Sustaining success is one of the toughest challenges for any college football program.
When a program is mired in losing or mediocrity, that breakthrough season is so coveted that sometimes it comes with a fall back down to earth on the other side.
Which teams will see that happen in 2023? We’ve assembled a list of 10 that could take a step back.
We were right on the money with nine of our 10 selections last year. Let’s see how we do this time around.
(Teams listed in alphabetical order)
Cincinnati (9-4 in 2022)
Any of the three teams moving up from the AAC to the Big 12 could fit here (BYU, too), but Cincinnati in particular seems poised for a big step back. The Bearcats went a combined 53-10 over the past five seasons under Luke Fickell, but already started to show some signs of decline last season following the program’s historic trip to the College Football Playoff in 2021.
Now, just as they are moving up in competition, the Bearcats have changed coaches with Fickell off to Wisconsin and Scott Satterfield coming in from Louisville. Satterfield was just 25-24 in four seasons at UL and opted to restart his clock at Cincinnati rather than potentially continue at UL while coaching on shaky ground.
As is the norm with a coaching change these days, the roster turnover for UC is significant — especially on offense. The Bearcats are facing pretty much complete overhauls at receiver and along the offensive line with the well-traveled Emory Jones stepping in at quarterback. The defensive line should be pretty solid, but there are concerns in the secondary.
The Bearcats may not even reach a bowl.
Coastal Carolina (9-4)
After going a combined 22-3 in 2020 and 2021, Coastal Carolina went 9-4 last year. It was a step back in terms of record, but the Chanticleers actually played quite a bit worse than their record indicates. CCU was 5-1 in one-possession games last year, including beating bad teams like Gardner-Webb, UL Monroe and Southern Miss. There was also an ugly loss to Old Dominion along the way.
In 2023, there’s reason to believe the Chanticleers will fade further into the middle of the pack in the Sun Belt. Coach Jamey Chadwell departed for Liberty and the school hired veteran assistant Tim Beck as his replacement. Beck inherits a loaded offense that includes quarterback Grayson McCall, but Beck’s system is far more basic than the unique attack employed by Chadwell.
It feels like a downgrade with the offensive coaching staff. When you couple that with a defense that was quite bad last fall and lost several top players (including Josaiah Stewart to Michigan and Jerrod Clark to the NFL), it’s hard not to project another step back for CCU.
Duke was one of the biggest surprises in the sport last fall, winning nine games in its first season under coach Mike Elko. The Blue Devils won 10 games combined in their previous three seasons, so it was a huge and unexpected leap forward in the win column.
From an overall talent perspective, Duke looks like it should be just as good in 2023 but their record won’t reflect that. The schedule is significantly more difficult compared to last season when they avoided Clemson, Florida State, NC State and Louisville in ACC play. This year, with divisions eliminated in the ACC, Duke has to face Clemson, NC State and Pitt at home and gets Florida State, Louisville and North Carolina all on the road. There’s also a home game vs. Notre Dame.
On top of the much tougher schedule, Duke won’t be overlooked by ACC competition like it was last year. The Blue Devils were also aided by one of the top turnover margins in the country and there are some concerns about the offensive line, pass rush and secondary. This looks more like a 6-6 team than one that can get back to eight or nine wins.
Fresno State (10-4)
From top to bottom, I’m not particularly high on the Mountain West this season. The amount of talent lost on the roster of defending champions Fresno State is part of my reasoning there. Not only did the Bulldogs lose star quarterback Jake Haener to the NFL, but running back Jordan Mims and four of Fresno’s top five wide receivers have departed as well. The Bulldogs also lost some key defensive players, particularly defensive end David Perales and safety Evan Williams.
Jeff Tedford has a history of developing quarterbacks, but Haener was so valuable to the Bulldogs over the years. Fresno State won its final nine games last season, sparked by Haener’s return from injury. The Bulldogs added Mikey Keene from UCF, but the drop off at quarterback is significant.
I think the Bulldogs can get to a bowl game, but I don’t expect them to compete for the Mountain West title.
Mississippi State (9-4)
Zach Arnett is in a difficult position taking over as head coach following the death of Mike Leach. Arnett, 36, is making some changes as he brought in Kevin Barbay to run the offense. Barbay leaned heavily on the run at App State, so it’ll be a major system change from Leach’s famous Air Raid attack. Will Rogers, MSU’s longtime starting QB, has not taken many snaps from center (he even played out of shotgun in high school), so there will be some adjustments.
Additionally, MSU lost six of its top seven on the defensive line by snap count. The group gets a boost with Jaden Crumedy coming back from injury, but there are some real depth concerns up front and with MSU’s group of edge rushers. Tyrus Wheat, who combined for 21 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks over the past two seasons, will be tough to replace, as will first-round cornerback Emmanuel Forbes.
The schedule is really tough, too. Six or seven wins feels like a more likely outcome and it wouldn’t shock if MSU missed a bowl.
Oregon State (10-3)
Oregon State is in an unfamiliar position entering the 2023 season. The Beavers, after winning 10 games last fall, have legitimate expectations. They will likely be ranked in the preseason Top 25 with some folks pointing to the Beavers as an under-the-radar contender in the Pac-12. I’m not so sure about that.
Does Oregon State really have another gear? The schedule gives the Beavers some breaks with an easy group of non-conference games and Utah, UCLA and Washington all visiting Corvallis. But I think the defense is in line for a step back (Omar Speights leaving for LSU was a major blow) and I’m not buying Clemson transfer DJ Uiagalelei as a major upgrade at quarterback, especially with an extremely underwhelming group of receivers.
The 2022 season was the best at Oregon State in nearly 20 years. I’m expecting some regression.
The Boilermakers could be in for a tough year as they transition out of the Jeff Brohm era and welcome in new coach Ryan Walters.
Brohm always found ways to score points even if the Boilermakers were less talented than some of their Big Ten opponents. Graham Harrell, Walters’ offensive coordinator, is going to struggle to replicate that in 2023 even with a strong portal addition in quarterback Hudson Card. Purdue is lacking talent at receiver and was decimated by transfers on the offensive line, particularly at the tackle spot. Defensively, Purdue is going to rely on a bunch of transfers on the line and in the secondary.
Purdue won the Big Ten West in 2022. Getting to a bowl game in 2023 would be an accomplishment, especially with some tricky non-conference games and Ohio State and Michigan both on the schedule.
South Carolina (8-5)
In general, I believe South Carolina is trending in the right direction under Shane Beamer, especially with the level of recruiting we’ve seen recently. At the same time, I think it’s far more likely that the Gamecocks drop back down to 5-7 or 6-6 than take a leap forward to 9-3 or 10-2 in 2023. There are just too many losable games on this schedule and too many question marks about the roster.
The Gamecocks open up with North Carolina, have road games against Georgia, Tennessee and Texas A&M and then close with Kentucky and Clemson. There are also toss-up games with Florida and Missouri. It’s a slog. And from a roster standpoint, I’m very concerned about the offensive line and not too confident in the skill position players beyond Juice Wells and Trey Knox. I also think the defense is mediocre at best.
I worry that the close of last year’s regular season — wins over Tennessee and Clemson — was more of a mirage than a sign of things to come. To keep recruiting at this pace, South Carolina should hope the drop-off isn’t too steep.
TCU’s run to the College Football Playoff was incredible. The Horned Frogs just kept finding ways to win close games and that continued when they shocked Michigan in the semifinals. They ended up going 9-1 in games decided by 10 points or fewer. That’s an incredible run that will be nearly impossible to replicate.
There are so many pivotal players for TCU to replace on both sides of the ball. Stars like QB Max Duggan, WR Quentin Johnston, RB Kendre Miller, DE Dylan Horton, LB Dee Winters and CB Trevius Hodges-Tomlinson are all gone. Those are really good players, and Sonny Dykes brought in a heavy transfer portal class to try to keep the momentum rolling.
Entering 2023, there are concerns along both lines of scrimmage and the back half of the schedule is very difficult with games against Kansas State (road), Texas Tech (road), Texas, Baylor and Oklahoma (road) to close out the regular season.
For Tennessee to have a better season than last year’s triumph, it would have to realistically be in College Football Playoff contention in the final weekend of the regular season. With that as the standard, I think the Vols have a strong season but end up more in the 8-4 range rather than a jump up to 11-1.
There are a few reasons for that. First, I’m a little skeptical that Joe Milton will be able to operate this offense with the efficiency that Hendon Hooker did. I’m not worried about the receiver group even with Jalin Hyatt and Cedric Tillman moving on to the NFL, but I have some concerns about the offensive line after losing Darnell Wright and Jerome Carvin to the pros. Defensively, I don’t think the secondary is very good despite having a lot of experience. I also have concerns about the lack of a proven pass rusher following the departure of Byron Young.
This year, Tennessee will face Alabama in Tuscaloosa and host Georgia. There is also a visit from Texas A&M and trips to Florida and Kentucky. Maybe the Vols will prove me wrong, but I see third-best team in the SEC East as a far more likely occurrence than a national championship contender.