The coaching changes are all finished now. The recruiting classes have all been signed. Those who see the NFL in their immediate future have declared for the draft. The teams that we will see in the fall are starting to take shape.
As you begin to see multiple posts talking about someone's "way-too-early top 25" or some other dishonest label (if it's way too early then why are you posting it, chump?), the pre-season narrative starts to emerge from the imaginations of writers all over the country.
Well, I'm not one to be left out of the predicting game (see my previous posts on Big Ten teams) and so I'm going to jump on the bandwagon, minus the misleading byline. Only I'm going further than just predicting teams: I'm going to take a stab at predicting how strong the conferences are going to be relative to each other.
This is not an easy task; with teams moving from one conference to another the way the Kardashians move between men, relative conference strength is the epitome of a moving target. Still, the most important teams from last season are the same, and with that in mind, I'll go out on a limb and predict that the strongest conference will be...
No big surprise here. Although the gap has narrowed somewhat since 2012, it appears that those insufferable southerners will once again dominate the top 25, at least at the start. Looking a little more closely however, some of the teams expected to carry the banner of excellence this season will have major holes to fill.
For example, the following SEC teams will be breaking in new quarterbacks this fall: Alabama, LSU, Georgia, Missouri, and South Carolina. If you're keeping track, that's two of the top three teams in the vaunted West division and the top three teams from the East division, not to mention soon-to-be conference wannabe contender Texas A&M (losing Manziel is not their only problem).
What's that you say? "Saban-ball doesn't demand much from the guy under center." Very true, as witnessed by the fact that Greg McElroy just got cut from the Bengals (after which he promptly retired and signed with ESPN). Replacing A.J. McCarron will probably not be a problem and Alabama is expected to contend once again for the national title.
The one team conspicuously missing from that previous list is Auburn. The Tigers will once again push their arch-rivals for supremacy in the West, leading to another huge showdown in the Iron Bowl. I expect the East Division winner to end up in the top ten, and at least three others from the conference to land somewhere in the range of 11-25.
Ohio State and Michigan State will battle it out for the East Division title, but regardless of who wins I expect both of them to be top ten material by season's end. I also think that Wisconsin and Iowa will be contenders for national glory but will ultimately fall into the 11-20 range. The wildcard teams are Michigan, Nebraska, and Penn State.
The Nittany Lions are still on probation, but with new coach James Franklin at the helm and one year of experience under Christian Hackenberg's belt they will be improved enough to get in the AP top 25. Can Michigan improve their offensive line and make some commitment to the running game? If so, they might end up there as well.
In any event, the conference will be improved overall, even if newcomers Rutgers and Maryland don't add much in terms of prestige. The new divisional structure helps Iowa and Wisconsin by shielding them from Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State during the regular season. Look for six B1G teams in the top 25 (AP) when all is said and done.
Too optimistic? Perhaps, but MSU's win over Stanford I think will cause some national perceptions to change. I also think there's too much talent up North for the boys in blue to be as bad as they were last season. And I think there's a sleeping giant over in State College waiting for probation to end. Add to all this that Nebraska quietly closed the season with nine wins including a victory over SEC power Georgia in their bowl game.
The key question in Pac-12 land is whether or not USC is truly back to their former championship-level standard. For the past few seasons while the Trojans have suffered under onerous NCAA sanctions, teams like Oregon and Stanford have increased their national profile and the profile of the conference in general. It's never good to have your conference dominated by one team, and USC's loss is everyone else's gain.
This season Oregon has a much clearer path to the conference championship game as they host Stanford in a game where they will seek to avenge their nationally televised setback at Palo Alto last season. On the other hand, Stanford has a murderous schedule and I expect them to be end up in the lower part of the top 25 if they make it at all.
Washington will be much improved with new coach Chris Peterson running the offense, and UCLA is gunning to take down USC and punch their own ticket to the Pac-12 title game. In the end, I expect Oregon to defeat the Bruins in the conference championship game and ultimately claim one spot in the national playoff. Arizona and Arizona State will be good but not great.
What will scholarship-limited USC do under new coach Steve Sarkisian? Whether the Pac-12 ends up as the second or third best conference in the country hangs on the answer to that question.
Florida State's undefeated run to the national title last season lifted the prestige of the conference somewhat, but the continued excellence of the Seminoles is the only good news for the ACC in 2014. Clemson loses high-profile playmakers Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins while conference newcomer Louisville loses NFL-caliber quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.
Duke was a great story last season, but now defenses have had a year to analyze David Cutcliffe's offense and game-plan to stop it. Will the Blue Devils be able to sneak up on teams like they did last season? There are also big question marks for other traditional conference powers like Miami and Virginia Tech, two teams that will both be looking to replace multi-year starters at quarterback.
FSU will be dominant again, and if they go undefeated they will surely claim a spot in the national playoff. But the rest of the conference will be down this season, although it might not show up in the records. Look at Virginia Tech's early-season contest at Ohio State as a barometer. If the Hokies get run out of the stadium, it's probably going to be a long year for the ACC.
It was a good-news/bad-news story for the Big 12 in the bowl season. The good: traditional conference power Oklahoma knocked off Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. The bad: conference champion Baylor was defeated by AAC champion Central Florida in the Fiesta Bowl. Which result is a better read on the conference in 2014?
I would say the latter. Oklahoma's victory will give them momentum this season, but that might not be good for the conference. If Oklahoma is dominant as they have been in the past, then teams like Baylor and Oklahoma State will sink back down into insignificance.
This would be an unfortunate result, because the Bears were a very entertaining team to watch last season. But this season if they roll through their first eight games undefeated and then get crushed at Norman, the national perception will be that it's a weak conference and they were exposed by the only good Big 12 team.
The former Big East is struggling just to keep its teams, as Louisville jumps to the ACC this season. Blake Bortles moves to the NFL, thus causing UCF to melt back into the mix with teams like Cincinnati, Tulane, East Carolina, and Houston fighting for the conference title. Which one will come out on top? Will anyone notice?
In the end, I expect the AAC will hardly be any more significant than the other conferences that used to be called "mid-majors": Conference USA, MAC, Sun Belt, and Mountain West. In fact, you can make a case that the Mountain West might be stronger than the AAC this season. Not good news for the conference.