Predicting the Winner of Each College Football Conference in 2019
Even before the regular season begins, college football fans are looking toward its end. Conference championships are not a perfect indicator of postseason upside, but winning a league title is an enormous accomplishment.
After all, only 10 of those are awarded in the FBS each year.
Though we've passed the "way too early" time for predictions, it's the "still very early" stage. Injuries, unexpected transfers and suspensions or even late additions will happen, and a combination of those can substantially shift the outlook for a team.
But as the countdown to the 2019 campaign ticks below 100 days, these programs stand out in their respective leagues.
American Athletic Conference
Champion: Memphis Tigers
Memphis will score, score and score. Quarterback Brady White is back following a 3,296-yard, 26-touchdown season. The Tigers also return a 1,000-yard runner in Patrick Taylor Jr., a 1,000-yard wideout in Damonte Coxie and the entire receiving corps.
However, defense should be the team's biggest improvement. Memphis only had four senior defenders in 2018. Experience, though not a perfect indicator of progression, is typically meaningful.
Stop their opponents from putting up as many points as they did in 2018 (447), and the Tigers can secure their first AAC crown.
Yes, let it fuel you, UCF fans. If you claim "disrespect" any more, we might as well provide honorary Michigan State football fandom!
The Knights unquestionably deserve their place as the favorite and should win the East Division again. The offense is retooling in star quarterback McKenzie Milton's absence, but UCF returns three All-AAC lineman and a good group of skill-position talent.
But after multiple comeback wins against Memphis recently, the Knights are vulnerable opposite an improved Tigers team.
Atlantic Coast Conference
Champion: Clemson Tigers
Well, duh. The four-time reigning ACC champions will be our choice in 2020, too. And the reason is simple: Trevor Lawrence.
Sure, we can mention All-American running back Travis Etienne, star wideouts Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross or some All-ACC offensive linemen. And on defense, Clemson is plugging in former 5-stars such as Xavier Thomas to restock the starting unit.
Yet the only evidence we really need is Lawrence, the quarterback who ended his freshman year with 3,280 yards, 30 touchdowns and only four interceptions en route to a national title.
If Miami finds a reliable quarterback, coach Manny Diaz has a contender. The Hurricanes wasted a brilliant defense last season and should have another top-15 unit nationally.
Clemson, however, has a more immediate hazard.
The Tigers will travel to Syracuse for a prime-time clash in Week 3. Two years ago, an injury-affected Clemson lost at the Carrier Dome―where the Orange finished 6-0 last season. Syracuse is best positioned to throw a wrench in the ACC conversation.
Big 12 Conference
Champion: Oklahoma Sooners
Teams normally can't replace a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback with someone who celebrated a national title. Kyler Murray is gone, but Jalen Hurts should be terrific for Oklahoma.
The Alabama transfer joins a stacked offense that features CeeDee Lamb, a potential All-American wideout. Kennedy Brooks and Trey Sermon―who combined for 2,003 yards and 25 touchdowns on the ground―are both back in 2019, too.
Oklahoma has an enormous amount of room for defensive improvement, but new coordinator Alex Grinch is a spectacular coach. While the Sooners may encounter some rough stretches early, they should be comfortable once the Big 12 title game arrives.
For the second consecutive year, we're expecting the Red River Rivalry to make its presence felt.
Texas can atone for a lack of explosive offense with tremendous short-yardage success. Sam Ehlinger is a powerful quarterback who thrives in a high-efficiency passing game. Plus, adding Georgia Tech transfer Parker Braun will stabilize the offensive line.
The Longhorns must survive a rebuild on the other side of the ball, but this offense is enough to navigate the Big 12 and test OU.
Big Ten Conference
Champion: Ohio State Buckeyes
New coach, new quarterback, same result?
Former offensive coordinator Ryan Day is now running the show in Columbus and overseeing an attack made for Justin Fields. Though thin on college snaps, the 5-star Georgia transfer should assimilate nicely into a unit featuring J.K. Dobbins, K.J. Hill and Chris Olave.
Additionally, the Buckeyes have the potential for an elite defense if the transition to new co-coordinators Jeff Hafley, Greg Mattison goes smoothly. And if that happens, Ohio State will be exceptionally tough to beat.
It's fair to consider Ohio State an "until proven otherwise" pick.
Michigan is strong but has a brutal schedule. Michigan State and Wisconsin have quarterback concerns, and Penn State also might. Northwestern and Iowa are pesky but usually aren't great. Nebraska and Minnesota are promising yet mostly still hype.
Still, odds are the Big Ten will effectively be decided when the Buckeyes travel north for the regular-season finale. Michigan's expected surge on offense should brace the Wolverines while the defense is retooled.
Champion: North Texas Mean Green
Last year was a frustrating one for North Texas, which coughed up double-digit leads in all three regular-season losses. The offense, though, should be even better in 2019.
Senior quarterback Mason Fine has two straight seasons of at least 3,700 yards and 29 touchdowns. DeAndre Torrey scampered for 977 yards and 15 scores in 2018, and the Mean Green return a trio of receivers who combined for 2,000 yards and 18 touchdowns.
Given that six seniors left the defense, this is a bet on North Texas' offensive potential. But throw in a more favorable schedule than West Division counterparts Southern Miss and Louisiana Tech, and the Mean Green are the team to beat.
Marshall and Florida International could be destined for a season-ending slugfest on Nov. 30 in Huntington, West Virginia. Marshall has the foundation of a top-tier defense, while FIU is trending as anticipated under head coach Butch Davis. The Panthers need a more reliable offense but have the returning pieces to accomplish exactly that.
Florida Atlantic is the wild card. The Owls won C-USA in 2017 and then struggled last season but recently added Florida State transfer quarterback Deondre Francois. Lane Kiffin's team is worth watching again.
Champion: Western Michigan Broncos
Western Michigan reeled off six straight wins with QB Jon Wassink running the offense. However, a foot injury ended his season in late October―and the Broncos dropped four of their last five contests.
His return is encouraging for an offense that will bring back a whole bunch of its production, though star freshman wideout Jayden Reed transferred to Michigan State. Versatile running back LeVante Bellamy had 1,413 yards from scrimmage last year.
Whether the Broncos rise from atrocious to average defensively will determine if this prediction holds true.
Should we flip a coin, throw darts or assign random numbers to choose the 2019 MAC winner? It's a crowded group at the top.
Toledo has a quarterback competition and a retooling defense but is consistently a factor. Northern Illinois lost an All-American pass-rusher in Sutton Smith and has a suspect offense yet returns a bunch of defensive production. Ohio boasts the best QB in the league―Nathan Rourke―but must replace three All-MAC blockers and several key defenders.
Mountain West Conference
Champion: Boise State Broncos
The offensive line returns five starters. The defense has playmakers at every level, most notably Curtis Weaver and his 15 tackles for loss. Veteran lineman David Moa (calf) and safety DeAndre Pierce (spleen laceration) are back from injuries that sidelined them in 2018.
Granted, the reason for concern is obvious. Boise State needs to replace four-year starting quarterback Brett Rypien, two-time 1,000-yard rusher Alexander Mattison and a pair of 800-yard receivers in Sean Modster and A.J. Richardson. But the roster looks well-prepared to handle the movement at skill positions.
For good measure, the Broncos miss Fresno State and San Diego State in crossover play and don't meet Utah State until late November. Their schedule is exceptionally forgiving.
Which project do you prefer?
Fresno State and Utah State are both revamping their offenses, other than quarterback Jordan Love's return for the latter. San Diego State failed to crack 300 yards six times in 2018, so the Aztecs are trying to even reach "average" status.
If one of those programs can avoid a total failure on offense, Boise State will have a real challenger to handle.
Champion: Washington Huskies
Washington won the 2018 Pac-12 title in spite of its offense. The unit ranked 88th nationally with 26.4 points per game and 104th in red-zone touchdown percentage.
Heading into 2019, the Dawgs are anticipating Georgia transfer Jacob Eason will provide a huge upgrade. The strong-armed quarterback has a plethora of weapons surrounding him, as well as four returning starters on the offensive line.
Given the level of improvement the offense can make, a minor slip defensively while the back seven reloads is manageable.
Oregon is the flashy offseason team. Justin Herbert decided to return for his senior year, and the offensive line is stocked with experience at every position. The defense is no longer a weakness, and the personnel is only improving.
But will the Ducks travel?
Beyond a neutral-site clash with Auburn, they head to Stanford, Washington and USC. That's a brutal slate for any Pac-12 program, especially when considering Washington's second-toughest road game in 2019 is either Arizona or Colorado.
Champion: Alabama Crimson Tide
Alabama has a decadelong streak of top-20 defenses. No amount of transition will scare us away from the Tide.
Plus, the 2018 offense was historically efficient for the school and is mostly intact. Tua Tagovailoa totaled more than 4,000 offensive yards with 48 touchdowns. His surrounding talent includes Biletnikoff Award winner Jerry Jeudy, plus three 600-yard receivers and a pair of 5-star running backs in Najee Harris and Trey Sanders.
Get ready for another SEC title on Nick Saban's resume.
LSU looks promising on paper. The Tigers rank 15th nationally in returning production, per SB Nation's Bill Connelly, and a junior-heavy defense could be one of college football's best units.
The problem is LSU has scored a combined 10 points during its last three matchups with Alabama. And that's a huge problem.
Georgia, conversely, has an experienced offensive line to buoy the Jake Fromm-led attack. The Dawgs must navigate Florida and Missouri, but Kirby Smart's club is most likely to compete with the Tide.
Sun Belt Conference
Champion: Appalachian State Mountaineers
Appalachian State won the inaugural Sun Belt Championship Game and are positioned well for a repeat title.
Four linemen return for an offense that basically will bring back the entire skill-position group, including quarterback Zac Thomas. New coach Eliah Drinkwitz is known for his offensive acumen, so expectations are rightfully high for the transition from Scott Satterfield.
Troy has an experienced quarterback in Kaleb Barker and 1,100-yard runner in B.J. Smith. Behind a veteran offensive line, the ground game should be steady. The defense was superb last season and returns most of the key playmakers.
In a stroke of schedule luck, the Trojans will host Arkansas State, Georgia Southern and App State. Having all three on the docket leaves a slim margin for error, though.