There has been some realignment in college football, with schools officially joining their new conferences now that it’s July 1st. Now that the game of musical chairs is over (for now), let’s rank the conferences from weakest to strongest for the 2011 football season.
11. Sun Belt
Florida International won the league with a 6-6 regular-season overall record. That’s pretty bad. There were only two Sun Belt teams that finished with winning records after bowl season. Bottom line: This conference is AWFUL; no, we didn’t forget to take off the caps lock.
Mike Haywood guided Miami (OH) to a miraculous turnaround to win the MAC title last season. He left for Pitt (and then got fired). Jerry Kill left Northern Illinois for Minnesota. So, the league’s two best teams lose their identities. The rest? Count three 2-10 teams and a 1-11 squad among the MAC’s members. Woof.
The WAC was top heavy last season. But in 2011, Boise State is gone to the Mountain West and Nevada will be down after the loss of QB Colin Kaepernick and RB Vai Taua. Hawaii and Fresno State always are competitive, but the bottom-feeders (New Mexico State, San Jose State) are some of the worst teams in the FBS.
8. Conference USA
Conference USA has one-win Memphis in the East Divison and perennial doormat Tulane in the West. But Central Florida, SMU, Tulsa and Houston all are strong, with Houston knocking off Oklahoma State in 2009 and UCF knocking off Georgia in last season’s Liberty Bowl. A defense-optional conference, C-USA might be the most entertaining league to watch this fall.
7. Mountain West
BCS busters TCU and Boise State will be in the same conference for just one year. The Broncos just joined while the Horned Frogs are set for a move to the Big East. On the downside, Utah is gone to the Pac-12, BYU is an independent, and bottom-feeders UNLV, New Mexico and Wyoming combined for six wins in 2010.
6. Big East
The Big East is the consensus worst BCS conference. It will get a boost when TCU arrives next year. But for now, it’s clear that it’s a minor league. A mediocre Connecticut team earned its BCS bowl bid in 2010 and was embarrassed, 48-20, by Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. New West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen needs to breathe life into this basketball-first conference.
Florida State is set for an ascent and could be a top five team. But the league’s other flagship program, Miami (FL), has to regroup under new coach Al Golden. If “The U” can recapture its glory days, the ACC will rocket up this list. Virginia Tech will be solid as always but won’t be a national title contender with so many pieces gone from last year’s team, including QB Tyrod Taylor. Maryland could compete for a league title but the rest of the league is very average.
As of today, the Pac-12 includes Utah and Colorado. The Utes have gone 96-39 since the start of the 2000 season and could compete for a league title. And of course, there is Oregon, Stanford and USC. The Ducks, the national runner-up in 2010, boast Heisman candidate LaMichael James. Stanford’s Andrew Luck is the nation’s top quarterback, and USC is still USC despite NCAA sanctions. But the bottom of this league is weak. Colorado stinks and UCLA and Cal seem to be in reverse. Washington State, which has won five games in the last three years combined, currently is nothing more than a parasite.
3. Big 12
The Big 12 took a huge blow with the departure of Nebraska, which returns quarterback Taylor Martinez and promises to be a national title contender in 2011. But perennial power and expected preseason No. 1 Oklahoma remains, while emerging clubs like Oklahoma State and Texas A&M promise to be very strong this year. And don’t forget Texas, which is never far away from success despite last season’s 5-7 mark. Aside from Kansas, all other nine members have a very realistic shot at a bowl game. Not bad for a conference that a year ago everyone thought wouldn’t be around this fall.
2. Big Ten
Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State – despite the scandal – all are top 25 teams. Wisconsin may be a national title contender with the addition of uber-transfer Russell Wilson. Oh yeah, the league also adds Nebraska, which also promises to be in the top 10. That’s a pretty good start. And if Michigan gets it together under new coach Brady Hoke, this conference could be scary for years to come. Indiana, Purdue and Minnesota could all use a kick in the pants though.
The SEC boasts the last five national champions – and probably the next one. It has two top-five teams in LSU and Alabama, and 10 teams went to bowls last season. While Auburn is expected to descend this fall, look for Florida, Georgia and Mississippi State to be on the rise. And don’t forget about the Ol’ Ball Coach, who has a national champion dark horse in Columbia. About the only thing this conference could do to make itself any stronger is banish Vanderbilt to the Sun Belt.