Predicting the Winner of Each College Football Conference in 2021
While a national championship is the primary goal, conference titles still have immense value in college football.
Mostly, it's an accomplishment that validates a coaching staff's pitch to recruits. But for Group of Five programs—based on how the four-team College Football Playoff system operates—a conference title is the best possible outcome.
Either way, winning the league is a significant feat. And in 2021, there's a relatively clear-cut group of favorites.
The list is subjective but considers a team's returning production, regular-season schedule and current roster status.
AAC: Cincinnati Bearcats
Although the Bearcats lost star defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman to Notre Dame, they return a whole lot of production.
Edge-rusher Myjai Sanders has collected 11 sacks during the past two seasons. Key linebackers Darrian Beavers and Joel Dublanko are both using the extra year of eligibility, and so is cornerback Coby Bryant. His return, along with Ahmad Gardner, solidifies one of the best defensive backfields in the country.
And that's only the defense.
Desmond Ridder passed for 2,296 yards, rushed for 592 and accounted for 31 touchdowns last season. Running back Jerome Ford and four of the top five pass-catchers are all back, too.
After a 9-1 season with an AAC crown in 2020, Cincinnati has provided little reason to expect a decline.
ACC: Clemson Tigers
Had we not seen D.J. Uiagalelei in 2020, perhaps Trevor Lawrence's departure for the NFL would have given us pause. Uiagalelei, however, totaled 808 yards and six touchdowns in two starts.
This juggernaut will keep on winning.
Clemson has earned six straight ACC titles and reached the CFP each season. Between a potential star at quarterback, the expected return of wideout Justyn Ross and an immensely talented and experienced defense, Clemson is the obvious ACC favorite.
If Boston College, Florida State, Miami, North Carolina or NC State legitimately competes for the title, it would be stunning.
Big Ten: Ohio State Buckeyes
At this point, the Big Ten is an "until proved otherwise" situation.
Since 2017, Ohio State has zero losses to division foes—including Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State. That intra-division dominance has allowed the Buckeyes to overcome ugly regular-season losses to Iowa (2017) and Purdue (2018).
Additionally, the Big Ten West is typically competitive but regularly lacks an elite team. Ohio State has defeated Northwestern and Wisconsin each twice in the past four Big Ten championships.
As long as expected quarterback C.J. Stroud has a respectable year, the Buckeyes will make it five straight.
Big 12: Oklahoma Sooners
Pretty boring to start off, right?
Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma have all established themselves as the preeminent program in their respective conference. Like Clemson, the Sooners are sitting on six straight league championships.
Oklahoma ever-so-slightly dipped off the national radar last season because of two early losses. Late in 2020, though, few teams were playing at a higher level. As usual, that can be attributed to a powerful offense—quarterback Spencer Rattler is one of the premier Heisman Trophy candidates in 2021.
Iowa State is a formidable challenger to Oklahoma's throne, but the Sooners host the matchup this fall.
C-USA: Marshall Thundering Herd
Following a 7-0 start in 2020, Marshall imploded down the stretch. The offense failed to crack 300 yards in each of the last three contests, scoring a total of 23 points in those losses.
Nevertheless, the Thundering Herd have a good outlook in 2021.
Although the offense and defense lost a few key players—namely running back Brenden Knox, right guard Cain Madden and edge-rusher Darius Hodge—the majority of starters return on both sides of the ball. That includes a trio of first-team All-C-USA selections in quarterback Grant Wells, tight end Xavier Gaines and cornerback Steven Gilmore.
Marshall also has a very favorable schedule. Along with hosting UAB and Western Kentucky, the Herd avoid expected C-USA contenders Louisiana Tech and UTSA in cross-division play.
MAC: Toledo Rockets
Experience is the primary appeal for Toledo, which finished 4-2 and returns 21 of its 22 starters. That combination of past success and returning talent is impossible to ignore.
Granted, the schedule won't make it easy. Even beyond a trip to Notre Dame, the Rockets travel to fellow West Division threats Ball State and Central Michigan. Heading to Ohio for a cross-division clash is another tough game for Toledo.
The major question is the development of quarterback Carter Bradley, who tossed six touchdowns and five interceptions in two starts. Toledo won both games, but not without some nerve-racking moments.
If not the Rockets, expect defending MAC champion Ball State and Dustin Crum-led Kent State to be prime contenders.
Mountain West: Boise State Broncos
This projection is partially based on Boise State's history of success, but the Mountain Division isn't exactly a nightmare to navigate, either. Air Force and Wyoming are the biggest threats to the Broncos, yet they host both of them.
That's a real positive, considering Boise State takes on Nevada, Fresno State and San Diego State in cross-division play.
Despite that obstacle and a coaching change, the Broncos are well-positioned for another Mountain West run. New coach Andy Avalos is an alum and former longtime assistant, so the transition should be smooth. The offense returns quarterback Hank Bachmeier, and the bulk of the top defensive players are back, too.
While defending champion San Jose State is a contender again, the West Division is a wonderful mess. SJSU, Fresno State, Nevada or San Diego State has MWC title upside.
Pac-12: Arizona State Sun Devils
If you're confident in a Pac-12 projection, good for you!
Oregon has a new quarterback (likely Anthony Brown) and questions on the offensive line and at receiver. Washington has dealt with a couple of key injuries and needs to improve its offensive efficiency. Cal and Stanford have potential but don't inspire much confidence.
Arizona State needs signal-caller Jayden Daniels to recover from a short and subpar 2020. Utah returns a bunch of starters, but Baylor quarterback transfer Charlie Brewer will determining factor in the team's results. USC's offensive line remains a disaster, and UCLA's upside is contingent on quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson.
Throw a dart, maybe.
Ours lands on Arizona State, which has the best defense after Oregon and Washington. If Daniels performs more like his 2019 season and the receiving corps finds a true No. 1 wideout in a talented but inexperienced group, the Sun Devils will be a well-rounded force.
SEC: Alabama Crimson Tide
Three-plus months from the 2021 opener, Alabama and Georgia are the leading contenders in the SEC. Florida and Texas A&M have new quarterbacks, Auburn's offense is a concern, Ole Miss' defense is a problem, and LSU had a disastrous 2020.
Yes, Alabama also has a new quarterback. But we don't really have to explain why the nation's most dominant program over the last decade-plus is still the favorite, right?
Georgia's optimism is tied to quarterback JT Daniels, who thrived in four starts to end 2020. The defense is built for a fantastic year, too. However, the absence of wideout George Pickens (torn right ACL) lowers the offense's ceiling.
We're not expecting an undefeated season, given that Alabama travels to Florida, Texas A&M and Auburn.
Still, if the Tide emerge from the West Division as expected, Nick Saban is a perfect 7-for-7 in SEC Championship Games since 2009. The trend continues in 2021.
Sun Belt: Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns
If you followed the sport in 2020, Coastal Carolina isn't a shocking pick. After an 11-1 year, the Chanticleers return nearly everyone but running back CJ Marable and edge-rusher Tarron Jackson.
Experience doesn't make this a straightforward projection, though.
Appalachian State and Louisiana fit a similar mold, and both are appealing choices. Appalachian State landed former Clemson and Duke quarterback Chase Brice to bolster a veteran roster, and Louisiana kept head coach Billy Napier and super-senior quarterback Levi Lewis for a seasoned offense.
While CCU and App State battle each other in the East Division—Georgia Southern and Troy should also be thorns—Louisiana is the West's unquestioned leader. Arkansas State, which had a disastrous defense in 2020, is likely the No. 2 team.
Napier is already a prime Power Five candidate, and a Sun Belt title would only strengthen his chances of a promotion.