Predicting Every 2014 College Football Conference Champion
The 2013 college football season, which seemed to spiral further into chaos every week, has set the bar high for 2014.
The sport will be going through some major changes, as conference realignment will continue and the College Football Playoff will be replacing the BCS.
Meanwhile, conference title races will rage on like always, leaving plenty of questions looming for the ensuing season.
Can Oregon finally break through and win an elusive national title? Will Alabama climb back to the top of the SEC? How will traditional powers Texas, Florida and Michigan fare after underwhelming 2013 seasons?
We'll take an early look at those questions and predict the outcome of every conference race up next.
American Athletic Conference
2013 Champion: Central Florida
Predicted 2014 Champion: East Carolina
One to Watch: Houston
The American will look much different in 2014 than it did in 2013.
Gone will be Louisville and Rutgers, and in will come several other Conference USA transplants as the league looks to rebuild from the ravages of conference realignment.
Even the returning teams will look much different. Defending champion UCF will be without star quarterback Blake Bortles and running back Storm Johnson. Third-place finisher Cincinnati looks to be bringing back quarterback Munchie Legaux, who suffered a season-ending injury and is eligible to take a medical redshirt.
The Bearcats will be in the race, but the top two contenders might be Houston and newcomer East Carolina.
Houston will be led by an opportunistic defense that led the nation with 43 turnovers last season. The Cougars also boast a talented quarterback-wide receiver duo of John O'Korn and Deontay Greenberry.
ECU will bring an excellent quarterback, Shane Carden, and will come in with optimism after beating in-state rivals North Carolina and North Carolina State last year. If the Pirates make a strong step up next year, it'll be on Carden's shoulders.
Atlantic Coast Conference
2013 Champion: Florida State
Predicted 2014 Champion: Florida State
One to Watch: Miami (Fla.)
No team in the ACC even came close to Florida State in 2013.
That will likely be the case in 2014.
FSU will lose several key players on both sides of the ball, but it'll also bring back a wealth of talent. Jameis Winston, of course, will be back after winning the Heisman Trophy.
Meanwhile, the Seminoles' two biggest competitors—Clemson and Miami—will be replacing their starting quarterbacks, Tajh Boyd and Stephen Morris.
The Hurricanes, which were largely limited by youth last year, figure to be the Seminoles' biggest threat. Miami will be returning two talented running backs and plenty of skill on defense. How those defenders develop will be the key for The U.
However, the ACC belongs to Jimbo Fisher and FSU until another team can prove otherwise.
Big Ten Conference
2013 Champion: Michigan State
Predicted 2014 Champion: Ohio State
One to Watch: Wisconsin
Ohio State entered 2013 as the overwhelming favorite to win the Big Ten.
They came up short, but they'll be expected to win the league yet again.
OSU was taken down by Michigan State. The Spartans, which improved drastically from August to December, were led by the best defense in college football. However, they'll lose three starting offensive linemen, as well as perhaps their three best defenders: Darqueze Dennard, Denicos Allen and Max Bullough.
With the latter trio gone, the MSU defense likely won't be what it was last year—and that defense will have to contend with an Ohio State attack that will bring back a Heisman Trophy contender in Braxton Miller.
The third main contender is Wisconsin, which returns starting quarterback Joel Stave and a lethal running game, paced by star back Melvin Gordon.
The big three, as well as several other dark-horse contenders (like Michigan and Nebraska), will make for an interesting Big Ten race.
Big 12 Conference
2013 Champion: Baylor
Predicted 2014 Champion: Oklahoma
One to Watch: Texas
Baylor took the Big 12 by storm and achieved its first title in school history in 2013.
The Bears will bring back starting quarterback Bryce Petty, but they'll also lose star receiver Tevin Reese and several key defenders, including Ahmad Dixon, Eddie Lackey and Sam Holl.
Even with the losses, they figure to be right in the mix. However, after the enormous Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama, Oklahoma looks poised to take over.
The Sooners will need to find new offensive playmakers, though they'll bring back a quarterback in Trevor Knight who should be playing with a new-found confidence after leading the Sugar Bowl triumph.
Elsewhere, Texas with new head coach Charlie Strong, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech also figure to be top contenders. However, in the always wild Big 12, anything could happen.
2013 Champion: Rice
Predicted 2014 Champion: Marshall
One to Watch: North Texas
Conference USA was a mess in 2013 with six schools finishing with a conference record of 6-2 or better.
When the fog finally cleared, Rice was on top after trouncing Marshall 41-24 in the league title game. While looking forward to 2014, that Thundering Herd team is the place to start.
With quarterback Rakeem Cato returning, who already has eclipsed 10,000 passing yards for his career, the Herd will be the early favorite.
However, just like last season, the race will be open to several other comers, including Rice, Texas-San Antonio and North Texas.
The conference will be losing ECU, Tulane and Tulsa to the AAC and adding Western Kentucky and Old Dominion.
Through the turmoil, Cato and the Herd look to be in the best shape.
2013 Champion: Bowling Green
Predicted 2014 Champion: Bowling Green
One to Watch: Akron
Northern Illinois, led by star quarterback Jordan Lynch, was the Mid-American Conference favorite all season long. Its biggest competitor looked to be Ball State, led by a talented signal-caller of its own, Keith Wenning.
The Huskies took care of the Cardinals but then were blindsided by Bowling Green in the conference title game, leaving them one win short of their second straight BCS berth.
While Lynch and Wenning are moving on, the BGSU era in the MAC might be underway, particularly because Ohio and Toledo will be breaking in new quarterbacks and Buffalo will be without All-American linebacker Khalil Mack.
The Falcons will now have the premier quarterback and the best outlook in the league. As a sophomore, BGSU field general Matt Johnson threw for nearly 3,500 yards with 25 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
He'll return and BGSU will be the league's favorite. Outside of the Falcons, Akron and Central Michigan are poised to compete.
Mountain West Conference
2013 Champion: Fresno State
Predicted 2014 Champion: Utah State
Ones to Watch: San Diego State
The Mountain West almost had a BCS participant, but Fresno State was overwhelmed by San Jose State in its last regular-season game. The Bulldogs still went on to beat Utah State for the MWC crown.
Fresno will be transitioning after saying goodbye to the best quarterback in its history, Derek Carr. SJSU will also be losing its prolific QB, David Fales.
That will leave Boise State, Utah State and San Diego State as the biggest threats for the league crown. Boise will have to move on without head coach Chris Petersen, who had been with the program for more than a decade.
San Diego State beat the Broncos and nearly beat the Bulldogs as well in 2013. Next year, they'll return quarterback Quinn Kaehler, who eclipsed 3,000 yards through the air last year.
However, USU might be the best of the bunch, as it'll welcome back star quarterback Chuckie Keeton. One of the most thrilling players to watch in college football, Keeton suffered a knee injury that ended his season early last year.
If it wasn't for his departure, the Aggies might have won the league title. With him back, look for them to finish the job.
2013 Champion: Stanford
Predicted 2014 Champion: Oregon
One to Watch: UCLA
The Pac-12 Conference will seriously challenge the SEC as college football's best conference next year.
Several contenders loom, as Oregon, Stanford, UCLA, Arizona State and USC will all be thinking conference crown and College Football Playoff or bust.
The Ducks will be bringing back arguably their two best players from 2013: quarterback Marcus Mariota and cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who both spurned the NFL draft. They looked like one of the best teams in the nation last year and will again next year—but the key will be keeping Mariota healthy and finding a way to handle physical opponents.
If they can't do that, Stanford could be next in line. The Cardinal and their proven system will be right in the thick of the conference race again—as will Arizona State and quarterback Taylor Kelly.
However, the most intriguing team might be UCLA, which will bring back its star signal-caller, Brett Hundley.
The Bruins, with Hundley and a few key defenders returning, will host Stanford, Oregon and USC.
2013 Champion: Auburn
Predicted 2014 Champion: Alabama
One to Watch: LSU
The SEC, thought to be a top-heavy league, disproved that notion when preseason afterthoughts Missouri and Auburn made the conference title game.
Auburn represented the league in the national title game but fell short against Florida State. After the loss, the Tigers will still be right back in the SEC race, though their prospects will take a hit if running back Tre Mason leaves for the NFL.
However, even after losing two games to close the season, Alabama will come back as the team to beat. The Crimson Tide will be fielding a new quarterback after the departure of AJ McCarron—but it won't matter. UA has cleaned up on the recruiting trail better than any other team and will be immensely talented as always.
Outside of 'Bama, LSU will also be right back in the SEC race thanks to its efforts on the recruiting trail and the return of running back Jeremy Hill.
South Carolina, Missouri, Georgia and Florida are among the other potential title contenders.
Sun Belt Conference
2013 Champion: Louisiana-Lafayette
Predicted 2014 Champion: Louisiana-Lafayette
One to Watch: Arkansas State
Louisiana-Lafayette head coach Mark Hudspeth has brought the one thing that all small college football programs strive for: consistency.
Louisiana notched its third straight New Orleans Bowl title and picked up a share of the Sun Belt crown last year, taking the head-to-head tiebreaker over Arkansas State for first place.
The Ragin' Cajuns will bring back quarterback Terrance Broadway, as well as running back duo Alonzo Harris and Elijah McGuire. The two combined for more than 1,800 rushing yards with 22 touchdowns last year.
Once again, the Cajuns will be the favorites, while Arkansas State again figures to be their biggest challenger.
The SBC will welcome Appalachian State, Idaho and New Mexico State, while Western Kentucky is headed to C-USA.