NFL Draft Analyst
With the 2023 college football season set to kick off this weekend, it feels important to remind viewers, voters, and even coaches that little goes according to plan once the games begin.
The near uniformity of both the preseason AFCA Coaches Poll and the AP Top 25 speak to the common, and frankly, lazy, assumptions many seem to have about the upcoming season. Both polls have the exact same teams (in nearly the same order) throughout their Top 15, with perennial powerhouses Georgia, Michigan, Alabama and Ohio State easily the favorites for the playoffs.
This isn’t to suggest that those heavyweights shouldn’t sit atop the polls at this early point. All are legitimate title contenders. But as TCU and Cincinnati proved the past two years, it isn’t always the favorites who qualify for the postseason.
This year, my models suggest that two teams ranked outside the top seven in the polls could push for a playoff spot — Florida State (ranked eighth in both) and Washington (10th in the AP, 11th in the Coaches Poll). Both boast continuity at quarterback, big-play options at receiver, early-round NFL draft talent at edge rusher, and competitive schedules to be real contenders this season.
Both, however, are already widely regarded as teams to watch this season, so let’s dig a little deeper and see which less-heralded teams are capable of surprising in 2023.
With one notable exception, each of the teams listed below is not included in either preseason Top 25 Poll. Whether they ultimately crack the Top 25 at some point this season or not, I believe each will exceed the win totals currently projected by oddsmakers.
Teams are listed alphabetically.
The disintegration of the Pac-12 conference has shifted much of the national attention elsewhere, but for those who missed it, BYU will officially join the Big 12 this season. This is a BYU squad that finished 8-5 a year ago, and while the losses to the NFL draft were significant — including QB Jaren Hall — the Cougars may actually have upgraded at the position with former USC and Pittsburgh transfer Kedon Slovis, whose experience and accuracy should have BYU able to keep up with the high-octane offenses they’ll face in the new conference.
Slovis might be the most recognizable name to many college football fans, but there are a dozen or so legitimate pro prospects on Kalani Sitaki’s roster, giving this team the ammunition needed to exceed their projected 5.5 wins.
Colorado State Rams
While Coach Prime and the boys in Boulder have dominated the press, it is the “other” team in Colorado that I anticipate will make the biggest jump on the field this season. Head coach Jay Norvell came to Fort Collins from Nevada, where his version of the Air Raid offense proved one of the most explosive in college football. Norvell coaxed quarterback Clay Millen and wide receiver Tory Horton to follow him, and while there were some growing pains a year ago, I expect significant improvement in Year Two.
Just as importantly, this Rams defense has some legitimately draftable dudes on defense, including edge rusher Mohamed Kamara and cornerback Chigozie Anusiem.
CSU has a challenging start to its season, with out-of-conference games against Washington State and Colorado, but Vegas is calling for just 4.5 wins this season and I think the Rams will prove better than that.
Illinois Fighting Illini
While there is no question that head coach Bret Bielema was aided a year ago by the recruiting done by his predecessor Lovie Smith, give the man credit — he brought some fight back to the Illini, guiding them to their first winning season since 2011 and their first bowl game since 2019. The losses from last year’s team are significant. Three-quarters of a secondary that allowed just nine total touchdown passes a year ago is now in the NFL, but Bielema’s dependable run-heavy offense and star defensive tackle Jer’Zhan Newton give the Illini a solid foundation to once again win in the trenches. Quarterback Luke Altmyer transferred in from Ole Miss and possesses the traits to earn NFL attention.
I think oddsmakers are failing to recognize Bielema’s steady track record as head coach (110-70 overall) and the young talent he has bubbling in Champaign. Illinois is projected to win 6.5 games this season, I see the Illini reloading in the backfield and secondary, and surpassing that number.
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Similar to the aforementioned Bielema and the Illini, Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops deserves respect, and nobody should believe they won’t claw their way to seven wins this season (projected to win 6.5). Sure, the SEC East is formidable, but Stoops has guided Kentucky to four consecutive bowl games, winning three of them. The Wildcats did lose the Music City Bowl last year to Iowa, but with star quarterback Will Levis opting out of the game, that shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise.
With all due respect to the undeniably gifted Levis, the Wildcats may, in fact, get more consistent play this year from NC State transfer Devin Leary, whose 60.2% completion percentage and 62-16 career touchdown-top-interception ratio fit in better with the defensive-minded Stoops anyway. Leary joins a squad boasting one of the better offensive lines in the SEC and potential NFL draft picks all over the roster. Edge rusher J.J. Weaver and cornerback Andru Phillips are among the Wildcats on defense that I think could ascend this season into all-conference candidates.
They say you can’t go home again, and that theory seemed true a year ago in Miami when Mario Cristobal returned to his alma mater amid great fanfare, only to see the Hurricanes sputter to a 5-7 finish.
There wasn’t much that went right last year for the ‘Canes. Starting quarterback Tyler Van Dyke, a legitimate NFL prospect, struggled with a painful shoulder sprain, limiting him to just six games and 10 touchdown passes after throwing for 25 a year earlier. Meanwhile, left tackle Zion Nelson, arguably the team’s most gifted prospect, missed all but one game recovering from offseason knee surgery. The losses rocked Miami.
A former offensive lineman, himself, Cristobal does not get the national credit he deserves for helping Oregon develop along the trenches. That is where I expect Miami to make real strides this year, including on the defensive side of the ball with pesky penetrators Akheem Mesidor and Purdue-transfer Branson Deen, who will make opposing quarterbacks miserable.
Oregon State Beavers
My stated intention in this article was to highlight teams ranked outside the preseason Top 25, but the Beavers are the exception, as they check in at 18th in both polls. Oddsmakers believe in Oregon State, as well, forecasting Jonathan Smith’s developing program to win eight games this season. But despite a revolving door at quarterback, the Beavers logged 10 victories a year ago. Now, with former Clemson starter DJ Uiagalelei taking over as signal-caller, I believe double-digit wins are a possibility again.
There is no denying that Uiagalelei struggled with consistency at Clemson. But Smith, a former quarterback himself at OSU, has developed quite a reputation for developing passers, and he has never had a quarterback with Uiagalelei’s gifts. And unlike the fearsome ACC, where it seems that every defense is loaded with future top NFL draft picks, the Pac-12 is relatively lacking in this department. Add to this fact that Oregon State quietly boasts a terrific offensive line, with multiple blockers earning legitimate draftable grades from NFL scouts.
The perception is that OSU “got lucky” with wins over rival Oregon and a seemingly disinterested Florida squad in the Las Vegas Bowl. The Beavers hung tough with Pac-12 powerhouses USC and Washington a year ago, losing by just a field goal to each, however. With the Pac-12 dissolving after this season, don’t be surprised if the Beavers — one of four teams left out in the cold after realignment — once again dam things up a bit in the conference’s final campaign.
Rob Rang is an NFL Draft analyst for FOX Sports. He has been covering the NFL Draft for more than 20 years, with work at FOX, Sports Illustrated, CBSSports.com, USA Today, Yahoo, NFL.com and NFLDraftScout.com, among others. He also works as a scout with the BC Lions of the Canadian Football League. Follow him on Twitter @RobRang.
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