Following the trends: Predicting college football conference, national champions

Hate preseason national and conference polls? Don’t worry, we have you covered. 

Yes, we here at CBS Sports have our CBS Sports 130, which only adds to the preseason polls released by the Associated Press and USA Today. But these are polls clearly designed for fun and debate. They’re a way to pass the time before the real games get going. They’re harmless. Don’t get too worked up over them. Besides, we won’t know much about each team until we get to about mid-October. 

However, if you want preseason projections without the offseason hype, allow us to project each Power Five conference champion, plus this season’s national champion, based on past trends. To be clear, these aren’t projections based on last year’s results. Every team, no matter its returning roster, is different from year to year. Rather, we’re looking at themes across each conference from the past five seasons (2012-16) to determine what’s important in winning titles. For some conferences, explosive offenses rule the day. For others, stout defensive lines are the key. While certain stats are always important, no two conferences are exactly the same. 

As a bonus, we’re revisiting last year’s predictions to see if they held up. If not, we looked at different numbers to find a new trend. Before starting, there are two things to keep in mind … 

No. 1 — Variety is not the spice of life: There are 64 Power Five programs. Over the past five years, only 15 different programs have won at least a share of a conference championship. That’s roughly 23 percent. Seven of those programs were multiple conference title winners. 

Additionally, of the four power conferences with divisions, three — the ACC, Pac-12 and SEC — have produced a title winner from just one division. The exception is the Big Ten, and that’s not even a great example because the divisions were realigned in 2014. In the ACC, it has been a two-team race with
Clemson Tigers
Florida State Seminoles

What I’m trying to say is don’t expect a ton of variation here. 

No. 2 — As such, preseason predictions usually aren’t that far off: It’s not as accurate to say media predictions get it wrong so much as they come close. For example: ACC media predicted Clemson would win the ACC in 2013. The Tigers finished second in the Atlantic Division while Florida State, picked to finish second in the Atlantic, won it all. In the Big Ten,
Ohio State Buckeyes
has understandably been the preseason favorite in three of the past five years. Twice the Buckeyes lost the tiebreaker in the East Division. In 2013, they lost in the Big Ten title game.

There are occasional breakthroughs, sure.
Penn State Nittany Lions
was a surprise team last season. So was
Auburn Tigers
four years ago. And of the five power conferences, the Big 12 has had the most variance by our sample size. If anything, conference predictions are more like a game of horseshoes. 

With those in mind, here’s how each Power Five conference has played out over the past five seasons versus media predictions along with their primary trends. 


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