College football is just around the corner -- we’re less than 11 weeks away from the Gophers’ season opener against New Mexico State on Aug. 30. So, with that in mind, I’ll be examining some story lines, players and trends to watch over the next few weeks. Here’s today’s installment:
Rating the conferences
1. Southeastern: Following Clemson’s 35-31 victory over Alabama in the College Football Playoff championship game to cap the 2016 season, the luster was off the SEC just a bit. The SEC was 6-6 that bowl season, while the ACC went 8-3 and had many wondering if it had overtaken the Deep South behemoth. That, however, changed in 2017, when Alabama edged Georgia 26-23 in overtime to win the national title. The SEC became the first conference with three teams in the playoff, and a third, Auburn, essentially lost a national quarterfinal matchup to Georgia in the SEC title game. The Crimson Tide didn’t even win the SEC West yet hung its second CFP championship banner and advanced to the playoff in each of its four years. The SEC finished a ho-hum 4-5 in bowl games, but its high-end quality gives it an edge in the conference race.
2. Big Ten: The conference nearly went undefeated in bowl play last year, with only Michigan’s loss to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl – a game the Wolverines led by 16 points -- dropping the Big Ten to 7-1. Ohio State (over USC in the Cotton Bowl), Penn State (over Washington in the Fiesta Bowl) and Wisconsin (over Miami in the Orange Bowl) all posted impressive victories in New Year’s Six bowls. But what kept the Big Ten from overtaking the SEC was the absence of a team in the College Football Playoff. The stunning 55-24 blowout Ohio State absorbed at Iowa on Nov. 4 ended up denying the Big Ten a playoff team. This fall, an expected four-team race in the Big Ten East among Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State shows off the league’s depth, while Wisconsin returns the talent to repeat in the West and contend for a playoff berth.
3. Atlantic Coast: The ACC had a strong bowl season in 2017, going 8-3, and Clemson again should be in the hunt for a fourth consecutive playoff berth. Miami started 10-0 last year in Mark Richt’s second year as coach, but the Hurricanes lost their final three games to Pitt, Clemson and Wisconsin. One of the ACC’s powers, Florida State, stumbled to a 7-6 record in 2017, and coach Jimbo Fisher high-tailed it to Texas A&M for a 10-year, $75 million contract. If Willie Taggart can engineer a quick turnaround with the Seminoles and if Virginia Tech can continue its upward climb under Justin Fuente, the ACC will have a strong top four teams and solid league depth.
4. Big 12: Oklahoma has been the standard-bearer for the Big 12 in the playoff era, making the conference’s only two playoff appearances (2015 and ’17). The Sooners appear to be the class of the league this year, too, with West Virginia, TCU, Texas and Oklahoma State providing depth. The Big 12 went 5-3 in bowls last year but couldn’t land a second team in a New Year’s Six contest. That must change for the conference to move up.
5. Pac-12: The good news is the Pac-12 had nine bowl teams last year. The bad news? Only Utah’s win over West Virginia in the Heart of Dallas Bowl kept the Pac-12 from getting skunked. The Pac-12 has had two teams reach the playoff – Oregon in 2014 and Washington in 2016 – and the Huskies are the league’s best bet this year. Half of the league’s 12 teams have new coaches this year, and it’ll be interesting to see how quickly Chip Kelly can turn around UCLA and if Mario Cristobal can make Oregon a title contender again.
6. American Athletic: Central Florida got its undefeated season but was stiff-armed at the College Football Playoff door, and the Golden Knights’ snubbing had many calling for the playoff to be expanded to eight teams. That won’t happen anytime soon, so Group of Five conferences like the American likely must settle for a New Year’s Six bowl berth. Last year, the American went 4-3 in bowls and landed three teams in the final AP Top 25: No. 5 UCF, No. 21 South Florida and No. 25 Memphis. Despite losing coach Scott Frost to Nebraska, UCF has enough talent returning to win the league again.
7. Mountain West: Boise State was the only Mountain West team to crack the final AP Top 25 last year, as the conference went 3-3 in bowls. The Broncos return 15 of 22 starters, and that makes them the favorite to secure the one New Year’s Six bowl spot reserved for a Group of Five team. To do that, though, Boise State must fend off challenges from San Diego State, Fresno State and Utah State.
8. Conference USA: The league went 4-5 in bowls last year, with Florida Atlantic under coach Lane Kiffin capping an 11-3 season with 50-3 rout of Akron in the Boca Raton Bowl. The Owls are cream of the C-USA crop, with North Texas and Marshall a step back.
9. Mid-American: A 1-4 bowl record was a disappointment for the MAC, which in 2016 sent P.J. Fleck’s Western Michigan Broncos to the Cotton Bowl. Ohio in the East and Northern Illinois in the West enter the season as division favorites.
10. Sun Belt: Troy, Arkansas State and Appalachian State are the top three in this conference, which won four of its five bowl games last year. Don’t sleep on Troy, which beat LSU 24-21 in Baton Rouge last year.