College Football: Biggest strength and question mark for the top 10 teams

2NHRH5Y PISCATAWAY, NJ - NOVEMBER 05: Michigan Wolverines running back Blake Corum (2) and Michigan Wolverines running back Donovan Edwards (7) prior to the college football game against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights on November 5, 2022 at SHI Stadium in Piscataway, New Jersey. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire) (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

• Good luck finding a weakness in Georgia: The Bulldogs were the only team to place in the top 10 of every position unit ranking. 

• The Michigan run game should be special: With the nation’s best running back unit and offensive line, the Wolverines will be dominant on the ground.

• Are there too many new variables for Nick Saban to figure out?: Alabama will need its two new coordinators and new quarterback to get up to speed quickly.

Estimated Reading Time: 14 minutes

You can now count on two hands the number of days until the 2023 college football season begins. 

After putting out my 25 best teams in the country recently, here are the biggest strength and question marks for each program in my top 10. 

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1. Georgia Bulldogs

Biggest strength: Basically everything

If you try to find a weakness in Georgia, you’ll fail. The Bulldogs were the only team to place inside the top 10 of each of my position unit rankings: quarterback room, running back unit, receiving corps, offensive line, defensive line, linebacker unit and secondary.

Even after having 10 players selected in the 2023 NFL Draft (tied for the most of any school), this is still the most loaded roster in the country. It’s the reason why Georgia is the favorite to become the second school ever to three-peat as a national champion (Minnesota, 1934-1936).

Biggest question mark: Will replacing Stetson Bennett be a problem?

Although the Bulldogs have a top-10 quarterback room, they still must replace their leader in Stetson Bennett, who was a Heisman finalist last year and became the first signal-caller since A.J. McCarron to win two national championships. Redshirt junior Carson Beck is the favorite to take over and earned an impressive 87.0 passing grade on 39 dropbacks a year ago. 

2. Michigan Wolverines

Biggest strength: The run game

The bread and butter of the Michigan offense is the ground game. The Wolverines ran the ball on 60.8% of their plays last year, the fifth-highest rate in the Power Five. That should remain true in 2023 as Michigan returns the best running back in the country, Blake Corum. Last year, his 96.2 grade was the best single-season mark by a Power Five player since PFF began charting college football in 2014.

His “backup,” Donovan Edwards, is also a top-10 running back in the nation and led the Power Five with 7.1 yards per carry in 2022. Edwards told me in a PFF interview that he expects to go down with Walter Payton and Barry Sanders as one of the greatest running backs to ever play the game.

As if that’s not enough, the Wolverines also have the best offensive line in the country. Edwards even said, “If you can’t hit the holes [they make], you suck.”

Biggest question mark: Will the Wolverines be able to have a consistent passing attack?

Like Georgia, Michigan has a top-10 running back unit, offensive line, defensive line, linebacker unit and secondary. What the Wolverines don’t have is a dominant receiving corps. Both their top receiver (Ronnie Bell) and top tight end (Luke Schoonmaker) from a season ago are in the NFL, while tight end Erick All and wide receiver Andrel Anthony transferred to Iowa and Oklahoma, respectively.

J.J. McCarthy is a top-10 quarterback in the nation, but he did undergo a slump to end the year. Three of his last five games resulted in a sub-60.0 passing grade. He’ll need to be more consistent as a junior for Michigan to not field a one-dimensional offense.

3. Ohio State Buckeyes

Biggest strength: Skill positions

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Ohio State is loaded at wide receiver. Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka aren’t just the best duo in the country; they’re the two best receivers in college football. The Buckeyes also return the remainder of their top six receivers from a year ago and bring back a top-10 tight end in Cade Stover. Outside of Michigan, Ohio State also has the best running back unit in college football with the three-headed rushing attack of TreVeyon Henderson, Miyan Williams and Dallan Hayden leading the way.

Even though the Buckeyes must replace quarterback C.J. Stroud, either Kyle McCord or Devin Brown are set up very nicely with these weapons.

Biggest question mark: Will the offensive line hold up?

The issue for McCord/Brown is that they might not have much time to deliver the ball to those weapons. Ohio State lost three star offensive linemen to the NFL in center Luke Wypler and tackles Paris Johnson Jr. and Dawand Jones. The Buckeyes still have two preseason All-Big Ten guards in Donovan Jackson and Matthew Jones, but they’re very inexperienced everywhere else.

Ohio State is expected to start two redshirt freshmen in Tegra Tshabola at right tackle and Carson Hinzman at center, respectively. The left tackle spot will likely be manned by redshirt junior Josh Fryar, who earned just a 58.8 grade on 231 snaps last season. The Buckeyes did add Josh Simmons from the transfer portal, but he posted just a 47.1 grade in 2022 as San Diego State’s starting right tackle. 

4. Florida State Seminoles

Biggest strength: No real weakness

Florida State returns most of its key contributors from its 10-3 team last season. Jordan Travis’ 91.7 grade in 2022 trailed only the Heisman Trophy winner, Caleb Williams, among Power Five quarterbacks a year ago. He’s my pick to win the Heisman in 2023. Jared Verse is one of the best defensive players in the country and would’ve been a top-20 pick in the 2023 NFL Draft had he declared. Trey Benson is the top running back prospect in the 2024 NFL Draft after setting the PFF single-season record for forced missed tackle rate (51%) a year ago. 

The Seminoles also have a top-five receiving corps and defensive line in the country. They possess a top-10 running back unit, offensive line and secondary, as well. 

Biggest question mark: Can they get it rolling immediately?

We’re going to find out everything we need to know about Florida State in September. That’s because the Seminoles play two top-10 teams within the first four weeks — LSU and Clemson. After that, Florida State doesn’t play another currently ranked team for the rest of the season. 

If Florida State can beat the Tigers and, well, the Tigers, it’ll have a relatively clear path to the ACC Championship and College Football Playoff. Even winning just one will have the Seminoles in a very solid position. However, two losses will end FSU’s College Football Playoff hopes before the second half of the season even begins.

5. Alabama Crimson Tide

Biggest strength: Nick Saban doesn’t tend to stay down for long

While Alabama ranks in the top 10 in college football for nearly every positional unit, its true strength comes on the sidelines. Nick Saban is the greatest coach college football has ever seen because of his consistent dominance.

The last time he went consecutive years without the Crimson Tide competing in the College Football Playoff or the BCS National Championship game was in 2007-08, his first two years at the helm. Doubt him at your own risk. 

Biggest question mark: How seamless will it be breaking in two new coordinators and a new quarterback?

If Saban is going to continue that streak, he’ll need his new coordinators and new quarterback to get up to speed immediately. Kevin Steele takes over as defensive coordinator after coordinating Miami's defense in 2022. The Hurricanes placed just 87th among FBS teams in expected points allowed per play last year. Tommy Rees is the new offensive coordinator after serving in that same role for Notre Dame for the past three seasons. The Fighting Irish finished 40th and 48th in expected points added per play in the past two years, respectively.

The even bigger concern is who the next signal-caller will be after Bryce Young was taken with the No. 1 pick in the 2023 NFL Draft. Jalen Milroe was the backup in 2022 but posted the lowest passing grade (30.3) and highest turnover-worthy play rate (10.3%) that year among all quarterbacks in the country with at least 75 dropbacks. Tyler Buchner transferred in from Notre Dame, so he has some familiarity with Rees, but he earned just a 53.1 passing grade on 142 dropbacks in his first two seasons. Ty Simpson was a five-star recruit in the 2022 class and has the most potential of the three but is a virtual unknown with just five dropbacks to his name.

Alabama relied on Young to elevate the rest of the offense in 2022. In 2023, the Crimson Tide’s offense will likely need to elevate whomever his replacement is.

6. LSU Tigers

Biggest strength: Experience

After going a combined 11-12 across the 2020 and 2021 seasons, LSU improved to 10-4 with an SEC West title in head coach Brian Kelly’s first year at the helm. The Tigers have College Football Playoff aspirations in Year 2 with most of their key pieces returning.

It starts under center with Jayden Daniels, who has the second-best odds to win the Heisman Trophy, according to every major sportsbook (Caleb Williams is first). Last year, he led all quarterbacks in college football with a 0.6% turnover-worthy play rate and 1,079 rushing yards. His top receiver is Malik Nabers, the No. 2 receiver prospect in the 2024 NFL Draft for PFF lead draft analyst Trevor Sikkema. LSU also has a top-10 offensive line with a few stars in the front seven of its defense, namely linebacker/edge defender Harold Perkins. 

Biggest question mark: Will the outside corners be a problem??

The biggest concern for LSU lies at outside cornerback. One of the starters will likely be Zy Alexander, who earned an 86.7 coverage grade over the past two years. However, that came at Southeastern Louisiana in the FCS. 

Expectations were high for Texas A&M transfer Denver Harris, a former five-star recruit in the 2022 class who allowed the fewest yards per coverage snap among FBS cornerbacks with at least 95 coverage snaps last year (0.29 yards). However, he recently stepped away from the team to handle personal matters.

JK Johnson also transferred in after starting for Ohio State last season, earning just a 55.8 coverage grade. He, unfortunately, is out indefinitely with a fracture in his leg. Ultimately, true freshman Javien Toviano will likely start at that other outside spot in Week 1, a top-60 recruit in the 2023 class. 

7. USC Trojans

Biggest strength: Caleb Williams and Lincoln Riley

USC has the nation’s best quarterback in Caleb Williams and college football’s best offensive mind in head coach Lincoln Riley. Of the three Heisman-winning signal-callers that Riley has coached (Williams, Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray), this is the first time that the quarterback has had to return to school instead of being the first overall pick in the NFL draft — something Williams will likely accomplish this April.

If that’s not enough, Kliff Kingsbury joined the Trojans’ staff as a senior offensive analyst and quarterbacks coach. He was Johnny Manziel’s offensive coordinator during his Heisman season before coaching Patrick Mahomes at Texas Tech and Kyler Murray with the Arizona Cardinals. He allowed all three of those quarterbacks to do what they did best: excel outside of structure. That’s exactly what makes Williams so special, as he led all quarterbacks in the country outside of the offense's structure in passing yards (707), passing touchdowns (10) and big-time throws (10) this past season.

USC also fields the fifth-best offensive line and sixth-best receiving corps in the country. Everything is in place for the Trojans to have the best offense in the nation once again.

Biggest question mark: Will the new additions be enough for the defense?

USC’s offense was the nation’s best last year in terms of expected points added per play. The reason the Trojans missed the College Football Playoff was that they fielded the ninth-worst defense in that same stat. 

To fix those woes, USC brought in nine defenders from the transfer portal. Seven of them will likely either start or crack the two-deep. Of those seven, cornerback Christian Roland-Wallace, interior defensive lineman Bear Alexander and linebacker Mason Cobb made PFF’s preseason All-Pac 12 list. They joined Calen Bullock, the best safety in the country, and interior defensive lineman Tyrone Taleni, a first-team All-Pac 12 member, on that list. 

The pieces are there for the Trojans’ defense to not be a complete liability once again, but they’ll need these new faces mesh in order to make it to the College Football Playoff.

8. Clemson Tigers

Biggest strength: Defense

The strength of Clemson comes in the middle and back end of its defense. The Tigers have easily the best linebacker unit in the country. In fact, Barrett Carter and Jeremiah Trotter Jr. are the top two prospects at the position in the 2024 NFL Draft, according to PFF lead draft analyst Trevor Sikkema. 

The secondary is also one of the three best in the country. Clemson returns all five starters there, and four of them made PFF’s preseason All-ACC list: Nate Wiggins (first team), R.J. Mickens (second team), Andrew Mukuba (third team) and Jalyn Phillips (third team). 

While the Tigers lost Bryan Bresee, Myles Murphy and K.J. Henry on the defensive line, they still have two outstanding interior defensive linemen in Tyler Davis and Ruke Orhorhoro. Plus, edge defender Xavier Thomas made PFF's preseason All-ACC third team.

Biggest question mark: How will Garrett Riley and Cade Klubnik work together?

The partnership between new offensive coordinator Garrett Riley and new quarterback Cade Klubnik has the potential to be one of the best in college football, if they can jell immediately. Riley won the Broyles Award last year as the top assistant coach in the country while he was TCU’s offensive coordinator. Klubnik was the top quarterback recruit in the 2022 class and posted a 68.6 grade on 225 snaps as a true freshman. 

9. Penn State Nittany Lions

Biggest strength: Defense

Penn State has a superstar at every level of the defense. 

Chop Robinson is a top-three edge defender in the country and led the Power Five last year in overall grade (90.6) and pass-rushing grade (92.4) at the position. Abdul Carter was a revelation at linebacker in his true freshman campaign, tying for fifth among Power Five linebackers with six sacks. Kalen King is, at worst, the second-best cornerback in college football after leading all FBS cornerbacks last year with a 93.7 grade in single coverage. 

There’s talent around those three, as well. The Nittany Lions boast a top-10 defensive line, linebacker unit and secondary in my rankings. That’s not even mentioning Manny Diaz, who I consider to be a top-five defensive coordinator in the nation

Biggest question mark: Can Drew Allar live up to the hype?

For the first time since 2018, someone other than Sean Clifford will be Penn State’s starting quarterback. The torch will be handed to sophomore Drew Allar, a former five-star recruit. As a true freshman, his 4.7% big-time throw rate placed fifth among Big Ten signal-callers with at least 75 dropbacks.

He’ll be throwing to a receiving corps that lost its top two wide receivers (Parker Washington and Mitchell Tinsley) and its starting tight end (Brenton Strange). Kent State transfer Dante Cephas will help fill that void, but Allar will need to prove he’s the guy for the Nittany Lions to finally get over the hump and make the College Football Playoff.

10. Texas Longhorns

Biggest strength: Weapons

After Ohio State, Texas has the best receiving corps in the country. 

The Longhorns have two top-five players at their respective positions in wide receiver Xavier Worthy and tight end Ja’Tavion Sanders. Over the past two seasons, Worthy has the most receiving yards (1,738) and receiving touchdowns (20) among returning Power Five receivers. Sanders’ 613 receiving yards this past season trailed only Brock Bowers among returning Power Five tight ends. 

Texas also returns Jordan Whittington, who has been the No. 2 receiver behind Worthy in each of the past two seasons. Adonai Mitchell transfers in from Georgia after missing nine games in 2022 due to an ankle injury. However, he’s flashed some insane physical tools at 6-foot-4 that have already grabbed NFL scouts’ attention. Isaiah Neyor missed all of last season with a torn ACL but caught 12 touchdowns in 2021 while at Wyoming, tied for third among Group of Five receivers. Casey Cain is also back and was the No. 3 receiver for Texas last season. 

The Longhorns also added Johntay Cook II into the fold, a five-star recruit and the No. 3 wide receiver in the 2023 class. 

Biggest question mark: Can Quinn Ewers deliver them the ball consistently?

The biggest question for Texas is whether redshirt sophomore quarterback Quinn Ewers can finally live up to the hype as one of the highest-rated quarterback recruits ever. He still flashed his ridiculous arm talent last year, as his 6.6% big-time throw rate stood sixth among Power Five quarterbacks. The issue is his decision-making and accuracy, as Ewers’ 65.2% adjusted completion rate was the eighth worst in the Power Five.

If he doesn’t improve, the Longhorns could turn to true freshman Arch Manning, the No. 1 overall recruit from the 2023 class and the next in line to uphold the Manning quarterback dynasty.

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