Ranking Best College Football Conferences Entering 2018 Season
One year after producing both the national champion and the runner-up, the SEC remains the conference to beat heading into the 2018 college football season.
That doesn't mean the SEC has the most qualified candidates for a spot in the College Football Playoff, though. That honor belongs to the Big Ten, which has five teams capable of winning it all this year. However, the Big Ten wasn't quite able to usurp the top spot in the conference rankings, due to a couple of teams at the bottom of the league who simply aren't good.
For each league, we put every team into one of four categories: College Football Playoff Contender, Likely Bowl Team, Potential Bowl Team or Dead Weight. Suffice it to say, the leagues with more CFP contenders and likely bowl teams rank higher than those with a bunch of dead weight.
10. Sun Belt Conference
College Football Playoff Contenders: None
Even if Arkansas State pulls off the upset of the decade at Alabama in Week 2 and proceeds to run the table, this conference is just too weak to produce a top-four finisher. If UCF couldn't even come close last year, it's not happening for a Sun Belt team, either.
Likely Bowl Teams: Arkansas State, Troy, Appalachian State
These three squads are head and shoulders ahead of the rest of the league and may well only suffer conference losses in games played against one another.
Led by quarterback Justice Hansen, Arkansas State's passing game should run circles around the rest of the Sun Belt. Troy and Appalachian State should have the best defenses, as was the case when they both went 7-1 in league play last year. It would be stunning if either one suffered more than three conference losses, given the dearth of quality teams in the bottom half of the Sun Belt.
Potential Bowl Teams: Louisiana-Monroe, Louisiana-Lafayette
Each of these Bayou State teams scheduled a pair of road games against SEC opponents. They also both face Troy and Arkansas State, and Louisiana-Lafayette has a road game against Appalachian State, too. Even though the talent here is a good bit better than the bottom half of the league, finding six wins on either schedule will be a challenge. Their head-to-head regular-season finale in Monroe might be a battle for bowl eligibility.
Dead Weight: South Alabama, Georgia State, Georgia Southern, Coastal Carolina, Texas State
You could make a case for South Alabama moving up a tier to a potential bowl team, but at least 40 percent of this league is just cannon fodder. It would almost require a miracle for Coastal Carolina, Georgia State, Georgia Southern and Texas State to combine for more than two wins against the other six teams in the Sun Belt.
9. Mid-American Conference
College Football Playoff Contenders: None
If Northern Illinois were to go 13-0, it would certainly have a case. The Huskies play at Florida State, at Iowa, at BYU and versus Utah, which might be the toughest top-to-bottom nonconference schedule in the country.
But, come on, what are the odds of their winning all four of those games? One in 600? Factor in the other nine games and you almost have better odds of winning the lottery than Northern Illinois has of playing for a national championship.
Likely Bowl Teams: Ohio, Northern Illinois, Toledo
If any team from the MAC is going to flirt with perfection, it's Ohio. Not only is Nathan Rourke one of the better dual-threat QBs in the country, but the Bobcats have a joke of a schedule. The biggest challenges are road games against Northern Illinois, Virginia and Cincinnati, none of which is exactly elite.
Meanwhile, NIU may well go 0-4 in nonconference play, but it should win at least six conference games—even though it only gets one game against the league's three bottom-feeders. And Toledo has won at least nine games in seven of the last eight seasons, and the Rockets still have one of the best wide receivers in the nation (Diontae Johnson).
Potential Bowl Teams: Miami (Ohio), Buffalo, Akron, Western Michigan, Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan
MAC is an acronym for Mid-American Conference, but this year, it unofficially stands for Mostly Average Clubs. Half of the league seems destined for a .500 record.
If any of these teams is going to break out and win nine or 10 games, though, the obvious pick is Buffalo. Like Toledo, the Bulls have an outstanding wide receiver in Anthony Johnson. Unlike Toledo, Buffalo also has a returning QB who is going to get a lot of attention from NFL scouts for his size and strength (Tyree Jackson). And Buffalo's schedule is even weaker than Ohio's.
Dead Weight: Bowling Green, Ball State, Kent State
All three of these teams went 2-10 last season and were repeatedly destroyed on defense. Bowling Green might take a slight step forward, but Kent State might be the worst team in the country. The Week 2 home game against FCS school Howard should be the only time the Golden Flashes get a W, and even that's not a given.
8. Conference USA
College Football Playoff Contender: Florida Atlantic
We will know by mid-afternoon on September 1 whether this is a legitimate possibility. Florida Atlantic opens the season at Oklahoma. It also has a road game at UCF three weeks later. Should the Owls win both of those games, there's at least a chance they could sneak into the CFP conversation while destroying everything in their path during conference play. At any rate, running back Devin Singletary and Co. are clearly a cut above everyone else in this league.
Likely Bowl Teams: Marshall, North Texas, Louisiana Tech, UAB
This may be head coach Lane Kiffin's conference to lose, but that doesn't mean FAU is devoid of competition. North Texas has one of the best quarterbacks that most fans have never heard of (Mason Fine). Marshall has a great one-two punch at running back (Keion Davis and Tyler King) and the best wide receiver in the league (Tyre Brady). Louisiana Tech is always a factor with Skip Holtz at the helm. And if UAB could win eight games in its return to football, why wouldn't it compete in year No. 2?
Potential Bowl Teams: Middle Tennessee, Southern Miss, UTSA, Old Dominion, Florida International, Western Kentucky
The wild card here is Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers were one of the highest-scoring teams in the country over three straight seasons under Jeff Brohm, but they weren't even average on offense during last year's 6-7 campaign with Mike Sanford calling the shots. If WKU can turn things back around this season, Conference USA will be better as a whole.
Dead Weight: Charlotte, Rice, UTEP
Florida Atlantic could be the best Group of Five team this season, but these might be the three worst teams at the FBS level. They went a combined 2-34 last season, and one of the wins was Rice defeating UTEP. And there's nothing to suggest they'll be any better.
7. Mountain West Conference
College Football Playoff Contenders: None
Boise State could go undefeated. In fact, ESPN's Football Power Index gives the Broncos the eighth-best odds of running the table, putting the likelihood of a perfect season at 2.7 percent. But that's largely because their schedule is a joke. Outside of a road game against a reloading Oklahoma State, they don't face another FPI top-50 team, nor do they play another FPI top-80 team on the road. Even a two-loss Big Ten champion would probably get an invite to the CFP ahead of an undefeated Boise State.
Likely Bowl Teams: Boise State, San Diego State, Fresno State, Utah State
Boise State should cruise to the Mountain Division crown, while San Diego State and Fresno State battle for supremacy in the West Division. All three should become bowl-eligible with room to spare, as they are easily among the 10 best Group of Five teams.
Utah State is a step behind that trio in terms of talent, but it also has a predominantly laughable schedule. Outside of the season opener at Michigan State and season finale at Boise State, the Aggies ought to be favored in every single game.
Potential Bowl Teams: Wyoming, Colorado State, UNLV, Nevada, Air Force
They might fall short of bowl eligibility, but both Nevada and UNLV will be playing in more than their fair share of high-scoring extravaganzas. The Rebels should have one of the best rushing attacks in the nation and the Wolf Pack have a great aerial assault, but neither Silver State-based school can play a lick of defense. Either team could score or allow 500 points this season.
Dead Weight: New Mexico, Hawaii, San Jose State
It's hard to imagine any of these teams turning things around after each went 1-7 in conference play last year. Hawaii and New Mexico both lost too much this offseason, and San Jose State needs a complete makeover after ranking in the bottom five nationally in both scoring offense and scoring defense last year.
6. American Athletic Conference
College Football Playoff Contenders: None
As is the case for Boise State, there's a reasonable chance that either UCF or Memphis could go undefeated this season. But that doesn't mean there's a reasonable chance that either one will reach the College Football Playoff since neither one faces an opponent worth mentioning.
Likely Bowl Teams: UCF, Memphis, Navy, Houston, Temple, South Florida
A repeat of last year's AAC championship game is the most likely outcome, but both the Knights and the Tigers will have serious competition—more so for Memphis, though, as it shares a division with Houston and Navy. The latter has one of the best offensive weapons in the conference in QB Malcolm Perry, and the former has the potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NFL draft (Ed Oliver).
Potential Bowl Teams: SMU, Tulane, Cincinnati, Tulsa
This league should probably have five tiers instead of four, as SMU and Tulane have much more bowl potential than Cincinnati or Tulsa. However, we can't call the Bearcats or the Golden Hurricane dead weight, because they both bring back a ton of players from last season and could realistically improve to five or six wins.
Dead Weight: Connecticut, East Carolina
Both ECU and UConn have gone 3-9 in each of the last two seasons, and both teams had atrocious defenses in 2017. In a league that is otherwise pretty strong, the Huskies and Pirates will clearly be bringing up the rear. Don't be surprised if they go a combined 1-15 in conference play, with the lone win coming in their head-to-head game in Carolina mid-November.
College Football Playoff Contender: Washington
Among teams west of Oklahoma, there's no question that Washington is the cream of this year's crop. Aside from Alabama and Clemson, the Huskies might be the best squad in the country. Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin are both back for a fourth season as starters, and their secondary should be nearly impenetrable. If they can win the season opener against Auburn (in Georgia), they'll have a good shot at an undefeated season.
Likely Bowl Teams: Stanford, USC, Oregon, Utah
One could make the case that Stanford deserves CFP contender status, but it's a fringe team with a brutal schedule. In addition to road games against Notre Dame, Oregon and Washington, the Cardinal face USC, Utah and UCLA in interdivisional games. They have 11-win talent, but it might be an eight-win season. The Trojans, Ducks and Utes are all a slight step behind Stanford, but they should lock up bowl eligibility with ease.
Potential Bowl Teams: California, Arizona, UCLA, Washington State, Colorado, Arizona State
This overabundance of the "might be OK" teams is what keeps the Pac-12 at the back of the Power Five pack. Can UCLA immediately win under Chip Kelly? What about Arizona State and Herm Edwards? Is Kevin Sumlin the right man to utilize Heisman Trophy hopeful Khalil Tate? Will California overachieve for a second straight season? It's inevitable that at least two or three of these teams will get to six wins, but there's no telling which ones it will be.
Dead Weight: Oregon State
It's going to be another long year for the Beavers, starting with what might be a 50-point blowout loss in the season opener at Ohio State. Ryan Nall was the one bright spot for this team in 2017; however, the running back left a year early for the NFL draft. This is a young roster that might be building toward something in 2019, but it's almost a guarantee that their bowl-less streak will extend to five seasons.
4. Big 12
College Football Playoff Contender: Oklahoma
Even without Baker Mayfield, Mark Andrews and Orlando Brown leading the way on offense, Oklahoma should remain at the head of the class in the Big 12. The Sooners are also among the top candidates to reach the CFP—provided the QB situation works out. Whether Kyler Murray or Austin Kendall ultimately wins the job, he'll be surrounded by enough weapons to score at will.
Likely Bowl Teams: Texas, West Virginia, TCU, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Iowa State
As seems to be the case every year, the Big 12 is loaded with teams that could be fringe title contenders. Oklahoma was the only team from the conference to land in the Top 15 of the preseason coaches poll, but TCU, West Virginia, Texas and Oklahoma State all made it into the Top 25 while Kansas State and Iowa State received votes. Look for WVU to have the most high-octane offense in the nation, led by Will Grier, David Sills V and Gary Jennings.
Potential Bowl Teams: Baylor, Texas Tech
Texas Tech has finished somewhere between 4-8 and 8-5 in each of the past eight seasons, and it seems destined for another .500-ish record after losing most of its offense from last season. Baylor, on the other hand, is hoping to bounce back from a disastrous 1-11 campaign. The Bears will be better, but clawing all the way back to bowl eligibility might be asking too much—even though they should open the season 4-0 against Abilene Christian, UTSA, Duke and Kansas.
Dead Weight: Kansas
There aren't many certainties in college athletics, but Kansas winning the Big 12 in men's basketball and Kansas finishing in dead last in football are two things you can count on pretty much every year. The Jayhawks haven't won more than three games in a season since 2009, and they have a 3-33 record in three seasons under David Beaty. At least they face Nicholls State and Rutgers in nonconference play, so they probably won't go winless.
College Football Playoff Contenders: Clemson, Miami
Led by what might be the most dominant defensive line in college football history, Clemson is obviously the team to beat in the ACC. But Miami is talented enough to flirt with perfection for a second straight year and potentially turn the ACC championship game into a de facto CFP play-in game. If Ahmmon Richards is healthy and if Jeff Thomas has the breakout season we're expecting, the Hurricanes are going to have one heck of an aerial assault to go along with their turnover chain.
Likely Bowl Teams: Florida State, Virginia Tech, NC State, Boston College, Louisville, Georgia Tech
Florida State and Virginia Tech probably belong in their own tier as teams that should win nine or 10 games. Maybe they don't sneak into the CFP conversation, but they should have bowl eligibility in the bag by the first Saturday in November. The other four teams in this tier are probably headed for seven or eight wins.
Keep an eye on Boston College's AJ Dillon. He exploded for 1,589 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns last season as a freshman, but it went underappreciated since it happened on a seven-win team—and since Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor nearly rushed for 2,000 yards as a freshman on a team that almost went undefeated.
Potential Bowl Teams: Wake Forest, Pittsburgh, Duke, Syracuse, North Carolina, Virginia
Like the Pac-12, the ACC is chock-full of teams with 6-6 written all over them. Duke is probably the best team out of this bunch with QB Daniel Jones and LB Joe Giles-Harris both returning, but the Blue Devils have road games against Clemson, Miami, Baylor and Northwestern that will make this season a major challenge.
Dead Weight: None
It's highly unlikely that all 14 ACC teams will become bowl-eligible, but this league doesn't have an obvious bottom-feeder like an Oregon State or Kansas. For that reason, you could make the case that the ACC belongs at No. 2 instead of No. 3, even though it doesn't have as many championship contenders as the Big Ten or the SEC.
2. Big Ten
College Football Playoff Contenders: Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State
As far as the sheer number of title contenders, no one can hold a candle to the Big Ten. This league has five of the 12 best teams in the country—who are probably going to take turns beating each other up and will make for a tough decision for the CFP selection committee. With the exception of Michigan (which now has a great QB in Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson), all five of these teams won at least 10 games last year and has more than enough talent to do so again.
Likely Bowl Teams: Iowa, Purdue, Northwestern
For all the love that the Big Ten's projected top tier has been getting this offseason, this second tier has one hell of a collection of quarterbacks capable of leading upsets. Nathan Stanley (Iowa), Clayton Thorson (Northwestern) and Elijah Sindelar (Purdue) each had at least 2,000 yards and 15 touchdowns last season.
Potential Bowl Teams: Maryland, Nebraska, Indiana, Minnesota
Poor Maryland. If healthy, it has the talent to be the sixth-best team in the league. But as a member of the East Division, it's also required to play four games against Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State every year. At least the Terrapins don't face Wisconsin this year, but they do open with a tough game against Texas. Win that one and they should be able to get to six wins.
Elsewhere, it's going to be fun to see how quickly former UCF head coach Scott Frost can bring Nebraska back around after last year's 4-8 campaign.
Dead Weight: Illinois, Rutgers
I'll take the top five teams in the Big Ten in a round-robin tournament against the top five teams in any other league. But I'd also take the bottom two teams from the ACC, Big 12, Pac-12 or SEC in a round robin against Illinois and Rutgers. It's primarily because of this bottom tier that the Big Ten can't quite make a case for the top spot.
College Football Playoff Contenders: Alabama, Georgia, Auburn
Would it really surprise anyone if Alabama and Georgia square off for the national championship again this January? The Crimson Tide and the Bulldogs have two of the most loaded rosters in the country, and they should both be favored in every game this season—prior to their presumed showdown in the SEC championship game.
Auburn could throw a wrench into those plans once again, but the schedule (vs. Washington, at Mississippi State, at Georgia, at Alabama) will likely keep the Tigers from putting together an 11-1 regular season.
Likely Bowl Teams: Mississippi State, Florida, LSU, South Carolina, Texas A&M, Missouri
Every year, the SEC seems to have two teams with the potential to improve by three or four wins and get into the CFP discussion.
This year, those teams are Mississippi State and South Carolina, each of which has one of the most dangerous offensive weapons in the entire country: Nick Fitzgerald for the Bulldogs and Deebo Samuel for the Gamecocks. It just so happens both of those studs are returning from a devastating season-ending injury, and the ceiling for their teams will depend on how close to 100 percent health those players are.
Potential Bowl Teams: Kentucky, Tennessee, Ole Miss, Arkansas, Vanderbilt
All five of these teams appear to be mediocre at best (by SEC standards). If one is going to emerge for nine wins, it's probably going to be Ole Miss. In order for that to happen, the defense must improve dramatically. But this passing attack could be some kind of special, led by QB Jordan Ta'amu and WR A.J. Brown. Moreover, the Rebels get both Alabama and Auburn at home, don't face Georgia and have an easy nonconference slate (Texas Tech, Southern Illinois, Kent State and Louisiana-Monroe).
Dead Weight: None
Someone is inevitably going to fall flat and end up with four or fewer wins, particularly if Alabama, Georgia and Auburn are as dominant as expected. (The most likely candidate is Vanderbilt, in part due to a daunting nonconference schedule.) But you can't possibly say there's a terrible team in the SEC. Couple that with the undeniable strength at the top of the league and you've got the formula for what should be a stellar conference.
Kerry Miller covers college football and men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.