USA TODAY Sports Weekly
Can U of M be force?
The degree of roster turnover churning through the Football Bowl Subdivision makes it harder than ever to get a handle on the preseason Top 25.
But months after our postseason way-too-early Top 25 and with the transfer portal still in full swing, here’s what we know following the end of spring football:
Georgia is still the team to beat despite losing many key contributors to the portal and the NFL draft. Michigan looks like the Bulldogs’ strongest challenger. Unsurprisingly, the SEC and the Big Ten are the two strongest conferences in the FBS.
The rest remains up for some debate. Does Alabama have the quarterback to get back to the College Football Playoff? Is there room for a second Big Ten team? If so, is that team Penn State or Ohio State? Who rises to the top of a deep Pac-12? And is Texas ready to leap from eight wins to championship contention?
Our post-spring Top 25 takes it all into account. Here’s who’s chasing the Bulldogs and Wolverines:
Carson Beck is poised to replace Stetson Bennett after outplaying rivals Brock Vandergriff and Gunner Stockton during the spring. The running game should again be strong with Daijun Edwards and Kendall Milton handling the load. Defensively, the Bulldogs continue to lose possible contributors to the portal but remain loaded across the board in the chase for a third national championship in a row and a place in college football history.
An offensive line set to rebuild around multiple Power Five transfers will lead the way for another intimidating running game. Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards give the Wolverines an explosive backfield also capable of taking over games with tough yards inside the box. On paper, this is the strongest and deepest roster of the Jim Harbaugh era and a team worthy of being viewed as Georgia’s biggest threat. It will also benefit from an easy nonconference schedule and manageable Big Ten slate outside of Penn State and Ohio State.
Sophomore Jalen Milroe completed 19 of 37 attempts with two interceptions during the spring game while redshirt freshman Ty Simpson hit on 12 of 26 throws for 155 yards and one turnover. Both ran the ball well: Milroe continued to flash his athleticism following last year’s brief starting audition while Simp
son went for 62 yards with a game-high carry of 45 yards. Given this spring’s inconsistent production, it wasn’t surprising to see the Tide dip into the portal to nab Notre Dame transfer Tyler Buchner, reuniting the former starter with new Alabama coordinator Tommy Rees. The defense has some questions, notably in the secondary.
4. Penn State
One area where Penn State has made huge gains in the past several seasons is on the offensive line, seemingly an area of concern throughout coach James Franklin’s tenure. Led by All-American left tackle Olu Fashanu, this year’s group has a case for being counted among the Big Ten’s best thanks to increased depth and experience. They’ll lead the way for a young but immensely gifted backfield with quarterback Drew Allar taking over for Sean Clifford and running back Nicholas Singleton ready to be one of the nation’s best. If Allar can meet his expectations, the Nittany Lions could be the best team in the Big Ten.
5. Florida State
The improvements made during the Mike Norvell era paint the Seminoles as one of the fast-rising teams in the FBS and a potential breakout candidate in 2023. They have a Heisman contender in quarterback Jordan Travis, one of the top edge rushers in the country in Jared Verse, better depth on both lines and a very solid receiver corps. Florida State – not Clemson – enters the season as the favorite for the ACC title for the first time in a long time.
6. Ohio State
There are personnel issues, including an ongoing competition at quarterback, and there are bigger-picture concerns heading into coach Ryan Day’s fifth season. Front and center among those larger worries is the Buckeyes’ inability for the past two seasons to stop Michigan and combat the Wolverines’ physical play. Day and Ohio State can make any number of personnel changes but won’t get back to the playoff without solving what Michigan brings to the table. For now, the Buckeyes are third in their division.
7. Notre Dame
The Irish could be transformed by the addition of Wake Forest transfer Sam Hartman, who put a stranglehold on the starting job with a very strong spring. His stability and production solidify the quarterback position and provides even more reason for optimism heading into Marcus Freeman’s second year. The Irish won nine of 11 to end last season after a 0-2 start. Can they continue that momentum with home game with Ohio State looming late in September?
It’s all about how quickly Clemson can grasp new coordinator Garrett Riley’s scheme. Can the former TCU coordinator pull off a similar turnaround after helping the Horned Frogs make a ridiculously unexpected trip to last year’s championship game? He’ll have the young weapon at quarterback in Cade Klubnik but some questions persist about the quality and depth of the Tigers receiver corps. The defense also has to rebound after finishing outside the top 20 in scoring for the first time since 2015.
Too soon? Texas did have a historically bad 2021 season under Steve Sarkisian before taking a step forward into the Top 25 last year. The Longhorns will stick with Quinn Ewers at quarterback and surround the second-year starter with a deeper collection of skill talent, though there’s a huge void to fill with the loss of star running back Bijan Robinson. Texas has the strongest roster in the Big 12 and could surge back into the national conversation if Sarkisian is able to push the right buttons.
10. Southern Cal
The pressure is on defensive coordinator Alex Grinch to fix a defense that ranked 124th nationally last season in yards allowed per play. The Trojans lose a difference-making talent in lineman Tuli Tuipulotu but have added in a bunch of impressive transfers, most recently Georgia interior lineman Bear Alexander. He’s one of four Power Five transfers set to change the complexion of the defensive front. And if Southern Cal can get things working on defense? If so, this could be your national champion given the state of the Caleb Williams-led offense that is sure to produce points in bunches.
The Huskies keep flying under the radar despite a great 2022 season under coach Kalen DeBoer. The key to remaining a New Year’s Six threat might be a healthier running game to team with veteran quarterback Michael Penix. Washington has brought in two transfers in running backs Dillon Johnson (Mississippi
State) and Daniyel Ngata (Arizona State), who join returning contributors Cameron Davis and Richard Newton. Jalen McMillian and Rome Odunze both reached 1,000 yards receiving and could be the best combination in the country.
Joe Milton could seamlessly replace Hendon Hooker as the full-time quarterback and keep the Volunteers offense rolling as the best unit in the SEC. But Tennessee won’t make the leap from the New Year’s Six to the playoff without fixing a pass defense that allowed the thirdmost yards per game in the league. While the secondary is unlikely to finish in the top third of the conference, for example, the Volunteers can start by buttoning up the defensive lapses that lead to crooked totals put up by Florida, Alabama and South Carolina.
After a solid but still somewhat unsatisfying debut for Dan Lanning, the Ducks take aim at the Pac-12 crown with a few holes on the back seven. Oregon has to replace a top-end cornerback in Christian Gonzalez, an all-conference pick in linebacker Noah Sewell and last year’s leading tackler in safety Bennett Williams IV. But there’s help up front in South Carolina transfer Jordan Burch, who tapped into his sizable potential as a pass rusher last season and should be one of the best in the conference in 2023.
Getting back to an average of 25 points per game – the Hawkeyes averaged at least 24.9 every season from 2013 to 2020, by the way – demands that Iowa find some weapons for new quarterback Cade McNamara. One will be another Michigan transfer, tight end Erick All, who earned honorable mention all-conference honors in 2021. A rebuilt receiver corps features sixth-year senior Nico Ragaini, junior Diante Vines, Charleston Southern transfer Seth Anderson and redshirt freshman Jacob Bostick. With a defense that again should be stout, the bar is low for the offense, but they do need to get over it to avoid a repeat of last year’s frustrating campaign that has fans calling for the ouster of offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz.
Maybe no team in the SEC did a better job reloading its roster through the portal. This is especially true on defense. The Tigers ranked 51st in the FBS last season in yards given up per play but will surround established contributors such as edge rusher Harold Perkins and linebacker Greg Penn III with newcomers from Oregon State (linebacker Omar Speights), Syracuse (cornerback Duce Chestnut) and Texas A&M (Denver Harris). Harris is a special talent who played at a high level when on the field for the Aggies as a true freshman. Jayden Daniels should get better in his second year
as the starting quarterback, which will give the offense more balance.
16. North Carolina
Sophomore Drake Maye makes UNC a dark-horse contender in the ACC after throwing for 4,321 yards and 38 touchdowns in his first year as the starter. While the offense will have a different look under new coordinator Chip Lindsey – look for the running game to have more of a downhill feel – Maye can carry UNC through an early learning curve. A more pressing issue is the secondary. The Tar Heels will be helped by transfer cornerbacks Alijah Huzzie (East Tennessee State) and Armani Chatman (Virginia Tech), though Chatman missed the spring due to injury.
The two-time defending Pac-12 champions believe that quarterback Cam Rising is on track to be ready for the season opener after suffering a knee injury in the Rose Bowl. Despite the optimism, the Utes really need to develop a reliable backup in case Rising misses any time in September or struggles to regain the form that made him one of the league’s best. As of now, the favorite to grab that backup role is redshirt freshman Brandon Rose, who has created some distance between himself and contenders Bryson Barnes and redshirt freshman Nate Johnson, according to coach Kyle Whittingham.
A top-ranked recruiting class and a very strong transfer haul should beef up the pass rush after the Sooners finished tied for 58th in the country in 2022 with 28 sacks. The Sooners added transfers Trace Ford (Oklahoma State), Rondell Bothroyd (Wake Forest) and Devon Sears (Texas State) that should help the defensive line enormously. OU will also get a huge boost from Indiana transfer Dasan McCullough, who will play a hybrid linebacker role, and the program has huge hopes for true freshman Adepoju Adebawore. More will be needed from quarterback Dillon Gabriel after an up-anddown first season. He’ll have an unproven receiving group that must also help him out.
19. Oregon State
Oregon State won 10 games last season despite ranking 94th in the FBS in touchdown passes (16) and being one of seven teams in the Power Five to average under 200 passing yards per game. Adding
former Clemson quarterback DJ Uiagalelei won’t necessarily transform the Beavers’ passing game. But he’s a valuable starter and a measurable upgrade given his experience and ability to add another layer to the running game. An under-the-radar defense should again keep Oregon State in games and might get them in the mix for the conference title game.
20. Kansas State
The Wildcats have identified the replacements for All-American running back Deuce Vaughn in sophomore DJ Giddens and Florida State transfer Treshaun Ward. Giddens ran for 518 yards on 5.8 yards per carry as last year’s backup. Ward had 1,143 yards and 11
touchdowns on 6.5 yards per carry across the past two seasons. The offense may also get more on the ground from quarterback Will Howard, who made huge gains as a passer in 2022 but was not used in the running game due in part to a lack of depth at the position. Transfers beefed up the defense that will have Kansas State thinking of repeating its Big 12 title.
21. Texas-San Antonio
With 23 wins and a pair of Conference USA championships in the past two seasons, UTSA seems ready for the move to the American Athletic. This transition earned a huge boost from the return of veteran quarterback Frank Harris, one of the best in the Group of Five. But the
Roadrunners will have to prove themselves against a schedule that includes nonconference games against Houston, Army and Tennessee before taking on Alabama-Birmingham, East Carolina and Tulane in league play.
TCU will sneak up on absolutely nobody and likely spend this season wearing a target after last season’s ridiculous run to the national championship game. There won’t be a return trip in 2023. But despite losses to the NFL and transfer portal, Sonny Dykes’ second team will be deeper, more experienced and possibly just as good if not better on offense behind quarterback Chandler Morris. He won the starting job heading into last season before an injury gave way to Max Duggan. The skill positions will need retooling to avoid the close games that the Horned Frogs consistently won last year but may not this season.
23. Texas Tech
Tech is a breakout candidate after taking a step forward last fall under new coach Joey McGuire. Ten starters return on defense and another six on offense off a team that won eight games for the first time since 2013. While the offense should be better with another offseason to work on coordinator Zach Kittley’s system, the Red Raiders do need to decide on a starting quarterback between senior Tyler Shough and sophomore Behren Morton. Bet on Shough, who went 5-0 as the starter in 2022.
Troy will head into September on an 11-game winning streak, the secondlongest active streak in the FBS behind Georgia (17). That might not last too deep into September given early-season games against Kansas State, James Madison and Western Kentucky. But the Trojans are the class of the Sun Belt and one of the premier teams in the Group of Five heading into coach Jon Sumrall’s second year.
This may overrate the Badgers’ chances of a fast start under coach Luke Fickell, especially given the possibility of growing pains in the transition to offensive coordinator Phil Longo’s Air Raidinfluenced scheme. If Wisconsin can marry physicality with this system’s explosiveness, however, this team can win the Big Ten West Division and contend for a New Year’s Six bowl.