College football’s Way-Too-Early Top 25 for 2023
10: 56 PM ET
Mark SchlabachESPN Senior Writer
- Senior college football writer
- Author of seven books on college football
- Graduate of the University of Georgia
The team that couldn’t win a national championship for more than four decades can’t stop winning them.
After winning its first national title since 1980 last season, Georgia crushed TCU 65-7 on Monday night in the College Football Playoff National Championship presented by AT&T. The Bulldogs became the first team in the CFP era to win consecutive national championships.
And it seems like Georgia coach Kirby Smart is just getting started. With a plethora of young defensive stars, a deep receiver corps and a cupboard full of former five-star recruits coming back, the Bulldogs are the No. 1 team in the 2023 Way-Too-Early Top 25.
The Bulldogs are followed by Ohio State, Michigan, Florida State and Alabama.
Last season, future CFP participants Ohio State, Georgia and Michigan were ranked in the top five of the initial Way-Too-Early Top 25. TCU wasn’t ranked at all.
Among the teams that were ranked too high: Texas A&M (No. 4!), NC State, Oklahoma State and Michigan State. In addition to TCU, teams too low (or unranked) included Tennessee, Kansas State, Washington and Tulane.
Here’s the 2023 Way-Too-Early Top 25:
1. Georgia Bulldogs
2022 record: 15-0, 8-0 SEC
Expected returning starters: 6 offense, 6 defense, 1 special teams
Expected key losses: DT Jalen Carter, CB Kelee Ringo, OT Broderick Jones, QB Stetson Bennett, SS Christopher Smith, LB Robert Beal, TE Darnell Washington, C Sedrick Van Pran
Expected key additions: WR Rara Thomas, WR Dominic Lovett, S Joenel Aguero, DE Samuel M’Pemba, DE Damon Wilson, CB A.J. Harris
Outlook: After winning their first national championship in 41 years in 2021 and losing 15 starters to the NFL draft, the Bulldogs did even better by winning an SEC title and finishing unbeaten. The personnel losses shouldn’t be quite as heavy this offseason and another top-three recruiting class will provide help. Sophomore Carson Beck will be the top contender to replace Bennett, who went from an unheralded walk-on to one of the most celebrated players in school history. Tight end Brock Bowers, who had 56 catches for 790 yards and six TDs entering Monday’s game, returns to give Beck a big target. The additions of Thomas and Lovett, who led Mississippi State and Missouri in receiving yards this past season, respectively, should help shore up a thin receiver corps. Five freshmen and sophomores started on defense in 2022, including defensive end Mykel Williams and safety Malaki Starks, who might be the next big things in Athens. Georgia’s nonconference schedule is especially soft in 2023, with games against FCS program UT Martin, Ball State, UAB and Georgia Tech, after a scheduled contest against Oklahoma was canceled.
2. Ohio State Buckeyes
2022 record: 11-2, 8-1 Big Ten
Expected returning starters: 7 offense, 7 defense, 1 special teams
Expected key losses: QB C.J. Stroud, OT Paris Johnson Jr., OT Dawand Jones, G Matthew Jones, DT Taron Vincent, DE Zach Harrison, S Ronnie Hickman, K Noah Ruggles
Expected key additions: WR Brandon Inniss, DE Jason Moore, OT Luke Montgomery, WR Noah Rogers, TE Jelani Thurman, CB Calvin Simpson-Hunt, G Joshua Padilla
Outlook: It might have been a deflating end to the 2022 season, after the Buckeyes lost to rival Michigan for the second straight season and then fell to Georgia in a CFP semifinal at the Chick-fil-A Bowl. But to suggest that Ohio State isn’t trending in the right direction under coach Ryan Day is laughable. The Buckeyes won 11 games this past season, despite playing without star receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba and tailback TreVeyon Henderson for much of the campaign. Henderson is expected back in 2023; Smith-Njigba has already declared for the NFL draft. Kyle McCord, who started against Akron in 2021, will battle Devin Brown for the starting quarterback job in the spring. Whoever wins the job will be surrounded by plenty of playmakers, including receivers Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka. Replacing Johnson and Jones on the offensive line will be a priority in the spring. The Buckeyes play road games at Notre Dame, Wisconsin and Michigan in 2023.
3. Michigan Wolverines
2022 record: 13-1, 9-0 Big Ten
Expected returning starters: 6 offense, 8 defense, 0 special teams
Expected key losses: C Olusegun Oluwatimi, DT Mazi Smith, WR Ronnie Bell, OT Ryan Hayes, TE Luke Schoonmaker, CB DJ Turner, DE Mike Moris, K Jake Moody
Expected key additions: LB Ernest Hausmann, OL LaDarius Henderson, DE Josaiah Stewart, OL Myles Hinton, C Drake Nugent, WR Karmello English, RB Cole Cabana
Outlook: The Wolverines face a lot of uncertainty, as coach Jim Harbaugh has been connected to NFL openings in Denver and Indianapolis. For what it’s worth, Harbaugh released a statement last week in which he said he intends to coach the Wolverines in 2023. If Harbaugh leaves, Michigan will probably fall out of the top four. It finally seemed to turn the corner under Harbaugh, defeating rival Ohio State and reaching the CFP in each of the past two seasons. Depending on how many underclassmen return in 2023, Michigan could again be the team to beat in the Big Ten. Quarterback J.J. McCarthy is coming back, and star RB Blake Corum announced Monday he would return after injuring his left knee 11 games into the season. Turner and Big Ten defensive lineman of the year Morris have entered the draft, while linebacker Michael Barrett might as well. Regardless, Harbaugh has built a solid culture and foundation. A handful of additions from the transfer portal might provide some immediate help. Henderson, Hinton and Nugent were multi-year starters in the Pac-12, and Stewart had 12 ½ sacks at Coastal Carolina in 2021.
4. Florida State Seminoles
2022 record: 10-3, 5-3 ACC
Expected returning starters: 7 offense, 9 defense, 2 special teams
Expected key losses: FS Jammie Robinson, G Dillan Gibbons, G D’Mitri Emmanuel, WR Ontaria Wilson, NT Robert Cooper, OT Jazston Turnetine
Expected key additions: WR Hykeem Williams, TE Jaheim Bell, TE Kyle Morlock, OL Jeremiah Byers, OL Casey Roddick, DT Darrell Jackson, DT Braden Fiske, CB Fentrell Cypress II
Outlook: It has taken longer than Florida State hoped, but the Seminoles have finally turned the corner and might be a legitimate ACC title and CFP contender in 2023. In coach Mike Norvell’s third season, the Seminoles won 10 games for the first time since 2016 and won their last six contests. Quarterback Jordan Travis might be a Heisman Trophy candidate next season and most of his top running backs and receivers are expected to return. Ole Miss’ Lane Kiffin can talk about being the transfer portal king, but Norvell has used it as well as anyone. Top tight end transfers Bell (South Carolina) and Morlock (Shorter) are nice additions. Two starters will have to be replaced on the offensive line; Byers, an All-Conference USA selection at UTEP, and Roddick, a team captain at Colorado, might be able to step right in. Jackson (Miami) and Fiske (Western Michigan) will add good depth to the defensive line, which welcomes back Fabien Lovett and Jared Verse, a potential top-10 pick, who returned for one more season. Cypress was one of the better cornerbacks in the portal.
5. Alabama Crimson Tide
2022 record: 11-2, 6-2 SEC
Expected returning starters: 5 offense, 5 defense, 1 special teams
Expected key losses: LB Will Anderson Jr., QB Bryce Young, RB Jahmyr Gibbs, LB Henry To’oTo’o, SS Jordan Battle, FS DeMarcco Hellams, G Emil Ekiyor Jr., S Brian Branch
Expected key additions: TE CJ Dippre, WR Malik Benson, OT Kadyn Proctor, OLB Jaquavious Russaw, DT James Smith, S Caleb Downs, CB Desmond Ricks, RB Richard Young
Outlook: It might seem like Alabama has reached a crossroads, but we have to remember how many times we’ve been here before. Yes, the Crimson Tide were uncharacteristically sloppy and undisciplined in 2022. They finished next-to-last in the SEC in penalties and 10th in turnover margin. That was a big reason Alabama lost twice — each on the last play of road games. Replacing Bryce Young, the 2021 Heisman Trophy winner, won’t be easy. Freshman Jalen Milroe struggled with ball security in limited time this past season; Ty Simpson was the No. 2 dual-threat quarterback in the 2022 ESPN 300. Alabama has to figure out a way to get better on the offensive line and at receiver. Benson, a junior college transfer, and Dippre, who caught 30 passes for 314 yards and three touchdowns at Maryland in 2022, might provide immediate help. Will Bill O’Brien be back to call plays on offense? Anderson and To’o To’o won’t be easily replaced on defense.
6. Penn State Nittany Lions
2022 record: 11-2, 7-2 Big Ten
Expected returning starters: 6 offense, 7 defense, 1 special teams
Expected key losses: QB Sean Clifford, WR Parker Washington, C Juice Scruggs, TE Brenton Strange, CB Joey Porter Jr., DE Nick Tarburton, DT PJ Mustipher, S Ji’Ayir Brown
Expected key additions: WR Devin Carter, CB Storm Duck, P Riley Thompson, S Elliot Washington, G J’ven Williams, G Alex Birchmeier, S King Mack
Outlook: After a couple of mediocre seasons, coach James Franklin has the Nittany Lions headed back in the right direction. Penn State won 11 games in 2022 and might be poised to challenge Michigan and Ohio State for a Big Ten title. Clifford departs at quarterback, but the coaching staff is excited about freshman Drew Allar, who was the No. 2 pocket passer in the 2022 ESPN 300. Many of Penn State’s best players this past season were freshmen or sophomores, including tailbacks Kaytron Allen and Nicholas Singleton, receiver KeAndre Lambert-Smith, cornerback Kalen King and linebacker Abdul Carter. The defense made tremendous strides under new coordinator Manny Diaz, finishing in the top 20 in the FBS in scoring defense, run defense and total defense. The Nittany Lions will play division crossover games against Iowa (home) and Illinois (road) next season, and they’ll play Ohio State on the road and Michigan at home.
7. USC Trojans
2022 record: 11-3, 8-1 Pac-12
Expected returning starters: 5 offense, 7 defense, 2 special teams
Expected key losses: WR Jordan Addison, G Andrew Vorhees, C Brett Neilon, OT Bobby Haskins, DE Tuli Tuipulotu, RB Travis Dye, CB Mekhi Blackmon, DE Nick Figueroa
Expected key additions: QB Malachi Nelson, WR Zachariah Branch, WR Makai Lemon, ILB Tackett Curtis, DT Kyon Barrs, WR Dorian Singer, LB Mason Cobb, CB Christian Roland-Wallace, OT Michael Tarquin, RB MarShawn Lloyd
Outlook: The Trojans just missed out on winning a Pac-12 championship and reaching the CFP in coach Lincoln Riley’s first season. Then they collapsed late against Tulane and lost 46-45 in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic. This past season looked all too familiar for a Riley-coached team: a Heisman Trophy winner leading an explosive offense and a defense that couldn’t stop anyone. The Trojans will have plenty of firepower coming back on offense in 2023, including Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams and receivers Mario Williams, Tahj Washington and Brenden Rice. Singer, who led the Pac-12 with 1,105 receiving yards at Arizona this past season, was a nice addition from the transfer portal. So was Cobb, who had 96 tackles at Oklahoma State, and Roland-Wallace, who started 29 games at Arizona the past three seasons. Tarquin was an important addition with three starters leaving the offensive line. The Trojans will play Notre Dame and Oregon on the road next season, and they’ll get UCLA, Utah and Washington at home.
8. LSU Tigers
2022 record: 10-4, 6-2 SEC
Expected returning starters: 10 offense, 5 defense, 2 special teams
Expected key losses: WR Kayshon Boutte, CB Jarrick Bernard-Converse, DL Ali Gaye, DL Jaquelin Roy, LB BJ Ojulari, S Jay Ward, CB Mekhi Garner
Expected key additions: CB Denver Harris, WR Aaron Anderson, DT Paris Shand, DT Jalen Lee, DE Bradyn Swinson, DT Jordan Jefferson, WR Shelton Sampson Jr., CB Javien Toviano, CB Zy Alexander
Outlook: After all the concerns about whether former Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly would be a good cultural fit at LSU, he proved to be what he has always been — a good football coach. The Tigers won 10 games, stunned Alabama and captured the SEC West in his first season. Quarterback Jayden Daniels will return, along with all five starting offensive linemen. Receiver Malik Nabers is a future NFL first-round pick after catching 72 passes for 1,017 yards in 2022. The Tigers will have some holes to fill on defense, but the return of defensive tackle Maason Smith from a torn ACL will outweigh any of them. Kelly dipped into the transfer portal to land Shand, Lee and Swinson to give them SEC-like depth on the defensive front. The Tigers open the 2023 season against Florida State in Orlando, and play SEC road games at Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Missouri and Alabama.
9. Oregon Ducks
2022 record: 10-3, 7-2 Pac-12
Expected returning starters: 6 offense, 5 defense, 2 special teams
Expected key losses: OT T.J. Bass, G Ryan Walk, C Alex Forsyth, OT Malaesala Aumavae-Laulu, LB Noah Sewell, CB Christian Gonzalez, DE DJ Johnson
Expected key additions: WR Traeshon Holden, WR Tez Johnson, LB Jestin Jacobs, OL Junior Angilau, OT Ajani Cornelius, CB Khyree Jackson, DE Matayo Uiagalelei, CB Daylen Austin
Outlook: Dan Lanning’s first season as a head coach started with a thud, as the Ducks fell to Georgia 49-3 in their opener. But Lanning and his staff did a remarkable job keeping the team together, finishing 10-3 and defeating North Carolina 28-27 in the San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl. The good news for 2023: Quarterback Bo Nix announced he’s coming back after throwing for 3,594 yards with 44 total touchdowns. The bad news: Four starters from a very experienced offensive line are expected to depart. Lanning worked the transfer portal hard to pick up Angilau, who was a multi-year starter at Texas before missing 2022 with an injury, and Cornelius, who was one of the top transfers from Rhode Island. Lanning helped build a defense that led Georgia to a national title in 2021, but his first unit at Oregon wasn’t very good. Losing Sewell, Gonzalez and Johnson won’t make things easier. Lanning proved his recruiting chops by signing the No. 8 class in the FBS, according to ESPN Recruiting.
10. Tennessee Volunteers
2022 record: 11-2, 6-2 SEC
Expected key losses: QB Hendon Hooker, WR Jalin Hyatt, WR Cedric Tillman, OT Darnell Wright, DE Byron Young, DE LaTrell Bumphus, LB Jeremy Banks, S Trevon Flowers
Expected key additions: QB Nicholaus Iamaleava, DE Chandavian Bradley, WR Cameron Seldon, LB Caleb Herring, OT Andrej Karic, LB Keenan Pili, TE McCallan Castles
Outlook: The Volunteers enjoyed their best campaign in more than two decades and finally returned to national relevancy. Now, Josh Heupel has to replace many of the key pieces from his high-flying offense, including Hooker and star wideouts Hyatt and Tillman. Michigan transfer Joe Milton played well during a 31-14 victory over Clemson in the Capital One Orange Bowl, throwing for 251 yards with three touchdowns. Iamaleava, an incoming freshman from Downey, California, was the No. 6 pocket passer in the ESPN 300. Offensive coordinator Alex Golesh was hired as South Florida’s coach, and Heupel promoted quarterbacks coach Joey Halzle as his replacement. The Volunteers have to figure out a way to get better on defense, and they’ll have to do it without top pass-rusher Young and three other starters. Tennessee will play games against SEC West foes Alabama (road) and Texas A&M (home), and it’ll face Georgia at home.
11. Washington Huskies
2022 record: 11-2, 7-2 Pac-12
Expected returning starters: 7 offense, 7 defense, 1 special teams
Expected key losses: G Jaxson Kirkland, C Corey Luciano, G Henry Bainivalu, RB Wayne Taulapapa, DE Jeremiah Martin, LB Cam Bright, S Alex Cook
Expected key additions: WR Germie Bernard, DE Zach Durfee, LB Ralen Goforth, TE Josh Cuevas, DE Joe Moore, RB Daniyel Ngata, CB Jabar Muhammad, CB Caleb Presley, ATH Rashid Williams
Outlook: Kalen DeBoer, who won three NAIA national championships at the University of Sioux Falls, didn’t need long to completely transform Washington’s program. After going 4-8 in 2021, the Huskies finished 11-2 this past season. They beat rivals Oregon and Washington State and four ranked opponents. With quarterback Michael Penix Jr. deciding to come back, along with a handful of other underclassmen who were eligible for the NFL draft, Washington might be a CFP sleeper in 2023. Penix Jr. flourished in DeBoer’s offense, throwing for 4,641 yards with 31 touchdowns. The Huskies will have to rebuild their interior offensive line, but most of its skill players are expected back. Leading tackler Cook and Bright are key losses on defense.
12. TCU Horned Frogs
2022 record: 13-2, 9-0 Big 12
Expected returning starters: 5 offense, 7 defense, 0 special teams
Expected key losses: QB Max Duggan, RB Kendre Miller, WR Quentin Johnston, G Steve Avila, C Alan Ali, DE Dylan Horton, DE Terrell Cooper, CB Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson
Expected key additions: DE Avion Carter, CB Jamel Johnson, OT Markis Deal, WR Cordale Russell, CB Channing Canada, CB Mason White, WR JoJo Earle, CB Avery Helm, WR Jack Bech, OT Tommy Brockermeyer
Outlook: The Horned Frogs struck paydirt in hiring former SMU coach Sonny Dykes, as he led them to a 12-0 record in the regular season and an unexpected trip to the CFP after starting the season unranked. Maintaining that success isn’t going to be easy. With some key additions through the transfer portal, however, TCU should remain a Big 12 title contender. Duggan is gone after a storybook senior season. Chandler Morris, who opened the 2022 season as the starter, is in line to replace him, although Dykes said he might add another passer from the transfer portal. Miller, the leading rusher, and Johnson, the top receiver, are also probably entering the NFL draft. TCU’s nonconference schedule in 2023 includes home games against Colorado, FCS program Nicholls and SMU.
13. Utah Utes
2022 record: 10-4, 7-2 Pac-12
Expected returning starters: 7 offense, 8 defense, 2 special teams
Expected key losses: TE Dalton Kincaid, CB Clark Phillips III, LB Mohamoud Diabate, OT Braeden Daniels, RB Micah Bernard, RB Tavion Thomas, DE Gabe Reid
Expected key additions: LB Levani Damuni, DE Logan Fano, CB Miles Battle, OT Spencer Fano, DE Hunter Clegg, RB Michael Mitchell, ATH Dijon Stanley
Outlook: The Utes have reached unprecedented heights by winning back-to-back Pac-12 championships and making consecutive trips to the Rose Bowl. Unfortunately, both of those games ended in losses after starting quarterback Cam Rising was hurt. Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said Rising’s leg injury wasn’t good and his recovery would take a while. It’s unclear how much that affected his decision to return to Utah for one more season. Rising announced on Monday that he’s coming back, and if he’s healthy, the Utes could be very good again in 2023. Kincaid is leaving, along with leading rushers Thomas and Bernard, who entered the transfer portal. Phillips was one of the best cornerbacks in the country and is also departing. Damuni, a team captain at Stanford last season, might be able to replace Diabate at middle linebacker.
14. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
2022 record: 9-4
Expected returning starters: 6 offense, 6 defense, 1 special teams
Expected key losses: TE Michael Mayer, QB Drew Pyne, G Jarrett Patterson, G Josh Lugg, LB Marist Liufau, DL Isaiah Foskey, S Brandon Joseph, CB TaRiq Bracy
Expected key additions: QB Sam Hartman, LB Jaiden Ausberry, WR Braylon James, OT Charles Jagusah, CB Drayk Bowen, RB Jeremiyah Love, K Spencer Shrader, P Ben Krimm, WR Kaleb Smith
Outlook: Things could have gotten ugly for Notre Dame in Marcus Freeman’s first season as coach, especially after an 0-2 start that included a home loss to Marshall. A 16-14 defeat against Stanford at home wasn’t much better. But Freeman and his staff got things back on track by winning six of seven games, including a 45-38 victory against South Carolina in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl. Former starting quarterback Pyne transferred to Arizona State, but the Irish landed former Wake Forest starter Hartman, who has thrown for nearly 13,000 yards with 110 touchdowns during five seasons with Wake Forest. He’ll compete with Tyler Buchner, who had five touchdowns against the Gamecocks. The top three tailbacks and three starting offensive linemen are expected to return, although Mayer won’t easily be replaced. Top pass rushers Foskey and Jayson Ademilola are moving on as well.
15. Clemson Tigers
2022 record: 11-3, 8-0 ACC
Expected returning starters: 8 offense, 8 defense, 1 special teams
Expected key losses: DT Bryan Bresee, DE Myles Murphy, LB Trenton Simpson, OT Jordan McFadden, QB DJ Uiagalelei, TE Davis Allen
Expected key additions: QB Christopher Vizzina, DT Peter Woods, DT Vic Burley, G Harris Sewell, LB Jamal Anderson, DE Tomarrion Parker, QB Paul Tyson
Outlook: The sky isn’t falling over Death Valley, but Dabo Swinney’s dynasty did seem to show some crack the past couple of seasons. Swinney set the ceiling ridiculously high by winning two national championships in three years, in 2016 and 2018, and the Tigers went a combined 21-6 the past two seasons. But Clemson’s talent level seemed to slip behind Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State, and now much of the star power from its ridiculously talented defensive line is leaving for the NFL draft. Uiagalelei entered the transfer portal after he was benched and transferred to Oregon State. The Cade Klubnik era started during the loss to Tennessee in the Orange Bowl. Four starting offensive linemen are expected back, and receiver Antonio Williams played well as a freshman. There are some solid pieces around Klubnik. The Tigers play nonconference games against Notre Dame (home) and South Carolina (road) in 2023.
16. Texas Longhorns
2022 record: 8-5, 6-3 Big 12
Expected returning starters: 9 offense, 6 defense, 1 special teams
Expected key losses: RB Bijan Robinson, RB Roschon Johnson, OT Christian Jones, LB DeMarvion Overshown, S Anthony Cook, DE Ovie Oghoufo, NT Keondre Coburn
Expected key additions: QB Arch Manning, CB Anthony Hill, WR Johntay Cook II, RB Cedric Baxter Jr., CB Gavin Holmes, K Ryan Sanborn, CB Malik Muhammad, S Derek Williams
Outlook: The Longhorns made some progress in Steve Sarkisian’s second season, but it might not be enough to quiet critics on the Forty Acres. Sarkisian is 13-12 in two seasons, including a 2-7 record against ranked opponents. This past season, Texas lost five games by seven points or less. For Texas to take the next step before it potentially moves to the SEC in 2024, quarterback Quinn Ewers is going to have to be more accurate and consistent. The Longhorns won’t have Robinson and Johnson to lean on. The good news is four starting offensive linemen are returning, as well as the top three receivers. Overshown and Cook are big losses on defense.
17. Oregon State Beavers
2022 record: 10-3, 6-3 Pac-12
Expected returning starters: 8 offense, 6 defense, 1 special teams
Expected key losses: G Brandon Kipper, WR Tre’Shaun Harrison, WR Tyjon Lindsey, LB Kyrei Fisher-Morris, S Jaydon Grant, CB Alex Austin, CB Rejzohn Wright, LB/FB Jack Colletto
Expected key additions: QB DJ Uiagalelei, OL Grant Starck, DE Oluwaseyi Omotosho, DE Kelze Howard, QB Aidan Chiles, WR Montrel Hatten, DE Nikko Taylor
Outlook: Jonathan Smith has quietly done remarkable work at his alma mater, guiding the Beavers to only their third 10-win campaign in school history this past season. The Beavers closed the season with four straight victories, including a 30-3 rout of Florida in the SRS Distribution Las Vegas Bowl. Oregon State ranked 11th in the Pac-12 in passing in 2022, and Smith hopes Uiagalelei, a former starter at Clemson, can once again find his confidence. Four starting offensive linemen are expected back; Starck, a 12-game starter at Nevada in 2022, might fill the lone hole. Omotosho had 6½ sacks and 46 tackles at Wyoming last season. The Beavers will have to replace three starters in the secondary. Oregon State’s nonconference schedule in 2023 isn’t overwhelming, and it will play Pac-12 opponents UCLA, Utah and Washington at home.
18. Kansas State Wildcats
2022 record: 10-4, 7-2 Big 12
Expected returning starters: 8 offense, 6 defense, 1 special teams
Expected key losses: RB Deuce Vaughn, QB Adrian Martinez, WR Kade Warner, NG Eli Huggins, CB Julius Brents
Expected key additions: CB Marques Sigle, WR Keagan Johnson, QB Avery Johnson, LB Asa Newsom, S Will Lee, LB Rex Van Wyhe, LB Terry Kirksey Jr.
Outlook: The Wildcats were the only team to defeat TCU during the regular season, and their 31-28 victory in overtime in the Big 12 championship game earned them a trip to the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Now, the Wildcats will move on without Vaughn, who ran for 3,604 yards and 34 touchdowns during his celebrated career. At least quarterback Will Howard is coming back. All five starters might return on the offensive line if a few seniors decide to come back as super seniors. Defensive end Felix Anudike-Uzomah and cornerback Ekow Boye-Doe also are mulling over whether to enter the NFL draft. Sigle, a transfer from North Dakota State, could help shore up a secondary that might lose as many as four starters.
19. Tulane Green Wave
2022 record: 12-2, 7-1 AAC
Expected returning starters: 6 offense, 6 defense, 2 special teams
Expected key losses: RB Tyjae Spears, WR Duece Watts, WR Shae Wyatt, OT Joey Claybrook, LB Dorian Williams, LB Nick Anderson, S Larry Brooks, S Macon Clark
Expected key additions: DE A.J. Thomas, RB Trey Cornist, OT Cameron Wire, WR Dontae Fleming, LB Tyler Grubbs, CB A.J. Hampton, S Daruis Swanson, S Kevin Adams
Outlook: The Green Wave’s remarkable turnaround from 2-10 in 2021 to 12-2 in 2022 included an upset of Big 12 champion Kansas State and a stunning comeback victory against USC in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic. They also pulled off a minor upset by keeping coach Willie Fritz from leaving for Georgia Tech. Tulane won its first AAC title and played in its first major bowl game since 1939. Spears, who ran for 1,581 yards with 19 touchdowns, is leaving for the NFL, as well as top wideouts Wyatt and Watts. But quarterback Michael Pratt decided to stick around, and four starting offensive linemen should be back. The defense will have to replace its top four tacklers, which won’t be easy. The Green Wave hosts Ole Miss on Sept. 9.
20. Ole Miss Rebels
2022 record: 8-5, 4-4 SEC
Expected returning starters: 7 offense, 6 offense, 1 special teams
Key losses: RB Zach Evans, G Nick Broeker, WR Jonathan Mingo, WR Malik Heath, NT KD Hill, DE Tavius Robinson, LB Troy Brown, S AJ Finley
Key additions: WR Tre Harris, DB John Saunders Jr., K Caden Davis, DL Joshua Harris, LB Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste, WR Chris Marshall, ATH Suntarine Perkins, WR Ayden Williams
Outlook: The Rebels were very good during the first two months of the 2022, starting 7-0 and debuting at No. 11 in the initial CFP selection committee’s rankings. But then the bottom fell out for Ole Miss, as it lost five of its last six games, including the ugly defeat to Texas Tech in the Texas Bowl. Coach Lane Kiffin flirted with Auburn but signed an extension instead. The good news is tailback Quinshon Judkins ran for 1,567 yards with 16 touchdowns as a freshman. Four of five starting offensive linemen are coming back. Jaxson Dart played pretty well but threw 11 interceptions. The Rebels have flirted with two other quarterbacks: Oklahoma State’s Spencer Sanders and Vanderbilt’s Mike Wright. Kiffin signed Harris (Louisiana Tech) and Marshall (Texas A&M) after losing Mingo and Heath, the top two receivers this past season. On defense, three of the top four tacklers are departing, as is leading pass-rusher Robinson.
21. North Carolina Tar Heels
2022 record: 9-5, 6-2 ACC
Expected returning starters: 7 offense, 8 defense, 2 special teams
Expected key losses: OT Asim Richards, G Ed Montilus, WR Josh Downs, WR Antoine Green, DB Cam’Ron Kelly, DB Storm Duck, DB Tony Grimes
Expected key additions: WR Devontez Walker, WR Nate McCollum, S Derrik Allen, CB Armani Chatman, LB Amari Gainer, CB Alijah Huzzie, K Ryan Coe, G Willie Lampkin, QB Tad Hudson, DT Joel Starlings
Outlook: Quarterback Drake Maye, a leading Heisman Trophy candidate in 2023, is a big reason the Tar Heels are here. He passed for 4,321 yards with 38 touchdowns and led the team in rushing with 698 yards while scoring seven touchdowns. Coach Mack Brown has to find Maye some help. Downs and Green, who were Maye’s favorite targets, are departing; McCollum and Walker led Georgia Tech and Kent State, respectively, in receiving in 2022. Three starters might be back on the offensive line; Brown hired new offensive line coach Randy Clements with hopes of improving the running game and red zone offense. Former UCF offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey replaces Phil Longo, who left for Wisconsin. UNC’s defense was a mess under first-year coordinator Gene Chizik. There’s going to be a ton of turnover in the secondary, which might not be a bad thing. Linebackers Cedric Gray and Power Echols are nice building blocks.
22. UTSA Roadrunners
2022 record: 11-3, 8-0 C-USA
Expected returning starters: 8 offense, 7 defense, 1 special teams
Expected key losses: C Ahofitu Maka, G Terrell Haynes, G Kevin Davis, LB Dadrian Taylor, LB Trevor Harmanson, CB Corey Mayfield Jr., FS Clifford Chattman
Expected key additions: DT Vic Shaw, OT Buffalo Kruize, RB Robert Henry, WR Willie McCoy, DE Nnanna Anyanwu, CB Marcellus Wilkerson, QB Owen McCown
Outlook: The Roadrunners’ swan song in Conference USA ended with a second straight conference title and another double-digit-win campaign. UTSA is 23-5 the past two seasons and will move to the AAC in 2023. At least they’ll have quarterback Frank Harris for a seventh season after he threw for 4,059 yards and accounted for 41 total touchdowns. UTSA will have to rebuild its interior offensive line, but almost everyone else is coming back on that side of the ball. UTSA coach Jeff Traylor will have to find a new playcaller; co-offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Will Stein left for Oregon and Matt Mattox was hired as Purdue’s offensive line coach. Three of the top four tacklers are departing, but freshman Trey Moore and Jamal Ligon are coming back.
23. Texas Tech Red Raiders
2022 record: 8-5, 5-4 Big 12
Expected returning starters: 9 offense, 7 defense, 1 special teams
Expected key losses: DE Tyree Wilson, LB Kosi Eldridge, S Marquis Waters, RB SaRodorick Thompson, G Weston Wright, K Trey Wolff, LB Krishon Merriweather
Expected key additions: WR Drae McCray, S CJ Baskerville, C Rusty Staats, DT Quincy Ledet Jr., DE Dylan Spencer, QB Jake Strong, S Brenden Jordan
Outlook: Texas Tech’s hiring of Joey McGuire, a former Texas high school coach who was Baylor’s associate head coach, is already paying big dividends. In his first campaign, the Red Raiders beat Oklahoma and Texas in the same season for the first time, had a winning record in Big 12 play for the first time since 2009 and won their last four games, including a 42-25 victory over Ole Miss in the TaxAct Texas Bowl. Tech rewarded McGuire with a new six-year contract before the bowl game. Tech’s talented receiver corps is going to get even deeper with the addition of McCray, who led the Atlantic Sun in receptions and receiving yards at Austin Peay in 2022. Staats, a two-time All-Conference USA center at Western Kentucky, will help shore up the offensive line. Quarterback Tyler Shough has already announced he’s returning, along with six senior starters on defense who will take advantage of a COVID-19 bonus season.
24. James Madison Dukes
2022 record: 8-3, 6-2 Sun Belt
Expected returning starters: 5 offense, 9 defense, 1 special teams
Expected key losses: QB Todd Centeio, RB Percy Agyei-Obese, WR Terrance Greene Jr., WR Devin Ravenel, WR Kris Thornton, TE Drew Painter, DT Jamare Edwards, CB Jordan Swann
Expected key additions: QB Jordan McCloud, RB Ty Son Lawton, WR Phoenix Sproles, WR Omarion Dollison, WR Elijah Sarratt, TE Taylor Thompson, DB Tre’Von Jones
Outlook: The Dukes’ first season in the FBS was a smashing success, and they seem built to be a regular contender for a Sun Belt championship. The Dukes knocked off Appalachian State 32-28 and blasted Coastal Carolina 47-7 in the regular-season finale. James Madison wasn’t eligible for a bowl game during its transition from the FCS to FBS. Now, the Dukes will have to rebuild their offense, which loses its starting quarterback, leading rusher and four of its top five receivers. The entire offensive line is expected back, and coach Curt Cignetti brought in two transfer quarterbacks in McCloud (Arizona) and Brett Griffis (Wake Forest). Three receivers were added from the portal as well. The personnel losses won’t be as heavy on defense. The Dukes play road games at Virginia and Utah State and host UConn in 2023.
25. Iowa Hawkeyes
2022 record: 8-5, 5-4 Big Ten
Expected returning starters: 8 offense, 6 defense, 2 special teams
Expected key losses: LB Jack Campbell, CB Riley Moss, SS Kaevon Merriweather, DL Lukas Van Ness, DE John Waggoner, WR Arland Bruce IV, TE Sam LaPorta
Expected key additions: QB Cade McNamara, TE Erick All, WR Seth Anderson, QB Deacon Hill, LB Ben Kueter, OT Trevor Lauck, DT Anterio Thompson
Outlook: It’s a shame the Hawkeyes were so woefully inept on offense this past season because their defense was very good. Iowa ranked 130th in the FBS in total offense (only New Mexico was worse); it was second in scoring defense (only Illinois was better). Will coach Kirk Ferentz make changes on offense or hope things get better with McNamara, a former Michigan starter, coming on board? Iowa’s offense was plagued by a young offensive line and depleted receiver corps in 2022. The defense loses many of its stars, including Campbell, Moss, Van Ness and Merriweather. As bad as Iowa’s offense was in 2022, three of its five defeats were by seven points or fewer. It can’t get much worse. The Hawkeyes avoid Michigan and Ohio State during the regular season. They play seven home games but travel to Penn State and Wisconsin.
Just missed the Top 25: South Carolina, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Mississippi State, Pittsburgh, Oklahoma, UCLA, Troy, Maryland and Boise State
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.