College football fans like to rank teams, and it’s a source of debate throughout the entire year. It puts teams against each other, even within their own conferences and divisions. Put them with each other, and it becomes a different debate. With the Pac-12’s absence from the College Football Playoff for the last three years, the gap between the other Power 5 conferences and them has grown, and the Group of 5 continues to inch closer.
INDEPENDENT— Hard to rank a conference that isn’t a conference. Notre Dame’s the only playoff contender in the group, and the Irish are hoping to make another run behind Ian Book and a stellar offensive line. BYU can compete with the best, but their schedule remains one of the toughest in all of college football. Army and Liberty could be the surprises, but UMass, New Mexico State, and the newcomers UConn Huskies will struggle.
10. SUN BELT— Appalachian State’s won at least a share of the conference title the last four years, including the last two outright. Louisiana, the runner-up the last two years, returns a dynamic duo in Levi Lewis and Elijah Mitchell, and should push the Mountaineers. Layne Hatcher and Arkansas State should put up points and challenge the Ragin Cajuns in the West division, while Georgia Southern always has a chance to surprise.
9. CONFERENCE USA— UAB didn’t have a college football program a few years ago, but they’ve won the West the last two years and are the favorite to repeat that task. FAU won the conference two of the last three years, return one of the best quarterbacks in the country in Chris Robison, and should make a run to the title game even with a new coaching staff. Marshall, Western Kentucky, Louisiana Tech, and Southern Miss should compete.
8. MAC— It was a weird season in the MAC last year, and it felt like nearly every team had a chance. There should be some separation this season with teams like Buffalo, Central Michigan and Kent State returning talent. The Bulls haven’t won the conference since 2008, the Chippewas since 2007, and the Golden Flashes have yet to win. Lance Leipold’s Bulls return talent like stud running back Jaret Patterson, and could make a run at a New Year’s Six bowl game.
7. MOUNTAIN WEST— Boise State still runs the conference, and it’s tough to see anyone giving them some competition. Air Force surprised the country with an 11-2 finish and returns the essentials for another elite rushing offense. Wyoming figures to be the only other team in the Mountain division that will be in the conversation. In the West, San Diego State enters a new but familiar era with Brady Hoke at the helm, but they could have their hands full with Fresno State and Hawaii.
6. AAC— The Group of 5 representative in the New Year’s Six Bowl game last year, Memphis, will find it tough to retain their crown. The Tigers beat Cincinnati two weeks in a row to win the conference championship, but the Bearcats return a plethora of experience on both sides of the ball to change the result in 2020. UCF took a step back last year, but the Knights won’t be down for long. Temple, Navy, Houston, and SMU all have talent to make things interesting, too.
5. PAC-12— The goal remains to get back to the playoff, but who’s going to do it? Oregon and USC are the favorites in their respective divisions, but each have concerns. The Ducks have the best lineman in the country, along with a deep secondary, but usher in a new quarterback and four new offensive linemen. USC lost to BYU last year, and bring in a new defensive coordinator to an inconsistent group. Utah figures to take a step back, leaving the door open for Arizona State the fill that void in the South. Washington will give the Ducks a run in the North, while Cal and Stanford are the underdogs.
4. ACC— Without Clemson, this conference has been rough. That all can change this season. Louisville, Virginia Tech, Miami and North Carolina are poised to make a run, but the question remains if they can get on Clemson’s level. Louisville’s roster is full of speed in Scott Satterfield’s second year. Manny Diaz brought in talent to improve both side of the ball for Miami, and he needs a bounce back year as much as anyone. Justin Fuente’s Hokies return nearly everyone from a young 2019 team that grew up as the season progressed. North Carolina’s the trendy pick to dethrone the Tigers, and the Tar Heels offense will be one of the most explosive in the country.
3. BIG 12— Oklahoma still has control of the conference. Even with a new quarterback, the Sooners are still the favorite to win it all. If there’s year that someone can take the crown from them, it’s this one. Texas’ Sam Ehlinger’s back for another year as the Longhorns quarterback, and his last year with the program needs to result in a shot at a conference title. Speaking of now or never, Oklahoma State’s a sleeper team. Spencer Sanders, Chuba Hubbard and Tylan Wallace give the Cowboys an explosive trio along with an experienced defense. Baylor, last year’s runner-up, figures to take a step back, leaving room for Iowa State and TCU to jump up to the top half of the conference.
2. BIG TEN— Ohio State has the target on their back, but it’s tough to see anyone hit it. Penn State’s the closest to the Buckeyes, but Sean Clifford needs to show improvement for them to have a chance to beat Ohio State and win the Big Ten. Michigan’s in a “prove it” stage under Jim Harbaugh, and have Indiana and Michigan State nipping at their heels. In the West, Wisconsin and Minnesota will compete for the top spot. Iowa, Purdue, and Nebraska bring back talent that can elevate them to the top as well, but it’s mostly unproven talent.
1. SEC— The defending college football national champions are the most vulnerable. LSU’s road to repeating proves to be challenging with the departures of numerous NFL Draft picks, and the West doesn’t do them any favors. Alabama’s 11-2 season was a disappointment, and that’s enough motivation to launch them back to the top. Never doubt a Nick Saban team. Auburn and Texas A&M have the potential to jump over LSU in the division, but more competition could mean these four beat up on each other. In the East, Florida and Georgia once again compete for the division crown. Tennessee finished the year strong, and returns plenty of experience to make some noise. Kentucky and South Carolina don’t appear to have the talent to win the division, but they can put teams above them on upset alert.