One of the critiques of college football from those who don't like the sport is the lack of the Cinderella story. The same people who don't watch college basketball during the regular season and fall in love with tiny schools in March tell you that college football needs the same stories and they're tired of seeing the same teams in the College Football Playoff.
Those people don't realize college football has Cinderellas, but they're found during the regular season, not the postseason. The team nobody had high expectations for suddenly jumps up and wins nine games, or maybe gets off to a 6-0 start when nobody expected it to win more than four games all season.
Sometimes these Cinderella stories stick. They become solid programs that reach bowl games regularly and even compete for conference titles. The 2022 season saw plenty of these stories. More often than not, however, they return to their pumpkin status. And now I'm here to burst some bubbles by listing five Power Five programs that had big years in 2022 but will likely take a step back in 2023.
Kentucky, Michigan State, Oklahoma State, Pitt and Purdue all made . After those five went a combined 53-14 in 2021, they went 36-29 last year. Of the five, none improved upon their win total, though Purdue did win the Big Ten West despite winning eight games instead of nine. All at least made a bowl game, except for Michigan State. Will the five teams I list this year suffer similar fates? Probably, yeah.
Mike Elko's debut with the Blue Devils couldn't have gone much better. Duke finished with a 9-4 record (5-3 in the ACC) and sat squarely in the Coastal race for nearly the entire 2022 season, but that isn't likely to happen again this year. The Blue Devils played in seven one-score games last year, and while they weren't exceptionally "lucky" in those games (they only went 3-4), that suggests they weren't as superior to the teams they played as their final record suggests.
Plus, consider the schedule. While Duke should never make light of wins over teams like Miami and Virginia Tech -- though they did combine to finish 8-15 -- do you know who wasn't on Duke's schedule last season? Clemson or Florida State. The two teams that went a combined 21-6 and are expected to be the best teams in the league once again this year. Both are on Duke's 2023 schedule. The Blue Devils open the season at home against Clemson and will play at Florida State in late October. Oh, and they'll host Notre Dame in September, too, and four of their final six games will be on the road. If they win nine games again in 2023, Elko should garner Coach of the Year consideration.
As much as it pains me to admit it, I have a hard time believing Illinois will be as good as the team it was last year. The Illini finished 8-5 but started the year 7-1 with divisional wins over Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota before losing four of their last five. The only win after Nov. 1 came against a Northwestern team that finished 1-11. Yes, Illinois hung tough with Michigan in Ann Arbor and may have won the game without some questionable calls by officials, but it didn't.
The 2023 season could be tougher. Illinois lost a lot of crucial parts on the defensive side of the ball. Defensive coordinator Ryan Walters is now the head coach at Purdue, and nearly the entire starting secondary is in the NFL. The good news is the Illini should still have one of the best defensive lines in the Big Ten, if not the country, but that secondary played a significant role in forcing the turnovers that helped Illinois finish fifth nationally in points off turnover margin (+60).
The other concern is the offense. Illinois won eight games last season despite finishing in the bottom half of the Power Five in many key statistical categories, and its workhorse running back Chase Brown is in the NFL, too. If the defense takes a slight step back (which isn't insane given the losses and how incredible it was last year) and the offense doesn't make up for it, this team will find it more challenging to win as many games. The good news for any Illini fan reading this is that the days of three-win seasons are probably behind you under coach Bret Bielema. But another eight-win season in 2023? I'm not so sure.
There are some football reasons to believe Mississippi State won't win nine games again in 2023 and finish ranked in the top 20, but the biggest reason is one the team has no control over. The death of Mike Leach was a tremendous blow to the sport and the Mississippi State program. Leach stamped his identity on the program, and the results came with it. The Bulldogs improved their win total in Leach's second and third seasons, but now they must start over, and they must do so with a first-time head coach in Zach Arnett, who is implementing a new style of play on offense.
The schedule won't do the Bulldogs many favors, either. While they won't have to play Georgia this season, and they get Alabama and LSU at home, they will be on the road for South Carolina, Arkansas, Auburn and Texas A&M. It's sometimes better to have your toughest games on the road since you aren't likely to win them anywhere. Getting your "coin flip" games on the road makes them far less of a coin flip in your favor.
That's right, Purdue, I've got you back here for the second year in a row. Admittedly, Purdue performed better last season than I expected, even if it did take a step back record-wise. I mean, it won the Big Ten West. The thing is, while the team's win-loss record was still solid, the underlying numbers suggest the Boilermakers did take a step back last season.
For instance, despite finishing 8-6, Purdue allowed more points than it scored last year. It was one of only two teams in the country last season to win at least eight games and finish with a negative point differential. The other was Coastal Carolina, which went 9-4 despite being outscored 414-378.
Last season Purdue went 5-2 in one-score games. Its eight wins came by an average of 13.13 points per game. Its six losses came by -19.33 points per game. The 63-7 loss to LSU in the Citrus Bowl skews that heavily, but after two close losses to Penn State and Syracuse in September, all of Purdue's last four losses came by at least two scores. That's typically not a great sign. Factor in a new coaching staff, key departures, and a schedule that includes Ohio State and Michigan, and there's a reason sportsbooks have Purdue's win total at five.
Am I going out on a limb by saying that the team with a preseason win total of 6.5 last season but ended up going 13-2 and reaching the national title game is bound to take a step back this year? It'd be damn near impossible for the Horned Frogs not to have a worse season in 2023. Still, the drop might be more significant than many realize. Their win total from sportsbooks entering the season is only 7.5.
Why? Well, first of all, TCU lost a ton of production from last year's team. ESPN.com's Bill Connelly has a returning production metric he publishes yearly, and TCU ranks 118th nationally. The Frogs also lost offensive coordinator Garrett Riley to Clemson, though the fact Sonny Dykes is still in Fort Worth and the hire of Kendall Briles leads me to believe this team will still score points.
But as good as the Frogs were last year, we can't overlook some of the luck. Other than Troy, no team in the country had as many one-score victories as TCU's six, and the Frogs went 6-1 in those games. Nine of their 13 wins came by 10 points or fewer. Their only wins by at least three scores came against Tarleton State, Oklahoma and Iowa State. Tarleton State was the only one of those three to finish last season with a winning record.