Ranking Best College Football Conferences Entering 2017 Season

Greg Wallace@gc_wallaceFeatured ColumnistAugust 7, 2017

Ranking Best College Football Conferences Entering 2017 Season

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    Nick Saban and Alabama are the class of the SEC. Can any league members hang with them?
    Nick Saban and Alabama are the class of the SEC. Can any league members hang with them?John Bazemore/Associated Press

    We're now less than three weeks away from the beginning of the 2017 college football season. It officially kicks off Aug. 26 with a handful of games, followed by a full slate for Labor Day weekend.

    Which teams are for real? Which leagues are the best? Which conference will reign supreme?

    Without the benefit of watching actual 2017 games, we'll address that final question here. Based on overall strength, depth and the number of nationally prominent teams in each conference, let's go from worst to first.

10. Sun Belt Conference

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    Jalin Moore and Appalachian State are a force in the Sun Belt.
    Jalin Moore and Appalachian State are a force in the Sun Belt.Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    Top teams

    The Sun Belt is focused on improvement, and it would be unwise for Power Five teams to look past the top of the league.

    A year ago, Appalachian State went 10-3, won a bowl game and pushed Tennessee to overtime in Neyland Stadium before falling. Resurgent Troy went 10-3 and beat Ohio in the Dollar General Bowl. And Arkansas State went 8-5 with a win over Central Florida in the Cure Bowl.

    All three teams again should be strong this fall.

    The Mountaineers return 12 starters, including Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year Jalin Moore, who rushed for 1,402 yards and 10 scores, as well as talented senior passer Taylor Lamb. Arkansas State returns just nine starters, but one of them is Sun Belt Player of the Year Ja'Von Rolland-Jones, who put up 13.5 sacks a year ago. And the Trojans return 15 starters, including senior quarterback Brandon Silvers, who threw for 3,180 yards and 23 touchdowns last fall.

    Overall, the Sun Belt's best teams are more than capable of pulling off an eyebrow-raising upset or two.

                    

    Depth

    The middle of the Sun Belt is improved. Last year, South Alabama finished 2-6 in league play but made a bowl after defeating Mississippi State on the road and No. 19 San Diego State at home.

    Idahowhich is being pushed out of the league along with New Mexico Statewon nine games, including the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. And newcomer Coastal Carolina quickly established itself as a FCS force before moving to the FBS for the 2017 season.

    It could be tough for the Sun Belt to get more than five bowl-eligible teams due to the tough pay-for-play schedules most employ to bolster their budgets, but the league is making the right moves to be taken seriously.

                      

    Why it's here

    Overall, the Sun Belt is showing it is serious about football by pushing out poor fits such as Idaho and New Mexico State and adding up-and-coming Coastal Carolina.

    The upper echelon of the league can play with anyone, but it is dragged down by the presence of teams such as Texas State, Georgia State and Louisiana-Monroe. It hasn't done enough (yet) to surpass the likes of the MAC or Conference USA.

9. Conference USA

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    Mike White is one of the nation's most prolific passers but is largely unknown.
    Mike White is one of the nation's most prolific passers but is largely unknown.Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    Top teams

    The top of Conference USA can be fun to watch. Western Kentucky lost coach Jeff Brohm to Purdue following an 11-3 season but returns 10 starters, including senior quarterback Mike White, who threw for 4,363 yards with 37 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

    Louisiana Tech breaks in a new quarterback in dual-threat J'Mar Smith, but the Bulldogs averaged 44.3 points per game a year ago and return talented tailback Jarred Craft, who rushed for 1,074 yards and nine scores in 2016.

    Middle Tennessee State has been one of the nation's most stable programs under head coach Rick Stockstill, who is entering his 12th season with the Blue Raiders.

    Southern Miss should again be solid in Jay Hopson's second season at the helm.

                

    Depth

    C-USA's middle should be more interesting, if only because of the presence of Lane Kiffin.

    After winning nine games in the past three seasons, Florida Atlantic took the plunge on the outspoken Kiffin, who signed former Florida State quarterback and Last Chance U star De'Andre Johnson to run the offense. The Owls also return 14 starters and have Chris and Monte Kiffin on hand to improve a defense that allowed 39.8 points per game a year ago.

    Old Dominion is coming off its first-ever postseason appearance (and win), and it returns 15 starters. Texas-San Antonio and North Texas should also challenge for postseason play, and it will be fascinating to see how UAB returns following a three-year absence.

                      

    Why it's here

    Conference USA teams are capable of putting up points and pulling off an upset, but the league doesn't have the punch of the MAC at the top. FBS newcomers/returnees like UAB and Charlotte will likely drag down the conference, along with UTEP and Rice.

    There are some interesting pieces, but this is essentially the former Sun Belt with a new name.

8. Mid-American Conference

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    Logan Woodside and Toledo could be a surprise team this fall.
    Logan Woodside and Toledo could be a surprise team this fall.Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    Top teams

    The good: The Mid-American Conference got six teams into bowl games last fall. Western Michigan used a 13-0 regular season to snag a Cotton Bowl berth.

    The bad: The league went 0-6 in those games.

    The MAC hopes to improve that record this fall, and it starts with Toledo. The Rockets return 12 starters from a 9-4 team that averaged 38 points per game, No. 19 nationally, led by senior quarterback Logan Woodside, who threw for 4,129 yards with 45 touchdowns against nine interceptions in 2016.

    Western Michigan will likely take a step back after losing coach P.J. Fleck to Minnesota and QB/WR duo Zach Terrell and Corey Davis to graduation. But the Broncos do return 12 starters and should again be one of the league's top teams.

    Head coach Chuck Martin has Miami on the right track after making a bowl game, and the RedHawks return 16 starters.

                       

    Depth

    The MAC does have some balance in its lower ranks. Under coach Frank Solich, Ohio has been consistently solid and is on track for another bowl bid after returning 11 starters.

    Northern Illinois slipped following Dave Doeren's departure to N.C. State, but it should push for postseason play again if it can settle on a quarterback.

    Eastern Michigan made its first bowl game in 29 years last fall and returns 16 starters, including senior quarterback Brogan Roback. The Eagles could push for another bowl this fall along with Akron, which just missed one at 5-7 in 2016.

                       

    Why it's here

    MACtion has become a staple of midweek ESPN telecasts, and the league is capable of pulling a surprise here and there, as numerous Big Ten teams have found out.

    Toledo looks to be the class of the league, but it's unclear if any team can reach the heights Western Michigan achieved in 2016. Still, top-to-bottom, this is a solid Group of Five league.

7. Mountain West Conference

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    Brett Rypien and Boise State are the class of the Mountain West.
    Brett Rypien and Boise State are the class of the Mountain West.Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Top teams

    The Mountain West's standard-bearer is Boise State, which should again be the case this season.

    The Broncos are coming off a 10-win season, and although they return only eight starters, they have good depth led by quarterback Brett Rypien, who threw for 3,646 yards with 24 touchdowns against eight interceptions last fall.

    Head coach Craig Bohl has done an excellent job rebuilding Wyoming and has the potential 2018 No. 1 NFL draft pick in quarterback Josh Allen. San Diego State lost NCAA career leading rusher Donnel Pumphrey but still returns a 1,000-yard rusher in Rashaad Penny.

    Overall, the top of the Mountain West can more than hold its own, which we'll see in 2017.

                     

    Depth

    Mike Bobo has shown he's a capable young coach after leading Colorado State to a bowl in each of his first two seasons at the helm. Quarterback Nick Stevens emerged as one of the MWC's top passers midway through 2016 and should be even better with a full season under center.

    Nick Rolovich did an impressive job leading Hawaii to a bowl in his debut campaign and can build on a seven-win season with 13 returning starters.

    Air Force and Troy Calhoun will cause problems with their flexbone attack, and Bob Davie has experienced a nice career renaissance at New Mexico.

                     

    Why it's here

    The Mountain West has consistently been one of the nation's top mid-major leagues, and that should continue in 2017. With Boise State, San Diego State and Wyoming, the league will command respect.

    Rebuilding programs such as Fresno State, Nevada and San Jose State drag the MWC down overall, but from the penthouse to the cellar, this is a group capable of winning meaningful games and having an impact in the bowl season.

6. American Athletic Conference

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    Quinton Flowers is one of the nation's most dynamic playmaking quarterbacks.
    Quinton Flowers is one of the nation's most dynamic playmaking quarterbacks.Butch Dill/Associated Press

    Top teams

    The American Athletic Conference wants to be taken seriously as a nationally relevant league, and making quality hires has propelled it to the top of the Group of Five.

    South Florida lost Willie Taggart to Oregon but hired former Texas coach Charlie Strong, who will do fine with an offense led by Quinton Flowers. The Florida native threw for 2,812 yards with 24 touchdowns against seven interceptions and rushed for 1,530 yards and 18 scores as a junior last season. With him running the show again, the Bulls will be a strong contender for a New Year's Six bowl bid.

    Memphis made an equally smart hire in Mike Norvell, who kept the momentum rolling following Justin Fuente's departure to Virginia Tech. Navy, which returns 10 starters this fall, is also a consistent headache for more athletic foes with its triple-option flexbone scheme.

                     

    Depth

    AAC teams have focused on offense in recent hires, and the result is an improving league.

    Tulsa won 10 games and averaged 45.2 points per game (tied for sixth nationally) in Philip Montgomery's second season, and the Golden Hurricane return 14 starters.

    SMU was improved in Chad Morris' second campaign but must raise its performance defensively to make a bowl after allowing 36.3 points per game.

    Houston lost Tom Herman to Texas and promoted Major Applewhite to replace him, and the Cougars hope Kyle Allen can replicate Greg Ward Jr.'s magic at quarterback. Ed Oliver is one of the nation's top defensive linemen, but does Houston have the talent to make a run at an AAC title?

    Temple also faces some turnover following Matt Rhule's departure to Baylor. East Carolina, UConn, Cincinnati and Tulane are all fighting to regain relevance with new or second-year head coaches.

                            

    Why it's here

    The AAC wants to be considered a Power Five league, and with teams such as South Florida, Memphis, Houston and Navy, it has made noise nationally. But while the 12-team league is the best Group of Five conference by far, its depth still doesn't stack up to Power Five leagues.

    Expect the AAC to make a name for itself this fall with fun-to-watch, pass-happy football and a share of attention-grabbing wins. But it can't match up to the leagues ahead of it for depth and top-level strength.

5. Big 12 Conference

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    Baker Mayfield and Oklahoma are the clear class of the Big 12.
    Baker Mayfield and Oklahoma are the clear class of the Big 12.Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    Top teams

    The Big 12 has been on the outside looking in for two of the three College Football Playoffs. The league added a conference championship game for its 10-team group to change its luck in that regard.

    Is there a worthy contender for the four-team field, though? Oklahoma hopes so. The Sooners were surprised by Bob Stoops' retirement, but new coach Lincoln Riley does inherit 15 starters, including two-time Heisman finalist and senior quarterback Baker Mayfield. Abdul Adams hopes to pick up the slack in the backfield, while Kentucky transfer Jeff Badet is a top receiving option.

    Mike Gundy has built a powerhouse at Oklahoma State, which brings 12 starters back from a 10-3 team. Quarterback Mason Rudolph is a Heisman contender, and wideout James Washington made 71 catches for 1,380 yards and 10 scores a year ago as one of the nation's best deep threats. The Cowboys will push for a Big 12 title again.

    Charlie Strong couldn't get over the hump at Texas, but he left a talented roster for new coach Tom Herman, led by quarterback Shane Buechele and linebacker Malik Jefferson. The Longhorns should be improved in 2017.

    Don't forget about Bill Snyder's Kansas State, which isn't flashy but is typically successful.

                          

    Depth

    West Virginia won 10 games a year ago, although the Mountaineers return just three defensive starters. The key will be quarterback Will Grier, who has to shake off the rust quickly after nearly two full seasons off.

    Will scandal and depressed recruiting catch up with new Baylor coach Matt Rhule? The Bears were streaky last season, winning their first six and losing six straight to close the regular season.

    Kenny Hill has one last chance to fulfill the hype surrounding him at TCU, and the Horned Frogs should contend for a bowl.

                          

    Why it's here

    The Big 12 has excellent talent at the top with Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas and quality depth in the middle with Kansas State, West Virginia and TCU. Iowa State, Kansas and Texas Tech bring up the rear, but all could challenge for bowls this fall.

    Overall, the Big 12 has teams that could contend for the playoff in Oklahoma and OSU, but it doesn't have the surefire national title contender some of its Power Five brethren have. That holds it back overall in comparison.

4. Pac-12 Conference

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    Sam Darnold is one of the nation's top quarterbacks and a strong Heisman Trophy candidate.
    Sam Darnold is one of the nation's top quarterbacks and a strong Heisman Trophy candidate.Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    Top teams

    The Pac-12 broke back into the College Football Playoff last fall, but it might have sent its second-best team by season's end.

    Washington had a great season in Chris Petersen's third year, but Southern California reeled off nine consecutive wins (including the Huskies' only regular-season loss) and ended the season as the nation's hottest group.

    The Huskies suffered some losses in their secondary but return 13 starters, including standout quarterback Jake Browning (3,430 passing yards, 43 touchdowns, nine interceptions) and tailback Myles Gaskin (1,373 rushing yards, 10 rushing touchdowns).

    Meanwhile, the Trojans have a legit Heisman Trophy candidate in quarterback Sam Darnold and a young but talented roster. They return 10 starters and will be tested early by Stanford and Texas at home.

    Stanford has questions at quarterback and has lost do-everything back Christian McCaffrey, but speedy Bryce Love will pick up the slack and keep the Cardinal near the top of the league.

                       

    Depth

    After crashing from national runner-up to 4-8 a year ago, Oregon brought in Willie Taggart from South Florida to turn the roster around. It could be a quick fix, as tailback Royce Freeman is one of the nation's top runners.

    Jim Mora Jr. is entering a crucial season at UCLA, although having a healthy Josh Rosen at quarterback will help.

    Washington State and quarterback Luke Falk will throw, throw and throw some more in Mike Leach's Air Raid offense, and Colorado looks to build on an impressive year under coach Mike MacIntyre.

    Under head coach Kyle Whittingham, Utah is consistently one of the nation's steadier programs.

                     

    Why it's here

    At the top, the Pac-12 can compete with many leagues, and both Washington and Southern Cal (who do not meet in the regular season) will compete for the College Football Playoff. But it's tough to find a legit contender beyond them, although Stanford, Washington State and Oregon should be successful this fall.

    The depth top-to-bottom is better than the Big 12, with Arizona, Arizona State and Cal bringing up the rear, but it falls behind the ACC, Big Ten and SEC.

3. Atlantic Coast Conference

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    Dabo Swinney and Clemson proved they belonged on the national stage last fall.
    Dabo Swinney and Clemson proved they belonged on the national stage last fall.David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Top teams

    If you had reason to doubt the ACC in the past, there's little reason to do so any longer.

    The league has had a representative in each of the first three College Football Playoffs, with Clemson making the title game in 2015 and beating Alabama last January in an all-time classic.

    While the Tigers lost multiple key offensive pieces, including quarterback Deshaun Watson, don't expect them to slip too far. They still have an excellent defense anchored by a nasty defensive line, with both Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence on hand.

    Florida State will challenge Dabo Swinney's bunch for ACC and Atlantic Division supremacy, however.

    The Seminoles return 14 starters, and that doesn't include safety Derwin James, one of the nation's top defenders who missed the majority of 2016 with a knee injury. Deondre Francois threw for 3,350 yards with 20 touchdowns against seven interceptions as a freshman and should be even better as a sophomore.

    Don't forget about Louisville, which made a legit push for the College Football Playoff before ending the season on a three-game losing streak. The Cardinals have reigning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson, one of the nation's most electric quarterbacks and all-around players.

                              

    Depth

    In the Coastal Division, Miami and Virginia Tech are ready to build on nine- and 10-win seasons under first-year coaches, respectively, although the latter faces some uncertainty at quarterback following Jerod Evans' surprising decision to turn pro (and go undrafted). Receiver Isaiah Ford and tight end Bucky Hodges' NFL departures leave some holes in a potent passing game.

    Behind them, Pitt will look to build on a solid second season under Pat Narduzzi, and Georgia Tech enjoyed a bounce-back 2016 campaign under Paul Johnson.

    Is Brandon Harris the answer at quarterback for North Carolina? And can N.C. State break through to the upper echelon of the Atlantic?

                       

    Why it's here

    The ACC has two legit national title contenders in Clemson and Florida State, along with other programs on the rise such as Louisville, Miami and Virginia Tech.

    The Tigers won the national title but lost to Pitt at home and nearly suffered the same fate against Virginia Tech.

    At the bottom, Duke is enjoying perhaps its best run under David Cutcliffe, and Virginia is building under head coach Bronco Mendenhall. Overall, the ACC has some surprising depth.

2. Big Ten Conference

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    Saquon Barkley is one of the nation's most dynamic players.
    Saquon Barkley is one of the nation's most dynamic players.Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Top teams

    If you're a coach trying to find a path to the College Football Playoff, you would be advised to avoid the Big Ten East. It has become one of the toughest divisions in college football, if not the toughest, and that will continue this year.

    For instance: Ohio State made the College Football Playoff last fall but didn't even win the division following a 24-21 loss to Penn State. The Buckeyes return 15 starters, led by dual-threat quarterback J.T. Barrett and talented defensive linemen Sam Hubbard and Tyquan Lewis, who combined for 18.5 tackles for loss last season.

    Penn State won the Big Ten and returns 16 starters, including perhaps college football's top tailback in Saquon Barkley, who rushed for 1,496 yards and 18 touchdowns last fall.

    Michigan could take a step back this season after returning just one defensive starter, but the Wolverines do have one of the nation's best emerging stars in sophomore defensive end Rashan Gary.

    Meanwhile, Wisconsin faces a much easier road in the Big Ten West, but the Badgers boast a bruising defense and return 17 starters overall. They also avoid Ohio State and Penn State in the regular season, which will help, and get Iowa and Michigan at home.

                      

    Depth

    The Big Ten has talent at the top, but it also has a solid middle.

    With Clayton Thorson and Justin Jackson (1,524 rushing yards, 15 touchdowns) in the offensive backfield, Northwestern will have a fighting chance in the Big Ten West.

    Is Tanner Lee the right fit for Mike Riley's pro-style offense in Nebraska? We'll see. Iowa will have a solid running game but lacks receivers, but the Hawks will be physical and tough regardless.

    Michigan State cratered to 3-9 after a CFP appearance in 2015, but Mark Dantonio is too good a coach to stay down for long.

    Can P.J. Fleck make a difference for a Minnesota team that won nine games in 2016? And don't forget, D.J. Durkin got Maryland to a bowl in his first season.

                       

    Why it's here

    The Big Ten has some serious star power at the top, particularly in the East Division, but it could have as many as 11 bowl teams this season if the cards break right. That's an impressive feat in its own right.

    Purdue, Rutgers and Illinois drag down the bottom of the league, but the top of the Big Ten can hang with anyone, which gives it some heft overall.

1. Southeastern Conference

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    Jalen Hurts and Alabama are the clear top dogs in the SEC, but is there depth behind them?
    Jalen Hurts and Alabama are the clear top dogs in the SEC, but is there depth behind them?John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Top teams

    A year ago, it was "Alabama and everyone else" in the Southeastern Conference. The Crimson Tide came within one second of winning its second consecutive national title, but the Tide were the only 10-win team in the league.

    The SEC's 12 postseason qualifiers went 6-6 in their bowl games (not counting the national title game)very average. Will that be the case again this year?

    The Tide will again be among the nation's best teams, returning 12 starters led by sophomore quarterback Jalen Hurts, game-breaking wideout Calvin Ridley and versatile defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick, as well as a deep running back corps.

    Rival Auburn should be better with a new fast-paced offense and Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham under center.

    LSU saw enough in Ed Orgeron to promote him from interim to full-time head coach, and while the Tigers have only nine returning starters, they do have dynamic back Derrius Guice (1,387 rushing yards, 15 touchdowns) and end Arden Key, one of the nation's top pass-rushers.

    Georgia got a pleasant surprise when tailbacks Nick Chubb and Sony Michel returned for their senior seasons, and sophomore quarterback Jacob Eason is a developing star. A defense that returns all 11 starters from 2016 should provide plenty of support, too.

    And don't forget Florida, which has won SEC East titles in each of head coach Jim McElwain's first two seasons.

                           

    Depth

    The SEC is strong at the top, but it also has considerable depth beyond the frontliners.

    Bret Bielema has turned Arkansas into a rugged team, although getting higher than fourth in the SEC West is a tough task.

    Kevin Sumlin is on the hot seat at Texas A&M after going 33-19 over the last four seasons. Will he turn it around in 2017?

    South Carolina, Kentucky and Vanderbilt all hope to build on bowl appearances this fall, and Dan Mullen consistently does more with less at Mississippi State, with seven consecutive bowl appearances.

                        

    Why it's here

    Alabama is the class of the SEC and one of the nation's most storied programs, but this fall, the depth should extend beyond the Tide.

    Auburn and LSU will push 'Bama in the West, and Georgia should be improved in Kirby Smart's second season.

    When the league's worst programs are Missouri and Ole Miss, it's a sign of a deep group from top to bottom, which makes it the nation's best overall in 2017.