Written by David Kenyon at Bleacher Report.com
Ohio State showed last year that winning a conference is not a prerequisite to reach the College Football Playoff. But the Buckeyes’ 2016 appearance doesn’t disprove that hoisting the league’s trophy is part of the simplest path to the sport’s championship.
Head coach Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide have proved that notion, and the Crimson Tide will attempt to continue their dynastic reign over the SEC in 2017. But they’re not without challengers.
Unlike some years, the same can be said in every power conference. Everyone has their respective favorites for the upcoming season. While there are consensus choices, no team is a unanimous pick.
Although the “Group of Five” leagues will likely be shut out of the playoff, there are a handful of talented teams vying for the New Year’s Six bowl game berths.
And if our predictions come true, it’s a good year to wear red.
American: South Florida
Player to watch: Among quarterbacks in the Group of Five, Quinton Flowers is the most productive dual-threat weapon. He amassed 4,342 yards of total offense and 42 touchdowns last season. He is already an efficient passer, but improved downfield accuracy would make him a nightmare to defend.
Biggest threats: The Houston Cougars will remain contenders if Kyle Allen and new head coach Major Applewhite can continue what Tom Herman started. Plus, Ed Oliver is as dominant a defensive tackle as we’ll see in college football. Then, while development isn’t linear, the Memphis Tigers return a strong majority of their offense, most notably quarterback Riley Ferguson and wide receiver Anthony Miller. That firepower will always be dangerous.
Why they’ll win: The Temple Owls shouldn’t fall off completely, but there’s little doubt USF plays in the slightly weaker division this season. Houston, Memphis, Navy and Tulsa will beat up on each other in the American West. Although the Bulls must quickly adapt to head coach Charlie Strong and offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert, an experienced roster led by Flowers will give the program its first conference championship.
ACC: Florida State
Player to watch: Deondre Francois’ progression at quarterback is crucial, but Florida State is a leading contender for the ACC particularly because of its defense. Derwin James, who was only healthy for six-plus quarters last season, is an essential piece of the unit. The well-rounded and versatile safety has All-American potential.
Biggest threats: The reigning national champions might have something to say behind a similarly elite defense. If the Clemson Tigers can settle the uncertainty under center, they’ll be looked upon even more favorably. Although the Louisville Cardinals have several minor weaknesses, we’re not counting out an explosive playmaker in 2016 Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson to conjure up some magic when needed most.
Why they’ll win: Francois and Co. probably won’t shatter the scoreboard many times. With this defense leading the way, however, the ‘Noles are a legitimate College Football Playoff contender. Balance and consistency will guide FSU to an ACC crown.
Big 12: Oklahoma
Player to watch: Replacing the triumvirate of running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon and wide receiver Dede Westbrook will be a great challenge for the Oklahoma Sooners. Having Baker Mayfield at quarterback for another season makes it a bit easier. The two-time Heisman Trophy finalist has topped the 4,000-yard barrier for total offense twice and led the Sooners to a 17-1 Big 12 record.
Biggest threat: The Oklahoma State Cowboys should have an explosive offense with quarterback Mason Rudolph and a complementary bunch of receivers. The Pokes could even snatch the regular-season meeting at home and enter the Big 12 championship as the higher-ranked team. Winning this matchup twice in a row would be tremendously difficult—and that notion goes both ways.
Why they’ll win: A spirited effort Nov. 4 at home in Stillwater, Oklahoma, wouldn’t wrap up the Big 12 title for the Cowboys. The conference’s desire to hold a championship game might be the Sooners’ gain, giving Mayfield and what seems like a marginally more trustworthy defense a second chance at a neutral site in AT&T Stadium.
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