. So the MAC will have some experienced teams going head to head in 2012.
9. Conference USA
National Title Contenders: None
Potential Top 25 Teams: None
Potential Bowl Teams: Southern Miss, UCF, Tulsa, East Carolina, SMU, Houston, UTEP
Game Of The Year: October 13th- UCF vs. Southern Miss
Conference USA surprised a bit last year when they had two teams, Houston and Southern Miss, in the running for an at-large BCS berth late into the season. Houston made it all the way to the conference championship game before Southern Miss ironically thumped them to keep them from going to a BCS bowl. In 2012 Conference USA likely doesn’t have any team with that type of ceiling but some teams who had marginal seasons a year ago should improve making them a better league overall. Southern Miss lost coach Larry Fedora to North Carolina and has to replace Austin Davis at the QB position who was a huge weapon for them with his ability to make plays through the air and with his legs. They have a challenging non-conference schedule with games against Nebraska, Boise St. and Louisville, so the BCS buster tag is a longshot again, but they should be in the thick of their division race. UCF is a team who for my money underachieved last year in large part due to the deficiencies of Jeff Godfrey. Fortunately Godfrey is done at QB and may wind up at WR but one way or another the Knights should have more of a complimentary passing game to their strong run game. They’ll also bring back eight defensive starters from the number nine defense a year ago. East Carolina, a program who in recent years has been in numerous bowl games only managed five wins a year ago but does have seven starters on both sides of the ball coming back. After a tough opening month, things do settle down for East Carolina and they should have a shot at 6-7 wins and potentially a spot back in a bowl game. Marshall I felt was a fluke most of last year and I expect them to come back down this year. With non-conference games against West Virginia, Ohio and Purdue as well as league games at Southern Miss and East Carolina and home games vs Houston, Tulsa and UCF, I’d be very surprised if the Thunder made it back to a bowl game. Memphis and UAB are terrible football teams. Either making a bowl would be a major surprise. Out West is a little more uncertain. Houston was basically Case Keenum. When he missed the prior season they were simply an average football team. However with another poor non-conference schedule and ducking Southern Miss and UCF in cross-division play, another bowl game for them appears in reach. Tulsa is another team who has questions. Losing G.J Kinne and a very difficult back end to the schedule could mean if they don’t get to five wins before November, they’ll be on the outside looking in come bowl season. SMU and June Jones are a mixed bag of fun where you’ll never know what you get. Last year they found a way to defeat TCU on the road yet turned around and lost to Navy at home. They’ll have some turnover offensively but with June Jones that’s not something that keeps you up at night much. They’ll be doing the Big 12 tour with games against Baylor and TCU as well as a game against former Big 12 member Texas A&M. The talent should be there to get back to a bowl game but the schedule could play a deal-breaker. UTEP is another squad I like coming into 2012 with seven offensive starters returning, but their schedule which features, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Wisconsin, East Carolina, SMU, Tulsa, Houston, UCF and Southern Miss almost guarantees they won’t be bowling this year.