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Overflowing bag

After 800+ e-mails, I give you league rankings, more

Posted: Wednesday May 16, 2007 12:53PM; Updated: Monday May 21, 2007 2:51PM
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Arkansas RB Darren McFadden is one of many explosive playmakers in a loaded SEC.
Arkansas RB Darren McFadden is one of many explosive playmakers in a loaded SEC.
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You love the Mailbag. You really love it.

You made that abundantly clear, dear readers, when you bombarded my in-box to the tune of more than 800 e-mails within 24 hours of publishing the season's first edition. Those are mid-November numbers, people. Give yourselves much-deserved props.

So what did I learn over the course of those 800 e-mails? I learned that most of you never stop thinking about college football, even in the dead of the offseason, and for that I am extremely appreciative -- because it justifies my continued employment. I learned that a great number of you are extremely invested in the choice of the next Celebrity Crush (more on that later), which is good, because I fully intend to milk the suspense.

But most of all, I learned you're all really, really obsessed with this strength-of-conference thing. I could have filled this entire Mailbag with questions about the Big East's legitimacy, the Big Ten's bowl record (2-1 against the SEC last year, as several hundred of you reminded me), the Pac-10's non-conference schedule, lack of respect for the Big 12 and more. Instead, I chose this one, all-encompassing, guaranteed-to-start-a-riot topic from Taylor of Lexington, Ky.:

Stewart, you always say that conference strength is cyclical and always seem to defend easily bash-able conferences (i.e. the Pac-10, ACC). So let's see your rank all 11 Division I-A conferences. Answer at your own risk!

OK, I'll do it, but under two conditions: 1) That we all agree to accept the premise of cyclical conference strength, which means these ratings are based solely on the upcoming season and are by no means permanent. And 2) That once I do this list, there will be no revisiting the topic until at least the start of the season. Let's face it, the only guarantee about this list is that 10 of 11 sets of fans are going to be outraged, and I'm not filling next week's Mailbag with all your angry responses to this one.

Here it goes ...

1) SEC: Simply put, this year's SEC could be the toughest conference in history. I'm not exaggerating. It's extremely rare for a league to not only boast so many quality teams at the top (LSU, Florida, Auburn, Arkansas, Georgia and Tennessee) but also so little dead weight at the bottom. Really, it's just Mississippi State. You've got two former national championship coaches, Steve Spurrier and Nick Saban, leading what may be only the seventh- or eighth-best teams in the league. Kentucky won eight games last year. And Vandy is no longer a gimme (just ask Georgia). It's a perfect storm for the SEC right now with so many accomplished coaches, so much elite talent and so many returning veterans all at once.

2) Pac-10: I've always felt one reason the Pac-10 doesn't get taken seriously by most of the country is that outside of USC, no one has been able to stay consistently good recently. At the same time, however, no one has been consistently bad, either. In other words, the league's image is a victim of its own balance. USC appears to be the cream of the crop again this year, but remember, the Trojans lost to two Pac-10 teams last year, UCLA and Oregon State, both of which return the vast majority of their starters. Cal is loaded on offense yet again. And I expect Oregon, Arizona State (which now has Dennis Erickson), Arizona and possibly Washington to all be factors as well.

3) Big Ten: Remember the 1990s and early 2000s? For the only time in its history, the Big Ten was actually fairly wide open, with everyone from Northwestern to Purdue to Illinois winning titles. Now, the league has gone back to being top-heavy. Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio State could all be top-10 teams, Penn State won't be far off, but then there's a pretty drastic drop-off. I do expect Iowa to do a bit of damage, but nearly half the teams the league (Michigan State, Minnesota, Northwestern, Illinois and Indiana) are basically irrelevant.

4) Big East: Obviously, it's impossible for the Big East to go as deep as the other leagues because it has so few teams, and thus its ranking suffers. The top four teams -- Louisville, West Virginia, Rutgers and USF -- stack up with any league outside of the SEC. All four are legitimate preseason top-25 teams in my mind, and three of them could be BCS-caliber. The Cardinals and Mountaineers have already shown their offenses are as explosive as any in the country, but I have a hunch Rutgers might wind up winning the title because it has a defense to go with its potential All-America running back.

5) Big 12: Earlier this decade, I really thought the Big 12 was going to emerge as the best conference in the country. But due in large part to Dennis Franchione's thus-far disappointing tenure at Texas A&M, the South Division has remained largely a two-team show (though Texas Tech is a consistent second-tier bowl team), and the North has yet to fully recover from its all-out implosion a few years ago. Nebraska should be a top-20 team, but I'm not convinced the Huskers are ready to contend nationally yet, Missouri should again be good but not great and the jury's still out on the likes of Kansas State and Kansas.

6) ACC: The conference will be better than it was last year due to several high-profile coaching changes and more experienced teams, but it is still probably a year away from becoming a true force nationally. Virginia Tech should be a top-10 team, but after that it's anyone's best guess who will emerge as legitimate top-20 teams and who will remain mired in mediocrity out of a pack that includes Wake Forest, Clemson, Boston College, Florida State, Miami, Georgia Tech and Maryland.

7) Mountain West: Utah, TCU and BYU have each produced nationally competitive teams over the past three seasons and all will likely be strong again this season. New Mexico is always in the postseason mix. Things are a little hazy after that, though I'm interested to see whether Colorado State can bounce back from an awful year and how much improvement San Diego State shows in Chuck Long's second year.

8) WAC: Despite losing several teams to Conference USA a few years ago, this league has actually gotten stronger. We all know about Boise State, but the emergence of Nevada, San Jose State and Hawaii has boosted the conference considerably. If anyone can dethrone the Broncos this year, it's Colt Brennan and the Warriors. And I think last year's 4-8 debacle will prove an aberration for Fresno State.

9) Conference USA: This league has become hard to watch since losing Louisville, Cincinnati and USF. I expect there will once again be several decent teams (Tulsa, Southern Miss, East Carolina, UCF) but none that approach top-25 status.

10) MAC: Where have you gone, Ben Roethlisberger? Or Byron Leftwich? Or even Bruce Gradkowski? It's been a few years now since the MAC produced any giant-killers, and I don't expect that to change this year. Even with the addition of Temple (as hard as that may be to believe).

11) Sun Belt: How the members of this conference continue to remain at the I-A level is one of the great mysteries of our time.

So there you have it, folks. Now comes the hard part. You can either fire off that nasty e-mail inquiring about the size of my brain ... or you can ask a question that might actually get published next week.

Oh, the agony.

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