Though we’re still quite a ways from the start of the 2023 college football season, we’re thinking about what will be stake for certain teams, players and coaches.
Can Texas A&M contend for a spot in the playoff like it did just a couple of years ago? Can DJ Uiagalelei make it work at Oregon State? Our reporters discuss who has the most to prove.
Who is the coach with the most to prove?
Alex Scarborough: It’s tempting to say Nick Saban here. Coming off a down season — by Alabama standards — Saban appears ready to change directions offensively by bringing in a more pro-style coordinator in Tommy Rees to replace Bill O’Brien. And rather than go with a young up-and-comer at defensive coordinator, Saban brought Kevin Steele back for a third time on staff. But does a coach with seven national championships have to prove anything? Perhaps not. So let’s stay in the SEC and look instead at a Saban disciple: Florida‘s Billy Napier, who had a rocky first season in Gainesville with a 6-7 record and a blowout loss to Oregon State in the SRS Distribution Las Vegas Bowl. Replacing quarterback Anthony Richardson with Graham Mertz didn’t inspire a ton of confidence from fans. And then came the Jaden Rashada debacle as the four-star quarterback was released from his letter of intent after an NIL deal fell through, according to The Associated Press. Napier needs to find wins on the field and on the recruiting trail in order to get the program pointed back in the right direction.
Chris Low: This sort of has a Texas feel to it, as in Texas or Texas A&M. Texas’ Steve Sarkisian certainly has plenty to prove as he enters his third season with a 13-12 overall record. But this is Jimbo Fisher’s sixth season at Texas A&M, and the Aggies are coming off a disappointing 5-7 record a year after signing the top-rated class in college football. There has been a lot of turnover on Texas A&M’s roster with some of those “can’t-miss” prospects from a year ago transferring out. The Aggies have also dipped into the transfer portal, and the biggest offseason acquisition was offensive coordinator Bobby Petrino, who’s taking over the playcalling duties from Fisher. It’s a move Fisher hinted at last season and something he thinks will help his overall management of the program. The Aggies were on the cusp of making the College Football Playoff in 2020. They need a similar run in 2023, or the heat is going to turn up considerably on Fisher regardless of how many millions he would be owed if Texas A&M were to fire him.
Bill Connelly: What about Ryan Day? His Buckeyes have lost six games in four seasons and haven’t finished worse than sixth in the AP poll since 2013, but this feels like an inflection point of sorts in Columbus. Ohio State has been thumped by Michigan twice in a row, and while his defense improved overall under Jim Knowles — Day’s third coordinator in four years — it still gave up 500-plus yards and 40-plus points in each of the season-ending losses to Michigan and Georgia. At the same time, his team came closer than anyone else to beating Georgia in 2022 and should start out in the top three or so of the polls. The 2023 season represents both an opportunity and a threat. Ohio State could make serious noise in the national title race once again, or it could fall behind both Michigan and a rising Penn State in the Big Ten pecking order.
Mark Schlabach: Texas A&M isn’t paying Fisher $95 million to lose four games or more, but that’s exactly what he has done in four of his five seasons. The Aggies went 9-1 in the 2020 season, which was impacted by COVID-19, and they’ve got basically nothing else to show for it. Texas A&M is 17-9 the past two seasons combined, and Fisher’s teams are 23-18 against SEC competition during his tenure. Few FBS schools have spent more on coaching staff and facilities than the Aggies, and their collectives are doling out more money in NIL packages to recruits than just about anyone else. What do they have to show for it? The locker-room issues a year ago seemed a lot like the end of Fisher’s tenure at Florida State, which was an unmitigated disaster. Now, Fisher is bringing in former Arkansas and Louisville coach Bobby Petrino to fix things on offense, after several high-profile candidates turned down the job. That moves reeks of desperation.
Adam Rittenberg: Brent Venables waited a long time to become a head coach, before taking a potential dream job at Oklahoma. But his debut turned disastrous several weeks into the season, as Oklahoma lost by 31 to TCU and then 49-0 to rival Texas, its worst loss in the history of the Red River Showdown. The Sooners finished 6-7, enduring their most losses since 1998, the year before Bob Stoops arrived as coach. OU has had a few subpar seasons by its lofty standards but hasn’t gone two years without 10 wins since 1997 and 1998. Another noncontending team would raise some serious doubts about Venables as a head coach, especially with Oklahoma bound for the SEC in 2024. Venables is an exceptional coordinator and recruiter, and OU brought in an impressive haul of high school players and transfers. But the team will need results in Year 2, especially on defense, after allowing 30 points per game.
David M. Hale: I think the answer is Fisher, but there’s no lack of contenders for this honor, so instead I’ll make the case for Miami‘s Mario Cristobal. He’s in no danger of being fired if things don’t go well, but after an absolutely disastrous 2022, all that excitement and energy that surrounded his return to his alma mater could be completely wiped out with another down season. Cristobal did a lot of housecleaning this offseason, including an exodus of veterans into the portal and the departure of both coordinators (plus a host of other assistants). But he also brought in the ACC’s top recruiting class, landed some solid transfers, retained Tyler Van Dyke at QB and hired two intriguing coordinators in Shannon Dawson (offense) and Lance Guidry (defense), who promise to take both units in new directions. If 2023 goes well, Cristobal will be rightfully lauded for a quick rebuild and the “Miami is back” mantra will finally have some teeth to it. If not, the whole experiment could feel like it’s over just two years in.
Blake Baumgartner: The pressure and expectations placed on Mel Tucker ratcheted up exponentially the moment he put pen to paper on his $95 million contract extension at Michigan State. After going 11-2 with a Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl victory in 2021, the Spartans struggled in a 5-7 season last fall. Tucker has improved recruiting (high school and the transfer portal) to where it was in Mark Dantonio’s last few years. But player development, which was so key to Dantonio’s success (six 10-win seasons, three Big Ten titles, one College Football Playoff appearance), has to get better if Tucker intends on being more consistent in a conference that’s only going to get tougher with USC and UCLA joining the Big Ten.
Kyle Bonagura: There was a time, not too long ago, when Chip Kelly was considered a college football visionary and one of the best coaches in the sport. That’s why when he returned to UCLA after stints coaching the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers in the NFL, there was a widely held expectation for the Bruins to start realizing the potential that comes with existing in one of the most fertile recruiting regions in the country. It hasn’t happened. Last year was the Bruins’ best under Kelly and, yet, still disappointing: They finished with a loss in the Sun Bowl and a No. 21 ranking in the final AP poll.
What team has the most to prove?
Scarborough: Texas A&M’s struggles have been well documented, Alabama is looking to reassert its dominance and Auburn is starting over. But it’s another team in the SEC West that I feel still has a long way to go: LSU. Yes, the Tigers vastly outperformed expectations in Year 1 under Brian Kelly. They played solid, fundamental football and didn’t beat themselves. And of course they beat Alabama. But they were also wildly inconsistent. A week after beating the Tide, they went on the road and nearly lost to Arkansas. Then they lost inexplicably to Texas A&M, followed by a lopsided loss to Georgia. While they righted the ship and pummeled an overmatched Purdue team in the Cheez-It Citrus Bowl, I found myself wondering whether LSU is really ready to take advantage of a division that’s in flux — especially with Alabama in transition. Will Jayden Daniels take the next step in his development and improve as a passer? The offense needs to be more dynamic. Can Harold Perkins Jr. be the player we saw late in the year and team up with a healthy Maason Smith to take the defense to the next level? It’s possible. There’s a lot of young talent on the roster, and it will be interesting to see how far Kelly and his staff can take the Tigers in Year 2.
Low: The 2023 season will be USC’s last in the Pac-12 before the Trojans join the Big Ten. Hard as it is to believe, USC hasn’t won a Pac-12 championship since 2017, and that’s the only one the Men of Troy have won going back to the 2008 season. There’s no way a school with USC’s resources, tradition and surrounding talent pool should experience that kind of championship drought, especially in its own league. And when it comes to the national picture, the Trojans have never been to the College Football Playoff and last played in the BCS national championship game in 2005. With Heisman Trophy quarterback Caleb Williams returning and Lincoln Riley entering his second season as coach, USC is out of excuses. The Trojans lost twice a year ago to Utah, the second time in the Pac-12 championship game. It’s time to get past that hurdle in 2023.
Connelly: There really is a lot to like about Penn State heading into 2023. After going just 11-11 in 2020-21, the Nittany Lions stormed back into the top 10 — their fourth such finish in seven years under James Franklin — and now they boast both proven talent and massive upside. Manny Diaz’s defense, led by disruptors like Chop Robinson, Abdul Carter and Adisa Isaac, could be ferocious, and while Mike Yurcich’s offense loses quarterback Sean Clifford after a lengthy tenure, big-armed blue-chip QB Drew Allar takes over and will have a dynamite run game to lean on. It feels like the arrows are pointed in the right direction in State College … and yet, there’s a very good chance that PSU could be a top-five-caliber team and still only the third-best team in the Big Ten East. Can it figure out a way past Michigan and Ohio State?
Schlabach: Oklahoma is going to play one more season in the Big 12 before departing to the SEC along with Texas in 2024. The Sooners were kings of the Big 12 under Bob Stoops and Lincoln Riley, and there’s pressure on Venables to get things right in 2023. Sure, Riley can probably be blamed for some of OU’s troubles, after he poached quarterback Caleb Williams and receiver Mario Williams to the Trojans. And Riley didn’t exactly leave the cupboard stocked on defense. The Sooners surrendered 30 points and 461 yards per game, which ranked 99th and 122nd in the FBS, respectively. Venables hit the transfer portal hard to upgrade personnel on that side of the ball. Quarterback Dillon Gabriel is returning, but OU will have to replace leading receiver Marvin Mims Jr. and tailback Eric Gray. Oklahoma won’t turn into Nebraska when it joins the SEC, but it’s going to need to turn things around in a hurry.
Rittenberg: Even though TCU and Kansas State justifiably met for the Big 12 championship in 2022, most coaches in the league pointed to Texas as the league’s most talented team. They likely will do so again, as the Longhorns return plenty of high-level players even after losing transcendent running back Bijan Robinson. Texas has to make a statement in its final year in the Big 12 before moving to the SEC, where many think the Longhorns will be a middling program if things don’t shift soon. Sarkisian not only has options at quarterback, but wide receiver and tight end, where Xavier Worthy, Jordan Whittington and Ja’Tavion Sanders all return, and Isaiah Neyor should be back from an ACL injury. Texas’ defense showed some encouraging signs and brings back pass-rusher Barryn Sorrell and others. This season has an if-not-now-when feel for Texas, which gets a big Week 2 opportunity at Alabama.
Andrea Adelson: At least from a national perspective, Clemson has to prove to its growing number of doubters that it still has what it takes to be a perennial playoff contender. Especially after coach Dabo Swinney went out and hired Garrett Riley to help get the offense moving in the right direction. It is a move that acknowledged something had to be done to get the Tigers back to a place where they belonged for so long. While it is true that Clemson won the ACC in 2022 and has 12 straight seasons with 10 or more wins, it also is true that continuing to raise the bar has now put Clemson in a position where anything less than a playoff spot is disappointing. Therefore, the narrative that is being written is one that Clemson is “underachieving” even though this is the best era in the history of Clemson football. Clemson does not have to prove that it can win 10 games and the ACC. But what it does have to prove is that it deserves to be considered a championship contender again.
Hale: Since returning to Chapel Hill, Mack Brown has taken North Carolina to an Orange Bowl and an ACC championship game, yet it still feels like the Tar Heels have largely underperformed. When UNC lost to Texas A&M in the 2020 Orange Bowl, it felt like the program was on the precipice of something special, only for the 2021 season to be a complete disaster. Then the Heels found a genuine superstar at QB in Drake Maye and opened 2022 by winning nine of their first 10 games … only to lose four straight to end the year. Brown has recruited well, but precious few of those blue-chippers have truly developed into stars. He has a potential Heisman winner in Maye, but the offense will also look a bit different with a new coordinator after Phil Longo left for Wisconsin. And the defense? Well, at least it can’t get any worse. Brown is 71, and while he has shown no signs of slowing down, the window for UNC to climb from talented underachiever into a true playoff threat feels like it’s starting to close.
Baumgartner: Can Washington build off Kalen DeBoer’s tremendous debut in Seattle? The Huskies finished tied for second in the Pac-12 and won 11 games for the first time since Chris Petersen led the program to 12 wins and the College Football Playoff in 2016. Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. (4,641 passing yards, 31 touchdowns) returning for his last season to pilot an offense that was second in the country (515.8 YPG) in 2022 is a great place to start. But can he continue to dodge the injury bug that plagued him at Indiana and that he eluded last season? Petersen led the program to three straight seasons of double-digit wins from 2016 to 2018 and DeBoer’s team has — in addition to a home game against Oregon in October — USC (Nov. 4) and Utah (Nov. 11) back on the schedule after avoiding them last year.
Bonagura: Notre Dame is in an interesting situation. There are many examples littered across college football history of teams losing their head coach, hiring from within and staying afloat initially. That’s more or less what happened with the Irish last season in Marcus Freeman’s first season after replacing Brian Kelly, as the Irish went 9-4 and finished No. 18 in the AP poll. Now comes the hard part. We’ll learn much more about the trajectory of the program in Year 2 and what to expect from the independent Irish as the college football landscape continues to change.
Which player has the most to prove?
Scarborough: Before the 2022 season, I would have said that Arkansas’ KJ Jefferson was one of the most underrated quarterbacks in the country. I would have pointed to his size (6-foot-3, 242 pounds) and his arm strength and told you he had the chance to be a special player. And I wouldn’t have been alone. At SEC media days in the summer, his coach, Sam Pittman, and his teammates, Jalen Catalon and Bumper Pool, raved about his potential. But then the season got started, Jefferson got banged up and he never realized his potential. Arkansas eked out a 7-6 record and Jefferson finished with a respectable but not inspiring QBR of 81.4 — fourth in the conference. And then, about a month after the season ended, Jefferson lost his coordinator, Kendal Briles, who left for TCU. Briles was replaced by Dan Enos, who returns to Arkansas after stops at Michigan, Alabama, Miami, Cincinnati and Maryland. Enos worked with Jalen Hurts at Alabama. I’m not saying Jefferson is the next Hurts, but I am saying they have similar skill sets. If Enos can get the most out of Jefferson, the sky’s the limit for both him and the Razorbacks’ offense in 2023.
Low: Contrary to popular (crimson-blooded) belief, Alabama’s defense wasn’t subpar last season. The Crimson Tide finished in the top 10 in scoring defense and top 15 in total defense. They just weren’t dominant and gave up a total of 84 points in their two losses. The plan under new coordinator Steele is getting back to being dominant, and the player best suited to spearhead that effort is Dallas Turner. He was the “other” outside linebacker the past two seasons with Will Anderson Jr. on the other side, and Turner didn’t have the kind of explosive season a year ago that some thought he would. Heading into his junior season, the 6-4, 240-pound Turner has everything it takes to be one of the SEC’s top disruptors on defense in 2023. If he is, Alabama’s defense has a chance to get back to being dominant and more disruptive after finishing next to last in the SEC a year ago with just 14 forced turnovers.
Dave Wilson: Quinn Ewers was the star transfer of last offseason, bringing his flowing locks to Austin and taking the reins of Steve Sarkisian’s offense loaded with stars like Robinson and Worthy. But he threw for fewer than 200 yards in six games, which is acceptable given Robinson’s caliber for chewing up yards. But Ewers finished 53rd in QBR, threw just 15 touchdown passes (tied for 73rd), and sometimes struggled when defenses stacked up on Robinson, like against TCU when he threw for 171 yards and an interception on 39 attempts when Robinson was held to 29 yards. With Arch Manning coming in, and an offense returning every starter except Robinson while adding Georgia WR transfer Adonai Mitchell, Sarkisian will expect to score points. The mullet is already gone. Is this the beginning of a new Ewers?
Connelly: Van Dyke was 11th in Total QBR as a breakout star in 2021; Miami won five of six down the stretch after he got his footing, and he went into 2022, Cristobal’s first season as the Hurricanes’ head coach, as the program’s marquee star. And then he proceeded to plummet to 82nd in Total QBR, stuck between Mertz and Temple freshman E.J. Warner. He was banged up and benched and one of the major reasons Miami scored more than 31 points just once against FBS competition. Can new coordinator Shannon Dawson, his third OC in as many years, get both Van Dyke and the suddenly moribund offense back on track? The answer will determine whether Miami can inch its way back up the ACC totem pole, or whether the Cristobal era is going to start with back-to-back disappointments.
Hale: Ewers would probably be my pick, but it’s also worth talking about another big-time recruit with Texas ties, too: Clemson’s Cade Klubnik. He had every opportunity to win the job as a true freshman last season but couldn’t overtake a mediocre DJ Uiagalelei until the ACC title game. Had Klubnik developed a little faster, Clemson might’ve been a playoff team in 2022. Instead, he finally exploded against UNC, then quickly looked like a freshman again in Clemson’s bowl game. After the season, Dabo Swinney fired longtime QB coach (and first-year offensive coordinator) Brandon Streeter and brought in Garrett Riley to ensure Klubnik becomes the next great Clemson passer. There’s no reason to believe it can’t happen — Klubnik certainly has the tools — but with each passing year, the Trevor Lawrence era feels a bit harder to replicate with someone new.
Adelson: Joe Milton III has sent expectations skyrocketing for what he can do as the new Tennessee starting quarterback after playing exceptionally well to close out the 2022 season in place of the injured Hendon Hooker. But there are two key questions headed into the season: How will Milton handle the expectations as the new season inches closer? And has he learned enough over the past two seasons to avoid making the same mistakes he made earlier in his career that kept him from living up to his true potential? His performance in the 31-14 win over Clemson in the Capital One Orange Bowl — completing nearly 70% of his passes with three touchdowns to zero interceptions — certainly suggests he has. Now comes the task of replicating that week after week.
Baumgartner: Whether it be questions surrounding his size or his arm, Payton Thorne has defied the critics several times dating back to his time at Naperville Central High School (Illinois). With his childhood friend Jayden Reed having graduated, Thorne’s production didn’t slip as he threw 40 touchdown passes in his senior year of high school — 18 of them going to current Spartans teammate Cade McDonald. Thorne’s play last year fell short of lofty expectations as Michigan State fell from 11 wins to five. Yes, Thorne didn’t have the luxury of handing the ball off to Walker last year, but Walker wasn’t the sole reason for the Spartans’ success two years ago, as Thorne threw for 3,240 yards and a program-record 27 touchdown passes. Now in the same spot in college five years later with Reed now off to the NFL, can Thorne prove critics wrong one more time?
Rittenberg: I have never witnessed a more dominant individual defensive performance in college football than what Ohio State defensive end J.T. Tuimoloau delivered last year at Penn State. He had two interceptions, one returned for a touchdown, as well as two sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. He also tipped a pass that led to teammate Zach Harrison‘s interception in Ohio State’s 37-24 come-from-behind win. But JTT didn’t come close to matching the effort in other games, recording just 1.5 sacks and no turnover contributions the rest of the season. Ohio State’s defense desperately needs star power to turn a corner, especially along the front. Tuimoloau, ESPN’s No. 4 overall player in the 2021 class, clearly has the talent to be a game wrecker for offenses. The next step is greater consistency. Tuimoloau enters his third season overall and his second in coordinator Jim Knowles’ system. There’s no reason he shouldn’t be a national awards candidate for an improved unit.
Which transfer has the most prove?
Scarborough: On paper, Mertz looks like a great addition for Florida. He was the No. 1-ranked pocket passer in the 2019 class, and he started 32 games for Wisconsin. But he never quite lived up to expectations. The past two seasons, he failed to reach the 60% completion benchmark and threw a combined 29 touchdowns to 21 interceptions. And now he’s stepping into a tricky situation, replacing Richardson, who was very talented but also very inconsistent passing the football. Ricky Pearsall returns at receiver, which helps, but there’s not much proven talent behind him. Napier struggled to get the most out of Richardson. Maybe he’ll find a way to help Mertz reach his potential.
Low: At Wake Forest, Sam Hartman went from an under-recruited quarterback just outside Charlotte, North Carolina, to the ACC record holder for career touchdown passes (110). He earned the Demon Deacons’ starting job his true freshman season and was one of five FBS freshmen to start the season opener at quarterback in 2018. Hartman had a stellar career at Wake Forest and started 45 games. He was one of the main cogs in the Deacons’ impressive run under Dave Clawson, which included an 11-win season in 2021. Now, Hartman takes one last shot at college football on one of college football’s biggest stages as he transfers to Notre Dame. The Irish had won 10 or more games in five straight seasons before dipping to nine a year ago in Marcus Freeman’s first season as coach. Hartman gets a chance to show that he’s the missing piece, as Notre Dame looks to return to the College Football Playoff after a two-year absence.
Connelly: Sticking with former ACC signal-callers, Devin Leary was suffering through a dreadful 2022 campaign even before an injury ended his season six games in. Against East Carolina, Texas Tech, Clemson and Florida State, he completed just 56% of his passes at 10.1 yards per completion with as many interceptions (three) as touchdowns. NC State averaged under 22 points per game against those teams. At Kentucky, he’ll replace Will Levis, who also just dealt with a disappointing, injury-affected season. He’ll have an experienced supporting cast around him, but both Leary and the Wildcats’ offense bear some serious burden of proof after a disappointing season.
Rittenberg: I’ll continue the ACC quarterback theme with a player who remained in the league but certainly needs a reboot after a really rough 2022 season: NC State’s Brennan Armstrong. After a record-setting 2021 season at Virginia, Armstrong remained on the team through the coaching change, but significantly regressed in performance, completing just 54.7% of his passes with 12 interceptions and only seven touchdown passes — 24 fewer than he had the previous season. It became almost painful to watch, especially when Armstrong threw pick-sixes on his first two pass attempts against Pitt. His transfer to NC State makes complete sense, as he will reunite with his former Virginia offensive coordinator Robert Anae there. Armstrong understands Anae’s system and will try to recapture his magic from 2021, when he finished fourth nationally in passing yards with 4,449, a Virginia single-season team record.
Adelson: Is it good or bad that many of the transfer players with something to prove come from the ACC? In my view, the biggest name here is Uiagalelei, who transferred from Clemson to Oregon State. It was only two offseasons ago that Uiagalelei was earning preseason Heisman hype and signing up to be a Dr. Pepper spokesperson, but for myriad reasons, it simply did not work out for him in two years as the Clemson starter. Uiagalelei handled the criticism and disappointments with class and grace, but now this fresh start gives him an opportunity to refocus and reset. Uiagalelei has the same potential and talent coaches saw when he was a highly touted recruit out of California. Perhaps moving outside the national spotlight will help him prove that to the world.
Hale: The QBs top the list, of course, but those are easy choices. Instead, let’s look at Texas A&M cornerback Tony Grimes, who arrives in College Station after three years at North Carolina in which his career trended downward each season. As a five-star recruit, he reclassified and enrolled at UNC a year early due to COVID-19, and as a freshman he looked spectacular, setting up hopes he’d be the next Dre Bly (his position coach and a fellow Virginia Beach native). Instead, Grimes battled injuries and inconsistency in 2021 and struggled again in 2022. He gets a fresh start at A&M this season, where he could either relocate the ability that made him a potential first-round draft pick or fall into the category of five-star underachiever. It’s easy to point to the lackluster UNC defense and pin much of the blame on the coaching staff. Grimes is in an exceptional spot to succeed now, though, and it’s up to him to prove he deserved all that hype coming out of high school.
Baumgartner: This one’s easy for me: Shedeur Sanders at Colorado. The Buffaloes will be in the spotlight every single day his Hall of Fame father, Deion, patrols the sidelines in Boulder. Sanders was awesome for 12-win Jackson State (3,752 passing yards, 40 TDs) last year. But I want to see how the former ESPN 300 quarterback (No. 61 overall in 2021) does against stiffer competition. The season opener at reigning national runner-up TCU and September games at Oregon and home against USC will throw Sanders and offensive coordinator Sean Lewis, the former head coach at Kent State, right into the fire. Colorado has had only two winning seasons since 2005 and hasn’t won more than five games since Mike MacIntyre led the program to 10 wins and a Pac-12 South title in 2016. Sanders will have as much impact as anyone, shortly followed by his fellow Jackson State transfer, cornerback/wide receiver Travis Hunter, in deciding how quickly Prime Time comes to Folsom Field.
(With Inputs from ESPN)
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