Sam Burnham, Curator
While the ACC and SEC dominate the FBS football scene in the South, they don't hold a true monopoly on college football. So let's take a look elsewhere.
The Big Ten:
Looking at the poor counters up the the (mostly) Midwest, there is a lot of talk about the Eastern Division. Antagonists of the SEC like to point to this division as superior to the SEC West, elevating the entire conference to the toughest in football. But the Western Division looks pretty dismal with only one contender in Wisconsin and a possible in Northwestern. Let's take a deeper look.
Ohio State - The Buckeyes are mired in the investigation of the events that led to the firing of assistant coach Zach Smith and the endangerment of the career of head coach Urban Meyer. While the Buckeyes are an early favorite for the division, conference, and even national titles, the investigation is the major intangible that they will have to deal with. There is no way to know what the turmoil is doing to the team behind closed doors. While this is a very talented team, it is possible the entire season has been undermined even before the first kickoff.
Michigan: Here we go again. So much hype already. Jim Harbaugh is likely further over the hot seat than anyone realizes having failed to live up to the expectations he brought into his dream job. The Wolverines have a tough opener against Notre Dame and then that admittedly tough division schedule, including games against the Buckeyes and Spartans. Three losses won't get you to New Year's day or even to the 16 team playoff the Harbaugh has lobbied for.
Michigan State: The institution has seen it's share of controversy but head coach Mark Dantonio has dome well to keep the football team above it. He has led a veritable golden age of Spartan Football. I seem to have been outed by our resident coach as having a soft spot for the program. I like their style. They win. I don't see all the flash and attention that you see in Columbus and Ann Arbor. They do work, get Ws and move to the next game. They're my preseason favorite to win the Big Ten.
Wisconsin: Speaking of tough. This was a playoff level team last year, it just didn't shake out that way. That's football. But I fully expect them to be back, a little older, a little wiser, and a lot hungrier. They have a good path to the Big Ten Championship game. They face Michigan and Penn State from the East - no Spartans, no Buckeyes.
Penn State: What can you say bad about James Franklin? Apparently his peers have voted him the most overrated coach in the nation. But I don't remember too many of them rushing into the septic tank fire that was Penn State Football. The Sandusky scandal was the death blow. No one expected for Penn State to ever field a contender again. Some questioned if the school might even drop the program. But not only has Franklin brought them back to contender status, he won the conference in 2016. I expect no less from the Nittany Lions this fall.
Big 12 = This conference is going to be more of the Big 1, the Good 1, the Decent 2 and the Not Quite 8 Fillers. It is a pretty pitiful conference. Oklahoma will win it: I have no qualms about saying that. Their only real challenge will come from Iowa State, possibly the best-coached team in the nation. The Cyclones will be improved once again, but I still think the Sooners win out. Texas and TCU will have decent seasons but that's it.
Pac 12 - This is routinely the most overrated conference in the nation. Southern Cal always starts off highly rated and then slides their way down the ranks like a cat jumping up and grasping a greased pole. Oregon and UCLA are both in transition, probably the Ducks more than the Bruins. Chad Kelly will make a bigger splash than Mario Cristobal, at least initially. Stanford is my favorite to win the conference. I think David Shaw is one of the most solid coaches in the nation and the conference is favorable to him this year. Washington is going to put up a fight but I think the Cardinal come out on top.
Notre Dame - I never thought I'd catch myself saying this but the Irish's biggest obstacle this year will be their schedule. Michigan, Stanford, at Virginia Tech, FSU, and at USC. Their second biggest obstacle will be marring their traditions with those hideous uniforms in NYC in the Shamrock Series. Regardless, I'm still not convinced this is a top tier team. In a game or two? Yes. But putting the entire season together seems to elude them. I think they'll finish with a loss or two and that keeps them out of the playoff.
Group of 5 - The others to watch are, of course, self-proclaimed "national champs" Central Florida and also Memphis. UCF is getting all the press, mostly because of their amazing brashness in tooting their own horn. But keep an eye on Memphis. Memphis coach Mike Norvell will build on the recent success and you'll hear about the Tigers all season long.