Philadelphia, PA – Trying to pick the winner in a college football game, without factoring in the point spread and other pertinent factors, isn't all that hard -- at least early on.
The task becomes increasingly more difficult as the season wears on, as teams come together in an attempt to knock off bitter rivals, stake their claim to their respective conference crowns, assure themselves of the best possible postseason destination, and in the case of at least two squads, set their sights on a shot at the ultimate prize -- the BCS National Championship.
The usual cast of characters are expected to battle tooth and nail for their shot at college football immortality this year, with USC, Alabama, LSU, Oklahoma and Oregon considered the cream of the [preseason] crop. There are certainly others who could find themselves in the enviable position of playing in south Florida on January 7, 2013, so let's take a look at each conference to see which teams will likely be left standing when the dust settles later this fall.
ACC: Florida State is the odds-on favorite to win its 13th ACC title, but you can't count out squads at Clemson and Virginia Tech. The Seminoles, who haven't won the conference crown since 2005 and last claimed the Atlantic Division title in 2010, return a slew of talented starters on both sides of the ball. Jimbo Fisher's club will likely rely on a defense that got better as the season wore on last year to keep it in most games this season, and FSU's toughest bouts will at home against Clemson and Florida, and on the road at Virginia Tech.
Big 12: Oklahoma is clearly the team to beat in the revamped Big 12 this year, but quality clubs at West Virginia, Texas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State and newcomer TCU could challenge the Sooners. Still it would be something of a shocker if Bob Stoops' troops weren't playing for the national championship this season -- that is of course as long as the Sooners avoid the kind of setback they've experienced in the past when they lose to a team they should have beaten. Oklahoma, which has a Heisman hopeful in QB Landry Jones, opens league play at home versus K-State, and will also face Texas, Notre Dame, West Virginia, Oklahoma State and TCU this season.
Big East: With West Virginia now in the Big 12, the Big East title is up for grabs this year. At the outset, Louisville appears to the class of the league, although South Florida, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and even Syracuse could make it interesting come early November. This is the final year in the conference for both the Panthers and Orange as they will call the ACC home in 2013, so you know they would love to stick it to the Big East with one final run. In the end, expect the high-flying Cardinals to claim their third Big East crown, and second straight after sharing it with both West Virginia and Cincinnati a year ago.
Big Ten: With up to a half dozen teams expected to vie for the conference championship, the Big Ten is poised to have a monster year. Michigan appears to have what it takes to win its record 43rd league title, while Wisconsin, Michigan State, Nebraska and Ohio State all field talented teams capable of winning the Big Ten crown as well. Led by highly-skilled QB Denard Robinson, the Wolverines will be tested right out of the chute when they play defending national champion and No. 2-ranked Alabama in Arlington, Texas on Sept. 1. Michigan's other tough games include a home date with Michigan State, and road trips to Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State.
Conference USA: Like some other leagues, the race to win the Conference USA title this year is expected to be tight. With the NCAA recently declaring UCF ineligible for postseason play, Houston, Tulsa and East Carolina appear to be the teams most likely to have a say in C-USA's final pecking order this year. The first full season of the Tony Levine era gets underway for the Cougars at home against FBS newcomer Texas State on Sept. 1, but their toughest games are expected to be on the road against UCLA, SMU and East Carolina, and at home versus Louisiana Tech and Tulsa.
Mid-American: Like other leagues in the FBS, the Mid-American Conference experienced some shuffling of teams after last season, as the Temple Owls moved back to the Big East, and former FCS member Massachusetts serving as their replacement. The Ohio University Bobcats, who notched the first bowl win in school history last year, appear set to claim their first conference championship in more than four decades. It won't be easy however, as also expected to be in the thick of things are Toledo, Northern Illinois and Western Michigan, while Bowling Green, Kent State and Ball State would love nothing more than to play the role of spoiler.
Mountain West: Boise State is hoping to make its final year in the Mountain West Conference a memorable one, as the Broncos are once again the favorites to win the league crown before heading off to the Big East next season. San Diego State is also leaving the MWC for the Big East, but the Aztecs don't figure to be more than a middle-of-the-pack team in the league this year. BSU's main competition now that TCU has moved to the Big 12, is likely to come from Mountain West newcomers Nevada and Fresno State, while squads at Wyoming, Air Force and Colorado State may also make their presence felt. The Broncos' road to another MWC title, which they must travel without record-setting QB Kellen Moore, features tough tilts at Michigan State, Southern Miss, Wyoming, Hawaii and Nevada, while getting BYU, Fresno State, San Diego State and Colorado State all at home.
Pac-12: Out from under the dark clouds of NCAA sanctions, the USC Trojans come into the 2012 season ranked No. 1 in the country. Led by Heisman-caliber QB Matt Barkley, USC has the talent in all phases to compete not only for the Pac-12 title, but the national championship as well. Oregon is likely the only team that can derail the Trojans' hopes, but the Ducks have some questions on offense. Life without Andrew Luck begins for Stanford, but the Cardinal still has a talented roster, as does Washington and to a lesser extent California and even Utah. USC and Oregon meet in Los Angeles on Nov. 3, and there could very well be a rematch a month later in the conference championship game.
SEC: Some think Alabama is the best team in the SEC. Others believe it to be LSU. Regardless, both teams have established themselves as the top dogs in arguably the nation's toughest conference. The defending national champion and second-ranked Crimson Tide will know exactly what they're made of when they take on No. 8 Michigan in the season opener, while the third-ranked Tigers, who must find a way to get past the recent dismissal of star DB Tyrann Mathieu, will face their first test against Washington a week later. The two will meet in Tuscaloosa on Nov. 3. No disrespect intended, but even a squad like Georgia, which comes into the season ranked No. 6, takes a backseat to the "big two", and almost forgotten in the mix is Florida, which is hoping for a much better showing in Will Mushchamp's second year at the helm. South Carolina is a team to be reckoned with, as is Arkansas, but this year's SEC champ will likely be Alabama.
Sun Belt: If Arkansas State is going to win its second straight Sun Belt Conference title, it will need to do so with a new coach calling the shots. The Red Wolves are now led by former Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, and they have the league's top QB in senior Ryan Aplin. Also expected to challenge for the SBC's top spot this year will be FIU and Louisiana -- the former sporting one of the league's top defenses, and the latter a solid team on both sides of the ball. The Sun Belt, which welcomes South Alabama to the fold this season, will undergo even more changes in 2013 when Texas State and Georgia State join the party following the departure of both North Texas and FIU to Conference USA.
WAC: With this likely being the final year of football for the Western Athletic Conference, as many as three teams are expected to challenge for the league title. Defending champion Louisiana Tech is the obvious choice to repeat, but the Bulldogs will face challenges from Utah State and San Jose State. The Aggies will likely ride a stout defense to any success they achieve, and the Spartans are hoping former Minnesota RB DeLeon Eskridge will give them the boost they need to climb the conference ladder. In the end, expect LaTech to win the last WAC football championship, and to secure its second straight bowl bid in the process.
As Independents, Notre Dame certainly has the toughest road to hoe in terms of posting a winning record as the Fighting Irish will play Michigan State, Michigan, Miami-Florida, Stanford, BYU, Oklahoma, Pittsburgh and USC. As for BYU, it only has a handful of tough bouts, taking on the likes of Boise State, Notre Dame and Georgia Tech.