With spring football launching into full swing this month, let’s take a look at my top 25, with a nod to staff changes, transfer portal additions, 2023 recruit signings and what programs need to shore up in their 15 practices before the summer.
The Bulldogs will play 2023 without arguably two of the most important Bulldogs in program history: former UGA quarterback Stetson Bennett and offensive coordinator Todd Monken — both bound for the NFL.
The Bulldogs are comfortably the best program in the country with back-to-back national titles.
But the question of how offensive coordinator Mike Bobo calls plays, and then who he selects to carry out those calls — whether its presumptive starter Carson Beck, Brock Vandagriff or Gunner Stockton.
The Wolverines return the best running back room in the nation. If Blake Corum gets healthy, he’ll return to the sport as the nation’s best tailback.
The issue for Michigan is identifying pass-rushers who can fill the vacancy left by Mike Morris and Eyabi Okie. Morris led the 2022 Wolverines in sacks (7.5) and tackles for loss (11). Okie finished second on the team in sacks with four.
The Wolverines will count on Jaylen Harrell, Braiden McGregor and Derrick Moore to use these 15 spring practices to take steps toward Michigan mounting a dominant defensive front in 2023.
3. Ohio State
All eyes should be on the QB derby between Kyle McCord and Devin Brown.
McCord will have an advantage through his relationship with the best wideout in the country, Marvin Harrison Jr. McCord and Harrison Jr.’s relationship stretches all the way back to high school at Philadelphia’s St. Joseph Preparatory, when they formed a dominant tandem playing on three state championship teams.
But trained Buckeye observers will note Larry Johnson Sr.’s defensive line could be his best since 2019. J.T. Tuimoloau and Jack Sawyer will have to become the players their high school recruiting rankings indicated to achieve the kind of success the Bosa brothers and Chase Young enjoyed in Columbus.
Tuimoloau enjoyed a game for the ages against No. 13 Penn State when he finished with two sacks, a forced fumble, fumble recovery, two interceptions and a TD.
Caleb Williams is Lincoln Riley’s third Heisman winner in six years and is poised to become his third No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft if he continues to play at the level he has displayed in his first two years. With Jordan Addison off to the NFL, Zachariah Branch might emerge as a great option out wide alongside Mario Williams.
But like Michigan, the hole in USC seeking its first national title since 2004 is Alex Grinch’s defense. Adding transfers Kyon Barrs (Arizona) and Anthony Lucas (Texas A&M) should fortify a defense that loses former All-America defensive end Tuli Tuipulotu, but they still need former No. 1 overall recruit Korey Foreman to emerge as a force from spring practice.
As great as Hendon Hooker and Josh Heupel’s offense was last year, the Vol defense was just that bad. The defense allowed 300-yard passing performances to four opponents and 1,505 yards rushing last season.
Even with a secondary that was one of the worst in the SEC, the Vols finished 11-2 with an Orange Bowl win against lil ol’ Clemson. A decent step forward by the secondary in the spring will keep momentum toward challenging UGA in the fall.
It’s not often that a running back leads his team in rushing and receiving yards. But that’s exactly what Jahmyr Gibbs did for Alabama last season.
While Gibbs was the best offensive player in Tuscaloosa outside Bryce Young, his pass-catching ability underscored what was Alabama’s weakest wide receiver corps in nearly a decade.
Wideouts Jermaine Burton, Ja’Corey Brooks and Isaiah Bond will look to change this and reestablish what was one of the deepest receiving corps in the country during spring practices.
7. Penn State
James Franklin’s Nittany Lions are sitting pretty with a terrific tandem at tailback in Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen, who combined for nearly 2,000 yards rushing in 2022. If Drew Allar reaches his potential, Penn State might very well knock off Michigan and Ohio State — a feat PSU has accomplished since 2008.
The Seminoles put together one of the best rushing offenses in the country last season. FSU backs rushed for 214.1 yards per game behind an outstanding offensive line.
The Noles added three quality transfer offensive lineman — Jeremiah Byers, Casey Roddick and Keiondre Jones — during the last cycle to help Mike Norvell, wideout Johnny Wilson and quarterback Jordan Travis propel the Noles into spring.
Wilson, a 6-foot-7 transfer from DII Shorter University, South Carolina transfer Jaheim Bell, and 6-foot-7, 245-pound tight end Kyle Morocco will make a formidable receiving corps if they sync up with Travis. Spring will be pivotal for their future success.
Add to this Jared Verse’s surprise return to the sport after a first-round projection in the upcoming NFL Draft, and the Noles look like they’ll be competing for an ACC title.
The Utes managed to knock off USC twice in the same season — like it did Oregon in 2021 — to defend its Pac-12 crown despite holding one of the worst passing attacks in the league, just 50th-best in the nation.
And that was with Dalton Kincaid amassing a measly 890 yards. If Andy Ludwig can find Cam Rising just two great threats at pass-catching positions this spring, the Utes might dream of playing in a national semifinal.
Maybe Indiana transfer Emery Simmons can fill one of those spots after putting together a decent year in 2022 that included a game with six catches and 99 receiving yards against Maryland and four catches for 64 yards against Big Ten West champ Purdue.
Dabo Swinney is betting on Garrett Riley to not just continue to develop quarterback Cade Klubnik and running back Will Shipley, but to identify the Tigers’ first explosive receiving threat since Justyn Ross stalked Death Valley.
Beaux Collins and Adam Randall combined for just 32 catches in 2022, but they could receive much-needed help from true freshman Noble Johnson.
Michael Penix, Jr. returns to a team that not only won 11 games in 2022 but returns all three top wideouts: Rome Odunze, Jalen McMillan and Ja’Lynn Polk.
Odunze and McMillan combined for 154 catches, over 2,200 receiving yards and 16 TD catches in 2022.
Expect the Huskies to use this spring to maintain their aerial advantage and ask the defense to catch up.
12. Notre Dame
Looking like Midwest Utah, the Fighting Irish didn’t feature a single wide receiver with 30 or more catches in 2022. Put another way, tight end Michael Mayer caught 67 passes for 809 yards with nine TDs last year.
Of course, ND added the ACC’s all-time leader in passing TDs in Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman, but he needs dudes who can catch and run to be effective.
Offensive coordinator Gerad Parker and wideout coach Chansi Stuckey need to find a couple of bona fide threats to line up on the numbers this spring. It’d be nice if Lorenzo Styles and Braylon James answered the call.
However, they’ll have Joe Alt at left tackle, and there’s nothing like knowing your quarterback’s blindside is protected by one of the sport’s best.
13. Kansas State
Malik Knowles? Gone. Kade Warner? Outta there. The Deuce? Loose.
K-State is forced to defend its Big 12 title with Will Howard and receiver Phillip Brooks as their sole proven offensive threats, and brand-new starters at both the cornerback and safety positions.
Add to this the loss of the Big 12’s best pass-rusher in 2022, Felix Anudike-Uzomah, and Chris Klieman has his work cut out for him in identifying playmakers this spring.
Arguably no team lost more playmakers and talent off its 2022 iteration than Texas Christian. And that math doesn’t even include losing Garrett Riley to Clemson.
Max Duggan, Quentin Johnston, Taye Barber and Kendre Miller are all gone, meaning the offense is in the hands of offensive coordinator Kendal Briles, quarterback Chandler Morris, tight end Jack Bech and wideouts Savion Williams, JoJo Earle and Jordan Hudson.
However, Horned Frogs headman Sonny Dykes might think the most talented QB on the 2022 team was on the bench and that Briles’ offense can provide the shock to the Big 12 that defensive coordinator Joe Gillespie’s did last season.
What does the future hold for TCU?
RJ Young breaks down what’s next for the Horned Frogs after their surprising run to the national championship game last season.
The Ducks don’t just return Bo Nix, who enjoyed a brilliant first season in Eugene, but they also bring back tailbacks Bucky Irving and Noah Whittington, who combined for 1,837 yards rushing in 2022.
As long as offensive coordinator Will Stein doesn’t fix what ain’t broken, the Ducks should use the spring to begin a march on the conference title game. After all, there’s no Georgia in the way to muddy the picture of an otherwise sound Ducks program.
Luke Fickell is not taking over a rebuild. The Badgers have been one of the best teams in the Big Ten this century. With 208 wins since 2000, only Ohio State (248) has won more games in the conference.
From Barry Alvarez to Bret Bielema to Paul Chryst, the Badgers have enjoyed running backs who can handle a high workload and a defense that is stout. But with 13 transfers during this cycle and the hiring of offensive coordinator Phil Longo, Fickell hopes to add an aerial attack to an already good rushing attack, so that the Badgers can retake the top spot in the Big Ten West.
Chip Kelly recently re-signed with the Bruins through 2027, after UCLA finished in the AP Top 25 for the first time since 2014.
In UCLA’s last season of Pac-12 play, he’s going into a QB derby that features Kent State transfer Colin Schlee, Ethan Garbers and five-star freshman Dante Moore. If he picks the right playcaller, the Bruins can expect to equal or surpass their nine-win season a year ago. Spring will be crucial to making that decision.
Losing Kayshon Boutte to the NFL will be tough for LSU to overcome, but not impossible.
The Tigers return quarterback Jayden Daniels and wideout Malik Nabers, but that’s about it in terms of proven passing attack personnel for LSU.
Spring is open for former Alabama wideout Aaron Anderson to establish himself as the solid No. 2 receiver, and for talented Brian Thomas Jr. to make a mark with Kyren Lacy.
19. Oregon State
The Beavers enjoyed the best scoring defense in the Pac-12 last year, giving up just 20 points per game. OSU returns four all-conference Pac-12 performers to their secondary in Alex Austin, Jaydon Grant, Ryan Cooper Jr., and Kitan Oladapo.
Now they’ve added former five-star recruit DJ Uiagalelei, who looks like the presumptive starter in Corvallis and could help them make the leap from feel-good Pac-12 story to a Pac-12 championship contender.
Along with five-star cornerback Cormani McClain, four-star running back Dylan Edwards might prove to be an important piece to the Coach Prime experience in Boulder this season.
However, with talent at the skill positions, spring will be most important for the Buffalo offensive and defensive lines as quarterback Shedeur Sanders gets comfortable playing Power 5 football.
Venables has a clear mission in 2023 for the Sooners heading into their final season of Big 12 play: Fix the defense. The Sooners allowed 40 points or more in five games last season and were eighth in a 10-team league in both scoring defense and total yards allowed.
The core of OU’s defense returns, including linebacker Danny Stutsman, safety Billy Bowman and defensive linemen Ethan Downs and Reggie Grimes. But the addition of Dasan McCullough could prove to be the most important of the 2023 cycle.
The Sooners used a strong spring — the best-attended spring game in the country — to get off to a fast start in 2022 before falling off. They could use the same start in 2023.
Along with quarterback Cade McNamara, the Hawkeyes added former Michigan tight end Erick All during the transfer cycle. If any of the underclassmen at wideout — Diante Vines, Brody Brecht or 2023 recruits Dayton Howard, Alex Mota or Jarriett Buue — demonstrate reliability, that could be the difference between another seven-win season and a playoff contender in Iowa City.
Put another way, that’s how good Phil Parker’s defense has been over the last two years — just short of dominant. Iowa held nine teams to 10 points or fewer and ranked No. 2 in the country in scoring defense at just 13.3 points per game.
The shame for the Hawkeyes over the last two years is their defense has been on par with the best in the sport. All they need is an offense with a pulse.
Jalon Daniels enjoyed a breakout season that peaked with him being mentioned for the Heisman after leading KU to its first bowl game appearance in 15 years. He finished the year completing 66% of his passes for 2,014 yards, 425 rush yards, 18 TDs and just four INTs.
However, he missed the last four games of the season due to a shoulder injury.
Offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki knows Daniels can extend and make plays. This spring, he needs to focus on mastering the offense to push KU toward a title-contending season.
Losing Bijan Robinson and Roschon Johnson at tailback is going to hurt Texas. However, with Quinn Ewers and Arch Manning dueling at quarterback, and Xavier Worthy returning as the Longhorns’ preeminent deep threat, Steve Sarkisian can afford to spend more time evaluating his running back room.
He’s got talent there, if not experience. Joining Jonathon Brooks, Keilan Robinson and Jaydon Blue is prep standout Cedric Baxter Jr., who rushed for 1,395 and 15 TDs in just 10 games as a senior at Edgewater High School in Orlando last year.
25. Texas Tech
The good news for Red Raiders head coach Joey McGuire is he returns two players who started at quarterback for him in 2022 in Tyler Shough and Behren Morton. The bad news is they missed nine games combined due to injury.
The Red Raiders struggled to keep their quarterbacks upright in 2022, allowing 41 sacks last season, or more than three a game.
If offensive coordinator Zach Kittley’s overhaul of the offensive line works — even asking his starting tackles, Caleb Rogers and Monroe Mills to switch positions — Tech could prove formidable in 2023.
RJ Young is a national college football writer and analyst for FOX Sports and the host of the podcast “The Number One College Football Show.” Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Young and subscribe to “The RJ Young Show” on YouTube.
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