Every College Football Conference Champion’s Journey from Preseason Futures to Title Game
Justin Berl/Getty Images. Pictured: Kenny Pickett.
The 2020 college football season was one of the craziest seasons at any level due to the evolving COVID-19 pandemic that left each conference scrambling before it even began.
It was a time of pandemonium highlighted by several conferences canceling its season before later restoring it. There were 139 games that were canceled or postponed, but college football powered through, ultimately seeing Alabama hoist the National Championship trophy after trouncing Ohio State.
The effects of that season carried over to 2021 as the NCAA allowed an extra year of eligibility to all players. That decision has had lingering effects that have shifted the landscape of college sports in ways that are still being determined.
But it’s proven that the decision leveled the playing field between some of the top programs and those in the middle of the pack.
Though only one game was canceled (and later made up) in the 2021 season, some may argue that this season has been just as crazy as last year due to the number of upsets that occurred.
Below is a post-mortem look at the preseason odds for each conference winner, as there were massive upsets that prevailed in several instances.
Had someone bet $100 on each of the winners preseason, they would have come away with a cool $50,005.
All preseason odds via BetMGM.
- Champion: Pitt Panthers (11-2, 7-1)
- Preseason Odds: +6600
- $100 bet wins $6,600
Dabo Swinney’s Clemson Tigers entered the season as gigantic favorites with -800 odds to win the ACC Championship. The torch was set to be passed from Trevor Lawrence to D.J. Uiagalelei, who was a highly-touted potential Heisman finalist.
But he was less than impressive, throwing just nine touchdowns to eight interceptions on the entire season as Clemson dropped three of its first seven games to start the season.
That opened the door for Pittsburgh, which dominated behind quarterback Kenny Pickett. Pickett threw 42 touchdowns while averaging over 330 passing yards per game.
The Panthers ran through the ACC relatively unscathed, as they outscored their conference opponents by an average margin of 16 points. Six of the program’s seven conference victories came by double digits.
- Champion: Michigan Wolverines (12-1, 8-1)
- Preseason Odds: +2500
- $100 bet wins $2,500
The Big Ten Championship race was filled with drama as it came down to the final week of the regular season. Michigan defeated Ohio State for the first time since 2011 to earn its bid to the conference title game.
Wisconsin fumbled its fate away after losing as seven-point favorites at home, which opened a spot for Iowa.
Unlike Baylor in the Big 12, Iowa squandered its good fortune as Michigan throttled it, 42-3, to secure its first Big Ten championship since 2004.
The Wolverines look to continue their trail of upsets after earning a spot in the College Football Playoff.
- Champion: Baylor Bears (11-2, 7-2)
- Preseason Odds: +5000
- $100 bet wins $5,000
Football is a game of inches. And mere inches decided the Big 12 Championship after the Baylor defense kept Oklahoma State from scoring the go-ahead touchdown in the final seconds.
BAYLOR STOPS OKLAHOMA STATE ON 4TH DOWN 😱 pic.twitter.com/9JlKW4ZLrv
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) December 4, 2021
Baylor was fortunate to sneak into the Big 12 Championship, needing to defeat Texas Tech and Oklahoma State to beat Oklahoma for the first time since 2015.
The stars aligned for the Bears, and they capitalized on their good fortune.
- Champion: Utah Utes (10-3, 8-1)
- Preseason Odds: +400
- $100 bet wins $400
The Pac-12 was wide open in the preseason with five teams having odds lower than +500. Among those teams were Washington, USC, and Oregon, who have all now moved on from their head coaches who started the season.
Utah opened the season 1-2 with road losses to BYU and San Diego State before it turned things around. The Utes ran through the Pac-12 competition, with their sole loss coming on the road to Oregon State. All nine of the team’s conference victories came by double digits.
They slammed the door shut against Oregon in back-to-back weeks, beating them by a combined score of 76-17 en route to Utah’s first-ever Pac-12 Championship.
- Champion: Alabama Crimson Tide (12-1, 7-1)
- Preseason Odds: -165
- $100 bet wins $60.61
It’s weird to think back to a time when Alabama was the favorite to win the SEC. Georgia took over as the team to beat in the Southeastern Conference after its manhandling of Clemson in the season opener.
Alabama was fortunate to even make it to the SEC Championship, needing four overtimes to defeat Auburn — without Bo Nix — in the Iron Bowl.
The Bulldogs and Tide played four common opponents in Florida, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Auburn. Georgia outscored those four by an average score of 37-6, while Alabama’s average margin of victory was 37-28.
Many power rankings, including Collin Wilson’s, still have Georgia as the top team in the nation.
But Alabama was the better team in the SEC Championship, and those who backed the Crimson Tide in the preseason are the ones cashing their tickets.
- Champion: Cincinnati Bearcats (13-0, 8-0)
- Preseason Odds: -225
- $100 bet wins $44.44
Cincinnati had the talent, experience, and most importantly, the schedule to make a deep run this season.
It capitalized on that schedule, defeating Indiana and fifth-ranked Notre Dame early in the season, which ramped up the buzz surrounding the program.
The Bearcats ran through league play, outscoring their opponents by an average mark of 40-17.
Winning back-to-back American Athletic Conference titles was a mere consolation prize for Cincinnati, which now has its sights set on a bigger goal: a National Championship.
- Champion: UTSA Roadrunners (12-1, 7-1)
- Preseason Odds: +300
- $100 bet wins $300
UTSA, Marshall, and UAB all shared the preseason favorite role at +300, but it was the Roadrunners who emerged from the group after winning their first 11 games of the season.
Western Kentucky turned its season around by winning its final seven games after starting 1-4. The Hilltoppers owned one of the most electric offenses in the nation behind quarterback Bailey Zappe.
But the Roadrunners outlasted Western Kentucky’s offense, ultimately prevailing, 49-41, in the Conference USA Championship.
- Champion: Northern Illinois Huskies (9-4, 6-2)
- Preseason Odds: +25000
- $100 bet wins $25,000
It’s better to be lucky than good sometimes, and Northern Illinois has pinned its championship run to that very phrase.
After going winless (0-6) in the shortened 2020 season, the Huskies capitalized on some good breaks on their run to the conference championship.
The program was outscored in overall points on the season, scoring 410 while allowing 425. The Huskies leaned on a dominant rushing attack and timely bounces that seemed to always go their way.
I stand corrected, this is Northern Illinois 2021 season in one playpic.twitter.com/ISKcRLGdnr
— Collin Wilson (@_Collin1) November 18, 2021
Northern Illinois enjoyed the greatest turnaround of any team in the nation, though it still ranks outside the top 100 in most power ratings. Having a team from MACtion winning the conference as a 250-1 longshot is the cherry on top of the 2021 college football season.
- Champion: Utah State Aggies (10-3, 6-2)
- Preseason Odds: +10000
- $100 bet wins $10,000
Utah State’s conference championship hits home for me. I was on Utah State over 3.5 regular-season wins in the summer, but never once did I think it could pull off the improbable and win the Mountain West title.
Utah State went 1-5 and was outscored by an average of 20 points in 2020.
Blake Anderson returned to the program from Arkansas State and brought along his top talent, including quarterback Logan Bonner. He turned things around in the offseason and looks to be replenishing the lasting culture that was once in Logan.
The Aggies won five of their seven games outright as underdogs this season, including the season opener against Washington State as 17-point underdogs.
- Champion: Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns (12-1, 8-0)
- Preseason Odds: +100
- $100 bet wins $100
The Sun Belt Championship field was a three-horse race throughout the entire season between Coastal Carolina, Appalachian State, and Louisiana.
The Ragin Cajuns never had much competition in Group B of the Sun Belt, while Coastal squandered a lead down the stretch, leaving App State to emerge from Group A.
The Ragin Cajuns came out victorious, 24-16, in the Sun Belt Championship. The group sent head coach Billy Napier out to Florida on a high note and was one of the three preseason favorites to cash in.