The college football season doesn’t start until the fall but it’s never too early to start looking ahead.
USA TODAY Sports
The conclusion of spring drills brings some clarity to the conference races across the Football Bowl Subdivision. In the Big Ten, for instance, Ohio State’s quick grasp of new offense coordinator Kevin Wilson’s system bodes well for the Buckeyes’ chances of making a return trip to the College Football Playoff.
So the post-spring picture in the Big Ten seems clear, at least. Likewise in the SEC, where Alabama stands poised to maintain its run atop the conference. The rest of the Power Five and Group of Five leagues may not be so clear.
But we know more today than in January. With spring in the books, here’s how the conference races shake out with four months to go until the start of the regular season.
SPRING GAME COVERAGE:
Favorite: South Florida. The Bulls are set for a very successful debut under Charlie Strong, who inherits a strong offense and should quickly address a lackluster defense.
Dark horse: Memphis. The league’s most potent offense might be enough to lift the Tigers to the top of the American in Mike Norvell’s second season.
Bringing up the rear: Connecticut. It’ll take time for Randy Edsall to replicate his previous tenure with the Huskies.
Favorite: Florida State. You can’t go wrong between FSU and Clemson, but the Seminoles hold a slight advantage coming out of the spring. Now, about that opener with Alabama …
Dark horse: Miami (Fla.). There’s a clear issue in experience at quarterback. Mark Richt and the Hurricanes still look like the early favorite in the Coastal Division.
Bringing up the rear: Virginia. Bronco Mendenhall’s rebuild is underway in Charlottesville. Don’t expect any major breakthrough in 2017.
Favorite: Oklahoma. The Sooners will begin the summer in the Big 12 driver’s seat even if it hasn’t been a pretty month-plus for Bob Stoops and OU.
Dark horse: Oklahoma State. It might seem strange to call Oklahoma State a sleeper, but the loaded and explosive Cowboys are still flying under the radar.
Bringing up the rear: Kansas. Last year’s win against Texas proved that all is not lost in Lawrence. That’s not to say the Jayhawks don’t seem destined to bring up the rear in the conference standings.
Favorite: Ohio State. An influx of early enrollees this spring helped Urban Meyer and OSU begin the process of solidifying a depth chart ravaged by departures for the NFL.
Dark horse: Wisconsin. A smooth schedule, improved quarterback play and the program’s annual consistency point toward a potential banner year for the Badgers.
Bringing up the rear: Rutgers. The long road back continues. It wasn’t a pretty spring for the Scarlet Knights.
Favorite: Western Kentucky. While maintaining the program’s recent run might be hard, a productive first spring under new coach Mike Sanford has the Hilltoppers in the early lead.
Dark horse: Middle Tennessee. Hiring Scott Shafer as defensive coordinator is a move that may lift the Blue Raiders over the hump in the East Division.
Bringing up the rear: Alabama-Birmingham. The Blazers may very well far exceed expectations. But after a two-year hiatus, it’s hard to get a good read on what UAB will bring to the table this fall.
Favorite: Toledo. After playing bridesmaid to Northern Illinois and Western Michigan, this is the Rockets’ year in the MAC.
Dark horse: Northern Illinois. The Huskies may be only a healthy quarterback away from reclaiming a spot atop the West Division.
Bringing up the rear: Kent State. Spring is a time for optimism everywhere, but to a lesser degree at college football’s annual also-rans.
Favorite: Boise State. The margin for error is smaller than ever in the Mountain Division, but Boise’s talent, experience and coaching should find the Broncos in the preseason Amway Coaches Poll.
Dark horse: Colorado State. A brand-new stadium is not the only thing CSU has to look forward to this fall. The Rams will be dangerous should they address three holes along the offensive line and cut down on big plays allowed on defense, a process that began this spring.
Bringing up the rear: Fresno State. Jeff Tedford will need at least two years to bring Fresno up to speed in the MWC.
Favorite: Southern California. Let the hype machine roll for Sam Darnold and the Trojans.
Dark horse: UCLA. Meanwhile, the Bruins’ own star quarterback, Josh Rosen, seemed healthy and ready to hit his stride during the spring.
Bringing up the rear: California. The Golden Bears won’t be terrible, but someone’s got to finish last.
Favorite: Alabama. Surprised? It’s the same old story in Tuscaloosa.
Dark horse: Georgia. In this case, teams such as LSU and Auburn don’t qualify for the dark-horse label. After going 8-5 in 2016, Georgia definitely qualifies.
Bringing up the rear: Mississippi and Vanderbilt. The talent’s there, but how will the Rebels respond to the program’s self-imposed bowl ban? And while Vanderbilt is experienced, can Derek Mason lead the Commodores back into bowl play?
Favorite: Troy. It’ll be one of either Troy, Arkansas State or Appalachian State atop the Sun Belt. The Trojans get the edge after developing depth at running back, receiver and linebacker during the spring.
Dark horse: Georgia Southern. A reembrace of the option style will bump the Eagles up a notch in the Sun Belt.
Bringing up the rear: New Mexico State. Hope springs eternal, but no sense of progress during the spring can overshadow the fact that NMSU will face Arizona State, New Mexico and Arkansas in the first month of the upcoming season.
PHOTOS FROM COLLEGE FOOTBALL SPRING GAMES