Welcome to Year 154 of college football where, still, some things never change. They were talking about paying players (improperly) back in the 19th century. Coaches are still overvalued and overhyped. Bowl games are still a big deal. (Hey, what else are you going to watch in December?)
This season might as well be the jumping off point for the future. It is the last year of the four-team College Football Playoff, after all. We are on the brink of paying players (legally) beyond NIL. And realignment just ... won't ... stop. That's why there will never be another season like 2023.
As Texas coach Steve Sarkisian likes to say, "adapt or die." Deion Sanders is bringing in the equivalent of a small front-range mining town to Colorado via the transfer portal. Jim Harbaugh has his best team ever at Michigan and may be a .
Look for some new blood in the CFP if the likes of USC gets hot. Their potential excellence, along with that of Washington, is part of a bittersweet farewell in 2023 of what used to be the "Conference of Champions." The Pac-12 appears to have saved (some of) its best for last.
Nevertheless, the game will endure. Here are 23 things to watch before wading into Season 154.
College football's 23 for 2023
1. Georgia three-peat? The two-time reigning champions will attempt to win three national titles in a row. That's never been done before in the wire service era (since 1936). And that's all that counts. Before then, you could win a national championship by proclamation of the guy's poll down the street. These Bulldogs are on the brink of completing the greatest run of all time. Coach Kirby Smart has installed a culture of "eating off the floor." His players have bought in. In the process, Smart has become the smartest -- and best -- coach in the game. Winning back-to-back titles has been accomplished 13 times (by eight different teams). Something always seems to go wrong in the quest for No. 3. Don't bet against these damn-fine Dawgs. Since the second game of the 2021 season, only two teams have been within nine points of Georgia.
2. Turn it up to 11: Both Clemson and Alabama are coming off totally unacceptable seasons. Well, for them. Both won 11 games. Alabama's 11 were tied for the program's fewest since 2010. That was the last time Clemson lost more than three games (10-4). Worse, Clemson has missed back-to-back CFPs. If Alabama misses again, it would be the first time it did not contend for a national championship across consecutive seasons in the CFP era. Nick Saban hired a 31-year-old offensive coordinator (Tommy Rees) to fix things. Dabo Swinney hired a 33-year-old offensive coordinator (Garrett Riley) to do the same. That might not indicate desperation, but it bears watching what is next for the two powers – still technically in the middle of their own dynasties.
3. Neon Deion Goes To Boulder: Deion Sanders has big-timed us all. He only speaks to a few chosen media loyal to the cause. He's all but told us he is reinventing the game at Colorado. Prime Time has made the transfer portal look like the "Star Trek" transporter machine. (Beam me up, Primey!) Fifty-one transfers have been brought it for a makeover that is either going to revolutionize the game or cause a public spectacle as a hall of fame media superstar falls in ingloriously short. Sanders' cult of personality has already created enough momentum to move the Buffaloes back into the Big 12. Whatever is next, it's going to be fun as hell to watch.
4. Ohio State's Michigan problem: It seemed like 30 seconds ago when Ohio State had just wrapped up its eighth consecutive win over Michigan, the second-longest streak in series history. Suddenly, the Buckeyes haven't beaten TTUN (The Team Up North) since 2019. They got run out of The Shoe last November, and questions are being asked. Chief among them, how is there pressure on a coach in Ryan Day who has the game's best active winning percentage (.882)? Day has lost six games in his career, but two of those have come in consecutive seasons to the Wolverines, which means there is some sort of pressure on the Buckeyes coach. Get your popcorn ready for the Nov. 25 meeting in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Before winning the national championship, before winning the Big Ten, Ohio State must beat Michigan to stop a two-game losing streak or … else?
5. Heisman Watch:
- Michael Penix Jr., QB, Washington: The No. 1 passer in the country has two 1,000-yard receivers returning. Look for another 10-win season and perhaps a surprise Pac-12 title for the Huskies. Caleb, who?
- J.J. McCarthy, QB, Michigan: Almost all his weapons return. A stunning loss to TCU overshadowed McCarthy's performance in the Fiesta Bowl semifinal. Armed with another year of knowledge and growth, he is being looked upon to lead the Wolverines to a national championship.
- Jordan Travis, QB, Florida State: Past the injuries and disappointment, Travis led the Seminoles to their first 10-win season since 2016 years. Next stop ... ACC title?
- Caleb Williams, QB, USC: There has been only one Heisman repeat. Williams won't be the second. Voters will be ready to move on, and the defense once again will keep the Trojans from the CFP.
- Blake Corum, RB, Michigan: Harbaugh told the All-American to leave for the NFL. Corum, rehabbed from knee surgery, thought he had more to prove. Look for a 1,700-yard season -- at least.
6. Coach of the Year -- Kalen DeBoer, Washington: With realignment swirling and distracting out West, UW's second-year coach is close to building the Huskies back to their powerhouse selves. Look for a surprise Pac-12 title this season riding the arm of Penix. The offense was a monster, second nationally in 2022. The defense improved in the second half of the season. DeBoer won 11 games in his debut season on Montlake. Why can't there be a repeat with Oregon and Utah coming to town?
7. Game of the year -- Texas at Alabama, Sept. 9: Texas has to win it if 2023 is finally going to be the year it returns to prominence. Alabama can't afford to lose, not win the SEC and expect to make the CFP. Especially given there's probably an SEC loss out there lurking for the Crimson Tide and Georgia may roll through its relatively easy schedule. Last's one-point Alabama win in Austin, Texas, was a classic. They'll be conference rivals in a year.
8. Team no one is talking about: Last year, it was TCU and Tulane. This year … check out Texas Tech. Coach Joey McGuire won eight games in his first season. Quarterback Tyler Shough is 8-1 as a starter at TTU. Oregon, Houston and Kansas State come to Lubbock. Oklahoma isn't on the schedule. Watch Syracuse transfer Steve Linton coming off the edge.
9. Player no one is talking about: If nothing else, Rice QB JT Daniels should be a walking, talking research resource on the subject of the transfer portal. The once five-star prospect out of Southern California is at his fourth school in six years. In that span, Daniels has faced 28 teams, played in half of the FBS conferences (five), had his season ended by injury and won a national championship (with Georgia). Daniels is the highest-rated player in school history. If the Owls are going to matter at all, Daniels will be the reason Rice posts its first winning season since 2013.
10. NIL slog: The name, image and likeness discussion is getting tedious. It's like staring at the sun during an eclipse. You can't look away. Unfortunately, we will have to pay attention during the season as the NCAA continues to beg Congress for help, legislators try to grandstand for attention, and athletes do a lot of good things with their "corrupted" riches. Last month, Illinois defensive linemen Keith Randolph and Jer'Zhan Newton decided to put up a lemonade stand for the afternoon. The pair donated the proceeds to the Salvation Army. It's going to be OK, folks. Whether the players end up being paid or not, the games will still be the thing on Saturday.
11. The Petrino Conundrum: After a disastrous 5-7 downturn in 2022, Jimbo Fisher decided to go out and get him an offensive coordinator who would actually call plays. We're giving it until about the third quarter of the fourth game before Jimbo rips Texas A&M's call sheet about of Bobby Petrino's hands and starts once again calling plays himself. Petrino is a lot of things -- (insert Arkansas jokes here) -- but he is definitely a talented play caller. A successful run at TAMU may be enough of a car wash for Petrino to be become a Power Five coach again. However, Fisher has been asked time and again in the offseason if he will let Petrino have complete play calling autonomy. His classic non-answer to that question from SEC Media Days cleared up absolutely nothing: "Hopefully, he'll call the game."
12. Four for the road: In the final year of the four-team playoff, we bid a fond farewell. Beginning in 2024, the field will triple to 12 teams. That alone may keep college football from breaking apart at the seams. At least in the future, excess meets access. Yeah, with 12 teams, you can actually dream of the Mountain West champion playing for a national championship. In its history, the CFP pretty much has been a closed shop. Going into Year 10, only 14 teams have played in the CFP with only five winning it. Viva bracket creep.
13. The four playoff teams:
- Georgia: You know the defense will be smothering. Is it heresy to think Carson Beck might be more refined that Stetson Bennett?
- Michigan: Harbaugh's best team should be undefeated in the regular season, even without the coach for a third of the schedule.
- Ohio State: For the second consecutive year, will the Buckeyes be able to sustain a loss to the Wolverines and still make the playoff? More importantly, can Day survive that third straight defeat to The Team Up North?
- Penn State: There's a way the Nittany Lions can make it three Big Ten teams in playoff. Split with Michigan and Ohio State -- the Michigan game is at home -- and win the rest.
14. Texas is … back? Grit your teeth. Swallow hard. Are we really going to ask this ... again?! It's been 14 years since Texas won much of anything -- ever since Marcel Dareus ran into Colt McCoy's throwing arm in the 2010 BCS Championship Game. Since then, the Orangebloods have been one of the most disappointing (former) powers in the country. They're both loaded and favored this season in the Big 12. Quarterback Quinn Ewers has cut his mullet and hopefully increased his completion percentage. The defense has some hosses up front in anticipation of SEC entry in 2024. Something has to change. You want some faded glory? Since that fateful McCoy injury, Kansas State has played in three New Year's Six bowls while Texas has played in one.
15. d-Air-y Raid: Wisconsin fired a coach in the middle of the season (Paul Chryst) who had won 72% of his games, including two New Year's Six bowls. Chryst also coached in three Big Ten Championship Games and got the Badgers to a Rose Bowl. It traded up for a sleeker, younger version of Chryst in Luke Fickell, who had taken Cincinnati to the 2021 College Football Playoff. The stodgy Badgers are changing their look with rifle-armed transfer QB Tanner Mordecai and Air Raid discipline Phil Longo as offensive coordinator. November should be a blast -- of more than cold air -- at Camp Randall Stadium as Wisconsin attempts to chuck it downfield scoring in the 40s while playing outdoors in the 20s.
16. Realignment: For those of us covering it, it's a curse. For those amateur media rights consultants on whatever Twitter is called these days, it's fantasy land. (Keep typin', kids. You've got all figured out.) There will be 14 teams in new conferences this season with at least 10 more -- Texas, Oklahoma, USC, UCLA, Colorado, Arizona, Arizona State, Utah, Oregon and Washington -- playing their final seasons in their current conferences. However it ends up, we are experiencing one giant consolidation of the game's biggest brands at the top. It won't lead to a breakaway of the power conferences -- not yet, at least -- but sooner or later the SEC and Big Ten are going to wonder why they're sharing anything with the other FBS schools.
17. Pac-12 football: You may have missed the fact that the Pac-12 is going to be good -- really good -- this season. In many ways, like the good, old offensively dominant days of the past. Five Pac-12 teams were ranked among the top 25 of the, same as the Big Ten. Last year, eight Pac-12 quarterbacks threw for at least 3,000 yards. The only other time that has occurred in an FBS conference was 2014 -- also in the Pac-12. Six of those quarterbacks return, including Williams, the reigning Heisman winner.
18. Stat watch:
- 25 -- Kirk Ferentz is the dean of FBS coaches entering his 25th year at Iowa. He is averaging 7.9 wins per season. But his run hasn't been all shotguns and roses. Earlier this year, Iowa settled with a group of Black former players for $4.2 million in a discrimination lawsuit. In one of the weirdest contract clauses ever, Ferentz's son Brian must average 25 points as offensive coordinator and win seven games or he will be fired. Four individual players scored more touchdowns than Iowa did as a team last season (19).
- 54 -- There have been 54 coaching changes over the last two seasons, 96 over the last four.
- 2,000 -- The last 2,000-yard rusher came in 2019, a season in which there were four.
- 133 -- Welcome Sam Houston and Jacksonville State to the FBS. The two FCS programs are making the jump, pushing the FBS to 133 teams. Not much has changed in trying to grab that label. Since 1980, when there were 130 FBS (then Division I-A) teams, there has been a net gain of three. However, 34 of those teams that were part of the subdivision in 1980 have either dropped their program or are no longer in the FBS.
- 28.38 -- Last year's average of 28.38 points per game was the lowest in FBS since 2011.
- 46% -- Last year 46% of all plays were passing plays. That's the second-highest ratio ever and most since 2007.
- 5 -- Oregon's Will Stein is QB Bo Nix's fifth coordinator in his five-year career.
19. First down rule: For the first time since 1968, the clock won't stop on first down outside of the 2-minute warning. Most experts seem to agree we won't even notice it. Games will lose a total of 4-5 plays. Tempo teams will just play hurry up offense faster to make up for the running clock. Tennessee coach Josh Heupel has an interesting take: He doesn't care if average plays go from 90 to 70. As long as his offense can run 20 more plays than the opposition, which still means he is controlling the clock and running the opposing defense ragged.
20. Purple shame: Northwestern enters the season bearing the humiliation of a hazing scandal that just won't end. Coach Pat Fitzgerald lost his job. President Michael Schill's status should be up for review after he bungled a six-month investigation. Two current football assistants have been implicated in various reports as being witnesses to the abuse. The student newspaper emerged as a bastion of journalism digging to reveal a horrible truth. A 38-year-old former defensive lineman at Winona State has been asked to . David Braun is the interim coach overseeing a locker room that is looking to him for leadership. "I think the best way I can describe it at times is 'conflicted,'" Braun said of his situation.
21. Hinge games: OK, so I stole the label from the great Josh Pate. These are pendulum games upon which the 2023 season can twist and turn.
- Florida at Utah, Aug. 31: You have no idea, Gators. At altitude. MUSS breathing down your necks. Revenge game. Prepare accordingly.
- Colorado at TCU, Sept. 2: Why do I have a sneaking suspicion Sonny Dykes is going to run it up against the preening Deion?
- LSU vs Florida State (Orlando), Sept 3: Admit it, LSU screwed this game up last year. This is fascinating in a which-way-is-the-winner-headed type way.
- Texas at Alabama, Sept. 9: The last time Bama lost at home to a nonconference opponent was 2008.
- Texas A&M at Miami, Sept. 9: A prove-it game for both squads in Week 2.
- Ohio State at Notre Dame, Sept. 23: The teams have played seven times. Notre Dame hasn't won since 1936.
- Florida State at Clemson, Sept. 23: Clemson has won the last seven in a row against the Noles, also eight out of the last 12 and 13 out of the last 19. A dynasty is at stake with FSU trying to rise out of the ashes.
- Alabama at Texas A&M, Oct. 7: Two years ago, one of the biggest wins in TAMU history. A year ago, the diminished Aggies lost by four to the Tide.
- Oregon at Washington. Oct. 14: The winner does not pass Go, does not collect $200 nor goes directly to the Big Ten. Kidding, for now.
- Utah at USC, Oct. 21: The Utes have won the last three in a row by a combined 40 points. The Trojans need to clap back if they're going to fulfill their destiny with Williams.
- LSU at Alabama, Nov. 4: The winner takes the SEC West and moves to the SEC Championship Game where it will surely meet Georgia. At least that's what happened to LSU last year.
- Oklahoma at Oklahoma State, Nov. 4: Last Bedlam game until …?
- Michigan at Penn State, Nov. 11: Drew Allar vs. J.J. McCarthy. Yes, please.
- Georgia at Tennessee, Nov. 18: Georgia's season starts with a nation-leading 17-game winning streak. This may be the biggest challenge to that streak.
- Ohio State at Michigan, Nov. 25: The loser may get a CFP spot anyway. (It happened last year.) How will that sit with Ohio State fans combined with a third straight loss to Michigan?
22. 10 win lock totals:
- Alabama over 10.5: Surprised to see the Tide are actually favored (-120) to go under. If that happens in the regular season two years in a row … Paaaawlll!
- Auburn over 6.5: Quarterback is an issue, but this a bet that the injection of Hugh Freeze's energy will allow the Tigers to squeak out seven wins.
- Minnesota over 7: P.J. Fleck loses Tanner Morgan but has a lot of faith in the Greek Rifle Athan Kaliakmanis. Minny is averaging almost 10 wins per season since 2019 (not counting the COVID-19 season of 2020).
- Arkansas over 7: KJ Jefferson is a force of nature. The Texas A&M game in Arlington, Texas, may decide this bet.
- Purdue over 5: First-time head coach Ryan Walters imported plug-and-play QB Hudson Card from Texas. Don't worry about the defense. Walters' Illinois D in 2022 led the nation in scoring defense.
- Cal under 5: There have long been questions whether the school cares enough about big-time football. Only 10 wins since 2019.
- Duke over 7: Ignore the Blue Devils at your own peril. Mike Elko won nine games in his first season, the second-most victories at Duke since 1941.
- USC under 10: Pac-12 is too deep to assume the Trojans are going to win 11 games again. Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch is under scrutiny big time.
- Arizona State over 4.5: If Kenny Dillingham can find a fire-starter QB to run his productive scheme, the Sun Devils will be a handful.
- Michigan State under 4.5: Quarterback issues coming off a 5-7 season. Only three sure wins evident on the schedule.
23. New Year's Six projections:
- Rose Bowl semifinal: Michigan vs. Ohio State
- Sugar Bowl semifinal: Georgia vs. Penn State
- CFP National Championship: Georgia vs. Michigan
- Peach Bowl: LSU vs. Tulane
- Fiesta Bowl: Washington vs. Tennessee
- Orange Bowl: Florida State vs. Alabama
- Cotton Bowl: Texas vs. Notre Dame