It’s time!! Glorious football is back!! A bunch of stuffed shirts & bean counters have done their darndest the past several years to ruin the game…conference realignment, draconian rules in the name of “safety”, a long awaited playoff system that is flawed and makes the stark contrast between the haves & have nots even more apparent. Nevertheless, for the next few months weekends will be even sweeter as fans will have several hours of couch potato worthy entertainment available at their fingertips. One positive change that has emerged in the wake of the four team playoff is a focus on strength of schedule, meaning that there are more competitive games in the first few weeks of the season than ever before. Oh sure there are still cupcake games, but their value is so diminished under the playoff system that coaches & athletic directors have been forced to up the ante just a bit. In Week 1 alone I am seeing over a dozen matchups that probably wouldn’t have been on the schedule just a few years ago. And you know who the winners are?? That’s right…you & me…the fans. As far as my methodology in putting together these rankings…well, I really can’t say I have much of a method. I do know a few things. I know that everyone can’t finish undefeated. I know that “power” conference teams cannibalize each other, with big wins sometimes cancelling out big losses…and vice versa. Teams from “lesser” conferences certainly aren’t going to make it to the playoff, and just one or two losses can significantly impact their ranking. I don’t do a ton of research for this because it’s supposed to be fun not work, but I do try to pay attention to things like coaching changes, substantial personnel losses from players moving on to the NFL or simply graduating, and any other turmoil that may have affected a program in the offseason. It is difficult for more than a few teams from a single conference…even the big boys…to end up ranked, so one basically must develop a hierarchy. Which teams will be in the hunt for the conference crown and possibly a playoff spot?? Which ones will be good, but lose a couple of games and end up in the lower tier of the poll?? Which teams…despite their talent and vast praise from the talking heads…will finish on the outside looking in?? I’m not an expert so for me it’s just a guessing game based on my vibes & minimal data, but that’s okay. I’d still put my “expertise” up against many members of the sports media who don’t know half as much as they’d like us to believe they do. At any rate, let’s dive in.
Last Season: 14-1
Key Games: 9/3 at Auburn, 10/1 vs. Louisville, 10/29 at Florida St.
The Tigers fell just short of winning the national championship last season, but they return QB DeShaun Watson, who looks like the second coming of Cam Newton. That’s good enough for me to put them in this spot, although they’ll need to overcome a hostile crowd in Tallahassee right before Halloween and take down the Seminoles.
Last Season: 11-2
Key Games: 9/3 vs. Houston, 9/17 vs. Ohio St., 10/8 vs. Texas, 12/3 vs. Oklahoma St.
I’m predicting that the Big 12 (which has 10 teams) will be a little down this season, leaving the Sooners as the clear favorites. They have tough non-conference games against Houston and Ohio State, but both are in the friendly environment of Norman, OK. QB Baker Mayfield & RB Samaje Perine return, and both could be in the Heisman discussion.
Last Season: 14-1
Key Games: 9/3 vs. USC, 10/15 at Tennessee, 11/5 at LSU, 11/26 vs. Auburn
Putting The Tide at #1 would be too easy & predictable and that’s not how I roll. The SEC is just too darn tough…I’d be shocked if anyone came thru it unscathed. The season opener against Southern Cal is a neutral site game at the Palace in Dallas and it won’t be easy. Then ‘Bama has to travel to Knoxville & Baton Rouge. It would surprise me less if this team actually lost 3 or 4 games than it would if they’d go undefeated.
4 Ohio State
Last Season: 12-1
Key Games: 9/17 at Oklahoma, 11/5 vs. Nebraska, 11/19 at Michigan St., 11/26 vs. Michigan
Remember last year when the Buckeyes had three legit QBs and no one knew how playing time would be distributed?? It’s a way different story this season, as both Cardale Jones and Braxton Miller (who switched to WR) are plying their trade in the NFL. That means it’s JT Barrett’s show, and that’s a good thing. Now the question becomes how to replace RB Ezekiel Elliott & defensive standout Joey Bosa. It’s also worth noting that the Big Ten (which has 14 teams) looks like it could be even stronger than usual. I might be ranking this team a little too high given all the obstacles they face, but until someone knocks them off the pedestal I have to give them benefit of the doubt. The opener at Oklahoma will be super tough, but even if Ohio St. loses that game they could still win 10 games and end up in this spot.
Last Season: 9-3
Key Games: 9/3 vs. Wisconsin, 10/8 at Florida, 11/5 vs. Alabama
We’ve been waiting a few years for the Bayou Bengals to climb back into legit national title contention, and many seem to believe this is the season. RB Leonard Fournette will be in the thick of the Heisman debate. A 31 yard effort against Alabama killed the young man’s momentum last year so it’ll be really interesting to watch that early November contest to see if he can do better.
6 Florida State
Last Season: 10-3
Key Games: 9/5 at Ole Miss, 10/8 at Miami FL, 10/29 vs. Clemson, 11/26 vs. Florida
The Seminoles have enjoyed a relatively smooth ride thru the ACC over the years, winning 15 conference titles since 1992. However, I think things might be a little tougher than usual this season. Clemson visits Tallahassee, so that helps. That game could very well decide not only the conference but also a spot in the national title playoff. I also expect the early October tilt at Miami to be more like it was back in the old days when both teams were elite.
Last Season: 9-4
Key Games: 9/24 vs. Florida, 10/1 at Georgia, 10/15 vs. Alabama
Could this finally be the year that the Volunteers return to national prominence and actually contend for the SEC title?? A lot of people seem to think so. They haven’t won 10 games in a season since 2007 and are on their 3rd head coach since Phillip Fulmer’s departure after the 2008 season. However I think Butch Jones is finally the one. They’ve improved every year under his guidance and if that upward trend continues the Vols might get to 10 wins this year. They host Alabama in Knoxville which is advantageous.
Last Season: 13-1
Key Games: 9/3 vs. Oklahoma, 11/25 at Memphis
Everyone fawns over the “power” conference darlings, but there are five “other” conferences and someone’s got to win them, right?? The Cougars easily won the American Athletic Conference last season and upset Florida St. in the Peach Bowl. They finished in this very spot in the final poll despite an inexplicable loss at Connecticut. I don’t believe they’ll beat Oklahoma in the season opener, but if they can atleast keep that game respectable then run the table they will have the opportunity for another big post-season victory and a Top 10 finish.
Last Season: 12-2
Key Games: 10/1 vs. Northwestern, 10/22 vs. Wisconsin, 11/12 vs. Michigan, 11/25 vs. Nebraska
Two Big Ten teams finishing in the Top 10 wouldn’t surprise anyone…but which two teams do you prefer?? The Hawkeyes got off to a hot start last season before ending the year with two losses…a close call against Michigan St. and a beatdown by Stanford in the Rose Bowl. The toughest games on the schedule all happen to be at home this year, so that’s positive. Being overlooked is nothing new for Iowa, but objectively speaking I think another 10 win season is easily within their grasp.
Last Season: 10-4
Key Games: 9/17 at Penn St., 10/6 at Memphis, 10/29 vs. Cincinnati
I suppose I’m hedging my bets a bit with two AAC teams in the Top 10. That probably won’t happen. Back in the day when my WV Mountaineers played the Owls annually they were pretty much the doormats of the now defunct Big East and their home games were usually poorly attended snoozefests. But last year something clicked. They beat Penn St. in the opener, lost a close one to Notre Dame, & made it to the conference title game. The Irish aren’t on the schedule this season, so it isn’t unreasonable to think that they could be even more successful, and if they find a way to go into Happy Valley and take down the Nittany Lions again that’d be the cherry on top. Could an AAC title game rematch against Houston actually be a highly anticipated, eminently entertaining contest?? Whoa…that’s crazy talk!!
Last Season: 10-3
Key Games: 10/1 vs. Wisconsin, 10/29 at Michigan St., 11/12 at Iowa, 11/26 at Ohio St.
Let’s pump the brakes a bit on the Wolverines, okay?? I just finished reading a rather interesting book called End Zone, about the slow implosion of the Michigan athletic department & football team over the past several years. Of course all of those issues seemed to fade away into the ether the minute Jim Harbaugh took over as head coach last season, and now all the talking heads are throwing Michigan out there as a potential playoff contender. Upon his hiring I did say that Harbaugh would have this team in national title contention within three years, and one thing I Iearned from the aforementioned book is that former coach Brady Hoke, while probably not ready for prime time as far as game management goes, was well liked, highly respected, & a good recruiter. Harbaugh took the talent that was already there last season and won ten games, up from five victories in 2014. An impressive turnaround indeed. However I am just not ready to put them in the playoff hunt quite yet. They have to go on the road for their three biggest games, and I think they could lose atleast two of them. Jim Harbaugh will get Michigan into the playoff eventually…but not yet.
12 Boise State
Last Season: 9-4
Key Games: 10/20 vs. BYU, 11/25 at Air Force
The Broncos did their usual last season…9 wins, an impressive bowl victory…except that they didn’t compete for the conference championship. I think they can do better this year. Non-conference games against BYU, Washington St., & Oregon St. are important but not vital. They’ll be out for revenge against Air Force, with the winner of that game likely making it to the Mountain West title game. That’s the goal for Boise, and I think meeting those expectations combined with the attrition of various powerhouses beating each other up might propel the Broncos solidly into the Top 20.
Last Season: 10-3
Key Games: 9/23 vs. USC, 10/8 vs. Arizona, 11/19 vs. Oregon
The Pac 12 really should end up having a team ranked much higher than this, but it’s a tough conference and I think it’s possible that they all cannibalize each other into 9-3 records requiring tiebreakers to see who ends up in the title game. The Utes have their biggest games at home so I’m giving them a slight advantage.
14 Notre Dame
Last Season: 10-3
Key Games: 9/4 at Texas, 9/17 at Michigan St., 10/15 at Stanford, 11/26 at USC
Looking at the schedule I am not at all sure that the Irish will win enough games to climb this high. It’s going to be really tough. Is Texas back to being Texas?? Can Michigan St. find a new QB?? Is Stanford being overrated by the talking heads or underrated by me?? Is Southern Cal ready to take back the spotlight?? The answers to all of these questions affect Notre Dame. I’d be shocked if they’re anywhere near the playoff conversation, yet they always seem to find a way to be competitive and win big games. And they ended the Michigan rivalry (for now) just in the nick of time.
15 Oklahoma State
Last Season: 10-3
Key Games: 11/24 at Baylor, 10/1 vs. Texas, 12/3 at Oklahoma
While I think Oklahoma is the clear favorite in the Big 12 (which has ten teams) I am picking their in-state rivals from Stillwater to be a respectable runner-up. Texas may or may not be up to par quite yet, and unlike many “experts” I believe too much has transpired at Baylor in the off season for them to be serious contenders. That leaves the Cowboys, who could conceivably come into that first weekend in December undefeated to face the also undefeated Sooners. That really would be Bedlam.
16 Northern Illinois
Last Season: 8-6
Key Games: 11/9 vs. Toledo
Much like the AAC the MAC gets overlooked in the substantial shadow of the “power” conferences. MAC games get relegated to Tuesday or Wednesday nights on ESPN, but that’s just fine with me. I rather enjoy the brand of football their teams play. The Huskies won the conference title in 2014 but fell off just a bit last season, losing their last three games, including a shellacking by Boise St. in the Poinsettia Bowl. I’m venturing out on a limb and predicting that they’ll get back to 10 wins, a feat they achieved five straight seasons before last year.
Last Season: 9-4
Key Games: 9/3 vs. Arizona, 9/10 vs. Utah, 9/17 vs. UCLA, 10/8 at Michigan St.
The Cougars used to be a mainstay in this pre-season poll, but they kept disappointing me so I left them off the last couple of years. I’m like my father though…I can’t stay mad at anyone for long. The great & awful thing about BYU being independent is that they have freedom in scheduling. Freedom is cool, but also a little daunting when the powers-that-be fill the calendar with tough games against top flight opponents. They could start the season 3-0…or 0-3. Most likely it’ll be somewhere in the middle. But things don’t get much easier from there, with October games against Michigan St. & Boise St. If I had money on it or a weapon being held in my face I’d say 7-5 would be a solid record for such a difficult schedule. However since I’m just having some fun I’m going to hope for a couple of upsets. 9 wins against this imposing lineup of opponents would be quite impressive.
18 Louisiana Tech
Last Season: 9-4
Key Games: 9/3 at Arkansas, 9/17 at Texas Tech, 10/6 vs. Western Kentucky
Someone’s going to win C-USA. My heart belongs to the ol’ alma mater…my Marshall Thundering Herd. Nothing would make me happier than to see them end up in this spot, but I’m trying to be objective or something. I don’t know. The season opener against SEC foe Arkansas is a bit daunting, but an upset wouldn’t be shocking. Can the Bulldogs run the table after that even if they don’t get the win in that first game?? It’s possible. I feel like a lot of talking heads and opposing coaches might overlook this team due to RB Kenneth Dixon moving on to the NFL. That might be perfectly valid…or a huge mistake.
Last Season: 8-6
Key Games: 9/3 vs. Alabama, 9/23 at Utah, 11/19 at UCLA, 11/26 vs. Notre Dame
The Trojans have only won 27 games the past three seasons. That would be great for most teams, but this is not most teams. Finishing outside the national title conversation and playing in a December bowl game is not good enough for the folks in Southern California. Head coach Clay Helton was given the job last year after the dismissal of Steve Sarkisian, and one must assume that he has a very short leash. Finishing with 8 or 9 wins against a challenging schedule would go a long way toward some job security.
20 Michigan State
Last Season: 12-2
Key Games: 9/17 at Notre Dame, 9/24 vs. Wisconsin, 10/29 vs. Michigan, 11/19 vs. Ohio St.
The Spartans looked great last season, with only a controversial loss in the waning seconds against Nebraska as a blemish. But then they ran into a buzzsaw in the playoff semifinal, getting rolled by the Tide. Because they have to replace QB Connor Cook and O-Lineman Jack Conklin I foresee just a little dropoff. Not much. They’ll still be a good team…just not winning a conference title or in the playoff conversation.
Last Season: 5-7
Key Games: 9/4 vs. Notre Dame, 10/1 at Oklahoma St., 10/8 vs Oklahoma, 10/29 vs. Baylor
This is it. In Charlie Strong’s first two seasons as head coach he has an 11-14 record. I think this is a make or break year for him. Either he wins 8+ games or he’s unemployed. The pre-Halloween game against Baylor might be a critical contest. If the Longhorns can’t beat the Bears in Austin after everything that has occurred in Waco the past several months then perhaps Strong deserves to be shown the door.
Last Season: 7-6
Key Games: 9/3 vs. BYU, 10/1 at UCLA, 10/8 at Utah
Did I mention that the Pac 12 is a really competitive conference?? I’m kind of sad actually, because my current job entails me leaving for work at about 10pm on Saturday nights, which means I will miss out on the pleasure of staying up til 1am watching those last few west coast games that are oftentimes a lot of fun. Ah well…c’est la vie. Anyway, the Wildcats fell off last season after winning 10 games in 2014. Can they get back on track?? Both RB Nick Wilson (725 yards rushing, 8 TDs) and QB Anu Solomon (2600+ yards passing, 20 TDs) return, although the defense must replace linebacker Scooby Wright who has moved on to the NFL. I think improving to 8 or 9 wins in a tough Pac 12 will be good enough to sneak into the rankings.
23 Miami, FL
Last Season: 8-5
Key Games: 10/8 vs. Florida St., 10/29 at Notre Dame
After being one of the elite teams of the 1980’s & 90’s the Hurricanes have endured some struggles the past decade, not winning 10 games since 2003. But there’s a new sheriff in town. Head coach Mark Richt won 74% of his games in 15 seasons at Georgia, and now he returns to his alma mater to help them achieve the success that eluded the past 2 or 3 coaches. Miami has shown flashes of their former glory the past few years but couldn’t quite get over the hump. I don’t expect them to compete for a conference title, especially with Clemson & Florida St. standing in the way, but 8 or 9 wins doesn’t seem like an unreasonable goal.
Last Season: 6-7
Key Games: 9/17 vs. Oregon, 10/29 at Wisconsin, 11/5 at Ohio St., 11/25 at Iowa
I might regret this pick, but I’m going to take a chance anyway. Back in the day when I was growing up Nebraska was one of the cornerstone programs of college football. I don’t know if it is location, bad management, poor coaching, or a move to the Big Ten a few years ago, but the Cornhuskers seem like a forgotten team nowadays. They are 24-15 over the past three seasons, including last year’s disaster under first year coach Mike Riley. They have been completely eclipsed in the news cycle by Ohio St., Michigan, Iowa, Michigan St., and even Wisconsin & Northwestern. If Riley has another subpar season he might be another guy on the chopping block, but if he can guide his team to a couple of upsets and get to that 8/9 win level then he’ll live to coach another season in Lincoln.
Last Season: 9-4
Key Games: 9/17 at Nebraska, 11/5 at USC, 11/12 vs. Stanford, 11/19 at Utah
The Ducks have won atleast 9 games in each of the past nine seasons. That’s impressive. I honestly couldn’t name one member of the team without using Google, but I know that Oregon seems like one of those programs that just reloads instead of rebuilding, and while they certainly won’t be in the national title conversation or probably be a legit threat to win the conference I think it is likely that they win 8 games and score an upset or two along the way.