With College Football starting on Thursday, now is the time to power up your handicapping arsenal, familiarizing yourself with the different conferences' strengths & weaknesses.
I trust it won't surprise anyone when the Southeastern Conference draws the top spot on my Power Five conference rankings. Actually, I expect some folks, perhaps many, to disagree with me right off the bat on the list.
The critics will point out the SEC was a pedestrian 7-5 in bowl games last year, the vaunted West Division just 2-5, and that the conference hasn't won the National Championship the past two years.
Granted, it hasn't been as prosperous for the conference as winning the BCS title year after year after year. But two numbers tell the story about the SEC going into 2015: 12 teams out of 14 made the 2014 college bowl season, and six of the top 11 recruiting classes a couple of months ago were Southern Conference members, 12 of the first 25.
As bad as the SEC West might have been in the bowl season, it's still tough to find seven teams better in any other entire league than Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, LSU, Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Texas A&M. Throw in Georgia, Florida, Missouri, South Carolina and Tennessee -- 2nd best recruiting class in SEC -- into the mix, and there's no doubt it remains the deepest dozen teams in any conference.
Alabama has the biggest target on its back in the league, +250 on the College football odds to earn the conference title, +800 on the national picture. That does put the Crimson Tide and the SEC behind both the Big Ten (Ohio St. +385) and Big 12 (TCU +650) on the College Football Playoff wagers, but much of the rest of the SEC is in the 20/1 to 30/1 span, roughly the field on the NCAA Championship tote board.
In A Close Race, I'm Calling The...
Pac-12 Conference second on my list over the Big 12, and let me tell you why.
First, it's my list and I can do whatever the hell I want with it. Secondly, I like that USC and UCLA are coming back to the party to join both Oregon and Stanford, plus the quick build Chris Petersen has done at Washington to give this conference some depth while the two Grand Canyon State colleges along with Utah figure into the equation. The Ducks are still the betting favorite in the Pac-12.
Southern Cal and Oregon in a dogfight would be great for this conference; if so, the showdown would be in Eugene just before Thanksgiving, and either the difference in one team staying in the CFP race, or maybe setting up a Pac 12 Championship do-or-die game.
Top 3 In Big 12 Get Edge Over Big Ten and ACC
My guess is as tough and deep as both the SEC and Pac-12 are, each capable of producing up three teams heading into conference championships either unbeaten or with only one loss, the top-heavy nature of the remaining three leagues works against them. That may sound backwards, but give me a chance.
My college football pick for the weakest overall conference this season is the Big Ten, yet yours truly also believes it has the best shot to make the playoffs with Ohio State. Michigan State and Wisconsin will be tough outs, Michigan hopes to be on the rebound behind a new head coach. But let's face it, the Buckeyes are the real gravy here and have the best chance among all national contenders to go undefeated through the regular season.
I do think the Big 12 gets in this year, if only a sympathy vote kind of thing, leveling out, if you will. As long as one team has no more than one loss, the league will get an invite to the CFP. Baylor and TCU are definitely solid clubs, though neither really wowed anyone on the recruiting trail, and Oklahoma is going to be better than 2014 to make the Sooners a legit conference challenger.
Florida State got the ACC in the last two seasons, thanks to Jameis Winston plus Jimbo Fisher and his staff. The Seminoles (3/1) play a 2nd-fiddle to Clemson (5/2) on the ACC futures odds, and just feel the overall drag of the conference will wear the computers down to make this the least-likely conference to make it into the playoffs with less than a perfect record.