The SEC has been running college football for about a decade now. When will it end? 2020? 2030? Never? It certainly doesn’t look to be anytime soon. Though the SEC went on a two-year championship drought, it still felt like it was the best conference overall. With Alabama winning it all in 2015, it stamped another year of SEC supremacy.
Even if no conference challenges the Southeastern Conference for the top spot in 2016, it is important to look at the perceived strength of the remaining conferences since it always gets talked about once the playoff rankings roll around.
2016 could be an interesting year because of the relative strengths of the Power 5 conferences. The past two years it was somewhat easy to have four conference champs in the playoff while leaving the fifth conference champ out. Looking forward to 2016, I wouldn’t be surprised if it is the first year in the era of the college football playoff that we see two teams from the same conference make the four-team field. So with that, here is my ranking of the Power 5 conferences heading into 2016.
5. Big 12
The Big 12 is used to being picked on when it comes to conference rankings. Being the only Power 5 conference with just 10 teams and without a conference championship game certainly hasn’t helped matters. This offseason hasn’t exactly seen a lot go right for it either. The conference seemingly can’t decide whether it should expand or not, and in the end will probably have to do what Oklahoma and Texas want it to do anyway.
The conference’s on-field prospects don’t exactly look great heading into this fall either. Oklahoma will be ranked highly to start the year with Heisman hopeful Baker Mayfield returning under center after leading the Sooners to the playoff a year ago. Looming however is Oklahoma’s history of falling apart whenever it starts the year ranked highly. If it happens again this season, the conference may not have another team to fall back on to lead its charge.
Baylor looked to be the other contender for the conference, but with the recent off-field turmoil and dismissal of coach Art Briles it is difficult to expect much from the Bears. I wasn’t sure Baylor would make a run at a playoff spot to begin with and replacing the head coach three months before the season starts has only added to those doubts.
There are nothing but question marks among the rest of the teams. Oklahoma State had a nice season in 2015 on its way to a surprising ten wins but got blasted in its final two games against good competition. TCU has to replace Trevone Boykin at quarterback and WR Josh Doctson, who was picked in the first round. Then there’s Texas, who is in the vast group of former powerhouse programs that have to show something before we buy in again.
Being a top conference is largely based on the contenders at the top. I don’t see the Big 12 having that strength at the top or the depth to make up for it.
It certainly looks like the Pac-12’s opportunity has passed it by. A couple years ago the conference had gained enough steam where an argument could be made that it was the nation’s best. The past year and a half has seen a swift fall that culminated in the Pac-12 being left out of the college football playoff in 2015. It’s going to be tough for the conference to claw its way back up the conference rankings, at least in 2016.
There’s a decent chance the Pac-12 will be the only Power 5 conference to not have a team ranked in the pre-season Top 10. Stanford has to replace Kevin Hogan who, while not the most dynamic quarterback, has the most wins in Cardinal history. It is also hard to expect Christian McCaffrey to duplicate his historical 2015 season. They may be the favorite again, but they aren’t nearly in the same class as the Alabama/Michigan/Clemson’s of the world heading into this season.
The Cardinal’s main competition in the Pac-12 recently, the Oregon Ducks, will be trying to bounce back from their first season of under ten wins since 2007. They’ll have to do it with just five starters returning on defense and relying on another FCS transfer at quarterback.
Elsewhere in the conference you have USC which hasn’t been able to get back to national prominence, UCLA who has folded under the weight of pre-season expectations multiple times recently, and a group of average teams that were a disaster on defense a year ago (Arizona, Arizona State, Oregon State).
The two teams that battle for the Apple Cup, Washington and Washington State, give the conference some hope in providing quality depth. The Huskies will be a popular sleeper pick to be the conference champion, and the Cougars Mike Leach-led offense will have a field day against Pac-12 defenses after ranking first nationally in passing a year ago.
There is a lot of uncertainty in the Pac-12 and a lot of that comes down to the unknowns behind center. The conference has just six returning starters at quarterback (all other Power 5 conferences have at least nine). The Pac-12 may not have elite level teams, but it still has some quality depth throughout the conference which is why I rank it ahead of the Big 12.
3. Big Ten
There isn’t nearly as much uncertainty in the Big Ten where Ohio State and Michigan may both be ranked in the top 10 to start the year, two teams that didn’t even play for the conference title in 2015. Michigan should challenge for a playoff spot and even with just six starters returning, anything less than double-digit wins would be a disappointment in Columbus.
Then we get to Michigan State and Iowa, the two teams that did play for the Big Ten Championship a year ago. Regardless of who they lost, the Spartans can’t be counted out after what they’ve done under Mark Dantonio. Aside from 2012, Sparty has notched at least 11 wins every year this decade. The Hawkeyes will be doubted again after being treated to much of the same throughout their surprise 2015 campaign, but I don’t think they should be. They should have one of the best defenses in the country led by future first-round cornerback Desmond King. That defense, along with a returning signal-caller and a solid running game, will keep them in each contest.
The difference when it comes to the Big Ten is that I believe the bottom of the conference is more of a disaster than the ACC, which is why I could only put it at three.
The ACC can thank Clemson for getting it out of the conference-rankings basement in recent years. The conference needed a team to step up to challenge Florida State on a yearly basis and the Tigers have done more than that. Clemson has reached SEC-level respect nationwide under Dabo Swinney as they are expected to be a contender every year no matter who they lose to the NFL.
This year they’ll have a tougher path in an Atlantic Coast Conference that may be as good as it has been in recent memory. The Seminoles have the look of a top 5 team with athletes all over the defense and every single starter returning on offense.
A large number of returning starters is a common theme among ACC teams in 2016. Eight of the conference’s 14 teams return at least 15 starters, and 11/14 have their starting quarterback returning (a nation high). While this doesn’t mean all of those teams will necessarily be good, it does mean a lot of those teams should be improved, increasing competition in the middle and bottom off the conference. Boston College, Syracuse, and Wake Forest were at the bottom of the conference a year ago, but with 15+ starters back including the quarterback, should be less of a pushover than they were in 2015.
There’s also hope for the ACC in the tier below Florida State and Clemson. Louisville has eight starters back on a defense that was 18th in the country last year. If they can get consistency from an offense with 10 starters returning, they’ll be a dark horse in the conference.
The Coastal division should be a three-team race between UNC, Pitt, and Miami. The Tar Heels will be the favorite, but it’s hard to expect them to run away with it again if they repeat a defensive performance that left them 97th in the country in 2015. The Panthers return eight starters on each side of the ball after going 6-2 in conference play a year ago. Then there’s Miami, which could see improvement with new head coach Mark Richt and a quarterback that could be taken very highly in the 2017 NFL Draft.
Was there any doubt? As much as I’d like to see another conference take over the top spot, it’s hard to make that argument for 2016. After last year, it’s time for anyone (myself included) who doubted Alabama to stop expecting less than an SEC championship for the Tide. It’s better to just be surprised if it doesn’t happen.
LSU could be the team to overtake them this year. After a couple of disappointing seasons, the Tigers have the look of a championship contender once again. Everyone will point to the needed improvement at quarterback, which is surely necessary. Really though, it’s the defense that needs to get back to playing the way it used to. The Tigers’ run defense imploded last year during the team’s losses, but should revert to form with nine starters back and new defensive coordinator Dave Aranda on board.
Tennessee was looked at as a bit of a disappointment last year, but still went 9-4. This year they bring 17 starters back from that team, including a dynamic backfield in Josh Dobbs and Jalen Hurd. Along with Tennessee, Ole Miss could help give the SEC four pre-season Top 10 teams. Say what you want about pre-season polls, but they are generally about the most talented teams, and the SEC has more talent than anyone.
The talent discrepancy shows up among the second-tier of the SEC, where teams like Tennessee, Arkansas, and Ole Miss had dominating bowl wins over other Power 5 teams. Other conferences may have a couple teams as good as the SEC’s top teams, but it’s the quality of that middle tier that keeps the SEC on top.
Feature image courtesy Ken Lund