When Florida State bested Auburn in the final BCS Championship Game and Ohio State bounced Alabama from the first CFP, the perception of conference power shifted ever so slightly to entertain, for the first time since the early 2000s, that maybe ...
There is always a lot of crowing about conference supremacy during media days. Whichever league finished the previous season with the most trophies puts them on display and has the chance to use its time at the microphone to fill the empty July news cycle with flattering stories and headlines.
The final years of the pre-College Football Playoff era were owned by the SEC. Not only did the SEC run off seven straight national titles, but it also recruited Missouri and Texas A&M from the Big 12 and inked a 20-year deal for a cable network. When Florida State bested Auburn in the final BCS Championship Game and Ohio State bounced Alabama from the first CFP, the perception of conference power shifted ever so slightly to entertain, for the first time since the early 2000s, that maybe another league could claim to be the best in college football.
With the top spot up for grabs, the ACC's coaches were more than happy to claim it for themselves after Clemson's national championship, Florida State's Orange Bowl win and Lamar Jackson's Heisman Trophy run headlined the most successful college football season in league history.
"There's one conference that had a winning record versus Power Five teams [in 2016]: the ACC," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said at the ACC Football Kickoff. "One conference had a winning record versus ranked teams: the ACC. We had 11 bowl teams. We were 10-4 versus the SEC. There's a reason why we have played so well. We've won five bowl games in a row, and you know, I mean, it's not because I'm some great coach. I've got a good staff and all that. We've had good players. It's what we practice against every day, and it's what we play against week in and week out."
Now comes the hard part for the ACC: keeping that top spot.
It's been a relatively fast leap to the top of college football since West Virginia hung 70 on Clemson in the Orange Bowl in January 2012 -- prior to the 2012 season, the only BCS wins for the ACC were Florida State over Virginia Tech in the title game and Virginia Tech (as an ACC member) over Cincinnati. The coaching hires over the last five years have paid off, and with both Florida State and Clemson, the ACC has two national championship contenders going into the 2017 season.
But a big part of the perception of conference supremacy is performance against the rest of the Power Five. If that winning record against Power Five teams flips in 2017, the rest of the country will be quick to snap back at the choir of ACC coaches who spent July singing refrains of conference praise. So with that mind, we're going to present the first Conference Power Rankings of 2017 with an eye on the nonconference games that could shake up the rankings.
I think there are five teams with the right combination of talent, experience at the right spots and coaching to win the national championship this season. The ACC has two of those five teams with the Clemson and Florida State, and until this streak of wins in big-time nonconference games ends, they claim the top spot.
It's going to be a really fun season to watch the quarterbacks in the SEC. Jalen Hurts, Jacob Eason, Shea Patterson, Nick Fitzgerald and Jake Bentley were all thrown into the fire last year, and I'm fired up to see how each player has developed since their freshman season and what it means for each team and the conference as a whole. Throw in Jarrett Stidham and Drew Lock and there's an argument for the SEC as the league with the best signal-callers in the country.
Who joins Ohio State and Wisconsin at the top of the conference? Is Michigan's youth movement ready to take over and lead the Wolverines to their first conference title since 2004? Can Penn State continue to build on its breakthrough from 2016? The Big Ten is as competitive on a week-to-week basis as any league in the country but it's last two CFP participants have been shut out in the semifinals and there's too many unknowns to claim it as the best league in the country going into 2017.
The Big 12's perception hangs in the balance, and it will be shaped (for better or worse) by Lincoln Riley and Tom Herman. The 2017 season looks like one of those years where Mike Gundy -- now not only a man at 50 but a member of the old timers club in the Big 12 with Bill Snyder -- has an Oklahoma State team that is loaded and set to make some noise, but those outside of the league's footprint are going to overlook a TCU and West Virginia and judge the league on the state of OU and UT.
The years of parity are over -- we think -- as USC has reasserted itself as a position of dominance in the Pac-12 South and Washington and Stanford are in control in the Pac-12 North. To have a nine-game conference schedule with 12 conference teams means no one really escapes with an "easy draw" and the rest of the league ends up beating each other up. The result is a crowded middle pack where the fifth best team isn't all that distinguishable from the 10th best, forcing an even heavier reliance on nonconference wins to showcase the conference's strength on a national stage.
As the modern day "Cradle of Coaches" on a conference level, the American Athletic Conference continues to face turnover as a reality of its current existence. The 2017 season is loaded with intrigue, from Charlie Strong's arrival at USF to the upset potential of teams like Tulsa, Memphis and Houston with some big non-conference games on the schedule.
Games that will shake up these rankings
Tulsa at Oklahoma State
Colorado State vs. Colorado
Washington at Rutgers
Michigan vs. Florida
NC State vs. South Carolina
Florida State vs. Alabama
Cal at North Carolina
Maryland at Texas
BYU vs. LSU
Texas A&M at UCLA
West Virginia vs. Virginia Tech
Tennessee vs. Georgia Tech
Oklahoma at Ohio State
TCU at Arkansas
Georgia at Notre Dame
Northwestern at Duke
Pittsburgh at Penn State
Indiana at Virginia
Auburn at Clemson
Iowa at Iowa State
Nebraska at Oregon
Illinois at USF
Texas at USC
Oklahoma State at Pittsburgh
UConn at Virginia
Baylor at Duke
Georgia Tech at UCF
Wisconsin at BYU
SMU at TCU
Kansas State at Vanderbilt
Arizona State at Texas Tech
UCLA at Memphis
Ole Miss at Cal
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