Conference Power Rankings
Establishing pecking order for 11 Division I-A leagues
Posted: Thursday August 30, 2007 1:19PM; Updated: Thursday August 30, 2007 3:16PM
LSU coach Les Miles caused quite a stir this summer when, on the same day, he told both the media and a group of boosters USC would have an easier road to the national championship game than his Tigers because the Pac-10 was far inferior to the SEC.
"They're going to play real knock-down, drag-outs with UCLA and Washington, Cal-Berkeley, Stanford -- some real juggernauts -- and they're going to end up, it would be my guess, in some position so if they win a game or two, that they'll end up in the title [game]," Miles said. "I would like that path for us."
That brings us to the topic of this weekly column -- the lively debate of conference superiority. It is a popular discussion among college football fans, and in this space we'll try to weed through the supposed biases that exist and base as much of it on fact as possible from week-to-week.
First, the parameters: All team rankings will primarily be based on Stewart Mandel's Power Rankings and SI.com's Extended Power Rankings, which are released each Tuesday. Second, almost all of the following rankings (especially early in the year) are going to be based on what happens on the field. We'll do our best to go on results, and the conference will be evaluated from top to bottom. The cellar-dwellers are just as important as the top dogs and will be considered accordingly.
Now, of course, no games have been played, so this first edition is based solely on our preseason rankings, but the conference rankings may change dramatically after the opening weekend plays out.
Skinny: The league ended last year with four teams in SI.com's top 20, the national champion, the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft and 10 other first-rounders. Just like Miles says, the SEC is the top conference in the land. SI.com has six SEC teams in the preseason top 20. The next four teams outside the top 20 all have reason for optimism. Steve Spurrier says his Gamecocks are ready to contend for the league title because their talent level has risen significantly, Alabama has Mr. Fix-It at the helm (Nick Saban), Kentucky returns the league's best quarterback (Andre Woodson) and Vanderbilt returns 18 starters from a team that won at Georgia and lost to Arkansas, Alabama and Florida by two, three and six points, respectively.
Key games for opening weekend: Tennessee at Cal; Oklahoma State at Georgia
The Tennessee-Cal game last season cemented the impression in many observers' minds that the Pac-10 cannot hold a candle to the SEC. The Vols whipped Cal 35-18 on opening day, then went 5-3 in the SEC while Cal recovered and finished 7-2 in the Pac-10. The rematch is the only regular season game between the two conferences.
Oklahoma State feels good about its offense and it will face an inexperienced defense. On the other side, quarterback Matthew Stafford and the Bulldogs figure to put up big points against a porous Cowboys defense. The last time Georgia hosted a meaty opponent to open the season was in 2005, when they routed Boise State 48-13.
2. Big 12
Skinny: The Big 12 is still top heavy with Texas and Oklahoma, but it is teams 3-9 that give the league its overall strength. The Longhorns and Sooners are legit national title contenders, and the next seven teams are all ranked in SI.com's top 50. Nebraska and Missouri are giving the North division some needed credibility, while Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Texas A&M make the Big 12 South second only to the SEC East as far as divisions go. Iowa State, the league's lowest-ranked team, hopes to get a fresh start from former Texas defensive coordinator Gene Chizik.
Key games for opening weekend: Colorado State at Colorado; Missouri at Illinois.
The Colorado State-Colorado game has lost some luster, but it has produced its share of classics. The Big 12 can't afford a loss to a second-tier team from the Mountain West if it wants to maintain its No. 2 ranking. The Rams were 4-8 a year ago and are not expected to make major strides despite the return of 17 starters.
The league also needs Missouri to take care of business at Illinois. The Tigers are among the favorites to win the Big 12 North, and if that division wants to be taken seriously, it will need to beat an Illinois team that went 2-10 in Year 2 of the Ron Zook revival. Year 3 looks promising, however, making this a dangerous game for Missouri.
3. Big Ten
Skinny: The Big Ten has four teams in SI.com's top 15, which is more than any other conference. Wisconsin and Penn State join Michigan and Ohio State are the elite of the league, which should be better than a year ago. Like every league, the Big Ten has a few weak teams, but Illinois' expected improvement will help the lower tier.
Key game for opening weekend: Bowling Green at Minnesota.
The Glen Mason era at Minnesota is over, and new coach Tim Brewster has inherited what is perceived to be a bare cupboard. The Gophers are picked to finish last in the Big Ten, but that still needs to be better than third or fourth in the MAC East, which is where Minnesota's first two opponents are expected to finish. The Gophers follow up Bowling Green with Miami (Ohio). Anything short of 2-0 will be a blow to the Big Ten.