Teams That Have a Shot to Win Each FBS Conference In 2017
With just nine days to go before we kick off the 2017 college football season, we all know who the favorites are in each FBS conference, whether as chosen by the media, or by the “coaches” polls that come out with each successive media day event. In this article, I take a look at those conference favorites, but also other teams that have a real identifiable shot at stealing a league title away from these favorites in FBS football.
American Athletic Conference
Current Favorite: USF
The Bulls have been given every blessing as the G5 team that can bust the party and at least compete in a NY6 bowl as the highest ranking non P5 team in the nation in 2017. They very much have all of the tools to do so, but there are others who can lay claim and challenge to the throne in 2017.
Memphis is one such challenger. The Tigers are selected anywhere from first to third in the AAC West, depending on who you talk to, but after much deliberation, I see the Tigers as having the edge in the West, and have picked them to compete with USF for the AAC title. With Riley Ferguson at QB, and a host of skill position talent on offense, and an improving defense, Memphis may have just enough to steal a league title and play in the NY6 bowl themselves.
Houston lost some serious talent after the 2016 season that saw them beat Oklahoma in the opener,but finish with a thud. Tom Herman is gone, and Major Applewhite is in as coach. They have talent across the board, however, and Applewhite has been groomed for this spot for years. IT may be an outside shot team, but you can’t bet against the Cougars.
Navy is a severe dark horse here, but nobody gets more with less than Ken Niumatololo. The Middies are coming off of a season that saw them lose to Army, but they can still move the football, and if they can stay healthy at QB, a major issue in 2016, Navy may be a dark horse team to hedge on stealing a conference crown.
Atlantic Coast Conference
Current Favorite: Florida State
The Seminoles open against Alabama in a game that could be a preview of a national title game in January. Jimbo Fisher always gets the most out of his talent, and after a “step back” season in 2016, they appear primed and loaded to win it all this fall.
Louisville cannot be overlooked. Sure they fell apart down the stretch last season, but they should have beaten Clemson, and they hammered Florida State. Injuries up front cost them on offense, and Lamar Jackson is back. If the line can stay healthy, and Jackson gets his mojo going, the most under valued team outside of West Virginia can steal the ACC crown.
Clemson lost so much, that it is very difficult to see them winning the ACC and heading back to the playoff for a third straight year. Kelly Bryant is not Deshawn Watson, and losing Wayne Gallman, Mike Williams, and Ben Boulware seems to remove the heart and soul of that team. The defense should still be stout, and there is some talent coming back, so is it as crazy as it seems to count Clemson as a dark horse?
NC State Is the most dangerous team outside of the top three in the Atlantic Division of the ACC. They had Clemson on the ropes last season, and they have been a pesky out for Florida State for years. The Wolfpack would have several division crowns by now if they played in the Coastal Division, but if anyone can shock someone in this league, it maybe the Wolfpack.
Miami is a team getting lots of love early, and I am not buying in totally. They will have a first rate defense, but the offense has questions across the board. Still, I’ve seen stranger things.
Big 12 Conference
Current Favorite: Oklahoma
The Sooners get back Baker Mayfield at QB, but there are a host of questions around him, as new talent must be found at WR and RB, and they don’t have clear answers and may go with a committee at that RB position. If there is a seriously vulnerable favorite in FBS football, it has to be the Sooners. Did we manage to mention the change at head coach?
Oklahoma State has all of the tools to win the Big 12, and in some circles, are the actual favorite, not Oklahoma. They may lose James Washington for all of or part of the first month after he sustained a hernia injury. He will try to play through it, but if that does not work out, the Cowboys get thin in experience in the receiver corps. If he manages well, the Cowboys are a top ten team.
West Virginia is one of the most undervalued teams, if not the most, in the nation for 2017. Will Grier is eligible (finally), and has taken to the offense like a horse to water. The Mountaineers are young in some spots, but massively talented, and could be one of the biggest dark horse candidates to finish the season in the top ten nationally.
Kansas State is getting some play in some circles as we head into the season. Bill Snyder is a more with less kind of coach, and you never know if this is an eight win team, or a Big 12 contender. I see them somewhere in the middle of all of that, but that could be good enough, and Jesse Ertz is finally healthy at QB.
Texas is a populist choice based on Tom Herman and his rhetoric, and nothing else. The roster is not good enough to win this league in 2017, but it very well may be in 2018. Expect some improvements, but I am literally throwing them into this conversation to satiate the myopia in Austin these days.
Big 10 Conference
Current Favorite: Ohio State
The Buckeyes are loaded, and Urban Meyer is a legend at head coach. All he knows how to do is win, and a 10 win season is a “down year” in Columbus. Even though the Buckeyes lost a host of talent, specifically on defense and in the secondary in particular, the Buckeyes are still stacked with talent.
Penn State Came out of nowhere and won the Big 10 last season, and most people believe that happened a year early. The year of expectations is now here, and the Nittany Lions are ahead of the curve now. With Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley back at QB and RB, and Joe Moorhead calling plays, Penn State may have the bets offense in the league, and one of the best in the nation. And despite a meltdown in the Rose Bowl, the defense is solid as well.
Michigan has questions all over the field, and Jim Harbaugh insists on not saying what we already know, and that is that Wilton Speight starts at QB. Whereas Michigan has holes all over the landscape, they have massive amounts of talent to fill those holes, and a coaching staff that knows how to manage talent. Don’t knock the Wolverines out just yet.
Wisconsin Does not get the respect they deserve. The Badgers have what may be one of the best defenses ever seen, and took every major opponent in conference play to the mat. The Badgers will be right back there again in the West. If they had a truly great QB, they would probably be an outright conference favorite. Still, this defense may be good enough to steal a win in a conceived Big 10 title game scenario.
Northwestern isn’t getting any serious love for a conference title contender this season, but this is my “stranger things have happened” pick. Nobody saw them coming in 1995 either. They have Clayton Thorson at QB, and Justin Jackson back at RB, and may be that sneaky team in the conference that nobody is watching out for.
Minnesota is a team just like Northwestern in that nobody is talking about them, and yet they have rock solid talent, a steady defense, and one of the most energetic young coaches this side of Jim Harbaugh and Tom Herman in PJ Fleck. Fleck immediately upgrades what was already a solid football team.
Current Favorite: Western Kentucky
With Mike White back at QB, the Hilltoppers certainly are a popular choice to take the conference title in 2017 under new head coach Mike Sanford, Jr. It’s hard to bet against conventional thinking there, but there may be some other options, and it may not be as easy as it has been in previous seasons.
Louisiana Tech gets even odds with the Toppers to take the league title out of the West. It is certainly solid and rational to believe that the Bulldogs could end up playing WKU in the league title game in December. Tech has some holes to fill, especially at QB, but the Bulldogs always do a great job at developing new starters across the board.
Middle Tennessee needs to maintain team health, especially at QB in Brent Stockstill. When he went down last season, so did the team. Stockstill has one of the best receivers in the nation that very few know about in Richie James, and has a host of other major league talent around him on offense. If anyone has an even money shot at taking this league title outside of the current favorites, place your money on the Blue Raiders.
Current Favorite: Toledo
The Rockets are loaded, and if there is a G5 team from outside of the AAC that could swoop in and steal the NY6 bowl, it would be the Rockets. They have the most undervalued QB in the nation in Logan Woodside, and it is hard for me to see anyone stealing the MAC title out from under them this season.
Ohio is a team, that if I had the proverbial gun to the head to pick a dark horse to win the MAC, that I would pick. The Bobcats are a clear favorite in the East, and although they could get pushed harder this season by a resurgent Miami (Ohio) team, I clearly see them playing for the league title in December.
Miami (Ohio) cannot start as badly as they did last season and still steal the MAC East crown. The Redhawks are resurgent, as I have said, and they may very well do better than their six wins of 2016. They took Mississippi State to the end last season in their bowl game, and may be ready to make a very long shot run at the MAC East title.
Western Michigan loses some serious talent and head coach PJ Fleck. Alum Tim Lester steps in to lead the program forward after their best season in school history. The Broncos will step back this fall, but maybe, just maybe, they have enough talent to possibly steal the West? Again, this is a bit of a “stranger things” pick.
Northern Illinois: The Huskies took a beating last season, and were never healthy. If they stay healthy, Rod Carey could be the comeback coach of the year. The Huskies are a hard out when they have all of their pieces, and if they stay in one piece, this could be a serious dark horse candidate in the MAC.
Mountain West Conference
Current Favorite: Boise State
Consistency and success have been available in such large amounts with this program, that it has become customary to just name them as the perennial favorite. It’s not as easy in 2017, as their division got tougher last season, and they handed the title over to Wyoming in the Mountain Division. That division is the strongest in the conference, by far, and it won’t be an easy road in 2017.
San Diego State win the conference title game last season, but they were a team that really under performed all season long, with losses to South Alabama and Wyoming during the regular season. They rebounded to win the MWC title game (barely), and then blew out a Houston team that was in total disarray in the Las Vegas Bowl. Look for a more complete effort in 2017. Donnel Pumphrey may be gone, but the dynamic backfield duo of Rashaad Penny and Juwon Washington will be as explosive as ever.
Wyoming is a tough team to bet against, considering that they have a potential number one draft pick and long shot Heisman candidate in QB Josh Allen, and a steadily improving defense led by Safety Andrew Wingard. Craig Bohl’s hard work with the Cowboys is finally sprouting fruit, and the Cowboys are a serious challenger to the throne once again.
Colorado State is a team to look at if you are looking for potential long shots. The Rams are opening a brand new stadium on campus, and that is something that will propel the energy level at home this fall. Nick Stevens is back at QB and seemingly is healthy, so watch out for the Rams this season.
Hawaii is fast improving under Nick Rolovich, and while I do not see them as challenging in 2017, they may be a more serious contender in 2018. Look for the Rainbow Warriors to shock a few teams this fall, as they show further signs of progression. The West needs another contender, badly.
Current Favorite: USC
The Trojans have become a popular choice to win the PAC-12 overall title this season, especially the way that they finished last fall. The Trojans, however, are not a perfect candidate, as they have some serious depth issues at receiver and on the line on offense. They are not the only contender in the race.
Washington still gets a ton of love, and they are not very far at all off the pace of USC in national polls to start the season. The Huskies have some serious losses on the personnel side, but Chris Petersen is one of the best at refilling a roster, and recruiting to win. The Huskies are a clear favorite in the North, but again, there are teams sneaking up on them.
Washington State should get more love than they are getting, as they return a seriously talented roster, and have one of the best QBs in the nation in Luke Falk. The Cougars have to play some serious defense to win the North away from the Huskies, but again, stranger things have happened.
Stanford is a tough team to bet against, and the Cardinal offer up one of a few teams that could steal a division or conference title this season in the PAC-12. David Shaw has won 10 or more games in five of six seasons. They drawback here is the QB situation, which is lacking in talent. Bryce Love should be a first rate replacement for the loss of Christian McCaffrey.
Colorado is a team that some feel will slip back a bit in 2017, but they showed in 2016 that they may be in the upper half of the South for a long while. Mike MacIntyre is a first rate coach, and knows how to win, and finally turned that corner after a long slow burn of a rebuilding process. Despite losses on defense, there is still talent abounding, and the QB job should be in good hands with Steven Montez.
Current Favorite: Alabama
The Crimson Tide has become a staple of excellence, and of course that draws the ire of most people. However you feel about Alabama football, you have to respect the fact that Alabama was a mess when Nick Saban took over. He has built this from the ground up, and Alabama will remain a perennial favorite until he leaves the game.
Auburn has their QB situation figured out, and that makes them a dangerous team in 2017. Not having a top flight QB is what has been keeping them from competing against Alabama in recent years, not counting the fluke kick return game. Look for Auburn to have a more balanced approachthis fall, which makes them the second most dangerous team in the SEC.
Georgia is a team that you have to look at as well in SEC play as a long shot to win the title. They are clearlya favorite in the East, but all hinges on the development of Jacob Eason at QB, and whether or not he can catch up to the talent level of his star backs. The defense will be just fine, and if Eason can add 200 yards passing per game, the Bulldogs could be a team to watch.
Florida is really the last long shot that I believe has a snowball’s chance at upsetting Alabama for the SEC title, and that is a severe long shot at best. The Gators will be moving into starting Malik Zaire at QB, and if that is the case, expect the Gators’ offense to open up a great degree. If the defense is quite as strong as last season, and the offense intensifies, the Gators could be a popular bet as an upset possibility.
Sun Belt Conference
Current Favorite: Appalachian State
With Tyler Lamb back at QB and RB Jalin Moore back to run the offense, and a stellar defense ready to take the field, the Mountaineers are heavily favored to win the Sun Belt in 2017. App State has been favored by every major outlet, but are they all alone at the top of the league?
Troy is not getting nearly enough love despite the return of QB Brandon Silvers and RB Jordan Chunn. This is one of the most underrated duos in the nation offensively, and so sleeping on them is a huge mistake. They have a tough schedule early, but they do not play Appalachian State in conference play this fall, making them a sneaky good pick to take down the Mountaineers for the league title if they can get App State to slip up. This is really not a bad bet.