- Not every division race is going to go to script. Who could surprise and play their way into a conference championship game appearance—or more?
There are a few things in college football that feel like near certainties—Alabama and Clemson making the College Football Playoff are among that group. And while there are favorites to join them among the sport's final four, the ebbs and flows of a grueling 14-week season always find a way to shake things up somehow.
Not every team that makes a conference championship game appearance is necessarily on the same plane as the Crimson Tide or the Tigers, but it’s an opportunity for those sides to show that they can at least compete with the nation’s premier programs.
In some cases, those teams will have to unseat a favorite to get there. In others, they’ll emerge as the best from a crowded mish-mash of average squads. No matter who it happens, there are plenty of teams that could make some noise this season, even if it’s not expected from all of them out of the gate.
ACC: Coastal Division
Virginia Cavaliers (last season: 8–5, beat South Carolina in Belk Bowl)
I realize this is a bit of a cop-out in the crapshoot Coastal given that the Wahoos finished first in the division in the ACC preseason media poll last month. That said, the Coastal also has a pair of perennial powers (Miami and Virginia Tech) that could turn a corner at any moment.
QB Bryce Perkins finished 11th in the ACC in rushing on his own last season and CB Bryce Hall earned preseason All-ACC honors after leading the nation with 22 pass breakups in 2018. Virginia shouldn’t really be tested early—it will visit Pitt before playing three home games, including one against Florida State. If the Cavs are 4–0 when they head to South Bend on Sept. 28, that will be the real litmus test to see if they indeed are the cream of the crop in the Coastal.
Big Ten: West Division
Minnesota Golden Gophers (last season: 7–6, beat Georgia Tech in Quick Lane Bowl)
This race always manages to be wide open, and 2019 shouldn’t be an exception. Nebraska or Iowa feels like the favorite here—and that’s what voters thought in the unofficial Cleveland.com media poll (the Big Ten doesn’t do preseason voting). P.J. Fleck is now in his third season, meaning the bar should be a bit higher this year as the Gophers look to build on three wins in their last four games of 2018.
The quarterback play is a question mark after neither Zack Annexstad nor Tanner Morgan was truly able to seize the starting job last season, and things were complicated when Annexstad sustained a recent foot injury that will have him out indefinitely. But Minnesota’s leading receiver, Tyler Johnson, and rusher, Mo Ibrahim, are both back, and a light start to the year should build toward a critical home game against Nebraska on Oct. 12.
TCU Horned Frogs (last season: 7–6, beat Cal in Cheez-It Bowl)
I’m guessing you probably wish you never had to think about the ugliness that was TCU’s bowl win last year (at least if you watched any of it) ever again. Nine combined interceptions are, in a word, horrific. But the Horned Frogs are a team that have three New Year’s Six bowl victories this decade and are just two years removed from an 11-win season.
The Big 12 shouldn’t be some juggernaut this year outside of favorites Oklahoma and Texas, both of whom could always slip up. TCU will get the opportunity to host the Longhorns after the mid-October Red River Rivalry game, meaning a win in Fort Worth could give Gary Patterson’s team the chance to control its own destiny. Wideout Jalen Reagor will look to build on a 2018 campaign in which he earned second-team all-conference honors, as the Horned Frogs have no choice but to rebound from a year in which their offense was one of the worst in the Big 12.
Pac-12: South Division
USC Trojans (last season: 5–7, no bowl game)
If I were writing this a decade ago, people would look at me like I had 10 eyes. At the start of the 2009 season, Southern California was coming off three straight Rose Bowl wins and just five losses over three seasons. Last year alone, the Trojans lost more games and finished lower in their division than any year since the conference expanded in 2011.
Utah is the clear favorite in the South and should be at least a preseason top-20 team. But the Utes will have to deal with USC in a massive early-season test when they visit Los Angeles on Sept. 20. The Trojans have to get a heck of a lot more out of sophomore JT Daniels, the third-ranked pro-style QB from last year’s recruiting class, but have the pieces around him to rebound and make a surprise run.
SEC: East Division
Florida Gators (last season: 10–3, beat Michigan in Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl)
Alabama and Clemson are the nation's clear top two teams—and while it’s hard to say anyone’s all that close, it certainly seems like Georgia is a definitive No. 3. The Bulldogs were left out of last year’s playoff, yet return a team that has players scattered all over the preseason All-SEC team.
Yet, the Gators should absolutely be in consideration for a spot in the SEC title game. QB Feleipe Franks continues to rise, RB Lamical Perine will be one of the conference’s best rushers after finishing just outside the top 10 in yards on the ground last season, and head coach Dan Mullen is one of the most underrated in the conference. Florida and Georgia meet, as usual, in Jacksonville on Nov. 2. That day might be all that matters in deciding who gets to play in Atlanta come December.