College Football Preseason Rankings: Which Conference Is a Threat to the SEC?

Jim Sullivan@jsully711Featured ColumnistFebruary 15, 2012

College Football Preseason Rankings: Which Conference Is a Threat to the SEC?

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    For the past six seasons, the entire nation has watched one conference dominate the rest, taking home the BCS championship a record number of times. This unbelievable streak seems like it will never stop, causing many other leagues suddenly to change their minds in favor of the four-team playoff, hoping such an act will prevent another all-SEC title game.

    The Pac-12, Big Ten, ACC and Big 12 are banding together, praying for an unbeatable squad to emerge from one of their conferences to upset their decorated brother from the Southeast. Who will forge that perfect diamond of power? Which league will be home to the savior of college football?

    After national signing day, some of the preseason rankings among the different squads mixed up slightly, as many programs surprised us while others dropped off the map. Now that the whole recruiting craziness has finally slowed down, we can take a serious look at where each conference stands and its real chance at knocking off the obvious No. 1 on this list.

    We rank all 11 FBS conferences, in addition to the independents, in a clean-cut attempt to analyze how solid they will be come the 2012 season. 

12. WAC

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    Coming in at the bottom of the rankings, this seven-team conference really has no push in the overall sense of college football. Louisiana Tech was the only real threat last postseason, as it fell to TCU in the Poinsettia Bowl.

    With new additions of UTSA and Texas State, the conference gains literally nothing except inexperience and doubt. With Utah State, San Jose State and Louisiana Tech dominating play, yet really never presenting themselves as threats to the national structure of college football, the WAC has lost many a program that really could have put it on the map.

    Conference Champion: Utah State

11. Sun Belt

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    Stretching across the entire Southern United States, the Sun Belt is not that much of a power in college football. With Louisiana-Lafayette gaining its first bowl win ever this past postseason, Arkansas State falling in a tough loss to Northern Illinois and FIU taking a loss at the hands of Marshall, not much went right for this conference last season.

    Now, with 10 programs populated across seven states, it looks to bounce back with hopes of truly making its way into the upper echelon of the smaller conferences. A tough journey, no doubt; next season probably won't provide many good results for this weaker league.

    Conference Champion: Arkansas State

10. MAC

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    With the new addition of UMass, the MAC becomes much more of a threat due to the fact they now gain even more credibility. Holding down the fort up in the Ohio River Valley, these 14 universities are much more of a danger to larger programs than many would ever give them credit.

    Owning teams such as Temple, Northern Illinois, Toledo and Ohio, this down-to-earth league got things done in last year's postseason. Expect this conference to really come out swinging next season, but still not outperform the big boys just yet. 

    Keep an eye out for this entire conglomeration of programs when it comes to next bowl season, as it seemingly plays extremely well late in the season.

    Conference Championship: Temple vs. Northern Illinois

9. MWC

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    The loss of TCU and the fall of Boise State from national prominence destroys the Mountain West Conference's legitimacy. When the Broncos lose their Heisman-caliber starting QB in Kellen Moore, it will be difficult for them to maintain their current status as a BCS buster. 

    Although it is mostly certain BSU will take the conference by just plain talent, the lack of depth the conference possesses kills any chance of it owning a real shot at a BCS bid. The 2013 merger with C-USA is a brilliant move for the league, as it will be a huge factor in helping both recover from major losses of top-notch programs.

    For next season, the MWC will be fought over mainly by Boise State, SDSU, Air Force and Nevada. While the Aztecs rebuild after losing Brady Hoke and the Falcons work to establish themselves as a decent power, the Broncos are seemingly the strongest option for taking the MWC.

    Conference Champion: Boise State 

8. Big East

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    The basketball-crazed Big East has long been the bottom of the automatic qualifying BCS conferences. This season, however, it drops even further down in the rankings as it loses two of its better programs in West Virginia and TCU (which it technically never had).

    In addition to that, it also has confirmed losses for Syracuse and Pitt for the 2014 season. In retaliation for those fallouts, the Big East has gone searching for some replacements. It has returned with Boise State, SDSU, Houston, UCF, SMU and Memphis for the 2013 season, not to mention Navy for 2015.

    Losing the Mountaineers is the real killer as they were really the only program capable of bringing home another BCS bowl trophy. This next season is the "transfer" season for the entire conference as it still stand without any of its newly acquired universities yet must maintain the losses of WVU and TCU. 

    A struggling Cincinnati squad, a capable yet unproven Louisville team and a somewhat dangerous Rutgers squad lead the league for next season, yet none really pose any threat to the traditional powers of the SEC, Big Ten, Pac-12, ACC and Big 12.

    Conference Champion: Rutgers

7. Independents

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    As of right now, only four universities dominate the volatile category that is remaining conference-less. The two more prominent military academies, Army and Navy, as well as the religious powers of Notre Dame and BYU own the market that is college football independence.

    Navy is already en route join up with the Big East come 2013 while the Big 12 is still trying to court the Cougars and the Irish into come into the fold. So far, neither is biting as lucrative TV deals keep the cash inflow at a max.

    Notre Dame has resurfaced over the past two years under coach Brian Kelly, heading twice to decent bowls. BYU has just recently taken the path of independence, boasting a solid 10-3 season that many didn't expect. Maintaining its status as such would be ideal as of right now.

    Both should be ranked in or near the top 25 in the preseason rankings, helping make this "conference" one of the better conglomerates in the country. 

6. C-USA

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    Really showing up last season with two strong performances by Houston and Southern Miss., many think that the entire conference is slowly moving toward a more prominent position in college football. Although it will be losing SMU, Houston, Memphis and UCF for the 2013 season, a MWC merger is quickly becoming a reality for the same year.

    Playing with those four programs one last time next season should provide a true sense of competition for each of the 12 universities remaining in the league. Although Houston and Southern Miss., 2011's breakout squads, have lost their coaches and their star quarterbacks, there are still many teams that can fully represent the danger that is Conference USA.

    SMU and Tulsa have really shown up lately, as they have re-established themselves as a true Southwest threat. East Carolina, UAB and UCF, set deep in the heart of the football-crazed South, all have solid programs worthy of upsetting the best of them. You also can never count out the Cougars or the Golden Eagles as each is still loaded down with talent. 

    Conference Championship: Southern Miss vs. Tulsa

5. Big Ten

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    Almost always coming in as a legitimate threat in college football, the Big Ten will have something to prove in 2012. While its low conference ranking may come as a surprise, you must take into account all the factors that will affect the league's ranking come the beginning of the season.

    First, both of the programs that played in the conference championship have lost their star QBs. Russell Wilson of Wisconsin and Kirk Cousins of Michigan State graduate in what will be tough losses for both teams. Only the Wolverines and the Badgers return true Heisman candidates in Denard Robinson and Montee Ball, respectively, something that should lead to their successes in the B1G's second year with 12 squads. 

    Second, the conference has no big-time competition to take on Michigan in a battle for dominance of the Midwest. The Big Ten is dominated by a bunch of "pretty decent" teams and one really strong BCS bid, forcing it down in the overall rankings. Nebraska, MSU, Wisconsin and Iowa all have some potential, but none compare to the Wolverines. The other two conference power programs are in a state of pure rebuilding as Ohio State and Penn State start over with new head coaches.

    Don't get me wrong, there will be a ton of great play going on up in the Midwest this next season, but almost no one has a shot to upset Michigan. Either a need to rebuild or plain mediocrity happens to be the case for most of squads next season, dropping the overall rank of the conference in my book.

    Conference Championship: Michigan vs. Wisconsin 

4. ACC

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    The Atlantic Coast Conference sneaking in at the No. 4 position comes as a shock to me as well. Its football prowess, or lack thereof, has been a staple of its culture ever since the introduction of the BCS back in the late 1990s.

    Since the additions of Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College, the ACC has done much better as a whole, yet never truly competed with the big boys to the southeast. The Hokies in particular have dominated the conference ever since the birth of the ACC championship, taking home the title three times in seven years, the most of any program.

    This past season, though, the entire country was stunned as the league's choke artist, Clemson, suddenly exploded in what would turn into one of its best years in recent memory. The additions of Syracuse and Pitt from the Big East for 2014 also helped show that the ACC plans on sticking around for a long time, providing the rest of the nation with basketball entertainment during the offseason.

    As the 2012-13 season approaches, however, the league is flexing its football muscles in a rare, yet interesting occasion. Virginia Tech, Florida State and Clemson, in addition to a few others, are all looking like they can play with the best of them this upcoming season in what should provide some fantastic showings from the entire conference.

    Watch for this postseason's Orange Bowl attendee from the ACC to be a strong power player on the gridiron.

    Conference Championship: Virginia Tech vs. Florida State 

3. Big 12

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    The loss of two premier conference members in Texas A&M and Missouri to the SEC has wounded the Big 12, yet surprisingly enough this middle-America league has surged back with a vengeance. While many thought that the lure of the Pac-12 for Oklahoma, OSU, Texas and Texas Tech would be too great, their loyalty to the conference has helped re-establish the league as a power in the college football world.

    Furthermore, the additions of Big East members TCU and West Virginia have really improved the overall competition in the conference, allowing for its stock in the rankings to greatly increase. The Mountaineers' BCS Orange Bowl victory last postseason in particular proved not only to the Big 12, but also to the country how right the conference was to risk an invitation.

    As it only sits at 10 universities right now, the league is still searching to bring more solid programs such as Louisville, Notre Dame and BYU into the fold to get back to its namesake. The 2012 conference lineup, however, is already set in what should produce some of the most exciting matchups in the nation.

    With multiple star quarterbacks such as Landry Jones of OU, Geno Smith of WVU and Collin Klein of Kansas State all coming back to head up their respective programs for another season, a full year of massive offensive production is already in the making.     

    Conference Champion: Winner of Oklahoma vs. West Virginia

2. Pac-12

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    Under the new management of Larry Scott, the Pac-10 morphed into the much more powerful Pac-12 with the additions of Colorado and Utah last season. While neither may be a powerhouse that will be reaching the BCS anytime soon, increasing competitiveness as well as mixing in a coveted conference championship has assisted this West Coast league in taking the next step toward national domination.

    While expansion talks with Big 12 members Oklahoma, OSU, Texas and Texas Tech have been quelled for the moment, eventually the conference will absorb the Southwest power programs in a move that will change the landscape of college football in a dramatic way, setting it up to truly take on the SEC.

    For now, though, the Pac-12 will have to be sated with the return of one of its premier programs in USC. Senior QB Matt Barkley will be heading up the Trojans to compete against the powers to the north, such as Oregon and Stanford, in what should be one of the more interesting seasons for the conference to date.

    Owning at least two squads loaded with enough talent to compete against the SEC, the Pac-12 easily squeezes in at No. 2 on the conference rankings.    

    Conference Championship: USC vs. Oregon

1. SEC

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    After reeling in a sixth straight national title this past season, the league has secured its place in BCS history. An all-SEC West championship game this past January down in New Orleans, however, has truly woken the other conferences to the reality that is SEC domination.

    With new additions this season of Texas A&M and Missouri, the conference gains even more football prowess that will exponentially increase its competitiveness over the course of the next couple decades. This is no conference to mess around with.

    Unfortunately for the SEC, however, its on-field success has brought jealousy, hatred and an overall sense of resentment from the rest of the country. The target painted on its back will remain 'til another conference stands atop the BCS podium, proudly hoisting the crystal ball.

    Unfortunately for the rest of the nation, however, the SEC has no interest in allowing that to happen. With the likes of Alabama, LSU, Georgia and Arkansas all coming back with some top-notch defenses and a plethora of offensive weapons, the SEC once again is looking to snag another national title for the seventh consecutive time.

    The league-wide concern this season isn't based in the return of USC, the prowess of Urban Meyer up at Ohio State or the move of West Virginia to the Big 12. It is actually, to put it lightly, a curiosity of who's turn it is to bring home the Coaches' Trophy this season.

    Conference Championship: Arkansas vs. Georgia  

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