College Football Conference Champs with the Best Chance to Repeat in 2015

Brian Leigh@@BLeighDATFeatured ColumnistJanuary 7, 2015

College Football Conference Champs with the Best Chance to Repeat in 2015

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    Only three conference champions repeated in 2014, and two of those three—Baylor in the Big 12 and Central Florida in the American—needed co-championships to get there. The only outright repeat champion was Florida State in the ACC.

    But can anyone follow in FSU's footsteps next season?

    Doing so is harder than it sounds, and if this past season was any indication, almost every team I pick on this list will be wrong. But there are a few teams that look poised to defend their title in 2015.

    Ranking the contenders included obvious criteria: how much talent each champion returns, how much talent the rest of the conference returns, coaching continuity, schedule favorability, etc.

    A whole lot can change between now and August, but for the time being, here are the top candidates to go back-to-back in 2015.

Outside the Top Five

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    USA TODAY Sports

    10. Marshall (Conference-USA)

    Marshall was great in 2014, but how much of that was Rakeem Cato and Tommy Shuler? Both offensive stars are set to leave, and so are leading tacklers Neville Hewitt and Jermaine Holmes. At the same time, C-USA has quietly become a competitive conference, highlighted by the renewed spirit of Louisiana Tech, which almost beat Marshall in the 2014 title game and just added Florida transfer Jeff Driskel (don't laugh; he still has potential) to play quarterback.

    9. Alabama (SEC)

    This has less to do with Alabama and more to do with the depth of the SEC. Ring that death knell all you like; this is still the hardest league to win. Nick Saban's team will be a favorite, and rightfully so, but I'd still advise taking the field. Fun fact: No SEC team has won back-to-back conference titles since Tennessee in 1997 and 1998. 

    8. Boise State (Mountain West)

    How do you bet against Boise State winning the Mountain West? It's tough, admittedly, but 2015 might be the year. The Broncos lose quarterback Grant Hedrick and running back Jay Ajayi and play road games at Colorado State, Fresno State, Utah State and San Diego State. They should still be the favorites, but they're not a lock.

    7. Georgia Southern (Sun Belt)

    All hail Willie Fritz! The Eagles went 8-0 in conference play and nearly upset Georgia Tech and NC State in 2014, the first year of their FBS transition. They return the backfield combo of Kevin Ellison and Matt Breida and don't have much in the way of competition from the rest of the Sun Belt, but it's hard to rank them any higher when four starting offensive linemen are slated to leave. This offense relies too heavily on winning in the trenches.

    6. Oregon (Pac-12)

    Oregon has the offensive weapons to repeat in the Pac-12 next season, but losses in the secondary, along both lines and (obviously) at quarterback make it difficult to bank on. If Kevin Hogan plays next season like he did at the end of this season, he and Stanford should once again be a thorn the Ducks' bill.

5. Cincinnati (AAC)*

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    It hasn't been loud, but Cincinnati has established itself as one of the most consistent winning programs in America.

    The Bearcats claimed a share of the 2014 American Athletic title, splitting it three ways with Memphis and Central Florida, despite failing to win 10 games for just the second time in seven years. If their 29th-percentile season is good enough to split a conference title, doesn't that make them a safe bet to win it outright the next year?

    Quarterback Gunner Kiel showed flashes of what made him a 5-star recruit in his first season with the program, and he should only grow stronger next year. Add to that the (ridiculous) fact that Cincinnati's seven leading receivers were all juniors—and will next year all be seniors—and this offense begins to look terrifying.

    Memphis loses seven of its eight leading tacklers from last season, and UCF, despite claiming the three-way tie, needed a wild Hail Mary against East Carolina to finish with one conference loss. ECU itself is a contender, but with Shane Carden and Justin Hardy on the way out (and offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley a hot commodity on the couching carousel), there's no guarantee it looks the same in 2015.

    Cincinnati has some questions to answer, but in a conference with very few givens, the Bearcats are a paragon of consistency.

    And that makes them a solid team to bet on.

    *UCF and Memphis were co-champions in 2014

4. Florida State (ACC)

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    Yes, Florida State loses Jameis Winston, but it's so far ahead of the rest of the ACC in other places that it doesn't need to panic.

    No matter who plays quarterback—and that's admittedly a big question—this offense is loaded with young skill position players such as running back Dalvin Cook and receivers Travis Rudolph and Ermon Lane. All of those guys were thrust into a playoff run this season, playing meaningful snaps as true freshmen for a 13-0 ACC champion.

    You think that's gonna help their development?

    Me too.

    The defense was young this season and has two of the top 10 players on the 247Sports composite rankings—safety Derwin James (No. 6) and defensive end Josh Sweat (No. 7)—enrolled for spring ball and 5-star cornerback Tarvarus McFadden set to join in the fall.

    Playing Clemson and Georgia Tech on the road will not help matters. But Florida State is still Florida State. And with expectations lowered next season, Jimbo Fisher can coach this group up into the same sort of unsinkable monster he coached in 2013.

3. TCU (Big 12)*

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    TCU returns a boatload of talent from the 2014 Peach Bowl champion—a team that, in some ways, deserved to make the playoff.

    Quarterback Trevone Boykin will be back. So will running backs Aaron Green and B.J. Catalon, receivers Josh Doctson and Kolby Listenbee and four of five starters on the offensive line. The defense loses some pieces but returns depth in the trenches and a great trio of defensive backs (Derrick Kindred, Chris Hackett and Ranthony Texada).

    More to the point, the Horned Frogs get to play their biggest competition, Baylor, in Fort Worth after losing a shootout in Waco this season. If they avoid a sluggish start at Minnesota in Week 1, they should sail into Big 12 play and have a good shot to repeat.

    Only this time, they might repeat alone.

    *Baylor was a co-champion in 2014.

2. Northern Illinois (MAC)

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    Northern Illinois has a good thing going, and I would advise not picking against the Huskies until that good thing stops.

    Sure, left tackle Tyler Loos and receiver Da'Ron Brown will be hard to replace—but if Jordan Lynch was replaceable, anyone is replaceable. Rising junior quarterback Drew Hare had a solid first year as a starter and should only get more comfortable in his second season.

    "He's kept getting better a little bit at a time," head coach Rod Carey told reporters after beating Bowling Green 51-17 in the MAC title game. "Sometimes I wasn't happy with him, sometimes he wasn't happy with me, but you know what, it's coming and you saw it tonight."

    The defense loses some important pieces but returns leading tackler Marlon Moore along with all-MAC selections Paris Logan (first team), Boomer Mays (second team) and Rasheen Lemon (third team).

    The Huskies have won five straight West division championships and three of the past five conference titles.

    Again: This is no time to pick against them.

1. Ohio State (Big Ten)

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    Ohio State was supposed to be good this season, but it wasn't supposed to be this good. It was supposed to be a year away.

    It wasn't.

    Next year, though, it returns a deep cast of characters from the current national title game participant, highlighted by defensive end Joey Bosa, linebackers Darron Lee and Joshua Perry, running back Ezekiel Elliott and whoever from the quarterback trio of Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones decides to stay in Columbus.

    The Buckeyes get to host Penn State and Michigan State after winning in Happy Valley and East Lansing this season, and although a November road trip to Ann Arbor took a turn for the Jim Harbaugh hiring, it is still a game this team should win (for the time being).

    Urban Meyer's reign over the Big Ten is only getting started.

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