2023 college football season predictions: Michigan wins the national championship

2MAK5JM Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy (9) signals during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Hawaii, Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022, in Ann Arbor, Mich. (AP Photo/Jose Juarez)

• Michigan wins the national championship: The Wolverines take down Georgia to secure their first national title this century.

• Florida State makes the Playoff: With one of the most loaded rosters in the country, the Seminoles make their first College Football Playoff since 2014.

• USC cracks the final four: Led by reigning Heisman winner Caleb Williams, the Trojans win the Pac-12 and make the College Football Playoff.

Estimated Reading Time: 14 minutes


We’re now just a few days away from the start of the 2023 college football season.

After predicting the winners and finalists for every individual college football award, here are my picks for the conference championship games, New Year’s Six bowls and the College Football Playoff.

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ACC Championship Game

Florida State Seminoles over Clemson Tigers

The ACC is now one of three Power Five conferences without divisions. That means the two best teams will face off in the championship game, paving the way for Florida State and Clemson to meet in Charlotte, North Carolina. Both were in the top eight of my preseason ranking, while the next-closest ACC team, North Carolina, checked in at No. 25.

Clemson is loaded defensively with the best linebacker unit and a top-three secondary in college football. The offense will rely on the new partnership of the best offensive coordinator in the country in Garrett Riley and Cade Klubnik — the top quarterback recruit from the 2022 class.

However, the Tigers will fail to win the ACC for just the second time in nine years. That’s because Florida State’s roster is one of the most loaded in the sport. The Seminoles feature my pick to win the Heisman Trophy (Jordan Travis), the top running back in the 2024 NFL Draft (Trey Benson), my pick to win the Bednarik Award/Nagurski Trophy (Jared Verse), a top-five receiving corps and defensive line in the country as well as a top-10 running back unit, offensive line and secondary. For the first time since 2014, Florida State will win the ACC championship and make the College Football Playoff.


Big 12 Championship Game

Texas Longhorns over Oklahoma Sooners

This will be the first and only time the Red River Rivalry makes its way into the Big 12 championship, as both Texas and Oklahoma leave the conference for the SEC following this season.

The Sooners are coming off their first losing season this century, but there’s reason to expect a bounce-back in 2023. Oklahoma went 0-5 in one-possession games last year, with four of them decided by three points. Dillon Gabriel is also back at quarterback after placing second among FBS quarterbacks last year with a 1.1% turnover-worthy play rate. The defense should also be improved after adding nine transfers on that side of the ball.

Even with the new faces on defense, the Sooners will likely still have difficulty stopping Texas’ aerial attack. The Longhorns feature the nation’s second-best receiving corps, trailing only Ohio State in that regard. The bigger question is whether Quinn Ewers can deliver the ball consistently. While his 6.6% big-time throw rate stood sixth among Power Five quarterbacks, his 65.2% adjusted completion rate was the eighth worst in the Power Five. To be fair, he was dealing with an injury to his throwing shoulder for much of the season, so he should be better in 2023. If he lives up to the hype that he had coming out of high school, this offense will be almost impossible to stop.


Big Ten Championship Game

Michigan Wolverines over Wisconsin Badgers

2023 will be the final season in which the Big Ten title game features the winners of the East and West divisions, as the conference is moving to a division-less style next season.

Wisconsin is the pick here out of the West mostly due to the team's offseason. The Badgers first hired Luke Fickell from Cincinnati, a top-10 head coach in college football. He then hired a top-five offensive coordinator in North Carolina’s Phil Longo. That’s in addition to rostering a top-five running back in Braelon Allen. SMU transfer Tanner Mordecai will likely take over under center. He’s posted an 86.1 passing grade since 2021, ninth among returning FBS quarterbacks.

 

However, the cream of the crop in the Big Ten is still Michigan. The Wolverines return one of the best rosters in college football. Michigan has the best running back unit, the best offensive line, the second-best secondary, the No. 3 defensive line, a top-five linebacker unit and a top-10 quarterback in J.J. McCarthy. This is probably the best team Jim Harbaugh has had, which is saying a lot, considering the Wolverines have won the past two Big Ten titles and have made back-to-back playoff appearances.


Pac-12 Championship Game

USC Trojans over Washington Huskies

This will most likely be the Pac-12’s final year of existence. Eight of the current 12 members are leaving the conference following the season. The last conference championship game should provide some fireworks if it comes down to these two teams.

Washington’s offense features a top-five quarterback in Michael Penix Jr. and a top-three receiving corps that’s headlined by Rome Odunze and Jalen McMillan. Not to mention, the Huskies also have an offensive mastermind at head coach in Kalen DeBoer and one of the nation’s best offensive coordinators in Ryan Grubb.

As daunting as that seems, it’s still not as good as USC’s offense, which led the FBS last year in expected points added per play. Caleb Williams is back under center and is the reigning Heisman Trophy winner. The Trojans' receiving corps ranks sixth in the country, while the offensive line ranks fifth. On the sidelines, the Trojans have college football’s best offensive mind in Lincoln Riley and former Arizona Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury serving as an offensive analyst/quarterbacks coach. The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman recently told me that USC’s defense should be much improved as well, which was ultimately its kryptonite last year.


SEC Championship Game

Georgia Bulldogs over Alabama Crimson Tide

Alabama is coming off an 11-2 season in which it missed the College Football Playoff for just the second time in its nine-year history. The Crimson Tide must replace some key pieces if they want to get back, namely 2023 No. 1 overall pick Bryce Young. Vying for that job are Jalen Milroe, Ty Simpson and Notre Dame transfer Tyler Buchner. Two of those three (Milroe and Buchner) were less than inspiring when they played, while Simpson is a former five-star recruit but only has five career dropbacks. Alabama also breaks in two new coordinators: Tommy Rees (formerly Notre Dame) on the offensive side and Kevin Steele (formerly Miami) on defense.

If history tells us anything, though, it’s that Nick Saban will figure it out. In 16 years as the Crimson Tide’s head coach, only once did he fail to make the College Football Playoff or BCS National Championship in back-to-back campaigns (2007-08, his first two at the helm).

However, that streak will be broken this year because of how ridiculously talented Georgia still is. Even after having 10 players selected in the 2023 NFL Draft (tied for the most of any school), the Bulldogs boast the best all-around roster in college football. The reigning back-to-back national champions were the only school that placed in the top 10 of every one of our position unit rankings: quarterback room, running back unit, receiving corps, offensive line, defensive line, linebacker unit and secondary.


The American Championship Game

UTSA Roadrunners over Tulane Green Wave

After losing three key members to the Big 12 (Cincinnati, Houston and UCF), the American Athletic Conference responded by adding six new schools for the 2023 season.

One of them, UTSA, is my pick to win the conference and be the Group of Five’s representative in a New Year’s Six bowl game. Perhaps the biggest reason for that is what the Roadrunners return under center. Frank Harris earned a 90.0 grade last year, seventh among returning FBS quarterbacks. He also has two preseason first-team All-AAC receivers to throw to in De’Corian Clark and Joshua Cephus.

After finishing 2-10 in 2021, Tulane went 12-2 last year, capped off by a Cotton Bowl victory over Caleb Williams and USC. The Green Wave also return an excellent quarterback in Michael Pratt, whose 1.7% turnover-worthy play rate ranked second among Group of Five quarterbacks.


C-USA Championship Game

Western Kentucky Hilltoppers over Liberty Flames

Realignment decimated Conference USA. Six of its members left for the AAC, including the past five conference champions. To make up for the loss, the conference is adding five new schools, with four joining this season. One of those new members is Liberty, who has a new head coach after Hugh Freeze left for Auburn. Jamey Chadwell takes over after a successful run at Coastal Carolina, where he went 31-6 over the past three seasons.

Western Kentucky is the pick to win it, though, thanks to the dynamic duo of Austin Reed and Malachi Corley. Reed led all quarterbacks in the FBS last year with 4,744 passing yards. Corley, meanwhile, is nicknamed “The YAC king” for good reason. He posted 975 yards after the catch in 2022 — 292 more than the next-closest receiver in the nation.


MAC Championship Game

Toledo Rockets over Ohio Bobcats

We're predicting a repeat of last year’s MAC championship game result.

Ohio’s passing attack features the highest-graded quarterback in the country last year in Kurtis Rourke (92.0) and two preseason first-team All-MAC receivers in Jacoby Jones and Sam Wiglusz.

However, Toledo has the secondary to match them. Four of the Rockets’ defensive backs made PFF’s preseason All-MAC first team, while cornerback Quinyon Mitchell was an honorable mention All-American.


Mountain West Championship Game

Boise State Broncos over Air Force Falcons

The ground game is the bread and butter of Air Force’s offense. The Falcons ran the ball on 88.7% of their plays last season, nearly 5 percentage points higher than any other school in the country. That should continue in 2023 with John Lee Eldridge III leading the backfield. He forced a missed tackle on 38% of his attempts last year, the highest among Mountain West backs with at least 95 carries.

Boise State is no stranger to a dominant rushing attack, which should lead the Broncos to their first Mountain West championship since 2019. Both George Holani and Ashton Jeanty return, forming one of the better duos in the country. Holani’s 1,156 rushing yards in 2022 were the most among returning Mountain West running backs, while Jeanty’s 89.5 grade led all FBS true freshmen.


Sun Belt Championship Game

Troy Trojans over Coastal Carolina Chanticleers

This is a rematch of last year’s Sun Belt Championship Game in which Troy took down Coastal Carolina.

If the Chanticleers are going to change that result, it’ll be on the back of Grayson McCall. The redshirt senior’s 93.2 grade since 2020 trails only Mac Jones, Zach Wilson and Justin Fields among FBS quarterbacks.

However, he won’t be enough to take down the defending Sun Belt champs. Troy returns many key pieces from a year ago, including a star of its own in Gunnar Watson. His 82.7 grade ranked third among the conference’s quarterbacks in 2022. The leader of the defense is cornerback Reddy Steward, whose 90.7 grade was third among all cornerbacks in the country.


Cotton Bowl

Ohio State Buckeyes over Texas Longhorns

The over/under for this game could be 90 points. Assuming nobody sits out (which isn’t guaranteed), these offenses should put on a show. There are currently four first-round receivers on PFF’s 2024 NFL Draft big board from Ohio State and Texas.

The key to the game could be whether Ohio State’s defensive line can apply consistent pressure on Quinn Ewers. While the Longhorns’ offensive line placed in the top 10 of my rankings, the Buckeyes’ defensive line has an argument to be the best in the country. All four of Ohio State’s defensive linemen were PFF preseason first-team All-Big Ten honorees.

The Longhorns' defense struggles to slow down the Buckeyes, and Ohio State gets just enough pressure on Ewers to pull away.


Peach Bowl

LSU Tigers over Penn State Nittany Lions

This game will be a defensive slugfest. The Nittany Lions boast a top-10 defensive line, linebacker unit and secondary. Penn State’s offense will rely on the rushing duo of sophomores Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen, likely two of the top 15 running backs in the country. However, it will be tough sledding against LSU’s front seven, which features stars Harold Perkins, Mekhi Wingo and Maason Smith.

Ultimately, what this game could come down to is which passing attack succeeds more. I’ll roll with Jayden Daniels and Malik Nabers over Drew Allar and a relatively unproven group of pass catchers for the Nittany Lions.


Orange Bowl

Alabama Crimson Tide over Clemson Tigers

After missing out on the College Football Playoff, Alabama gets to take its frustrations out on Clemson in the Orange Bowl. The Tigers won’t go down without a fight, though, as Garrett Riley and Cade Klubnik pull a few tricks out of their sleeves. However, the Crimson Tide prove to be too physical for Clemson on both sides of the ball.


Fiesta Bowl

Washington Huskies over UTSA Roadrunners

In just its 13th season in existence, UTSA’s football program is competing in a New Year’s Six Bowl. As unbelievable as that accomplishment is, the magic ends against Washington in the Fiesta Bowl.

Simply put, the Huskies’ aerial assault will be too much for the Roadrunners’ secondary, while UTSA will have trouble blocking Bralen Trice on the other side of the ball.


Rose Bowl

Michigan Wolverines over Florida State Seminoles

These are two teams with very few weaknesses, if any. Can Florida State slow down Michigan’s rushing attack enough to put the game in quarterback J.J. McCarthy’s hands? While the Seminoles have a top-five defensive line in the country, the Wolverines can neutralize it with the nation’s best offensive line and running back unit.

On the other side of the ball, Michigan has the talent at all three levels of its defense to make enough stops on Jordan Travis and company. This will be a nail-biter, but the Wolverines advance to their first national championship game in program history.


Sugar Bowl

Georgia Bulldogs over USC Trojans

The blueprint for USC is simple: Do what Ohio State did last year. The Buckeyes barely lost to the Bulldogs in the College Football Playoff semifinal in 2022 — by a score of 42-41. Georgia struggled to defend Ohio State’s passing attack, led by C.J. Stroud, Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka. In fact, if MHJ didn’t go down in the third quarter with a concussion, the Buckeyes may have been the defending national champions. USC could potentially have similar success with reigning Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams and his group of receivers with Lincoln Riley drawing up plays. Williams will need to be Superman all night, though, as the Bulldogs are still elite at all three levels of their defense.

It’s the other side of the ball that’ll ultimately decide this one. While the Trojans’ defense should be improved with the transfers they added this offseason, this was still the ninth-worst defense in the country last year in terms of expected points allowed per play. Georgia’s offensive line should be able to manhandle USC in the run game while Carson Beck and the Bulldogs’ top-five receiving corps make plays when needed.

Since there’s a better chance of Georgia slowing down USC’s offense than the Trojans doing the same to the Bulldogs, I’m picking Georgia to advance to its third straight national championship game.


National Championship Game

Michigan Wolverines over Georgia Bulldogs

The last time these two teams met was in the College Football Playoff semifinal in 2021, when Georgia destroyed Michigan 34-11. Now, the Bulldogs will try to do the same and win their third straight national title, which has happened only once before (Minnesota, 1934-36).

However, this isn’t the same story as two years ago. While Georgia’s defensive line still might be the best in the country, it’s not close to the all-time one they fielded in 2021, featuring five future first-round picks. The Wolverines’ dominant offensive line should get enough push for Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards to gash the Bulldogs.

Michigan also has the defensive talent to slow down Georgia just enough both in the passing game and run game. They’ll need to get consistent pressure on Carson Beck, though, as the Bulldogs have the second-best offensive line in the country.

This game is ultimately a coin-flip for me and should be a low-scoring heavyweight bout that’s won in the trenches. The Wolverines come out on top and capture their first national championship since 1997.

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