The 2023 college football season is here, which means there is hope around the country. Players are ready, depth charts have been set, fans have set their travel plans and all eyes are on Dec. 3 when the College Football Playoff Selection Committee will reveal its final rankings.
Who will make it to the CFP? That's the question lingering over the college football world. TCU shocked the world last year when it ran through the regular season undefeated, fell to Kansas State in the Big 12 Championship Game, topped Michigan in the Fiesta Bowl national semifinal and played Georgia in the CFP National Championship. Could there be another team in the mix for that kind of run?
On the flip side, juggernauts like the two-time champion Bulldogs, SEC monster Alabama, two-time Big Ten champion Michigan, its rival Ohio State and ACC power Clemson are all ready to roll and get back to the four-team event.
Hope springs eternal, but reality will set in throughout the course of the season. Which teams have a realistic shot at following through on that hope and making the CFP? Let's break down the real contenders.
Clemson: The ninth-ranked Tigers are loaded on offense with Cade Klubnik taking the snaps and Will Shipley toting the rock. Coach Dabo Swinney hired Garrett Riley away from TCU to run his new-look offense, which should provide a spark to a unit that became stale under former coordinator Brandon Streeter and quarterback DJ Uiagalelei. The path is going to be a little challenging considering they will play No.8 Florida State, No. 13 Notre Dame and No. 21 North Carolina. However, all three of those games are at home, which will certainly help their cause.
Florida State: The Seminoles are back -- at least as a CFP contender. They have a phenomenal offense led by quarterback Jordan Travis, running back Trey Benson and a talented -- and extremely tall -- wide receiving corps. What's more, the top recruiting job of the offseason was when Seminoles coach Mike Norvell convinced defensive lineman Jared Verse to come back to school. They have a massive Week 1 game vs. No. 5 LSU in Orlando as well as the trip to play Clemson on Sept. 23. Outside of those two challenges, it's a rather navigable schedule prior to the ACC Championship Game.
Michigan: This might come as a shock, but the two-time defending Big Ten champions have another legitimate shot at making the College Football Playoff. Crazy, I know. JJ McCarthy is a stud, the duo of Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards at running back and the Wolverines' always-stout defense makes No. 2 Michigan one of the most complete teams in the nation. The schedule is cake until they play at No. 7 Penn State on Nov. 7 and at home against No. 3 Ohio State on Nov. 25. They have talent, they have depth and they have a path that is perfectly-suited for both of those attributes.
Ohio State: The Buckeyes are simply filthy at the skill positions. Marvin Harrison Jr and Emeka Egbuka are the headliners of the best wide receiving room in the country, and running backs TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Williams are fully capable of earning All-American status. The quarterback situation is a little murky since coach Ryan Day will play both Kyle McCord and Devin Brown in the opener vs. Indiana. However, either should be able to handle the task considering the weapons they have to work with. All the defense needs to be is "average" in order for the Buckeyes to be national title threats.
Penn State: The Nittany Lions' playoff hopes hinge on the arm of first-year starting quarterback Drew Allar. If he can pose a threat deep downfield, the running back tandem of Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen will have holes the size of the Grand Canyon to run through. They have experience on the defensive front and in the secondary, which will serve them well in the Big Ten. They have the talent to split the Michigan and Ohio State games, and run the table in the other 10 games. If that happens, they're in.
Texas: No, the 11th-ranked Longhorns aren't "back." At least, not yet. However, this is the best chance they've had since 2009 to shed that moniker. The offense is absolutely loaded with Quinn Ewers taking the snaps and a wide receiver corps that rivals the best in the sport. If they get average play out of their defense, they have the mix to make the CFP. However, the Big 12 is more likely to cannibalize itself rather than have to follow the TCU blueprint.
Notre Dame: The 13th-ranked Fighting Irish got off to a great start in the 42-3 win over Navy in Week 0, which solidified them as a legit College Football Playoff threat. They've made the CFP twice with slightly above average quarterback play. With Sam Hartman taking the snaps, it could vault them into the national title race rather than just a threat to make the four-team field. After all, those are two entirely different conversations.
Oregon: The 15th-ranked Ducks have a phenomenal quarterback in Bo Nix, who was a Heisman Trophy candidate before a mid-November injury. Nix has a dynamic duo of running backs behind him and enough talent at wide receiver to provide balance to the offense. Plus, the front seven is fast and physical -- just the way coach Dan Lanning likes it. They have four games against Top 20 teams, including road trips to No. 10 Washington and No. 14 Utah. Because of that, a one-loss Oregon team is nearly a lock to make the CFP.
USC: The No. 6 Trojans aren't capable of actually winning the CFP because the defense isn't capable of playing consistent football for a full season. It's a problem that followed coach Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma to Los Angeles. However, as we saw on Saturday night in their 56-28 win over San Jose State, the offense under quarterback Caleb Williams is still fantastic. What's more, wide receiver Zachariah Branch looked like the next superstar for the program. That's more than enough to at least make the four-team playoff.
Utah: The status of Utes quarterback Cameron Rising is still up in the air heading into Thursday night's opener vs. Florida. However, if they get past the Gators, they'll likely get Rising back for the meat of the schedule including road games against three top 20 teams (USC, Washington and No. 18 Oregon State). Even if Rising isn't 100%, the two-time Pac-12 champions are the most physical team in the conference and are almost impossible to prepare for.
Washington: What's not to love about the Huskies having quarterback Michael Penix Jr -- the nation's top passer from a year ago -- back, along with star running back Rome Odunze? Plus, the front seven can wreak havoc on even the best offenses. They have road games at USC and Oregon State, plus home tilts with Oregon and Utah. If the Huskies are one-loss Pac-12 champions, they're in.
Alabama: The fourth-ranked Crimson Tide have a problem at quarterback as coach Nick Saban has been unable to settle on Tyler Buchner, Jalen Milroe or Ty Simpson. Make no mistake, it's a big issue. If Saban figures it out, though, Alabama will be set up for a run to the CFP. The running game should be stout, especially with a slight change in philosophy that will put more emphasis on the ground game. If that happens, the defense won't have as much pressure on its shoulders and should be able to keep opponents at bay. Plus, its two biggest games -- Texas and LSU -- are inside the friendly confines of Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Georgia: Breaking news ... the top-ranked Bulldogs should be contenders in 2023. Coach Kirby Smart's defense is in full-on reload mode again and the offense has a slightly different image with Carson Beck at quarterback, Mike Bobo calling the plays and a wide receiver room that got a boost with Missouri transfer Dominic Lovett. The schedule will likely be a cake walk, and we all know that even a one-loss SEC team will get the nod and make the CFP.
LSU: The Tigers stunned the world and won the SEC West in coach Brian Kelly's first season in 2022. What will they do for an encore? They could easily take another step. The offense is set with Heisman hopeful Jayden Daniels taking the snaps, a versatile running back room, dynamic wide receiver group and experienced offensive line. The front seven is set with star linebacker Harold Perkins Jr leading the charge. If they can get adequate play in the secondary, this team can easily roll through the season undefeated or with one loss.