College Football Predictions: The Favorite or Field for All 11 FBS Conferences

David Luther@@davidrlutherFeatured ColumnistJuly 29, 2011

College Football Predictions: The Favorite or Field for All 11 FBS Conferences

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    Fall camps will be opening over the next few weeks, and conferences are preparing for (or have already had) their media days.

    That means it's time for some hard predictions about the upcoming season. With each conference naming a favorite, as named by the coaches or conference media, the rest of the conference—the field—will have a good idea of where the expectations stand for them, and everyone else.

    Of course, this also means the favorite knows the expectations have been set high, and everyone else in the conference will be gunning for that very large target now on the backs of the anointed favorite.

    So who should you pick in each conference? The favorite or the field?

The Mid-American Conference

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    Favorite: Toledo

    Last season, Northern Illinois ran the table, only to lose in the conference championship game to Miami U.

    Still, the Huskies finished 11-3 in 2010, including a Humanitarian Bowl beatdown of Fresno State (40-17). With nine offensive starters returning, you'd expect the Huskies to lead the MAC predictions.

    But the MAC's media grouping released their preseason predictions at the annual media day at Ford Field in Detroit, and Toledo received the most first-place votes in the West Division and was also the team picked by the most number of voters to win the MAC Championship Game.

    Toledo received eight first-place votes in the West, followed by NIU with five, Western Michigan with two and Central Michigan with one. Ball State and Eastern Michigan rounded out the West, neither receiving a first-place vote.

    Miami led the East division in total points and received four first-place votes. Ohio was only one point behind Miami but received eight first-place votes. Temple received the other four first-place votes for the East Division.

    Toledo received five votes to win the MAC Championship Game. Miami U and NIU came in second with three votes, tied for second. Ohio and Western Michigan each received one vote.

    With all of the uncertainty surrounding the media vote, it's easy to pick the field against Toledo this year. If the media that watches each and every MAC game can't come together to place a single team clearly out in front, why should the average fan?

    Pick: The Field

The Sun Belt Conference

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    Favorite: Florida International

    The Sun Belt has also released their preseason poll as determined by a coaches poll.

    Florida International, co-champions from 2010 along with Troy, was selected as the preseason top team in the Sun Belt by the coaches.

    FIU finished 2010 with a 6-2 conference record but was just 7-6 overall, highlighting the Sun Belt's overall weakness outside of the conference. FIU received five first-place votes.

    Troy, the other co-champion, finished 2010 with an identical conference mark but was 8-5 overall. The Trojans placed second in the preseason coaches poll, receiving two of the nine first-place votes. The other first-place votes went to Arkansas State and Western Kentucky, but each of those teams finished well down in the poll.

    There's as much reason to bet on FIU as not this season, and although it may be hard to get excited about FIU in 2011, it's probably harder to get more excited for any other team from the Sun Belt.

    Pick: The Favorite

Conference USA

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    Favorite: UCF

    The C-USA media has weighed in, and they have selected Central Florida to win the Eastern Division and Houston to win the Western Division in 2011. The conference does not select a favorite to win the conference's championship, so we'll help them out with that one.

    UCF is returning the bulk of their offense from last year's conference championship team, including nearly all skill position players (they do lose a pair of contributing wide outs, but the team's top kick returner, Quincy McDuffle should fill any void nicely).

    The Western Division top pick, Houston, had a pretty bad 2010 season, finishing 4-4 in the conference and 5-7 overall. Many Cougars fans will be quick to remind any UH doubter that Houston suffered through a rash of injury issues last season.

    While that may be so, a quality team should have more than enough depth to avoid sinking into the mud after a few injuries. Houston wasn't able to avoid becoming a doormat last season. That raises the question, “What happens if someone is lost to injury this season?”

    While you probably shouldn't expect another laughable performance by Houston, don't be shocked if an untimely injury or two could mean an early exit from conference championship consideration.

    Pick: The Favorite

The Western Athletic Conference

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    The Favorite: Hawai'i

    The Warriors have been picked as the team to beat in both preseason WAC polls (coaches and media).

    The WAC will have a distinctly different look this year, as Boise State has moved to the Mountain West conference. This will also be Nevada's last season in the WAC before making the move to the MWC.

    Hawai'i received five of the eight possible first-place votes in the coaches poll, and 18 of the 41 possible first-place votes in the media poll.

    Hawai'i finished 2010 with a 10-4 record and was a WAC co-champion with a 7-1 conference mark. The biggest challenge for the Warriors will be the fact that they return just three offensive starters from the 2010 team.

    Fresno State appeared as the No. 2 team in both polls, and Nevada was a consensus No. 3 (although the Wolf Pack had two first-place votes to Fresno's one in the coaches poll).

    With all of the new blood Hawai'i will have to break in this season and the ability of teams like Nevada and Fresno State to win tough games both within and outside of the conference, Hawai'i isn't anywhere close to a sure thing this season.

    Pick: The Field

The Mountain West Conference

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    Favorite: Boise State

    It's probably not a shock to most people that a team ranked in the top 10 in every national preseason poll will lead the pack in their first season in the Mountain West Conference.

    Boise State, led by Heisman-hopeful Kellen Moore, blew the rest of the pack out of the water in the MWC's 2011 preseason poll, earning 28-of-31 possible first-place votes. TCU earned the other three votes and finished second in the poll.

    Boise State certainly has the attention of the MWC media even before they play their first-ever conference game. And why not? They've had the national media's attention for years, and they've been the darling of the non-AQ schools for quite some time.

    TCU, while certainly able to win some games this season, is apparently too depleted to lead the media to believe they can win the conference again in 2011. Although TCU will start the season somewhere between 10 and 20 in national preseason polls, they're clearly beginning the year looking up at Boise State.

    There's just no reason to assume Boise State will slip up this season. The shocking overtime loss to Nevada last season may serve to provide Boise State with a valuable lesson. Don't expect the Broncos to lose to anyone in the MWC this season, and they have a legit shot at not losing to anyone anywhere.

    Pick: The Favorite

The Big East

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    Favorite: West Virginia

    The conference has yet to release their preseason poll, but it seems likely that West Virginia will figure heavily into the Big East championship picture this season. After finishing last year tied for the conference title, WVU comes into the 2011 season with high hopes.

    The Mountaineers are returning eight offensive starters. New head coach Dana Holgorsen will bring his own, unique brand of high-flying, high-octane offense to West Virginia, and the early predictions are that the Mountaineer's history of prolific offenses under Rich Rodriguez will be resurrected under Holgorsen.

    While WVU is probably the early favorite, it would be foolish to count out fellow 2010 co-champions Connecticut and Pittsburgh. Both teams are returning the core of their offenses with most of the defense returning, as well.

    While none of these teams may start the 2011 season in the national Top 25, it's very likely there will be at least two Big East teams breaking into the polls before the season is a month old.

    While West Virginia is a favorite this season, Pitt and UConn are just too close to WVU to give the Mountaineers full-throat support.

    Pick: The Field

The Atlantic Coast Conference

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    Favorite: Florida State

    The ACC has released their preseason poll, and the media is clear about one thing—Florida State is the consensus favorite in 2011.

    Not only did the Seminoles garner 65 of the 71 first-place votes available in the Atlantic Division, they received 50 of the 71 votes for winning the conference championship game.

    Virginia Tech was the clear leader in the Coastal Division but fell 32 votes behind FSU in the ACC Championship voting.

    The early hype surrounding the Seminoles this season has turned into a media frenzy. The pressure is certainly on for Jimbo Fisher, EJ Manuel and the rest of the Seminoles program to perform this year.

    There's no reason to doubt fans in Tallahassee will be very happy with the result.

    Pick: The Favorite

The Big 12

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    Favorite: Oklahoma

    There's no surprise that the national preseason No. 1 team, Oklahoma, is also tabbed as the preseason favorite in the Big 12.

    With so many weapons as his disposal, Bob Stoops is expected to not only guide the Sooners to a Big 12 title this year, and BCS championship is the goal for the folks in Norman this season.

    We could talk about Oklahoma and their positives forever, but there are a couple of other teams worth paying attention to in the Big 12 this season.

    First, Oklahoma State will likely begin the season ranked in the top 10, and the Cowboys finished with a single first-place vote in the Big 12 poll. Texas A&M is also in the mix, and the Aggies also finished with a single first-place vote and actually came in second when the points were tabulated for the Big 12's media poll.

    While Oklahoma, with their 41 first-place votes, is the clear and undisputed top team to begin the year, those who watch the Big 12 know that absolutely anything can happen.

    But with the loss of the conference championship game, it's harder for a team to supplant the favorite, as they are now forced to outlast the front-runner over the long haul. It's no longer a question of simply winning a conference championship game—each game is just as important as every other game this season.

    And that's why Oklahoma has more than fortune in their corner in 2011.

    Pick: The Favorite

The Pac-12

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    Favorite: Oregon

    Even though the Big 12 has lost their championship game, there are two conferences that have gained one. The first is the all-new Pac-12.

    With the addition of Utah and Colorado, the conference has split into the North and South Divisions, and a conference championship game is the first desired destination for the 12 teams in the conference.

    After last season's Pac-10 championship and berth in the BCS Championship Game, the Ducks have been selected as the preseason favorite in the Pac-12-North, earning 29-of-42 first-place votes. Stanford finished second in the North, earning the remaining 13 first-place votes.

    USC was picked as the preseason favorite in the South, earning 24 first-place votes, but as they are ineligible to play in the Pac-12 Championship Game (per NCAA sanctions), Arizona State, with their 13 first-place votes, is the top team from the South with an actual chance to win the conference in 2011.

    With the championship game, the pollsters now get to vote on their pick to win that game, and Oregon was again the clear favorite, receiving 28 votes. Stanford received 11 votes and Arizona State, 3.

    There's really no reason to doubt the Ducks will have the ability to win the Pac-12 this year. They are returning an amazing lineup of very talented and experienced players. Stanford, of course, returns Andrew Luck. But beyond the quarterback position, the Cardinal are woefully depleted.

    The Sun Devils from Arizona State could be the most interesting team in the Pac-12 this season. Although ASU finished just 6-6 last year, four of the losses were by single scores, and a couple games were losses by a single point.

    In fact, only nine points separated ASU's 6-6 record from 10-2. Add in the fact that they return every offensive starter and they could surprise many people this season.

    Pick: The Favorite

The Big Ten

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    Favorite: Wisconsin

    An oddity in the FBS, the Big Ten does not release a full preseason poll.

    The Big Ten's media day (which is actually two days) starts July 29. While the conference does not release a full poll, they do conduct a poll and release the top tier of teams.

    It's likely that the new Big Ten will release a small list of top teams from each division this year, and the 2011 version will likely include the usual suspects.

    Last season, the Big Ten title was split between Michigan State, Wisconsin and Ohio State (although the Buckeyes ended up vacating all of the victories from 2010).

    Wisconsin and MSU are in separate divisions now, and the Leaders Division Badgers and Legends Division Spartans will likely appear at or near the top of the poll for their division. Also expect Nebraska to be in the mix for the Legends Division.

    With Ohio State likely out of the mix for the conference championship game (assuming the NCAA rules them ineligible for postseason play in 2011), Wisconsin's only competition from within the Leaders is likely to come from Penn State.

    The Legends has a few teams, besides Nebraska and Michigan State, that could really make things interesting this season. Michigan has a new coach and a new outlook. Plus, the Wolverines are returning some great talent, and some added defensive experience should go a long way in Ann Arbor.

    Dan Persa leads Northwestern, and although the Wildcats probably aren't a conference title threat, they could certainly spoil someone's party.

    Pick: The Field

The Southeastern Conference

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    Favorite: Alabama

    Our last stop is the SEC.

    The SEC probably has the largest collection of preseason Top 25 teams, as there are no fewer than five or six (and in some cases, seven) SEC teams appearing in pretty much every preseason poll that exists.

    Once again, the Crimson Tide lead the way in the preseason polls and appear pretty much as a consensus national No. 2 program for 2011.

    While that may, in some minds, automatically give Alabama the inside track to the 2011 SEC title, it's important to note that fellow SEC-West team LSU is nipping at their heels at No. 3 or No. 4 in most national preseason polls.

    We would also be remiss if we didn't mention defending BCS champion Auburn, although they will suffer through some of the pains of losing the bulk of their starters to graduation and the NFL.

    South Carolina, Arkansas and Mississippi State also appear on preseason lists, and the Georgia Bulldogs will make an appearance on some.

    Alabama also began 2010 as the preseason No. 1 team, having won the 2009 title, and the Tide was returning most of their talent from the BCS championship team. Even with all of that talent returning, the Tide fell short in 2010. So, it's not out of the realm of possibility that 2011 will see a team other than Alabama take the conference.

    While LSU certainly has the best opportunity to do so, there are a number of teams that could spring forth to capture the conference in 2011. After all, where was Auburn in the 2010 preseason polls?

    Pick: The Field