The American Athletic Conference – which wishes to be referred to as “The American” – begins its initial season after collecting schools from the former Big East and from Conference USA as well.

Team That Could Surprise: Central Florida. This is the unknown team in The American, given that the teams expected to finish in the top three – Louisville, Cincinnati and Rutgers – were all members of the Big East last season. Central Florida is the leading contender in The American among the Conference USA refugees. For that reason alone, there’s an extra measure of mystery attached to the Golden Knights. This team could fall flat on its face, but it did quite well in Conference USA and has established a subculture of winning. Veteran head coach George O’Leary knows what he’s doing, and if this team starts well, it could continue to gain momentum as the season progresses.

The Best NFL Prospect In The Conference Is…: Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville.

Bridgewater is not tall in physical stature, but he’s tall in so many other ways – as a leader, a thrower, a well-rounded player, and most centrally, as a winner. Bridgewater was such a rough and unpolished gem as a freshman, but he put together many of the pieces to the puzzle in his sophomore season. He battled injuries but generally stayed the course and learned how to play quarterback in full. Under the guidance of head coach Charlie Strong, Bridgewater has kept a level head and has steadily absorbed the nuances of the sport, looking more and more like a top quarterback prospect with each passing day (the word “passing” being both literally and figuratively true for a signal caller).

Bridgewater exhibits great command of Louisville’s offense. He can make all the throws one needs to make at the pro level, chiefly, the long 15-yard out pattern across the field to the opposite sideline. Bridgewater’s combination of a rifle arm and above-average speed will elicit some comparisons to Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks. Bridgewater isn’t nearly as physically imposing as Wilson – he’s not nearly as chiseled – but he possesses the quickness, the instincts, and – at this point – the leadership ability. It’s no wonder that Louisville is the favorite in the conference, given Bridgewater’s full toolbox of weapons.

Team That Will Win: Louisville.

The Cardinals struggled for portions of last season, and they very nearly fell behind Rutgers by an insurmountable margin in the Big East regular season finale. However, a Rutgers penalty wiped out a big play, and Louisville was able to hang in that game by a thread. The Cardinals, given new life, scrambled to win that game in the fourth quarter despite dealing with multiple injuries. In the month that followed, Louisville got healthy, and the nation saw what a fully healthy Cardinal crew could do when it not only defeated, but demolished, a powerful Florida side in the 2013 Sugar Bowl. This team now knows how far it can go. It knows that it’s the big boy on the block. It has more experience and depth on its roster than it did a year ago. Head coach Charlie Strong is a star in the making. Bridgewater is the real-deal quarterback. The rest of The American is just not that strong this season. It’s Louisville’s conference to lose.

American Athletic Champion (odds from 5Dimes)

Louisville -180

Cincinnati +440

Rutgers +600

Central Florida +825

SMU +2700

Connecticut +3500

South Florida +3500

Houston +5500

Memphis +7500

Temple +9000

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The Big Ten Conference is likely to have a 1970s flavor this season. Michigan and Ohio State are expected to lord themselves over the rest of the conference, though surprises could still emerge.

Team That Could Surprise: Northwestern.

The Wildcats won the second bowl game in the history of the program this past January, beating Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl. That’s nice, but the win over a relatively mediocre opponent only underscored how little success Northwestern has tasted over the years. The Wildcats briefly flourished in the mid-1990s, making the Rose Bowl and then the Citrus (now Capital One) Bowl in consecutive seasons, but only now has the program begun to emerge as a regular bowl team. Nevertheless, Northwestern generally doesn’t win championships. Two Rose Bowl appearances in the history of the program do not represent a glowing track record, to say the least. National expectations for this team will be measured, even though people in and around the program are very excited about the level of recruiting being done by head coach Pat Fitzgerald and his staff. Northwestern is a team that will have to do much to transform its reputation, but if the Wildcats’ secondary and pass rush can improve this season, a darkhorse run to the Big Ten Championship Game is hardly out of the question. Nebraska and Wisconsin will be seen as primary contenders in each of the two Big Ten divisions, but Northwestern is the wild card, a team that could either surge or plummet in 2013.

The Best NFL Prospect In The Conference Is…: Taylor Lewan, Michigan.

The player who will get the most preseason publicity in the Big Ten is Braxton Miller, the flashy and immensely entertaining quarterback for the Ohio State Buckeyes. Miller will dazzle people with his running ability, but in terms of an NFL future, no one’s outlook is brighter than Lewan’s. This offensive tackle contained South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney for much of the 2013 Outback Bowl against South Carolina. His decision to stay at Michigan for his senior year was something of a shock. He could have begun to cash a nice paycheck on Sundays. Instead, Lewan will anchor the Wolverines’ offensive line and give the Maize and Blue a genuine chance to win the Big Ten this season. Lewan is a central reason Michigan should rightly be seen as the favorite in the Legends Division, with Ohio State being the obvious choice in the Leaders Division.

Team That Will Win: Ohio State.

The weight of Urban Meyer’s reputation and the quality of his recruiting won’t lie: The Buckeyes have the best and deepest team in the conference. Michigan should face Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game, but the Wolverines do not yet have the proven passing game that can make the Buckeyes’ defense look silly. Braxton Miller is the best playmaker in the conference, and that’s likely to make the difference for Ohio State this season.

Big Ten Champion (odds from 5Dimes)

Ohio State -115

Michigan +520

Nebraska +750

Michigan State +800

Northwestern +900

Wisconsin +1000

Indiana +5000

Iowa +5000

Minnesota +8500

Purdue +10000

Illinois +20000

(Penn State is ineligible for postseason play and the league championship)

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The Big 12 Conference is remarkably wide open this season, creating a world of possibility for bettors and a world of opportunity for the teams in the league. Anything really can happen this season.

Team That Could Surprise: Baylor

The Bears won the Southwest Conference in 1980 and earned a berth in the 1981 Cotton Bowl against Alabama. That’s the last time Baylor played in a prestigious January bowl game. This program fell on hard times from the mid-1990s through the first decade of the new century, but the arrival of two people, head coach Art Briles and a quarterback named Robert Griffin III, transformed the program. Baylor is now a regular bowl team, and it thumped UCLA in the Holiday Bowl last December. This season, Baylor isn’t expected to win the Big 12, but with no single team in the conference owning a particularly airtight profile – there are glaring deficiencies on every roster – the Bears have a chance to make a darkhorse run at the championship. Oklahoma State is the slight favorite, but Oklahoma and Texas are not what they used to be. If Baylor slips in the back door and wins the Big 12, don’t be overly shocked.

The Best NFL Prospect In The Conference Is…: Cyril Richardson, Baylor.

The quarterbacks and running backs get the attention during the regular season, but on draft day, offensive linemen snag a lot of the top draft spots, as you saw this past spring with Eric Fisher of the Kansas City Chiefs and Luke Joeckel of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Richardson is a beefy yet agile interior lineman whose lateral movement, combined with his size, makes him an integral part of Baylor’s offense. If the Bears flourish this season, you know that Richardson will be substantially responsible for his team’s success. He’ll then cash a very large paycheck in 2014 in the NFL.

Team That Will Win: Oklahoma State.

The Cowboys aren’t miles ahead of every other team in the Big 12, but they get most of the tougher teams in the conference at home. TCU, Baylor and Oklahoma must all go to Stillwater, Okla., to face the Pokes. That kind of detail matters in a close and contentious league race. If you had to pick one team today, not knowing how September will unfold and create the framework for the bulk of the conference season, Oklahoma State would be the best and most sensible choice. TCU’s run of injuries and departures really makes it hard to choose the Horned Frogs at this point. Oklahoma just doesn’t have the imposing defensive linemen and linebackers it used to own. Texas still faces some glaring issues at quarterback and on the offensive line, with its linebackers needing some work as well. Baylor doesn’t play defense. Oklahoma State has to like its position at the moment.

Big 12 Champion (odds from 5Dimes)
Oklahoma State +260
Texas +295
Oklahoma +390
TCU +395
Baylor +1500
Kansas State +1600
Texas Tech +2500
West Virginia +2500
Iowa State +4500
Kansas +10000

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The Atlantic Coast Conference welcomes two new teams into the fold this season, as Pittsburgh joins the Coastal Division while Syracuse joins the Atlantic. How will the competitive balance change?

Team That Could Surprise: North Carolina.

The Miami Hurricanes are seen as the favorite in the Coastal Division, with Virginia Tech being many experts’ selection as the second choice. Why can’t North Carolina grab the Coastal crown? The Tar Heels made forward strides last year in the first season of head coach Larry Fedora. The Tar Heels are going to attack opposing defenses with their vertical passing game, and it’s the aggression of their offense that will make the Heels hard to contend with in the Coastal. As was the case in 2012, the Coastal Division is likely to be a clogged, jumbled, confusing, and ultimately tight race from start to finish. If pundits think there’s a clear line of separation between Miami and Virginia Tech in the top tier, and then North Carolina and Georgia Tech in the middle tier (with Pittsburgh, Virginia and Duke in the bottom tier), they might be segmenting the Coastal into too many sections. This is much more a division in which there’s a top half (Miami, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, and North Carolina) and a bottom half (Pitt, Virginia, Duke). North Carolina could very easily win the Coastal. Don’t be shocked if it happens.

The Best NFL Prospect In The Conference Is…: Sammy Watkins, Clemson.

The wide receiver and part-time kick returner is a lethal playmaker, the kind of force that leaves an unmistakable imprint upon a game, an opposing team, and opposing defensive (and special teams) coordinators. Watkins’ speed is as good as you’ll see from a skill-position player in college football this season. His knack for making people miss is certainly up to NFL standards. His hands are reliable, so as long as he gets open, he should be able to finish plays. Watkins is going to draw double-team coverage from opposing coordinators and defenders, so his numbers might not shoot through the roof. Nevertheless, by drawing two bodies on many plays, Watkins will create opportunities for his teammates. If “the other guys” on Clemson’s offense fulfill their part of the bargain, the Tigers will most likely beat Florida State in the ACC regular season game of the year and win back the conference title the Seminoles took from them last season. Tajh Boyd has become a fine quarterback at Clemson, but Watkins is better as a receiver than Boyd is as a signal caller.

Team That Will Win: Clemson.

The ACC champion should emerge from the winner of the Florida State-Clemson game. The Seminoles won last season, but the Tigers now host this game in 2013. Home-field advantage plus experience at the quarterback spot should carry the Tigers to first place in the Atlantic. Clemson will then beat North Carolina in the ACC Championship Game.

ACC Champion (odds from 5Dimes)
Clemson +235
Florida State +240
Miami +575
Virginia Tech +775
North Carolina +850
Georgia Tech +1050
Pittsburgh +3500
Virginia +3800
Syracuse +6500
Maryland +6700
N.C. State +7000
Boston College +8500
Duke +12500
Wake Forest +15000

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By Ray Monohan

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