Winning the conference championship is every team's first goal going into the season, and its importance stretches far past the shiny trophy:
If you’re a fan, it will give you a year’s worth of bragging rights within the boundaries of your region. If you’re a coach, you can use it to impress a recruit.
If you’re a team, you must win it to have any chance to play for a national title (unless a time machine puts us back in 2003 and you’re the Oklahoma Sooners).
There are a lot of questions going into this year’s college football season.
Will we have another three-way-tie (nightmare) like we did in the Big 12 South in 2008?
Will another conference Goliath like USC have to nervously wait for a David like Oregon State to implode down the stretch?
Will we have more college football experts saying "It's anyone's guess" like the ACC and Big East did last year?
I am going to take a close look at the six BCS conferences and predict which teams will win each conference. I will also project who the other contenders will be in each conference and why they will come up short.
Every league has multiple marquee matchups, so I will give my opinion on which one will be the "Conference Game of the Year," and I'll also highlight the other notable games that will help shape each race.
I realize this is getting old. I realize this would be the 533rd consecutive time (or something close to it) that USC would win the Pac-10.
I also realize that if there was any year in the "Pete Carroll era" for a team other than USC to win the conference, 2009 would be it:
USC only returns three starters on defense, although that number ranges from two to five depending on which website you read/trust.
The top two quarterbacks on the depth chart have combined for four collegiate pass attempts, a 50 percent completion ratio and zero touchdowns.
Their conference schedule is murderous with games at Cal, at Oregon, and at Arizona State; not to mention the grudge match against Oregon State a week after they play non-conference rival Notre Dame in South Bend.
With all this in mind, I still think it’s safe to say USC will eight-peat (that means to win eight times in a row) as conference king.
No one reloads like USC. It reminds me of the movie ‘The Matrix’. The moment Neo kills an agent, three more agents that look and perform just like the one that perished appear out of nowhere and continue fighting.
When the Trojans lose Mark Sanchez, Rey Maualuga, and nine others to the NFL Draft—do not fret. There are endless future-All-Americans lurking in the shadows of USC’s sideline, waiting their turn.
Why won’t Oregon or Cal win the Pac-10 this year?
Cal will return a very good secondary in 2009, but they don’t have the depth to replace 75 percent of their starting linebacking core that they lost from last year’s team.
And no matter how much muscle weight Jahvid Best adds, it will be much harder running behind a retooled offensive line that doesn’t include All-American center Alex Mack.
Oregon has plenty of ammo to keep the offensive guns blazing in '09, but a defense that wasn’t very good last year suffers some serious attrition, especially in the secondary and defensive line. That’s not a good sign for new head coach Chip Kelly, who is an offensive-minded coach to begin with.
Expect the Ducks to give up a lot of points this season, losing a couple conference games as a result of it.
Conference Game of the Year: USC @ Cal – October 3rd
I expect this game to be close early, but the talented defensive front for USC against the relatively inexperienced Cal O-line will help the Trojans pull away in the second half. I see a two-touchdown win for the men of Troy.
Other notable conference games:
Cal @ Oregon – September 26th
Oregon State @ USC – October 24th
USC @ Oregon – October 31st
West Virginia looks to life after Pat White in 2009. The heart and soul of the Mountaineers the last three and a half seasons is gone, and it's Jarrett Brown's responsibility to revive the team this year...and he will.
Each team that has a realistic shot at winning the Big East this year suffered key losses to either graduation or the draft. Jarrett Brown fills his team’s hole better than anyone else in the conference.
He is a more accurate passer than Pat White ever was. Brown displayed his skills in West Virginia's spring game by completing 15 straight passes(!) en route to a 21-of-28, 273-yard, four touchdown performance.
Jarrett doesn't have the speed that White displayed throughout his career, but he’s sufficient, averaging almost five yards a carry in 2008.
West Virginia also returns one of the most dynamic playmakers in the country in Noel Devine.
Devine doesn't have a typical running back frame. He’s listed at 5'8" (standing on a phone book) and 170 pounds (wearing all of his pads), but he has the speed that makes him a threat to go the distance every time he touches the ball. He’s the type of player that teams have to game-plan for, and I expect him to be even better this year then he was last year.
In addition to this, the Mountaineers have eight returning starters coming back to a defense that was pretty good last year. Look for second-year head coach Bill Stewart to take all these things with him on his way to the top of the mountain (pun most certainly intended).
Why won’t Cincinnati, Pitt or South Florida win the Big East this year?
Cincinnati has the best coach in the conference in Brian Kelly, but it pretty much stops there. The Bearcats lost ten, I’ll repeat, ten starters on defense alone from last year’s squad. They’ll play road games against most of their toughest competition.
I would give them a better shot at winning the conference if some of those games were played in Cincinnati, but that’s not the case.
Pitt will struggle to replace LeSean McCoy. If quarterback Bill Stull can improve his play and shoulder some of the lost production, it might help. I just don’t see that happening. His nine touchdowns to 10 interceptions ratio last season scare me away from thinking they’ll win the conference.
Somebody will have to tell Jim Leavitt and the South Florida Bulls that they need to play just as good in the second half of the season as they do in the first. Until that happens, Matt Grothe will continue to earn MVP honors in bowl games like the St. Petersburg Bowl at season's end.
Conference Game of the Year: Pitt @ West Virginia November 27th
It will be strength against strength with West Virginia’s explosive offense against Pitt’s stingy defense.
A big play from Noel Devine gives West Virginia momentum early, and after the first quarter jitters are gone, the Mountaineers start putting points on the board. Pitt tries to keep up, but by the start of the fourth quarter, the game will be out of reach. West Virginia wins big in Morgantown.
Other notable conference games:
South Florida @ Rutgers – November 12th
West Virginia @ Cincinnati – November 13th
Cincinnati @ Pitt – December 5th
The countries most competitive league last year should expect a similar label in 2009.
Calm down, SEC fans.
I'm not saying that the ACC is the best conference in College Football; I'm saying that the league had the closest competition inside its own conference than any other league.
Virginia Tech is looking to defend its title, and I think they will.
The biggest priority for the Hokies this offseason was to improve the throwing mechanics of quarterback Tyrod Taylor. The rumor seeping out of Blacksburg this spring was that they've succeeded.
If they won the conference with a poor passing game last year, doesn't it make sense for them to run away with the title if they have a more effective passing game this year?
Improved quarterback play isn't the only thing the Hokies have going for them. Virginia Tech has a fantastic running back returning in Darren Evans. Because of him, the Hokies didn't skip a beat when Brandon Ore was dismissed from the team. Evans rumbled for over 1,200 yards and 11 touchdowns last year.
Look for incoming freshman Ryan Williams to contribute to an impressive running game as well.
The Bud Foster led defense should be good again despite the loss of Macho Man Randy Harris. They'll return seven starters on this side of the ball, complimenting the always solid special teams play.
The conference schedule also favors them. They get Miami, Boston College, North Carolina and North Carolina State at home. They do have to play Georgia Tech in Atlanta, but they won't have to play Florida State unless the Seminoles win the Atlantic Division and they meet in the ACC Championship Game.
Why won't Georgia Tech or the Florida State Seminoles win the ACC this year?
If I could take a pill that would allow me to remember Georgia Tech’s regular season in 2008 while wiping my memory of the Chick-fil-A Bowl against LSU, I would probably pick them to win the conference.
Because this pill doesn’t exist, I have this eerie feeling that if you give good teams time to figure out the triple-option, they’re probably going to beat it…badly. I could be wrong, but watching LSU completely shut down the Yellow Jackets in that bowl game has taken away my ability to believe in this team.
Florida State is a good football team, but I’m not as impressed by their 42-13 victory over Wisconsin in the Champs Sports Bowl as others seem to be. I don’t have to remind anyone that the Badgers were one of the three notches on Michigan’s unimpressive belt last year. Beating Wisconsin wasn’t anything special.
Plus, the Seminoles have a ton of holes to fill on defense in 2009, most notably in the secondary.
Conference Game of the Year: Virginia Tech @ Georgia Tech – October 17th
This will either be a very exciting game or a very boring game. There is no middle ground here.
It will be an exciting game if my theory about Georgia Tech is wrong and teams will struggle to stop Paul Johnson and his triple-option the second time around.
If my theory comes true and the Hokies slow down Josh Nesbitt & company; Virginia Tech will cruise to an easy victory. I expect the latter.
Other notable conference games:
North Carolina @ Virginia Tech – October 29th
Miami @ Florida State – September 7th
Georgia Tech @ Florida State – October 10th
Colt McCoy (pictured here- looking strangely similar to that leprechaun from the Lucky Charms cereal box) brings unfinished business into the 2009 season.
The Longhorns were left out of the Big 12 title game and a possible berth in the BCS National Championship game because of a faulty tiebreaker.
Because this tiebreaker used computer rankings over simple human logic, the Longhorn nation could only sit and watch as a team they beat (Oklahoma) won the conference in a game against a team they had also beat (Missouri).
We all know how that story ends.
Texas will be looking to redeem themselves and bring a vindictive fire to the Big 12 that even Count Chocula would struggle to contain (I promise that will be the last cereal cartoon character I reference).
No one needs to be reminded of how good Colt McCoy was last year, but I'll do it anyway. He completed an NCAA record 76.7 percent of his passes for 3,800-plus yards and 34 touchdowns. He also led the team in rushing with 561 yards and added 11 scores on the ground.
He brings three years of starting experience into the 2009 season, and embodies everything a good leader needs.
Colt will miss throwing to Quan Cosby, but the return of Jordan Shipley and Malcolm Williams makes his absence a little easier to absorb.
One of the few knocks on Texas last year was its rushing game, or lack thereof. The only Longhorn to break the 500-yard barrier was Colt.
Granted, head coach Mack Brown used the "running-back by committee" approach, but he’s expressed his desire for a go-to-guy to emerge this offseason. Vondrell McGee and "The Fozz"—Foswhitt Whittaker—are the early candidates for that title.
The defense loses some pieces in the front four, namely Brian Orakpo, but the back seven for Texas should be much improved under second year defensive coordinator, Will Muschamp. The Longhorns won’t lead the nation in sacks like they did last year, but I expect the young secondary to hold up much better against the pass-happy Big 12 offenses.
Why won’t Oklahoma or Oklahoma State win the Big 12 this year?
Oklahoma will not win it because there won’t be another three-way tie to save them this season. Other reasons include massive losses to their offensive line (they’ll be without four of five starting O-lineman from last year’s team) as well as the loss of play making wide receiver Juaquin Iglesias.
Plus, there’s that little game on October 17th that might keep them from getting to the Big 12 championship game, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself.
It is yet to be seen if Oklahoma State is ready to step up to the plate and play with the big boys.
I feel the need again, as I did with Georgia Tech in the ACC, to take a pill that would erase my memory of this teams bowl game. Oregon sliced and diced the Cowboy’s defense for 565 yards and 42 points in the Pacific Life Holiday Bowl.
I have no doubt the Zac Robinson, Dez Bryant, and Kendall Hunter could keep pace with any offense in the country…it’s just that defense I worry about.
Conference Game of the Year: Texas vs. Oklahoma – October 17th
Texas surprised No. 1 Oklahoma last year, putting up 40-plus points in a thrilling victory over the Sooners in the Red River Rivalry. There won’t be any surprise when the Longhorns do it again in 2009.
Both offenses will score a ton of points, but in the end, Colt’s offensive line will protect their quarterback better than Oklahoma’s does. A turnover by Sam Bradford late in the fourth quarter will kill the Sooners chance at tying the game, and Texas will hold on to win by a touchdown.
Other notable conference games:
Texas Tech @ Texas – September 17th
Texas @ Oklahoma State – October 31st
Oklahoma State @ Oklahoma – November 28th
I know what you're thinking, and no, this isn't a picture of Tim Tebow trying to give his coach a butterfly kiss. It's an easy mistake to make because it was my first impression as well.
No, this is a picture of Tim Tebow and Urban Meyer celebrating after they won the SEC Championship game. All of us need to get used to this image, because we're very likely to see it again in 2009.
It would be ludicrous for anyone to pick against the Gators to win the SEC.
I understand that anything could happen during a college football season. Preseason favorites/national title contenders can turn into Capital One Bowl participants (I'm looking at you, Georgia), but there isn't a more complete looking team going into 2009 then Florida.
Tebow is the engine that makes his team go, and he will lead an offense that should be one of the best in the country.
He will do anything and everything to help his team win:
If Urban Meyer wants him to hand the ball off or dump it to one of their speedy playmakers—he'll do it.
If Meyer wants him to put the game on his shoulders and carry the team down the field—he'll do that as well.
If the coach asked Tebow to leap four hundred feet in the air and into a burning building to save a damsel in distress—he would do it, and he'd save the damsel's thirteen cats as well.
Butterfly kisses and burning buildings aside, it's not just the offense that makes this team the favorite in the SEC. All 11 starters from last year’s defense return, including all of their backups. Those 22 players, led by Brandon Spikes, will easily be the league’s best defense.
Why won’t Alabama, LSU, or Ole Miss win the SEC this year?
Alabama suffers some serious attrition in the offensive line, and loses key players at the quarterback and running back positions.
We all saw what happened in last year’s Sugar Bowl when Andre Smith wasn’t a part of Alabama’s o-line. The Crimson Tide looked like they were playing in mud without him. Add the fact that they lose John Parker Wilson and Glen Coffee; it might be a tough year for Nick Saban and his team.
LSU has a tough conference schedule with road games at Georgia, at Alabama, and at Ole Miss, but they do catch a break and get Florida in Tiger Stadium. The schedule is the least of Les Miles worries, though.
The Tigers must improve on defense if they want to stay competitive. Last year, they played six division one schools with winning records. In those six games, LSU’s defense gave up an average of just under 35 points.
If the Tigers continue to struggle without Bo Pelini as their defensive coordinator, I’d be surprised if they won their division.
Ole Miss has the least holes of any team in the SEC outside of the Gators. They return 16 starters and a fantastic pro-prospect quarterback, Jevan Snead. On top of that, they couldn’t have asked for a better conference schedule with most of their competition playing in Oxford, and they won’t have to play Florida.
Unless, of course, they meet in the SEC Title Game, which I think will happen. In the end, the Gators will get their revenge against the only team that beat them in 08.
Conference Game of the Year: Florida @ LSU – October 10th
This game will be played under the lights, so Tiger Stadium will be buzzing. The crowd will keep LSU in the game throughout, but in the fourth quarter, it’ll be too much Tebow.
When the Gators are only up by three in the fourth, he’ll lead them on a long touchdown drive that will take the air out of the stadium. Florida goes home with a ten point win.
Other notable conference games:
Alabama @ Ole miss – October 10th
Florida vs. Georgia – October 31st
LSU @ Alabama – November 7th
In most people's eyes, the Big Ten is a two-horse race between Ohio State and Penn State. The co-champions in 2008 lost a lot of experience and star power to the draft. The question that will decide the fate of the conference:
Which team will be able to fill the holes left by those star players/seniors?
In short, Ohio State is better equipped to do just that.
With back-to-back top-five recruiting classes, the Buckeyes will be replacing their star studded senior class with highly touted underclassmen.
The Brians (Robiskie and Hartline) will be replaced by a young and talented wide receiver group, led by sophomore DeVier Posey. You could easily argue that this year’s wide receivers will be better than last year's group. Wide Receivers coach Darrell Hazel was quoted last year, saying Posey was the best receiver on the team.
Because Jim Tressel usually sticks with experience over skill (to the chagrin of the OSU fan base), we saw little of their best receiver. Expect that to change in 2009.
The running back position took a hit with the loss of Chris "Beanie" Wells. Ohio State will try to replace his production with Dan Herron and Brandon Saine, but as Jim Tressel put it earlier this spring, "You don't replace a player like Beanie Wells".
Some might think this is a blessing in disguise. Without Beanie, Ohio State won't be forced to line up in the "300-year-old" I-formation to maximize his production.
With smaller/quicker backs like Saine and incoming freshman Jamal Berry, the Bucks could go to a more wide-open attack with four and five wide receivers. The buckeye nation is dying to get back to the spread offense they ran in 2006 when Troy Smith was at the helm. With Beanie gone, they might get their wish.
The linebacker position also took a serious hit with the loss of James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman. I can't say the players replacing these two are better, but I can honestly say they’ll be faster.
Outside linebacker Brian Rolle, although undersized, was the star of the spring for the Buckeye defense. He has a nose for the ball and uses his speed to deliver some heavy and hard tackles to opposing ball carriers. Austin Spitler will most likely share time with Etienne Sabino in the middle spot.
The linebackers will have the luxury of leaning on a strong secondary and an even stronger defensive line to find their groove come conference play.
Finally, we get to the man in the picture.
Terrelle Pryor looks to build on a solid freshman season with a breakout sophomore performance. He made strides this spring as a passer, and his athletic ability makes him the conference’s most dangerous playmaker at the quarterback position.
Look for him to put up big numbers in 2009 behind an improved offensive line; leading his team to the Big Ten championship.
Why won’t Penn State win the Big Ten this year?
Daryll Clark and Evan Royster will have to operate behind a completely retooled offense line. It will be very hard to replace A.Q. Shipley and Co. The new line might be good, but it won’t be as good as last year’s dominating squad.
Similar attrition to the secondary and wide receivers will make it hard for the Nittany Lions to repeat. Head coach Joe Paterno has expressed concern about his secondary during the offseason. If the weakness of last season’s team becomes an even bigger weakness in 2009, that will spell trouble for Penn State.
Conference Game of the Year: Ohio State @ Penn State – November 7th
The Buckeyes will be greeted in Happy Valley by Penn State’s famous "White Out". The game will play out similar to last year’s classic; a low-scoring, grind-it-out affair.
Penn State’s talented line-backing core stuffs the Buckeyes rushing game, but Pryor avenges last year’s mistake-laden fourth quarter by coming through in the clutch with a game winning touchdown pass to Devier Posey.
The Buckeyes escape Beaver Stadium with a four point win.
Other notable conference games:
Iowa @ Penn State – September 26th
Michigan @ Michigan State – October 3rd
Ohio State @ Michigan – November 21st