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Monday, September 25, 2017

Ranking the best conferences in college football

Nick Saban

Which conference is the best in college football? It’s a fun debate question, and one that many fans like to engage rivals in.

There is no guarantee that 2017’s landscape will look like 2016’s, where the SEC had a down year and the ACC looked like a powerhouse. The Group of Five may look different too, with old powers receding a bit and giving way to new contenders. With all that in mind, here are all ten NCAA FBS conferences ranked from worst to best.

10) Conference USA

C-USA simply lacks the programs to be any higher than this. Western Kentucky has proven to be a quality small program that can legitimately be impactful as far as Group of Five schools go, but the conference doesn’t boast a ton of other names beneath that.

Even compared to other Group of Five conferences, the likes of Old Dominion, Middle Tennessee, and Louisiana Tech simply aren’t going to make anyone sit up and take notice. The Hilltoppers stand a solid chance of being the cream of the crop here again, competing with Louisiana Tech, but there’s not really much depth beyond them.

9) Sun Belt Conference

Appalachian State is here — one of college football’s great giant slayers — and Troy won ten games out of this conference last season as well. Both should be contenders again, and a few other schools out of this conference — Middle Tennessee, for instance — stand a solid chance of being bowl eligible at season’s end.

The Sun Belt gets the nod over Conference USA largely because the top of the league is a bit better than the top of C-USA. There’s a bit of depth down here as well, and if everything goes right, there will be a handful of six-win squads here. That doesn’t make them good. The top two have a chance to have solid seasons, but everyone else is just a middling mid-major.

8) Mid-American Conference

There is some goodwill left over from Western Michigan’s fantastic 2016 season, but they won’t be the same team — Corey Davis went in the top five of the NFL Draft, and coach P.J. Fleck bolted for Minnesota. Toledo will have a decent chance to dethrone them, though the Broncos do still retain a fair bit of talent.

On the whole, the MAC is a better version of the Sun Belt. There are two teams that should contend, a couple more that will be bowl eligible, and nothing further to write home about. The top of the conference is just better than those below it.

7) American Athletic Conference

There is no clear favorite in the AAC, because about five different teams can win it. That’s good for the league, because it means not only is there going to be an exciting, consequential race, but there’s depth here that means the AAC boasts the most solidly good teams of any conference yet.

Charlie Strong’s USF could wind up being the best Group of Five team in the nation in 2017, led by quarterback Quinton Flowers. Houston should be good again, and Memphis, which won eight games in 2016, has a chance to take a significant step forward. Temple, coming off a 10-win season, could also be a factor again, while Navy is no slouch. The AAC will be tight and competitive, and more importantly, could offer three to four quality teams once bowl season hits.

6) Mountain West Conference

This is where we begin to get into conferences that boast teams that could be a factor nationally. In the MWC, it’s Boise State, Colorado State, and San Diego State. The Aztecs should walk through the West with relative simplicity, while Boise State has a case for being a top-25 team and Colorado State has a lot of talent as well.

The Broncos are well-known nationally and always contend, so they are not to be taken lightly. The Rams, meanwhile, are likely to take a significant step forward in 2017, which should mean an improved performance from the Mountain West as a whole. We’re talking about three teams that could win eight or nine games if things go right.

5) Big Ten Conference

There’s so little separation between the Power Five conferences, but despite having two arguable top-10 teams, it’s the Big Ten that gets the short end of the stick. The top of the league is perfectly fine. Ohio State is a playoff-caliber team, and if things break right, any one of Michigan, Penn State, or even Wisconsin could theoretically join them. But we’re ranking conferences, not just teams, and there is no Power Five conference more top-heavy than the Big Ten.

Northwestern and Iowa are solid, but unspectacular. Nebraska has to retool, Minnesota is getting there but has not arrived yet, Michigan State is still recovering from a year of turmoil on and off the field and Maryland is as average as it gets, while Illinois, Purdue, and Rutgers are just plain bad. In several other Power Five conferences, there are five or six teams that could plausibly wind up ranked, at the very least. With the Big Ten, it’s hard to envision anyone getting there outside of those top-four teams. They’re good, but the conference lacks depth.

4) Pac-12 Conference

There are three high-quality programs here. Washington made the College Football Playoff in 2016, and is a real threat to contend for it again. USC will push them as far as they can, particularly if their younger, unproven pieces live up to their potential. Stanford lost Christian McCaffrey, but has proven itself as one of college football’s most consistent programs over the last decade or so.

What will boost the Pac-12 is the next tier of teams. Can Oregon steady itself under new coach Willie Taggart? What will UCLA have to offer? What about Washington State? All three of those teams could win at least eight games. If they do, this is a deep Pac-12, despite some weaker teams toward the bottom of the conference that will not be factors in 2017.

3) Big 12 Conference

The much-maligned Big 12 shut up some doubters — at least temporarily — with a very strong bowl season. The bet here is that teams will hit the ground running after that. The top of the conference is very, very good — Oklahoma should lead the pack, even with Bob Stoops’s abrupt departure taken into consideration. Oklahoma State, with quarterback Mason Rudolph at the helm, may not be far behind.

It’s the next tier where improvement will boost the Big 12. Texas, under first-year coach Tom Herman, is likely to be much improved. Gary Patterson’s TCU might be a top-25 team, while West Virginia clearly has talent, if also dealing with a lot of turnover. Watch out for Baylor. The Bears have a chance to be a surprisingly good football team as well. The problem, as in years past, is that the best teams might beat each other up and take each other out of playoff contention — though the return of a conference title game will help.

2) Atlantic Coast Conference

The ACC boasts two potential top-10 teams in Florida State and the reigning champions, Clemson. They also boast the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, Lamar Jackson. That is some serious talent at the top of the conference. It also doesn’t include Miami, which has a solid chance of winning the Coastal Division, with Virginia Tech likely to compete with them on that front.

The ACC was extremely deep in 2016. Five teams won at least nine games, and a lot of those teams stand a chance of replicating that success. The top of the conference will ensure that it has at least one playoff contender, if not two, and the depth in each division will ensure that any team that makes it that far will have earned the right to be there.

1) Southeastern Conference

The SEC was not up to its usual standards in 2016, but that should change quickly. Alabama remains the class of the conference, and it would probably be more surprising if the team wasn’t in the College Football Playoff again. Unlike last year, though, they may have some company in 2017.

LSU figures to be much better with Ed Orgeron settling in for his first full season with the team. They are outstanding defensively and on the ground, and solid quarterback play could lift them to the next level. Gus Malzahn’s Auburn team could be a huge factor thanks to a strong recruiting class and, more importantly, quarterback transfer Jarrett Stidham coming in from Baylor to help improve an offense that has floundered too often.

Then there’s the usual strength in depth. Florida, Georgia, and Texas A&M all look like top-25 teams, and a few improvements would ensure that Tennessee isn’t too far behind. Arkansas and South Carolina probably won’t be, but they have undeniable talent and could give a few better teams trouble over the course of the season. The SEC in 2017 looks a lot like the SEC of years past — contenders at the top and strength in depth toward the middle of the divisions.

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