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STS’s Power Five Conference Picks

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ACC Football Championship - Clemson v Miami Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images

In July we collect your picks for every Power Five division in college football. We did the same for our staff. You’ve gotten a sneak peak of these picks in some of the full conference previews we did for the Big 12 (view here), Pac-10 (view here), and the ACC (definitely view here). Now we’re going to explore all of our staff picks and see how they compare to your, our readers and the conference media. I’ve also split out my own picks to highlight a few areas where I differ from the rest of our staff (namely on Arizona, Michigan State, Mississippi State, LSU, Northwestern, and Nebraska).

So without further ado, here are the ACC selections.

ACC:

There is a pretty strong consensus on how this division will play out. Clemson was picked to win the division by all of our participating writers and all but one (shame on you JNole) readers. Florida State may be the most volatile of the bunch. It’s easy to see them losing about four games (they play tough games against VT, Miami, Clemson, Notre Dame, BC, and UF), but they have the talent to do much better than that. It’s largely a matter of how quickly Taggart gets them back on track. I have some doubts about their defense, which loses Derwin James, that will likely hold them to 9 or 10 wins.

NC State benefits from getting Virginia and UNC from the Coastal and has a sixth year veteran at QB in Ryan Finley. Their offense should be very good, but their defense will struggle to replace several NFL draft picks including Bradley Chubb. I really like what BC can do this year with rising sophomore AJ Dillon at RB. Their leading passer, rusher, and receiver were all freshmen last year and you know the defense will be solid under Coach Addazio.

Who comes next between Wake Forest and Louisville is the only point of disagreement. Louisville’s offense was elite last season, yet their defense was so bad they still struggled. They now face a lot of defensive turnover including the big loss of Jaire Alexander at CB who is now a Green Bay Packer. Syracuse is at the bottom of the division, but if QB Eric Dungey can stay healthy they should be dangerous - a testament to the depth in the ACC.

The Coastal has generally been deeper than the Atlantic, but not so much this year. Louisville and Wake Forest would likely battle Georgia Tech for the third spot in this division. Still, it’s worth noting that even the worst team, North Carolina, would have been a solid bet to rebound if not for 13 players getting suspended. Instead, they could start 1-5 before they get players back from suspension and their schedule lightens up.

At the top of the division you have Miami, who has a good shot to repeat last year’s 11-1 record. They bring back RB Travis Homer and WR Ahmmon Richards on offense and the conference’s best linebacking corps and safety (Jaquon Johnson) on defense. They are probably a year away from being within a touchdown of Clemson, but they’re by far the best team in the Coastal Division.

Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech are the primary challengers. Virginia Tech loses most of their defense. Graduations, suspensions, and injuries have taken a huge toll. They’ll need QB Josh Jackson to take a big step forward to help cover up growing pains on defense if they are to compete with Miami. They get the Hurricanes at home at the end of the year, which makes them dangerous. Georgia Tech has the lower expected case, but the higher upside in my perspective. With nine starters returning on offense, they could be incredibly efficient. They also get Miami at home.

Duke has become a solid program and has some good talent returning. They get Pitt at home which is why I’ve projected them over the Panthers. Pittsburgh has a bright future with new QB Kenny Pickett though. They have some upside themselves. Virginia is coming off a bowl season. Repeating that would be a success given their losses.

Clemson is the consensus pick. It would likely take significant injuries and/or a flukey poor performance in Tallahassee or Charlotte to keep them from their fourth straight division title.

Pac-12

Washington is the consensus favorite in the North and the conference. They failed to win their division last year, but return tons of talent. Stanford should improve as well and gets Heisman-hopeful Bryce Love back for what should be an electric senior campaign. Oregon is the sleeper. I believe they’re a full tier behind Washington and Stanford, but their schedule is extremely favorable getting both of them at home, a soft draw from the South region, and no P5 opponents in the non-conference.

The rest of the Pac-12 North is fairly weak. I expect Cal to take a step forward while Washington State takes a step back after losing QB Luke Falk and a ton of the talent that was around him. Oregon State has better days ahead, but the rebuild is still in progress.

The Pac-12 South has a clear favorite in USC, who won the Pac-12 in 2017. It’s one of the more wide open divisions though as Arizona and Utah are worthy challengers and Chip Kelly makes UCLA dangerous. This is one of the weaker P5 divisions as they lack a real playoff contender (we saw just how far away USC is when they were throttled by Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl.)

Interestingly, arguably the two best offensive players in the country - Bryce Love and Khalil Tate - reside in the Pac-12. The conference was the weakest of the P5 last season, but behind a North Division that should see improvement (if not in record, than in S&P+ rankings) from five of six teams they should be better in 2018. Washington has a great chance to be a playoff team, particularly if they beat Auburn in Week 1, a game that’ll have a heavy impact on the narrative around the Pac-12 this year.

SEC:

In 2016, Georgia was just 8-5. Now, they’re an obvious division favorite. All of our writers picked them and I don’t think there was too much hesitation. They return QB Jake Fromm as one of eight returning offensive starters. While they lost both beloved running backs - Nick Chubb and Sony Michel - D’Andre Swift, Ejijah Holyfield, and Zamir White will be there to continue the tradition of excellent ball carriers in Athens. The defense is more of the question mark and the area where I expect a bigger step back. Still, they are a tier above everyone in the SEC who doesn’t call the state of Alabama home.

South Carolina was picked #2 in the East by the SEC Media, but our readers and writers took Florida. It could have just been anti-Gamecock bias, but with Dan Mullen now in Gainesville I tend to agree. He’ll fix the Gator offense in short order and has most of his starters returning to help. South Carolina has a lot to replace on defense and travels to Gainesville.

I differed from others picking Missouri next in the East. The excellence of QB Drew Lock is reason enough for the pick. Kentucky and Tennessee will battle for the next spot in the East. Tennessee should improve rapidly, but their grueling schedule is good reason to rank them 6th. Vanderbilt only returns four defensive starters from a unit that ranked 11th in the SEC in scoring defense.

Alabama and Auburn are a tier above the rest of the conference. Auburn is somewhat viewed through the lens of their competition with rival Alabama, but deserve some praise for doing as well as they do with such a daunting schedule (UGA is their permanent East rival). If Auburn can beat Washington in the opener, they’ll be in the thick of the playoff race. A loss requires them to go 3-0 in road games at Mississippi State, Georgia, and Alabama - nearly impossible.

I’m much higher on Mississippi State than others, but that’s ok. If QB Nick Fitzgerald is healthy, they should be solid on offense with him behind the helm. Nine starters return there. Losing Coach Dan Mullen is a tough blow, but they made a very solid hire, bringing Penn State OC Joe Morehead over.

Jimbo Fisher takes over a solid Aggie team and should get them back on the right track. With games a home game against Clemson and road games against Alabama, Auburn, and South Carolina, their ceiling may be limited. LSU has one of the two or three toughest schedules in the entire country. They start with Miami, play the beasts of the West, and get Georgia and Florida from the East. They should be dangerous, but like A&M will have a limited upside due to the daunting schedule.

Ole Miss and Arkansas are the only weak-ish teams in the division. I believe my fellow writers and our readers erred in putting Arkansas above Ole Miss. While Chad Morris is great and has a bright future, the talent in Oxford gives the Rebels a leg up. Their offense should be dangerous while Arkansas rebuilds.

The reigning National Champion Crimson Tide is the clear favorite to win the SEC, something they failed to do last season. Georgia had the next most picks, and since their path to Atlanta is easier, that makes sense.

Big 10:

The Big 10 doesn’t do normal media projections like the other Power 5 conference, so I used the 247 media who did their own picks for the Big 10.

These picks were made before the domestic abuse scandal began unfolding at Ohio State and the player abuse situation with Coach Durkin at Maryland went public with ESPN’s report. I generally give ESPN nothing but grief, but in this case they’ve done some good reporting that will hopefully expose the issue and allow the University to step in and ensure it never happens again. They may finish lower than I projected with this disruption.

I’m higher on Michigan State than most. They bring 10 starters back on offense. QB Brian Lewerke, RB LJ Scott, and WR Felton Davis III are all back for and offense that should be improved. Their defense allowed 20 points per game and only 298 yards per game and now returns nine starters. Ohio State still has the most talent and if Dwayne Haskins can step in and give them quality QB play, they still deserve to be the favorite. How the situation with Urban Meyer unfolds may also play a role.

Jim Harbaugh should have a strong contender this year. Shea Patterson may be the most important player in the entire country. If he can give them top-notch QB-play, they’ll not only be a contender for the Big 10 East, but the National Championship. Their running game with Karan Higdon and three starters returning on the OL will be strong. The Don Brown led defense will be rock solid with eight starters returning. Penn State is the other big contender. It was only a season ago that they won the conference. With Trace McSorely as one of eight returning starters on offense, they’ll score enough to do it again. They only return two starters on defense, which is why I’m more pessimistic on their chances than most.

Wisconsin returns 10 starters on offense. If QB Alex Hornibrook can take the next step, they’re a definite playoff contender. Iowa is solid and consistent. They get Wisconsin at home in week 4 and only play one of the top four teams from the East (Penn State). The STS readers missed the boat on that pick as Nebraska plays Michigan, Ohio State, and Michigan State. Northwestern is another team I like a bit more than other folks do. They’ve won 27 games over the past three years.

The staff and the STS readers are in alignment here with two-thirds picking the Buckeyes to win the East. I was tempted to pick Michigan State, but alas I didn’t have the gusto. Had I made this pick after the domestic abuse investigation going on in Columbus, I may have taken the Spartans.

Big 12:

And for the Big 12, there are no divisions so here is the full conference:

Even losing Mayfield, Oklahoma is still the team to beat in the Big 12. The group of challengers is deep though. West Virginia has a high-flying offense. Texas has a tough defense. TCU has a very strong defense and potentially a quality offense if the new OL and QB find their footing quickly. Oklahoma State loses Mason Rudolph and James Washington, but always have a good offense with Mike Gundy as their leader. Iowa State is the other team worth mentioning. They’ve done well with Matt Campbell and I don’t think last year was a fluke. They return a senior QB in Kyle Kempt and a feature back in David Montgomery. They’ll manage to surprise somebody.

The Sooners may not go undefeated, but if their defense can improve, they have the offense to win yet another Big 12 title. They replace Ohio State with UCLA in the non-conference slate meaning an 8-1 performance in conference could led to a 11-1 season and a chance to win the conference championship and slip into the playoff.