How SEC's 3 best teams compare with other Power 5 conferences
With Clemson defeating Alabama to close out last season and claim the program’s first national championship since 1981, there has been a lot of debate across the college football landscape as to which conference is the best in the country.
While the Tigers are representative of a much stronger ACC, the Crimson Tide’s setback in the title game did nothing to change the power status of the SEC.
The SEC’s top three teams can compete with anybody in the country.
Let’s take a look at how each league’s best compares to Alabama, Auburn and LSU — the three strongest squads in the SEC heading into the season.
Big 12: Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas
The Big 12 has not received a ton of love nationally in the Playoff era, but there’s a chance that the league’s fortunes could be changing.
In Norman, Lincoln Riley is the new man in command challenged with trying to net Oklahoma a third consecutive Big 12 title. A cohesive line and gunslinging quarterback Baker Mayfield (below) pace the offense, but the unit was decimated by NFL departures — Dede Westbrook, Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon are gone — and Nick Basquine will miss the year after suffering an Achilles’ injury this past Saturday. He was the team’s leading returner among its receivers.
There is still talent on that side of the ball, including Rodney Anderson and Abdul Adams at tailback, but the defense will need to step up and support a younger offense. Pass rusher Ogbonnia Okoronkwo and linebacker Caleb Kelly are the stars up front, while Steven Parker leads a steadily improving secondary. The slate isn’t easy, as road trips to Ohio State, Kansas State and Oklahoma State loom. But the Sooners are still the class of this league until another program emerges.
Given the Big 12 has not been invited to two of the three Playoffs, its hopes this year likely rest on Oklahoma upsetting Ohio State in Columbus in Week 2.
Meanwhile, Mike Gundy remains one of the most underappreciated coaches in the country. Quarterback Mason Rudolph, wide receiver James Washington and running back Justice Hill return to a Top 20 scoring offense that will remain potent. The receiver position is stacked, as Jalen McCleskey, Marcell Ateman and LSU transfer Tyron Johnson join Washington on one of the best units in the nation.
Defensively, though, the Pokes must be able to make enough stops to claim a league crown and win at least 10 games for the fourth time in five seasons. The early loss of tackle Vincent Taylor hurt, but graduate transfer cornerback Adrian Baker arrived from Clemson. The Pokes host in-state rival Oklahoma on Nov. 4. There is no better opportunity for Gundy to claim a big victory, especially with Bob Stoops gone and Riley in his debut season as head coach. OSU’s non-conference schedule won’t help its Playoff chances. Big 12 teams play nine conference games, and the Pokes’ only other game against a Power 5 is a Week 3 date with middle-of-the-pack Pitt, picked to finish fourth in the ACC Coastal.
Then there is Texas.
Tom Herman and his staff are crushing it on the recruiting trail, but fans in Austin expect the Longhorns to rise to the top of the conference sooner than later. And that should occur, as Charlie Strong’s program-building left a full cupboard of talent on both sides of the ball.
Shane Buechele is coming off of a solid true freshman season and will be protected by a sound offensive line. Chris Warren is healthy and ready to have a strong comeback season, while Buechele has enough productive pass-catchers to make this a tough aerial attack to contain. Ultimately, though, coordinator Todd Orlando will need to drastically improve the defense. Line depth is a concern, but it helps to inherit linebacker Malik Jefferson.
Texas hasn’t ended a season ranked in the top 15 since finishing second in 2009. The ‘Horns will consistently win again, and it may start in 2017. That alone will help strengthen this conference. A Week 3 victory at Southern Cal surely would help the league’s reputation.
Pac-12: USC, Washington and Stanford
A no-brainer when the coaching carousel spun a few offseasons ago was that Chris Petersen would win at Washington. He did a lot of that in 2016, as the Huskies earned a bid to the College Football Playoff in just his third season in Seattle. And with a very manageable slate this fall, U-Dub could be primed to return to the CFP.
Quarterback Jake Browning returns after tossing 43 touchdowns in 2016, and Dante Pettis should thrive as the No. 1 receiver. Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman will be lethal on the ground, but coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski is overseeing a defense that was hit hard in the secondary. But the Huskies avoid USC on the regular season schedule. Is a game against the Trojans for the Pac-12 crown on the horizon? It will take a conference title to persuade Playoff voters because the Huskies’ non-conference slate is embarrassingly weak; Rutgers (2-10 last year) is their lone Power 5 opponent.
The Trojans have a signal-caller in Sam Darnold (below) who put on one of the best postseason performances in recent memory during the team’s shootout win over Penn State in the Rose Bowl. He was the catalyst to the team bouncing back from a 1-3 start last season. Running back Ronald Jones is a star, but there is a lot of youth at receiver. Plus, we need to see if the offensive line will come together quickly.
Defensively, coordinator Clancy Pendergast has a lot of material returning, including linebacker Cameron Smith, defensive lineman Rasheem Green and cornerback Iman Marshall.
But the slate is difficult, including matchups against Stanford and Texas in September and a trip to Notre Dame. But with Darnold, Clay Helton’s squad has a chance to reclaim Pac-12 supremacy.
Meanwhile, Stanford fans can usually count on 10 wins from David Shaw and Co. each year — it’s about as consistent as any program in the country. But quarterback is a big question mark. We don’t know whether Keller Chryst, Ryan Burns or redshirt freshman K.J. Costello will get the nod.
Replacing running back Christian McCaffrey will also be difficult. However, Bryce Love and Cameron Scarlett will step in and produce on the ground behind a strong offensive line. The secondary will be the strength of the defense, led by cornerback Quenton Meeks and safety Justin Reid. The slate is difficult, though, as Stanford travels to Utah and USC and hosts Oregon, UCLA and Washington. Will we eventually see five-star recruit Davis Mills earn the job under center? There is no question that Shaw has elevated the talent level with the Cardinal, but how quickly the younger players develop will tell the tale in 2017.
ACC: Florida State, Clemson and Louisville
It was difficult picking the No. 3 team in the ACC, but I gave the slight edge to Louisville over Miami and Virginia Tech, both of which also appeared in the Coaches preseason poll.
While Clemson is on top of the college football mountain, Florida State is primed to reclaim the top spot in the conference.
Jimbo Fisher’s squad returns most of its defensive starters, and safety Derwin James will be healthy and primed for a big year following his knee injury. James will line up at all three levels of the defense, and he might even see action on offense and special teams, too. Front-seven talent such as Josh Sweat and Derrick Nnadi are back as well.
Offensively, Deondre Francois (below) was one of the toughest quarterbacks in the country in 2016. But he should not be expected to take the consistent beatings that he did last season, so it’s essential that his offensive line improves. Nyqwan Murray and Auden Tate give him solid options at receiver, while Jacques Patrick and 5-star recruit Cam Akers should be able to keep the ground game churning even without Dalvin Cook.
We’ll know a lot about FSU in the season opener when it plays No. 1 Alabama in Atlanta. Miami and Louisville come to Tallahassee, but the ‘Noles face Clemson and Florida on the road. A one-loss FSU team that wins the ACC title should make the CFP and have a chance at a national title.
Meanwhile, there won’t be too much dropoff at Clemson. Dabo Swinney has been recruiting at a very high, SEC-like level, so the Tigers will remain very relevant nationally. But this is a squad that lost a ton of talent from its 2016 championship team.
How quickly can the offense find its stride without two-time Heisman Trophy finalist Deshaun Watson, receivers Mike Williams and Artavis Scott and running back Wayne Gallman?
Meanwhile, linebacker Ben Boulware and cornerback Cordrea Tankersley are gone from the defense, but coordinator Brent Venables will still field studs like end Christian Wilkins, tackle Dexter Lawrence and linebacker Kendall Joseph. The Nov. 11 tilt against Florida State should still settle the ACC Atlantic. And it should have CFP implications, too.
Bobby Petrino’s Cardinals are once again a wild card. After Lamar Jackson’s dazzling Heisman-winning season, can Louisville take that next step forward as an ACC program? It starts with Jackson, who put up ridiculous numbers (3,543 passing yards and 30 touchdowns plus 1,571 rushing yards and 21 scores on the ground) last season. A lot of offensive talent is gone, but players such as Jeremy Smith, Reggie Bonnafon and Jaylen Smith should thrive in this offense. Can the big boys up front protect their Heisman star, though? They certainly couldn’t in last year’s bowl loss to LSU.
The entire offense was out of sync in the final three games of 2016 when Jackson was getting beat up by Houston, Kentucky and LSU. Meanwhile, new coordinator Peter Sirmon will try to keep the defense playing well, and the cause will be helped by the returns of linebacker Stacy Thomas and cornerback Jaire Alexander. We’ll find out if the Cards are legit ACC contenders when they play Clemson in Week 3.
Big Ten: Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan
The B1G makes an awfully strong argument in this conversation.
Ohio State could arguably end up as the best team in the country, while Penn State certainly can challenge the Buckeyes for the Big Ten East title. Michigan might be best set up for a 2018 run, but Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines should still be a tough out this fall.
Keep in mind that Urban Meyer and Co. returned only six starters coming into 2016 yet still advanced to the College Football Playoff. Once again Meyer proved that he does his best work with younger teams. Now the goal is to make the offense a juggernaut once again, so Kevin Wilson arrived in Columbus looking to do just that with veteran J.T. Barrett (below) returning at quarterback. A key question is whether playmakers can emerge to offset the losses of Noah Brown and Curtis Samuel. Look for Parris Campbell and Demario McCall to become household names as the Buckeyes look for a more prolific aerial attack.
While Sam Hubbard and Nick Bosa headline a strong front seven, the secondary was decimated by NFL departures. There might not be too much dropoff, though, if Kendall Sheffield and Jeffrey Okudah can make an instant impact. Talent will never be an issue in Columbus, so this is a team that could be set up for a showdown in a CFP title game.
In Happy Valley, James Franklin’s Nittany Lions will have no problem scoring points. Penn State became one of the country’s most improved teams by the end of last season, winning the Big Ten championship and flirting with a CFP berth — a remarkable turnaround. Quarterback Trace McSorley, running back Saquon Barkley and tight end Mike Gesicki lead a strong offense, but coordinator Brent Pry’s unit did lose top cornerback John Reid to a spring knee injury. The Big Ten game of the year could occur Oct. 28 when the Nittany Lions travel to Ohio State.
Meanwhile, Harbaugh faces a challenging rebuild this fall. However, remember that he landed very strong recruiting classes the last two Februarys. Michigan will need young players such as incoming freshmen receivers Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black to make an immediate impact, while last year’s backup defenders will need to adjust to increased reps because the Wolverines lost so many starters on that side of the ball.
The Big Ten has real national contenders, but the SEC does as well. And it gets the nod as the strongest league heading into 2017.
SEC: Alabama, Auburn and LSU
Georgia and Florida are the best teams in the SEC East, but Alabama, Auburn and LSU are the strongest squads in the SEC.
Until Nick Saban decides to walk away, the Crimson Tide will remain the closest thing to a dynasty in college football. ‘Bama suffered some key departures on defense, and it’s almost impossible to replicate some of their big-play scores we saw in 2016. But the talent level remains the highest in Tuscaloosa, so expect nose guard Da’Ron Payne and end Da’Shawn Hand to lead the defense up front and seniors Shaun Dion Hamilton and Rashaan Evans to be playmakers at linebacker. Pass rushers Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams are gone, but the secondary will be a strength with Minkah Fitzpatrick (below, with Payne) and Ronnie Harrison arguably being the best safety combo in the country.
New offensive coordinator Brian Daboll inherits a quarterback in Jalen Hurts who will only continue to refine his passing game to complement his elite rushing skills. There are stud playmakers littered across the offense to help him out.
Going through a full season unscathed is incredibly difficult. But the Tide are best-positioned to play for and claim yet another national championship in Atlanta on Jan. 8.
The Tide will have to get past Auburn in the Iron Bowl first.
Gus Malzahn’s Tigers should be awfully difficult to contain offensively with former Baylor quarterback Jarrett Stidham operating a unit that will feature a lethal ground attack led by Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson. Sophomore Nate Craig-Myers is a top vertical threat, while Stidham will be protected by a strong offensive line.
Defensively, coordinator Kevin Steele will oversee a unit whose strength is at linebacker with Deshaun Davis and Tre Williams. The schedule, of course, is tough. A win in Week 2 at defending national champion Clemson, though, would be huge for a program looking to reclaim the top spot in the West.
As for the other Tigers, Ed Orgeron enters his first full season as the head man in Baton Rouge with a stocked cupboard of talent. But can the Bayou Bengals make enough offensive strides to be a true threat in the rugged West?
Matt Canada is one of the finest offensive minds in the sport, and his job is automatically easier with Derrius Guice pacing a lethal rushing attack. But can a healthy Danny Etling be able to put together a Nate Peterman-type performance — one that helped Canada land the gig with the Tigers after helping Peterman become an NFL prospect at Pitt? Will others emerge as top pass-catching options alongside D.J. Chark? And will depth issues plague the offensive line?
Dave Aranda’s defense lost a ton of talent to the 2017 NFL Draft, but Arden Key continues to progress from his injury, while K’Lavon Chaisson could emerge as a young star. Linebacker is a bit of a concern, but cornerback Donte Jackson is an all-conference type of player.
It shouldn’t all be on Etling for the Tigers to compete for a West title. But his role is vital in telling the tale of the 2017 Bayou Bengals and giving the SEC yet another national championship contender.