2023 college football picks, predictions by conference

ByMark Schlabach ESPN logo
Monday, August 21, 2023

Just when it looked like college football was settling down for the final season of a four-team playoff, conference realignment shook up the sport once again.

UCLAand USCare leaving the Pac-12 for the Big Ten in 2024, along with Oregonand Washington. Arizona, Arizona State, Coloradoand Utahare jumping to the Big 12, leaving the Pac-12 on life support.

What else has changed? Matt Rhule is coaching Nebraska, Deion Sanders is at Colorado, Hugh Freeze is back at Auburnand Luke Fickell will be on Wisconsin's sideline.

What hasn't changed? Two-time defending national champion Georgiais still the team to beat in the FBS. The Bulldogs, 29-1 the past two seasons, will attempt to join Minnesota (1934 to 1936) as the sport's only teams to win three national titles in a row.

Before the 2023 season kicks off with seven games Saturday, here are predictions heading into the year.



Champion: Florida State

Offensive player of the year: Drake Maye, QB, North Carolina

Defensive player of the year: Jared Verse, DE, Florida State

Freshman of the year: Peter Woods, DL, Clemson

Impact transfer: Brennan Armstrong, QB, NC State

Comeback player of the year: Mike Hollins, RB, Virginia

Coach of the year: Mike Norvell, Florida State

Coach on the hot seat: Dino Babers,Syracuse

Coordinator who will be a head coach: Garrett Riley, offensive coordinator, Clemson

Nonconference game of the year: Florida State vs. LSU, Sept. 3 (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC)

Conference game of the year: Florida State at Clemson, Sept. 23

Three predictions for the ACC

Clemson beats Florida State (but not twice): With quarterback Jordan Travis returning, along with another boatload of key transfers, Florida State believes it finally has enough firepower to topple Clemson. But the Seminoles have to play at Death Valley on Sept. 23. The Tigers should be better on offense with Riley calling plays and quarterback Cade Klubnik getting a full offseason of work in the offense. The Tigers are again going to be tough to block, especially if Woods is as good as advertised. Clemson will win the regular-season meeting, but Florida State will win the rematch -- and end an eight-game losing streak to the Tigers -- in the ACC championship game. The SEC still won't call with an invitation to join.

Maye wins the Heisman: In his first season as a starter, Maye threw for 4,321 yards with 38 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner, USC'sCaleb Williams, and Maye were the only FBS quarterbacks to throw for 4,000 yards with at least 35 touchdowns and fewer than 10 interceptions last season. Chip Lindsey takes over the offensive playcalling after coordinator Phil Longo left for Wisconsin. Maye's top receivers from last season, Josh Downs and Antoine Green, left for the NFL. Adding former Georgia Techreceiver Nate McCollum will help tremendously, and the Tar Heels are still hoping to get Kent Statetransfer Devontez Walker eligible. The Tar Heels have to do a better job protecting Maye after he was sacked 40 times last season.

Hollins has a 100-yard game: There won't be a better moment in the sport this season than when Virginia running back Mike Hollins runs for more than 100 yards and scores a couple of touchdowns against James Madisonon Sept. 9. Hollins survived a shooting last November that killed teammates Lavel Davis Jr., Devin Chandler and D'Sean Perry. Hollins was shot in the abdomen and was hospitalized for a week. Remarkably, he returned to practice in the spring. His comeback will be one of the most inspirational stories of the season.

Big Ten

Champion: Michigan

Offensive player of the year: Marvin Harrison Jr., WR, Ohio State

Defensive player of the year: Jer'Zhan Newton, DL, Illinois

Freshman of the year: Bai Jobe, DE, Michigan State

Impact transfer: Tanner Mordecai, QB, Wisconsin (fromSMU)

Comeback player of the year: TreVeyon Henderson, RB, Ohio State

Coach of the year: Luke Fickell, Wisconsin

Coach on the hot seat: Tom Allen, Indiana

Coordinator who will be a head coach: Jesse Minter, defensive coordinator, Michigan

Nonconference game of the year: Ohio State at Notre Dame, Sept. 23

Conference game of the year: Ohio State at Michigan, Nov. 25

Three predictions for the Big Ten

Michigan beats Ohio State again: The Wolverines believe this season might be their best chance at winning their first national championship since 1997. Quarterback J.J. McCarthy is entering his second season as the undisputed starter. Tailback Blake Corum is back after running for 1,463 yards and 18 touchdowns last season. So is Donovan Edwards, who ran for 991 yards with seven scores in 2022. Stanfordtransfers Myles Hinton and Drake Nugent and Arizona State transfer LaDarius Henderson will provide experience and depth up front. The Wolverines will fall at Penn Stateon Nov. 11, but they'll rebound to beat Ohio State, again, at the Big House on Nov. 25.

Two Big Ten teams make the CFP: Ohio State fans will be steaming mad about a third straight loss to Michigan in The Game, which will be the Wolverines' longest winning streak since taking three in a row from 1995 to 1997. The Buckeyes will get over it when they're one of two Big Ten teams to make the four-team playoff. The Buckeyes have to replace quarterback C.J. Stroud; coach Ryan Day still hasn't picked between sophomore Devin Brown or junior Kyle McCord. Regardless of who starts under center, the offense is going to be loaded with Harrison and receiver Emeka Egbuka and tailbacks Miyan Williams and Henderson coming back. The offensive line will have to grow up fast, and the defense will have to play better than a year ago. With road wins at Notre Dame and Wisconsin and a home win over Penn State, the Buckeyes will have enough meat on their résumé to make the CFP even after losing to Michigan.

Wisconsin wins the West: It's probably a toss-up between Wisconsin andIowa, but I'll go with the team that won't have to try to win every game by holding opponents to 10 points or fewer. The Badgers are going to look completely different on offense under first-year coach Luke Fickell. Mordecai threw for 3,524 yards with 33 touchdowns and 10 interceptions at SMU last season. New offensive coordinator Phil Longo is implementing his version of the Air Raid offense. Top receivers Chimere Dike and Skyler Bell are back, as is tailback Braelon Allen, who ran for 1,242 yards last season. If the Badgers can survive an early trip to Washington State, they should be 5-0 heading into an Oct. 14 home game against Iowa.

Big 12

Champion: Texas

Offensive player of the year: Jalon Daniels, QB Kansas

Defensive player of the year: Jaylan Ford, LB, Texas

Freshman of the year: Anthony Hill, LB, Texas

Impact transfer: Dasan McCullough, LB, Oklahoma

Comeback player of the year: WRAD Mitchell, Texas (from Georgia)

Coach of the year: Joey McGuire, Texas Tech

Coach on the hot seat: Neal Brown, West Virginia

Coordinator who will be a head coach: Jeff Grimes, offensive coordinator, Baylor

Nonconference game of the year: Texas at Alabama, Sept. 9 (7 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App)

Conference game of the year: Oklahoma at Oklahoma State, Nov. 4

Three predictions for the Big 12

Texas is back: No, really. The Longhorns have all the pieces in place to win 10 games or more. As long as they keep it between the lines off the field, they should have a chance to win their first Big 12 title since 2009 in their final season in the league. If you believe coach Steve Sarkisian, quarterback Quinn Ewers put in the work this summer to improve and has matured. Mitchell, who had two of the biggest catches in Georgia history, is a special athlete and should take pressure off Xavier Worthy. All five starters are back on what should be a good offensive line. If a couple of transfer portal additions -- safety Jalen Catalon from Arkansas and cornerback Gavin Holmes from Wake Forest-- step up in the secondary and Hill is as good as advertised, the defense should be good enough.

The Pokes win the last Bedlam game: With Oklahoma joining Texas in the SEC in 2024, the long-running Bedlam Series between OU and rival Oklahoma State will go by the wayside like too many other great rivalry games that have been the victims of conference realignment. The Sooners and Cowboys have played 117 times since 1904. OU has a whopping 91-19-7 advantage in the series. The Pokes will get the last laugh in Stillwater with a 31-28 victory on Nov. 4.

Oklahoma bounces back: There's no way a Brent Venables-coached defense can be that bad again. In the former Clemson defensive coordinator's first season as OU's coach, the Sooners ranked 122nd out of 131 FBS teams in total defense, allowing 461 yards and 30 points. They were ninth in the Big 12 in run defense (187.5 yards) and dead last against the pass (273.5 yards). With the addition of McCullough and five other defensive linemen out of the transfer portal, Venables should have enough bodies up front to play defense the way he's used to. With quarterback Dillon Gabriel coming back, OU won't have to worry about scoring.


Champion: USC

Offensive player of the year: Caleb Williams, QB, USC

Defensive player of the year: Laiatu Latu, LB, UCLA

Freshman of the year: Dante Moore, QB, UCLA

Impact transfer: Dorian Singer, WR, USC (from Arizona)

Comeback player of the year: Brant Kuithe, TE, Utah

Coach of the year: Kalen DeBoer, Washington

Coach on the hot seat: Justin Wilcox,California

Coordinator who will be a head coach: Ryan Grubb, offensive coordinator, Washington

Nonconference game of the year: USC at Notre Dame, Oct. 14

Conference game of the year: Washington at USC, Nov. 4

Three predictions for the Pac-12

A Pac-12 team makes the CFP: In what will be the final season of the Pac-12 as we know it, one of its teams will finally make the CFP. A Pac-12 team hasn't made the four-team playoff since Washington fell to Alabama in a semifinal in 2016. Even worse, three of the past four Pac-12 champions in full seasons (not counting the COVID-delayed 2020 slate) had three losses or more. With former Oklahoma State linebacker Mason Cobb and other key transfers shoring up the defense, USC will finally figure out how to slow down opponents and win the Pac-12. As far as a Lincoln Riley-coached team winning a CFP semifinal, well, let's talk about that later.

Two Pac-12 quarterbacks in New York for the Heisman Trophy presentation: Williams, who returns to USC for his final season in college football, will attempt to become only the second player to win the Heisman Trophy twice. Former Ohio State running back Archie Griffin is the only two-time winner, in 1974 and 1975. Williams could be even better this year with former Arizona Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury tutoring him. As good as Williams was last season, Washington's Michael Penix Jr. led the Pac-12 in passing yards (4,641) and had 31 touchdowns and eight picks. Both will be Heisman Trophy finalists.

Coach Prime's first season at Colorado isn't pretty: There has been plenty of hype and controversy surrounding Deion Sanders' move from FCS program Jackson State to Colorado in the offseason. The Buffaloes are going to be one of the most compelling teams in the country, but they're not going to be very good. Colorado went 1-11 last season, 1-8 in the Pac-12. Sanders and his staff tried to trade out beans and franks ingredients for beef Wellington overnight, but it won't make much of a difference. It wouldn't be surprising to see TCU hang half-a-hundred on the Buffaloes in the Sept. 2 opener.


Champion: Georgia

Offensive player of the year: Brock Bowers, TE, Georgia

Defensive player of the year: Harold Perkins Jr., LB, LSU

Freshman of the year: Caleb Downs, S, Alabama

Impact transfer: Devin Leary, QB, Kentucky(from NC State)

Comeback player of the year: Maason Smith, DL, LSU

Coach of the year: Brian Kelly, LSU

Coach on the hot seat: Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M

Coordinator who will be a head coach: Glenn Schumann, defensive coordinator, Georgia

Nonconference game of the year: LSU vs. Florida State in Orlando, Florida, Sept. 3 (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC)

Conference game of the year: LSU at Alabama, Nov. 4

Three predictions for the SEC

Texas A&M's Bobby Petrino wins the Broyles Award: Jimbo Fisher's decision to turn his offense over to Petrino, a former Arkansas and Louisville coach, reeked of desperation after last season's 5-7 debacle. What if it actually works? The Aggies ranked 13th in the SEC in scoring (22.8), 11th in rushing (141.8 yards) and 10th in passing (219.4 yards) last season. Not good. With quarterbackConner Weigmantaking the next step with one of the league's better receiver corps, the Aggies should be much better on offense.

LSU beats Alabama in Tuscaloosa: It's basically a toss-up on which team will win the SEC West, but I'm going with the Tigers because of quarterback Jayden Daniels and the Tigers' stout front seven on defense. Daniels has to be better throwing the ball down the field for LSU's offense to prosper. There are also some holes in the secondary at DB U. Alabama is going to be steaming mad after falling to the Tigers 32-31 in overtime in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, last season. I just don't trust Alabama's quarterbacks and receiver corps, which was pretty underwhelming last season. The Tide's offensive line also has to play much better after surrendering 167 tackles for loss and 63 sacks the past two seasons combined.

Georgia quarterback Carson Beck is a Heisman Trophy finalist: Beck attempted only 35 passes as a backup last season, and he has the unenviable task of replacing Stetson Bennett, who led the Bulldogs to consecutive national championships. While Beck lacks Bennett's mobility, he does have a stronger arm. He's also going to benefit from something Bennett didn't have: a deep and talented receiver corps. Mississippi State Bulldogs transfer Rara Thomas and Missouri Tigers transfer Dominic Lovett give Beck two more options to go with Ladd McConkey, Bowers and others.

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