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Week 1 College Football Conference Power Rankings

Brian LeighFeatured Columnist IVSeptember 7, 2016

Week 1 College Football Conference Power Rankings

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    Welcome one, welcome all to the preseason edition of college football conference power rankings.

    Every week you'll be given an update on the nation's top leagues and a list on how they stack up from No. 1 to 11 (or, more specifically, from Nos. 2 to 11 behind the SEC).

    Just kidding. Kind of. The list is being compiled by a New Yorker, so not only is there no SEC bias to speak of, there's no college football bias for hundreds of miles in every direction.

    If the SEC deserves to be knocked off its haughty perch, there will be no hesitation.

     

11. Sun Belt

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    Teams Receiving AP Votes: 0-of-8

    2013 NFL Draft Picks: 4 (T-13th)

    The Sun Belt Conference—already FBS' worst league—got kicked when it was down this offseason, losing FAU and FIU to Conference USA and blue-chip coach Gus Malzahn, who won the conference in his lone season at Arkansas State, to Auburn.

    But the league replaced one future SEC coach with a former one, luring Bobby Petrino to Western Kentucky for his personal redemption project. He's left his last two stops, Arkansas and the Atlanta Falcons, in ignominy, but no one can question his mind for the game.

    Seeing how he fares with the Hilltoppers is the best reason to watch Sun Belt action this year, though not the only one. Arkansas State returns enough pieces to be decent and the two Louisiana's (Monroe and Lafayette) return with most of their team—and both of their very good quarterbacks—intact.

    That's four (potentially) respectable squads out of eight, which isn't a terrible ratio.

10. Conference USA

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    Teams Receiving AP Votes: 0-of-14

    2013 NFL Draft Picks: 8 (7th)

    No C-USA team received any AP votes, but East Carolina earned a curious three from the USA Today coaches' poll. And the conference also produced eight NFL draft picks last season*, more than the next three leagues on this list.

    Maybe things aren't so bleak as they seem?

    This year, reigning champ Tulsa brings back just 10 starters from an 11-3 squad. But aforementioned East Carolina is a worthy favorite, bringing back 18 starters from an 8-5 squad, while dark-horse new additions Middle Tennessee and UTSA provide plenty middle-of-the-pack intrigue.

    Also back in C-USA is Rakeem Cato, Marshall's largely anonymous quarterback who led the nation in completions and attempts last year. No returning quarterback threw for more than his 4,201 yards in 2012, and with top receiver Tommy Shuler back in Huntington, the Herd's air attack should be just as exciting to watch.

    Don't ever skip a power conference game to catch C-USA action on a Saturday. But also don't complain if it pops up on your screen.

     

    *Three of the eight C-USA draft picks were from Houston and UCF, which have since departed for the AAC.

9. Independents

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    Teams Receiving AP Votes: 2-of-7 (29%)

    2013 NFL Draft Picks: 7 (T-8th)

    The Independents pumped membership from four to seven this year, making it closer to a non-league of its own, rather than an island of misfit programs.

    But really, at the end of the day, that's still what it is.

    You can't ignore the top-end success of the "conference," though, highlighted by Notre Dame's 12-0 regular season in 2012. Ignoring the result versus Alabama, the Independents sent more teams to the 2013 BCS National Championship than every conference but the SEC.

    This year it's also loaded with NFL potential, from Notre Dame's Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt to BYU's Kyle Van Noy and Cody Hoffman. Those are four legitimate first-round prospects in next April's draft, if not likely ones at that.

    Still, the depth of the "league" hurts it, especially now with WAC castoffs New Mexico State and Idaho—which combined to go 2-22 last season—on board. Combined with Army's 2-10 campaign, that's 32 losses from (roughly) the Independents' bottom half.

    Yikes. At least Navy is always decent.

8. MAC

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    Teams Receiving AP Votes: 1-of-13 (8%)

    2013 NFL Draft Picks:  7 (T-8th)

    #MACtion took the nation (or at least those bored/smart enough to watch every Thursday night) by storm last season, gripping fans (or at least those bored/smart enough to get gripped) with its creative offenses, competitive depth and plucky spirit.

    This year should be more of the same, with most of MAC's premier programs remaining largely intact.

    Jordan Lynch is back at QB for reigning champ Northern Illinois and Dri Archer is back for runner-up Kent State. Brandon Oliver, David Fluellen, Beau Blankenship, Jahwan Edwards and Zurlon Tipton return as well, giving the league a veritable stable of potential 1,000-yard backs.

    Ranking the MAC eighth is not meant as a slight, but rather as kudos to the seven leagues above it. There would have been (and is) no shame in placing behind it.

7. Mountain West

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    Teams Receiving AP Votes: 3-of-12 (25%)

    2013 NFL Draft Picks: 7 (T-8th)

    The WAC's loss (and subsequent collapse) was the Mountain West's gain. Utah State and San Jose State, two burgeoning programs, both join the MWC in 2013, giving it a group of quarterbacks that can go toe-to-toe with any power conference.

    From Derek Carr to David Fales to Chuckie Keeton, the Mountain West is loaded with potential Davey O'Brien Award candidates. And that's without mentioning dark horses like Boise State's Joe Southwick, Nevada's Cody Fajardo and Wyoming's Brett Smith.

    Those are six very good quarterbacks—guys any program would be lucky to have—on just 12 teams.

    Boise State graced the Top 25 and Fresno State followed not too far behind. If the Bulldogs look good in a Week 1 game with Rutgers Thursday, they have a chance to join Boise there soon. Same goes for Utah State, which received some AP votes and plays a tough game at Utah to kick off the season.

    If the MWC wants to make a charge up these rankings, those teams must get off on the right foot.

6. AAC

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    Teams Receiving AP Votes: 2-of-10 (20%)

    2013 NFL Draft Picks: 19 (6th)

    Presumed favorite Louisville had zero NFL draft picks last year, but the AAC (or the squads that now assemble it) still had 20 players selected.

    That's a pretty remarkable number given (a) only 10 teams constitute the league and (b) its poor national reputation. By contrast, the Big Ten's 12 teams had just 22 NFL selections in April, giving it a lower draft-pick-per-capita rate than the new "lowly" American Athletic.

    That's the good news. The bad news is that, well, 20 NFL players left from just 10 teams in a league where talent is sparse. Can squads like Rutgers and UConn rebound from such a mass exodus? Is there any way to make up that loss of skill?

    It was tempting to put either the Mountain West or #MACtion (or both) above the AAC. That would have been the trendy thing to do and it would have been semi-justified.

    But between the NFL pipeline and presence of a Top 10 team, the Zombie Big East has enough going for it to stay top six. At least for now.

5. ACC

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    Teams Receiving AP Votes: 6-of-14 (43%)

    2013 NFL Draft Picks: 31 (2nd)

    The ACC gets a bad rap, but its depth could surprise some people in 2013. Pitted as a mere two-team race between Clemson and FSU, the next tier of teams all have genuine reasons for optimism.

    Virginia Tech had its worst season in decades last year but still won seven games and a bowl. Miami couldn't play in a bowl but brings back almost every starter and one of the nation's best offenses. North Carolina has future pros all over its roster and Georgia Tech should be just as above-above-average as ever.

    There's depth to be found in the ACC, which is more than just a two-team league.

    But even if it were, most leagues would kill to have two teams like the Seminoles and Tigers—regardless of who checked in behind them. 

4. Big Ten

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    Teams Receiving AP Votes: 7-of-12 (58%)

    2013 NFL Draft Picks: 22 (T-4th)

    Last year was an odd one for the Big Ten, which was dominated by a 12-0 team that couldn't play postseason football.

    That allowed a 7-6 team to play for the conference championship, which it subsequently won, but its coach left for a 4-8 team before the Rose Bowl. So its long-since-retired former coach manned the sidelines in Pasadena, leading Wisconsin to a near-upset of Stanford. So things were starting to look up.

    But then the NFL draft came, where No. 31 pick Travis Frederick—considered by many the biggest reach of the first round—was the only Big Ten player selected in the first 32 picks. That made things start to look back down.

    Again: just a really weird year from the Big Ten.

    Things look back up in 2013, though, when the Buckeyes are again bowl-eligible and are early favorites to make the BCS National Championship. Nebraska, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Michigan all also made the AP Top 25 and all have legitimate reasons for optimism.

    Michigan State, meanwhile, lurked right outside the Top 25 (with the 26th-most votes) and should eke in for Week 2 if it beats Western Michigan. Sparty could be the biggest sleeper of them all, especially with its favorable schedule and good recent track record against Ohio State.

    2012 might have been a weird year for the Big Ten, but 2013 should be a good one.

     

3. Big 12

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    Teams Receiving AP Votes: 6-of-10 (60%)

    2013 NFL Draft Picks: 22 (T-4th)

    The Big 12 is completely and totally wide open; were this a ranking of competitiveness, it would have a shot (and probably be favored) to place No. 1. 

    The core four—Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, TCU and Texas—finished almost neck-and-neck (...and-neck-and-neck) in the conference's media poll, where just 28 points separated first from fourth.

    Beyond that, reigning champ Kansas State and trendy sleeper Baylor are lurking in the weeds, both capable of winning the conference while shocking next to no one. Sixty percent of the league has a legitimate road to the conference championship, which no other league (especially a BCS one) can claim.

    It also went 26-4 in non-conference play last year, a record that (again) no other league can compare with.

2. Pac-12

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    Teams Receiving AP Votes: 8-of-12 (66%)

    2013 NFL Draft Picks: 28 (3rd)

    Expansion hasn't worked out so well for the Pac-12, which added Utah and Colorado but have reaped little benefit from their presence. If not for those two additions, though, eight of the former Pac-10 teams received votes in the preseason AP poll.

    And that's a remarkable number.

    The Pac-12 also placed two teams, Stanford and Oregon, in the top four. If this were 2014, and preseason meant postseason, and AP poll meant selection committee, half of the first college football playoff would come from the Pac-12.

    The gap between Nos. 2 and 3 is troubling—unlike the Big Ten and 12, the Pac-12 has just two teams in the top 20—but should dissolve quickly. Between UCLA, USC, Oregon State, Arizona State and Washington, the conference should see at least one team break out and crack, say, the top 15.

    And that's at an absolute minimum.

1. SEC

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    Teams Receiving AP Votes: 8-of-14 (57%)

    2013 NFL Draft Picks: 63 (1st)

    There's absolutely nothing like it. Smug as SEC fans are—which is pretty darn smug—they're right, for the time being, about how superior their conference is.

    First the obvious: The SEC has won seven consecutive national championships. It set an NFL record with 63 draft picks in April (roughly one in four players) and tied one with 12 in the first round.

    But its dominance can also be seen in the abstract, just as much as it can be validated with numbers. Pretend, for just one second, the SEC East and SEC West were two separate conferences. If you had to put together these rankings, where would you put them?

    The East has three Top 10 teams (Florida, Georgia and South Carolina)—more than any other conference can claim. It also has Vanderbilt, which went 9-4 last season, Tennessee and a Missouri team primed for progression.  

    The West, meanwhile, has just two Top 10 teams in the AP (Alabama and Texas A&M), but LSU is lurking at No. 12—which is probably too low. The two-time defending national champions and most recent Heisman Trophy winner both reside in the division, as does a quality sleeper in Ole Miss and two teams, Arkansas and Auburn, that combined for 43 wins between 2010 and 2011.

    If you had to rank the conferences, but SEC East and West were considered separate, would they still finish Nos. 1 and 2? The argument could certainly be made. 

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