Here are my predictions on which schools will win their respective conferences in 2014. Click on the conference links at the bottom of the page to check out conference and individual team previews.
SEC Champion: Alabama Crimson Tide
The SEC was surprisingly unpredictable in 2013. Auburn came out of nowhere to win the West after failing to win a single conference game the previous season, while Missouri finished a shocking 7-1 inside SEC play to win the East just one year removed from going 2-6. Auburn would go on to defeat Missouri in the SEC Championship and secure a spot in the BCS Championship, where they would suffer a heartbreaking 31-34 loss to Florida State, snapping the SEC’s run of 7 consecutive national titles.
I’m expecting the conference to be a little more predictable in 2014. I have Alabama winning the West with Georgia taking down the East, with the Crimson Tide defeating the Bulldogs in the title game.
Big Ten Conference Champion: Michigan State Spartans
Almost everyone thought Ohio State was going to cruise to a Big Ten title in 2013, but that was not the case. While the Buckeyes finished the regular season with a perfect 12-0 record for a second consecutive season, their hopes of playing in the national championship game were put to rest with a 24-34 defeat at the hands of Michigan State. The Spartans went on to win the Rose Bowl over Stanford to finish up at 13-1, giving the Big Ten just their second Rose Bowl victory since 2000.
With the addition of Rutgers out of the American Atlantic and Maryland from the ACC, the Big Ten is now a 14-team conference and has revamped their two divisions, which are now referred to as the Big Ten East and Big Ten West. Both divisions figure to be extremely competitive. I have Michigan State winning the loaded East that features Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State, while Wisconsin holds off Northwestern, Iowa and Nebraska in the West. From there I got the Spartans defending the Big Ten title with a victory over the Badgers.
Big 12 Conference Champion: Oklahoma Sooners
For a second straight year the Big 12 saw a team that wasn’t expected to win the conference finish on top the standings. Baylor took the league by storm behind one of the most explosive offenses in the country and would go on to win the conference with a record of 8-1, finishing a game ahead of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas.
While I’m a big believer in what Art Briles is doing at Baylor, I think it will be Oklahoma that takes control of the Big 12 in 2014. Not only do I have the Sooners winning the conference, but I have them going a perfect 12-0, which should land them in the new 4-team playoff. I have Baylor next in line, but keep an eye out for TCU, Texas and Kansas State, as all three of those teams are capable of surprising.
ACC Champion: Florida State Seminoles
The Seminoles made a mockery of the rest of the ACC last year behind freshman quarterback Jameis Winston, who would go on to win the Heisman. With Winston back and no other team anywhere close to the Florida State in terms of talent, the Seminoles should have no problem defending their ACC title. While Florida State figures to runaway with the Atlantic, there figures to be quite a battle between North Carolina, Virginia Tech and Miami for the top spot in the Coastal.
The ACC will have a bit of a different look this year. I’ve already mentioned that Maryland will be leaving to join the Big Ten. Taking their spot in the Atlantic will be Louisville, who comes over from the American Athletic.
Pac-12 Conference Champion: Oregon Ducks
The Pac-12 has really emerged into a power and most would agree that it’s now the second best conference in the country behind the SEC. While Oregon continues to be the team everyone talks about, Stanford enters 2014 having won the conference title each of the last two years.
There’s no denying that the Cardinal have had the Ducks number of late, but I’m expecting that to change this year. I have Oregon running away with the North and ending the year with a perfect 12-0 record. Things figure to be a little more competitive in the South, where you could make a strong case for both UCLA and USC. I’m giving the slight edge to the Bruins, but I don’t see either team having what it takes to get past the Ducks in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
American Athletic Conference Champion: Cincinnati Bearcats
The UCF Knights surprised everyone by winning the inaugural American Athletic title in 2013, which was basically made up of the remaining teams out of the Big East and some new additions from smaller conferences. The newly formed AAC has undergone even more change, as Louisville and Rutgers have both departed. Replacing those teams will be East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa, who all come over from Conference USA. The now 11-team league will increase to 12 in 2015, as Navy is set to join the mix.
The conference looks to be a 3-team race in 2014 between UCF, Cincinnati and Houston, who are the only teams returning to the AAC that finished with a winning record inside conference play last year. I’m giving the slight edge to the Bearcats, who I believe are going to get a big boost offensively from the addition of sophomore quarterback Gunner Keil, who is a former Notre Dame recruit that was ranked as the top prospect at his position out of high school.
Top Independent: Notre Dame
Last year there were 7 teams who classified as Independent programs, but that number drops down to 4 with Old Dominion, New Mexico State and Idaho all joining conferences. Notre Dame and Navy tied for the best record of the Independents at 9-4, but I’m not expecting the Fighting Irish to be at the top in 2014. While Notre Dame is in my opinion the best team, both BYU and Navy face much easier schedules and I’m predicting both to finish the year at 10-2.
Mountain West Conference Champion: Boise State Broncos
The Fresno State Bulldogs won the inaugural Mountain West title game last year over Utah State, which came as a bit of a surprise with most figuring it would be Boise State who take down the top spot. While Fresno State loses their all-time leading passer in Derek Carr, I believe they are still the most talented team in the West. However, I don’t expect the Bulldogs to defend their MWC title, as I have them losing to Boise State. Even though the Broncos lose an elite head coach in Chris Petersen, I look for Boise State to take back control under first year head coach Bryan Harsin.
Conference USA Champion: Marshall Thundering Herd
After a surprising loss to Rice in last year’s Conference USA Championship Game, I’m expecting the Marshall Thundering Herd to take care of business in what is now a weaker conference with the losses of East Carolina, Tulsa and Tulane (added Western Kentucky and Old Dominion. Marshall is without question the most complete team in C-USA and hands down my most confident selection of any conference winner in 2014.
Mid-American Conference Champion: Bowling Green Falcons
I was spot on last year with my upset prediction of Bowling Green to win the MAC over heavily favored Northern Illinois and I’m sticking with the Falcons to repeat in 2014. While Bowling Green lost head coach Dave Clawson and some key pieces from their dominant defense (15.9 ppg in 2013), their offense should be even stronger under new head coach Dino Babers. The big battle in the MAC will come in the West, where the race between Toledo and Northern Illinois likely won’t be decided until the final month of the season.
Sun Belt Champion: Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns
For years the Sun Belt has been one of the toughest conferences to predict from top to bottom. While it’s widely been considered the weakest FBS conference in the country, the parity within it has been about as good as it gets. That was definitely the case in 2013. Louisiana-Lafayette and Arkansas State tied for the best record at 5-2 (UL-Lafayette won head-to-head matchup), while 4 of the remaining 6 teams all tied for 2nd at 4-3. Only newcomers Texas State and Georgia Southern failed to post a winning record inside conference play.
This year the Sun Belt loses Western Kentucky, but will go from an 8 teams to 11 with the additions of Idaho, New Mexico State, Georgia Southern and Appalachian State. While it won’t come as a surprise if the conference is extremely close again in 2014, I think the Ragin’ Cajuns are capable of winning the Sun Belt rather easily, as they have 17 starters coming back, including starting quarterback Terrance Broadway.
College Football Playoff Predictions
(1) Florida State over (4) Oklahoma
(2) Alabama over (3) Oregon
(2) Alabama over (1) Florida State
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