The SEC has won five consecutive BCS championships and taken control of the conference power battles without much contest. Florida, LSU, Alabama and Auburn have combined to ensure that when it comes to determining the top conference in college football, the competition starts and ends with the SEC.
But there is more to determining the best conference than who wins the national championship. The SEC has performed well in other areas, including bowl games and non-conference games during the regular season. The conference's performance overall is still in front of the pack, while conferences like the Big Ten and Pac-12 look to chomp away at the SEC a bit starting this season.
What does the departure of Nebraska and Colorado mean for the Big 12? Will the Big East have a team deemed worthy of a BCS invite this postseason? And just what impact will Boise State have on the Mountain West Conference this season?
Here is my preseason stab at the conference power rankings for 2011. We will update this power ranking one more time before the first game of the season, three times during the regular season (Weeks 4, 8 and 12), once before the first bowl game and one final time after the bowl games are played.
For the purposes of this power ranking, independent schools (Notre Dame, BYU, Navy, Army) are not included.
No matter what school starts the season at the top of the AP and coaches' polls, the SEC figures to have plenty of schools ranked in the Top 25. The conference is home to the previous five BCS champions, and the quest for a sixth has become an expectation within the conference.
If there was a year for another conference to win the BCS title, this could be the year, because the SEC has some very good teams lined up with LSU, Alabama and South Carolina, but there is no team that stands out at this point as a true favorite on a national scale.
A favorite may emerge as the season progresses, but it appears as though the SEC will come down to LSU and Alabama. Auburn looks to be taking a couple steps back, and Florida is in a changing of the guard with a new head coach. South Carolina still has some concerns. Georgia and LSU can make solid early statements with wins against Boise State and Oregon, respectively, in Week 1 in neutral site games.
2. Big Ten
The addition of Nebraska is what puts the Big Ten ahead of its West Coast rivals for now. But the losses at Ohio State for the first five games leave the perennial favorites a bit weaker preparing for the season.
Michigan begins a new era with Brady Hoke as the new head coach in Ann Arbor, and Penn State could be boosted by some young talent developing on offense. Iowa and Wisconsin lose some key players, but both figure to be in the mix all season in their respective divisions.
The question will be what the conference can do at the bottom of the league. Indiana and Minnesota both have new head coaches with plenty of work to do moving forward.
The top two this season may be familiar this season, as Andrew Luck and Stanford look to get some revenge against last year's BCS runner-up, Oregon.
The Ducks and Cardinal will be the heavyweights in the expanded conference, which adds Colorado from the Big 12 and Utah from the Mountain West Conference. The Buffs have struggled in recent seasons, but we'll see if a new home conference can breathe new life into the program. The addition of Utah may be an underrated move in college football.
USC will not be eligible for postseason play, which hurts the conference overall, but it still has the potential to be the best in the Pac-12 South Division. Nobody will want to play the Trojans, who will look to play spoiler for everybody else this season.
4. Big 12
The Big 12 is hurt by the loss of Nebraska and Colorado, but the conference will still have some solid parts playing this season. Texas struggled mightily last season, but you would expect the Longhorns to be better this season. Texas A&M showed signs of improvement last season and will enter 2011 with higher expectations, but Oklahoma and Oklahoma State could be the favorites.
The Sooners have already been billed as a national championship-caliber team, but the rival Cowboys have more than enough to make a serious run in the conference this season. Will it be up to the Sooners to carry the conference's banner in 2011?
5. Mountain West Conference
For the 2011 season, even with the losses of BYU (independent) and Utah (Pac-12), the Mountain West Conference has plenty of reason to be thinking highly about where it stands in the college football landscape.
TCU and new member Boise State will be the teams to focus on, and if they are successful, they will ensure people pay attention to the conference. If either team stumbles early in non-conference games, then the Mountain West Conference will certainly fall in the power rankings quickly.
During the bowl season, the Mountain West Conference recorded the second-best bowl record (4-1), second to the SEC's five wins (5-5 overall).
Florida State and Clemson made some loud statements during the recruiting season and are fueling some high energy within the conference for the upcoming season. The Seminoles look to be developing into a national power once again that will soon be making a case to be in the BCS championship discussion (2012 may be the first legitimate year we hear Florida State's name in the mix).
Of course, Virginia Tech is still the top program in the conference, and it will once again be a tough team to take down in 2011.
A coaching change at Miami (Al Golden) will be fun to track this season. Golden produced wins at Temple, so we will see if he can make the same kind of change take place at Miami. An early game against Ohio State in Miami could do wonders for the Hurricanes and the ACC, even if the Buckeyes are depleted.
7. Big East
The Big East sent an eight-win team to the BCS last season, so it has plenty to prove as a conference. Up-and-coming programs such as South Florida, Louisville and Syracuse could add depth to the Big East this season, while Cincinnati, West Virginia and Pittsburgh are all looking to get back on track this season.
Wins against Notre Dame by South Florida and Pittsburgh would help the conference's respect level in September, but the conference would benefit from having a team emerge as a true BCS-worthy program as the season progresses.
8. Conference USA
The funny thing about Conference USA this season is it could turn into an open audition for the Big East. Aside from Villanova, the names most often linked to the Big East expansion scenario are Central Florida, Houston and East Carolina.
The return of Case Keenum at Houston will be a big storyline, as the Cougars signal caller looks to pick up where he left off on his Heisman campaign before being taken out by injury.
Conference USA had the worst bowl record a year ago (2-4).
The MAC saw its top team, Northern Illinois, toppled in the MAC Championship Game. Does that mean the conference is deep or that the best team just was not that good?
The MAC's 2-2 bowl record was led by the division winners (Northern Illinois and Miami-Ohio) picking up wins, while Ohio and Toledo took losses in the postseason. Many felt Temple should have been in a bowl game somewhere, but the Owls were left home, falling short of the preseason hype surrounding them in 2010.
The MAC had some teams in a rebuilding year in 2010, so we'll see if that development continues in 2011. Tuesday night games should be more fun to watch this season.
With the loss of Boise State this season, it will be up to Fresno State to lead the conference in 2011, but the Bulldogs will be leaving at the end of the season, along with Nevada and Hawaii. For now the WAC is still a tad ahead of the Sun Belt Conference, but the picture could be different next season once the WAC loses Fresno State, Nevada and Hawaii after already losing the Broncos. We haven't even mentioned the possibility that Louisiana Tech could be exploring other options as well.
11. Sun Belt Conference
Troy and Florida International picked up the conference's two bowl victories, while Middle Tennessee State took a loss. The Blue Raiders were the conference favorite heading into the season a year ago, but quarterback issues held them back, as Troy continued to be the conference's team to beat.
If the Sun Belt can get a team from Florida to emerge as a favorite, then the conference could benefit moving forward. Florida International did that last year and will hope to build on that in 2011.
Like the MAC is with the Big Ten, the Sun Belt Conference is mostly caught in the shadows of the SEC, but this season could see the Sun Belt start to make a case for moving up in the conference power rankings.
Watch out, WAC.