The countdown to the 2023 college football season is on, with media days in full swing and the opening of fall camp rapidly approaching. Every college football fan uses this time to get acquainted with the new faces in new places, the returning starters and the hope of future stars maturing into new roles. We turn to preseason magazines, way-too-early rankings and ratings to get an idea of how these teams stack up against each other. Even in that research, however, we find there are some teams that even the experts can't figure out.
Almost everyone agrees with the preseason top four this year, with the two-time reigning champion Georgia Bulldogs holding down the No. 1 spot and some combination of Michigan, Ohio State and Alabama filling out the rest. That's not totally unanimous among popular preseason publications — more on that below — but it's close enough to consensus to project that's how the top four will look when the AP Top 25 releases its preseason poll next month.
Other teams seem to have settled into consensus positions to start the year, like Penn State falling somewhere between No. 6 and No. 9; the trio of LSU, Florida State and Texas are popular picks to round out a top 10. Still, within in the top 10, and especially in the spots between No. 10 and No. 30, you will find teams whose ranking varies from publication to publication.
For our research, we were not limited to only traditional preseason magazines but some early power ratings and rankings as well for additional input. What we've found are seven teams that will be receiving significant top-25 consideration heading into the year ... but with enough question marks to spark some real debate on where they fall. We'll begin near the top of the rankings and work our way down, analyzing the reasons no one can seem to agree on each team.
Big question: Can the defense vault the Trojans into the playoff?
Lincoln Riley had USC inside the top four of the CFP rankings heading into the Pac-12 Championship Game, seemingly needing just a win against Utah to punch a ticket. But what would have been Lincoln Riley's fourth (and USC's first) playoff appearance slipped away in part because of Caleb Williams' hamstring injury and the inability to stop a late flurry from Utah's offense.
Williams is back and the offense looks absolutely loaded once again, but USC's preseason positioning in several places is a few spots down from that top-four status the Trojans briefly occupied late last year. Athlon has USC at No. 4 in its preseason rankings, but Phil Steele (No. 7), Lindy's (No. 10) and Bill Connelly's SP+ ratings (No. 7) all have the Trojans outside the top six. The burning question clearly is whether or not you believe the defense will take a step forward, either with development or even more key transfer portal additions. If so, a team that was one win away from the playoff a year ago is certainly worth top five consideration.
Big question: Have the Tigers lost the ACC's top spot to Florida State?
Clemson won seven of the last eight ACC championships, but the Tigers have found themselves sitting behind Florida State in a number of preseason ratings and rankings heading into 2023. In fact, there is a close-to-consensus position that Clemson is not even a top-10 team, though no ratings or rankings pulled for this exercise had the Tigers lower than No. 13. But there was one outlier that drew our attention, and it's a notable one: Phil Steele's 2023 preseason top 40 — which he would want me to note is not the same as his power ratings — has Clemson sitting at No. 2 in the country, trailing only Georgia at No. 1. For the record, Clemson is at No. 6 in Phil Steele's power poll, but still sitting ahead of Florida State while many other preseason rankings have the Seminoles two to three spots ahead of the Tigers.
If you believe that the hire of offensive coordinator Garrett Riley is going to unlock the best in former five-star quarterback Cade Klubnik, then I think putting Clemson ahead of Florida State is the correct move. The talent level of this roster is still extremely high, and the last two "down years" still included 21 combined wins and a pair of top-15 finishes in the final AP Top 25. But Florida State's resurgence has done a number on Clemson's stock, and that fight for conference supremacy is the No. 1 story in the ACC heading into the season.
Big question: Can you copy and paste production?
Hendon Hooker threw for more than 3,000 yards with 27 touchdowns and just two interceptions before suffering a season-ending knee injury late in the year, and Biletnikoff Award winner Jalin Hyatt was on the receiving end of more than 1,200 of those yards and 15 touchdowns. Throw in the departure of talented wideout Cedric Tillman — whose production was limited due to injuries during the year — and it's fair to downgrade the Vols from their No. 6 finish in last year's final rankings.
Still, are experts overcorrecting for the absence of Hooker and Hyatt, while perhaps ignoring the ceiling for Joe Milton and a wide receiver room that returns the No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 players from last season in receiving yards? Josh Heupel's offensive system opens up the field for pass catches to make plays, and Milton's arm talent is going to keep defenses wary of the deep ball on every possession. So while Tennessee pops up between No. 15 and No. 19 in multiple ratings and rankings, Lindy's has the Volunteers knocking on the door of the top 10 at No. 13 and SP+ — which values returning production, recruiting rankings and recent history — has the Vols inside the top 10 at No. 6.
Big question: Was last season all just a Hypnotoad-induced fever dream?
TCU lost its Heisman Trohphy finalist quarterback, seven of the nine pass-catches who recorded at least 100 yards receiving (including the top three targets for receptions and yards), and its top three rushers (which includes the Heisman Trophy finalist quarterback). Throw in the departure of offensive coordinator Garrett Riley and it's no surprise that a rankings downgrade has occurred from the end of 2022 to the 2023 preseason. But how far should the Frogs fall? When you consider the ceiling for quarterback Chandler Morris, a pair of former blue-chip transfers from Alabama at the skill positions, the hire of Kendal Briles to replace Riley and a ton of returning production on defense, there is definitely a top 25-30 floor for TCU's preseason rankings.
Belief in Sonny Dykes, last year's national coach of the year, and the job he did in flipping TCU's fortunes in just one year is worth considering as well. That's where you get some of the more optimistic positioning, like Lindy's placing the Frogs at No. 16. The conversation around TCU all throughout last season's playoff run focused on the culture change in Fort Worth, and if that foundation is strong enough to sustain an exodus of offensive production, then this team might be fortunate enough to wind up in the thick of the top 25 rather than sitting on the cut line of the major polls.
Big question: Will the Jimbo Fisher-Bobby Petrino braintrust fix the offense?
Jimbo Fisher's time at SEC Media Days already, with neither confirmation nor a denial on whether he would be handing over the play-calling duties to Petrino, the high-profile offensive coordinator hire that many Texas A&M fans have called for in recent years. While Texas A&M has been recruiting at a high level since Fisher arrived, the results — aside from a top-five finish in 2020 — have been middling, with a 5-7 showing in 2022 providing the "rock bottom" moment that sparked the hire of Petrino.
If you believe that Texas A&M's close losses will flip to wins with the change in offensive approach, then Texas A&M occupies a spot in the top 15, with Phil Steele positioning the Aggies as high as No. 11. But the Aggies also check in at No. 20 (Athlon) and No. 30 (Lindy's) in other rankings as those publications take a wait-and-see approach to what should be a bounce-back year in College Station.
Big question: Should we trust the humans or the computers?
Power ratings are going to value returning production and recruiting rankings -- as they should, based in historical precedent. There a few teams, however, that can confound the computers with their emphasis on player development and success in turning under-recruited prospects into all-conference contributors. Kansas State falls into that boat. Coach Chris Klieman has won between eight and 10 games in each of his three full seasons at Kansas State, and he took home a Big 12 title last season.
Because the depth chart is littered with junior college transfers, and with the absence of RB Deuce Vaughn and a handful of key defensive starters, the power ratings have Kansas State as a fringe top-25 team. But Lindy's (No. 14) and Athlon (No. 18) are much more optimistic on the Wildcats' standing among their peers, likely focusing on the return of quarterback Will Howard and a consistency of results that's positioned Kansas State to be a power in the Big 12 for years to come.
Big question: Can the offense really make the Hawkeyes a top-25 team?
Brian Ferentz is back as offensive coordinator, but now with a contractual call for improved scoring on offense. However, the decision to move Iowa into your preseason top 25 can't just be for the expectation that 25 points per game is attainable, but rather why the Hawkeyes might be able to take a step forward on offense. That main reason comes in the form of Michigan transfer Cade McNamara, who is arguably the most talented quarterback Iowa has had in years.
The defense should be elite once again, and that combination of factors has the Hawkeyes as high as No. 17 in the preseason rankings. But there's also a No. 22 and a No. 26 among the opinion rankings, and the power ratings are even less friendly in part due to recent offensive history, with SP+ placing Iowa at No. 29 and other models going even lower. Iowa has made a habit of remaining in the thick the Big Ten West race even with lowly offensive production, but when it comes to being compared to the rest of the country it's going to take that offensive improvement for the Hawkeyes to make it into the top 25.