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23 Things for Spring: College football teams, names and storylines you need to know entering 2023

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We’ve hardly had time to catch our breath from the 2022 college football season. It seems like only yesterday when Georgia was taking over the world. It seems like every day when the Pac-12 continues to do, well, nothing.

But there is more to life. Start with spring practice ’23: actual football complete with position battles, scrimmages and transfers. (There will be lots of those, by the way.) All the things that make life worth living.

Get used to change. Lots of it. BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF will be playing in the same league as Texas and Oklahoma, even if only for one season. Archie Manning’s grandson makes his debut with the Longhorns as perhaps the most famous recruit of all time. Nick Saban and Alabama try to bounce back from the depths of a two-loss season. TCU and Tulane try to prove their 2022 performances weren’t a fluke. Northwestern will continue to try  as it enters 2023 sporting the nation’s longest losing streak (11 games).

Grab a cooler and a lawn chair and get yourself to the second week of April. Over a three-day span (April 13-15), spring games will be played at Florida, Miami, USC, North Carolina, Clemson, Florida State, Clemson, Texas, Ohio State, Arkansas, Georgia, South Carolina, Penn State, Tennessee and Texas A&M.

That enough of an appetizer for you? 

1. Georgia’s three-peat: The possibility is real, and it’s spectacular. One day after the Bulldogs went back-to-back, it became evident they could win three in a row. That would be a first in the AP Top 25 era (since 1936). We have proof it can happen. Georgia actually got better last season after losing a record 15 players to the 2022 NFL Draft. If coach Kirby Smart can do that, he can reboot again instead of rebuild. There are 15 starters back despite the loss what projects to be about 13 draft-eligible players. (That could make 28 in two years!) The deck is finally cleared for prospects Carson Beck and Brock Vandagriff to battle it out at quarterback. Todd Monken is gone to the pros, but Mike Bobo is a known commodity as the replacement at offensive coordinator. You know the defense will rock even with the Philadelphia Eagles reportedly targeting co-defensive coordinator Glenn Schumann. More proof: The schedule is Charmin soft. The nation’s longest current winning streak (17 games) could be extended to 32 this season.

2. Coach Prime: The biggest story of the offseason is just getting started at Colorado. Deion Sanders is making his Power Five debut unexpectedly in the Mountain Time Zone. Try to think of a Hall of Fame media icon who would put himself in this position not need the money nor the fame. There isn’t one. CU lowered its standards to welcome in more transfers. A previously uninterested administration stepped up with a $6 annual salary. Sanders brought his “Louie” and enough swag to fill Folsom Field. Will he success? The Buffaloes ended 2022 as the worst Power Five program. they can only go up from 1-11. The venerable Bill McCartney proved you can win a national championship at Colorado (a quarter century ago) if you work hard enough at recruiting. Sanders will. There is a surprisingly good staff in place. Coach Prime’s son, Shedeur, is the quarterback. Don’t be surprised if the Buffs get to a bowl game in 2023.

3. Realignment: By the time spring practice ends — maybe by the time you finish reading this column — college football may rearrange itself. The Pac-12 is in danger of falling apart. The Big 12 is ready to pounce on the remains. That would leave Oregon and Washington with a decision to make: try to make a go of it in the remnants of the Pac-12 or knock on the Big Ten’s door. That’s a prelude to where the game is headed: three or four major conferences. Fourteen teams will be playing in different conferences than they did in 2022. That’s before Texas, Oklahoma, USC and UCLA move in 2024.

4. Late transfer window: Some order was restored when the Wild, Wild West that had become the transfer portal was limited to two transfer windows. At the end of the first window (Jan. 18), 1,200 players entered the portal. Doesn’t mean they got a scholarship. Just means they rolled the dice. The second window is open May 1-15, basically once 2023 spring practice concludes. Expect a rush to the (transfer) window as a bunch of position battles play out.

5. The Jim Harbaugh Decade: Who would have thought Michigan’s coach would reach Year 9? Not after that start against Ohio State. Not that he was forced to renegotiate his contract only to turn around and force the Wolverines to do the same in his favor, twice. Going into 2023, Harbaugh has more than doubled his longest stay than at any previous coaching job. The longevity has come with the typical Harbaugh baggage. He seemingly has a strained relationship with his athletic director. He continues to talk to interested NFL teams. His pledge of loyalty sort of loses its meaning the more times he is forced to repeat it. It also defines the man. Harbaugh is going to do what he wants, when he wants. He also enters his ninth season at the peak of his coaching career having won consecutive Big Ten titles and played in two straight College Football Playoffs while possessing a loaded roster to make a deeper run in 2023. 

6. The depth of Ohio State: Ryan Day revealed earlier this month that eight players will miss spring practice with various health issues. More importantly, which way do the Buckeyes head in 2023? A compelling case can be made for them winning it all last season if they got past Georgia in the CFP. They won’t fall too far but perhaps far enough for the squeeze to be put on Day again. A new quarterback must be found. (Five-star Kyle McCord vs. top 50 prospect Devin Brown in the spring.) The wide receiver group remains one of the best in the country. But Michigan (for sure) and Penn State (perhaps) will provide a challenge. Day got a playoff mulligan after a second straight loss to Michigan. There are no rebuilding years in Columbus, Ohio, just continued demand for another Big 12 title and CFP berth.

7. Oh by the way, Penn State: Michigan and Ohio State are still the bad boys at the top of the Big Ten. Penn State, though, is quietly loaded in 2023. There was an emotional bloodletting in the Rose Bowl. Penn State won its first such game since 1995 in a thoroughly dominant performance against Utah. It may turn out to be a 2023 preview. Drew Allar takes over for Sean Clifford as the highest-rated quarterback in the program’s history. Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen form one of the most explosive backfields in the country. A top-10 defense from 2022 returns almost intact. Michigan visits Beaver Stadium on Nov. 11. 

8. SEC’s schedule: At some point this spring, the SEC’s new conference scheduling format for 2024 will be revealed. It will most likely feature nine games made up of three permanent rivals and six rotating home-and-home opponents with no more East-West divisions. Teams would play one another home and away at least once every four years. This being the SEC, the anticipation over the schedule is being treated like a royal wedding. Much ado about nothing? You can have the royal weddings. Seeing who Texas and Oklahoma get as permanent rivals will be an SEC Network special in itself.

9. Coordinating Miami’s comeback: Perhaps only the success of TCU last season keeps Mario Cristobal’s first effort at Miami from being defined as an abject failure. The 5-7 campaign tied for Miami’s worst since 1977. The Hurricanes were beaten by Middle Tennessee. Quarterback Tyler Van Dyke regressed. Talented offensive coordinator Josh Gattis bombed. Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele couldn’t resist Saban’s call at Alabama. The new coordinators are Lance Guidry (Marshall, defense) and Shannon Dawson (Houston, offense). Raise your hand if you’ve heard of either one. But hey, if TCU can go from 4-8 to a national title game, there is hope for Miami. Right now, that’s all it is for Cristobal, who could become the first Canes coach since Lou Saban in 1978 not to win at least seven games in his second season.

10. Year 17 under Saban: The Great One shows no signs of slowing down. The only comparisons left are to himself. And while Georgia is new power in the SEC — and the country — Alabama remains a solid No. 2. After a substandard two-loss season — tying for the most under Saban since 2010 — there is every chance Bama could bounce back with a championship campaign. The spring will be scrutinized with a looming quarterback battle and insertion of two new coordinators. Steele was a slam-dunk choice after the departure of Pete Golding. Tommy Rees as offensive coordinator is something else. Some at Notre Dame weren’t sad to see the 30-year-old go. Rees can spread his wings a bit with an upgrade in overall offensive talent. He’ll have no choice. Mark your calendars: The greatest coach of the generation turns 72 on Halloween.

11. Wisconsin’s makeover: Paul Chryst was shown the door after winning 72% of his games. New coach Luke Fickell didn’t bring in talented offensive coordinator Phil Longo to run the wishbone. Watching Wisconsin transform from its rooted decades-old ground-and-pound culture will be fascinating. Quarterback Tanner Mordecai is an established starter who has one of the best games of this century on his resume. The Badgers will pass more, be more fun and possibly take the next step to being a Big Ten contender under Fickell.

12. Golden Rhule: Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Nebraska got it right this time. OK, deep breath. Nebraska really got it right this time with new coach Matt Rhule. The turnaround artist who performed miracles at Temple and Baylor comes back to the (college) big time armed with more experience and some humility after having flamed out with the Panthers. Rhule is a master of coaching ’em up — taking substandard talent and making it better. Nebraska would settle for a bowl game at this point. From Bill Callahan to Scott Frost, things just haven’t worked out consistently at Nebraska since Frank Solich departed in 2003. Don’t be surprised if the Cornhuskers go bowling in 2023 and win 10 games by Year 3. Rhule is that good. 

13. Texas shootout: Some guy named Manning arrives in town as the best recruit in years. Meanwhile, incumbent QB Quinn Ewers will try to hold onto the job. This will be fascinating because Manning is projected as the future. Ewers is projected to the NFL after this, his third season. How’s it going to look if Ewers loses the job and — this time — has nowhere to go immediately after transferring from Ohio State? The prediction here is that Manning eventually wins the job forcing Ewers into a tough decision: NFL or leaving as a graduate transfer to get more seasoning. At least he’ll have enough NIL bucks to cushion the blow.

14. Rashada reboot: Perhaps Jaden Rashada was destined for the desert all along. His dad played at Arizona State. The Pittsburg, California, quarterback became available after one of the biggest NIL poop shows of the age. By all accounts, Rashada had a big-money deal in place at Florida that fell apart. So the prospect would could have still likely gotten in the seven figures at an SEC school went ASU for … (reportedly) nothing. There is no NIL money at the moment for Rashada. If he is even three quarters of what was projected, new Sun Devils coach Kenny Dillingham has a quarterback to wake up the biggest sleeping giant in the game.

15. The draft: Approximately 100 underclassmen have declared for early entry into the NFL Draft in late April. Expect the same result that has been repeated for years: about one-third of those will go undrafted meaning they, their parents and their agents still haven’t learned. There has been talk of pushing the underclassman declaration deadline apst mid-January, but college coaches want to know who is on their rosters and NFL coaches want to know who is part of the draft pool as soon as possible. Why can’t the NCAA allow what has been going on for years in college basketball? That is, allow players who don’t get drafted to retain their collegiate eligibility.

16. Pac-12 off the field: It looks like we’ll enter March with the Pac-12 still without a media rights deal for 2024. That chase in itself has become a source of angst and embarrassment within the conference. The league will eventually (probably?) land a deal, but as of now, it has become obvious the Pac-12 waited too long to do a deal after the loss of USC and UCLA. It is now also evident there is no rightsholder that needs the Pac-12 on its air. Not ESPN, not Fox, not Apple, not Amazon. That’s a damn shame for the Conference of Champions. Here’s hoping what remains of the league stays together. By the weekend of the Final Four (April 1), we’ll know for sure.

17. Pac-12 on the field: The moment USC and UCLA announced their intentions, it distracted from the actual Pac-12 football in 2022. Six teams finished in the AP Top 25 (as many as the SEC, by the way). USC was one game away from a playoff berth. Washington won 11 games and finished in the top 10 for only the second time since 2000. Dan Lanning had a fabulous debut at Oregon. Utah and Oregon are arguably the league’s best programs, which bodes well after the loss of the two flagships. At least five teams should be ranked heading into 2023.

18. Early Heisman Hype: These five players will be worth watching in the spring and beyond …

  • Michael Penix Jr. QB, Washington: Almost quietly, the Indiana transfer led the nation in passing (357 yards per game). UW will be favored to win the Pac-12 by some. If the Huskies follow through, book the rising senior for a trip to New York.
  • Jordan Travis, QB, Florida State: FSU has finally turned around thanks to Travis’ emergence. The Louisville transfer has suffered along with his Seminole teammates getting through some tough times. Now, Travis is one of the nation’s foremost firestarters for what might be the ACC favorites in 2022.
  • Drake Maye, QB, North Carolina: In the portal age, Maye stayed loyal. His 38 touchdown passes tied for the ACC lead (fourth nationally). The ACC Player of the Year returns with enough weapons around him for the Tar Heels to win 10 games.
  • Caleb Williams, QB, USC: Archie Griffin can rest easy. For the second consecutive year, so much of the Trojans’ offense falls on the shoulders of their inspirational leader. The problem: Oregon, Utah and Washington (in the Pac-12 alone) might be better than USC.
  • Blake Corum, TB, Michigan: Only a knee injury kept Corum out of serious Heisman consideration and perhaps Michigan out of a national championship in 2022. As the Big Ten’s leading returner rusher, an 1,800-yard season seems about right.  

19. Big 14: Texas and Oklahoma will — against their will — play one final season in the Big 12 along with the four new members. That makes it one last/first season with the most Big 12 members ever. UT and OU recently bought their way out of way out the Big 12. Watching the Longhorns having to play at Houston and the Sooners playing three of the new teams (Cincinnati, UCF, BYU) will be must-see TV. The two sides can’t wait for the final divorce, but in one unique season, there will be plenty of smack, yards and emotion. Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard recently summed up the vibe: “They can’t leave soon enough.”

20. Hugh Freeze era begins at Auburn: Your one-stop shop for college football drama has a new leader. Freeze seems almost perfect for the job after arriving from Liberty following the messy divorce from Bryan Harsin. Freeze knows the SEC. He knows offense. Here’s betting Freeze can also stiff-arm the Auburn meddlers. He’s worthy of another big-time chance after spending years in exile at Liberty. You better believe they’re noticing in T-Town. Since 2007, there have been more SEC West coaches than there have been Alabama losses. Freeze, responsible for two of those Saban defeats, starts at his second SEC West job.

21. Rules overhaul: By the end of the week, we should know if there will be profound timing changes in the game beginning in 2023. It means a lot because someone will have to take on the game’s medical liability. The NCAA carries the bulk of it now. But if these changes aren’t made, the CFP risks being sued along with the NCAA. After all, the CFP is one tripling the size of the playoff and requiring teams to potentially play 17 games per season.

22. The Nico Iamaleava era begins at Tennessee: Iamaleava was the early NIL poster boy reportedly signing a three-year, bonus-laden $8 million NIL deal with a Tennessee collective. One small detail: Iamaleava, a five-star prospect from California, must beat out veteran Joe Milton, who can throw it from here to next Thursday and is familiar with Josh Heupel’s explosive offense. The quarterback battle winner must somehow resemble Hendon Hooker. How Iamaleava lives up to his contract will be mixed in with new offensive coordinator Joey Hazle. You won’t believe this — actually, you will — but there are already whispers Iamaleava isn’t worth the $8M. Tennessee is covered as closely as the White House.

23. Coaching for their jobs: The hot seat never cools. What better way to kick off the spring that to slather loads of pressure of these three coaches.

  • Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M: The buyout goes down by $9 million, which still might not allow monied Aggies boosters to make a move if there is a repeat of 2022. At least the coordinators (D.J. Durkin, Bobby Petrino) have never faced any controversy in their careers. 👀
  • Dino Babers, Syracuse: Babers started 6-0 but finished 7-6 in 2022. He followed that up with the ACC’s lowest-ranked recruiting class, according to 247Sports. At least Cuse got to a bowl game last season, but Babers has had a losing record in five of his seven campaigns.
  • Neal Brown, West Virginia: A case can be made former Mountaineers AD Shane Lyons lost his job because he believed in Brown keeping his. Brown’s 22-25 record is backed by a costly buyout if Lyons’ replacement Wren Baker wanted to apply The Big Haircut after this season.

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