Okay, it is not as early as the top-25s that come out just minutes after the completion of the college football season but it is still early enough to be a way-too-early top-25 rather than just an early top-25.
There has been plenty of movement here in the past several days as teams learn who will be back and who will not be back with draft eligible players alongside players hitting the transfer portal.
Ohio State had its share of NFL attrition, most notably with CJ Stroud taking it down to the final day to announce that he is off to the league with eligibility still on the table.
2022 is over and done with and all eyes are set on 2023. Can UGA make it a three-peat? It is safe to say that the defending champs are going to top the polls, but how about the suddenly recharged rivalry between Ohio State and Michigan? Who gets the nod there?
Will the Big Ten be back? This is the final year of the “Big 14” version of the Big Ten before USC and UCLA (and hopefully a divisionless set-up) start up in 2024.
Let’s take a look at our own version of the way-too-early top-25 and start the debate.
It is not always a sure-thing to put the defending National Champion in the top slot and UGA will have some key positions to replace including quarterback (Stetson Bennett), nosetackle (Jalen Carter) and CB1 (Kelee Ringo) among others.
To say that UGA’s schedule is favorable in 2023 would be a gross understatement with UGA in the SEC East and missing many of the difficult crossover games from the SEC West.
Here comes the big debate and I am sure I will be told to “read the room” or “know my audience” when it comes to ranking No. 2 and No. 3 for 2023.
The fact of the matter is that Michigan has won the last two in this series, returns its quarterback and its offensive line. At least for the purposes of a pre-season top-25, the Wolverines get my nod at No. 2 just based on that and the fact that much like UGA, the Michigan schedule is not exactly taxing for 2023 and especially at the start of the season, where Ohio State will be breaking in a new quarterback in a road conference game to start things off and then a road game at Notre Dame in week four. While I don’t expect Ohio State to lose either of those games, the Buckeyes are much more of an unknown compared to Michigan and because of that, get the start at No. 3 in the nation.
How often does Alabama find itself out of the top one or two spots in a ranking? It is a rare thing but Bama has some reloading to do with the departure of Bryce Young and coming off a year that was very un-Bama-like. Have no fear, Alabama will be one of the few teams left standing here in this final year of the four-team playoff, but going into the 2023 season, pre-spring ball, I have a hard time putting them any higher than this, no matter how badly the Crimson Tide beat Kansas State in an exhibition game.
Finally, my first surprising pick (maybe) in having Washington in the top-five at the No. 5 position. Is this an overcorrection because I have no faith in USC with its defense? Is this a Utah hangover, seeing the Utes fall twice in the Rose Bowl against Big Ten foes? No, it is a case of thinking that Michael Penix (as long as he can remain healthy, always a big if) will be poised for a big season as the Huskies return 14 starters between offense and defense. There is something to be said about teams that return their core rather than go out and acquire a new core each year via the portal.
After all of those direct and indirect shots at Southern Cal, I still have them at No. 6 because that offense is pretty special. The Trojans are going to have to win a lot of games 45-42 because that defense is still bad and I have not seen a portal player that will make a difference to the overall unit. USC returns seven starters on defense, but based on that defense, is that a plus or a minus?
Penn State has made some moves here recently, punting its wide receivers coach, getting a solid wide receiver transfer out of the portal from Kent State and finally seeing Sean Clifford move on to the next chapter of his life. That was not meant as an anti-Sean statement but put me in the camp that believes in Drew Allar being a difference maker.
Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen both proved to be legitimate over the course of their freshman seasons, so if Penn State can run the ball, Allar gives them a more consistent passing game and the Manny Diaz-led defense can take another step forward, Ohio State and Michigan will both have to pay attention to their rival to the East.
History is going to show that I have Tennessee way-too-low or way-too-high. Hendon Hooker is gone and this is Joe Milton’s team now. He is not the same quarterback that we saw at Michigan, but did we see enough in the bowl game against Clemson? Does Josh Heupel continue to do more with less? If Tennessee can take a step forward with its defense (a common theme out there) then this team may be better than where pundits are putting them here in January.
Sometimes you have a team in a spot because that is where they fit but you still have no faith in that pick. That is Florida State and the No. 9 spot for me. The Noles went 10-3, lost the three games by an average of just six points and it was all part of a three-game losing streak that was followed up by a six game win-streak.
Florida State returns 16 players, nine on defense and still plays in the ACC. With the league going through musical chairs at quarterback and Jordan Travis coming back as a known quantity, FSU could be the premiere team in the ACC, not Clemson and certainly not Miami.
We round out the top-10 with Notre Dame, a Fighting Irish team that we don’t know a lot about. Notre Dame started off 2022 on such a bad note, there was hesitation to put the Irish this high, especially with cries of the overrated Irish getting the preseason bump every year. But this Notre Dame team knows its starting quarterback, Wake Forest transfer Sam Hartman. There will be some key pieces that need to be replaced but call me sentimental for historical programs, I think the Irish get off to a great start, at least until week four.
I know that I am the outlier here having LSU outside of the top-10 and I will own it if proven wrong 49 weeks from now. LSU brings back almost its entire offense outside of its best player, wide receiver Kayshon Boutte. The defense will look completely different however with only five returners and an infusion of new talent. LSU was desperate to fill its cornerback room, including adding former Ohio State player JK Johnson to the mix, but will the defense come together for Brian Kelly in 2023? The schedule gets right to it with an opener against Florida State and then league games in three of the next four.
I am also an outlier on Oregon because I am just not sold on the Pac-12 as a conference. The Ducks do have Bo Nix back which is largely a good thing until ‘Bad Bo’ shows up at the worst times but the Oregon defense needs a lot of work as does the Oregon offensive line for 2023 with departures.
TCU finished No. 2 in the final AP poll of the 2022 season and I have slide them into the teens of my preseason rankings. What gives?
Max Duggan (et al) is gone, Chandler Morris is the starter once again but what does he have around him? TCU is not going to sneak up on anyone and while it is still more trendy to go all out against Texas or Oklahoma, there will be a lot of teams looking to get one back against TCU this year.
Too high or too low for Clemson? That is a real question. 16 players are back from a Clemson team that underwhelmed in key games. Cade Klubnik is the quarterback, there is no debate. He has a new OC with the addition of Garrett Riley, a home-run hire for Dabo Swinney.
But will that mean enough when it comes to the season? Clemson still recruits well, even the most ardent haters cannot deny that, but just how much retooling needs to be done for the Tigers?
We know that many Ohio State fans consider Utah to be a favorite program because of respect from the Rose Bowl as well as a big Utes win over USC to get the Buckeyes into the playoffs.
Cam Rising is back, which is a plus and has a whole offseason to get healthy. But gone are names like Clark Phillips III as well as tight end Dalton Kincaid. I just think that the Utes are going to come back to the pack in the Pac (12).
Sometimes I just love a great story and Tulane is one of them, going from 2-10 to 12-2 with a huge win over USC in a bowl game. Who is going to challenge Tulane in the AAC? Several top teams are Big 12 bound and Tulane is in a great position to stay atop the league but will need to find someone to step into the running back role vacated my Tyjae Spears.
I also love a good story in Madison (Wis.) with the Badgers. Luke Fickell has picked up three quarterback transfers including Nick Evers as well as several key wideout transfers. I do get nervous in loading up on a team that is a new team, but the Big Ten West is there for the taking. I am sure I am putting the Badgers a little bit too high, but that’s where I am at.
Is Texas back? Nope.
Will Quinn Ewers hear the footsteps of Arch Manning? Yup.
Despite losing two top running backs including Bijan Robinson, most of the offense is back for offensive-minded Sark. I am jus t not sold on the defense holding and believe there will be too much talk about the QB position for anyone to get a solid footing.
Another Pac-12 team? I guess so. Oregon State winning 10 games last season went highly underreported (by me) and the Beavers bring back 14 starters. Is DJ Uiagalelei the answer at quarterback after leaving Clemson? Was that just a bad fit? We will find out together as Oregon State will be an interesting watch.
Kansas State rounds out the top-20 and sure they won the Big 12 but will be moving ahead without a few of the more notable names including Deuce Vaughn, Kade Warner and Adrian Martinez. There is still a lot of talent there for the Wildcats but in a Big 12 that could be pretty deep, will it be enough?
Speed round to finish off the top-25.
North Carolina is in almost every game because of how good quarterback Drake Maye is but he loses a pair of big targets. Can Gene Chizik fix this defense in year two?
Jaxson Dart was not the answer in 2022 but 2023 is a new year. We can always count on Lane Kiffin to keep us entertained and he generally is good for a big win or two. The thing that I like about Ole Miss is the addition of former Alabama Defensive Coordinator Pete Golding, allowing Kiffin to focus more on offense.
UCLA has been irrelevant for awhile but I think times are changing, right in time for a Big Ten move in 2024. Yes, UCLA lost three of its last five, all by one possession or less. It is too early to count on true freshman quarterback Dante Moore, or is it? UCLA picked up a game changer in the portal with wideout J.Michael Sturdivant.
UTSA moves to the AAC after winning the CUSA crown the previous two seasons. The Roadrunners return 15 starters and could be the biggest challenge for Tulane in that league.
Texas Tech has not done it with a ton of flash or notice but Joey McGuire is a tremendous head coach. He will have 16 starters back including nine on offense. If Tyler Shough were not returning at quarterback, this would not even be a consideration but there is great value in a returning signal caller.