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Other BCS conference projections

A look at the nation's other BCS conferences and top independents by McClatchy-Tribune and Rivals.com

ATLANTIC COAST

Virginia Tech left the Big East for the ACC in 2004 and replaced Florida State as the league's dominant program shortly thereafter.

FSU now seems eager to reclaim its former status as the conference heavyweight.

The players

Offensive MVP: Boston College RB Montel Harris. A former two-star prospect, Harris heads into his senior season with 3,600 career rushing yards to lead all active FBS players.

Defensive MVP: Boston College LB Luke Kuechly. Kuechly has delivered an astounding 341 tackles in his two-year career and leads all active FBS players with 13.1 tackles per game.

The coaches

On the hot seat: Clemson's Dabo Swinney. After Swinney led Clemson to an Atlantic Division title in his first full season on the job in 2009, the honeymoon ended last fall. Clemson dropped three of its last four games and finished 6-7, its first losing record since 1998.

Best staff: Virginia Tech. Jimbo Fisher's staff at Florida State has done just about everything right so far in his brief tenure, but we have to reward the group that already owns ACC championship rings. Frank Beamer has made Virginia Tech the premier program in the conference, and he has one of the nation's best defensive coordinators in Bud Foster.

Other stuff

Will surprise: Virginia Tech. Virginia Tech doesn't face Alabama, Boise State or any of the other non-conference heavyweights that have ended their national championship hopes in the past. If the defense rebounds from a disappointing season, this team could head into the ACC championship game undefeated.

Will disappoint: North Carolina State. The Wolfpack head into the season with plenty of momentum after going 9-4 and winning the Champs Sports Bowl last season. But they lose their best offensive player (QB Russell Wilson) and defensive player (LB Nate Irving), and they also are breaking in a new kicker and punter.

Big game: Oklahoma at Florida State, Sept. 17. Oklahoma trounced Florida State 47-17 last season in Norman. The annual early-season criticism of the ACC will continue if the league's preseason favorite gets blown out at home in this game. But if the Seminoles win, the ACC finally might again have a legitimate player in the national championship sweepstakes.

Predicted finish

Atlantic Division: 1. Florida State; 2. Clemson; 3. Boston College; 4. Maryland; 5. N.C. State; 6. Wake Forest.

Coastal Division: 1. Virginia Tech; 2. Miami; 3. North Carolina; 4. Georgia Tech; 5. Virginia; 6. Duke.

BIG EAST

This sums up the state of the Big East: Third-year Syracuse coach Doug Marrone is one of the league's elder statesmen.

This season brings new coaches at each of last season's tri-champs: Connecticut Paul Pasqualoni, Pittsburgh Todd Graham and West Virginia Dana Holgorsen. They join second-year coaches at Cincinnati, Louisville and South Florida.

The players

Offensive MVP: Connecticut LT Mike Ryan. Ryan is a left tackle with good size (6-5, 333), but he'll be put to the test this season blocking for an unproven backfield.

Defensive MVP: Pittsburgh DE Brandon Lindsey. The injury to Greg Romeus in the 2010 season-opener could have been debilitating to the Panthers' defense, but Lindsey became one of the best defensive players in the league. He finished with 10 sacks and will be an intriguing piece in Todd Graham's 3-4 defense.

The coaches

On the hot seat: Rutgers' Greg Schiano. Schiano is the only coach in the league with more than three seasons at his current stop, so that makes him the default pick in this category. Well, that and a 4-8 season in 2010 in which the Scarlet Knights ranked last in the league in total offense and total defense.

Best staff: Louisville. A year ago, Charlie Strong brought a long resume as a rock-star defensive coordinator to his first head-coaching job. The question was how he would fare as a head coach. There are no such questions anymore. Strong has Louisville thinking Big East titles again after a 7-6 season in which all but one of the Cardinals' losses was by eight or fewer points.

Other stuff

Will surprise: Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights were simply awful last season, especially in the second half of the season. Rutgers may not get to eight or nine wins, but the Scarlet Knights can't be as bad as they were last season.

Will disappoint: Louisville. Normally, a team that loses a handful of close games looks as if it's nearing a turnaround. For all the optimism surrounding Louisville, though, this season could be a transitional one. The Cardinals return just one starter on the offensive line, and their backfield presents questions.

Big game: Pittsburgh at West Virginia, Nov. 25. "The Backyard Brawl" always is on the short list of must-see games in the Big East, but this season's game will have even more of an edge. Once both schools sorted out their coaching situation, they ended up with coaches who aren't particularly fond of each other.

Predicted finish

1. West Virginia; 2. Pittsburgh; 3. South Florida; 4. Syracuse; 5. Louisville; 6. Rutgers; 7. Cincinnati; 8. Connecticut.

Big Ten

For the first time since Penn State was added in 1990, the Big Ten family has grown, by one, with Nebraska entering the fold.

The Huskers' arrival has led the Big Ten to split into two six-team divisions. The division winners meet in December at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis for the inaugural Big Ten champions hip game.

The players

Offensive MVP: Michigan QB Denard Robinson. The 2010 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, Robinson is the quintessential one-man gang, a guy who can score every time he touches the ball. He paced the Big Ten with 1,702 rushing yards an NCAA single-season record for a quarterback despite missing significant chunks of games with injuries.

Defensive MVP: Nebraska DT Jared Crick. Crick leads what is expected to be one of the nation's top defenses. He's stout against the run and also a pass-rush force.

The coaches

On the hot seat: Illinois' Ron Zook. In six seasons in Champaign, he has produced a 28-45 record with two bowls, including a Texas Bowl appearance last season. But Zook's long-term viability might be in peril because he has lost his biggest supporter in athletic director Ron Guenther, who retired.

Best staff: Iowa. It begins with Kirk Ferentz, who is the top coach in the league. Continuity is a major reason this staff is so strong. Offensive coordinator Ken O'Keefe and defensive coordinator Norm Parker have been by Ferentz's side since he arrived in Iowa City in 1999. And both are top-notch.

Other stuff

Will surprise: Michigan. Rich Rodriguez was inching closer to a breakthrough. Brady Hoke will do it. The roster has talent, especially on offense, and the defensive personnel is y oung and maturing. There's a standout coaching staff led by Al Borges (offensive coordinator) and Greg Mattison (defensive coordinator) to put everyone in place to succeed.

Will disappoint: Penn State. The Nittany Lions need to get better at running the ball and stopping the run. The offensive line and defensive front seven need to step up.

Big game: Nebraska at Wisconsin, Oct. 1. Welcome to the Big Ten, Huskers. This will be an epic Big Ten opener for both teams and a possible preview of the inaugural Big Ten championship game.

Projected finish

Leaders division: 1. Wisconsin; 2. Ohio State; 3. Penn State; 4. Illinois; 5. Purdue; 6. Indiana.

Legends Division

1. Nebraska; 2. Michigan State; 3. Michigan; 4. Iowa; 5. Northwestern; 6. Minnesota.

INDEPENDENTS

Once in-state rival Utah announced it was leaving the Mountain West Conference for the Pac-12, BYU also decided to exit the MWC — but it decided to leave conference play altogether. While t he Cougars will compete in the West Coast Conference in other sports, they will join Notre Dame, Navy and Army in going it alone for football.

The players

Offensive MVP: Notre Dame WR Michael Floyd. By the time he leaves Notre Dame, Floyd should have all the school's major receiving records.

Defensive MVP: Notre Dame LB Manti Te'o. This former five-star prospect is the biggest reason for the dramatic improvement of Notre Dame's defense. Te'o made 133 tackles, 42 more than any of his teammates last season, to lead a defense that allowed one touchdown in the last 15 quarters of the regular season.

The coaches

Best staff: Navy. Notre Dame's Brian Kelly earned a couple of BCS appearances with Cincinnati, which would make his staff seem like the obvious choice. But Ken Niumatalolo's Navy staff thoroughly outcoached Kelly and Co. in the Middies' 35-17 victory over the Irish last season.

Big game: Navy at Notre Dame, Oct. 29. Notre Dame has plenty of other games this season the prime-time games. But if the Irish want to prove once and for all that they've reasserted their status as a national power, they must beat the team they once dominated.

PAC-12

It has gotten ugly out West. Oregon is under scrutiny for its controversial relationship with Texas-based scout Will Lyles. USC RB Marc Tyler has been suspended for making inappropriate com ments to TMZ, comments that implied he played for pay. Stanford QB Andrew Luck grew a beard.

But there's a $2.7 billion TV deal (so not everything was ugly), two new members and three coaches (UCLA's Rick Neuheisel, Arizona State's Dennis Erickson and Washington State's Paul Wulff) in danger of going out if their teams don't win enough.

The players

Offensive MVP: Stanford QB Andrew Luck. He was the runner-up for the Heisman last season and is the favorite to win it this season. He has a great passing arm with good touch and the ability to read defenses. Last season, he passed 3,338 yards and 32 touchdowns with only eight interceptions while earning All-America recognition.

Defensive MVP: Arizona State LB Vontaze Burfict. He was heralded as a tremendous prospect and he hasn't disappointed. In fact, the only knock is that he draws too many penalties.

The coaches

On the hot seat: UCLA's Rick Neuheisel. So much more was expected from Neuheisel, who is 15-22 in three seasons. Neuheisel was supposed to get the Bruins' offense on track, but the line has been mediocre and quarterback play subpar.

Best staff: Oregon. Every year, the Ducks seem to have a strong offensive line under coach Steve Greatwood. Running backs coach Gary Campbell has tutored 14 1,000-yard rushers, Nick Aliotti always has a good def ense and secondary coach John Neal's group routinely is among the best in the country in interceptions.

Other stuff

Will surprise: Washington. The Huskies made their first bowl appearance in eight years last season, but without departed QB Jake Locker — a first-round NFL Draft choice — some might expect the Huskies will take a step back. Yet they could be contenders in the North Division race.

Will disappoint: Arizona. The Wildcats, who once went an entire decade between bowl appearances, have qualified for postseason play in each of the past three seasons. Making it fo ur in a row will be a tough task.

Big game: Oregon at Stanford, Nov. 12. This is a matchup of the conference's top two teams from last season and the top-rated teams in the North Division this year. A year ago, Stanford jumped out to a 21-3 lead before Oregon stormed back for a 52-31 victory.

Predicted finish

North Division: 1. Oregon; 2. Stanford; 3. Washington; 4. California; 5. Oregon State; 6. Washington State.

South Division: 1. USC; 2. Arizona State; 3. Utah; 4. Arizona; 5. UCLA; 6. Colorado.

SEC

Bad news for folks not associated with the SEC: There are two legit national title contenders in the league this season.

Auburn won the 2010 title, and the Tigers were the only one of the five straight SEC national titlists to open the season outside the top 10.

This season, the league's top two contenders, Alabama and LSU, are ranked second and fourth. In all, eight league teams are in the top 25.

The players

Offensive MVP: South Carolina WR Alshon Jeffery. Jeffery emerged as one of the nation's best wide receivers as a sophomore, catching 88 passes for 1,517 yards and nine TDs. While it's true he benefits from playing in the same offense as star TB Marcus Lattimore, Jeffery is hampered by not playing with a consistent quarterback.

Defensive MVP: Alabama SS Mark Barron is a big-play guy from his strong safety position. He is heading into his third season as a starter, and he led the Tide with 75 tackles last season. He also had three interceptions and six pass breakups.

The coaches

On the hot seat: Georgia's Mark Richt is coming off the first losing record of his tenure, and some of the natives are mighty restless. The Bulldogs have lost 12 games in the past two seasons. The SEC East looks as down as it has been since t he league went to the division format in 1992, and folks will know early if this Bulldogs team has what it takes to challenge for the division title.

Best staff: Alabama. Nick Saban may rub some people the wrong way, but the guy is a good coach and he has a great staff. Both his coordinators Jim McElwain on offense and Kirby Smart on defense are in line to be head coaches sooner rather than later.

Other stuff

Will surprise: Florida. If the Gators get competent quarterback play from John Brantley and that's a big if, considering his performance last season they will finish second in the East and contend for the division title.

Will disappoint: Auburn. "Disappoint" is a relative term. The Tigers won the national title last season, but won't get a sniff of the BCS this season because they lost too much talent.

Big game: LSU at Alabama, Nov. 5. The league's two best teams will slug it out in Tuscaloosa. This could be a defacto elimination game in the hunt for the national title.

Predicted finish

East Division: 1. South Carolina; 2. Florida; 3. Georgia; 4. Tennessee; 5, Kentucky; 6. Vanderbilt.

West Division

1. Alabama; 2. LSU; 3. Arkansas; 4. Auburn; 5. Mississippi State; 6. Mississippi.

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