The college football season starts this Saturday, so before the first game begins, where do each of the major conferences stand, and which is the best conference among the smaller ones, more commonly known as the Group of Five? Here is a first look – we’ll see how these rankings change (or not) over the course of the coming season:
The Clemson-Florida State-Louisville trio might not be quite as good as Penn State, Ohio State, and Michigan in the Big Ten, but it is very close. What makes the ACC the best is the quality of teams four through seven in the league. North Carolina State is supposed to be very good this year, and Miami has more hype entering 2017 than it has received in more than a decade. Mark Richt is making progress in the eyes of most analysts. Then there is Virginia Tech, the defending ACC Coastal Division champion, and North Carolina, a team which won 11 regular season games in 2015. The ACC does have a lot of quality depth, more than other power conferences can claim.
Alabama will be great, as usual, but this year, Auburn looks like another national championship contender thanks to a transfer quarterback, Jarrett Stidham from Baylor, who could give the Tigers the complete offense they have been searching for over the past few years. LSU is always extremely talented, and Georgia returns all of its best skill position players from a year ago. Florida is a balanced team with an excellent defense. Any of those five teams – Bama, Auburn, LSU, Georgia, Florida – could threaten to make a New Year’s Six bowl game. That’s not quite ACC-level depth, but it’s almost there, and it’s better than the Big Ten.
3. Big Ten
Will anyone beat Penn State or Ohio State other than these two teams, when they play each other in Columbus, Ohio? Michigan is regrouping this year – the Wolverines will still be good, but they might be too young to record a great season. It is widely thought that Michigan will be a national championship contender in 2018, but in 2017, the Wolverines might not be there yet, which would explain the Big Ten falling behind the ACC and SEC in the rankings.
Another source of the Big Ten’s third-place projection: Nebraska will be noticeably weaker this season after a lot of graduations. The Big Ten won’t be quite as strong in terms of its top five teams. The middle has Iowa and Northwestern, two teams which should be decent, but can’t be counted on to dominate. The lower part of the Big Ten is still very weak, with Illinois, Purdue, Rutgers, and Maryland unlikely to take big steps forward this season.
4. Big 12
The arrival of Tom Herman makes Texas more of a force. Oklahoma should be excellent again, as should Oklahoma State – both teams have veteran quarterbacks and should light up scoreboards this year. Kansas State is expected to be very solid. West Virginia will probably be better than many experts think with Will Grier at quarterback after transferring from Florida. The upper half of this conference will be very hard to deal with.
Oregon lost receiver Darren Carrington, a big blow for the Ducks in their attempt to challenge for the conference title. Oregon’s bad offseason, combined with a Pac-12 South in which every non-USC team appeared to take a few steps backward, makes the Pac-12 top heavy. USC, Washington and Stanford seem like the only three teams capable of winning the conference. That’s not a lot of depth at the top of the league. Washington State needs to be really good this year for the Pac-12 to exceed expectations.
The strongest conference outside the Power Five conferences has South Florida – the favorite to represent the Group of Five conferences in a major bowl game – plus a Memphis team whose offense could explode this season. Navy and Tulsa should be very good, as should Houston in year one under new head coach and former offensive coordinator Major Applewhite. Temple should still be solid. That’s a good stack of quality teams, with more depth than the Mountain West or the other smaller FBS conferences.
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