The SEC has a rich history of owning the college football landscape and proudly stakes its claim as the top conference in the country.
Obviously Nick Saban's dynasty at Alabama has played a major factor, but programs like LSU, Auburn, Georgia, Texas A&M, Ole Miss and even Florida and Tennessee have all tasted their fair share of success over the last 20 years.
Here's a stat for you. A SEC program won the college football national title in seven straight seasons from 2005-2006 to 2012-13. People can hate in the conference all they want, but that's dominance at its finest.
Over the last few years, the narrative has begun to shift a bit. Florida State helped put the ACC on the map with the 2013 national championship win and Clemson has been an annual contender since Dabo Swinney took over, finally claiming the ultimate prize last season. Teams like Louisville, Virginia Tech, North Carolina and Miami have been trending in the right direction as well and could break through sooner rather than later.
So here we are, three months away from the 2017 season opener. With all the history pushed aside, which conference will be the strongest in the new campaign?
CASE FOR SEC
The SEC finished the 2016 outing with five teams ranked in the Top-25 of the College Football Rankings. Obviously Alabama was the class of the group, advancing to the title game once again.
There's a genuine feeling the Crimson Tide could take a minor step back in 2017 due to so many key losses on defense — but Saban almost always silences the doubters and finds a way to produce a championship-caliber group. I'm comfortable saying Alabama probably won't completely dominate the FBS like we've seen in previous seasons, but I firmly believe this is a Top-5 program, especially with Jalen Hurts under center after a year to learn.
Beyond 'Bama, things get interesting.
The No. 14 squad from last year's final rankings — has two capable quarterbacks in Sean White and Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham. It's great to have two passers that could potentially start, but the raw outside weapons present reason for concern. Auburn's top three receivers (Darius Slayton, Kyle Davis, Eli Stove) combined for less than 1,000 yards a season ago. New offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey (Arizona State) could help change that, but players will still have to step up.
Star running back Kamryn Pettway is back in the saddle after a monster 2016 where he rushed for 1,224 yards and seven touchdowns, so that will help relieve the pressure in the passing game. The Tigers' defense finished 2016 ranked No. 7 in the FBS allowing just 17.1 points per game, but they will try to replicate success without Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams who combined for 13.5 of Auburn's 23.5 sacks.
Gus Malzahn will be forced to lean heavily on young talent, but Auburn looks like it will still be a serious SEC contender.
The Tigers are looking for an offensive resurgence now that Les Miles is gone. We are well aware LSU will bring one of the top defenses in the land, but the questions around the offense remain unanswered.
I was impressed with LSU's grit at the end of last year in the face of drama and turmoil. Ed Orgeron's bunch was able to drum up 54 points in the regular season finale win over Texas A&M and then walloped a really good Louisville team 29-9 in the Citrus Bowl.
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Junior running back Derrius Guice could easily emerge as the top ball carrier in the country in 2017 coming off a year where he found a way to crank out 1,387 yards and 15 touchdowns while Leonard Fournette was still considered the starter. Quarterback Danny Etling had strong showings as the season ended as well and should be comfortable under center.
LSU feels like a wildcard. I could see the Tigers as a major surprise, making a run toward the playoff, or just putting together another disappointing season. We shall see.
Florida, Tennessee, Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Georgia
The individual fan bases may scold me, but I have my reasons for grouping these five teams together. They've each been on the cusp of making a run toward the College Football Playoff in recent history, but fallen short time and time again.
Last year Tennessee entered the season with championship expectations, but finished the year 9-4. Ole Miss was just 5-7, but had an impressive outing in 2015 that resulted in 10-3 record and Sugar Bowl appearance. Kevin Sumlin is clinging to his job security with three-straight 8-5 finishes at Texas A&M, and Florida's offensive woes have paralyzed a program with one of the top defenses in the country.
Georgia is an interesting one with a strong defense and Jacob Eason leading the offense as a sophomore. Much like Guice at LSU, Bulldogs' RB Nick Chubb should be one of the top backs in the nation as long as he stays healthy.
Will any of these teams emerge as a true championship contender in 2017? Eh, probably not. I think the Vols' could make some noise now that the pressure is gone and while Georgia looks strong on paper, I haven't seen this offense mesh just yet.
Still, these five programs are consistently boasting winning records in the mega-competitive SEC. It doesn't hurt the overall strength of the conference.
The rest of the pack
Beyond the core, there are teams like South Carolina, Mississippi State, Kentucky and Arkansas that appear to moving in the right direction, while Vanderbilt and Missouri have plenty of work ahead. I wouldn't be shocked if South Carolina or Kentucky caught some folks off guard and contended in the SEC East, but I'm confident in saying none of these programs will reach the final four.
CASE FOR ACC
Florida State and Clemson
There's no debate here. These two programs have been the class of the ACC for the last five or so seasons and are the sole reason the conference is now regarded as one of the best in the FBS.
Dabo Swinney has his work cut out for him coming off the memorable national title run, though. Deshaun Watson, Mike Williams and a slew of talent that has been responsible for the Tigers' recent success has moved on to greener pastures. As of now, rising junior Kelly Bryant — who has very little game experience — is penciled in as the starter, but 5-star freshman Hunter Johnson could easily take that place.
While Swinney isn't Saban, he's earned his keep and proven himself by this point. Even with the key departures, Clemson is stockpiled with young talent and could very well reach the College Football Playoff once again.
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Florida State enters the year with expectations as big as Doak Campbell Stadium. Jimbo Fisher and company have been loaded with talent over the last few seasons, but bad breaks have altered their plans. Now — with Deondre Francois entering his second season and an athletic, ball-hungry defense highlighted by DB Derwin James — everything is in place for FSU. Shoot, even Saban said the Seminoles would probably be the No. 1 squad entering 2017.
While I'm buying the hype, I'm also trying to be as realistic as possible. Sure, I think this is a team with real national championship aspirations but I need to see it all come together. Freshman RB Cam Akers looks like a star in the making but it's never easy replacing a rare talent like Dalvin Cook. Francois was good at the end of last season, but can he be great?
Either way, it's safe to say both Clemson and FSU are Top-5 caliber teams. Now it's just a matter of turning the hype into wins on the field.
Beyond the two ACC giants, there is a group of teams that have tasted recent success and one of them is bound to emerge from the pack. North Carolina, Louisville, Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh and Miami are all teams capable of competing with anyone in the country.
Right now, Mark Richt and the Hurricanes are garnering the most attention with a young, hungry roster that could make noise in 2017. UNC loses Mitch Trubisky and a few other key pieces, so Larry Fedora will cross his fingers and hope LSU-transfer Brandon Harris can handle the load at QB.
Virginia Tech caught a lot of folks off guard last season by claiming the Coastal, and while I firmly believe Justin Fuente is the right man for the job, he enters the new campaign without his starting QB and both WR's from a season ago. Pitt is a tough read. The Panthers seem to always compete and pull of a few upsets, but it's hard for me to envision them as a Top-10 national program anytime soon,
And then there's Louisville, highlighted by reigning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson. I have no reason to believe teams will suddenly drum up a way to contain Jackson in 2017 and he will be aided by a defense that finished No. 3 in the conference in 2016.
Of these squads, I could absolutely envision both Louisville and Miami reaching the College Football Playoff. I'm not predicting that, but wouldn't be shocked if it happened.
Keep a close eye on N.C. State this season. The Wolfpack are the most dangerous team in the conference no one is talking about with a talented offense and defensive front that will send four players to the NFL after the season.
Duke is another program on the rise. QB Daniel Jones was thrown into the fire as a freshman last season and has a chance to become one of the best passers in the conference.
Paul Johnson and Georgia Tech will continue to grind out wins with the triple-option offense and knock off noteworthy teams along the way.
Rest of the Pack
Of the recent "bottom feeders" in the ACC, Syracuse has the best chance to change the narrative and return to relevancy in the ACC. Dino Babers has already shown his prowess on the recruiting trail, while Eric Dungey is one of the most exciting quarterbacks in the country.
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Wake Forest made strides last season and Boston College and Virginia have a ways to go.
Now that I've laid out the case for each conference, which will be the best in 2017? For me, it comes down to the conference that has the most teams that could reach the College Football Playoff, realistically. In the SEC, I can pencil in Alabama with certainty, but struggle to find locks beyond the Tide.
In the ACC, I can look at both Clemson and Florida State as true championship contenders. For the second-straight season, the ACC will be better than the SEC.