Way Too Early? A Look at What Teams Will Win Their Conferences Next Season.

Johnson JamisonContributor IFebruary 9, 2011

Way Too Early? A Look at What Teams Will Win Their Conferences Next Season.

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    After the Super Bowl ended on Sunday night, February 6th officially became the worst day of the year.  Now seven long months stand between avid football fans and our true state of happiness.  Signing day has come and gone, and our only true shot at excitement for the month of February will come on Valentine’s Day when Jadeveon Clowney will announce where he will play his college ball.  After that, the only real excitement will come from the combine and the NFL draft.  With only three big events on the docket in the football world between now and the start of next season, there is only one true way to cope with the lack of football for the next seven months:  It’s time to look ahead to next season.  

    Every year fans reap the benefits that college football, and every year college football keeps paying us back with more excitement.  2011 should prove no different.  Let’s take an early look at who will be win their respective conferences next season.

ACC

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    Sure Florida State won the recruiting battle in the ACC, but I like the Tigers in 2011.  Is it too bold to predict a 6-7 team in 2010 to win the conference title in the next year?  Maybe, but Clemson has already started to make some big moves to improve in 2011.  After having yet another disappointing season on offense, Dabo Swinney finally realized it was time for a major change.  He brought in Tulsa's Chad Morris to try to revamp this tired offense.  Quarterback Tahj Boyd had a decent showing in the Meineke Car Care Bowl and with a good off season he could really step up to lead the Tigers to greatness next season.  The biggest problems for Clemson came from not having a consistent receiving corps in 2010.  The likes of Charone Peake, Sammy Watkins, and Martavius Bryant should remedy that.  All three of them have the tools to contribute as soon as they step on campus.  

    Florida State will push Clemson in the Atlantic Division, and when the Seminoles travel to Clemson next season, the match-up could very well be a play in game for the ACC Championship Game.  Frank Beamer's Virginia Tech team will always be a huge factor in the Coastal Division, and while they lose some major production on offense, Beamer will reload like always.  In the end I still see the Tigers finally able to finish the job.  After almost two decades of disappointment, it’s finally time for Clemson to claim the ACC crown.

Big 12

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    The Oklahoma Sooners have to be the clear cut favorite to win the Big 12 in 2011.  They have a boatload of talent returning from a team that one the Fiesta Bowl last season, even if it was over UConn.  “Landry Jones to Ryan Broyles for the score!” will become a sickening phrase to hear for Oklahoma’s opponents. 

    The Sooners might not have to leave Oklahoma to find their toughest competition in the Big 12.  The Cowboys of Oklahoma State could push the Sooners for the crown, but it will be tough.  State has a QB-Receiver tandem of their own that no secondary wants to contend with, and “Brandon Weeden to Justin Blackmon” will be heard just as much if not more than their counterparts.  Bedlam could very well be a battle for the Big 12 title.

    Oklahoma isn’t the only state that will play football next season.  If Missouri can find a replacement for Blaine Gabbert, they might make some noise in the conference.  And don’t expect Mac Brown to stay down too long, while he might need another year, the Longhorns will be much improved from their 2010 squad.  Texas A&M looked great under Ryan Tannehill, and they will be another team to watch out for.

    Big 12 games are full of fireworks, and don’t expect 2011 to be any different.  We should see some very exciting games week in and week out just like any other year.  But when the dust settles, expect Oklahoma to be standing alone on top.

Big East

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    West Virginia had the best overall record in the Big East last year, and early they seem to be in the best shape to take back control of the conference.  Quarterback Geno Smith will be ready to lead the Mountaineers to more consistent outings.  A playmaker like Noel Devine is hard to replace, but he had a down year in 2010, so the hit shouldn’t be as hard as some might think.

    Pittsburgh, UConn, and Syracuse all posted 8-5 records last year, and each team has some talent returning.  The unpredictable Big East is any teams for the taking, so any of these squads could make a run.

    The sleeper pick in the Big East has to be South Florida.  While the Bulls had an 8-5 overall record, they had a losing campaign in conference.  B.J. Daniels is a playmaker, and he will only improve next season.  If Daniels performs, then the Bulls could make a run at the Big East Championship.

    In all, West Virginia should be the favorite to take the Big East next season, but my favorite challenger is South Florida.  

Big Ten

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    Right now, the Big Ten is one of the toughest conferences to predict.  It will be interesting to see how Ohio State responds to the loss of Terrell Pryor and four other contributors for the first five games.  The Bucks shouldn’t have a problem with Akron, Toledo, or even Colorado for that matter, but Miami and Michigan State could pose a problem.

     If Ohio State is doing well, then they will only do better when they get their full team together.  If they are struggling, then I wouldn’t expect the return and Pryor and Co. to be the automatic miracle solution.  All that said, you can never count out Jim Tressel’s Buckeyes no matter who they have on the field, and they won’t be in 2011.

    I wouldn’t expect as much from the other 2010 Co-Big Ten Champions.  Michigan State made a great run last year, but that success is going to be hard to duplicate.  Wisconsin will still have a strong running attack but they are losing some key players.  Of the two, Wisconsin will have the most success and could still make a good run, but it’s going to be tough. 

    New comer Nebraska will be looking to make a statement in their Big Ten debut season.  If Taylor Martinez can emerge as more of a passing threat, the Huskers will certainly be a contender.  That and if Bo Pelini doesn’t rip the kid’s head off. 

    Penn State could also make some noise, and they will be in the upper half of the conference next season, but they aren’t quite ready to make a run at the conference just yet.

    This early, I like Nebraska to represent the Legends division and Ohio State to be on top of the Leaders.  In the inaugural Big Ten Championship game, I’m taking the new boys, I like the Huskers.

Conference USA

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    The Conference USA doesn’t get enough credit.  I’m not saying that they are ready to produce a BCS buster, but the conference games are always fun to watch. 

    Central Florida has to be the favorite.  They have the players, they have the coaching, and they have proven to themselves that they can win ball games.  They should make it through the East Division with relative ease.

    The West Division is a bit more up in the air.  Tulsa has talent coming back, but they are losing their coach, which is always tough to contend with.  SMU on the other hand was finally able to begin their recovery from the death penalty.  Their quarterback Kyle Padron put up some pretty good numbers in June Jones system, and he could easily improve those next year. 

    Houston greatly missed Case Keenum last year, so having him back will be a big, BIG, boost.  Keenum will have a couple of guys to throw to returning, so it’s hard to count the Cougars out.

    This early, I’m taking Central Florida over the Houston in the Conference USA Championship.

Mid-American

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    This is another tough one to call.  In the conference, there is some great competition among the top teams, and at the bottom…well it’s just bad.

    Northern Illinois, Miami (OH), and Toledo all have a bunch of talent returning.  Northern Illinois quarterback Chandler Harnish is a great dual-threat, but he won’t have his leading rusher returning to support him.

    Miami (OH) will have to replace both their leading rusher and receiver, but with what they have returning on both sides of the ball, they can still make some noise in conference.

    Toledo is returning almost all of their offensive production.  This was a young team last year that posted a good conference record, and will be looking to rebound from their bowl loss.  Toledo would have to be my sleeper pick in the MAC.

    Ohio University and Temple both put together pretty decent seasons.  I’m sure Temple is still fuming after being left out of a bowl game with eight wins.  That could serve as good fuel next season, but with a new coach coming in, the transition may be tough.

    Right now, it looks like Miami (OH) will be on top in the East, and I’m going to take Toledo in West.  I like the Rockets to take the Conference as well.

Mountain West

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    The Mountain West gained and lost former BCS buster teams for 2011.  Utah will depart for the new Pac-12, but will be replaced by Boise State.  2011 will also be TCU’s last season before they move to the Big East.  The Mountain West plays some good football, and unlike the other Non-AQs, it usually holds some national implications.

    Both Boise State and TCU will have some work to do if they want to duplicate the success of their past.  Both teams are losing a bunch of talent on both sides of the football.  TCU loses Andy Dalton, who went 41-7 as a starter.  The Broncos do return Kellen Moore, but his supporting cast is greatly depleted.  Still both teams will be expecting to take home the conference title.

    San Diego State returns phenomenal freshman running back Ronnie Hillman, along with quarterback Ryan Lyndley. The Aztecs put together a great year, but the loss of Coach Brady Hoke will certainly hurt them next season.

    Another team to watch will be Air Force.  The Falcons proved that they are a team to be reckoned with.  Their three losses outside of TCU were by a combined total of ten points, and they nearly beat Oklahoma in Norman.  With most of their production coming back in 2011, if there were a year for Air Force to win the Mountain West, it’s the next one.

    This conference race, I believe will most likely come down to Boise State and Air Force.  Not to count TCU out, but they will have a tougher rebuild than Boise, and they play Air Force on the road.  The conference will be decided on the blue turf in Idaho where history would tell me to take the Broncos, but I like the option attack of the Falcons.

Pac 12

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    The new Pac-12 conference will be one of the most entertaining to watch next season.  The new divisions set up for some great competition.

    The premier team for the league still has to be the Oregon Ducks.  Chip Kelley is a genius, plain and simple.  The Duck’s offense has to be one of the most entertaining shows in history.  With quarterback Darren Thomas and running back LaMichael James returning, don’t expect this offense to slow down.

    Stanford also has to get a mention as a contender.  Yes they lost their coach, and some key-players, but they did keep their crown jewel in Andrew Luck.  One guy doesn’t make a team, sure, but this kid sure helps.  The Cardinal play great as a team, and rely on guys to step up and carry the load.  Expect the same thing to happen next year.

    USC will always be looking to make a statement.  Matt Barkley will be back, and he has shown that he is an elite quarterback in the league.  Too bad that as of right now, whatever they do next year still won’t really mean anything.

    Utah, in their first year, also has a chance to make some noise.  The Utes will be looking to prove that they can contend with a full AQ conference schedule, and while they have some work to do rebuilding, they still have enough talent to make a statement.  Quarterback Jordan Wynn could very well lead the Utes to the championship game.

    Arizona and Arizona State could both make some noise, but I wouldn’t expect anything more than a dull roar.

    As it looks right now, the inaugural Pac-12 Championship Game will be Oregon and the best among Arizona, Arizona State, or Utah, as USC is currently ineligible to play in the title game.  If Oregon football in 2011 resembles at all what it did in 2010, then the Ducks will be the champs yet again.

SEC

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    The SEC conference has dominated college football for the past five years, at least when it comes to winning the national championship.  This early, it’s hard to say whether that streak will be extended to six, but there is no question that the conference race will be exciting.

    The East was much weaker than usual in 2010, but that should improve next year.  The favorite in this division has to be South Carolina.  They return the stud freshman running back in Marcus Lattimore.  They also bring back receiver Alshon Jeffery, arguably two of the best players in the conference.  With a solid defense, the Gamecocks are the team to beat.

    Georgia will have to rebound big if they want their head coach to still have a job at the end of the season.  The Dawgs plucked the state of Georgia almost dry of top recruits, and that will pay big dividends next season.  Loosing isn’t something they are accustomed to in Athens, so don’t expect another year like last year.

    The West should have a new champion this season.  Auburn will still be strong, but they will need to rebuild this year.  Their instate counterpart, Alabama, will also be strong, and Nick Saban has built a career on putting his teams in championship form. 

    One has to mention the Bulldogs of Mississippi State as well.  State had a great end to their season with a huge bowl win over Michigan, so that should give them some good momentum.  Not to mention that they are bringing back a ton of talent.

    The other real contender in the West is LSU.  I’m sure the Mad Hatter still has a few tricks up his sleeve.  The Tigers dismantled a good Texas A&M team at the season’s end, and that should be a sign of things to come in 2011.  Right now, LSU looks like the favorite in the SEC West.

    The championship game should be played by South Carolina and LSU.  The ‘Ole Ball Coach and The Hat will have their teams in championship form next season, and the SEC Championship should be one of the best games of 2011.  Look for LSU to pull this one off, most likely on a botched snap returned for a touchdown as time expires when South Carolina is trying to take a knee.

Sun Belt

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    The most accurate way to pick the Sun Belt would probably be to put each team logo on a dart board and let one rip.  But when you look at returning talent, the reigning conference champions Florida International have the most.

    Troy will return their leading rusher, as well as quarterback Corey Robinson who put up great numbers as a freshman.  They boasted the best overall record in the Sun Belt last season, but a loss to Florida International cost them the conference crown.

    Both Troy and Florida International won their bowl games, and both were against MAC teams with the same record, so no help there.  Guess it’s time to throw a dart.  I’ll take Troy.

WAC

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    Poor, poor WAC, they are losing Boise State this season, and Fresno State, Nevada, and Hawaii the year after.  So who is going to step up in the final year of having at least a semi-decent conference?

    Nevada will need to rebuild.  They had a great run last season, but replacing Colin Kaepernick and leading rusher Vai Taua will be no small task.  This year won’t be Nevada’s year.

    Hawaii, while returning their starting quarterback, still loses most of their weapons, including the nation’s leading receiver Greg Salas.  The Warriors may be able to find some guys to come down with the football and if they can, the conference is theirs.

    Fresno State arguably returns the most talent of any of the three teams that have a shot despite losing their starting quarterback.  The Bulldogs have always been a fun team to watch, and they have a history of at least competing with some of the big boys on the west coast.  With that, I’ll take Fresno State to leave the WAC as champions.