Ranking the conferences for 2010
Missouri and Nebraska to the Big Ten? Clemson and Florida State to the SEC?
Let's take a break from the conference-realignment hysteria to talk about the conferences that are actually in place.
With the start of the 2010 season less than four months away, it's time to examine how the 11 college football conferences will stack up.
I'm betting 2010 will look a lot like 2009. And 2008. And 2007. And 2006.
From top to bottom, the SEC figures to be the country's strongest conference. The SEC might not be as strong as it was during the past few seasons, but neither will the Big Ten, Big 12 or Pac-10.
Defending BCS national champion Alabama will try to become the fifth consecutive SEC team to win a national title in 2010. The Crimson Tide won a BCS crown in 2009, Florida won in 2006 and '08 and LSU won in '07. The Crimson Tide must replace nine starters on defense, but they might return one of the best offenses in school history. Florida probably will take a small step back without quarterback Tim Tebow and eight other players who were drafted by NFL teams, but Tebow's replacement, John Brantley, figures to keep the Gators from falling off the map. Auburn, Arkansas, Georgia, LSU and South Carolina are all capable of being surprises in 2010.
2. Big Ten
If quarterback Terrelle Pryor plays the way he did against Oregon in the Rose Bowl, Ohio State might be an overwhelming favorite to win the Big Ten championship. And if the Buckeyes can navigate their way through home games against Miami and Penn State and road games at Wisconsin and Iowa, they also might be a legitimate BCS title threat. Meanwhile, the Badgers, Hawkeyes and Nittany Lions might be Ohio State's biggest threats in the Big Ten race. But unless Michigan can pull off a complete turnaround in coach Rich Rodriguez's third season, the rest of the conference figures to be mediocre or worse.
3. Big 12
The Big 12 will go through a transition period without star players like departed quarterbacks Colt McCoy of Texas and Sam Bradford of Oklahoma as well as defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh of Nebraska. But the league's overall depth remains very strong, especially if Nebraska can continue its resurgence under coach Bo Pelini. Oklahoma State might not be as stout without quarterback Zac Robinson and receiver Dez Bryant, and Kansas (Turner Gill) and Texas Tech (Tommy Tuberville) have new coaches. If new defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter can shore up Texas A&M's defense, the Aggies might be the league's biggest surprise.
The league's overall strength took tremendous blows when USC coach Pete Carroll bolted for the NFL's Seattle Seahawks and Oregon quarterback Jeremiah Masoli was suspended for the 2010 season for off-the-field problems. The Ducks and Trojans still seem to be the teams to beat in the Pac-10 in 2010, but neither team figures to be a juggernaut. Former Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin replaces Carroll and inherits what might be a roster with diminishing returns. Quarterback Matt Barkley returns, but USC must replace seven players who were drafted by NFL teams. Ducks coach Chip Kelly is counting on former starter Nate Costa to replace Masoli. Oregon State always exceeds expectations, and the Beavers should be potent on offense with Jacquizz and James Rodgers returning to school. Stanford has to survive without bruising tailback Toby Gerhart, but quarterback Andrew Luck might have the Cardinal in the Pac-10 hunt by season's end.
Is this the year Virginia Tech returns to the national title hunt? The Hokies haven't had as many weapons on offense since Michael Vick was running it. With quarterback Tyrod Taylor and tailbacks Darren Evans and Ryan Williams returning, the Hokies will be very difficult to slow down. If defensive coordinator Bud Foster can rebuild his unit -- and if Tech can win its Sept. 6 opener against Boise State at FedEx Field in Landover, Md. -- the Hokies might be in the thick of the BCS hunt. Georgia Tech must replace three departed stars (tailback Jonathan Dwyer, receiver Demaryius Thomas and defensive end Derrick Morgan), but coach Paul Johnson always seems to plug players into his triple-option, spread offense and not miss a beat. Florida State should have one of the country's more explosive offenses under new coach Jimbo Fisher, but former Arizona defensive coordinator Mark Stoops might need time to rebuild the FSU defense. Miami continues to make much progress under coach Randy Shannon and might be even better if quarterback Jacory Harris cuts down on his mistakes. Even without departed star C.J. Spiller, Clemson can't be overlooked in the ACC's Atlantic Division.
6. Big East
The Big East still lacks the cream of the other BCS leagues, but there might not be a more exciting conference race in 2010. As many as five teams -- Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Cincinnati, Connecticut and Rutgers -- might be capable of capturing the Big East championship in 2010. The Bearcats, who won the past two Big East titles, will have to adjust to life without quarterback Tony Pike, receiver Mardy Gilyard and coach Brian Kelly. But new Bearcats coach Butch Jones inherits quarterback Zach Collaros, who was sensational while replacing Pike last season. Pittsburgh returns Heisman Trophy hopeful Dion Lewis and receiver Jonathan Baldwin, making the Panthers the team to beat in 2010. Former East Carolina coach Skip Holtz can't be overlooked after replacing Jim Leavitt at South Florida.
7. Mountain West
BYU, TCU and Utah are each capable of cracking the top 10 each season, but the mediocrity of the rest of the league keeps the MWC from cracking the top six. Defending MWC champion TCU is again the team to beat, with quarterback Andy Dalton and a potent offense returning. The Cougars will have to replace quarterback Max Hall and tailback Harvey Unga, which might seriously impede their ability to challenge the Horned Frogs. Utah can do a lot for the MWC's pride by upsetting Pittsburgh at home in its Sept. 2 opener. The Utes also play at Notre Dame on Nov. 13. Teams such as Wyoming, San Diego State, New Mexico and Colorado State have to improve dramatically before the MWC can pass any of the six BCS conferences in college football's pecking order.
Boise State, which finished each of the past two regular seasons with an undefeated record, will start the 2010 season ranked in the top five of most preseason polls. The Broncos will have to beat Virginia Tech in their opener and Oregon State at home on Sept. 25 to live up to their lofty billing. Boise State is certainly carrying the WAC banner, as only three other teams -- Fresno State, Idaho and Nevada -- finished the 2010 season with winning records. With 17 starters expected back, Fresno State might be best positioned to make a move on Boise State. The Bulldogs play nonconference games against Cincinnati and Illinois at home and at Ole Miss. Nevada will have a chance as long as it can find running backs to line up behind quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
9. Conference USA
It might not be the county's deepest conference, but Conference USA's teams might score more points than any other league. With Heisman Trophy hopeful Case Keenum and a high-powered passing attack returning, Houston figures to be the team to beat. Two-time defending C-USA champion East Carolina will have to adjust to life without Skip Holtz, and Southern Mississippi seems ready to take off in coach Larry Fedora's third season. June Jones seems to be ahead of the curve at SMU, too.
With Butch Jones leaving for Cincinnati and quarterback Dan LeFevour moving on, Central Michigan might not be the prohibitive favorite in the MAC. Temple's success in 2009 probably wasn't a fluke, and coach Al Golden seems to have a program in place that can win consistently. The MAC's reputation probably would be better if it fared better in bowl games; its teams are 2-15 in postseason games during the past four seasons.
11. Sun Belt
Sun Belt teams are capable of doing more than collecting a big paycheck against BCS teams. Its teams upset two BCS foes for the second consecutive season in 2009, with Middle Tennessee beating Maryland and Louisiana-Lafayette knocking off Kansas State. What's in store for 2010? Florida Atlantic plays Michigan State and South Florida. Middle Tennessee hosts Minnesota and travels to Georgia Tech. Troy plays at Oklahoma State and South Carolina. Don't be surprised if at least one of those games is an upset.
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.