Predicting Every 2015 College Football Conference Champion

Brian Leigh@@BLeighDATFeatured ColumnistJanuary 16, 2015

Predicting Every 2015 College Football Conference Champion

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    The 2014 college football season just ended, but it's never too early to look ahead to—actually, you know what: It is too early to look ahead to 2015.

    But it's so much fun to do it anyway.

    These Way, Way, Way Too Early Conference Predictions will change roughly 1,000 times between today and next season. But now that the deadline to declare for the NFL draft has passed, and rosters across the country are beginning to take shape, we finally have enough information to make a semi-educated guess.

    Which defending conference champs will keep the crown next season? Which teams will come from behind to usurp them?

    Sound off below and let us know what you think.

American

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Predicted Winner: Cincinnati

    Gunner Kiel returns for his second year at quarterback, and if he can avoid the nagging injuries that plagued him in spots this season, he's the best signal-caller in the conference.

    More than that, he's teaming with a deep cast of veteran receivers. Cincinnati had eight players with more than 140 receiving yards this season: The top seven were juniors, and No. 8 was a sophomore. Even if some of that cast transfers or gets injured, there is talent, depth and experience for this passing offense to work with.

    The Bearcats split the American title with Memphis and UCF in 2013. Both of those teams won with defense, but Memphis loses seven of its eight leading tacklers, and UCF loses defensive coordinator Tyson Summers, who left for the same position at Colorado State.

    Another major AAC contender, East Carolina, has won with offense the past few seasons, but the Pirates lose quarterback Shane Carden and receiver Justin Hardy to graduation and coordinator Lincoln Riley to Oklahoma. Hardy is the all-time FBS receptions leader.

    Cincinnati has five 10-win seasons in the past seven years, and it just split the conference title despite only winning nine games. It should return to the double-digit plateau in 2015, and if it does, it should reclaim at least a share of the AAC title.

ACC

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    Tyler Smith/Getty Images

    Predicted Winner: Clemson

    Traditionally, Clemson has had a great offense and a porous defense. In 2014, it had a great defense and a stale offense. Next year, for the first time in a long time, it should be great on both sides of the ball. And that might be enough to win the conference.

    Deshaun Watson didn't throw enough passes to qualify for the national leaderboards, but his QB rating of 188.57 would have been the best in the country—roughly seven points higher than that of Marcus Mariota. And Watson was just a true freshman!

    Almost every offensive skill player returns around Watson next season, and the defense, which admittedly loses a lot from the front seven, should be fine after retaining coordinator Brent Venables. The Tigers had the best defense in the country in 2014 and should remain near the top 20 next season, not unlike Michigan State after 2013.

    Plus, Florida State and Georgia Tech, Clemson's two biggest ACC challengers, both make the trip to Death Valley.

Big 12

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    Jerry Larson/Associated Press

    Predicted Winner: Baylor

    Baylor had four players on the 2014 All-Big 12 first team: running back Shock Linwood, left tackle Spencer Drango, defensive end Shawn Oakman and defensive tackle Andrew Billings.

    All four return next season.

    Seasoned backup Seth Russell looks ready to replace Bryce Petty at quarterback, and if he's not, 5-star true freshman Jarrett Stidham has the tools to be the next great Baylor signal-caller. Either way, Baylor's new QB will have Drango on his blind side, Linwood in the backfield and KD Cannon, Corey Coleman, et al. at wide receiver.

    The Bears must travel to TCU, where they'll find a team that returns its entire offense, which makes this a difficult call. When Drango and Oakman looked poised to make the jump to the NFL, I was ready to put my money on the Horned Frogs.

    But bringing back two All-America-caliber linemen (in a conference they can dominate) stacks the deck back in Art Briles' favor.

    Barely.

Big Ten

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Predicted Winner: Ohio State

    The easiest call on this list, Ohio State just won the College Football Playoff with a lineup of mostly underclassmen.

    Whether its Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett, Cardale Jones or any combination of the three playing quarterback, this offense will rely on breakout start Ezekiel Elliott and the running game. The offensive line, which by the end of the season looked great, returns all five starters.

    The defense is set to return seven starters too, highlighted by defensive end Joey Bosa, linebacker Darron Lee and safety Vonn Bell. A young group that came together slowly but peaked at the end of the season should look even better in 2015.

    "We’re here, we did it and we’re not going anywhere," freshman slot back Jalin Marshall said after the title game, per Tim May of The Columbus Dispatch. "…We’re all coming back to try to win it again."

    The Buckeyes get Penn State and Michigan State at home next season; their only tough road game is in the Big House against Jim Harbaugh-led Michigan. But even that is a game they should win with ease.

    They shouldn't be favored by less than a touchdown all season.

Conference-USA

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Predicted Winner: Louisiana Tech

    Can Jeff Driskel really win a conference title? Yes.

    If that conference is Conference-USA.

    The Florida transfer will take over at Louisiana Tech next season, and there's no reason he can't succeed against lesser-than-SEC defenses. He won't be asked to win games with his arm as much as to hand the ball to Kenneth Dixon and make things happen with his legs.

    Both of those are considered strengths.

    Louisiana Tech won with defense in 2014, and it has some questions to answer on that side of the ball. Coordinator Manny Diaz left for Mississippi State, and Heart of Dallas Bowl star Dillon Bates will graduate. This is definitely worth keeping an eye on.

    Still, the Bulldogs return one of the most underrated secondaries in the country (shoutout Xavier Woods) and had the chance to learn from a coordinator of Diaz's caliber. Head coach Skip Holtz is building something nice down in Ruston, and with Marshall losing Rakeem Cato and Tommy Shuler, there is room for a team to rise.

MAC

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    Joel Auerbach/Associated Press

    Predicted Winner: Northern Illinois

    Honestly, this is all about history.

    Northern Illinois has won the MAC in three of the past five seasons, and the two times it didn't, it made the title game. It is the five-time reigning West division champion, which always puts its hat in the ring. And it proved in 2014 that it could survive the loss of Jordan Lynch.

    Quarterback Drew Hare will be back for his second year as a starter, and the defense returns leading tackler Marlon Moore along with All-MAC selections Paris Logan, Boomer Mays and Rasheen Lemon. More than anything, though, the Huskies return head coach Rod Carey, who is capable of keeping the program on its current track.

    Toledo ended the season in style, scoring 63 points against Arkansas State in the GoDaddy Bowl, but I've been burned by the Rockets in the past. Shame on me for ignoring the Huskies' track record.

    It won't happen again until they lose.

Mountain West

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Predicted Winner: Boise State

    Picking Boise State is a copout. I admit that.

    The Broncos scare me off given what they lose on offense, namely quarterback Grant Hedrick and running back Jay Ajayi, but it's hard to pick against the institution. And even if they were to drop off as they break in a new backfield, who in the Mountain West can challenge them?

    The best bet is Utah State, whose defense has been as consistent as that of any Group of Five team the past few seasons. But the Aggies lose one of the most underrated players (inside linebacker Nick Vigil) and coaches (defensive coordinator Todd Orlando) in the country and still don't know how outside linebacker Kyler Fackrell will bounce back from his ACL surgery. That could be an issue.

    Even with a difficult schedule, and even with uncertainty on offense, the Broncos are the safest horse to back (groan). The defense brings back nascent stars in safety Darian Thompson and pass-rusher Kamalei Correa, and the offense is…well…Boise State.

    It always figures something out.

Pac-12

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Predicted Winner: Arizona

    Arizona has fewer holes than every other Pac-12 team.

    The offense will be a delight with quarterback Anu Solomon, running back Nick Wilson and six of the top seven pass-catchers all returning. Solomon struggled at the end of the season, but he was dealing with a leg injury (and maybe also hitting the freshman wall); he is still a promising young quarterback to build around.

    The defense will be strong with Bednarik Award winner Scooby Wright III and five other starters returning. Defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel made the most of his personnel in 2014, developing talent at a high level, and the unit as a whole is trending upward.

    The Wildcats' biggest competitors will be the usual Pac-12 suspects: Oregon, Stanford and USC. But the Ducks have serious questions under center after losing Marcus Mariota. The Cardinal don't have a running back and lose almost every defensive starter. And the Trojans still lack depth from their scholarship restrictions and have a head coach (Steve Sarkisian) who's never lost fewer than four games.

    "The Arizona Wildcats: I'm buying them," said Michael Felder of Bleacher Report, who also called Rich Rodriguez one of the best head coaches we've seen in college football.

    Against Sark, that could prove decisive.

SEC

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    Predicted Winner: Auburn

    Auburn's offense will be fine without Nick Marshall, Cameron Artis-Payne and Sammie Coates. In some ways, the three-headed monster of Jeremy Johnson, Roc Thomas and D'haquille Williams has even more upside, especially with Gus Malzahn calling the shots.

    Still, this pick has more to do with defense than offense. Count me among the biggest fans of the Will Muschamp hire; the other moves Auburn has made to its coaching staff are great for recruiting, and they will pay dividends, but the Muschamp move is great for right now. He will have this defense back where it needs to be.

    Adding to that belief is the return of Carl Lawson, a blue-chip defensive end who had a strong freshman season in 2013 but tore his ACL last summer. He and classmate Montravius Adams, a defensive tackle, give the Tigers an imposing defensive line, and the return of linebackers Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy rounds out the front seven with a ton of pieces for Muschamp to work with.

    Also, after a year in which the schedule was out to get them, the Tigers have manageable home-road splits. Four of their seven projected hardest opponents (Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama) come to Jordan-Hare Stadium. If it can steal two games at LSU, Arkansas and Texas A&M, this team will be onto something.

    Here's to saying that it can.

Sun Belt

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    Todd Bennett/Getty Images

    Predicted Winner: Georgia Southern

    I'm dubious of Georgia Southern repeating last year's success, for no bigger reason that its losing four starting offensive linemen.

    Still, it's hard to fathom picking against the Eagles after they ran the table in Sun Belt play this season, and especially because they hung close with Georgia Tech and NC State in September.

    It wasn't allowed to play in a bowl game (thanks to a senseless, archaic rule about teams making an FBS transition), and it didn't get much national run, but this team was one of the best stories of 2014. Head coach Willie Fritz is a rising superstar, and the backfield pairing of QB Kevin Ellison and RB Matt Breida both return.

    It helps that Terrance Broadway is leaving Louisiana-Lafayette too.