Wednesday, August 28, 2013

My Conference Winner Picks

This list will probably look pretty similar to my preseason top ten predictions. Obviously, those teams already have the talent to be worthy of top ten consideration. Factoring scheduling and recent history against certain teams, it isn't terribly difficult to predict where teams will be ending up by the end of the season. Barring some sort of catastrophic injury to a key player, this is how I feel the conferences will play out. I'm only doing the Power 6 Conferences because lets be honest, no one really cares about the Conference-USA or the MAC.

American Athletic Conference
Louisville Cardinals: The Big East might have changed names but that doesn't mean it has gotten any more competitive. Louisville has by far the most talent of any team in this conference. Teddy Bridgewater has the physical composition and mental toughness to be the top overall pick this upcoming year. He'll be the heart and soul of the team this year, just as he was last year. However, some pressure will be taken off of him as Michael Dyer has transferred from the lower ranks to Louisville this offseason. Dyer was a catalyst and very important component to Auburn's title run a few years ago but was kicked off the team because he is a head-case. If he can stay out of trouble, he will prove a valuable commodity. The defense last year was very impressive, ranking in the top 30 in most meaningful categories. While several players have moved on, they still retain about 75% of the defense from last year. This group should only get better with another year to gel. Playing in this conference, no one really seems to stick out as a danger to Louisville on the schedule. Then again, this team lost to UCONN at home last year. Yeesh. They have to play UCONN this year on the road, but they really should be able to handle them convincingly. Their biggest obstacle in the way of a perfect season might be their last game against Cincinnati. Cincy has been a pretty successful program recently, minus a four win 2010 campaign. If Louisville is undefeated, ranked in the top five or six in the country, you can guarantee that Nippert Stadium will be rocking as the Bearcats try to ruin Louisville's hopes of a perfect season. Still, I truly believe that Louisville will come out of this season unscathed. They absolutely have the talent to do it in this conference.

Atlantic Coast Conference
Atlantic Division: Clemson Tigers
This is Clemson's year....I think. Every year it seems like Clemson is ready to break out and make an actual push towards a national title. The biggest thing holding them back this year could be their defense which was shaky last year. They gave up too many yards and too many points way too often last year. The defense will be the key to it all this year, and while I don't expect them to crack the top ten, I think they can be stout enough to help put games away. This team is pretty set on offense though. Tajh Boyd is a great talent who should be able to at least replicate his season line of 3:1 TD:INT ratio and almost 4000 yards. He will also have the luxury of throwing to Sammy Watkins, who looks to regain his freshman form when he caught 82 passes and 12 touchdowns. As long as he stops smoking pot, or at least doesn't get caught, he should be able to put a forgettable 2012 campaign behind him. This year's success might be contingent on them finding a suitable running game. Andre Ellington has moved on, and it could be hard to reproduce the kinds of numbers he put up. Dabo has been picking up some good running back recruits in recent years, so I don't doubt he'll be able to find one or two guys to help fill the void. Clemson's schedule begins and ends with the SEC. They open up at home against Georgia which will be a good indicator of where this team stands. I think that they have a great chance to come out on top, but it definitely won't be easy as Georgia is going to be loaded on offense. A mid October visit from Florida State is their most imposing game against an ACC opponent, but Florida State is transitioning to a new QB and could struggle this year. They end as they always do, against South Carolina. If they can split their SEC series, this is a team that will definitely be in another BCS Bowl game.

Coastal Division: Miami Hurricanes
The Coastal Division is much weaker than the Atlantic, and that will show when Miami wins it with three to four losses. The Canes will definitely be able to put up points with their offense. Stephen Morris is a solid quarterback who threw for 21 touchdowns and 3300 yards. He will be helped by the return of Phillip Dorsett, who caught 58 passes for 800 yards and 4 touchdowns. He is a small and speedy receiver who can easily create mismatches which Al Golden will utilize. What will be interesting to see this year is if incoming freshman Derrick Griffin is able to play immediately. He was the number five WR prospect in the country and towers over people at 6 feet, 7 inches. He will undoubtedly help with the Hurricane's redzone offense, but if he is able to pick up half of the offense, he will be a very dangerous weapon. Sophomore running back Duke Johnson is the real deal. He ran for 950 yards at 6.8 yards a carry last year to go along with 10 touchdowns. He has great speed and can one-cut and go with the best of them. He was averaging less than 12 carries a game, but there is no way that Golden will give him the ball that sparingly this season. The problem with this team will be on defense, which gave up 30 points per game last year. Sanctions have limited the amount of recruits they can bring in, and they are feeling the effects heavily on defense. That will definitely hurt them when they play Florida and Florida State, easily their two toughest games of the year. Still, the only other team that really poses a threat in this division is UNC. Even if Miami loses two or three games, they should still be representing the Coastal Division.

Conference Winner: Clemson Tigers
Better coach, better offense, slightly better defense. This game could end up being a shootout, but Clemson has the better QB to WR tandem to come out on top if their defense can get a stop or two.

Big Ten
Legends Division: Michigan Wolverines
I give Brady Hoke a lot of credit for rebuilding the disaster that Rich Rod left in such a short amount of time. He faced a bit of a sophomore slump last year but should be able to rebound this year after bringing in another top ten recruiting class. The offense will finally be a true pro-style attack, focusing more on the running back than the quarterback. Hoke is hoping that highly sought after freshman Derrick Green can make an immediate impact for the Wolverines. He was very highly recruited player out of Virginia who fits the mold of big, imposing running backs that the Big 10 so often sees. His raw ability combined with the experience of senior Fitzgerald Toussaint should give Michigan a powerful running game. This year will be contingent on junior quarterback Devin Gardner improving however to take pressure off the running backs. He attempted only 126 passes last year for 1200 yards and 11 touchdowns. That is not going to be enough to force defenses to play back and give the running backs room. His receivers are very undersized, which could pose problems early on. The defense will be able to keep games close though. Although thin at linebacker, they have an imposing line and a solid set of defensive backs. Their biggest obstacle will be the schedule this year which could be rough for them. Penn State could be better this year, whom they have to play on the road and Northwestern will be a good squad again this year after winning ten games last year. They also have Notre Dame, Nebraska, and Ohio State all coming to the Big House this year. With Nebraska looming and looking to make it back to the Conference Championship game, Michigan can't afford to lose more than two of those games. However, with the talent they have, Michigan should be able to beat out Nebraska.

Leaders Division: Ohio State Buckeyes
This could be the year that Ohio State makes it back to the title game after years of being so close and having massive disappointments mid-season. This team has the make-up and schedule to get itself back into the title scene. On offense, it all starts with Braxton Miller, one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in college. He didn't put up the same kinds of passing numbers that Manziel did, but he is faster and has the same levels of elusiveness. With Ohio State's offensive line set to be one of the best in the country, Miller should develop as a passer in his third year. That is going to be key this year, as Ohio State's two leading receivers (Philly Brown and Devin Smith) only combined for 90 catches last year. Expect to see a lot out of incoming freshman Dontre Wilson, a 4 Star Athlete who is drawing comparisons to Percy Harvin. Coach Meyer has even said he plans to use Wilson in the same fashion he used Harvin at Florida. The running backs were looking to be in good shape until Carlos Hyde was accused of punching a girl in the face at a bar. The charges were dropped, but Hyde will still be suspended at the beginning of the season. Enigmatic back Jordan Hall will get most of the carries, but he will only have to do enough to take pressure off of Miller, who is more dangerous as a runner than any running back on the roster. The front seven of the defense will be the biggest weakness this year. In all likelihood, three sophomores will start along the line. The linebackers are lead by Ryan Shazier, a great playmaker on the outside, but the other two spots are still uncertain. Curtis Grant has yet to live up the billing he had coming out of high school, but he will most likely play in the middle. Bradley Roby, also suspended early, is an All-American corner who will make plenty of plays on his side and will help out overall in the passing defense. The schedule faces a few trap games (@Cal, @Northwestern, @Purdue) and The Game is in Michigan this year. This is a team that could post a perfect regular season yet again.

Conference Winner: Ohio State Buckeyes
Again, give Brady Hoke credit for turning around Michigan. However, he is not even close to the same tier of coaching as Urban is. His defense might have the advantage, but when it comes to offense, there is no real comparison. Ohio State could lose in Ann Arbor, but I suspect that they would win on a neutral field in the B1G Championship.

Big 12
Texas Longhorns: Oklahoma State is the trendy pick here, but I'm going with the Longhorns to get back into the BCS party. As I've mentioned, its been very curious that Texas has been so mediocre recently. They continue to recruit great talent, but just can't ever seem to get their act together and take command of their season. However, I think that they have an excellent chance this season to win ten games, something that has eluded them for the last three seasons. David Ash is a solid quarterback who should be able to take steps forward now that Mack Brown has chosen him as the starter moving forward. He will be helped by his top two receivers returning this year. Mike Davis and Jaxon Shipley are both speedy receivers who can easily get open and make a move with the ball in their hands. It might be up to the running game to propel Texas along this year. Jonathon Gray and Malcolm Brown have both been mildly disappointing after being five star instate recruits. Gray proved he is the better of the two, but he was given limited carries last year and averaged just barely over 50 yards a game. Joe Bergeron is a great goal line runner as he proved with 16 touchdowns last year. Still, the problem with this team hasn't been on offense. Their defense last year was just downright dismal too often. Their passing defense was pretty good. They only allowed 16 passing touchdowns (and had 15 picks) and were allowing just a hair over 200 yards a game. But when talking about the rush defense, they were awful. They allowed 29 rushing touchdowns and were giving up 200 yards a game. They simply could not get stops when they were most crucial. The passing defense is sure to take a hit with the loss of Kenny Vaccaro and future first round DE Jackson Jeffcoat can't fix the rush defense all by himself. Thankfully for them, there is no one really imposing on the schedule.They get Oklahoma State at home which will go a long way in determining who wins the conference. The Sooners probably won't be that great this year, so I imagine Texas could have ten or eleven regular season wins on their way to a BCS Bowl.

Pac 12
North Division: Stanford Cardinal
This is a team that has already been garnering National Champion talk. Not just making it to the game itself, but actually winning it as well. I personally think that this team has the make up to do it. Think of this team like the 2011 Alabama squad. They return a fantastic defense only allowed 17 points per game and are led by senior linebacker Shane Skov and junior safety Ed Reynolds. Senior rush linebacker Trent Murphy also returns after a ten sack campaign, making the linebacking core absolutely lethal. This defense will only get better with the maturation of previous underclassmen like David Perry and Aziz Shittu. The offense wasn't overly ecstatic last year, but this year they should be able to put up some impressive numbers. They have to replace Stepfan Taylor, who carried the ball 322 times for 1400 yards and 13 touchdowns. The Cardinal don't have a single back who can accomplish that, so they will use a run by committee approach this year. Stanford prefers a power running game and has the resources to excel at that this year. Anthony Wilkerson and Tyler Gaffney are both big, physical runners who produced when stepping in for Taylor last year. They will greatly benefit from having one of the best offensive lines in the country. There is also the possibility of seeing some of redshirt sophomore Barry Sanders Jr in the mix this year, adding a bit more elusiveness to the rush attack. Much like AJ McCarron in 2011, quarterback Kevin Hogan will probably be slightly limited in the passing game. That isn't to say he doesn't have the ability to lead this team however. He beat out upperclassman Josh Nunes last year and led the Cardinal to eight straight victories, including a Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin. He threw for 1000 yards on a cool 70% completion with 9 touchdowns and 3 picks. He should feel more comfortable throwing the ball this year and his numbers will improve, but I imagine Shaw may only ask him to throw 20 times a game at most. Looking at the schedule, no one is really that intimidating for the Cardinal this year. They play UCLA, Oregon, and Notre Dame all at home this year and their toughest road game is USC. Don't be surprised if this team runs the table.

South Division: UCLA Bruins
Similarly to Stanford, UCLA must replace the production of one running back. Jonathon Franklin ran for 1700 yards and 13 touchdowns last year, but he is off to the NFL. Next in line are Damien Thigpen and Jordan James. Both showed some good ability in spot duty last year, but Thigpen is coming off of an ACL injury. It will be interesting to see if a less potent running game causes sophomore quarterback Brett Hundley to regress this year. Hundley was great last year, throwing for 3700 yards and 29 touchdowns as a true freshman. He also showed some ability to make plays happen with his feet, as evidenced by his nine touchdown runs last year. Hundley is a dynamic player who should be able to bail his team out if needed. Where this team will most likely struggle this year is on defense. Last year, they allowed an average of 27 points per game. They still managed to win nine games despite that, but if they wanna challenge for a Rose Bowl spot, they are going to need to shore up the defense. Thankfully for them, they have one of the best rush outside linebackers in the country in Anthony Barr. Barr is an absolute beast who recorded 13.5 sacks last year. He has the perfect blend of power and agility for someone playing his position and should get better in what will be his SECOND season playing the outside linebacker. Yet Barr is basically the only bright spot on defense. They allowed 160 rush yards per game last year and their secondary hasn't gotten much better which will be bad news for them. It wouldn't be beyond reason for Jim Mora Jr to play and maybe even start incoming freshman Tahaan Goodman and Priest Willis. UCLA has a killer schedule this year that will cause them to have multiple losses. I can't see them winning games at Oregon and Stanford this year. They also have a tough road game against Nebraska and UCS. Considering how weak the South is this year, I can see the Bruins playing in the PAC-12 championship game with four losses again.

East Division: Georgia Bulldogs
This is probably the toughest division to predict since Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida all have realistic shots at winning it. But for now, I'm taking Georgia to repeat as Eastern champs. It really helps your cause when you have a fourth year starting quarterback. Aaron Murray has been a great leader for Georgia, despite not being able to get them into a BCS bowl game. Last year was his best statistical year when he threw for almost 4000 yards and 36 touchdowns against 10 interceptions. Murray is a very good pro-style quarterback who can make some tough throws in the pocket. He has had a tendency to underwhelm in critical situations, but maybe that can change in his senior campaign. He lost his favorite receiver in Tavarres King, but Murray has always been able to distribute the ball well. Multiple receivers return who made some sort of impact last year, led by Malcolm Mitchell. This team should have no problem scoring, but it could have some issues stopping teams from scoring. The running game is just as good as the passing too with sophomore runners Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. They combined 2100 yards and 25 touchdowns, just on the ground. Gurley is the better of the two, but they are both indispensable parts of this offense and complement each other very well. Only one senior returns this year as seven players from last years squad were drafted. Mark Richt has always recruited heavily on the defensive side of the ball and likes to rotate players, so players do have some experience. Still, their defense could lapse this year after allowing 19 points per last year. They are not helped by their schedule this year too. They open up the first week in Death Valley to play Clemson. The week after that, they make a home stand against South Carolina who wrecked them 35-7 last year. Two weeks after that, they take on LSU at home. As usual, they also will take on Florida in Jacksonville which is always a pivotal game in the East. I expect Georgia to win all the SEC games mentioned, but could stumble against Clemson or a trap game at Vanderbilt. The sky is the limit for the Bulldogs this year.

West Division: Alabama Crimson Tide
I really want to put Texas A&M here, but given all the offseason distractions they've had to deal with, I think Alabama has the edge here. Nick Saban is still their coach, which pretty much alone makes them the better team (no disrespect to Kevin Sumlin). The Tide are then lead by AJ McCarron, the senior quarterback looking to win his third straight crystal ball. McCarron is a solid, efficient quarterback. He threw for 3000 yards on 67% completions and 30 touchdowns against an insane 3 picks. My only knock against McCarron is that he really hasn't ever been challenged. He's always had a great offensive line that can give him all day to throw and has always had a running game that takes all pressure off of him. Three of his offensive linemen were drafted, two in the top 11. He may be tested this year like he was against A&M last year in which he threw two interceptions. If he is not protected as well as he is used to, he may struggle and make some mistakes. Luckily, the rest of his offense is more than capable of picking up the slack. TJ Yeldon was a freshman sensation running along with Eddie Lacy. He garnered 1100 yards at 6. 3 yards per carry and a 12 rushing touchdowns. He has the size and speed combination very similar to Adrian Peterson at Oklahoma. He is primed for a huge year as their number one running back. However, some of his carries will undoubtedly be siphoned away by incoming freshman Derrick Henry, another athletic freak who set the highschool record for rushing yards in their career (12,212 yards. Jesus.). Amari Cooper will be McCarron's go to target this year after breaking out last year (59 catches, 1000 yards, 11 TDs). Despite losing a ton of players on defense, Nick Saban knows how to reload. There are All-Americans at all levels of the defense who will look to rank in the top of all statistics like they did last year. Alabama's toughest game this year is at College Station where they will look to avenge their only loss last year. After that, they only have to take on LSU at home in early November. This team is easily one of the most talented in the nation, so they could definitely skate through their schedule on their way to another title berth.

Conference Winner: Alabama Crimson Tide
It won't be that easy for Alabama to win this game. Alabama has the better overall team, but that was the case last year and Georgia was five yards away from upsetting them. I wouldn't be shocked if Georgia won this game actually. Coaching is the only real edge they have, but in this case when it comes to down Nick Saban or Mark Richt, that edge is decisive.

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