Predicting Football Conference Strength for 2014

By Joe Beale on March 26, 2014 at 1:30p
One-year wonder or....?
30 Comments

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...

sec

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). 

Conf. w-l % AP 25
Major Conference Win-Loss Records in 2013
SEC 111-69 .617 7
Pac-12 92-64 .590 6
Big Ten 88-65 .575 3
ACC 103-78 .569 3
Big 12 70-56 .556 3
AAC 62-63 .496 2

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. 

big ten

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.

Pac-12

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.

acc

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.

big 12

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. 

aac

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.

30 Comments

Comments

BuckeyeSki's picture

Raise your hand if you didn't find it necessary to read the last 3 paragraphs!

Banned from BlackShoeDiaries since 2008. Crime: Slander/Defamation of Character Judgement: Guilty

+17 HS
TMac's picture

If by paragraphs you meant the sections on the ACC, Big 12 & AAC, then yes, hand raised !

+3 HS
DBell8's picture

Any chance that a Big Ten team gets left out of the College Football Playoff entirely? I think it'll be Oklahoma, Oregon, Alabama, LSU as the four who get in... I can see the Big Ten beating up on eachother this year, similar to basketball. The winner of OSU vs MSU would obviously have the advantage to get in as long as we run the table. I think an undefeated Ohio State team could get jumped for a spot by a one loss $EC team... hmmm seems like the same debate we had with the BCS!!

+1 HS
flying-banana's picture

I think an undefeated Ohio State team could get jumped for a spot by a one loss $EC team

It wasn't going to happen this past year and it won't happen this year. We'd have wins over a respected Virginia Tech, always competitive Navy, and a Cincinnati team out for blood. Add in a win over MSU and PSU on the road, a wounded but still strong Michigan and the B1G title against probably Wisconsin or Nebraska and being left out won't even be an issue.

+12 HS
DBell8's picture

Agree with you on all of that. I was mostly referring to those bums over at ESPN who worship the $EC... It will definitely be a topic of discussion yet again due to the media. All it will take though is one playoff win over an Oregon or Alabama and we will no longer be having this discussion. I absolutely think OSU has a legitimate shot at a national title this year. Urban has his guys finally in place and we know Braxton will want to go out on top with a national title!

UrbanPirate's picture

Don't forget MSU has an early date with Oregon-that could potentially provide some cred for the conference that so many seem to be yearning for

Just... Go Bucks.

    

CC's picture

No shot if OSU is undefeated.  There is no shot we get jumpted by a 1 loss non-conference champion.  The only way it is conceivable is if it is 4 undefeated conf champions but even then 1 will be from the Big 12 without a CCG.

 

+1 HS
Phoenix824's picture

Oklahoma will likely "Clemson" at some point in time next season.    They always seem to take at least one bad loss no matter how talented they are.

+1 HS
ScarletNGrey01's picture

Don't get the DV's for a guy who respectfully posed a question and submitted a hypothesis.

The will to win is not as important as the will to prepare to win. -- Woody Hayes

+2 HS
NitroBuck's picture

I agree, and gave him an up vote.  He shouldn't get dinged for having a valid concern.

Ferio.  Tego.

flying-banana's picture

Interesting take, and lord knows you know more about the footy ball than I ever will; but I think this is a little too bold for the B1G to be #2 behind the SEC, I think we still sit at 3rd.

On the B1G side you'll have Ohio State, MSU, and Wisconsin battling for the B1G title. Nebraska will be good, not great (similar to an Arizona in the PAC) and Iowa just won't be there yet in my opinion. Also while Penn State is on the upswing and I believe they end up as the number 2 behind us in the B1G pecking order I think its going to take longer than one off season for Franklin to get fully seated in his Nittany Lion throne.

the PAC 12 will be very good; Oregon, Stanford, UCLA, and Washington competing for the crown. ASU, Arizona, and USC will be like Nebraska and Iowa in the B1G, good but not quite there yet. Plus, you know, seven win Sark.

In the Big 12 I think you'll find a similar situation to the B1G but with a lower bottom in Kansas (Step up your game Purdue). Oklahoma is the obvious favorite after the Bama game but Trevor Knight still needs to develop (I remember Garrett Gilbert in the national title game turning heads, how did that work out). Behind them are OK State and Baylor in the mix with Texas sitting in the Nebraska role.

In my personal opinion the ranking will go SEC, PAC 12, BIG, Big 12, ACC, about 500 miles of space, then the AAC.

+1 HS
CC's picture

How can you have the ACC as 5th?  FSU will be there with bells on at the end, Clemson is no longer average, Miami should be better, Louisville will be good.  Maybe I'm putting too much weight on FSU, but I just the inthe Big 12 is average at best.  The only hope is OU beating Bama but I think that was more about a perfect matchup for OU than a true test of strength.

flying-banana's picture

Well I struggled with that a bit because I, like you, think FSU is the best team in the country. Where my issue with the ACC comes from depth, Clemson is losing too much (specifically Boyd and Watkins) to me to be too high on them, and a similar situation with Louisville losing their QB and their coach. Petrino is good, but it will take him a while to get accustomed and get his players into his system. Miami is the intriguing number 2 especially if Duke Johnson continues to improve. However, I remember what happened this year when Duke went down and Miami hit the meat of their schedule. When I tried to rank them against the Big 12 in my mind I think FSU is better than Oklahoma, but Baylor and OK State I think are better than Louisville, Miami, and Clemson. 

Again just my opinion but I see the Big 12 is just slightly better than the ACC. But it is very very close.

Joe Beale's picture

Iowa just won't be there yet in my opinion

Iowa won 8 games last year, played LSU very competitively (not to mention a strong performance in the Shoe), and they get all of their best players back. Add to that a schedule that's so light a strong breeze would blow it away. They could easily be 10-0 when Wisconsin rolls into Iowa City.

Also while Penn State is on the upswing and I believe they end up as the number 2 behind us in the B1G pecking order I think its going to take longer than one off season for Franklin to get fully seated in his Nittany Lion throne.

You may be right, and admittedly PSU was young and inconsistent last season. But they closed the season by beating a really good Wisconsin team on the road, and they'll have that "us against the world" attitude for one more season due to probation. New coaches can work motivational miracles with that sort of situation.

Plus, you know, seven win Sark.

Haha...yes that was exactly my point. If USC repeats or betters last year, I think you're right that the Pac-12 is #2 again. But if Seven Win Sark does his usual thing, then they'll fall out of the top 25 and end up similar to what Michigan was last year. I personally think Arizona and ASU hit their peak last year and are both due for a down year, and Stanford surely will struggle against that schedule. But yeah, Washington and UCLA are programs on the rise. Look out for them.

 

flying-banana's picture

I'll be honest, I'm new to posting on 11W and I'm a little star struck a writer replied to me.

That being said diving in to Iowa a bit further you make a good point, their schedule is definitely weak and the few stumbling points (pre Wisconsin) seem to be at home to make it even easier. I'm not up to date on my Pittsburgh knowledge and the Minnesota game I think could be very interesting. In the back of my mind I have a difficult time believing Ferentz still has what it takes in him to bring a team to the promise land. Though as you said, 10-2 (maybe 11-1 is Nebraska is only at three losses by the time of the game) is very possible and would certainly help how the B1G is perceived.

I think one thing is obvious though, the B1G is becoming awfully competitive and doesn't look to be slowing down. Hooray cyclical nature of college football!

+3 HS
Joe Beale's picture

We try to interact whenever possible. Welcome to the site!

CC's picture

I think the ACC should be higher than the B1G/PAC12.  They had the best team in the country last year and probably the best team in the country this year along with Clemson who made OSU look average (yes I know they lose a lot).  Add in Louisville, Miami without faux sanctions and that conference looks ok.

I think all conferences will be a lot tighter this year.  The SEC is replacing a bunch of QB's who really ran things for the last 4 years, the ACC is up, the B1G is on the rise (if MSU doesn't slip) and the PAC12 is back to full strength.  The B12 is clearly still down even though OU kicked the elephant's rear.

Ahh Saturday's picture

I think the B1G is trending better, but might not be there next year.  Good coaching + good talent = good conference.  We know what Urban can do, and I expect him to keep doing it.  It looks like D'Antonio and Narduzzi might be able to convert their Rose Bowl season into some recruiting success which would make them a formidable presence in the B1G and nationally.  Franklin will help  PSU emerge from the sanctions as a stronger team than they were before sanctions.  I think Gary Andersen will continue the tradition of hard-nosed Wisconsin football, though I don't see them ever rising above their recently ended three-year run of Rose Bowl losses.  Pelini seems to have survived Taylor Martinez, and has Nebraska recruiting well this year.  The big question here is what direction the Wolverines are going.  Personally, I think the Sugar Bowl win will prove to be the high-water mark of the Hoke years, and we've already seen him losing a bit of the recruiting touch that had given so much hope to the Michigan faithful. Still, that's six teams that should be sitting in the top 25 with regularity over the next several years, and a group of teams that I think match up well with the top half of any conference.

+1 HS
GH_Lindsey's picture

Your assessment of the SEC quarterback situation leaves out a lot about the teams with new QBs. UGA, Mizzou and South Carolina's new QBs all have game experience, and not like the get-in-when-you're-up-70 experience, but multiple full games' worth. Thompson at S.Car has been getting rotational reps for the past two seasons. Mauk at Mizzou started 4 games last year (and went 3-1 with only the heartbreaker to S.Car lost). Mason at UGA started 2 games last year and threw for 299 and 320 yards in them. These guys aren't exactly starting from scratch.

-1 HS
Joe Beale's picture

Well, I still did predict they would be the strongest conference. Not trying to say they'll be bankrupt, just not as wealthy as last season.

BoFuquel's picture

Just wim'em all and we're in. No problem. Our Third stringers are better than most of the starters of The Other Th'Hurteen Konferentz. GO BUCKS!

I wish I didn't know now what I didn't know then.

FROMTHE18's picture

not really a B1G! B1G! type of fan, but it'd be nice for national conversations if the Purdue's of the conference improve instead of being horrible yet again.

+1 HS
Catch 5's picture

You really aren't too high on the B12 are you?  K State, Texas Tech, Texas, even West Virginia are good teams that have vied for national titles in recent years.  WV and Tx Tech have dropped a bit but Texas has all the talent in the world and K State hasn't really dropped that much - look for them to be in the 10-20 range at least.  As overall conference strength, I would put the B12/P12 even in the 2/3 slots with the B10 a closer 4th than in years past.

Make their asses quit! - Nick Saban

-1 HS
Ultrabuckeyehomer's picture

I would mostly with this... I think the Big ten has a shot being 3rd or 4th, but not number 2. If we are hanging our hat on IA, PSU and NE to make us stronger at the top, that's a bit too much for me to believe. Those are wildly vacillating programs year-to-year. We have two programs guaranteed to be good: us and Mich St. Everyone else is a crapshoot. The B12 and PAC whatever are likely stronger. I hope I'm wrong, but recent history says we're above the AAC and maybe the ACC. 

Colerain 2004 G.O.A.T.'s picture

PAC12 has a  shot at #2 but besides that pretty good dope you got. I fully expect the sec losing all that QB experience to be a dog eat dog situation,will see a lot of improved teams that are really good and a few teams that were great last year are now just really good. Homefield advantage is going to become crucial in the sec especially with all the top teams losing their starting QBs. I can see Oregon being the #1 team for the first few  weeks with them getting MSU at home early.

I speak the truth but I guess that's a foreign language to yall.~~Lil Wayne

Bucksfan's picture

You can tell this is a B1G site.

ScarletNGrey01's picture

Looks like the top third of the B1G will be pretty darn good, the middle third OK and the bottom third ... well ... notsogood.  Of course, guess you can say that about most of the bigger conferences.

The will to win is not as important as the will to prepare to win. -- Woody Hayes

bafiesta's picture

If you look at bowl results and who the conference beat, last year the B10 was the 5th best conference last year, we will likely climb to #3 or #4 this year, but have very little chance of being deeper than the Pac-12.  We're on the same level as the B12 and ACC.  As Joe said the AAC is now no more relevant than the other mid-majors.  

chubler's picture

I think ESPN has gotten to your brains with the SEC hype, and you're a bunch of B1G fans... Not to be a homer but let's look at this objectively (full disclosure: ND fan so I don't like any of you, at least respect the B1G sans Michigan)

Projected best 5 teams in each conference, in order:

SEC: Bama, Auburn, South Carolina, LSU, Mizzou

B1G: OSU, MSU, UW, Iowa, Nebraska

PAC-12: Stanford, Oregon, ASU, USC, Washington

Depending on how teams develop, the SEC and the PAC-12 are a toss-up. Having Bama at the top makes the SEC look good, but going down that list I think OSU, MSU, and UW beat the rest of the SEC teams more than they lose to them. If Iowa and Nebraska have good years, the B1G could reclaim its rightful place atop the conferences, but that's a little much to ask from the cornfields.

Horvath22's picture

Thanks for the rundown, Joe. By the way, did you used to be over at the Ozone?