Predicting the Winner of Each College Football Conference in 2015

Greg Wallace@gc_wallaceFeatured ColumnistMay 20, 2015

Predicting the Winner of Each College Football Conference in 2015

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    Urban Meyer has returned Ohio State to national prominence.
    Urban Meyer has returned Ohio State to national prominence.Pool/Getty Images

    Memorial Day is almost upon us, and with it, the beginning of summer. We’re still more than three months away from the kickoff of the 2015 college football season, but we’re not far at all from college football preview magazine season.

    Soon, people across America will be picking up glossy magazines at grocery stores and bookstores, soaking up all the information they can find on their favorite teams and their rivals. It’s the perfect time to make predictions, and that’s what we’re doing here. Here’s our guess at who’ll win each major college football conference in 2015.

AAC: Cincinnati

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    Gunner Kiel had a standout first season as Cincinnati's starting quarterback.
    Gunner Kiel had a standout first season as Cincinnati's starting quarterback.Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Although it is no longer part of the Power Five structure, the American Athletic Conference should be intriguing in 2015. With talented teams like Cincinnati, Memphis and Central Florida as well as teams with offensive-oriented new leaders like Houston, SMU and Tulsa, there'll be reason to watch the AAC this fall.

    Last fall, Cincinnati finished in a three-way tie for the league title, and Tommy Tuberville’s 2015 team returns 13 starters from that group. The Bearcats will return eight offensive starters, led by well-traveled quarterback Gunner Kiel. Last fall, Kiel threw for 3,254 touchdowns with 31 touchdowns in his first full season as a starter. He should be even better in 2015.

    The Bearcats must travel to Houston and Memphis, and they'll finish the season with road games at Central Florida and East Carolina. But their talent is the best in the AAC, which could be the difference in a crowded race.

ACC: Clemson

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    Dabo Swinney has Clemson on the cusp of something special in 2015.
    Dabo Swinney has Clemson on the cusp of something special in 2015.RICHARD SHIRO/Associated Press

    Over the last five years, Dabo Swinney has turned Clemson into one of the nation’s most consistent programs. The Tigers have won at least 10 games in each of the past four seasons, defeating LSU, Ohio State and Oklahoma in bowl games.

    But in that span, they have only one ACC title, in 2011. In that same span, Florida State has roared to life under Jimbo Fisher. The Seminoles have won the last three ACC championships, with a national title and a College Football Playoff appearance in that span.

    Meanwhile, Clemson has lost three consecutive meetings with the Seminoles, its biggest blockade to an ACC title. 2015 could be the year Swinney’s bunch breaks through. Florida State suffered heavy graduation and NFL draft losses, including top overall draft pick Jameis Winston, and it will return just three offensive starters, 10 overall.

    Clemson returns just three starters from the nation’s top overall defense in 2014, but the Tigers return seven offensive starters, led by standout sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson. Assuming he’s healthy, Watson will thrive in Clemson’s offense, which includes two of the ACC’s top receivers in Mike Williams and Artavis Scott.

    The defense will feature its share of young talent, led by defensive end Shaq Lawson, cornerback Mackensie Alexander and safety Jayron Kearse. It could be a work in progress early on, but Clemson’s schedule is favorable, with games against Florida State, Georgia Tech and Notre Dame all at home. This should be the season the Tigers take back the ACC Atlantic Division and the ACC as a whole.

Big Ten: Ohio State

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    Ezekiel Elliott will be a key force in Ohio State's national title defense.
    Ezekiel Elliott will be a key force in Ohio State's national title defense.Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    It certainly didn’t take long for Urban Meyer to get Ohio State back to college football’s pinnacle, even with the NCAA sanctions that followed the end of the Jim Tressel era. Meyer went undefeated in his first season in Columbus, and only an upset at Michigan State’s hands kept the Buckeyes from the final BCS national title game in 2013.

    Last fall, Ohio State shook off an early upset loss to Virginia Tech and a pair of key quarterback injuries to roll through the College Football Playoff and win the program’s first national title since 2002, rolling Oregon 42-20. And given the talent Meyer and Co. have coming back, there’s no reason to pick anyone else in the Big Ten this fall. As SB Nation's Jason Kirk notes, Ohio State is loaded in 2015.

    The Buckeyes will return 14 starters, and while they will absorb key losses like defensive tackle Michael Bennett, middle linebacker Curtis Grant, cornerback Doran Grant and wideout Devin Smith, the talent returning is impressive. Tailback Ezekiel Elliott rushed for 1,878 yards and 18 touchdowns, and defensive end Joey Bosa is one of the nation’s most feared pass-rushers.

    And we haven’t even mentioned the unique quarterback situation, with two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Braxton Miller and dual-threat quarterbacks J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones battling for the starting role this summer. No matter who emerges, the Buckeyes are the clear pick in the Big Ten.

Big 12: TCU

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    Trevone Boykin and TCU should be one of the nation's best teams in 2015.
    Trevone Boykin and TCU should be one of the nation's best teams in 2015.Brandon Wade/Associated Press

    2014 was a special season for TCU, but it could’ve been so much better. The Horned Frogs shook off an uncharacteristic 4-8 season with a 12-1 record, just missing the College Football Playoff. TCU’s only blemish came after blowing a big lead to Big 12 rival Baylor, but Gary Patterson’s group finished the season right with a 42-3 Peach Bowl rout of Ole Miss.

    2015 could be even better. TCU returns 16 starters, 10 on offense, led by senior dual-threat quarterback Trevone Boykin, who will be a prime Heisman Trophy contender after accounting for 4,661 yards of total offense and 42 total touchdowns. He’ll key an offense that averaged 46.5 points per game last fall, No. 2 nationally.

    There are questions in the linebacker corps following the graduation of Paul Dawson and Marcus Mallet, but the offense is talented enough to win games. TCU must travel to both Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, but the biggest key is that Baylor, who’ll be the biggest threat for a league title, visits in the regular-season finale. It’s hard to pick against the Frogs.

Conference USA: Western Kentucky

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    Brandon Doughty led the nation in passing yards in 2014.
    Brandon Doughty led the nation in passing yards in 2014.Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Last season, only one thing separated Marshall from a perfect 14-0 season. What was it? Western Kentucky’s offense. The Hilltoppers scored and scored and scored on the Thundering Herd, eventually taking a 67-66 overtime win, Marshall’s only 2014 blemish.

    The Herd lost standout quarterback Rakeem Cato and leading receiver Tommy Shuler, among others, while Western Kentucky brings back 16 starters (seven on offense) from a team that averaged 44.4 points per game, No. 6 nationally.

    Fifth-year senior quarterback Brandon Doughty led the nation with 4,830 passing yards, throwing 49 touchdowns against 10 interceptions. Senior tailback Leon Allen (1,542 yards, 13 touchdowns) also returns, as do three of WKU’s top four receivers from a year ago. The Hilltoppers close the season at home against Marshall, a crucial advantage.

    The Herd will be formidable again, but if WKU can find a way to improve a defense that allowed 39.9 points per game a year ago, it will rule Conference USA.

MAC: Northern Illinois

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    Drew Hare is back for another season leading Northern Illinois' offense.
    Drew Hare is back for another season leading Northern Illinois' offense.Joel Auerbach/Associated Press

    Northern Illinois just keeps rolling. Following Dave Doeren’s departure to N.C. State, the Huskies have hardly missed a beat. Last fall, NIU went 11-3 and won its third Mid-American Conference title in four seasons.

    This fall, the Huskies again look to be the class of the MAC. They’ll bring back quarterback Drew Hare, who threw for 2,322 yards with 18 touchdowns against two interceptions and added 900 rushing yards and eight scores. They lose leading rusher Cameron Stingily, but he’ll be replaced by Tommylee Lewis, who was injured most of 2014 but has over 1,200 rushing yards for his career.

    NIU has two tough road games at Miami (Ohio) and Toledo, but it wouldn’t be a shock to see the Huskies go unbeaten in MAC play and claim another conference title.

Mountain West: Boise State

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    Bryan Harsin had a great first season at Boise State's helm.
    Bryan Harsin had a great first season at Boise State's helm.Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Bryan Harsin’s first season back at Boise State was something special. After Chris Petersen bolted for Washington, a backslide was possible, but Harsin didn’t let it happen. The Broncos finished 12-2 and won the Mountain West with a Fiesta Bowl win over Arizona, their only losses coming to Ole Miss and Colorado State.

    There’s reason to believe the Broncos will be just as good this fall. Boise State will return 17 starters, although it must replace quarterback Grant Hedrick and prolific running back Jay Ajayi. The Broncos return eight starters on defense and nine on offense, including the entire offensive line.

    Boise State must travel to Colorado State and Utah State in a six-day span in October, but it is clearly the most talented team in the Mountain West and the league favorite.

Pac-12: Southern California

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    Cody Kessler will be one of the nation's top quarterbacks this fall.
    Cody Kessler will be one of the nation's top quarterbacks this fall.Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

    Last fall, Steve Sarkisian’s debut as Southern California head coach was good if not great. A roster that is still emerging from NCAA probation finished 9-4, and the Trojans finished on a high with a Holiday Bowl win over Nebraska.

    Despite losing NFL first-round picks in defensive end Leonard Williams and wide receiver Nelson Agholor, USC’s arrow is pointing upward in 2015.

    The Trojans will return 15 starters, led by senior quarterback Cody Kessler, who threw for 3,826 yards with 39 touchdowns against five interceptions. JuJu Smith should emerge as his top target, and sophomore cornerback Adoree’ Jackson is one of the nation’s most versatile all-around talentes.

    The Trojans must travel to Arizona State, Notre Dame and Oregon but will host Stanford, UCLA and Utah. If Oregon struggles to replace Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota, the Pac-12’s balance of power will shift.

SEC: Alabama

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    Derrick Henry will be a key cog for Alabama's offense this fall.
    Derrick Henry will be a key cog for Alabama's offense this fall.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    2014 was a success and a disappointment in Tuscaloosa. Alabama finished with an SEC title, a 12-2 record and a berth in the inaugural College Football Playoff, but a Sugar Bowl loss to Ohio State meant the Crimson Tide finished short of its ultimate goal: a national championship. With three national titles under Nick Saban’s watch, nothing less is acceptable.

    Saban certainly isn't satisfied. In a recent stop of the Crimson Caravan in Huntsville, he said the Tide needs to get its mojo back, per the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

    "We need to get our mojo back ... we need into get our identity back," Saban said. We used to be a team nobody wanted to play," he explained. "We've had a few distractions with the last couple years that I think have affected how we've finished the season." 

    This will be something of a transition year for Saban, with only nine starters returning and stars like wide receiver Amari Cooper, tailback T.J. Yeldon and safety Landon Collins all declaring early for the NFL. But Alabama doesn’t rebuild. It reloads. The Tide has consistently recruited well, and now those players must step into bigger roles.

    Tailback Derrick Henry will be one of the nation’s top tailbacks, with a special blend of speed and physicality. Senior Jake Coker leads a group of five quarterbacks competing to replace Blake Sims, but doesn’t have the job locked down yet. With an SEC slate that features road trips to Georgia, Mississippi State, Texas A&M and Auburn, it won’t be easy, but the Tide has the talent to win the SEC again.

Sun Belt: Georgia Southern

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    Kevin Ellison and Georgia Southern had a great debut season in FBS.
    Kevin Ellison and Georgia Southern had a great debut season in FBS.Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

    2014 was a year to remember for Georgia Southern. In its first season as an FBS team, GSU finished 9-3 and was just a few plays away from 11-1 following last-minute losses at ACC foes Georgia Tech and N.C. State. However, that season was tinged with disappointment.

    Despite an unbeaten record in Sun Belt play, the Eagles weren’t bowl-eligible while transitioning from FCS. That changes this fall, and coach Willie Fritz’s team should take advantage of its opportunity.

    The Eagles return 15 starters, led by quarterback Kevin Ellison (1,001 yards passing, five touchdowns and three interceptions, 1,096 rushing yards, 12 touchdowns) as well as tailback Matt Breida (1,485 rushing yards, 17 touchdowns).

    The Eagles will skip tough Sun Belt foes like Arkansas State and Louisiana-Lafayette, but must travel to Appalachian State. Still, they’re clearly the class of the Sun Belt.