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Roundtable: How many playoff contenders in each conference?

In six short months, the stretch run of college football begins, with the final two weeks of the regular season sure to shape the playoff pairings and races for major awards. This week, we’re looking forward to late 2016, when the Power 5 conferences jockey for postseason position.

On Thursday, we answered the question of which coach needs to get off to a fast start. Today, we’ll examine how many College Football Playoff contenders are in each conference.

ACC

For the first time, the ACC has multiple playoff contenders headed into the season: Clemson and Florida State. Their emergence has begun to change the narrative about ACC football, which has muscled its way into the national conversation over the past three seasons. So far, the league is 2-for-2 in getting teams into the College Football Playoff. (It also has the last BCS champion.) Whether it goes 3-for-3 largely depends on its two best teams: The Tigers hope to get back into the playoff for a second straight season behind Deshaun Watson and seven other returning starters on offense; Florida State hopes to take down the Tigers behind Dalvin Cook and a stout defensive front. They meet Oct. 29 in Tallahassee, Florida. The winner has the inside track, though it probably has to end up undefeated to assure its playoff spot. -- Andrea Adelson

Big 12

Despite Oklahoma entering the season as the clear favorite to win the Big 12 and the No. 3 team in ESPN’s preseason FPI projections, the conference features several teams that could fight their way into the College Football Playoff. Oklahoma State returns an experienced team and an offense that could be explosive with quarterback Mason Rudolph and receiver James Washington forming one of the Big 12’s top duos. Baylor looks like it has reloaded, making the sky the limit with healthy quarterbacks Seth Russell and Jarrett Stidham returning to run the offense. And TCU, despite losing game-changing quarterback Trevone Boykin, could feature the Big 12’s top defense and loads of young skill talent on offense. Oklahoma is the unquestioned favorite, but the Sooners face several capable challengers on their road toward a second straight College Football Playoff appearance. -- Brandon Chatmon

Big Ten

It won't be three, and there won't be a serious playoff contender from the West Division. Sorry, Iowa, but last season was special. The Hawkeyes, in fact, might field a better team than in 2015, when they came within one epic Michigan State drive of a playoff berth, but the schedule toughens -- and history won't repeat itself. From the East, it's possible for the top two teams to remain in playoff contention until the Nov. 26 regular-season finale. Yes, we're looking at Ohio State and Michigan, but it could be Michigan State and Ohio State or Michigan. The Spartans are still strong and get both of the other big boys at home in 2016. The Oct. 29 Michigan-Michigan State game looms large. And remember, any of these teams can likely afford one loss, especially the Buckeyes in Week 3 at Oklahoma. -- Mitch Sherman

Pac-12

If UCLA, USC, Utah, Stanford, Oregon, Washington or Washington State played, say, Baylor's schedule, they'd be widely viewed as CFP contenders, but they don't. Not only do Pac-12 teams play nine conference games and a conference title game, they also are -- typically -- aggressive with their nonconference scheduling. Pac-12 teams face the toughest road to the College Football Playoff. Period. It's extremely difficult to look at USC's and Stanford's schedules and see 12-1, and the threshold for the playoff so far has been one or fewer defeats. The cumulative effect is that the Pac-12 looks like the most likely Power 5 conference to get left out of the playoff yet again. On the other hand, there is good news. It's almost impossible to believe a 12-1 Pac-12 champion would get left out. That means the ACC, Big Ten or Big 12 winners would have to finish undefeated to eclipse a 12-1 Pac-12 champion. The question more likely to be asked at season’s end would be how, say, an 11-2 USC or Stanford might stand up to a one-loss ACC, Big Ten or Big 12 champion. -- Ted Miller

SEC

This won't be the year the SEC gets two teams in the playoff. Let's get that annual debate over with right now. If there's a path for it, I don't see it. With that said, there are a few playoff contenders -- five by my estimation. Alabama is the clear favorite with a loaded defense, a slew of skill players and the best coach in the game. Outside of the Tide, LSU, Ole Miss, Tennessee and Florida make the cut, with varying degrees of confidence. All LSU needs is a quarterback, but that's a big ask. Ole Miss has to prove it's more than Robert Nkemdiche, Laquon Treadwell and Laremy Tunsil, but the Rebs have the best quarterback in the league in Chad Kelly, and that counts for a lot. The East, while not as talented as the West, has a shot because the conference title game can act as a virtual play-in game to the playoff. Tennessee, which has to weather this turbulent offseason, has the potential for a breakthrough season with so much young talent coming into its prime. Florida, on the other hand, has been quiet, which is a good thing for Jim McElwain, who reached Atlanta in Year 1 and should be in better shape offensively this go 'round. -- Alex Scarborough