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2011 College Football Predictions: Picking The Conference Champions

AlabamaHoly crap…it’s game week. No seriously…. IT’S GAME WEEEEEEEK!

Ok, so maybe I’m getting a little too excited here, but for the most part, I feel like that’s the sentiment of college football fans everywhere right now. Across the country, people are waking up, rubbing their eyes and maybe even electing to put on pants, all with the same thought, “College football games are actually being played this Saturday.” Strike up the band, grill some brats and ignore your wife: It’s game week, bayyyybe!”

Before we talk too much pigskin though, let’s first discuss a few quick announcements around these parts. Let’s begin with this week’s schedule at Aaron Torres Sports, because it’s jam packed. Today, I’ll be sharing my picks to win each individual BCS conference (as seen below), Wednesday I’ll be choosing my National Champion (I doubt it’s who you expect it to be), and on Friday I’ll have my first College Football Weekend Preview column. Not to mention that I’ve got two killer podcasts lined up for this week. The one which I hope will be posted on Tuesday will absolutely blow your mind. Seriously, I’m salivating just thinking about it.

Also, I made one big announcement yesterday, but I want to repeat it: Over the past two years, so many of you have given such great comments on my college football weekend preview columns, that I wanted to open up the floor to you, to share your thoughts, and get them posted here. That’s why, along with my own picks, I’ve created something called, “The Fan’s Take.” As I mentioned yesterday, for anyone who has any opinions, insights or thoughts about the weekend’s games, your more than welcome to send them in, and I will publish them alongside my own picks every Friday. It should be a lot of fun, and I’m excited to see how it turns out. For all the details, please click here.

Anyway, there’s a lot of football to be discussed this week, and quite frankly, not a ton of time to talk about it.

So let’s start today with the conference championship picks!

 

ACC Atlantic: Read this website enough, and you know that I like Florida State…a lot. I like them the way Tiger Woods likes blondes. The way that John Brantley likes taking sacks. The way that Darron Thomas likes falling asleep in weird places. The way…well, you get the point.

 

Of course this is where you probably say, “Aaron, I get it, Florida State is good. But isn’t the preseason hype just a wee bit unjustified? I mean it’s been five years since the Seminoles won a conference crown, and even that year they weren’t that good. Can everyone pump the breaks just a little?”

To a degree, you’re right.

But the way I see it is this: In college football, it’s pretty clear when a team is on an upward trajectory. You can almost feel it in the air, the same way you can feel the change of season in the air every summer to fall. And right now, that change is happening in a few places. It’s happening at Tennessee as we speak, and the same at Washington, South Florida, Syracuse. Those programs might not be totally there yet, but they’re definitely on their way.

And it’s the same at Florida State; I see no reason to believe the Seminoles aren’t trending upward. Jimbo Fisher is a brilliant recruiter off the field, and on it, an excellent tactician on offense. On the other side of the ball, Mark Stoops brought some swagger back to this defense last year. And really, the Seminoles biggest concern, quarterback, really isn’t all that concerning to me. E.J. Manuel doesn’t have a ton of game experience, but has actually played more “big,” snaps than just about any other quarterback in college football. He started last year’s ACC Championship Game, the Gator Bowl the year before, and in a rivalry game at Florida in 2009 too. Manuel also played almost every snap in Florida State’s upset of South Carolina in last year’s Chick-Fil-A Bowl.

And that doesn’t even take into consideration the Seminoles schedule. They don’t play Virginia Tech or North Carolina during the regular season, and get Maryland and NC State (their two biggest competitors in the Atlantic) at home. Their two key in-state rivals Miami and Florida are rebuilding under first year head coaches.

The stars are aligning for something special in Tallahassee.

ACC Coastal: For all the reasons I like FSU, I’m not nearly as confident in Virginia Tech. They lost a ton of talent at the wrong spots, and I’m not quite sure who’ll replace them. And while the easy response would be, “Tech always figures out a way to replace guys,” I’m not so sure it’s quite that simply. Just ask Texas or Florida how the same logic worked out for them last year.

But with that, let’s look at the schedule, because I’ve got to ask this: What kind of lovely gift basket did Frank Beamer send the good folks at the ACC offices? Because whatever it is, apparently, it worked (Not to mention that I want to use the same next time I argue with my girlfriend).

Go ahead and look closely at Tech’s schedule. Of their conference games, they might not play a single team that goes to a bowl game on the road (their four road ACC games: At Wake Forest, Duke, Georgia Tech and Virginia). They also get Coastal Division rivals Miami and North Carolina at home, and avoid Maryland, NC State and Florida State out of the Atlantic. It’s a gift from the scheduling Gods so nice, it probably came pre-packaged in bubble wrap.

Forget any questions you might have about Tech’s talent on the field. They’ll win this division thanks to the good folks in the ACC Conference office.

ACC Champions: After playing bridesmaid to Virginia Tech last year, 2011 is officially the Seminoles time. They have more talent, are (in my opinion) better coached, and have to be more hungry overall, right? This group of guys- three straight highly ranked recruiting classes- didn’t come to Florida State to play second fiddle to anyone. They came to compete for conference championships, and maybe in time, National Championships too.

Whether the latter comes eventually, we will see. But an ACC Championship is in the cards…now.

Big East: Ever since the day that Bill Stewart resigned and the dark cloud was lifted over the West Virginia program, I’ve been arguing the merits of this team as the heavy favorite in the Big East. Nothing has changed since, and if anything, I see no reason the Mountaineers can’t go 10-2 or 11-1 this year.

Sure Dana Holgorsen might be a bit crazy, but the man is a genius…and as they say, aren’t all geniuses a little bit crazy? Still, he understands football better than just about anyone, and knows how to teach it to young kids. Don’t forget that when Case Keenum put up crazy Heisman-ish numbers two years ago, it was with Holgorsen as his offensive coordinator. Same with Brandon Weeden last year. And guess what? For all the numbers his quarterbacks have put up, Holgorsen has never worked with anyone with the natural skills Geno Smith has. Those two could be on their way to some beautiful music this season.

Then there’s the defense. Jeff Casteel has the 3-3-5 down to a science, and always seems capable of plugging in the next guy, when the last one leaves. No, the Mountaineers won’t be as good as last year when they had the country’s No. 2 ranked defense. But they will be better than you think though.

As for the rest of the Big East, you know I like where they’re headed “big picture.” From what I can tell, outside of West Virginia, no less than half the conference has had major coaching upgrades within the last three years (By my count that’s Syracuse, Louisville, South Florida and Pitt), not to mention that TCU is on its way next year.

The problem is, that while all those are on their way, none of them are “there,” yet. South Florida is the closest, but I think that even they need a year to catch up to the Mountaineers.

Only West Virginia has arrived. And I think they cruise to a conference title because of it.

Big Ten East: (Note: As I’ve mentioned many times, here at Aaron Torres Sports, we refuse to call the Big Ten divisions by the “L words,” designated by Jim Delany’s offices. Instead, we’ve designated the conference divisions as “East,” and “West.” If you don’t like it, too bad.

Now, back to your regularly scheduled preview)

The most disappointing thing about year one of the 12 team Big Ten, is that in my opinion, the two best teams in this league are in the East Division. Give me Ohio State and Wisconsin over everyone else in the league, and give them to me by a large gap.

First, let’s talk Ohio State, which won’t be nearly as bad as most people expect. At the same time, I still can’t pick them in this division thanks in large part to the coaching change, thanks in larger part to the real possibility that a true freshman will be starting at quarterback and most importantly thanks to an entirely new defense. Looking over Ohio State’s two-deep the other night made me feel like an elementary school teacher looking over her class roster on the first day of school. Essentially, I said to myself, “Who the heck are these kids?”

Therefore, to me, Wisconsin is the pick. I wasn’t sold on the marriage between Russell Wilson and the Badgers at first, but after reading reports from fall camp, he seems to be fitting in at Wisconsin about as well Charlie Sheen at an AA meeting. Seriously, I wouldn’t even be surprised if a video surfaced on YouTube within the next week of Wilson leading a sing-along in the locker room. His teammates truly seem to adore him.

Add Wilson to an already explosive running attack, and Wisconsin is the pick to me.

Big Ten West: Looking at this realistically, I’ve got to say, I think Nebraska might be the most overrated team in all of college football. Honestly, they’re the Blue Moon beer of sports…essentially, I just don’t see what all the fuss is about. Entering a tougher conference than the one they played in last year, with a killer schedule, and a quarterback so frail he’s practically made of paper mache, why am I supposed to believe this team is going to walk into the Big Ten and dominate again? Please, by all means tell me if I’m missing something. I just don’t think I am.

The other two other favorites in this division are in similarly tough predicaments. I like Michigan State some, but it’s tough to get too excited with the Spartans schedule. The additions alone of Nebraska and Ohio State make it next to impossible to see Michigan State coming close to their 11 regular season wins a year ago (And that’s before you consider that just about every bounce went the Spartans way last year). Iowa will likely be better than people expect, but it seems like they’ve lost just a bit too much on defense to be taken as a serious contender.

So with that, my pick in the West Division is…Northwestern.

No, I’m being serious.

The Wildcats have the most manageable schedule of the contenders, without Ohio State or Wisconsin, and with Penn State and Michigan State at home. They’ll get Michigan early, before the Wolverines totally figure things out under Brady Hoke and even though they travel to Iowa, Northwestern won at Kinnick back in 2009. While Northwestern probably won’t be favored in that game, an upset there would surprise no one (Sadly, least of all, Iowa fans). Just about the only game that looks like a surefire loss is a visit to Lincoln to play Nebraska.

Pat Fitzgerald has been one of the most underrated coaches in college football for years.

In 2011 he’ll show everyone what they’ve been missing….

Big Ten Champs: At least until Northwestern plays Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game.

You do remember what happened when Wisconsin played the Wildcats last year, right?

The Badgers will go to their second straight Rose Bowl.

Big XII: Clearly what this conference comes down to is essentially, “Oklahoma and everyone else.”

Sure Texas A&M has the talent to beat anyone on any given day, and sure, there’s not much reason to think they can’t improve on their nine wins last year. At the same time, they have to come to Norman this year, and given that they upset the Sooners at Kyle Field last season, I expect Oklahoma will show up looking for blood in that one.

The other contender in this conference is of course Oklahoma State, but honestly…. I just don’t see it with the Pokes. It really feels like last year was just one of those seasons where all the stars aligned, a once-in-a-generation coordinator showed up, a favorable schedule fell into their lap and Oklahoma State struck lightning in a bottle. With trips to Missouri, Texas and Texas A&M this year, and a visit from the Sooners, it’s looking like State falls back to the 9-3 range, especially if Weeden proves to be a product of Holgorsen’s system. Just about the only category I expect Weeden to rank in the Top 10 in the country is, “Total number of broken hips from falling in the shower” (Get it, it’s an old people joke! Ok, so maybe it wasn’t that funny). As for the Heisman, or even All-Big XII teams, I’ll take Landry Jones and Ryan Tannehill thank you very much.

Finally, there’s Oklahoma.

Yes their defense took a hit with Travis Lewis’ injury, but if he heels on time, Lewis won’t miss the Sooners most important conference games against A&M or Oklahoma State. There’s also a possibility that he’ll be back in time for October 8, when the Sooners take on Texas at the Fairgrounds.

And even without him the question has to be asked: With the way Oklahoma’s offense puts up points, will anybody be able to keep up anyway?

The answer is, “Probably not.”

Pac-12 North: Despite all the off-season drama, the pick here remains Oregon. The Ducks get most of their big games at home (Cal, Arizona State, USC, Oregon State), and their toughest road test isn’t going to be nearly as tough as most expect it to be. Yes Stanford will be good, and no a trip to the Farm won’t be easy. At the same time, it’s hard to see Stanford being as good as they were last year, not to mention that Stanford Stadium isn’t exactly one of college football’s tougher venues to play in. Quite frankly, it barely ranks in the top half of the Pac-12 alone (For a big game, I’d personally rank Autzen, Husky Stadium, Sun Devil Stadium, Folsom Field and the Coliseum all ahead of it. Memorial Stadium- when it’s open- is probably better too).

The Ducks should win another North title.

Pac-12 South: Now this my friends, is where it gets interesting.

I’ve argued all summer long that I believe USC to be the most talented team in the division, but since the Trojans can’t play in the Pac-12 title game, I’m obviously not picking them. Utah is obviously an intriguing selection, but I guess I’m still in the camp of, “Let’s see if they can do it week in and week out,” in a much tougher conference. Finally there’s UCLA, who I never really considered until Kirk Herbstreit shockingly picked them to win the South on College Gameday this weekend. Which makes me wonder: Does Herbie know something we don’t? Or has he just been enjoying a bit too much time in those Nashville country bars?

Either way, I’ll go ahead and take Team Vontaze, the Arizona Sun Devils. I’m not totally crazy about Dennis Erickson as a coach (although I met him once and he seemed like a nice enough guy), and I’m really not sold on their monstrous 6’8 quarterback Brock Osweiler. Still, the defense is going to be really good, and looking over the Sun Devils schedule, it’s easy to forget how close they were to pulling some MAJOR upsets last year. Did you know they lost to Stanford, Wisconsin and USC by a combined six points in 2010? No, seriously that happened. Not to mention that they went toe-to-toe, blow-for-blow with Oregon into the fourth quarter last year, before falling there too.

Give me Arizona State in the South.

Pac-12 Champs: Man, oh man do I want to take Arizona State here. Again, they played the Ducks tough last year, and should they go to Oregon for the Pac-12 Championship Game (held at the home field of the higher ranked team), they likely won’t be intimidated by Autzen Stadium. The Sun Devils play there in the regular season on October 15, meaning that any Autzen jitters should be a non-factor by December.

At the end of the day though, I just cannot bet against Oregon, especially at home. By that point in the year the offense should be humming, and with a Pac-12 title on the line, I can’t see them getting upset. Not on their home turf anyway.

Assuming this game is at Oregon, give me the Ducks to win. I fully expect Arizona State to keep things close for four quarters though.

SEC East: Finally, the SEC.

I’ve been saying for weeks to give me South Carolina’s talent, but Georgia’s schedule, and nothing has changed there. Did you know that of Georgia’s the six legitimately tough games on Georgia’s schedule, only one is on the road? They have to travel to Tennessee on October 8, but otherwise get South Carolina, Mississippi State and Auburn between the Hedges, with Florida and Boise State on neutral fields. Their only two remaining conference road games are at Vanderbilt and Ole Miss, and the Dawgs miss Alabama, Arkansas and LSU all together. That schedule isn’t exactly “easy,” but it couldn’t be much more manageable.

Simply put, it’s looking like “Atlanta or bust,” for Mark Richt and the Bulldogs. And with their schedule, it probably should be.

SEC West: Just when you were set to pick LSU to win this division, poor Les Miles’ program has self-imploded. Russell Shepard could be out for the foreseeable future, and even though Jordan Jefferson wasn’t the savior at quarterback, he had firmly established himself as the starter. Now the Tigers are forced to play Jarrett Lee roulette. Good luck with that Tigers fans.

And with things not any better at Arkansas (without Knile Davis), it seems like Alabama could be the last school standing. I wasn’t totally sold on the Tide as nearly as three weeks ago, if only because their quarterback situation was as unsettled as my stomach after I eat Taco bell for dinner. But the more that I look at the landscape around them, and the more that I look at their defense, the more that I realize it’s going to be next to impossible to beat the Tide pretty much anywhere. That defense in particular is terrifying, and just eyeballing it, there are no less than 7-8 players that could hypothetically end up on an All-American team at the end of the year.

SEC Champions: Georgia will be one of the better stories in college football, but Alabama is the better team. They’ll prove it, by getting back to Atlanta, and taking home the title.

But will they win the National Championship?

Come back to Aaron Torres Sports on Wednesday to find out!

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About Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres works for Fox Sports, and was previously a best-selling author of the book 'The Unlikeliest Champion.' He currently uses Aaron Torres Sports to occasionally weigh-in on the biggest stories from around sports. He has previously done work for such outlets as Sports Illustrated, SB Nation and Slam Magazine.

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