2023 college football games to watch, CFP picks and bold predictions

ByESPN Staff ESPN logo
Friday, February 10, 2023

It's never too early to start thinking about all the things we're excited about for the 2023 college football season.

From the games we've already marked on our calendars to players and teams we expect to have breakout seasons, to early playoff picks, here's everything we're expecting in 2023.

The game to be most excited for in 2023

Alex Scarborough: Colorado at TCU on Sept. 2

All eyes were already going to be on TCUafter its Cinderella run to the College Football Playoff National Championship Game. But opening the 2023 season against Coloradoand first-year coach Deion Sanders makes the game even more interesting. Not only do we get our first glimpse at Coach Prime in the Power 5, we get to see how the Horned Frogs will look without Heisman Trophy finalist quarterback Max Duggan and standout receiver Quentin Johnston.

Chris Low: Florida State vs. LSU on Sept. 3 (Orlando, Florida)

Get ready for some serious hype surrounding both Florida Stateand LSUheading into next season, and they open the season against each other in what should be a top-10 matchup on Sept. 3 in Orlando, a Sunday game that will get a ton of exposure. The Seminoles haven't won an ACC championship since 2014, and this could be their best chance to end that drought, especially with quarterback Jordan Travis and defensive end Jared Verse, one of the country's top pass-rushers, returning. LSU played in the SEC championship game in Brian Kelly's first season in Baton Rouge. The Tigers return starting quarterback Jayden Daniels and a ton of young talent, including dynamic outside linebacker Harold Perkins Jr., and will be looking for even more in 2023. Florida State won 24-23 a year ago in an unreal finish when the Seminoles blocked an extra point. Let's hope the encore is just as thrilling.

David M. Hale: Miami (Ohio) at Miami on Sept. 1

The great football minds will offer a laundry list of big-time matchups here, and for good reason. But what if instead, we look to the game with the most at stake: Miamivs. Miami. Oh, Week 1 has its share of marquee matchups, but none as significant as the one that will determine, once and for all, which Miami reigns supreme. And before you suggest that the Florida version of Miami wins in a runaway, recall that it was just last year that Middle Tennesseewiped the floor with the Canes on their home turf. Think Miami (Ohio) can't do the same? And sure, this isn't a traditional rivalry between neighboring schools, but consider that census data suggests upward of 70% of Florida's population is just people who moved from Ohio to get away from the cold. And while there is no trophy handed to the winner, we think it's only fair that the victor claims ultimate authority over the name "Miami," forcing the loser to change its moniker so we no longer have to use parentheses to clarify which team we're talking about. Just imagine the spectacle of The U announcing it would be formally rebranding as the University of Coral Gables, with Pitbull moving to Akron and Will Smith rereleasing a new version of "Welcome to Miami" in which he name drops Benjamin Harrison and Wally Szcerbiak. Good luck finding something to rhyme with Roethlisberger. In those terms, there's no bigger game this season.

Tom VanHaaren: Ohio State at Michigan on Nov. 25

It's not until the end of the season, but the way the Michigan-Ohio Stategame has played out the past two years has brought the rivalry back into focus. Buckeyes coach Ryan Day received criticism for the two losses to Michigan the past two seasons, and there's no doubt that will be their main focus in 2023. Day has said he might alter who calls offensive plays to give himself more opportunity to coach the entire team so that the team doesn't suffer another season-ending loss. Michigan is returning running back Blake Corum and several big offensive pieces for 2023, which should put them in the conversation for one of the top teams coming into the season. The focus and emphasis put on that game, given the ramifications and the past results, are going to be at an all-time high that will make it must-watch game.

Blake Baumgartner: USC at Colorado on Sept. 30

A two-week stretch in September might show what Sanders is be capable of at Colorado. A week after going to Oregonfor their first conference road game, the Buffaloes host Lincoln Riley and USCin Boulder on Sept. 30. Just as Riley transformed his team via the portal -- with reigning Heisman winnerCaleb Williamsheadlining a group that includes wide receiver Dorian Singer (Arizona), running back MarShawn Lloyd (South Carolina) and linebacker Mason Cobb (Oklahoma State), among others -- Sanders did so similarly by bringing his son Shedeur at quarterback and Travis Hunter at cornerback from Jackson State. As USC prepares to bid adieu to the Pac-12, it'll have an opportunity to introduce Sanders to West Coast football.

Heather Dinich: Utah at USC on Oct. 21

Lincoln Riley would've had a playoff team in his first season as coach if the Trojans hadn't gone 0-2 against Utah, so the Oct. 21 game between them is the one to watch. If USC can win at Notre Dameon Oct. 14, there's a great chance the Trojans will be undefeated when Utah comes to L.A. This is USC's final fall in the Pac-12. Can Riley leave a lasting impression in the league by boosting it into the CFP before bolting for the Big Ten? The home game against Utah will help answer that question.

Adam Rittenberg: Ohio State at Notre Dame on Sept. 23

There are some great selections here, and I always lean toward an early-season game for my selection. Ohio State and Notre Dame don't open the season against each other again, but they meet Sept. 23 in South Bend for a matchup that has national implications on both sides. The Buckeyes should be 3-0, but get their first significant quarterback test in Sam Hartman, the Wake Foresttransfer who holds the ACC career passing touchdowns record. Hartman and Notre Dame's yet-to-be-named offensive coordinator create a sense of mystery and excitement around the Fighting Irish, who need a jolt in their passing game to take the next step. Notre Dame has a Week 2 road test at NC Statebut also should come in perfect. Marcus Freeman recorded a signature home win against Clemsonlast year. An upset of his alma mater would go a long way toward elevating expectations in Year 2, despite a tough overall schedule.

Bill Connelly: Michigan at Penn State on Nov. 11

I always enjoy a team's first home game in a new (and more prestigious) conference, and we've got a few of those in the Big 12 -- Houstonhosting TCU in Week 3, Cincinnatihosting Oklahoma in Week 4, UCFhosting Baylorin Week 5 (BYUhosts Cincinnati in its first conference home game, which is lame). But honestly, my mind's drifting to Happy Valley. Penn Statecould have a top-five caliber team in 2023, and while its trip to Ohio State in October might still be out of reach, a potentially loaded Michigan team has to visit State College on Nov. 11. Can PSU win and create a potential three-way race in the Big Ten East?

The breakout teams will be ...

Scarborough: For a minute, it looked like Notre Dame was getting ready to fall off a cliff last season. First-year coach Marcus Freeman's Fighting Irish couldn't have looked any worse after a home loss to Marshall. And, yeah, the loss to Stanforda month later wasn't great, either. But they steadied the ship and now I'm buying stock in Notre Dame next season. Hartman was a huge pickup from the portal and the top three tailbacks are all returning. Plus, the schedule is manageable with Navyand Tennessee Stateto start the season and Ohio State at home on Sept. 23.

Low: Mike Locksley enters his fifth season as Maryland's coach, and the Terrapins have gotten better, more talented and more competitive each year. They're coming off back-to-back winning seasons after suffering through six straight losing seasons from 2015-20. In addition, Maryland has capped each of the past two seasons with bowl victories. The biggest offseason news for the Terps was record-setting quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa announcing that he would return for the 2023 season. Two of Maryland's five losses last season in the Big Ten were by a touchdown or less. With a quarterback the caliber of Tagovailoa returning and a defense that should be improved, the Terps will be better positioned to finish some of those close games and make a run at their first nine-win season or better in more than a decade.

VanHaaren: Florida State finished the season at 10-3, so I don't know if the Seminoles really qualify here. But even with a 10-win season, it seems like FSU didn't get a ton of national recognition. The three losses came in a row against Wake Forest, NC State and Clemson, as all were ranked teams. The Seminoles are getting defensive end Verse back in 2023, returning quarterback Travis and the staff has one of the better transfer classes this offseason. Mike Norvell brought in Virginiacorner Fentrell Cypress II, Western Michigandefensive lineman Braden Fiske, Miami defensive lineman Darrell Jackson Jr., tight ends Jaheim Bell and Kyle Morlock, as well as a few really good offensive linemen. Those additions should help Florida State push for an even better season than 2022.

Dinich: Washingtonhas already exceeded expectations under Kalen DeBoer, and the Huskies are poised to be even better this fall. They've got an exciting, explosive offense led by returning veteran quarterback Michael Penix Jr., and the defense -- which returns its top pass-rushers -- has already shown continuous improvement. This is a team that should contend for the Pac-12 title and has the capability to win it. The schedule, though, is daunting. Washington starts November with back-to-back games against USC and Utah -- two top-25 teams it avoided last year. It has a nonconference road trip to Michigan State. It's hard to qualify an 11-2 team as having a breakout season, but until the Huskies prove they can beat USC and Utah under DeBoer, there's plenty of room to ascend.

Rittenberg: Florida State and Washington are good picks, even though both reached double-digit wins in 2022. I'd throw Penn State in the same category, as coach James Franklin might have his best team since the 2016 squad that won the Big Ten. The Lions return one of the nation's best running back tandems in Kaytron Allen and Nicholas Singleton, who will work behind an offensive line anchored by tackle Olu Fashanu. Coordinator Manny Diaz's defense brings back a talented core, including Abdul Carter, Curtis Jacobs, Chop Robinson and others. PSU must visit Ohio State but gets UMassand an open week before the big game. I also like what Jonathan Smith is building at Oregon State, which won 10 games last season despite the nation's No. 105 passing offense. If Smith can get DJ Uiagalelei on track, the Beavers could contend in a loaded Pac-12.

Baumgartner: Iowa's offensive struggles over the past several years have been well documented, especially after last season's 251.6 yards per game average -- last in the Big Ten. But its defense continues to show out on a yearly basis as the Hawkeyes found a way to win eight games in 2022. It could use a little more help in a wide open Big Ten West, a year before USC and UCLAenter into an unknown conference structure. Quarterback Cade McNamara transferred in from Michigan, along with tight end Erick All, and they'll be thrown right into the fire with a visit to Happy Valley against Penn State on Sept. 23 to begin conference play. The Hawkeyes' schedule is without Michigan and Ohio State -- more than manageable in the soon-to-be 16-team league -- and the chance for the program to lay claim to a second Big Ten West title in three seasons is ripe.

Connelly: Oregon's another team that might or might not count for breakout status (10-3 in 2022), but given that the Ducks have finished in the top 10 only once in the past eight years, I say they count! And with Bo Nix returning, another strong recruiting class arriving, only one unit facing a rebuild (an admittedly stout offensive line) and a schedule that requires USC to visit Eugene, the Ducks might need only to split tough road games at Washington and Utah to be in strong CFP shape in the home stretch. Another breakout candidate: whoever wins all their close games in the Big 12 this time! Two years ago it was Baylor and OSU, and last year it was TCU and Kansas State. It could be Oklahomaor Texasthis time -- they did go a combined 2-10 in one-score games last year, which probably won't happen again. That would be pretty boring from a "breakout" perspective, but it could also be Texas Tech! Or UCF! Or Baylor again! The most unpredictable conference will inevitably have some more surprises for us.

Which team or player will have the best comeback?

Scarborough: LSU far surpassed expectations in Year 1 under Brian Kelly. And it did so without arguably its most talented player in defensive tackle Maason Smith, who suffered a season-ending injury during the first half of the season opener against Florida State. The 6-foot-5, 300-pound sophomore has the size, strength and quickness to wreak havoc on opposing offenses. I'm not saying he's Jalen Carter. But look at Smith's freshman highlights, including four sacks and five tackles for loss, and tell me he's not at least similar to Carter. Paired with standout edge rusher Perkins, Smith could help the Tigers' defense take a huge step forward this season.

Low: Two years ago, Spencer Sanders was one of college football's most dynamic quarterbacks as he earned All-Big 12 honors, led the league in total offense (3,495 yards) and helped steer Oklahoma State to a 12-2 season, including 371 passing yards and 125 rushing yards in a 37-35 win over Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl. He will play his final season at Ole Missafter struggling through an injury-riddled season a year ago at Oklahoma State. A four-year starter, Sanders gives the Rebels an extremely deep quarterback room. One of the reasons he transferred to Ole Miss was Lane Kiffin's offense. Sanders' multipurpose skills at quarterback should provide an added dimension to an Ole Miss offense that was third nationally last season in rushing offense (256.4 yards per game).

Hale: There were myriad reasons for Oklahoma's down 2022 campaign, but Brent Venables isn't interested in excuses. His focus is entirely on improvement, and there's reason to believe 2023 will offer quite a bit of it for the Sooners. The transfer portal gutted last year's roster, but Oklahoma has added some solid players this season, including two potential star edge rushers in Rondell Bothroyd and Dasan McCullough. Add in a terrific recruiting class and the return of QB Dillon Gabriel, and Venables has much more to work with this time around. Those edge rushers are key. Venables loves to dictate the action at the line of scrimmage, something he did better than any coach in the country at Clemson. If Oklahoma's pass rush takes a big leap and the Sooners get a little better turnover luck -- they saw the 10th-biggest year-over-year decline in points off turnover margin in 2022 -- they should again be contending for the Big 12 title and a possible playoff berth.

VanHaaren:Devin Learyplayed in just six games this past season for NC State, where he threw for 1,265 yards, 11 touchdowns and four interceptions. He suffered a season-ending injury against Florida State in 2022, and then transferred to Kentuckyin the offseason. He's joining a Wildcats team that just hired Liam Coen as the offensive coordinator, bringing him back to Kentucky after spending time with the Los Angeles Rams. Starting quarterback Will Levis is off to the NFL, which has set the stage for a healthy Leary to take over in 2023. Prior to his injury, Leary broke records for the Wolfpack, throwing for 3,433 yards, 35 touchdowns and five interceptions in 2021. He has an opportunity to put up big numbers at Kentucky if he can stay on the field and has a chance to be one of the better quarterbacks if he can recreate his 2021 season.

Rittenberg: A combination of injuries and the COVID-19 eligibility waiver will allow Tyler Shough to log three seasons at quarterback for two different teams -- Oregon and Texas Tech. He's returning for his third season with the Red Raiders after a strong finish to 2022. Texas Tech went 5-0 in games Shough started last season and has an 8-0 mark in games he both started and finished. Injuries have limited Shough in each of his two seasons in Lubbock, but he has a high ceiling in running coordinator Zach Kittley's offense with so much experience under his belt. Texas Tech gets a lot of receivers involved, and Shough will have enough options in the pass game. He also gets a Week 2 showcase opportunity against Oregon, which he helped to a Pac-12 title and a Fiesta Bowl appearance during the 2020 season.

Baumgartner: A year removed from guiding Michigan State to an 11-win season and a win in the Peach Bowl, quarterback Payton Thorne has a chance for a little redemption -- and he'll have to do it without his childhood friend Jayden Reed, who's off to the NFL. Back in 2018, Thorne took that challenge to heart during his senior year in high school and all he did was throw 40 touchdowns. Thorne established a single-season school record in East Lansing with 27 touchdowns in 2021 and he'll need to be better with wide receivers Keon Coleman and Tre Mosley alongside him if Mel Tucker hopes to get his program back on sound footing. Home games against Washington, Michigan and Penn State will give Thorne high-profile opportunities to rewrite his legacy a bit.

What will the final year of the four-team playoff show us?

Low: Very simply, that the sport continues to be dominated by teams from the Deep South. Entering the 2023 season, 16 of the past 17 national championships have been won by a school from that footprint. Is there any reason to believe that anything will change before we go to a 12-team format?

Hale: The team that dominated the playoff era will be the same one that owns the final four-team playoff, too. Yes, Alabamahad a down year by its lofty standards in 2022, but that was as much bad luck -- last-second losses to Tennesseeand LSU -- as it was a real step backward in terms of talent. Indeed, Alabama's 60-point decline in points off turnovers margin was the sixth worst in the country, a number determined far more by chance than it is skill. Yes, there were some clear weaknesses -- at receiver, primarily -- but Nick Saban has taken great pains to address the chief concerns. And if anyone thinks he hasn't paid attention to the continual refrain that Georgiahas surpassed the Tide as the nation's premier program ... well, you don't know Saban.

Dinich: Conference championship games still matter. Last year, when Ohio State and TCU finished in the top four without winning their conferences, it was an anomaly. The final season of the four-team playoff will be a reminder of how important those games are to the current system, and a foreshadowing of how priceless they will be in the 12-team format. With no divisions in the ACC this fall, there could be a scenario where Florida State and Clemson are BOTH in the ACC championship game playing for a semifinal spot. The SEC and Big Ten champions are in, barring something bizarre. Unless it's a circumstance like TCU faced last year, the conference championship games are also typically elimination games -- just ask the Pac-12. There's a reason the selection committee members watch the conference championship games in person. They are the final pieces to their puzzle. Next year, the six highest-ranked conference champions will lock up a spot, along with the next six highest-ranked teams. For now, they remain a critical tiebreaker.

Rittenberg: That conference depth really doesn't matter. Although I'm projecting a Pac-12 team to the CFP, I can see scenarios where the league is once again left out because there are too many very good teams and not enough elite ones. The four-team playoff rewards leagues with one or two elite teams, not those with true depth and parity in their title races. The likely upshot of the expanded playoff -- despite being a truly national postseason model, like every other major American sport -- is that the deeper conferences, like the Pac-12 in 2022 and 2023, will be better represented.

Connelly: Yeah, what Adam said. A 12-team playoff will be all about conference depth, but the ACC has had far more CFP representation than the Pac-12 not because it's a better or deeper conference (it's not), but because it has had a standout program amid a sea of decent ones.

Wildest predictions

Scarborough: I don't know if it's a wild prediction, but I think the Pac-12 could be the most entertaining conference in college football next season. It's not just USC or bust. Oregon, Washington and Utah are all serious contenders. And don't forget about UCLA and Oregon State. Speaking of the Beavers, by adding Uiagalelei, they further bolstered the conference's star power at quarterback with Heisman Trophy contenders in Williams, Penix and Nix.

Low: Dukewins at least nine games for the second year in a row, which hasn't been done since David Cutcliffe led the Blue Devils to 10 wins in 2013 and nine wins in 2014. Not to put undue pressure on Mike Elko, but Duke returns the core of the team that won five of its last six games a year ago. Elko is the real deal, and he has quickly built a culture that's reminiscent of the one Cutcliffe built when he had it going in Durham.

Hale: The last time the Pac-12 made the College Football Playoff, this year's incoming freshman class was in sixth grade and the world was mourning the loss of beloved gorilla Harambe. In other words, it's been a while since the league had something to be excited about. But 2023 will not only mark the end of the Pac-12's playoff drought, but the West Coast will be the Best Coast for college football this season. USC, Oregon, Utah and Washington all return star QBs who can make a run at the Heisman. Oregon State is coming off a 10-win season. Arizona was already arguably the country's most fun team to watch, and in 2023, the Wildcats might actually be good, too. Arizona Stateis starting fresh with QB guru Kenny Dillingham, Cam Ward figures to take a big step forward in his second year at Washington State, UCLA is coming off its best season in nearly a decade and, oh yeah, a guy by the name of Coach Prime begins his tenure at Colorado. Better stock up on coffee and Red Bull. Pac-12 after dark is going to be required viewing.

Dinich: Texas wins the Big 12. When the Longhorns go 13-12 in the past two seasons and haven't won a conference title since 2009, you better believe this is a "wild prediction." With a new-look Big 12 that now includes Houston, UCF, BYU and Cincinnati, though, it's going to be one of the most interesting conference races this fall. Texas lost five games last year by seven points or less. Four starting offensive linemen return, along with the top three receivers and starting quarterback Quinn Ewers. The Longhorns have a golden opportunity to impress the selection committee on Sept. 9 at Alabama. Otherwise, this is a winnable schedule -- if, of course, Texas is ready to take the next step under Steve Sarkisian.

Connelly: Louisvillewins the ACC! OK, it'll probably be FSU or Clemson (and "FSU lives up to increasingly lofty hype" is another prediction that I seriously considered), but you asked for a WILD prediction! In their first division-free ACC schedule, the Cardinals avoided both Florida State and Clemson, and their toughest conference road game is probably either NC State or Miami. If Jeff Brohm enjoys any of the first-year effects that he saw at Purdue, when he immediately bumped the Boilermakers from 3-9 to 7-6, he could have a surprisingly awesome first season.

Early playoff picks

Baumgartner: Georgia, Alabama, Michigan, USC

Scarborough: Georgia, Ohio State, USC, Alabama

Hale: Alabama, Ohio State, USC, Oregon

Low: Georgia, Alabama, Michigan, USC

VanHaaren: Georgia, USC, Alabama, Michigan

Dinich: Georgia, Alabama, USC, Michigan

Rittenberg: Georgia, Ohio State, Alabama, Washington

Connelly: Georgia, Michigan, Oregon, Ohio State