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Outside the Big Ten: Previewing the rest of college football for 2018

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We know Alabama, Georgia, and Clemson will be good again. But who else could contend this season?

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship Game-Alabama vs Georgia Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, I gave you my Big Ten power rankings.

This week, I’m going to take a look at what’s happening in the rest of the conferences in FBS college football. I’ll focus on the other four major conferences, but I’ll touch on some intriguing Group of Five storylines as well.

SEC

The Favorites: Alabama will always be the SEC favorite until Nick Saban has stopped eating his Little Debbie Oatmeal Cream Pies once and for all. Last year’s team that won the national title was probably only the fourth or fifth-best team the Tide have had this decade. Bama is still stacked at every position, and Saban is still the best coach in college football - his gambit of putting Tua Tagovailoa in during the second half of the title game paid off tremendously for Bama last year. Right behind them again will be Georgia, who took the Tide to overtime in the title game last year. Kirby Smart’s building up a Saban-esque program in Athens, and although the Bulldogs lost their best two running backs and linebacker Roquan Smith, they should be in the mix come November. Auburn has a great opportunity to make noise as well with Jarrett Stidham back at QB. They’ll have a great chance to establish themselves early with a win against Washington on Saturday.

Sleepers: Mississippi State lost Dan Mullen to Florida but new coach Joe Moorhead inherits a wealth of talent on both sides of the ball. And speaking of Mullen, Florida hiring him was one of the most sensible moves by any school this offseason (along with FSU grabbing Willie Taggart and Nebraska poaching Scott Frost). There’s no dearth of talent in Gainesville, and if Mullen gets the offense rolling early, the Gators could surprise in an SEC East that’s wide open outside of Georgia.

Coach on the Hot Seat: Derek Mason, Vanderbilt. Last year the Commodores started 3-0, talked a lot of smack for a week, then promptly lost 59-0 at home to Alabama. With six new permanent coaches in the SEC there aren’t many hot seats, but Mason hasn’t capitalized enough on the other SEC team in Tennessee being in disarray. Mark Stoops might also be a hot seat candidate if Kentucky regresses, and LSU’s grueling schedule might have impatient Tigers fans calling for Ed Orgeron’s head if the team goes 6-6 or worse.

Conference title game prediction: Alabama over Georgia

ACC

The Favorites: Clemson has been the class of this league for the past three years now, and 2018 should be no different. Dabo Swinney, who has experience beating Saban in a national title game, has built an empire in South Carolina. Having freshman Trevor Lawrence in addition to incumbent starter Kelly Bryant gives Clemson an embarrassment of riches at QB as well. Miami was undefeated until Thanksgiving weekend and destroyed Notre Dame before fading down the stretch last year. If Clemson and Miami don’t rematch in the ACC title game this year, it would be a surprise.

Sleepers: I’m enjoying what Boston College and Steve Addazio have been doing up in Chestnut Hill, building a big program with a BUNCH OF DUDES who can wreak havoc on the more finesse-based ACC squads. The Eagles host Miami, Clemson, and Louisville this year and it wouldn’t shock me to see them win at least one of those. Georgia Tech is the perennial sleeper in the Coastal division with its triple option offense.

Coach on the Hot Seat: Larry Fedora, UNC. Fedora made negative headlines this summer for questioning the link between football and CTE. It doesn’t help him either that UNC dropped to 3-9 last season after losing Mitch Trubisky to the pros. In addition, with a new regime in Louisville athletics and no Lamar Jackson, Bobby Petrino might be in trouble, especially with hometown hero Jeff Brohm waiting in the wings a few hours north on I-65.

Conference title game prediction: Clemson over Miami

Big 12

The Favorites: Even without Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma has to be the favorites in the conference. Be prepared to hear all about how new Sooners QB Kyler Murray also plays baseball. Gary Patterson has turned TCU into a winner at every conference the Horned Frogs have been in during his two decades of coaching them, and the Big 12 is no exception. Finally, Will Grier could lead WVU into contention, but the Mountaineers always face a grueling road schedule as they have to travel halfway across the country for any conference game.

Ultimately I think the Big 12 will miss out on a playoff berth when Oklahoma beats TCU in the regular season but the Horned Frogs defeat the Sooners in the conference title game (which ironically was started in order to help the conference).

Sleepers: Can Texas actually be a sleeper? The media has been proclaiming “Texas is back” for the past 5-6 years now but if Sam Ehlinger starts out the season strong at QB, then the Longhorns could be a dark horse in the conference. Not sure if Iowa State qualifies as a sleeper team anymore either, after wins over both Oklahoma and TCU last year, but they’ll be worth keeping an eye on as well.

Coach on the Hot Seat: Kliff Kingsbury, Texas Tech. Kliff is a favorite son in Lubbock, and his offenses are incredibly fun and pass-happy, but another year of sub-par defense might signal his demise. Also, David Beaty has gone 3-33 in his first three years at Kansas, and while it’s tough to win football games at KU, he may be gone if the Jayhawks suffer another year without a conference victory.

Conference title game prediction: TCU over Oklahoma

Pac-12

The Favorites: Washington has recruited well under Chris Petersen and has a very experienced QB in Jake Browning. The Huskies have to be the best chance for the Pac-12 to get back to the CFP, and a win on Saturday against Auburn would help their cause tremendously. Meanwhile, Khalil Tate is one of the most explosive player in the country and he has a new coach in Kevin Sumlin to make the most of his abilities at Arizona. USC loses Sam Darnold, but they’ll always be in the Pac-12 mix.

Sleepers: Oregon has its third coach in three years with Mario Cristobal, but they still have Justin Herbert behind center, and a bevy of talented athletes could make the Ducks a tough out for any Pac-12 team. Utah is always and forever a Pac-12 sleeper as long as Kyle Whittingham is around at coach.

Coach on the Hot Seat: Mike MacIntyre, Colorado. That Pac-12 South winning season in 2016 will look like a fluke if his team doesn’t improve this year.

Conference title game prediction: Washington over Arizona

Group of Five

The two most intriguing G5 teams actually face off week 4 in a non-conference game, as Lane Kiffin’s Florida Atlantic Owls take on UCF, who come off an undefeated season. Though Scott Frost has left the Knights for Nebraska, UCF still has McKenzie Milton at quarterback. The winner of this game could have a path to the G5 New Year’s Six autobid.

Meanwhile, Houston has a potential top-5 draft pick in defensive lineman Ed Oliver, and the Cougars face Arizona in week 2 in an exciting early test. Additionally, Boise State should continue its steady dominance of the Mountain West Conference, and Toledo’s Jason Candle could put himself in line for a Big Ten opening if the Rockets win a second straight MAC title.

Finally, if triple-option ball is your thing (and it absolutely should be), both Army and Navy`should be fun to watch again, especially when they’re hanging with Power 5 programs.

CFP Predictions

BEN: Alabama, Clemson, Washington, Ohio State

AUSTON: Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma

CHRIS: Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, Wisconsin

ALEX: Clemson, Alabama, Wisconsin, Notre Dame

NICK: Alabama, Clemson, Washington and due to an electrical short in the offices while the Playoff is being decided, Indiana is mysteriously placed into the field at 4-8

KYLE: Alabama, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Miami