Predicting the Winner of Each College Football Conference in 2017
Ohio State showed last year that winning a conference is not a prerequisite to reach the College Football Playoff. But the Buckeyes' 2016 appearance doesn't disprove that hoisting the league's trophy is part of the simplest path to the sport's championship.
Head coach Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide have proved that notion, and the Crimson Tide will attempt to continue their dynastic reign over the SEC in 2017. But they're not without challengers.
Unlike some years, the same can be said in every power conference. Everyone has their respective favorites for the upcoming season. While there are consensus choices, no team is a unanimous pick.
Although the "Group of Five" leagues will likely be shut out of the playoff, there are a handful of talented teams vying for the New Year's Six bowl game berths.
And if our predictions come true, it's a good year to wear red.
American: South Florida
Player to watch: Among quarterbacks in the Group of Five, Quinton Flowers is the most productive dual-threat weapon. He amassed 4,342 yards of total offense and 42 touchdowns last season. He is already an efficient passer, but improved downfield accuracy would make him a nightmare to defend.
Biggest threats: The Houston Cougars will remain contenders if Kyle Allen and new head coach Major Applewhite can continue what Tom Herman started. Plus, Ed Oliver is as dominant a defensive tackle as we'll see in college football. Then, while development isn't linear, the Memphis Tigers return a strong majority of their offense, most notably quarterback Riley Ferguson and wide receiver Anthony Miller. That firepower will always be dangerous.
Why they'll win: The Temple Owls shouldn't fall off completely, but there's little doubt USF plays in the slightly weaker division this season. Houston, Memphis, Navy and Tulsa will beat up on each other in the American West. Although the Bulls must quickly adapt to head coach Charlie Strong and offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert, an experienced roster led by Flowers will give the program its first conference championship.
ACC: Florida State
Player to watch: Deondre Francois' progression at quarterback is crucial, but Florida State is a leading contender for the ACC particularly because of its defense. Derwin James, who was only healthy for six-plus quarters last season, is an essential piece of the unit. The well-rounded and versatile safety has All-American potential.
Biggest threats: The reigning national champions might have something to say behind a similarly elite defense. If the Clemson Tigers can settle the uncertainty under center, they'll be looked upon even more favorably. Although the Louisville Cardinals have several minor weaknesses, we're not counting out an explosive playmaker in 2016 Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson to conjure up some magic when needed most.
Why they'll win: Francois and Co. probably won't shatter the scoreboard many times. With this defense leading the way, however, the 'Noles are a legitimate College Football Playoff contender. Balance and consistency will guide FSU to an ACC crown.
Big 12: Oklahoma
Player to watch: Replacing the triumvirate of running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon and wide receiver Dede Westbrook will be a great challenge for the Oklahoma Sooners. Having Baker Mayfield at quarterback for another season makes it a bit easier. The two-time Heisman Trophy finalist has topped the 4,000-yard barrier for total offense twice and led the Sooners to a 17-1 Big 12 record.
Biggest threat: The Oklahoma State Cowboys should have an explosive offense with quarterback Mason Rudolph and a complementary bunch of receivers. The Pokes could even snatch the regular-season meeting at home and enter the Big 12 championship as the higher-ranked team. Winning this matchup twice in a row would be tremendously difficult—and that notion goes both ways.
Why they'll win: A spirited effort Nov. 4 at home in Stillwater, Oklahoma, wouldn't wrap up the Big 12 title for the Cowboys. The conference's desire to hold a championship game might be the Sooners' gain, giving Mayfield and what seems like a marginally more trustworthy defense a second chance at a neutral site in AT&T Stadium.
Big Ten: Ohio State
Player to watch: We've seen J.T. Barrett, the dual-threat weapon and deserving Heisman contender. We've also seen J.T. Barrett, the quarterback who struggles through the air. Which one shows up for Ohio State's biggest games in 2017? The Buckeyes' championship dreams—both conference and nationally—depend on that answer.
Biggest threats: The Big Ten isn't necessarily wide-open, but there's a solid group of contenders. Penn State is receiving the most hype after stealing the conference crown last year, and Wisconsin is a steady force from the West Division. Michigan arguably has the second-most pure talent in the conference, though the lack of experience will be a major obstacle for head coach Jim Harbaugh's club to clear.
Why they'll win: Penn State took advantage of home field in this matchup last year, and Ohio State will do the same this season thanks to Barrett and an elite defensive line. That combination should propel the Buckeyes throughout the campaign and possibly to their third College Football Playoff appearance in four years.
Conference USA: Western Kentucky
Player to watch: Taywan Taylor and Nicholas Norris are gone, but Mike White is the linchpin of Western Kentucky's offense. Last year, the USF transfer notched a 67.3 completion percentage with 4,363 yards, 37 touchdowns and only seven interceptions for the Hilltoppers, who won their second straight Conference USA title.
Biggest threats: Middle Tennessee, Louisiana Tech and Southern Miss are all dangerous. Old Dominion will also be in the conversation if replacing QB David Washington doesn't become a problem. We know all four offenses will put up points, but the program that fields an opportunistic defense will pose the biggest threat.
Why they'll win: Even though both the offense and defense will be slightly less effective this season, Western Kentucky has room to spare compared to the rest of the conference. Plus, the 'Toppers don't play an intradivision game until Oct. 14 vs. the Charlotte 49ers, so they'll have addressed any early-season issues before the stretch run while White guides another high-scoring attack.
Mid-American Conference: Toledo
Player to watch: He's not a well-known signal-caller, but Logan Woodside enters 2017 as one of the nation's most productive passers. The rising senior finished top 10 nationally last season in completion percentage (69.1; fourth), yards (4,129; seventh) and touchdowns (45; first) while guiding Toledo to a quiet 9-4 record.
Biggest threat: Western Michigan lost an enormous amount of production. However, former coach P.J. Fleck stocked the cupboards in Kalamazoo before departing. How the Broncos will respond in a reloading year is obviously unknown, but a relatively easy transition to Tim Lester could result in a division-clinching regular-season finale between the MAC West's Western and Toledo.
Why they'll win: Toledo has a friendly schedule in conference play, hosting both Northern Illinois and Western in November. Woodside lost a couple of key weapons to the NFL in Kareem Hunt and Michael Roberts, but the offense has plenty of experience surrounding the quarterback. As long as the Rockets protect the Glass Bowl, the program will secure its first MAC championship since 2004.
Mountain West: Boise State
Player to watch: Somewhat similar to Toledo, Boise State brings back an established quarterback who should carry the team while the offense replaces two standout performers. Brett Rypien will help the Broncos cope with losing Jeremy McNichols and Thomas Sperbeck to the NFL. In 24 appearances, Rypien has never lost a game when completing at least 50 percent of his passes with no interceptions.
Biggest threats: Boise State and San Diego State are more popular picks. Colorado State, though, has an offense capable of dismantling every conference opponent, especially after getting stress-tested by Colorado and Alabama in September. A mid-November showdown with the Broncos may decide the right to play San Diego State in the conference championship game.
Why they'll win: Avoiding the disastrous upset on the road is imperative, but there's enough parity in the Mountain Division that Boise State should be able to overcome a loss to any of San Diego State, Colorado State and Air Force. While that same parity will keep the Broncos from entering the national conversation, 2017 can be a bounce-back year if Rypien is a steady leader.
Player to watch: After a stellar finish to 2016, Sam Darnold is being touted as the next greatest quarterback. The USC Trojans signal-caller is deserving of attention, but that's massive praise for any college player. Matching such a sky-high expectation will be an immense challenge for the redshirt sophomore, who tossed 31 touchdowns last season.
Biggest threat: Oregon might surge, Washington State has an underrated roster and Stanford is a high-floor program. But last year's Pac-12 CFP representative remains the marquee threat. The Washington Huskies, who lost in last season's playoff semifinal to Alabama, have an excellent core on both sides of the football, so navigating a home-filled November stretch that includes Oregon, (at) Stanford, Utah and Washington State will define UW's season.
Why they'll win: The Trojans take on the Texas Longhorns and Notre Dame Fighting Irish in nonconference action, so the schedule is by no means a breeze. Still, the South Division provides a more favorable path in 2017. USC won't match the lofty goals set forward in the preseason, but taking home the Pac-12 championship will put it in the CFP discussion.
Player to watch: Jalen Hurts generally played mistake-free football in a protected role as a true freshman. His development from Year 1 to Year 2 is an important national storyline for 2017. Although Alabama is stacked with defensive talent, the unit is still replacing seven NFL draft picks. Hurts will be asked to play a bigger role within the offense, so can he maintain his efficiency?
Biggest threats: Auburn and LSU have struggled to overcome a tenacious Crimson Tide defense in each of the last two campaigns. If they shake that trend this season, tiebreakers will decide the SEC West. Auburn needs signal-caller Jarrett Stidham to atone for a potentially inconsistent defense, while LSU will lean on an elite defense to make up for shaky quarterback play against top competition.
Why they'll win: First off, Alabama has the benefit of the doubt until proved otherwise. And it's not like the Tide are starting from scratch. The program has dropped five conference games over the last six seasons combined—and never more than one in a year. Alabama's reign will continue, shutting down what should be a superb LSU attack and then edging Auburn on the road.
Sun Belt: Appalachian State
Player to watch: Box-score stats don't always paint a complete picture, but Taylor Lamb's numbers throughout his career have reflected Appalachian State's performance. Over his 38 appearances, the team is 28-10. In wins, he has 49 touchdowns to 13 interceptions. During the losses, he's managed just 14 scores while throwing 13 picks.
Biggest threat: The Troy Trojans were one questionable whistle away from taking a stunning fourth-quarter lead on Clemson in 2016, and that roster is mostly coming back this season. Consequently, it's reasonable to consider the Trojans the most talented Sun Belt team. The problem is some context heavily favors App State.
Why they'll win: Troy didn't get the short end of the stick per se; it's just that App State could hardly enjoy a more favorable outlook. The Mountaineers manage to avoid both Troy and Arkansas State in conference play and host Georgia Southern at Kidd Brewer Stadium. It might take a complete meltdown for Lamb and Co. to not repeat as conference champions despite Troy's formidable roster.
All recruiting information via Scout. Stats from NCAA.com, CFBStats.com or B/R research. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Bleacher Report CFB Writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.