Are we here to judge conferences by their top teams, their overall depth, or some mix of both? Yes. Something like all of those things. Let's get to it.
10. Sun Belt
2014 lineup's FBS out-of-conference win percentage in 2013: .288*, if we include the entire schedules of Idaho and New Mexico State, as both Sun Belt rookies were independents in 2013. It's .433* if we exclude those two teams for some reason.
2014 lineup's average Football Outsiders F/+ ranking in 2013: 102.67 (doesn't include Appalachian State and Georgia Southern)
2014 lineup's average 247 Sports Composite recruiting ranking, last four classes: 108.23
America's second noblest weeknight football league is bringing aboard two of FCS' three greatest all-time programs. But it also absorbs the helpless Idaho and New Mexico State. And it loses Western Kentucky, one of its three teams to post winning records three years running.
Louisiana-Lafayette and Arkansas State, the other two, remain relatively sure things. The Cajuns return almost everyone from their third straight nine-win team and have set themselves up for a chance at the best season in school history. ASU faces overhaul under its fourth straight new head coach, former UNC offensive coordinator Blake Anderson. Elsewhere, ULM and South Alabama are the likeliest to challenge.
* Yes, these include Appalachian State's loss to Georgia and Georgia Southern's defeat of Florida. Bringing on two FCS teams improved the Sun Belt's record against other FBS conferences.
2014 lineup's FBS OOC win percentage in 2013: .223
2014 lineup's average F/+ ranking in 2013: 93.62
2014 lineup's average recruiting ranking, last four classes: 103.06
The good news: the MAC's conference realignment imperviousness bubble continues to hold.
The bad news: Northern Illinois quarterback and one-time Heisman finalist Jordan Lynch is gone, as is Dave Clawson, 2013 champion Bowling Green's head coach.
The good news: the Falcons return Matt Johnson, the country's fourth-best returning quarterback based on raw passer rating. He's also pairing with Dino Babers, an Art Briles protégé who took FCS Eastern Illinois from 2-9 to 12-2 in two years. It's a fit.
More good news: Ball State kept rising star head coach Pete Lembo for another year, NIU's only real concern is replacing its best player ever (no big deal!), Akron continues to quietly build, and Toledo and Ohio could bounce back. And then there's tiny Western Michigan, which could end up outrecruiting all of mid-majordom over the 2014-2015 span -- that won't impact this season, but keep an eye on the Broncos.
8. Conference USA
2014 lineup's FBS OOC win percentage in 2013: .294
2014 lineup's average F/+ ranking in 2013: 88.75 (doesn't include Old Dominion)
2014 lineup's average recruiting ranking, last four classes: 96.85
Surrendering its best program (East Carolina), a potential mid-major breakout (Tulane), and its 2012 champion (Tulsa) to the American, C-USA supplements by adding WKU and seeing Old Dominion's FBS transition complete. That's a downgrade.
Thus, all of C-USA's New Year's hopes lie with Military Bowl champion Marshall. Senior quarterback Rakeem Cato (10,176 career passing yards) and an experienced defense stare down maybe the country's weakest schedule (toughest road game, according to 2013 F/+: No. 110 Southern Miss). We don't often get to say, "10 wins would be a disappointment," about a mid-major team, but here we are.
After the Herd, defending champion Rice won't fall far, and both UTSA and Florida Atlantic look like programs on the rise. Middle Tennessee, North Texas, ODU, and WKU should also contend.
7. Mountain West
2014 lineup's FBS OOC win percentage in 2013: .318
2014 lineup's average F/+ ranking in 2013: 78.83
2014 lineup's average recruiting ranking, last four classes: 95.58
The team to beat in the MWC is Boise State. That's the default setting, but it's true, even with the Broncos losing head coach Chris Petersen to Washington after their first single-digit-win season since 2005. BSU might remain more intact on both sides of the ball than it's been in a couple years, and new boss Bryan Harsin is even more Boise than Petersen (now to see if he's near as good).
2013 champ Fresno State loses its star quarterback and receiver but returns most of everything else. Its bookend, Utah State, loses most of a defense that could've shut down most power-conference offenses, but returns its star quarterback, Chuckie Keeton.
San Diego State, UNLV, or even New Mexico might jump up and join the top ranks. And we'll have to see what to make of Wyoming in the first year of Craig Bohl, who just finished a 43-2 run at FCS North Dakota State.
2014 lineup's FBS OOC win percentage in 2013: .375
2014 lineup's average F/+ ranking in 2013: 72
2014 lineup's average recruiting ranking, last four classes: 72.84
The ruins of the Big East and Conference USA's hardiest evacuees combine to form the country's best little league, one with maybe four teams in the running for the token mid-major New Year's bowl spot.
Fiesta Bowl champ UCF replaces No. 3 NFL Draft pick Blake Bortles, but looks like the best-constructed non-power program (along with Boise State). Houston has fearless rising sophomore quarterback John O'Korn and Deontay Greenberry, one of the country's best receivers, along with an improving D. Cincinnati will threaten 10 wins, as always. And East Carolina might blow up the whole thing in its first year.
Tulane and USF are the long-term dark horses. Both are another year or two away, but they could become two of the undercard's most talented programs.
It's really hard to compare conferences with 14 teams to conferences with 10 teams. This tier is the only part you could just about re-shuffle however you see fit.
5. Big 12
2014 lineup's FBS OOC win percentage in 2013: .679
2014 lineup's average F/+ ranking in 2013: 43.6
2014 lineup's average recruiting ranking, last four classes: 36.5
Who's going to improve this year? Texas is the first name that comes to mind, but is Charlie Strong going to top 8-5 in his first year? TCU should have a little offense to pair with another great defense. West Virginia? Will Texas Tech have a defense now, despite losing a bunch of defenders?
The one thing we know: if Oklahoma's quarterback is the Trevor Knight who picked apart Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, then the Sooners are your Big 12 champs.
If he's not, they might still be. Kansas State has the conference's best coach (Bill Snyder) and player (wide receiverTyler Lockett) and should never be ignored. Baylor brings back quarterback Bryce Petty and should field another top-15 offense. But any other league champ would be a surprise. That also rules out 2012 winner Oklahoma State, which faces both massive turnover and NCAA practice time reductions.
One thing the Big 12 has working for it is its lack of dead weight, due in part to only having 10 schools. Its only truly bad program is Kansas (yes, I think Iowa State can make its fourth bowl in six years). No other conference can claim just one limp body.
4. Big Ten
2014 lineup's FBS OOC win percentage in 2013: .667
2014 lineup's average F/+ ranking in 2013: 50.71
2014 lineup's average recruiting ranking, last four classes: 40.45
Ohio State is your Big Ten favorite. But it's starting over at offensive line and has a quarterback, Braxton Miller, who already tends to take way too many hits. Michigan State and its suddenly competent offense is next up, but it has holes in its all-world defense. Wisconsin could have the nation's best ground game, but loses all of its best players elsewhere. Now what?
If there's no can't-miss elite team, the Big Ten could still improve. Michigan will be better, even if its new offense runs Pop Warner schemes. At least they'd be actual schemes. Iowa's a couple replacement linebackers from nine wins or more. Penn State is a terrifying spoiler. Minnesota and Indiana could break through. And if Nebraska goes 9-4 again, at least it will do so in meme-friendly fashion.
Also, newcomer Maryland can't possibly be as snake-bitten as it's been for the last year or so (the same goes for Northwestern). The Terps are talented enough to hang right away. We can't say the same for Rutgers, though.
2014 lineup's FBS OOC win percentage in 2013: .608
2014 lineup's average F/+ ranking in 2013: 46.5
2014 lineup's average recruiting ranking, last four classes: 40.66
Florida State's in this conference, so that's pretty good.
Will the ACC serve up its house specialty, the one or two good teams complemented by an ocean of seven-win teams? It will.
But most of the Atlantic should improve -- perhaps including Clemson, which loses Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins but could wind up with a top-five defense. And the Coastal could be the country's best standings race, but not because there are any great teams in it. It's just hard to pick out any bad ones. Besides Virginia (which would actually be decent if it could build a slightly below-average offense).
The reason to rank the ACC barely ahead of the Big Ten is as simple as the incoming Louisville being a Year 1 upgrade over the departing Maryland. Otherwise, each conference has a couple Playoff chances, another couple New Year's contenders, and a bulging middle class.
(And having the title belt, plus good odds of retaining it, has to count for something.)
2014 lineup's FBS OOC win percentage in 2013: .777
2014 lineup's average F/+ ranking in 2013: 34.5
2014 lineup's average recruiting ranking, last four classes: 35.79
Yep. According to the advanced stats, the Pac-12 was top-to-bottom the country's best conference in 2013. And it's loaded for 2014, with potential top-10 draft pick quarterbacks Marcus Mariota and Brett Hundley returning to Playoff possibilities Oregon and UCLA, great coaching fits at almost every school, and hordes of young talent.
Steve Sarkisian replaces the overwhelmed Lane Kiffin at USC. He also left the cupboard full at Washington for Petersen, long the white whale of coaching targets. Arizona State might win the whole conference. Arizona and Washington State are threatening. Stanford will take a step back on defense after four straight 11-win seasons, but it could make it up on special teams. And Oregon State is, as always, a little undervalued. We can say good things about almost everybody.
There are still bad teams here -- Cal was awful and somehow still had SEC-grade attrition, Colorado's got miles to go, and Utah has a lot to prove -- but you can put that top nine (and probably 10, counting the Utes) up against anybody's.
2014 lineup's FBS OOC win percentage in 2013: .788
2014 lineup's average F/+ ranking in 2013: 36.21
2014 lineup's average recruiting ranking, last four classes: 20.04
And sure, the gap might be closer than it's been in years. The SEC's proven quarterbacks are Auburn's Nick Marshall, Ole Miss' Bo Wallace, Mississippi State's Dak Prescott, and ... well, it's going to be a return to form for Southeastern defenses after last year's aerial* scoring heresies.
But Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, LSU, and South Carolina are all legit Playoff teams, giving the SEC at least one or two more than any other league.
Another small 2014 difference between the SEC and the Pac-12 is in the slums. Kentucky and Tennessee are crawling up to their knees, Florida should flip its 4-8 record to 8-4 or better, and conference runt MSU is poised for a top-25 season. We could see 12 of 14 SEC teams make bowls, with three or more in New Year's games.
* With Georgia's Todd Gurley, South Carolina's Mike Davis, LSU's Leonard Fournette, Arkansas' Alex Collins, and the Iron Bowl running backs around, the dang ball will still be run.
How are you ranking 'em?