Which college football team will have the best 2013 in a new conference?

Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE

Which teams joining new conferences in 2013 have the best chances to hit the ground running? Let's take a look at the candidates.

Sometimes it can be difficult to predict how a team will fare from year to year. There are so many variables that can affect a team's performance, but perhaps none as large as changing conferences. It completely changes the schedule, and a team used to winning in one conference could find itself in the middle of the pack in another.

I attempted to gaze through the mist and predict which newcomer would have the best debutante season. This is not an assessment of each team's long-term prognosis, but a look at how they'll do in year one of their new conference affiliations.

[Note: Bill Connelly's preview series has not reached the shores of the ACC or AAC yet this summer, but stay tuned for that.]

1. Central Florida
New conference: AAC
Former conference: Conference USA
2012 record: 10-4 (7-1)
Returning starters: 11

Central Florida is the clear choice to be the best new program in the AAC, at least. The Knights are coming off a Conference USA title game appearance, and quarterback Blake Bortles is back for his junior season. They must replace top rusher Latavius Murray and six starters on defense, but they have the best foundation of any team heading into the AAC. Their relative strength combined with the relative weakness of the AAC means that of any team changing conferences this year, the Knights could make the biggest splash.

2. San Jose State
New conference: Mountain West
Former conference: WAC
2012 record: 11-2 (5-1)
Returning starters: 13
Bill C. preview

The Spartans are joining the Mountain West with a new head coach after their previous boss, Mike MacIntyre, left for Colorado. Ron Caragher takes over in San Jose after coaching FCS power San Diego for the past six years, and could get off to a fast start after MacIntyre rebuilt the program and left it in good shape. Quarterback David Fales is a potential first round NFL Draft pick, and 12 other Spartan starters return from a very good 2012 squad. Their conference schedule is manageable too, as they avoid Boise State in their first year in the Mountain West.

3. Utah State
New conference: Mountain West
Former conference: WAC
2012 record: 11-2 (6-0)
Returning starters: 15
Bill C. preview

Matt Wells moves up from offensive coordinator to take over the Aggies after Gary Andersen left to take the Wisconsin job, so there's still a level of continuity surrounding the program in Logan. The Aggies also have a returning star in quarterback Chuckie Keeton, which should greatly help their transition into the Mountain West. The schedule will be tough, as Utah State plays at USC, at Utah, BYU and Boise State, and those are all during the first seven weeks of the season. The program still has good bones, but this year presents a big challenge.

4. Middle Tennessee State
New conference: Conference USA
Former conference: Sun Belt
2012 record: 8-4 (6-2)
Returning starters: 17
Bill C. preview

Middle Tennessee State is probably the team best suited to make a splash in its first season in Conference USA. The Blue Raiders had a surprisingly good 8-4 record last year, but the underlying numbers say they weren't as good as their record. However, they have loads of experience returning and a coaching staff returning intact, so getting to eight wins again seems like it could be attainable.

5. Pittsburgh
New conference: ACC
Former conference: Big East
2012 record: 6-7 (3-4)
Returning starters: 14

Pitt is clearly the team entering the ACC with more continuity, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have to adjust. For better or worse, quarterback Tino Sunseri is gone, and so is the former heir-apparent at running back, Rushel Shell. Paul Chryst is still the head coach though -- and a little continuity in that regard is a welcome change for Panther fans. Pitt opens the year against Florida State and also plays at Virginia Tech, at Georgia Tech, Notre Dame, North Carolina and Miami.

6. Syracuse
New conference: ACC
Former conference: Big East
2012 record: 8-5 (5-2)
Returning starters: 13

For the Orange, the change in conference might not even be the biggest immediate change. Head coach Doug Marrone took the Buffalo Bills job, and longtime starting quarterback Ryan Nassib is a New York Giant. Syracuse's top two receivers from last year, Alec Lemon and Marcus Sales, are gone too. They hired from within by promoting Scott Schafer, but the Orange will have to adjust on the fly. Schedule-wise, Syracuse has Penn State (in the Meadowlands), at Northwestern, Clemson, at Georgia Tech, and at Florida State.

Both Pitt and Syracuse may be more talented teams than the ones in front of them on this list, but they're getting put behind them due to the higher level of competition in the ACC.

7. Houston
New conference: AAC
Former conference: Conference USA
2012 record: 5-7 (4-4)
Returning starters: 14

Houston is still attempting to find its path in the post-Kevin Sumlin era, and it'll have to face 2013 without its top rusher, Charles Sims, who transferred to West Virginia. The Cougars should be fine eventually, but they don't look primed to hit the ground running in 2013. They do have 14 starters coming back, and that's worth a good deal.

8. North Texas
New conference: Conference USA
Former conference: Sun Belt
2012 record: 4-8 (3-5)
Returning starters: 16
Bill C. preview

The Mean Green have struggled over the past several years, but a large batch of returning starters and continuity on the coaching staff bodes well for their chances compared to the other Conference USA newcomers.

9. Louisiana Tech
New conference: Conference USA
Former conference: WAC
2012 record: 9-3 (4-2)
Returning starters: 6
Bill C. preview

Louisiana Tech seems like the easy choice to excel in 2013 based on its 2012 season, but the team coming back this year will be very different. Head coach Sonny Dykes is gone, and so are all but six (six!) starters. A good foundation's been built in Ruston, but that much turnover is very difficult to step through seamlessly, especially when combined with the step up in competition.

10. SMU
New conference: AAC
Former conference: Conference USA
2012 record: 7-6 (5-3)
Returning starters: 9

SMU has been a competitive program over the past several years, but the jump combined with only nine returning starters has all the makings of a down year for the Mustangs in 2013. They've come a long way as a program to get back to respectability, but it may take a year or two for them to get up to speed in the AAC.

11. Memphis
New conference: AAC
Former conference: Conference USA
2012 record: 4-8 (4-4)
Returning starters: 13

Memphis went 4-8 last year, which is more wins than it had in 2011 and 2010 combined. The program seems to be tracking in the right direction under Justin Fuente, but the Tigers aren't ready to make a big leap at this point.

12. Texas State
New conference: Sun Belt
Former conference: WAC
2012 record: 4-8 (2-4)
Returning starters: 13
Bill C. preview

The good news is that due to only playing a six-game conference schedule in the WAC last year, Texas State's schedule will probably be easier this year without Utah State and San Jose State and non-conference games against Texas Tech, Houston, and Nevada. There will be bumps in the road, but the Bobcats look like they have something cooking in San Marcos.

13. UT-San Antonio
New conference: Conference USA
Former conference: WAC
2012 record: 8-4 (3-3)
Returning starters: 19
Bill C. preview

UTSA is a difficult team to figure out. The Roadrunners have only played 22 games in program history, but did win eight last year (against an easy WAC schedule and non-conference games against two Division II schools). There are a ton of returning players for Larry Coker to work with, but this team probably won't be ready for the weekly grind it'll see in Conference USA.

14. Florida Atlantic
New conference: Conference USA
Former conference: Sun Belt
2012 record: 3-9 (2-6)
Returning starters: 12
Bill C. preview

The Owls weren't very good last year, but did start to show signs of life down the stretch. FAU probably won't be very good in 2013 either, but there are at least some potential to get moderately excited about. At the very least, they appear to be in a better position than their in-state rivals, FIU.

15. Florida International
New conference: Conference USA
Former conference: Sun Belt
2012 record: 3-9 (2-6)
Returning starters: 8
Bill C. preview

FIU is a mess. It hired Ron Turner after an unceremonious divorce from program architect Mario Cristobal, and has only eight starters coming back in 2013. There aren't a lot of sources of optimism around the program at the moment, and it's difficult to predict an improved record this year.

16. Georgia State
New conference: Sun Belt
Former conference: CAA (FCS)
2012 record: 1-10 (1-7)
Returning starters: 14
Bill C. preview

The Panthers will be really bad this year. Really bad. 2013 is Georgia State's first year competing as an FBS program, and they weren't even a good FCS team before making the jump. The program is still in its infancy, but the Panthers simply aren't ready to compete every week against a Sun Belt schedule. 2013 will be Trent Miles' first in charge in Atlanta, and he has a big job on his hands. Oh, and they have to play Alabama.

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