Conference Power Rankings (Pre-Bowl Edition)

The SEC and Big 12 lead the way among all FBS conferences with nine bowl bids . (US Presswire)

Conference power rankings can be difficult to sort out during the middle of the season, especially once most of the marquee teams begin the conference play portion of their schedule. But before the final polls and standings are released -- the ones that actually do matter, there are 35 interconference exhibition games to help us sort out the pecking order between the SEC and Conference USA.

Below you will find the bowl slate for all 11 FBS conferences along with the games that matter most when it comes to conference supremacy. The statement game is an opportunity for a conference to possibly boost its stock with a big win, the must-win game is one that would reflect very poorly on a conference if their representative loses.

After the bowl season we will check back in and re-rank the conferences based on the results. Just for fun, here is a summary of the difference conference vs. conference bragging rights on the line in the 2012-13 postseason.

SEC vs. Big Ten: 3 (Gator, Capital One, Outback)
Big 12 vs. Big Ten: 3 (Meineke Car Care, Buffalo Wild Wings, Heart of Dallas)
Pac-12 vs. Big 12: 3 (Holiday, Alamo, Fiesta)
MAC vs. Sun Belt: 3 (Little Caesars, Independence,
ACC vs. SEC: 2 (Music City, Chick-fil-A)
Pac-12 vs. MW: 2 (New Mexico, Las Vegas)
Big East vs. ACC: 2 (Belk, Russell Athletic)
SEC vs. Big East: 2 (Sugar, Compass)
MAC vs. WAC: 2 (Famous Idaho Potato, Military)
MW vs. Conference USA: 2 (Hawaii, Armed Forces)
SEC vs. Big 12: 1 (Cotton)
Big 12 vs. Big East: 1 (Pinstripe)
Big 12 vs. Conference USA: 1 (Liberty)
Pac-12 vs. ACC: 1 (Sun)
Pac-12 vs. Big Ten: 1 (Rose)
ACC vs. MAC: 1 (Orange)
MAC vs. Conference USA: 1 (Beef 'O' Bradys)
Sun Belt vs. Conference USA: 1 (New Orleans)

Conference Power Rankings

Bowl Lineup (Nine games)
Music City (Dec. 31): Vanderbilt vs. NC State
Chick-fil-A (Dec. 31): LSU vs. Clemson
Gator (Jan. 1): Mississippi State vs. Northwestern
Capital One (Jan. 1): Georgia vs. Nebraska
Outback (Jan. 1): South Carolina vs. Michigan
Sugar (Jan. 2): Florida vs. Louisville
Cotton (Jan. 4): Texas A&M vs. Oklahoma
Compass (Jan. 5): Ole Miss vs. Pittsburgh
BCS Title (Jan. 7): Alabama vs. Notre Dame

Statement Game: Cotton Bowl -- Nothing would complete Texas A&M's remarkable first season of SEC play like taking down the Co-Big 12 Champions in Jerryworld. The Aggies would position themselves as a legitimate contender for 2013, giving the SEC yet another national power heading into next season.

Must-Win: Chick-fil-A Bowl -- Clemson got a victory over an SEC West opponent in the Georgia Dome to start the season, but LSU presents a much different challenge for Tajh Boyd and the high-flying Clemson offense.

Big 12
Bowl Lineup (Nine games)
Holiday (Dec. 27) : Baylor vs. UCLA
Meineke Car Care (Dec. 28): Texas Tech vs. Minnesota
Pinstripe (Dec. 29): West Virginia vs. Syracuse
Alamo (Dec. 29): Texas vs. Oregon State
Buffalo Wild Wings (Dec. 29): TCU vs. Michigan State
Liberty (Dec. 31): Iowa State vs. Tulsa
Heart of Dallas (Jan. 1): Oklahoma State vs. Purdue
Fiesta (Jan. 3): Kansas State vs. Oregon
Cotton (Jan. 4): Oklahoma vs. Texas A&M

Statement Game: Fiesta -- Kansas State and Oregon, for a week, were on a collision course for the first BCS title game without an SEC team since Texas-USC. Even after setbacks for both teams, this is still one of the best matchups on the bowl schedule. A win would be huge for the Big 12, Bill Snyder and the Kansas State program.

Must-Win: Pinstripe -- West Virginia reaps the benefits of a favorable bowl despite its losing record in conference play. A loss to the co-Big East champions would be an embarrassing finale for the Mountaineers' late season slide.

Bowl Lineup (Eight games)
New Mexico (Dec. 15): Arizona vs. Nevada
Las Vegas (Dec. 22): Washington vs. Boise State
Holiday (Dec. 27): UCLA vs. Baylor
Kraft Fight Hunger (Dec. 29): Arizona State vs. Navy
Alamo (Dec. 29): Oregon State vs. Texas
Sun (Dec. 31): USC vs. Georgia Tech
Rose (Jan. 1): Stanford vs. Wisconsin
Fiesta (Jan. 3): Oregon vs. Kansas State

Statement Game: Fiesta -- After falling from the national title picture and missing out on the Pac-12 title game, Oregon fell from the national conversation. The Ducks can remind everyone how good this year's team is with a big win in the "BCS title game that almost was."

Must-Win: New Mexico -- First game of the bowl season on a Saturday afternoon. Rich Rod's up-tempo attack against Chris Ault's Pistol. There is some sneaky intrigue here, and it could end up being one of the most-watched games in the first week of bowl games.

Big Ten
Bowl Lineup (Seven games)
Meineke Car Care (Dec. 28): Minnesota vs. Texas Tech
Buffalo Wild Wins (Dec. 29): Michigan State vs. TCU
Heart of Dallas (Jan. 1): Purdue vs. Oklahoma State
Gator (Jan. 1): Northwestern vs. Mississippi State
Capital One (Jan. 1): Nebraska vs. Georgia
Outback (Jan. 1): Michigan vs. South Carolina
Rose (Jan. 1): Wisconsin vs. Stanford

Statement Game: Rose -- The Big Ten has been criticized heavily this season, and sending an 8-5 team to the Rose Bowl was the icing on the cake for the haters. If the Badgers win, and the league has a winning record across the New Years Day slate; it will be a strong finish to a rocky season for the Big Ten.

Must-Win: None -- Big Ten teams actually are not favored to win any of their bowl games. Minnesota seems to be in the best position, facing a Red Raiders team without their head coach. But no single loss would be an embarrassment to the league.

Bowl Lineup (Seven games)
Famous Idaho Potato (Dec. 15): Toledo vs. Utah State
Beef 'O' Brady's (Dec. 21): Ball State vs. UCF
Little Caesars (Dec. 26): Central Michigan vs. Western Kentucky
Military (Dec. 27): Bowling Green vs. San Jose State
Independence (Dec. 28): Ohio vs. Louisiana-Monroe
Orange (Jan. 1): Northern Illinois vs.Florida State (Jan. 6): Kent State vs. Arkansas State

Statement Game: Orange -- Pretty obvious, I think. There are plenty of college football fans who want to scream about how another team deserves to be in the BCS instead of the Huskies, and newly promoted head coach Rod Carey would love nothing more than to prove every one of them wrong with an upset of the Seminoles.

Must Win: Little Caesars -- The MAC's banner year resulted in seven bowl bids, but picking up at-large slots has also resulted in some tough matchups for the conference. Western Kentucky, in the midst of a coaching change, might be ripe for defeat in arguably the most winnable game for the league.

Bowl Lineup (Six games)
Belk (Dec. 27): Duke vs. Cincinnati
Russell Athletic (Dec. 28): Virginia Tech vs. Rutgers
Music City (Dec. 31): NC State vs. Vanderbilt
Sun (Dec. 31): Georgia Tech vs. USC
Chick-fil-A (Dec. 31): Clemson vs. LSU
Orange (Jan. 1): Florida State vs. Northern Illinois

Statement Game: Chick-fil-A -- Clemson might have a chance to catch LSU's speedy defense sleeping for enough big plays to steal a win in the home of the SEC Championship Game. Before their loss to South Carolina, some had Dabo's Tigers slotted for a Sugar Bowl appearance. This matchup is as good as a BCS bowl, now they just need to prove they belong.

Must-Win: Orange -- The ACC has only won two BCS bowl games since the system was put in place, and this game, on paper, is as favorable a matchup as the league is going to get. If the Seminoles play like the Top 10 team they showed at times this season, the ACC will get elusive win No. 3.

Big East
Bowl Lineup (Five games)
Belk (Dec. 27): Cincinnati vs. Duke
Russell Athletic (Dec. 28): Rutgers vs. Virginia Tech
Pinstripe (Dec. 29): Syracuse vs. West Virginia
Sugar (Jan. 2): Louisville vs. Florida
Compass (Jan. 5): Pittsburgh vs. Ole Miss

Statement Game: Pinstripe -- Syracuse is on its way to the ACC themselves, so there is not much of a "revenge" factor for the Orange in this game. The Mountaineers hasty exit after the 2011 season did cause a scheduling headache for league members, but this would be more about Syracuse proving themselves on the big stage as Co-Big East champs.

Must Win: Russell Athletic -- Rutgers was one game away from a BCS bowl bid, while Virginia Tech needed an ugly win in the regular season finale to become bowl eligible. The Scarlet Knights have come too far this season to fall to the 6-6 Hokies in Orlando.

Mountain West
Bowl Lineup (Five games)
New Mexico (Dec. 15): Nevada vs. Arizona
Poinsettia (Dec. 20): San Diego State vs. BYU
Las Vegas (Dec. 22): Boise State vs. Washington
Hawaii (Dec. 24): Fresno State vs. SMU
Armed Forces (Dec. 29): Air Force vs. Rice

Statement Game: New Mexico/Las Vegas -- While the geographic footprint of the Mountain West is expanding, Boise State and Nevada face some familiar competition from the Pac-12 in their bowl games. Both teams recruit heavily in the Pac-12 regions, and a big win against the competition could help on the trail in early 2013.

Must Win: Armed Forces -- After a strong start, Air Force stumbled to the finish line losing three of their final four. Seniors Connor Dietz and Cody Getz will be finishing their FBS careers, and Rice is a winnable game for this talented team.

Sun Belt
Bowl Lineup (Four Games)
New Orleans (Dec. 22): Louisiana-Lafayette vs. East Carolina
Little Caesars (Dec. 26): Western Kentucky vs. Central Michigan
Independence (Dec. 28): Louisiana-Monroe vs. Ohio (Jan. 6): Arkansas State vs. Kent State

Statement Game: -- Not many people expected that this would be a meeting for Gus Malzahn and Darrell Hazell when the teams finally took the field on Jan. 6, but the rosters are still very much in place for two of the best non-BCS teams in 2012. This is a chance for Arkansas State to show off the talent that both Malzahn and Hugh Freeze have brought to Jonesboro.

Must Win: Little Caesars -- Sun Belt teams are actually favored in all of their contests, but Western Kentucky could be ripe for upset in the midst of a coaching change. The hiring of Petrino will bring extra attention to this game, making it as close to a "must-win" as there is on the schedule.

Bowl Lineup (Five Games)
Beef 'O' Brady's (Dec. 21): UCF vs. Ball State
New Orleans (Dec. 22): East Carolina vs. Louisiana-Lafayette
Hawaii (Dec. 24): SMU vs. Fresno State
Armed Forces (Dec. 29): Rice vs. Air Force
Liberty Bowl (Dec. 31): Tulsa vs. Iowa State

Statement Game: Liberty Bowl -- Unfortunately, the Liberty is one of the only Conference USA bowl games in a busy stretch of the bowl schedule. If the general public does not tune in until Christmas, you will miss most of the conference. New Year's Eve provides a full slate of games, making the Liberty Bowl likely the most-watched Conference USA game. Also, Tulsa is very good and can win this game.

Must-Win: Beef O Bradys -- Central Florida fell short in the Conference USA title game because of rampant special team miscues. Ball State provides a favorable matchup for the Knights, as well as an opportunity to fix the errors that cost them a conference championship.

Bowl Lineup (Two games)
Famous Idaho Potato (Dec. 15): Utah State vs. Toledo
Military Bowl (Dec. 27): San Jose State vs. Bowling Green

Must Win 1: Military Bowl -- No statement games here, the WAC should take care of business in the postseason. The dissolution of the conference has led to a light bowl slate, which does not include 9-3 Louisiana Tech. Even with Mike MacIntyre headed to Colorado, the Spartans still have plenty of talent left that should be able to handle the Falcons.

Must Win 2: Famous Idaho Potato -- No coaching issue here, as Gary Andersen has removed himself from consideration for several higher-paying jobs in favor of the comfort at Utah State. If the Aggies take care of business against Toledo -- they are a double-digit favorite, the program should finish with a Top 25 ranking.

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CBS Sports Writer

Chip Patterson has spent his young career covering college sports from the Old North State. He's been writing and talking about football and basketball for CBS Sports since 2010. You may have heard him... Full Bio

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