Predicting the Winner of Each College Football Conference in 2014

Brian LeighFeatured ColumnistMay 20, 2014

Predicting the Winner of Each College Football Conference in 2014

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    It is never too early to look ahead to college football season, but now that we are officially within 100 days of opening kickoff between Abilene Christian and Georgia State—get hype!—we might not need to explain ourselves as often for doing so.

    So much can and will change between now and fall practice, and between fall practice and the season, that predicting who will win each conference is difficult. Part of it requires living in the moment, but another requires looking ahead to the future.

    With that in mind, these predictions were based more on my gut than my final predictions before the season are likely to be. There is less information to go on now than there will be then, so consider this a countdown-to-the-season version of my picks.

    There are, of course, some substantive reasons behind them, but more than anything, these are the teams I would pick if my life depended on it—the ones that the little voice in my head keeps telling me will win.

    Chime in below and let me know where you disagree.

     

    Note: All returning-starter information courtesy of Phil Steele.

     

ACC

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Winner: Florida State

    No need to overthink this: It's Clemson or Florida State. 

    Whichever team has beaten the other in the regular season has won the Atlantic division each year since 2008. And this year, one season removed from laying a 51-14 smackdown in Death Valley, Florida State hosts a Clemson team that just lost Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins, Martavis Bryant and Roderick McDowell.

    Which means you would almost have to bet on a team from the Coastal division to knock off the Seminoles in the title game. North Carolina and Miami are intriguing sleepers, but both are, at the very least, a few cuts behind the defending national champions.

    This is one of the easiest calls on the board.

American

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Winner: Houston

    Houston was a bit of a charlatan in 2013, falling off after a 5-0 and 7-1 start to finish the season with five losses.

    But that entire season was playing with house money. One look at the depth chart showed that Houston was likely "one year away."

    Now, quarterback Willie O'Korn is no longer a freshman, star receiver (and legit All-America candidate) Deontay Greenberry is no longer a sophomore and the Cougars return the sixth-most starters (17) in college football. That includes nine from a defense that finished top-30 in the defensive F/+ ratings at Football Outsiders.

    From top to bottom and on both sides of the ball, this team is ready to be a true contender in 2014. It doesn't hurt that the Cougars get to avoid their biggest competition, UCF, in the regular season.

Big Ten

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Winner: Ohio State

    I know Michigan State beat Ohio State on a neutral field last season. I know both teams return roughly the same amount of starters from 2013, and I know the Buckeyes travel to East Lansing in 2014.

    I know all these things and still think the Buckeyes are the rightful favorite over the Spartans next season. They have done it for longer, and their roster is made up of more talented players (albeit by a smaller margin than recruiting rankings might have you believe). They'll get over the hump by a nose in Spartan Stadium.

    Nebraska, Wisconsin and Iowa are the biggest threats from the West division, but none are on par with whichever team advances to the Big Ten title game from the East. The Huskers would probably stand the best shot, but I think Ohio State and Michigan State would beat any of those teams by double-digits.

Big 12

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    LM Otero/Associated Press

    Winner: Baylor

    I am not sold on Oklahoma—at least not on offense. It is oversimple to call Trevor Knight a one-game wonder, but, well, the reason so many are keen on him seems to be the result of one good game.

    I'll take the offense with the quarterback who played well all season (Bryce Petty), the intrepid coach whose system has still never been stopped with consistency (Art Briles) and the young skill players that fit into that system like a glove (too many to name).

    There are questions to be answered in the secondary, but Shawn Oakman is a beast on the defensive line. For a team that is prone to hot starts and not-as-hot finishes, I also like that the schedule includes zero true road games after Nov. 8.

    The Bears are one of just two repeat champions on this list.

Conference-USA

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    Associated Press

    Winner: UT-San Antonio

    I am swinging for the fences, and I feel damn good about it.

    UTSA will start the season 0-3, but the experience of playing Houston, Arizona and Oklahoma State—perhaps the hardest trio of non-conference games in the country—will serve it well during the heart of C-USA play, when the level of competition dies down.

    What's more, the Roadrunners do not have to play the annual conference favorites, Marshall, and after winning seven games last season, they return more starters (19) than any team in the country.

    Quarterback Eric Soza is one of the three starters who left, but I am willing to bank nonetheless on former Miami head coach Larry Coker and his merry band of upstarts.

    #NoOffeneseToRakeemCato

MAC

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Winner: Toledo

    All of the best teams in the MAC last year lost something important, but Toledo's loss is less important than the others. 

    Bowling Green lost head coach Dave Clawson, Buffalo lost No. 5 overall draft pick Khalil Mack, Ball State lost underrated quarterback Keith Wenning and Northern Illinois lost program savior Jordan Lynch.

    The Rockets also lost their quarterback, Terrance Owens, and a very good running back in David Fluellen. But what they return—head coach Matt Campbell, 16 total starters (including four on the offensive line), star-in-the-making tailback Kareem Hunt—is enough to make them a plucky dark horse after an underachieving year in 2013.

    Getting Bowling Green and Ball State at home and avoiding Ohio and Buffalo entirely is just the icing on the cake.

Mountain West

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    Otto Kitsinger/Associated Press

    Winner: Boise State

    Boise State is still Boise State—but more than that, the Mountain West is still the Mountain West.

    Nothing about Fresno State scares me in the post-Derek Carr and Davante Adams era, and although Utah State is a personal favorite, it cannot be trusted until we see a healthy Chuckie Keeton take the field.

    The Broncos may be without Chris Petersen, but they do have Bryan Harsin, one of Petersen's most trusted former assistants, who came back after succeeding Gus Malzahn at Arkansas State. It's not like he's never had big shoes to fill prior to this, and he did just fine in his one season with the Red Wolves last year.

    "I thought our players did a great job of handling themselves and I thought our coaches did a great job of integrating ourselves with the players and with the culture that's been here," Harsin said of his first spring back in Boise, according to Paul Myerberg of USA Today. "...So that portion of it was good."

    BSU returns eight starters on defense—including every member of the back seven—and just brought in a coach who knows what he's doing on offense. The smart money still lies on the Broncos. 

Pac-12

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Winner: UCLA

    It is hard to find a hole on the Bruins roster.

    UCLA has one of the five best quarterbacks in the country in Brett Hundley, a deep (albeit star-deficient) stable of skill players, a good-when-healthy offensive line and a defense stacked in the trenches, at linebacker and in the secondary.

    Athlon Sports ranked the Bruins No. 7 in its preseason rankings, noting, among other things, that "if all of the pieces fall into place, the Bruins have the schedule and personnel to make a run at a spot in college football’s new four-team playoff."

    Its biggest rival in the South division, USC, should be good in 2014 too, but UCLA (Hundley in particular) has had its number the past couple of seasons. It also gets the Trojans at home—the same place it gets Oregon, Stanford, Arizona and Utah.

    This team is going to the Pac-12 Championship game, just as it did two years ago. Only this time it will be far better suited to win.

SEC

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    Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

    Winner: Alabama

    Whoever wins the SEC East will be good enough to compete in the conference title game. But for the most part, this pick comes down to Alabama, Auburn and, if you're feeling generous, LSU.

    Auburn, of course, beat Alabama in the Iron Bowl last season, but it got outplayed for most of the game. It deserved the win—sans referee intervention, any team that wins deserves the win—but if they played that game 10 times, I think the Tide would have won six or seven.

    The state of Alabama's quarterbacks gives me pause. I admit that.

    But then I remember: At this time last year, Auburn still had a four-way competition going on at the position. And it did just fine in 2013. One bad A-Day game before Florida State transfer Jacob Coker even arrives on campus is far too little reason to panic.

    Every time I want to change this pick to Auburn, I think about Derrick Henry in the Sugar Bowl. Then I think about Missouri's offense in the SEC Championship Game, and then I ask myself who on the Tigers defense is going to step up and tackle Henry in prime time in Tuscaloosa with a season on the line.

    And then I keep my pick the way it is.

Sun Belt

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    Bill Haber/Associated Press

    Winner: UL-Lafayette

    Mark Hudspeth has quietly turned Louisiana-Lafayette into a Sun Belt powerhouse—or maybe that was Terrance Broadway. Or perhaps they both contributed. 

    It doesn't matter either way, as they will be back in 2014 to defend the co-conference title on the heels of a third straight nine-win season.

    The Ragin' Cajuns' 17 returning starters are the sixth-most in college football and most in the Sun Belt. If Florida State was one of the easiest calls on this list, UL-Lafayette was by far the easiest.