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Previewing Top 130 NCAAF Teams

Aug 25, 2023 EST

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College Football Top 133 Team Rankings for 2023

1. Georgia
Repeating as national champion for the third year in a row won’t be easy, but Georgia is the overwhelming favorite to win it all in ’23. Although both sides of the ball lost key talent, it’s hard to worry too much with a roster that’s loaded with blue-chip talent. Coordinator Todd Monken will be missed, but Mike Bobo isn’t expected to stray too far from the gameplan that transformed Georgia’s offense into one of the best in the SEC. Carson Beck left spring practice as the frontrunner to replace Stetson Bennett at quarterback and has the nation’s best tight end (Brock Bowers) at his disposal. The arrival of transfers Dominic Lovett (Missouri) and RaRa Thomas (Mississippi State) give the Bulldogs even more weapons at receiver. Coach Kirby Smart lost another wave of stars from a suffocating defense (Nolan Smith, Jalen Carter, Kelee Ringo and Christopher Smith), but don’t expect this unit to miss a beat. The next group of standouts is ready to emerge, which includes lineman Mykel Williams, safety Malaki Starks and linebackers Jamon Dumas-Johnson and Smael Mondon.

2. Michigan
The path to a Big Ten title runs through Ann Arbor once again. Coach Jim Harbaugh’s team is loaded on both sides of the ball, starting with an offense returning quarterback J.J. McCarthy and a powerful one-two punch at running back with Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards. A couple of additions from the transfer portal will also keep Michigan’s offensive line among the best in college football. The list of concerns on defense is small, as this unit brings back seven starters and features a handful of promising players like cornerback Will Johnson and lineman Mason Graham.

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3. Alabama
It’s a toss up between Alabama and LSU at the top of the SEC West. With the game in Tuscaloosa next fall, a slight edge goes to the Crimson Tide at No. 1. But coach Nick Saban’s team also possesses more question marks than usual, so this won’t be an easy path to the SEC title game. The post-spring arrival of Notre Dame transfer Tyler Buchner adds to a quarterback battle featuring Jalen Milroe and Ty Simpson. Until the offense stabilizes behind a new QB and play-caller Tommy Rees, expect this unit to lean heavily on a deep stable of backs and a solid line featuring preseason All-American JC Latham at tackle. The defense has a new play-caller (Kevin Steele) and must replace standout linebacker Will Anderson and a couple of key cogs in the secondary. Talent isn’t the issue for Saban’s team. How fast does this all come together?

4. USC
Scoring points won’t be a problem once again for USC but hopes of a CFB Playoff trip in coach Lincoln Riley’s second year all hinge on how far the defense improves. Riley opted to keep Alex Grinch as coordinator after a dismal end to the ’22 season, but this unit should have some optimism thanks to a major haul of transfers that includes defensive linemen Bear Alexander (Georgia) and Anthony Lucas (Texas A&M), linebacker Mason Cobb (Oklahoma State) and cornerback Christian Roland-Wallace (Arizona). Quarterback Caleb Williams and a loaded group of skill players should pick up where they left off last season. However, for all of the firepower in Los Angeles on Riley’s offense, any hopes of a Pac-12 title (and more) all rest with finding ways to improve on defense.

5. Ohio StateThe Buckeyes must reload their high-powered offense with quarterback C.J. Stroud and three key linemen off to the NFL. However, the transition period for coach Ryan Day should be minimal. Ohio State’s receiving corps anchored by Marvin Harrison Jr. remains the best in college football, and the one-two punch of TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Williams leads a prolific ground game. The offensive line was a work in progress in the spring and remains a concern going into the fall. Kyle McCord is the frontrunner to replace Stroud, but he will get a challenge from Devin Brown in August. Even if the reloading effort on offense takes longer than anticipated, Day’s team can lean a little more on its defense under second-year coordinator Jim Knowles. This unit doesn’t have a ton of glaring concerns and addressed some of its needs through the portal.

6. LSU
There’s very little separation between LSU and Alabama in SEC predictions for ’23. The Bayou Bengals have to travel to Tuscaloosa to take on the Crimson Tide, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see coach Brian Kelly’s team follow up last year’s division title with another one this fall. Quarterback Jayden Daniels should be more comfortable in his second season in Kelly’s scheme, and the offensive line should emerge as a strength after struggling in ’22. Led by Malik Nabers and tight end Mason Taylor, the Tigers have one of the SEC’s top receiving corps. A defense that limited offenses to 22.5 points a game last season will be even better up front with the return of Maason Smith from a knee injury that cost him most of last year. Also, linebacker Harold Perkins is poised to cause even more havoc as a sophomore. For the second season in a row, the secondary is undergoing a massive overhaul. But thanks to a couple of key transfer additions, LSU should eventually find the right mix on the back end.

7. Florida State
The Seminoles have made big-time progress as a program since Mike Norvell’s arrival in 2020 and enter ’23 as a team capable of unseating Clemson atop the ACC and returning to the CFB Playoff. A dynamic offense is in place with quarterback Jordan Travis at the helm, along with running back Trey Benson, weapons in Keon Coleman and Johnny Wilson at receiver and Jaheim Bell at tight end. The ‘Noles have also made considerable progress along the offensive line over the last two years, and the ’23 unit is the program’s best under Norvell. The defense has room to improve against the run, but this group still limited teams to 20.6 points a game last year. End Jared Verse is a first-team  All-American, and Virginia transfer Fentrell Cypress II is a shutdown cornerback addition to an already solid secondary.


8. Penn State
The Nittany Lions take third place in our East Division predictions, but coach James Franklin’s team isn’t far behind Michigan and Ohio State. Quarterback Drew Allar is a rising star and should help to elevate Penn State’s passing game to another level after a couple of years of steady play from Sean Clifford. Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen form a dynamic pairing in the backfield, and there’s plenty of optimism about the offensive line, especially with future first-round pick Olu Fashanu anchoring the left side. The biggest question mark on offense rests at receiver. Can Kent State transfer Dante Cephas help fill the void left behind by Parker Washington and Mitchell Tinsley? Despite losing cornerback Joey Porter Jr and safety Ji’Ayir Brown, the Nittany Lions should have one of the top defenses in the Big Ten. Linebacker Abdul Carter and ends Adisa Isaac and Chop Robinson top the list of best players for coordinator Manny Diaz.

9. Washington
Scoring points won’t be a problem for coach Kalen DeBoer’s squad once again in ’23. After averaging 39.7 points a game last fall, the Huskies are loaded for another season of double-digit wins thanks to the return of quarterback Michael Penix Jr. and receivers Rome Odunze and Jalen McMillan. With a proven quarterback and playmakers everywhere, the only concern on offense for DeBoer is a revamped line with three new starters. Stopping the pass was an issue for Washington’s defense last year, and the staff hopes Oklahoma State transfer Jabbar Muhammad (cornerback) helps to solidify the secondary. Concerns remain in the secondary, but the front should be strong thanks to the return of edge rushers Bralen Trice and Zion Tupuola-Fetui and linebacker Edefuan Uolofoshio. Getting Oregon and Utah in Seattle is huge for Washington’s hopes of a trip to the Pac-12 title game.

10. Utah
Quarterback Cameron Rising’s recovery from a torn ACL suffered in the Rose Bowl looms large for Utah in 2023. The Utes have won back-to-back Pac-12 titles and could make it three in a row if Rising quickly returns to form. The ground game should be strong with three returning starters in the trenches, while rising star Ja’Quinden Jackson aims to pick up where he left off in ’22 (531 yards) as the No. 1 running back. The return of tight end Brant Kuithe after missing nearly all of ’22 is a huge boost to the passing attack. As always in Salt Lake City, expect the defense to rank near the top of the Pac-12. However, replacing cornerback Clark Phillips won’t be easy. The schedule also features a couple of obstacles with non-conference games versus Florida and Baylor, along with road treks to Oregon State, USC and Washington in league play.

11. Texas
Meeting preseason expectations has been an issue in Austin, but on paper, coach Steve Sarkisian’s team has all of the pieces to push for double-digit wins and rank as the favorite in the Big 12 this fall. Quarterback Quinn Ewers held off a challenge for the starting job in the spring and will be throwing to one of the nation’s top receiving corps, featuring All-American Xavier Worthy and rising star tight end Ja’Tavion Sanders. All five starters return along the offensive line. The Longhorns made strides on defense last year, cutting their per-game average down from 31.1 to 21.6. Linebacker DeMarvion Overshown will be missed, but with six starters back, Texas should remain one of the top defenses in the Big 12.

12. Clemson
Dabo Swinney’s team will begin 2023 in some unfamiliar territory: Florida State could edge Clemson as the preseason favorite by most in the ACC. The Tigers aren’t going anywhere, however. A loaded defense should rank among the best in college football, and the offense is expected to improve under new coordinator Garrett Riley. Quarterback Cade Klubnik is poised to deliver a breakout season in his first full year as the starter, but the Tigers need to solidify the offensive line and receiving corps to allow the sophomore to maximize his potential. Running back Will Shipley is back as one of the top playmakers in the ACC. Clemson hosts Florida State in the regular season, but these two programs could be poised for two showdowns in the division-less ACC.

13. Oregon
The Ducks just missed on a trip to the Pac-12 Championship in Dan Lanning’s debut last year, but with quarterback Bo Nix returning to lead a high-powered offense (38.8 a game in ’22), Lanning’s squad will be back in the mix in ’23. Nix’s supporting cast at the skill positions ranks among the best in the conference, but a revamped offensive line with four new starters may take some time to mesh. Seven starters are back on defense, but this unit will miss linebacker Noah Sewell and cornerback Christian Gonzalez.

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14. Notre Dame
Marcus Freeman’s debut in South Bend resulted in a solid 9-4 season, but the Fighting Irish had two puzzling losses (Marshall and Stanford) that prevented a potential trip to a New Year’s Six bowl. If all of the pieces fall into place for Freeman’s team in ’23, battling for a spot in the CFB Playoff is within reach. Wake Forest transfer Sam Hartman is a massive upgrade at quarterback, and the Fighting Irish boast two of the nation’s top offensive linemen in Joe Alt and Blake Fisher. Audric Estime powers a deep stable of backs. However, question marks remain in the receiving corps and at tight end following the departure of Michael Mayer to the NFL. Also, there’s a question of just how well Gerard Parker will handle this offense in his first year as the play-caller at Notre Dame. Freeman’s defense should be solid at linebacker and in the secondary, but the line will miss Isaiah Foskey up front. Three games – home against USC and Ohio State and on the road at Clemson – are likely to decide where the Fighting Irish rank nationally by December.

15. Tennessee
After posting double-digit wins for the first time since 2007, the next step for Tennessee is to close the gap to Georgia in the SEC East. That won’t be easy this fall with quarterback Hendon Hooker and receivers Jalin Hyatt and Cedric Tillman topping the list of key departures. However, coach Josh Heupel’s squad still has a good foundation in place, and the team’s high-powered offense should be in good hands with either Joe Milton or Nico Iamaleava at the controls. Bru McCoy and Squirrel White should help to fill the void left behind by Hyatt and Tillman. Improving the defense was a priority after this unit gave up 29.1 points a game in ’21, and coordinator Tim Banks has this unit going in the right direction after they held teams to 22.8 a contest last fall. However, similar to the offense, the defense has a few key personnel losses to overcome (end Byron Young and safety Trevon Flowers) that will test the ability to take another step forward.

16. Oklahoma
Brent Venables’ debut didn’t go according to plan with Oklahoma posting its first losing season since 1998. However, with a little better luck (0-5 in one-score games last season), and some improvement on a defense that struggled to stop the run and allowed 6.04 yards per snap in conference play, the Sooners should rebound back into the top 25. Venables hit the portal hard for help on defense and the second year under this staff should help this group show some improvement. Replacing a couple of starters up front and finding new playmakers at receiver with Marvin Mims departing tops the list of offseason priorities for play-caller Jeff Lebby. However, the foundation is strong here with quarterback Dillon Gabriel and running backs Gavin Sawchuk and Jovantae Barnes leading the offense.

17. Wisconsin
A new era is underway in Madison with Luke Fickell now at the helm. The Badgers should boast one of the Big Ten’s top defenses thanks to eight returning starters, but there’s plenty of intrigue on the other side of the ball. Phil Longo arrives from North Carolina to implement a version of the Air Raid attack, which is certainly a shift from Wisconsin’s previous offensive philosophy. With Braelon Allen back at running back, the ground game isn’t going to be ignored by Longo, but SMU transfer Tanner Mordecai and an improved group of receivers should give the passing game a needed spark. The Badgers catch both Iowa and Ohio State at home and miss Michigan and Penn State in crossover play this year.

18. Kansas StateEven though coach Chris Klieman’s squad must replace running back Deuce Vaughn and needs to restock a secondary losing a handful of defensive backs, don’t count out this team from contending once again for the Big 12 title. K-State features a rising star at quarterback in Will Howard, and the offensive line – led by preseason All-American Cooper Beebe – is among the best in college football. In addition to rebuilding a depleted secondary, the ‘Cats need to replace the production of Felix Anudike-Uzomah (8.5 sacks in ’22) off the edge.

19. Oregon State
Jonathan Smith’s program is on the rise after the Beavers capped a 10-3 record last year with an upset over rival Oregon and a blowout victory against Florida in the Las Vegas Bowl. Getting more out of the passing attack is a priority if Oregon State wants to challenge for a trip to the conference title game, and Smith landed one of the top quarterbacks in the transfer portal in former Clemson starter DJ Uiagalelei. The Beavers are set at running back with rising star Damien Martinez anchoring the backfield, and the offensive line should be among the best in college football. Coordinator Trent Bray brought marked improvement to Oregon State’s defense after it allowed 28.2 points in Pac-12 play in ’21, cutting that total to 20 a contest last year. This unit needs the next wave of reinforcements to emerge with linebacker Omar Speights transferring to LSU, and the secondary replacing three key members from a standout group.

20. Texas A&M
The Aggies started ’22 as a preseason top-10 team but slumped to a disappointing 5-7 record as one of the nation’s biggest underachievers. However, if the hire of former Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino to take offensive play-calling duties from coach Jimbo Fisher works out, this team could rebound quickly into the top 25. Petrino inherits a rising star at quarterback in Conner Weigman, along with a trio of receivers – Ainias Smith, Evan Stewart and Moose Muhammad III – that’s as good as any team in the SEC. Five-star freshman Rueben Owens will help fill the void left by Devon Achane at running back. In addition to the overall development (and better play-calling) by Petrino, the Aggies need the offensive line to improve after an uneven ’22 campaign. Texas A&M’s young defense struggled to stop the run (14th in the SEC) last year but still limited teams to 21.2 points a game. Talent isn’t the issue, and with another season to development, that youth and inexperience should turn into production (and a better defense).

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21. Ole Miss
After a 7-0 start, the Rebels fizzled down the stretch with a 1-5 finish last season. Coach Lane Kiffin hopes another strong class of transfers on both sides of the ball, combined with the arrival of new defensive coordinator Pete Golding, helps this program reach the next level in ’23. After a good start, the Rebels regressed defensively last year and allowed over 30 points a game from November through the bowl loss at Texas Tech. Jaxson Dart had a solid debut in Oxford last fall, but Kiffin and the offensive staff brought in transfers Spencer Sanders (Oklahoma State) and Walker Howard (LSU) to push him this offseason. Dart held off a challenge in the spring, but the battle resumes in the fall. Quinshon Judkins returns as one of the nation’s top running backs after a standout freshman campaign, and the additions of Tre Harris (Louisiana Tech) and Zakhari Franklin (UTSA) solidified a thin receiving corps.

22. Tulane
Exceeding last year’s 12-win season and No. 9 final ranking in the Associated Press poll won’t be easy for coach Willie Fritz. The Green Wave will be tested early with matchups against South Alabama and Ole Miss in non-conference play, but their biggest threat in the AAC (UTSA) visits New Orleans in late November. Quarterback Michael Pratt returns after accounting for 3,488 total yards and 37 overall scores last year. He’s entrenched among the nation’s top signal-callers, and the junior will be counted on even more with running back Tyjae Spears (1,581 yards) off to the NFL. A collection of backs could replace Spears, with Shaadie Clayton-Johnson (333 yards) likely to start. Pratt is also working behind one of the AAC’s top offensive lines, but his receiving corps will be retooled after Shae Wyatt and Duece Watts finished their eligibility. New defensive coordinator Shiel Wood inherits a solid foundation from a group that limited opposing offenses to just five yards a play last year. The biggest concerns for Wood rest at linebacker with the departure of Nick Anderson and Dorian Williams, along with the secondary where four key players must be replaced.

23. TCU
Replicating last year’s run to the Big 12 title game and national championship won’t be easy for coach Sonny Dykes. The Horned Frogs must replace a handful of key contributors on offense, including quarterback Max Duggan, running back Kendre Miller and receiver Quentin Johnston. New quarterback Chandler Morris is a breakout candidate, and Dykes has restocked the skill talent through the transfer portal. Although the defense lost a couple of key starters, this unit should be the strength of the team in the early going, especially with cornerback Josh Newton back to anchor the pass defense.

24. UCLAThe Bruins’ nine-win season in ’22 marked the best record under Chip Kelly and the program’s highest victory total since ’14. For UCLA to go beyond nine wins in ’23, it needs a fast transition on offense. True freshman Dante Moore is the frontrunner to replace Dorian Thompson-Robinson at quarterback. And on the ground, Ball State transfer Carson Steele is slated to help fill the void left behind by Zach Charbonnet at running back. Kelly also has holes to plug along the offensive line (three new starters). Even though the transition on offense is significant, the greater area of concern remains on defense. UCLA allowed 29 points a game and also gave up 6.1 yards a snap in Pac-12 contests. New play-caller D’Anton Lynn does inherit a solid foundation (eight returning starters) that includes edge rushers Laiatu Latu and Grayson Murphy.

25. North Carolina
After a 9-1 start last year, the Tar Heels slipped down the stretch by losing their last four games. Although the non-conference slate is challenging, coach Mack Brown’s team shouldn’t suffer any lingering effects from the late slide thanks to the return of quarterback Drake Maye – a second-team preseason All-American by Athlon Sports – and one of the ACC’s deepest backfields. Providing better protection (40 sacks allowed) for Maye is a must, and the Tar Heels are counting on transfers Devontez Walker (Kent State) and Nate McCollum (Georgia Tech) to alleviate the loss of Josh Downs at receiver. Also, this unit will have a new play-caller after Chip Lindsey was hired following Phil Longo’s departure to Wisconsin. North Carolina’s defense allowed the most points a game (30.8) in the ACC last year. With eight starters back and a solid haul of transfers, coordinator Gene Chizik should be able to generate some improvement from this group.


26. Iowa
If Iowa is going to return to the Big Ten Championship Game, it’s no secret where the team must improve. After averaging only 17.7 points a contest last year, offense coordinator Brian Ferentz is squarely on the hot seat in a make-or-break season. However, this unit should have some optimism going into ’23 thanks to the arrival of Michigan transfer Cade McNamara at quarterback, along with a couple of additions to bolster the receiving corps and offensive line. Running back Kaleb Johnson is also a rising star to watch in the Big Ten this fall. As usual, expect Iowa’s defense to rank among the best in the conference. Linebacker Jack Campbell and cornerback Riley Moss will be missed, but defensive back Cooper DeJean is a preseason All-American by Athlon Sports, and there’s plenty of talent for coordinator Phil Parker to lean on up front.

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27. Kentucky
A sluggish offense (20.4 points a game) was primarily to blame for last year’s regression to 7-6. But coach Mark Stoops wasted no time in fixing this unit, as he was able to lure former play-caller Liam Coen back to Lexington and landed Devin Leary as a transfer from NC State to replace Will Levis at quarterback. Leary is throwing to one of the SEC’s top trios at receiver – Tayvion Robinson, Barion Brown and Dane Key – and there’s optimism for the line to rebound after struggling mightily last fall thanks to a couple of transfers. Defense certainly wasn’t the problem for Kentucky in ’22, as this unit limited teams to 19.2 points a contest. Losing lineman Justin Rogers to transfer was a setback, but the linebacker unit should rank among the best in the SEC, and Stoops should effectively fill the voids to keep this group performing at a high level.

28. Texas Tech
Could Texas Tech be this year’s version of TCU and exceed preseason expectations to get to the Big 12 title game? The Red Raiders finished ’22 on a high note by winning their last four games, including a 51-48 shootout against Oklahoma and a 42-25 victory against Ole Miss in the Texas Bowl. Quarterback Tyler Shough returns after a strong finish to ’22, and receiver Jerand Bradley (51 catches for 744 yards) is poised to rank among the best in the Big 12. An offensive line that allowed 41 sacks last year must improve for the Red Raiders to reach the next level on offense. Defense is still a work in progress for coach Joey McGuire, but this unit is experienced (six returning starters) and features two of the Big 12’s top linemen in Jaylon Hutchings and Tony Bradford Jr.

29. Arkansas
With quarterback KJ Jefferson and running back Rocket Sanders returning, scoring points won’t be a problem for Arkansas. However, the Razorbacks need to make massive improvement on defense to challenge for a spot in the top three of the SEC West. New coordinator Travis Williams and coach Sam Pittman hit the portal hard for help, bringing in over 10 players to improve a unit that allowed 30.6 points a contest last year. New offensive coordinator Dan Enos also has to navigate some turnover along the line and at receiver, but Jefferson’s return should help to ease the transition at those spots.

30. Miami
The ‘Canes should show improvement in coach Mario Cristobal’s second season. However, how big of a jump in wins is going to hinge largely on how well the pairing of new play-caller Shannon Dawson meshes with quarterback Tyler Van Dyke. After a breakout ’21 season, Van Dyke struggled with injuries and never seemed comfortable under previous offensive coordinator Josh Gattis. The arrival of two five-star freshmen at offensive tackle, along with Alabama transfer Javion Cohen, should provide a needed boost to the offensive line. The defense is also under new leadership, as Lance Guidry arrives from Tulane to call the signals in ’23. In addition to overall improvement after an up-and-down ’22 campaign, Guidry has to get this group to cut down on the big plays allowed (16 of 40-plus yards last year).

31. South Carolina
Shane Beamer’s program has exceeded preseason expectations two years in a row and finished last season by knocking off a pair of highly-ranked teams in Tennessee and Clemson. If the Gamecocks are going to pick up where they left off, it starts with new play-caller Dowell Loggains putting more of the offensive controls in the hands of quarterback Spencer Rattler. Depth is thin at running back, so all-purpose threat Dakereon Joyner will have to shoulder some of the work on the ground. Juice Wells is one of the nation’s top receivers, while Arkansas transfer Trey Knox could emerge as a big-time threat at tight end. The offensive line is a major concern going into the fall after Jaylen Nichols suffered a significant injury in the spring. Stopping the run (13th in the SEC last year) is an area in need of improvement for defensive signal-caller Clayton White. Also, the secondary must replace standout cornerback Cam Smith. Just as it was in ’22, look for South Carolina’s special teams to be an x-factor in close games.

32. UTSA
Quarterback Frank Harris is back (333.2 total yards a game in ’22) and that’s enough for UTSA to contend for the league title in its AAC debut. But with a 23-5 mark over the last two years, and 16 returning starters, the Roadrunners are thinking New Year’s Six bowl this fall. Zakhari Franklin’s transfer to Ole Miss was a blow to the receiving corps, but the cupboard is far from bare here with Joshua Cephus and De’Corian Clark back on the outside. Harris is also handing off to a rising star in Kevorian Barnes and working behind an experienced offensive line. The only concern for UTSA’s offense is how it handles transition to new play-caller Justin Burke. The Roadrunners are loaded on defense, bringing back seven starters after holding teams to 5.5 yards a snap in ’22.

33. Mississippi State
New coach Zach Arnett put his own stamp on the program this offseason by hiring Kevin Barbay as the team’s new play-caller and indicating a shift away from the Air Raid attack. The Bulldogs are likely to aim for a little more balance under Barbay, but make no mistake: The offense still runs through quarterback Will Rogers. Arnett handed the defensive signal-calling duties to Matt Brock and little is expected to change from a unit that held teams to 23.1 points per contest last year. Led by Jett Johnson and Nathaniel Watson, Mississippi State’s linebacker unit should rank among the best in the SEC.

34. Auburn
The SEC West is brutal, but expect a much-improved Auburn team under first-year coach Hugh Freeze. Transfer portal usage is a big reason why the Tigers should at least make a bowl in Freeze’s debut. Auburn’s haul ranks among the best in the nation, which includes three potential starters on a thin offensive line, a starting quarterback (Payton Thorne) and help at receiver and on defense. Jumpstarting a sluggish passing attack and offense (24.8 points a game) is a priority for Freeze and coordinator Philip Montgomery. And on defense, new play-caller Ron Roberts has a solid secondary to build around, but the Tigers have to improve versus the run (172.7 yards a game allowed in ’22).

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35. Minnesota
The Golden Gophers will miss running back Mohamed Ibrahim, but quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis and a loaded group of playmakers in the receiving corps should keep the offense performing at a high level. Replacing three starters along the line (including All-American center John Michael Schmitz) is the top concern on offense going into the fall. Minnesota’s defense held teams to just 13.8 points per game last year, but this unit will be tested with just five returning starters and some turnover at each level. The crossover slate – Michigan and at Ohio State – is not kind to coach P.J. Fleck’s squad.

36. Duke
Mike Elko’s arrival in Durham transformed Duke into one of the nation’s most improved teams last year, and with 17 starters back, a run at the ACC Championship should be within reach. However, the Blue Devils face one of the league’s toughest conference schedules and catch Notre Dame in non-conference play. Quarterback Riley Leonard is back to direct an offense that ranked third in the ACC in yards per play (6.1), and left tackle Graham Barton is one of the nation’s top offensive linemen. Elko’s background on defense made an immediate difference on that side of the ball last season. After allowing 39.8 points a game in ’22, this unit surrendered only 22.1 in Elko’s debut. Duke won’t sneak up on anyone this year, but the roster is experienced (and in better shape than ’22), and Elko and his staff should get the most out of this team.

37. Pitt
A standout defense in the Steel City will be under construction early in the ’23 season with tackle Calijah Kancey headlining a list of departures from a defense that allowed just 22.4 points in ACC play last fall. Although Kancey and linebacker SirVocea Dennis will be missed, coach Pat Narduzzi’s track record suggests this unit will still be stingy once it gains experience and the next wave of standouts emerge. Intrigue surrounds Pitt’s offense with quarterback Phil Jurkovec returning home after a two-year run at Boston College. Can Jurkovec finish his career on a high note? The Panthers return three starters up front but must replace running back Israel Abanikanda and leading receiver Jared Wayne.

38. South Alabama
Kane Wommack’s team returns the bulk of the roster from last year’s 10-win season, but a trip to Troy looms large in the Sun Belt West title picture. The Jaguars were just a few plays away from something better, as they lost 10-6 to the Trojans last season and fell 32-31 to UCLA in early September. A standout defense brings back 10 starters and standouts at every level, including safety Keith Gallmon who missed all of ’22 due to injury. Receiver Jalen Wayne and center James Jackson are significant losses offensively, but quarterback Carter Bradley (3,334 yards and 28 TDs) and running back La’Damian Webb (1,065 yards) return. In addition to the road trip to Troy, South Alabama catches Tulane, Oklahoma State and James Madison away from Mobile.

39. Boise State
The Broncos haven’t won a Mountain West title since 2019, but coach Andy Avalos’ squad is poised to return to the top of the conference this season. Rising star quarterback Taylen Green returns after accounting for 2,628 total yards and 24 overall scores in ’22. His ability to produce on the ground (586 yards) adds to a prolific one-two punch at running back in George Holani and Ashton Jeanty. Replacing two offensive line starters is the biggest concern for new coordinator Bush Hamdan. Avalos’ defense paced the Mountain West in fewest yards per play (4.8) last season but there are holes to fill at every level going into ’23. The pass defense lost three key cogs and will be under attack right away in the opener at Washington.

40. Louisville
The combination of a favorable schedule – no Clemson, Florida State or North Carolina – and the arrival of coach Jeff Brohm should put the Cardinals in the mix to be a dark horse contender for a trip to the ACC Championship. Brohm’s ability to produce prolific offenses should continue at Louisville, but he will have to navigate some early transition with transfer Jack Plummer (California) expected to start at quarterback, along with several reinforcements coming to boost the line and receiving corps. After giving up 27.3 points a game in ’22, Louisville tied for the ACC lead in scoring defense last year. This unit is under new leadership (Ron English and Mark Hagen) and brings back six starters. However, end YaYa Diaby and linebackers Monty Montgomery, Momo Sanogo and Yasir Abdullah, and cornerback Kei’Trel Clark will be missed.

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41. Maryland
The return of Taulia Tagovailoa (3,008 passing yards and 18 TDs), running back Roman Hemby, and a solid group of weapons at receiver should give Maryland a chance to match last year’s eight wins. However, coach Mike Locksley has to rebuild the offensive line (just one returning starter) and continue to generate improvement on defense. The Terrapins allowed 5.01 yards per play last year (down from 5.76), but coordinator Brian Williams needs a couple of transfers to play key roles with the defensive front undergoing an overhaul. The secondary also lost cornerbacks Jakorian Bennett and Deonte Banks.

42. Troy
It’s a close call between South Alabama and Troy atop the Sun Belt West for ’23. The Trojans are the reigning conference champs and finished No. 19 nationally after an impressive 12-2 debut under first-year coach Jon Sumrall last season. A suffocating defense led the way for Troy last fall and is likely to lead this team once again. This unit allowed only 17.1 points a game and 4.7 yards a snap and only one opponent (Appalachian State) scored more than 30 points. Linebacker Carlton Martial will be missed, but Sumrall’s defense still returns standouts up front in T.J. Jackson, Richard Jibunor, and Javon Solomon, while Reddy Steward is back to anchor the back end. More is needed from an offense that ranked eighth in the Sun Belt in scoring (25.6 points a game). Quarterback Gunnar Watson has to cut down on the mistakes (12 INTs), while the team’s top two receivers (Tez Johnson and RaJae’ Johnson) have departed. Kimani Vidal (1,132 yards) is one of the Sun Belt’s top returning running backs.

43. Kansas
The Jayhawks showed marked improvement in coach Lance Leipold’s second year, jumping to 6-7 from a 2-10 record in ’21. With 17 starters back, including dynamic quarterback Jalon Daniels, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Kansas take another step forward in ’23 – potentially as a dark horse candidate to make the Big 12 title game. Few concerns rest with an offense that returns largely intact from ’22, but the defense is under the spotlight after giving up 35.5 points a game last year. Leipold’s group is solid at linebacker and should improve in the secondary, but the front is a concern with all four starters departing.

44. Baylor
After hoisting the Big 12 Championship and finishing 12-2 in ’21, the Bears surprisingly regressed all the way to 6-7 last fall. Three of those defeats came by one score, but defensive regression (30.7 points allowed in Big 12 play last year to 19.8 in ’21) and fewer turnovers forced were primarily to blame. Also, the offense went through its share of ups-and-downs under new quarterback Blake Shapen and ranked ninth in the Big 12 in red zone offense. Transfer Sawyer Robertson pushed for the starting job in the spring, but coach Dave Aranda named Shapen the No. 1 option in May. The Bears should be strong on the ground with Richard Reese leading the way, but improvement from the passing attack and restocking the line (four new starters) are priorities if Aranda’s team wants to return to the conference title game.

45. Oklahoma State
Mike Gundy hasn’t had a losing record since 2005, and even though the Cowboys enter ’23 with more question marks surrounding the program than in recent years, it’s safe to assume this team can find its way to a winning mark and a bowl trek once again. The schedule also breaks a bit in the Pokes favor, as they get five Big 12 home games and won’t have to play Texas, Texas Tech or TCU. The quarterback battle between transfer Alan Bowman, Garret Rangel and true freshman Zane Flores is set to pick up in the fall, but the offense can lean on a solid one-two punch (Ollie Gordon II and Jaden Nixon behind an experienced line. New defensive coordinator Bryan Nardo was a surprising hire from Gannon, and with just two returning starters, the transition to a 3-3-5 scheme might take time.

46. NC State
Coach Dave Doeren hopes the reunion of quarterback Brennan Armstrong (a transfer from Virginia) and coordinator Robert Anae (previously at Virginia and then Syracuse in ’22) sparks an offense that averaged only 24.3 points a game last year. Armstrong struggled at Virginia last season but reuniting with Anae should help get his career back on track. However, the Wolfpack will have to develop more playmakers at receiver and establish a consistent (and more productive) ground game to help the offense reach its potential in ’23. Despite a couple of key departures (tackle Cory Durden and linebackers Isaiah Moore and Drake Thomas), a defense that tied for the ACC lead in fewest points allowed (19.2), should still rank among the best in the conference. Payton Wilson’s decision to pass on the NFL to return at linebacker certainly helps coordinator Tony Gibson, while cornerback Aydan White is an underrated star on the outside.

47. Illinois
Last year’s eight-win season marked the program’s best finish since a 9-4 record in 2007. Building off that momentum won’t be easy for coach Bret Bielema, however. A defense that led the Big Ten in fewest points allowed (12.8 a game) lost coordinator Ryan Walters and a couple of key defenders, including first-round NFL pick Devon Witherspoon. However, the front remains a strength with Keith Randolph Jr. and Jer’Zhan Newton returning after combining for 26 tackles for a loss in ’22. The offense also features its share of question marks with the departure of quarterback Tommy DeVito and running back Chase Brown. Ole Miss transfer Luke Altmyer is expected to start under center.

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48. Wake Forest
The Demon Deacons lost quarterback Sam Hartman to transfer, but don’t count out coach Dave Clawson’s team in the race to get to the ACC Championship. New quarterback Mitch Griffis is a breakout candidate, and he will be throwing to one of the league’s top receiving corps featuring Jahmal Banks, Taylor Morin and Donavon Greene. Solidifying a line that loses three starters is the offense’s biggest question mark going into the fall. The personnel concerns extend to a defense that ranked last in the ACC in points allowed in conference games (33.8) last year. End Rondell Bothroyd, tackle Kobie Turner, linebacker Ryan Smenda Jr. and defensive back Gavin Holmes top the list of key losses for coordinator Brad Lambert to address.

49. Florida
With quarterback Anthony Richardson off to the NFL, a Florida team that’s in rebuild mode could be lucky just to get to a bowl in 2023. Second-year coach Billy Napier didn’t inherit a program that could be fixed overnight, so this fall could be another struggle before a step forward in ’24. Wisconsin transfer Graham Mertz had an uneven career in Madison but transferred to Gainesville for a fresh start and a chance to replace Richardson. The strength of the ’23 offense resides in the backfield with Trevor Etienne and Montrell Johnson returning. Standout guard O’Cyrus Torrence will be missed in the trenches, and the Gators also need to identify a couple of playmakers to take some of the pressure off of Ricky Pearsall at receiver. New coordinator Austin Armstrong is tasked with improving a defense that ranked near the bottom of the SEC in yards per play allowed (5.92), points allowed (28.8) and struggled to stop the run (175.2 yards per contest). Only four starters are back, so similar to the ’22 unit, this group could be a work in progress throughout the upcoming season.

50. MissouriIf coach Eli Drinkwitz and new play-caller Kirby Moore can elevate the offense (24.8 points a game last season), then Missouri could easily exceed this preseason prediction. That’s largely due to a defense that was the biggest surprise in the conference last year, holding teams to 25.2 points a game behind new coordinator Blake Baker. With eight starters back, a strong foundation remains on this side of the ball, including cornerbacks Kris Abrams-Draine and Ennis Rakestraw and linebacker Ty’Ron Hopper. Reloading at end with Trajan Jeffcoat and Isaiah McGuire off to the NFL tops the list of concerns for Baker. Brady Cook missed spring practice due to shoulder surgery, but he’s slated to return this fall as the No. 1 quarterback with Miami transfer Jake Garcia pushing for time. Receiver Luther Burden is primed for a breakout season after a solid freshman campaign. But in addition to getting more out of Cook or Garcia at quarterback, Missouri needs improved play in the trenches to exceed last year’s six wins.

51. Air Force
The Falcons’ prolific ground attack won’t have quarterback Haaziq Daniels or running back Brad Roberts, but as usual in Colorado Springs, expect coach Troy Calhoun to find the right answers to keep the offense on track. Also helping to ease the transition to the next wave of playmakers on offense is a line that brings back four starters, including two first-team All-Mountain West picks. While the offense might be a work in progress early on, Air Force’s defense enters ’23 with few concerns. This unit allowed only 13.4 points a game last season and opponents managed less than 30 percent (27.9) on third-down conversions. With eight starters back, this group should be the top defense in the Mountain West.

52. Michigan State
The outlook on Michigan State’s hopes of a turnaround in ’23 grew more uncertain after starting quarterback Payton Thorne and receiver Keon Coleman opted to transfer after spring practice. The development of promising junior signal-caller Noah Kim could hold the key to the Spartans season and a way to jumpstart an offense that managed only 19.8 points a game in Big Ten play last fall. Improvement in the trenches is a must, and for Kim to succeed, the offense has to do a better job on the ground and restock a receiving corps losing Coleman and Jayden Reed. An influx of transfers boosts the defensive front after Michigan State ranked 12th in the Big Ten in rush defense. However, the secondary is a concern once again, and coordinator Scottie Hazelton has work to do to improve a unit that surrendered over 30 points (30.4) in conference play last year.

53. UCF
With a dynamic quarterback in John Rhys Plumlee leading the way, coach Gus Malzahn’s team should have the best season of the four newcomers to the Big 12 in ’23. Malzahn does need to identify a couple of new starters in the trenches, but Plumlee’s supporting cast at receiver (Kobe Hudson and Javon Baker) and running back (RJ Harvey) is strong. Addison Williams was promoted to defensive signal-caller after Travis Williams departed to Arkansas. He inherits six returning starters, including preseason All-Big 12 picks in Ricky Barber and Tre’Mon Morris-Brash up front. Depth at linebacker and restocking a secondary losing three starters tops the offseason list of priorities for Williams.

54. Iowa State
Last year’s 4-8 record marked the first time Iowa State had a losing mark and missed out on a bowl since 2016. Don’t expect coach Matt Campbell’s team to be down for long, as a rebound back to six (or more) wins seems likely. Hunter Dekkers returns at quarterback after ranking fourth in the conference in total offense a game (259.8 yards) and throwing for 19 touchdowns. He needs a new No. 1 receiver to emerge after Xavier Hutchinson departed to the NFL, and the line has to improve after struggling to open up holes for running backs last year. Iowa State’s defense certainly wasn’t the problem in ’22 as it led the Big 12 in fewest points allowed a game (20.3) and rush defense. Seven starters provide a strong foundation for coordinator Jon Heacock, but the defense will miss edge rushers MJ McDonald IV and MJ Anderson, along with safety Anthony Johnson.

55. Nebraska
Matt Rhule’s debuts at Baylor and Temple resulted in a combined 3-21 record. Although Nebraska is far from a finished product in Rhule’s first year, the guess here is his debut in Lincoln will go better than the ones in Waco and Philadelphia. Georgia Tech transfer Jeff Sims is expected to start at quarterback after Casey Thompson transferred to FAU, and the skill talent is solid with running back Anthony Grant returning and Billy Kemp IV (Virginia) and Arik Gilbert (Georgia) arriving from the portal to boost the pass catchers. The development of the offensive line and defense (27.6 points a game allowed last season) holds the key to the ’23 season for Nebraska.

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56. Syracuse
The Orange snapped a three-year streak of losing seasons with a 7-6 mark and appearance in the Pinstripe Bowl last year. The departure of running back Sean Tucker (NFL) and a couple of key defenders (LB Mikel Jones and DBs Duce Chestnut, Garrett Williams, and Ja’Had Carter) won’t make it easy to replicate last season’s success, but Syracuse still has quarterback Garrett Shrader and one of the ACC’s top pass catchers in Oronde Gadsden II. One of the catalysts for last year’s improvement on offense was coordinator Robert Anae (left to go to NC State), but Babers promoted Jason Beck to ensure continuity. Also, the defense hit a home run with the addition of veteran play-caller Rocky Long.


57. Purdue
Getting back to the Big Ten Championship for first-year coach Ryan Walters is a tough assignment after the departure of quarterback Aidan O’Connell and receiver Charlie Jones. However, the cupboard isn’t bare in West Lafayette, and Walters assembled a solid staff to go with a good haul from the transfer portal. One of those transfer pickups should start at quarterback (Hudson Card), with running back Devin Mockobee poised for another standout year under new coordinator Graham Harrell’s offense. Walters engineered one of the nation’s top defenses at Illinois last season, but there’s work to do this offseason after the Boilermakers gave up 27.4 points a game in ’22 and return just four starters this fall.

58. BYU
With a non-conference game at Arkansas and matchups in Big 12 play against five of the projected top six teams in Athlon’s Big 12 predictions, BYU faces a tough path to a bowl this fall. But if the Cougars are going to exceed expectations and get to a winning record in their Big 12 debut, it starts by getting solid quarterback play from Pitt transfer Kedon Slovis and leaning on the portal to fill key gaps up front and at running back (Aidan Robbins from UNLV). BYU’s defense struggled (29.5 points a game) and was pushed around too much (172.7 rushing yards a game allowed last year), prompting coach Kalani Sitake to hire Jay Hill as the team’s new coordinator. Hill worked as Weber State’s head coach from 2014-22 and previously worked as an assistant under Kyle Whittingham at Utah. With seven returning starters, Hill has a solid foundation to start the improvement process. However, shifting to a new league and a scheme will certainly require a transition period.

59. Washington State
The Cougars are on solid ground entering coach Jake Dickert’s second full season at the helm. Quarterback Cameron Ward returns after throwing for 3,231 yards and 23 touchdowns in his debut in Pullman last fall. The supporting cast around Ward is undergoing some offseason renovation, however. The offensive line struggled last season and lost left tackle Jarrett Kingston as a transfer to USC. Also, the team’s top four receivers from ’22 are gone, but junior college recruit DT Sheffield and a couple of transfers should solidify this position. New coordinator Jeff Schmedding inherits a defense that finished third in the Pac-12 in fewest points allowed (22.9) a game last year. New starters must emerge at linebacker, but this unit returns one of the conference’s top edge combos in Brennan Jackson and Ron Stone Jr.

60. Cincinnati
Although the Bearcats have won at least nine games (including a CFB Playoff trip in 2021) in each of the last five years, this program is in a state of transition for ’23. In addition to the move from the American to the Big 12, there’s a new coach (Scott Satterfield), and a roster that returns only seven starters. A defense that held teams to 20.6 points a game last fall should remain a strength, especially with rising star Dontay Corleone back up front. Getting to a bowl this fall with all of the changes is likely to hinge on how far Satterfield can develop this offense. Former Florida and Arizona State signal-caller Emory Jones is expected to start under center, and the transfer portal will provide reinforcements to a thin receiving corps. Also, just one starter returns on the offensive line.

61. Houston
Rebounding from last year’s disappointing 8-5 mark (off a 12-2 finish in ’21) won’t be easy for Houston in its Big 12 debut. Getting the defense back on track would certainly boost those odds, as the Cougars surrendered 32.2 points a game last year (up from 20.4 in ’21). Just four starters are back for coordinator Doug Belk, but this unit has talent up front with Nelson Ceaser and Chidozie Nwankwo returning. Also, the secondary has to improve after surrendering 32 passing scores last fall. Texas Tech transfer Donovan Smith should be a dynamic addition at quarterback, and former West Virginia running back Tony Mathis joins to ease the loss of Alton McCaskill IV (transfer to Colorado). Led by rising star Matthew Golden, the Cougars should have one of the Big 12’s top receiving corps.

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62. SMU
With a favorable schedule (no Tulane or UTSA), a rising star quarterback in Preston Stone, and a handful of impact additions from the transfer portal, SMU has the pieces in place to make the AAC title game in ’23. The departure of receiver Rashee Rice from an offense that led the conference in scoring (37.2) is the biggest concern for coach Rhett Lashlee. However, the arrival of TCU transfer Jordan Hudson adds another playmaker to a solid group of weapons. Additionally, the Mustangs reeled in five offensive linemen with Power 5 experience and a potential starting running back (Jaylan Knighton, Miami) from the portal. SMU has the firepower to push both Tulane and UTSA for the top spot in the conference, but Lashlee needs marked improvement on defense after this unit allowed 33.8 points a game last year.

63. Arizona
The Wildcats improved from 1-11 in coach Jedd Fisch’s debut in 2021 to 5-7 last year. Another step forward this fall would get Arizona to its first bowl since 2017. Even though top receiver Jacob Singer (1,105 receiving yards) transferred to USC, the offense should be prolific with quarterback Jayden de Laura and receivers Jacob Cowing and Tetairoa McMillan returning. Defensive improvement is likely to decide whether or not Arizona gets to six (or more) wins after this unit allowed 36.5 points a game last season. A couple of transfers should provide instant help, but the Wildcats return only three starters and have to get significantly better against the run (209.1 yards a game allowed).


64. California
With 10 starters back – including Jackson Sirmon at linebacker – the Golden Bears should take a step forward on defense after giving up 27.8 points a game and 6.1 yards per play last season. But getting back to six (or more) wins and climbing into the top half of the Pac-12 will hinge on how far the offense develops under new play-caller Jake Spavital. TCU transfer Sam Jackson V is expected to start at quarterback. The skill talent is in good shape with Jeremiah Hunter back at receiver and Jaydn Ott returning at running back. However, in addition to breaking in a new scheme and a first-time starter at quarterback, the Golden Bears have major concerns up front after giving up 31 sacks last year.

65. West Virginia
It’s a make-or-break year for Neal Brown in 2023. The Mountaineers are coming off a 5-7 record, which dropped Brown’s overall mark to 22-25 overall since taking over in ’19. The defense surrendered 32.9 points a game last season and remains a concern going into this fall. Standout Dante Stills will be missed up front, and a leaky secondary (14 plays of 40-plus yards allowed) has to play better. Although the quarterback battle between Garrett Greene and Nicco Marchiol will continue into the fall, the offense has a solid foundation to build around with four returning starters on the line and a solid stable of running backs that includes CJ Donaldson.

66. Fresno State
Quarterback Jake Haener and receiver Jalen Moreno-Cropper were instrumental in guiding Fresno State to the Mountain West Championship last year, but both players are off to the NFL, leaving coach Jeff Tedford with some big shoes to fill on offense. UCF transfer Mikey Keene is the frontrunner to replace Haener, while a collection of transfers, returning options and JUCO products are slated to help fill the void at receiver. The Bulldogs allowed only 19.4 points a contest last season and should be strong again on defense with seven returning starters. The secondary is the biggest area of concern for coordinator Kevin Coyle after the departure of four key players, including safety Evan Williams (transfer to Oregon).

67. Georgia Tech
A 4-4 finish over the team’s final eight games (and overall much-improved on-field product) was enough for Brent Key to have the interim tag removed for ’23 and beyond. Maintaining the momentum from last year’s solid play won’t be easy, but Key and his new staff assembled a quality haul from the portal that included quarterback Haynes King (Texas A&M) and receiver Dominick Blaylock (Georgia). Improvement along the line is a must after the Yellow Jackets allowed 39 sacks in ’22. A handful of portal additions will also help on defense, and coordinator Andrew Thacker was retained after this unit limited opponents to 5.6 yards a snap last year. However, losing end Keion White, linebacker Charlie Thomas and cornerback Zamari Walton leaves big shoes to fill this offseason.

68. San Diego State
Jalen Mayden’s (2,261 total yards and 15 TDs) emergence at quarterback helped the Aztecs find a spark offensively in the second half of ’22. New coordinator Ryan Lindley hopes to build on Mayden’s solid finish to last season, while also bringing overall improvement to an offense that averaged only 21.5 points a game in ’22. Adding to Lindley’s challenge of turning things around on offense is the departure of top receivers Tyrell Shavers (38 catches) and Jesse Matthews (45), along with a couple of losses in the trenches. Even though only two starters are back, San Diego State’s defense should find a way to rank among the best in the conference after holding teams to 4.92 yards a snap last fall. New Mexico transfer Cody Moon should help right away at linebacker. Despite losing safety Patrick McMorris to transfer, the secondary should be a strength. Hosting both Boise State and Fresno State is huge for the Aztecs’ hopes of returning to the conference title game.

69. Vanderbilt
The Commodores just missed a bowl in coach Clark Lea’s second year at the helm. Getting to six wins and the postseason will hinge on just how far quarterback A.J. Swann can develop after a promising freshman year, as well as continuing to improve up front in the trenches. Standout running back Ray Davis transferred to Kentucky, but the Commodores are set at receiver thanks to the return of Jayden McGowan and Will Sheppard. Vanderbilt’s defense has ranked last in the SEC in points allowed in each of the last two seasons and surrendered nearly 40 points a contest (39.8) in conference action last fall. Seven starters are back, but Anfernee Orji’s departure to the NFL is a big loss.

70. Coastal Carolina
New coach Tim Beck has big shoes to fill in replacing Jamey Chadwell, but the former NC State offensive coordinator’s move to head coach is eased by the return of the Sun Belt’s top quarterback in Grayson McCall, along with a handful of talented playmakers, including running backs Brayden Bennett and Reese White and receivers Sam Pinckney and Jared Brown. Assuming Beck doesn’t change the offense too much, the only thing that could hold Coastal Carolina back from the East Division is a defense that allowed 6.5 yards a snap and 31.8 points a contest. The schedule also breaks in Coastal Carolina’s favor. Both Marshall and James Madison come to Conway, while Beck’s team misses Troy and South Alabama in crossover play.

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71. Marshall
After a 3-3 start, coach Charles Huff’s squad closed the year by winning six out of their next seven games, including a 28-14 victory against UConn in the Myrtle Beach Bowl. The pieces are in place for Marshall to win the Sun Belt East, but the schedule isn’t kind with road treks to South Alabama, Coastal Carolina, and Appalachian State. Rasheen Ali missed most of ’22 after rushing for 1,401 yards the previous year, but he’s slated to handle a full workload at running back this fall. Quarterback Cam Fancher showed promise during the late-season surge, but the passing game needs a new No. 1 to emerge after Corey Gammage transferred. The Thundering Herd led the Sun Belt in fewest points a game (16) and surrendered only 4.6 yards a snap last year. However, this unit has a new coordinator (Jason Semore) and only three starters are back. Over 15 transfers are slated to help right away on this side of the ball.

72. Western Kentucky
With all of the membership changes in Conference USA for 2023, this isn’t an easy league to project. However, it’s hard to pick against the Hilltoppers at No. 1. Even with a new play-caller (Drew Hollingshead), don’t expect WKU’s high-powered offense to miss a beat with quarterback Austin Reed and receiver Malachi Corley returning. There are holes to fill on defense with only four starters returning, and this unit will miss Juwuan Jones and Brodric Martin up front, along with defensive back Kahlef Hailassie. Edge rusher JaQues Evans is one of the conference’s top returning defenders.

73. James Madison
The Dukes made a successful transition to the FBS level last year, reeling off an 8-3 season that included a road win at Appalachian State and a 47-7 pounding of Coastal Carolina. Coach Curt Cignetti’s team is once again ineligible for the division crown but will play a key role in shaping the battle for the top spot. An offense that led the Sun Belt in scoring (37 points a game) last year must replace quarterback Todd Centeio, Arizona transfer Jordan McCloud and Alonza Barnett in the lead for the No. 1 spot exiting spring. Helping to ease the new quarterback into the starting role is an offensive line returning all five starters, and a talented one-two punch at running back with Latrele Palmer and Kaelon Black. Receiver Kris Thornton (59 catches for 1,015 yards) will be missed. Six starters are back from a defense that limited teams to just 20.9 points a game and 4.7 yards a snap last fall. However, the transfer of defensive lineman Isaac Ukwu to Ole Miss after spring ball was a setback.

74. Toledo
Thanks to the return of 16 starters, coach Jason Candle’s team is poised to do what no MAC team has done since Northern Illinois accomplished in 2010-11: Repeat as conference champion. Quarterback Dequan Finn (2,891 overall yards and 32 total touchdowns) is one of the MAC’s top playmakers, with key receivers Jerjuan Newton (53 catches) and Devin Maddox (39) back to join him in the passing attack. The Rockets are deep at running back and bring back five starters with extensive experience in the trenches. Toledo led the MAC in fewest yards per play allowed (4.8) last year and a strong foundation is in place with seven returning starters for ’23. However, All-MAC performers in Jamal Hines, Desjuan Johnson and Dyontae Johnson have departed. The opener at Illinois gives Candle’s team a chance to pull off an early surprise, while a road trip to Miami (Ohio) on Oct. 21 is the toughest matchup in league play.

75. Arizona State
New coach Kenny Dillingham was the right hire to replace Herm Edwards, but it will take the 33-year-old coach time to rebuild this program. Over 30 transfers are set to join the roster this offseason and replenish the overall depth and talent on a team that went 3-9 last fall. Notre Dame transfer Drew Pyne will battle Trenton Bourguet and potentially true freshman Jaden Rashada for the starting quarterback job this fall. Tight end Jalin Conyers and receiver Elijhah Badger are back to anchor the receiving corps, while Sacramento State transfer Cameron Skattebo could take the lead role at running back. A major overhaul is coming up front with four new starters, and Dillingham has plenty of concerns about a defense that allowed 31.4 points a game last year.

76. Memphis
The Tigers have played in three consecutive bowl games under coach Ryan Silverfield, but there’s pressure to elevate this program with just an 11-13 mark in AAC play in that span. The changing membership of the AAC should work in Memphis’ favor in ’23, especially with Silverfield returning one of the league’s top quarterbacks in Seth Henigan (3,571 yards and 22 TDs). Old Dominion transfer Blake Watson is a big-time pickup for the backfield, but Henigan’s receiving corps needs a couple of transfers to step up right away with the departure of the team’s top four targets from ’22. Five starters return from a defense that fared well on a per-play basis (5.3) but allowed too many points a contest (29.3). Silverfield hopes a handful of transfers provide instant help at all three levels in ’23.

77. Virginia Tech
Improving a sluggish offense (19.3 points a game in 2022) tops the list of priorities for second-year coach Brent Pry this offseason. In an effort to accomplish that, Pry hit the portal for help, which includes quarterback Kyron Drones (Baylor) to compete with Grant Wells, along with key pickups at running back (Bhayshul Tuten) and receiver (Ali Jennings III). The Hokies also need better play up front for the offense to take a big step forward on the stat sheet. The Hokies return only five starters from a defense that allowed 5.4 yards per play in ’22, but cornerback Mansoor Delane is a rising star to watch in the secondary.

78. Rutgers
Can the Scarlet Knights breakthrough and earn the program’s first winning season since Greg Schiano returned to the sidelines in 2020? Luring play-caller Kirk Ciarrocca back to Rutgers was a good step forward for a Rutgers’ offense that managed only 17.4 points a game last year. Ciarrocca’s biggest challenge is to develop quarterback Gavin Wimsatt and a passing game that connected on just 48.5 percent of their throws in Big Ten contests. A couple of transfers will alleviate concerns at receiver, while the strength of the offense rests at running back with Kyle Monangai, Samuel Brown V and Al-Shadee Salaam pushing for carries. Schiano has to plug a few holes in the secondary, but the defense has a chance to improve with the return of seven starters, including linemen Aaron Lewis and Wesley Bailey and linebacker Deion Jennings.

79. Boston College
After back-to-back six-win seasons to start Jeff Hafley’s tenure, the Eagles bottomed out with a 3-9 mark last year. Getting back to a bowl starts up front after injuries and personnel turnover wreaked havoc on the offensive line. Guard Christian Mahogany’s return from a season-ending injury is a huge boost to this group. Quarterback Emmett Morehead (1,254 yards and 10 TDs last year) showed promise last year and is a breakout candidate with a full offseason to work as the starter. Hafley must address a defense that surrendered 30.3 points a game last year and returns only five starters with retooling needed up front and in the secondary.

80. Indiana
Can the Hoosiers recapture the magic from their 2019-20 stretch (14-7) under coach Tom Allen? Although Allen isn’t on the hot seat, the pressure is building a bit after going 6-18 over the last two years. A hefty haul of transfers will be counted upon to help right away, including quarterback Tayven Jackson (Tennessee), running back Christian Turner (Wake Forest), and a handful of defenders to help a unit that allowed 33.9 points a game last fall and returns just two starters. Receiver Cam Camper and running back Jaylin Lucas give play-caller Walt Bell a couple of promising playmakers to build around this year.

81. Colorado
The Buffaloes will be one of college football’s most intriguing teams to watch in 2023. With Deion Sanders at the helm, along with a massive roster haul from the transfer portal, Colorado is a difficult team to assess and project. On the positive side, wide receiver/cornerback Travis Hunter is arguably the top all-purpose player in college football, and quarterback Shedeur Sanders could be the best signal-caller the program has seen since it moved to the Pac-12 in ’11. Houston transfer Alton McCaskill IV was also a solid post-spring addition. Provided the line holds up, with former Kent State coach Sean Lewis calling the plays, scoring points won’t be a problem for the Buffaloes. However, after giving up 44.5 points a game last year, the defense remains a major concern and is likely going to be an issue all season. Colorado is going in the right direction. But progress might be 3-9 or 4-8 in Coach Prime’s first year.

82. Northwestern
The Wildcats’ outlook got a little better after spring practice when Cincinnati transfer quarterback Ben Bryant committed for ’23. Bryant’s arrival is huge for an offense that struggled mightily (13.8 points a game last year) and must replace standout left tackle Peter Skoronski this fall. However, Bryant’s arrival won’t magically solve all of the offensive issues for a team also losing running back Evan Hull and lacking proven playmakers in the passing game. Coach Pat Fitzgerald is hoping a new coordinator (David Braun) helps a defense that has trended in the wrong direction over the last two seasons. Only five starters are back, but the linebacker unit – Bryce Gallagher and Xander Mueller – is a solid starting point for improvement. After playing for the Big Ten Championship in ’20, Northwestern is just 4-20 over the last two years.

83. Liberty
Despite a roster in transition (eight returning starters), expect Liberty to challenge for a spot in the C-USA title game. That’s largely due to the arrival of new coach Jamey Chadwell from Coastal Carolina, especially since his background on offense should prevent a major drop in production on that side of the ball. A handful of transfers help fill in the gaps along the line and at receiver and running back, but the Flames left spring with an open quarterback battle. Each level of the defense was hit hard by losses, so replicating last year’s production (4.96 yards a play allowed) will be tough for new coordinator Skylor Magee.

84. FAU
The pieces are in place for FAU to surprise in new coach Tom Herman’s debut in Boca Raton. Former Nebraska and Texas signal-caller Casey Thompson was a huge, post-spring pickup to add to an offense that already featured one of the AAC’s top backfields. Three starters provide a good foundation up front, but Herman needs to identify a few more playmakers at receiver. The defense (6.03 yards a snap allowed in ’22) also has room to improve under new play-caller Roc Bellantoni. With safety Teja Young transferring to Ole Miss, FAU is down to six returning starters on this side of the ball. Lineman Evan Anderson returns as the unit’s top player for ’23.

85. East Carolina
The Pirates are coming off their best season (8-5) under coach Mike Houston but contending for the AAC title in ’23 wn’t be easy. Quarterback Holton Ahlers, running back Keaton Mitchell, and receivers Isaiah Winstead and C.J. Johnson have all departed after helping ECU average 32.5 points a contest last fall. Only one starter returns along the offensive line. Mason Garcia is slated to replace Ahlers under center, but he will be challenged by Alex Flinn in the fall. With the offense in transition, the Pirates may need to lean a little more on its defense in the early going of ’23. This unit brings back six starters, but this group allowed 6.1 yards per play and must replace standout cornerback Malik Fleming.

86. Virginia
Second-year coach Tony Elliott enters the ’23 campaign looking to jumpstart an offense that averaged only 17 points a game and failed to score more than 30 points against a FBS opponent last season. The quarterback battle between Jay Woolfolk and Monmouth transfer Tony Muskett will continue into the fall, but that’s not the only question mark on offense. Elliott has to reload up front for the second year in a row and replenish the receiving corps. The defense quietly held opponents to 24 points a game last year and should be the strength of this team with six returning starters.

87. San Jose State
The Spartans won seven games and earned a postseason bid to the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl last year but also came close to bigger and better things with three losses by eight points or less. Quarterback Chevan Cordeiro (3,251 yards and 23 TDs) is arguably the conference’s top returning signal-caller and will be working behind an experienced offensive line. Elijah Cooks (69 catches) is a big loss at receiver, but Justin Lockhart (36) and Charles Ross (14.6 a reception) will step into the void as the new go-to targets. Six starters are back on defense, but Viliami Fehoko and Cade Hall (16.5 combined sacks) won’t be easy to replace. Coach Brent Brennan’s team also has a tough draw by catching Boise State, Fresno State, San Diego State, and Air Force in league play.

88. Wyoming
Craig Bohl’s program has won at least six games in each of the last full six seasons, and with 15 returning starters, contending for the Mountain West title game is within reach for this program in ’23. But in order to climb the conference standings, Bohl’s offense – especially the passing attack – has to take a big step forward after the unit averaged only 21.2 points a contest last year. Quarterback Andrew Peasley returns but is under pressure to improve (5.7 yards per attempt and nine interceptions). Expect the strength of the offense to be on the ground once again, as Northern Illinois transfer Harrison Waylee and Dawaiian McNeely form a potent one-two punch at running back. With 10 starters back, the defense could be even better than the ’22 version that held teams to 23.9 points a contest.

89. Appalachian State
Last year’s 6-6 record marked Appalachian State’s lowest win total since moving to the FBS in 2014. However, five of those six defeats came by one score, and with both Coastal Carolina and Marshall visiting Boone this fall, coach Shawn Clark’s team will have a chance at a quick rebound. But in order to get back to the top of the division, finding a quarterback to replace Chase Brice (likely Ryan Burger) is a must. If the Mountaineers can get Burger (or another QB) quickly settled into the lineup, the team has the potential to be explosive on offense behind new play-caller Frank Ponce. Nate Noel (6.94 yards per carry) returns to lead the backfield, while the offensive line and receiving corps rank among the best in the Sun Belt. Defensive regression also cost Appalachian State last fall, prompting Clark to bring back Scot Sloan to call the defensive signals. Every level of the defense is facing some turnover, but there are building blocks returning in safety Nick Ross and linebackers Andrew Parker and Brendan Harrington.

90. Southern Miss
The Golden Eagles took a big step forward in coach Will Hall’s second year, improving from 3-9 in ’21 to 7-6 last season. Another jump in wins is within reach if Hall can solidify the quarterback spot after two years of inconsistent play and injuries mixed together. Clemson transfer Billy Wiles left spring as the frontrunner to start. Regardless of which quarterback starts, the gameplan on offense is simple: Get the ball to running back Frank Gore Jr. The preseason All-American by Athlon Sports returns after compiling 1,573 total yards and 13 overall scores last fall. He will also run behind an improving line that brings back three starters and plenty of experience from ’22. The Golden Eagles held teams to 23.5 points a game last year, and assuming it can navigate some transition in the secondary, this group could rank among the Sun Belt’s top defenses once again with six starters back. Dan O’Brien takes over as coordinator following Austin Armstrong’s departure to Florida.

91. Army
The Black Knights have just one losing season over the last seven years, but coach Jeff Monken isn’t planning on status quo for ’23. Instead, as a result of recent rule changes surrounding blocking, Army plans to utilize more shotgun looks in its offensive scheme this fall. Don’t expect wholesale change away from the run, but it may take Monken’s team some time to transition. Bryson Daily headlines the candidates vying to start at quarterback, and the winner of the battle under center has plenty of pieces to work with, including four returning starters up front and fullback Jakobi Buchanan. A defense that allowed only 22.5 points a game brings back seven starters. However, linebacker Andre Carter II will be missed.

92. Miami (Ohio)
It’s a close call between the RedHawks and Ohio for the top spot in the MAC East. Miami (Ohio) catches a tougher crossover (Toledo) and has to play the Bobcats in Athens. While the path to a division title is tough, the RedHawks will benefit from the return of quarterback Brett Gabbert (missed nearly all of ’22 due to injury) and a defense that could be the best in the conference after holding teams to 22.6 points a game last year. Restocking the receiving corps with Mac Hippenhammer departing is the biggest question mark on offense. Two starting linemen – Rusty Feth (Iowa) and Caleb Shaffer (Oklahoma) – transferred to Power 5 programs.

93. Ohio
Quarterback Kurtis Rourke’s recovery from a torn ACL suffered late in the ’22 season holds the key to Ohio’s MAC title hopes. Prior to the injury, Rourke cemented himself among the nation’s top quarterbacks by passing for 3,256 yards and 25 touchdowns and adding 249 yards on the ground. The Bobcats also return 1,000-yard rusher Sieh Bangura (1,078 yards) and arguably the league’s top receiving corps, headlined by Sam Wiglusz (74 catches for 883 yards). The outlook on defense is more unsettled after Ohio ranked last in the MAC in yards per play allowed (6.2), gave up 28.3 points a contest and struggled to stop the pass. Coach Tim Albin dipped into the portal for help at all three levels, adding talent to a defense set to lose all-conference standouts in Jack McCrory (DL) and Tariq Drake (safety). However, six starters are back, which provides some optimism for an uptick in play for ’23.

94. North Texas
New coach Eric Morris is a Texas native, played his college ball at Texas Tech and spent time as a FCS head coach at Incarnate Word (2018-21). All of that experience, plus the ties to the Lone Star State, make the former Red Raider a perfect fit in Denton. Morris’ background on offense will help the Mean Green maintain (33.8 points a game last year) a potent attack, with ULM transfer Chandler Rogers is likely to start at quarterback. Despite the loss of Jyaire Shorter (Auburn) to transfer, the receiving corps has weapons for Rogers, and the backfield is deep with Ayo Adeyi, Ikaika Ragsdale, and Oscar Adaway III returning. Defensive improvement is likely to decide just how high this team can climb in its first year in the AAC. The Mean Green gave up 6.1 yards a snap and allowed nearly 200 yards (197.8 rushing yards a contest) last season. New coordinator Matt Caponi inherits eight returning starters but will miss linebacker KD Davis.

95. Louisiana
As expected, with a new coach (Michael Desormeaux), and a roster dealing with significant turnover, the Ragin’ Cajuns faced a rebuilding year in ’22. Last season’s 6-7 mark was the program’s first losing record since ’17. However, even with more turnover in the two-deep, Desormeaux has a chance to show the program is back this fall. The schedule is favorable with a key swing game against Southern Miss in Louisiana, while the crossover with the East features matchups against Old Dominion and Georgia State – a combined 7-17 last year. Chandler Fields and Ben Wooldridge (recovering from a ACL tear at the end of ’22) will battle again for the starting quarterback job in the fall, while the offense also has to replace leading rusher Chris Smith and needs to identify more playmakers at receiver to boost a thin group of pass catchers. Just two starters are back on defense after cornerback Trey Amos and safety Kam Pedescleaux opted to transfer at the end of spring practice.

96. Stanford
New coach Troy Taylor has a massive rebuilding effort ahead in 2023. The Cardinal return only six starters and feature significant concerns on both sides of the ball, including quarterback, offensive line and with overall defensive performance. Stanford’s defense allowed 36.3 points a game in Pac-12 contests last year and struggled mightily against the run (224.4 yards a game allowed). Taylor does have a few bright spots to build around, including tight end Benjamin Yurosek and running back E.J. Smith.

97. Georgia Southern
Shifting from the option to a pass-first approach in coach Clay Helton’s first year was a smooth one for Georgia Southern. The Eagles upset Nebraska (45-42), beat James Madison (45-38) and knocked off Appalachian State (51-48) to earn a postseason trip. If Helton’s team is going to prove preseason expectations wrong again, the offense has to lead the way once again. The defense returns only three starters, and this unit struggled mightily against the run last year (230.9 rushing yards a game allowed and surrendered nearly 32 points a contest. Tulsa transfer Davis Brin should provide a seamless transition from Kyle Vantrease at quarterback, and the Eagles won’t lack for skill talent thanks to the return of running back Jalen White (914 yards) and receivers Derwin Burgess (58 catches) and Khaleb Hood (87).

Rick Stockstill has guided Middle Tennessee to seven bowl trips over the last 10 years, and with all of the changes in Conference USA, this program’s stability and track record of steady success should place it near the top of the league. With nine starters back, a defense that allowed 6.1 yards per snap in C-USA games should take a step forward. With the defense in good shape, that should allow Stockstill time to find the right answers on offense. This unit has significant turnover at receiver and must replace quarterback Chase Cunningham.

99. Eastern Michigan
Coach Chris Creighton continues to win at one of the toughest jobs in college football. After making only one bowl appearance in program history from 1987-2015, the Eagles have played in five postseason games since ’16 and tied Toledo at 5-3 for first place in the MAC West last season. Creighton and his staff have some retooling to do in order to push for the top spot in the division again, as the offense lost three starting linemen, including standouts Sidy Sow and Marcellus Johnson. Also, top targets Dylan Drummond (33 catches) and Hassan Beydoun (49) have departed. The backfield remains a strength with Samson Evans (1,166 yards) returning, and new starting quarterback Austin Smith has showed promise in limited time. Eight starters are back on defense, but this unit has room to improve under new play-caller Ben Needham after giving up 28.5 points a contest last year. Also, end Jose Ramirez (19.5 TFL) will be tough to replace.

100. Georgia State
The Panthers’ streak of three consecutive winning seasons and bowl trips ended with a disappointing 4-8 mark last fall. However, with five of the eight losses coming by one score, a turnaround in ’23 isn’t that daunting. But there are personnel concerns for coach Shawn Elliott to address, as just one starter returns on the offensive line, while the backfield loses top running back (Tucker Gregg). Quarterback Darren Grainger (3,185 total yards in ’22) ranks among the best in the Sun Belt. New defensive signal-caller Chad Staggs inherits a group that ranked near the bottom of the conference in yards per play and points allowed and struggled get stops in the red zone (13th in the Sun Belt). With Jordan Veneziale, Jontrey Hunter, and Blake Carroll returning, the linebacker group should be a strength while new faces need to emerge in the secondary and up front.

101. UNLV
The Rebels seemed poised to breakthrough under former coach Marcus Arroyo after a 4-1 start last year. However, a 1-6 finish over the team’s final seven contests cost Arroyo his job and started another rebuilding effort in the Sin City. New coach Barry Odom has spent most of his career in the Midwest, and won’t bring much flash to Las Vegas. However, perhaps a coach with a good track record of developing talent will be able to help this team reach its potential. And Odom isn’t starting from scratch either. Quarterback Doug Brumfield and receiver Ricky White should thrive in new coordinator Brennan Marion’s offense, while new running back Courtney Reese averaged 7.2 yards per rush on 52 attempts as the backup to Aidan Robbins last fall. Odom’s background on defense should help a unit that has finished seventh or worse in the Mountain West in points allowed every year since ’14.

102. Utah State
After winning 11 games and the Mountain West title in coach Blake Anderson’s first year in Logan, the Aggies slid to 6-7 last season. An offense that averaged 32.6 points a game managed only 22.2 a contest last fall. And the story on defense wasn’t much better, as Utah State surrendered 31.2 points a game (up from 24.4). Turning things around on defense won’t be easy, as the Aggies lost a handful of potential contributors to transfer, including Byron Vaughns (Baylor), AJ Vongphachanh (BYU), Daniel Grzesiak (Cincinnati), and Ajani Carter (Baylor). Anderson plans to serve as his own offensive coordinator after Anthony Tucker left for Indiana. The cupboard isn’t bare on offense with a promising quarterback in place in Cooper Legas, along with talented skill players in running back Robert Briggs and receiver Terrell Vaughn.

103. UConn
The Huskies surprised in coach Jim Mora’s debut last season. Low expectations surrounded the program after a 1-11 mark in ’21. However, after a 1-4 start, UConn rallied with five victories over its last eight games, including solid wins over Fresno State and Liberty. The strength of Mora’s ’23 squad should be a defense bringing back eight starters, including linebacker Jackson Mitchell (140 tackles). This unit held teams to 26.2 points a contest in ’22 – a big improvement from the 38.5 allowed in ’21. The Huskies are still a work in progress offensively after averaging only 19.4 points a game last year. Maine transfer Joseph Fagnano, Ta’Quan Roberson and Zion Turner are set to battle for the starting job, while a couple of transfers alleviated the loss of a couple of receivers. Running back Victor Rosa (636 yards) returns to run behind a line that features four starters, including preseason All-American Christian Haynes.

104. New Mexico State
Jerry Kill was one of the top coaching hires of the 2021-22 carousel and his impact was felt right away in Las Cruces. New Mexico State went from a 2-10 program in ’21 to a 7-6 squad, capped by a bowl win over Bowling Green. Moving to Conference USA should make things a little easier for the Aggies after the program was a FBS Independent for the last five years. The offense returns eight starters, including quarterback Diego Pavia (19 total TDs last year) and plenty of depth at running back and receiver. After surrendering 40.4 points a game in ’21, the defense allowed only 23.9 a contest last year. Exceeding last year’s performance will require a couple of transfers to emerge as key cogs with just four returning starters. The departure of cornerback Syrus Dumas in late April was a loss for the secondary.

105. Temple
The Owls won only three games in coach Stan Drayton’s debut, but there were signs of progress by the end of November. Led by the rise of quarterback E.J. Warner in his first year on campus, Temple defeated USF 54-28 in early November and later lost to Houston and East Carolina by one score. With a full offseason to work as the starter, look for Warner to emerge as one of the top quarterbacks in the AAC, especially with a loaded receiving corps that features Amad Anderson and tight ends David Martin-Robinson and Jordan Smith. The defense allowed too many points in league play (36.4 in the AAC) and struggled versus the run (192.6 yards a game). With seven starters back, this unit should take a step forward on the stat sheet. However, standout edge rusher Layton Jordan (18.5 TFL in ’22) transferred to Wisconsin.

106. Navy
It’s a new era in Annapolis after Brian Newberry was promoted to head coach to replace long-time leader Ken Niumatalolo. Under Newberry’s watch, Navy’s defenses were consistently solid and finished second in the AAC in fewest points allowed in ’19. And with nine starters back, the defense should be the strength of Newberry’s first team. The Midshipmen won’t change too much on offense, but new coordinator Grant Chestnut has to get this unit on track after it finished last in the AAC in yards per play (4.7) and scoring (21.9 points a game). Sophomore Tedros Gleaton has yet to attempt a pass at Navy but topped the post-spring depth chart at quarterback. Fullback Daba Fofana (769 yards) also returns. In a scheduling break, the Midshipmen won’t play arguably the top two teams – Tulane and UTSA – in the AAC.

107. Buffalo
Maurice Linguist faced a tough debut (4-8) in 2021 after taking over the team following spring practice. But the Bulls were much better with a 7-6 record in Linguist’s second season, which included a 34-27 win over eventual MAC champ Toledo on Oct. 22. Forcing 26 turnovers certainly aided Buffalo score four wins by one score last year, but with some regression expected in the takeaway department, the team needs both sides of the ball to develop. The Bulls allowed just over six yards a snap but ranked fourth in the MAC in fewest points allowed (26.7) in ’22. With just five starters back, Linguist has holes to fill at every level, but linebacker Shaun Dolac and safety Marcus Fuqua should be two of the conference’s top defenders. There’s plenty of room to grow offensively after this unit managed only 4.89 yards a snap last fall. However, new play-caller DJ Mangas has pieces to work with, as quarterback Cole Snyder, running backs Ron Cook and Mike Washington and three starters up front are back.

108. Colorado State
The Rams have the pieces to be the most-improved squad in the Mountain West in ’23. Offensive struggles highlighted coach Jay Norvell’s debut in Fort Collins last fall, as Colorado State managed only 13.2 points a game and 4.85 yards a snap. Improvement up front is a must after this line surrendered 59 sacks and struggled to open up rushing lanes (2.8 per carry). Quarterback Clay Millen (10 TDs, 6 INTs) showed flashes of potential, and No. 1 receiver Tory Horton (72 catches for 1,131 yards) is an preseason All-American. Despite all of the offensive problems in ’22, Colorado State’s defense quietly held teams to 4.8 yards per snap and 19.9 points per contest in Mountain West action last year. Coordinator Freddie Banks has a few holes to fill up front, but this unit should once again rank as one of the best in the conference with Mohamed Kamara (DL) and defensive backs Jack Howell, Henry Blackburn and Chigozie Anusiem returning.

109. Tulsa
New coach Kevin Wilson’s background on offense should mesh well with the returning personnel. The Golden Hurricane feature a rising star in Braylon Braxton at quarterback, and running back Anthony Watkins (634 yards in ’21) returns after missing ’22 due to injury. Braxton has weapons at receiver in the form of Malachai Jones and all-purpose threat Braylin Presley but needs more help from the offensive line after it allowed 45 sacks last season. Standout left tackle Dillon Wade transferred to Auburn this offseason. Transfers hit Tulsa’s defense hard as well. Linebacker Justin Wright and lineman Anthony Goodlow both departed for Oklahoma State, dropping this unit down to just five returning starters. Safety Kendarin Ray is among the AAC’s top returning defenders, and Wilson dipped into the portal for help with four defensive backs set to join the team.

110. UAB
The Blazers might be the toughest team to project in the AAC. New coach Trent Dilfer has plenty to prove in his first year as a collegiate coach, and the roster was hit hard by losses, including quarterback Dylan Hopkins, running back DeWayne McBride, four starting offensive linemen, and several key cogs on defense. Jacob Zeno and Louisiana Tech transfer Landry Lyddy are expected to battle into the fall for the starting quarterback job. Although McBride will be missed, the ground attack should be in good shape still thanks to the return of Jermaine Brown. Cornerback Mac McWilliams, lineman Fish McWilliams, and safety Keondre Swoopes headline the returning talent for new coordinator Sione Ta’ufo’ou.

111. Louisiana Tech
Thanks to a massive haul of transfers – including former Boise State quarterback Hank Bachmeier – this could be the most-improved team in Conference USA next fall. The Bulldogs went 3-9 in coach Sonny Cumbie’s debut in ’22, but four of those losses came by 10 points. With four starters back up front and talented playmakers like receiver Smoke Harris and running back Marquis Crosby in place, the offense has all of the pieces to rank among the best in the conference. But contending for the league crown will hinge heavily on just how much the defense can improve after giving up 37.9 points a game last year.

112. Rice
Last year’s bowl appearance was Rice’s first postseason trek since ’14, but the Owls have yet to record a winning mark under coach Mike Bloomgren (16-39 since ’18). However, the arrival of former Georgia and West Virginia signal-caller JT Daniels, along with the return of receiver Luke McCaffrey might be enough to get Rice to six wins in its first season in the AAC. Improvement on defense would certainly the bowl odds, as the Owls have work to do through the air (29 passing TDs allowed) and on the ground (seventh in C-USA last year). This unit also gave up 34.2 points per contest. Seven starters are back, giving coordinator Brian Smith reason for optimism at every level.

113. Northern Illinois
Injuries to quarterback Rocky Lombardi and receiver Trayvon Rudolph hindered NIU’s hopes of a repeat MAC title, as the team slipped to 3-9 and added pressure to coach Thomas Hammock to get back to a winning record in ’23. Lombardi and Rudolph return to give the Huskies’ offense a spark, and this unit should also feature one of the league’s top backs (Antario Brown) running behind a line that returns mostly intact. However, in order to push Toledo atop the MAC West, Hammock’s team has to improve a defense that has finished 10th or worse in the conference in points allowed for three straight years. Turning this group around won’t be easy in ’23 with the departure of linebackers Kyle Pugh and Daveren Rayner, end Izayah Green-May and cornerback Jordan Gandy.

114. Central Michigan
The Chippewas had hopes of contending for the MAC West crown last year but slumped to a 4-8 finish. Turnovers (28 lost) were a major problem, standout running back Lew Nichols III was limited to just 176 carries, and better play was needed at quarterback and up front. Coach Jim McElwain’s team brings back nine starters off a defense that held opponents to 5.2 yards a snap, which Central Michigan can lean on until its offense gets on track. Dynamic freshman quarterback Bert Emanuel Jr. ran for 496 yards last year but is still an unknown commodity (eight pass attempts) through the air. If Emanuel Jr. picks up where he left off on the ground, while also giving the Chippewas more through the air, McElwain should be able to guide this team back into the postseason.

115. UTEP
After a breakthrough 7-6 record in 2021, the Miners slid to 5-7 last season. However, a return to the bowl scene is within reach this fall for coach Dana Dimel’s squad. UTEP brings back one of C-USA’s top quarterbacks in Gavin Hardison (2,063 passing yards and 11 TDs), and running back Deion Hankins (701 yards) should push for the league rushing title. The weapons around Hardison got even even better after spring practice with the return of receiver Tyrin Smith. He entered the portal and transferred to Texas A&M, only to leave the team in the spring and return to El Paso for ’23. Losing standout tackle Jeremiah Byers as a transfer to Florida State was a setback, but the line should still rank among the best in the conference. The return of Praise Amaewhule and Keenan Stewart form a solid foundation up front, but the secondary has to improve after finishing 10th in Conference USA in pass efficiency defense last fall.

116. USF
There are no quick fixes for new coach Alex Golesh, who arrives in Tampa after helping Josh Heupel transform Tennessee’s offense into one of the best in college football over the last two years. The Bulls went 1-11 and failed to win an AAC game last year. Getting Golesh’s high-powered offense on track starts with finding a quarterback (likely Gerry Bohanon or Byrum Brown) and developing playmakers in a receiving corps that lost its two best players (Xavier Weaver and Jimmy Horn). Also, just one starter returns up front, but left tackle Donovan Jennings should be an all-conference performer. New defensive coordinator Todd Orlando brings back plenty of experience, but this unit surrendered 41.2 points a game and 7.4 yards a play last year.

117. Old Dominion
Jumpstarting an offense that averaged only 19.5 points per contest in ’22 holds the key to Old Dominion’s upcoming season. New play-caller Kevin Decker engineered one of the FCS’ top offenses at Fordham, but the rebuilding effort in Norfolk won’t be easy with quarterback Hayden Wolff (Western Michigan), running back Blake Watson (Memphis), and receiver Ali Jennings III (Virginia Tech) all transferring. Tackling machine and preseason All-American Jason Henderson returns to anchor a defense that finished eighth in the Sun Belt in points allowed (26.6 a game). A handful of transfers will help here, but coordinator Blake Seiler will need time to find the right answers.

118. Arkansas State
Butch Jones is just 5-19 through two years at Arkansas State, and with just seven starters back for ’23, a significant jump in the Sun Belt West will be difficult. If the Red Wolves are going to exceed preseason expectations, fixing a defense that allowed 31.5 points in Sun Belt play last year is a good starting point. The outlook offensively is just as unsettled. Former Colorado and Tennessee signal-caller JT Shrout could get the nod under center, with a couple of transfers slated to fill in the gaps on the line. If Shrout (or Jaxon Dailey) provides solid play under center, the passing game has the potential to take off with Corey Rucker, Courtney Jackson and Jeff Foreman headlining the receiving corps.

119. Ball State
After back-to-back bowl trips in 2020-21, the Cardinals fell just short of another postseason trek last fall. Coach Mike Neu’s squad won three games in MAC play but lost four others by one score. Returning to a winning record and a postseason trip will hinge on contributions from a couple of transfers (quarterback Layne Hatcher and running back Marquez Cooper) to boost an offense that returns one of the MAC’s top lines and a pair of standouts at tight end (Brady Hunt and Tanner Koziol). But this unit is thin on proven playmakers at receiver and needs more big plays after generating only 10 of 40-plus over the last two years. Improvement is also needed from a defense that ranked last in the conference against the run and must replace four of five starters in the secondary.

120. Texas StateWith new coach G.J. Kinne and a handful of transfers coming to San Marcos, Texas State is one of the Sun Belt’s most intriguing teams for ’23. Kinne – a former Tulsa quarterback – arrives after a successful 12-2 stint at UIW last year, which was led by one of the nation’s top offenses. Replicating that offensive firepower starts with finding a quarterback, and Kinne has a couple of intriguing options from the transfer ranks in Malik Hornsby from Arkansas and T.J. Finley (Auburn). Running back Lincoln Pare and receiver Ashtyn Hawkins provide a couple of proven skill players for Kinne, but the line must be revamped with zero returning starters from last year. The defense is also in rebuild mode with just three returning starters, but similar to the offense, Kinne tapped into the portal for instant help

121. Hawaii
Timmy Chang’s debut season at his alma mater was a struggle (3-10), but the Rainbow Warriors showed some improvement down the stretch and managed to pick off both Nevada and UNLV in Mountain West play. Chang plans to bring back the run-and-shoot offense, but in order for this attack to take off, he needs quarterback Brayden Schager to take a step forward after throwing for 2,348 yards and 13 touchdowns last year. Hawaii also loses its best offensive playmaker (running back Dedrick Parson) and must replace a couple of starters in the trenches. A defense that ranked last in the Mountain West in points allowed (34.7 a contest) will miss nose tackle Blessman Ta’ala and linebacker Penei Pavihi.

122. Nevada
The Wolf Pack started 2-0 but finished the year on a 10-game losing streak to cap coach Ken Wilson’s debut in Reno. Both sides of the ball were to blame for the ’22 struggles, as the offense managed only 18.8 points a contest and the defense allowed 30.9 a contest. Wilson hit the portal for help on offense, including potential starters in quarterback Brendon Lewis (Colorado) and running back Sean Dollars (Oregon). Replacing Dom Peterson up front won’t be easy for Nevada’s defense. But with six starters back, Wilson’s group should show some improvement in ’23.

123. Western Michigan
New coach Lance Taylor was regarded as a rising star for his work as an assistant in the NFL and in college with stops at Alabama, Louisville, and Notre Dame. But this is his first head-coaching gig at the collegiate level and patience will be needed at Western Michigan. Coordinator Lou Esposito was retained after this unit held teams to just 24.1 points a game last year. However, this group is facing a massive overhaul with just two returning starters. The pieces are in place for the offense to carry this team in ’23, especially if Taylor can get quality quarterback play out of Old Dominion transfer Hayden Wolff, Jack Salopek or Treyson Bourguet. Four starters are back up front, but running back Sean Tyler (1,027 yards) transferred to Minnesota.

124. Bowling Green
The ’22 season marked a step forward for coach Scot Loeffler’s program. After going 7-22 through the first three years, the Falcons went 6-7 and made the first bowl trip for the program since ’15. However, five of Bowling Green’s wins came by one score, so the margin for error will be small again this fall. Indiana transfer Connor Bazelak could get the nod at quarterback to replace Matt McDonald. But regardless of which QB wins the job, the Falcons have a solid core offensively thanks to the return of four line starters and playmakers like running back Terion Stewart and receiver Odieu Hiliare. Six starters are back on defense for new coordinator Steve Morrison. However, key cogs in end Karl Brooks and safety Jordan Anderson depart.

125. Akron
The Zips finished 2-10 in Joe Moorhead’s debut last season, but the program was more competitive down the stretch to provide optimism for ’23. Quarterback DJ Irons (2,919 total yards) should lead a much-improved offense that also includes Florida transfer Lorenzo Lingard at running back and a pair of talented receivers in Alex Adams and Daniel George. Improvement along the offensive line (56 sacks allowed) and on defense (33.5 points a game allowed) will decide just how high Akron can climb in the MAC East.

126. Jacksonville State
Rich Rodriguez’s Gamecocks finished 9-2 in their final FCS season last fall and should be competitive right away in their Conference USA debut. As usual, expect Rodriguez to find ways to score points. The backfield is solid with Anwar Lewis back to lead the ground attack, and Sterling Galban (15.5 yards per catch in ’22) is a big-play threat on the outside. The offense received good news in June when quarterback Zion Webb’s waiver was approved for ’23. Nebraska transfer Logan Smothers will provide depth under center as well. Some retooling is needed on the back end of the defense, but defenders like Kolbi Fuqua (LB) and linemen Chris Hardie and J-Rock Swain provide a solid foundation up front.

127. New Mexico
Fixing an offense that averaged only 3.94 yards per play and failed to score more than 21 points in a Mountain West game last year topped the list of offseason priorities for coach Danny Gonzales. The Lobos hope a handful of transfers – including UAB quarterback Dylan Hopkins – and a new coordinator (Bryant Vincent) help to jumpstart this anemic group. The defense is also under construction with just two returning starters. Gonzales has a couple of proven defenders returning in the secondary (Tavian Combs and Donte Martin), but the front and linebacker unit were hit hard by departures.

128. Sam Houston
Even though Sam Houston ranks near the bottom of Conference USA, don’t be surprised if this team easily exceeds this prediction. For starters, coach KC Keeler is 85-27 with the Bearkats, including a FCS title in 2020. Also, the team wisely redshirted a handful of players with an eye to ’23 and beyond as it made the move to FBS. Defense should be the strength of Sam Houston’s first team at the FBS level, as this unit boasts preseason second-team All-C-USA selections in Markel Perry (DL), Trevor Williams (LB) and Jordan Morris (CB). The offense has question marks up front (only one returning starter) and needs to find an answer at quarterback (potentially North Texas transfer Grant Gunnell).

129. Charlotte
The 49ers could struggle to beat last year’s win total (three), but this program won’t lack for intrigue in ’23. New coach Biff Poggi arrives in Charlotte after successful high school stints at Gilman School (1996-15) and Saint Frances Academy (2017-20) and two off-field stints at Michigan. Poggi hit the portal hard for help, as over 30 transfers are set to arrive in time for ’23. Former Michigan edge rusher Eyabi Okie should be a difference maker on defense for Poggi, but this unit has a lot of work to do after giving up 39.4 points a game last fall. Led by Shadrick Byrd (620 yards) and true freshman Durell Robinson, the 49ers should be able to generate a solid ground attack. However, three key receivers are gone, and uncertainty surrounds a quarterback position likely to feature Bethune-Cookman transfer Jalon Jones as the starter.

130. FIU
Mike MacIntyre inherited a major rebuilding effort, so it was no surprise FIU struggled to escape Conference USA’s cellar last season. And unfortunately for the Panthers, things got even more difficult this offseason. Running back Lexington Joseph (546 yards) suffered a torn ACL in the spring, while three projected starters – linebacker Shaun Peterson and linemen Lyndell Hudson and Shamar Hobdy-Lee – opted to transfer. For MacIntyre to push FIU into bowl contention, quarterback Grayson James (11 TDs, 11 INTs) will need to take the next step, while the defense has to cut down on the points allowed (37.3 per game in ’22).

131. ULM
This is one of the toughest jobs in college football, but coach Terry Bowden has guided ULM to small signs of progress over the last two years. Escaping the bottom of the Sun Belt is within reach in ’23 and will largely hinge on the development of quarterbacks Jiya Wright and Hunter Herring after Chandler Rogers transferred to North Texas. Ole Miss transfer Isaiah Woullard should be an impact addition at running back, while receiver Tyrone Howell (50 catches for 852 yards) is one of the Sun Belt’s top returning pass catchers. The Warhawks have allowed over six yards a play on defense for seven consecutive years. Only four starters are back, and Bowden will need a lot of instant help from the portal to improve defensively this fall.

132. Kent State
Patience is needed for new coach Kenni Burns. The Illinois native takes over a program returning zero starters on offense and the list of losses is hefty, with key players in quarterback Colin Schlee (UCLA), running back Marquez Cooper (Ball State) and receiver Dante Cephas (Penn State) opting to transfer. Burns hit the portal for help, which includes a pair of former Power 5 quarterbacks (Jaren Lewis and Michael Alaimo) and running back Ky Thomas (Kansas). The outlook on defense is slightly better thanks to four returning starters, including preseason All-MAC selections in lineman CJ West and linebacker Khali Saunders.

133. UMass
Although last year’s record was 1-11, the Minutemen are on the right track under coach Don Brown. A defense that allowed 43.1 points a game in ’21 held teams to 31.1 points per contest last season. With another offseason to learn under Brown and a handful of additions from the portal, UMass’ defense should take another step forward this fall. However, for the Minutemen to climb the rankings and exceed last year’s one win, the offense must show marked improvement. This unit averaged only 12.5 points a contest and four yards a play in ’22. Georgia Tech transfer Taisun Phommachanh should help right away at quarterback, while four starters return up front. The schedule features only two Power 5 opponents, so if both sides of the ball improve, UMass should win more than one contest for the first time in a season since ’18.

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