Fresh off of last year's successful campaign, the USFL is gearing up for what could be an even better 2023 season -- but which team will capture the title?
Led by quarterback J'Mar Smith, the Birmingham Stallions begin their defense of last year's championship when the league kicks off this Saturday, April 15. The Philadelphia Stars, who came up just short against Birmingham in last year's USFL Championship Game, are expected to once again be in the mix with the return of their quarterback, Case Cookus. The league's two other playoff teams last year, the New Jersey Generals and New Orleans Breakers, are also expected to make a run at the crown.
Joining the fray of USFL teams for the 2023 season are the Memphis Showboats, who will be one of three teams that will get to play in front of their home fans this season (check out everything to know in our much more). After all the league's regular-season games were held in Birmingham last year, three new venues have been added to the mix for 2023: Memphis, Canton and Detroit. The Showboats are in essence the Tampa Bay Bandits, who are on a hiatus in 2023 after going 4-6 in 2022., the and
With Week 1 on the horizon, who are the top teams? Here's how we rank them in our Week 1 Power Rankings:
1. Birmingham Stallions
- Last season: 9-1, defending champs, defeated New Orleans and Philadelphia in playoffs
Skip Holtz's team returns the majority of last year's championship roster. That includes Smith, who said he is roughly 10-15 pounds lighter than he was last year. Running backs Bo Scarbrough, C.J. Marable and linebacker Scooby Wright are three other key members of Birmingham's championship team that are back for the 2023 season.
Smith is expecting more of a contribution this season from receiver Marlon Williams, who last season finished second in the USFL in touchdown catches and third in receiving yards. The two connected on a deep touchdown pass in last year's championship game win over Philadelphia.
In 2023, Birmingham will try to do something that no NFL team has done in nearly 20 years: repeat as champion.
"I love having a target on my back," Smith recently told CBS Sports. "It makes me play harder. I know that everyone is going to give us their best shot. I'm not going run away from their shot. I love to step up to the challenge."
2. Philadelphia Stars
- Last season: 6-4, defeated New Jersey in playoffs, lost to Birmingham in championship game
The Stars have their sights set on a championship after coming up just short in last year's championship game. A big reason for Philadelphia's optimism is the return of Cookus, who went 6-3 as the team's starting quarterback last season. Cookus led a Stars offense that averaged a league-high 26.2 points per game.
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Cookus will again be aided on offense by running back Matt Coburn II (who scored nine total touchdowns) and Jordan Suell, who caught a touchdown in the USFL Championship Game. Cookus will have a new target this season in former Browns first-round pick Corey Coleman, who caught 20 touchdowns during his final season at Baylor back in 2015.
3. New Jersey Generals
- Last season: 9-1, lost to Philadelphia in the playoffs
New Jersey, which tied Birmingham with the league's best record during the 2022 regular season, is motivated this season after last year's playoff upset at the hands of the Stars.
"The guys come in with a chip on their shoulder, kind of like unfinished business a little bit," said offensive coordinator Steven Smith, via the league's website. "The guys came in ready to go and focused on getting it done and making things happen that we didn't finish last year."
The Generals lost one of their key players from last year's team to the NFL in Cowboys All-Pro return specialist KaVontae Turpin. Reigning Offensive Player of the Year Darius Victor is back, however, along with fellow running back Trey Williams. Last season, the duo helped the Generals average a league-high 161 yards on the ground per game.
Quarterback is the big question mark. De'Andre Johnson, the team's backup last season, is looking to win the job over Kyle Lauletta, a former Giants draft pick who made two starts for the Maulers last season.
4. New Orleans Breakers
- Last season: 6-4, lost to Birmingham in the playoffs
New Orleans' top-ranked defense is expected to again be among the league's best. The big question is at quarterback, as the Breakers have a three-man competition between McLeod Bethel-Thompson, Davis Cheek and Aqeel Glass. The front-runner to win the job is the 34-year-old Bethel-Thompson, a two-time Canadian Football League champion who decided to move to the USFL instead of spending another season in Winnipeg.
"It's all betting on one year, which is tenuous but also challenging," he recently told the Toronto Sun. "Every game matters. Every practice matters. Every throw matters. If I don't perform physically or mentally, or maybe play half the year and then get benched, I could very well have ended my career as opposed to having four more years in the CFL. It's moving all your chips in on a pretty bizarre hand."
5. Memphis Showboats
Memphis' possible advantage at quarterback moved them up several spots on this list. Showboats coach Todd Haley recently announced that his starting quarterback will be Brady White, who enjoyed a prolific college career at Memphis that included throwing for a school-record 10,690 yards and 90 touchdowns.
"Brady has kind of cemented himself as the starter here as we get the season going," Haley recently told Fox Sports. "But Ryan (Willis) and Cole (Kelley) are talented guys that have impressed us throughout this process. I don't think it's beyond thinking that you'll see all these guys play at some point.
"The name of the game is winning. So, whoever gives us the best chance to win will be the guy handling the football most of the time. But Brady, having been with us most of the time last year, definitely had a head start. I know he's excited about being in Memphis, where he played his college football. He's like a superstar walking around town down here. I know he's enjoying and embracing that, and we'll just have to see how it plays out."
Memphis' offense also includes Alex Collins, a veteran NFL running back who nearly ran for 1,000 yards in 2017 with the Seahawks.
6. Houston Gamblers
- Last season: 3-7
Houston was much better than its 2022 record indicated. You could say the Gamblers were snake-bitten after losing five straight games where they led in the fourth quarter. The defense was Houston's strength, but the unit underwent a total transformation this offseason. The defense will include 14 new players, including expected standouts in defensive end Eli Howard and linebacker Isaiah Pryor.
The Gamblers' offense is expected to be significantly better, largely because of the expected uptick in play from quarterback Kenji Bahar. If Bahar is able to complement Houston's talented running game (led by Mark Thompson), this could be the surprise team for 2023.
7. Pittsburgh Maulers
- Last season: 1-9
On and off the field, the Maulers underwent massive changes this offseason. They changed their color scheme to mimic the black and gold flavor of the city they represent. Speaking of Pittsburgh's fabled football history, the team hired a former Steelers Super Bowl-winning assistant coach, Ray Horton, as their new head coach.
One of the things that is expected to stay the same in Pittsburgh is a Maulers defense that was one of the USFL's better units last season, led by former NFL first-round pick Reuben Foster. Pittsburgh's offense has the weapons to be a solid unit, but its success will likely come down to whether James Morgan or Troy Williams can provide steady play at quarterback.
8. Michigan Panthers
- Last season: 2-8
Michigan might be the USFL's biggest enigma. Led by first-year head coach Mike Nolan, the Panthers could make a surprise playoff push while turning Ford Field into a massive home-field advantage. Michigan has a formidable rushing attack and is expected to field a good defense.
As with several other teams, quarterback is the big question in Michigan. The Panthers' offense will be led by either Josh Love (who spent time with the NFL's Rams and Panthers) or Carson Strong, an undrafted rookie last season who spent time with the Eagles and Cardinals.