- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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The debate raged throughout the 2008 college football season. Which conference was better: The Big 12 or SEC?
Big 12 teams won games with their high-octane passing attacks and bend-and-break defenses. The SEC won games with rough-and-tough defenses and cover-your-eyes offenses.
In the end, an SEC team won the BCS national championship for the third straight season.
Heading into the 2009 season, it's pretty clear those same conferences will battle for national supremacy again.
The SEC has won college football's past three national championships, and Florida is a popular choice to win its third BCS national title in four seasons in 2009. SEC offenses leave something to be desired, but you can't question the conference's overall depth. Alabama, Georgia, LSU and Ole Miss are potential top-10 teams along with the Gators.
2. Big 12
The Big 12 South alone has more quality teams than some entire conferences. Oklahoma and Texas are national title contenders, and Oklahoma State is a dark horse to be in the BCS mix. Kansas and Nebraska are slowly closing the gap in the Big 12 North.
The league has been ridiculed in recent seasons for not being very good, but there might not be a more balanced conference in 2009. The only thing the ACC needs is a national title contender, and Virginia Tech might be that team this season. Georgia Tech, Florida State and NC State could be surprises.
Despite losing a boatload of talent to the NFL, it would be a big surprise if USC didn't win at least a share of the Pac-10 championship for the eighth season in a row. But the Trojans' road to the Rose Bowl (or BCS National Championship Game) might be more difficult. California, Oregon and Oregon State will be standing in the way.
5. Big Ten
Ohio State and Penn State might both reach BCS bowl games, but the rest of the league seems to be in flux. Illinois, Iowa and Michigan State will be tough outs, but the Big Ten simply isn't as strong when Michigan isn't very good.
6. Mountain West
The conference's teams proved their mettle in 2008 by beating up Pac-10 teams, and then MWC champion Utah demolished Alabama 31-17 in the Sugar Bowl. The Utes aren't going away, and neither are TCU, BYU and Air Force.
7. Big East
After proving it was BCS-worthy with a few key bowl victories in recent seasons, the Big East again needs a jolt of energy in 2009. There doesn't seem to be a dominant team in the league, although Pittsburgh, Rutgers and West Virginia are potentially good.
In 2008, Boise State came within two points of finishing unbeaten for the second time in three seasons, but the Broncos could use some help. Fresno State, Louisiana Tech and Nevada are trying, but the rest of the league seems pretty mediocre or worse.
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The debate raged in 2008 and continues this season: Which conference rules?