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Back to school, back to college football. If you’re in search of the top headlines you should know heading into the new college football season, we’re here to help. In our annual report, our ace correspondent (and my big brother) Vincent Thomas is sharing a preview of what you need to know about NCAA college football 2023, including compelling storylines, fun facts and potential breakout stars. It’s tailgate time!

NCAA college football 2023 preview

The last season of NCAA college football as we have come to know it is underway. Although there were seven “Zero Week” games played on Saturday, August 26, NCAA teams will play a full slate of “Week One” games between the evening of Thursday, August 31 and Labor Day evening on Monday, September 4.

Preview of what you need to know NCAA college football 2023.

Preview of what you need to know NCAA college football 2023.

We here at Dandelion Chandelier would not, of course, leave you unprepared to discuss the end of an era in one of our country’s most popular sports. You will be ready for the inevitable Labor Day weekend conversations about the new college football season if you remember at least one of these talking points:

1. Follow the Money II – The Sequel

One year ago, I wrote that “this summer’s most major events in the college football world gave fans ample reasons to follow the money to make sense of what they were hearing.”

big moves in the Big Ten and Pac-12

That was in response to what, in June of 2022, was shocking news: two members of the Pac-12 Conference, the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) and the University of Southern California (USC), announcing that they had decided to leave the Pac-12 and join the Big Ten Conference at the start of the 2024-2025 academic year as the Big Ten’s 15th and 16th members.

new broadcast deals for the new Big Ten

The Big Ten subsequently announced that it had reached an agreement with Fox, CBS, and NBC in which the three networks would pay the Big Ten $7 billion over the seven years between 2023 and 2030 for the media rights to all the Big Ten’s television sports broadcasts. ESPN reported that the Big Ten would eventually distribute $80 million to $100 million in media rights revenue per year to each of its sixteen members during the seven years of its agreement.

followed by additional big moves in the Pac-12, Big Ten and Big 12

When they realized how much more money UCLA and USC would earn as members of the Big Ten, three of the remaining Pac-12 institutions decided that they could do better, too.

This summer, in an even more shocking series of events, the University of Colorado announced on July 27 that it would leave the Pac-12 Conference and join the Big 12 Conference at the start of the 2024-2025 academic year.

Eight days later, the University of Oregon and the University of Washington announced that they would leave the Pac-12 and join the Big Ten at the start of the 2024-2025 academic year as the Big Ten’s 17th and 18th members.

Preview of what you need to know NCAA college football 2023.

Preview of what you need to know NCAA college football 2023.

2. all NCAA sports, not just football, are affected by these changes

These decisions – especially those made by UCLA, USC, Oregon, Washington, and the Big Ten – are disruptive not just to football, but to practically all NCAA sports.

a blow to traditional rivalry games

NCAA football relies on tradition for part of its appeal more than any other major American sport. Harvard v. Yale. Army v. Navy. Michigan v. Ohio State. The Big Ten Champion v. The Pac-12 Champion in the Rose Bowl at 4PM Eastern Time every New Year’s Day. Oregon, Washington, UCLA, and USC are blowing up a conference and traditional rivalry games that have existed for almost a century.

Even if the Apple Cup (Washington v. Washington State University) and the Civil War (Oregon v. Oregon State University) are somehow preserved as annual non-conference rivalry games, the Big Ten’s expansion to eighteen teams will result in traditional opponents facing each other much less often, and away games farther away from campus.

far more travel for student athletes (and fans)

For example, as I write this post, a critical mass of University of Nebraska football fans is arriving here in Minneapolis via Interstate 35 to attend Nebraska’s season-opening game with The University of Minnesota tonight. How many of them will “road trip” to Eugene, Oregon next year?

Yes, Michigan will continue to play Ohio State every year. Michigan unlikely won’t, however, play the University of Minnesota twice every six years as it does under the current Big Ten football scheduling cycle.

Michigan v. Minnesota is one of the oldest (first game in 1892) and most often played (104 games) rivalries in college football. Starting in 1909, the two teams competed for a trophy, the Little Brown Jug, in the belief that awarding the trophy to the winning team each year would “build up a fine tradition between the two institutions.” It worked. They played each other every year from 1920 through 2015.

I can tell you, from painful lived experience, that Minnesota proudly displays “the Jug” in its exhibit at the Minnesota State Fair in the years in which it prevails. If you’re an NFL fan who only watches NCAA football on TV, and only if the game features two top-five teams and you’re bored on a Saturday afternoon, you probably don’t care how often Michigan plays Minnesota.

If you’re a Michigan graduate who lives in Minneapolis, or even just a long-time fan of one of those two teams, you care greatly.

Preview of what you need to know NCAA college football 2023.

Preview of what you need to know NCAA college football 2023.

Big Ten moves are for all sports, not just football

This isn’t just about football. Oregon, Washington, UCLA, and USC are joining the Big Ten for all sports. One of the most poignant responses to Oregon and Washington’s announcement that I saw was a tweet from a young woman on Oregon’s softball team who wrote: “I chose to play at Oregon because I wanted my parents to be able to come to my games.”

After this year’s season, she’ll compete in conference away games in College Park, Maryland and Evanston, Illinois instead of Corvallis, Oregon and Berkeley, California. If her family lives in Oregon, that’s the difference between a drive in the family car and a flight to Baltimore or Chicago for her parents.

all student athletes and fans will feel the impact in terms of travel – a blow to “non-revenue” sports

NCAA football teams fly charter to play one game per week that is usually scheduled on a Saturday. Teams in every other sport, with the occasional exception of men’s basketball, fly on the same flights as the rest of us if they fly at all. They often compete over an entire weekend, and often have midweek games, too.

Eventually, Washington’s baseball team will be the visiting team in a traditional three-game weekend conference series against Pennsylvania State University’s baseball team. How many flights between Seattle and State College, Pennsylvania do you think any of the major airlines have on their schedules? Students at the soon to be 18 Big Ten institutions who compete in what are sometimes called “non-revenue” sports like baseball, softball, soccer, and gymnastics, and their coaches and staffs, will be asked to navigate a conference schedule and travel logistics that are significantly more difficult for no reason other than increased revenue from televised football games.

3. 2023 will be the last NCAA football season as we have come to know it

While there is disagreement among NCAA football fans and journalists on the merits of these decisions, there is agreement among them that the 2023 season will be the final season of NCAA football as we have come to know it.

college football playoffs expand from four teams to twelve next year

In addition to the conference realignment, the NCAA decided to expand the number of teams that qualify for the College Football Playoff from four to twelve in 2024. These changes follow the recent advent of the transfer portal and NCAA players’ ability to earn income from their name, image, and likeness. Taken together, these changes will result in a 2024 NCAA football season that looks and feels a lot more like today’s National Football League (NFL) than yesterday’s NCAA.

Preview of what you need to know NCAA college football 2023.

4. Will Caleb Williams Win the Heisman Trophy Again?

College football’s most prestigious award is given annually to “the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity.” The Ohio State University running back Archie Griffin is the only player ever to win the Heisman Trophy twice. Mr. Griffin won the award in consecutive seasons as a junior in 1974 and as a senior in 1975.

USC’s Williams might repeat his 2022 win as a junior

University of Southern California quarterback Caleb Williams won the 2022 Heisman Trophy as a sophomore. Can he win it again as a junior in 2023?

If this talking point sounds familiar, it is because 2023 is the second consecutive season in which the previous season’s Heisman Trophy winner is returning to college. Because the award is often won by either a graduating senior or NFL draft eligible junior who moves on to professional football in the following season, college football fans rarely get the opportunity to see a Heisman winner attempt to repeat his success. The 2021 winner, University of Alabama quarterback Bryce Young, had a very good junior year season in 2022, but finished sixth in the voting behind Mr. Williams.

here are the other names to watch in the Heisman competition

College football journalists have identified the following players as Mr. Williams’ most likely competitors for the 2023 Heisman Trophy:

  • Jayden Daniels, Quarterback, Louisiana State University
  • Bo Nix, Quarterback, Oregon
  • Drake Maye, Quarterback, University of North Carolina
  • J. McCarthy, Quarterback, Michigan
  • Blake Corum, Running Back, Michigan

and don’t sleep on Washington’s Michael Penix, Jr.

Regular readers of this annual blog post know that I always like to include the name of a “dark horse” potential Heisman Trophy winner for them to drop into a conversation. This year, I suggest Washington quarterback Michael Penix, Jr.

In the 2022 season, Mr. Penix had 4,641 passing yards, the highest total for any quarterback in one of the “Power Five” (Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, and Southeastern) conferences. Most of his teammates who caught all those passes are with him again this year, and Washington is expected to be one of the NCAA’s top fifteen teams. If Mr. Penix leads all Power Five quarterbacks in passing again in 2023 and his team earns a berth in the CFP, Heisman Trophy voters may view him as a worthy recipient.

5. “Coach Prime’s” first season as head coach for Colorado

The most significant 2023 season college football head coach transition occurred last December when Colorado hired Jackson State University head coach Deion Sanders to succeed Karl Dorrell, who was terminated during a 2022 season in which Colorado won one game and lost eleven. Coach Sanders, who was famously known by the nickname “Prime Time” during his 14-year NFL career, immediately put both Colorado football and himself into the college football spotlight by leaving Jackson State University, a Historically Black University, for a Power Five head coach position.

a super bowl and world series player

Coach Sanders is the only athlete to ever play in both a Super Bowl and a World Series. In addition to earning election to the NFL Hall of Fame by starring as a cornerback, he played eleven seasons of Major League Baseball, posting a career batting average of .263 with 1,986 stolen bases.

Mr. Sanders’ personality is as big and visible as his athleticism and accomplishments. He gave himself the nickname “Prime Time” while he was still a college football player, and then proceeded to live up to it.

sanders brought star power to HBCU Jackson State

In his three seasons as the Jackson State head coach, he led his team to a conference championship and was named conference coach of the year in two consecutive seasons. More importantly, he brought unprecedented national attention to HBCU football, insisting that its unique traditions and culture and the talent of its players be recognized. In December of 2021, Coach Sanders shocked the college football world by recruiting defensive back Travis Jackson, one of the top five high school football players in the country, to attend Jackson State instead of Florida State University. In April of 2022, Jackson State became the first HBCU ever to have its spring football game televised by ESPN.

the face of college football this season? stay tuned . . .

If you’ve watched a Major League Baseball game on the Fox network recently, you have likely seen a computer-generated graphic of Coach Sanders, wearing a cowboy hat and sunglasses, riding Colorado’s mascot, a buffalo named Ralphie, directly at you in an advertisement for Fox’s national broadcast of Colorado’s first game under Coach Sanders on Saturday, September 2. I don’t remember this much media attention to a former NFL player becoming the new head coach for a college team since (wait for it) Michigan hired Jim Harbaugh in December of 2014.

6. Michigan’s coach Harbaugh is suspended for first three games

Speaking of which, Coach Harbaugh is also part of a major coaching storyline at the start of the 2023 season.

“impermissible contact” rule violations by Harbaugh and two assistants

In January, Michigan received a draft Notice of Allegations from the NCAA that accused Coach Harbaugh and two of his assistant coaches of violating NCAA recruiting rules by having “impermissible contact” with recruits during the “dead period” (coaches prohibited from contacting recruits) established during the COVID-19 pandemic. The NCAA classified the alleged recruiting violations as “Level II” in severity.

More importantly, the Notice also accused Coach Harbaugh of a more serious “Level I” violation for failure to cooperate with the NCAA’s investigation. After a spring and summer of public denials and private negotiations, Michigan and NCAA representatives agreed that Coach Harbaugh would be suspended for the first four games of the 2023 season, and the two assistant coaches would both be suspended for one game.

case is still pending with NCAA disciplinary committee

Earlier this month, the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions refused to accept the negotiated agreement. The Michigan case will now proceed through the NCAA’s disciplinary process. In response to the Committee on Infractions’ decision, Michigan Athletic Director Warde Manuel announced that Michigan would “self-impose” sanctions on Coach Harbaugh and one of the accused assistant coaches by suspending Coach Harbaugh for the first three games of the season and suspending the assistant coach for one of the first three games. Significantly, Mr. Manuel stated that the self-imposed sanction “is our way of addressing mistakes that our department has agreed to.”

will Harbaugh ultimately land in the NFL?

The plot in this story is thicker than it otherwise would be because Coach Harbaugh is a Michigan graduate and former star quarterback (he finished third in the 1986 Heisman Trophy voting.) Michigan is entering the 2023 season as a consensus top-five team with its greatest opportunity ever to win the CFP Championship. Coach Harbaugh was seriously considered for vacant NFL coaching positions after Michigan’s CFP appearances in 2021 (Minnesota Vikings) and 2022 (Denver Broncos.) More than one commentator has posed this question: if Michigan wins this season’s CFP Championship and the NCAA case is still pending, will Coach Harbaugh leave for an NFL job?

Preview of what you need to know NCAA college football 2023.

7. Who are the best teams at the start of the season?

One of my earliest Dandelion Chandelier NCAA football preview blog posts said nothing about the University of Georgia’s team after it had played in the CFP in the previous season. That omission earned me an animated, but admittedly fair, criticism from a Dandelion Chandelier reader that my sister faithfully reported to me during that year’s visit to celebrate Thanksgiving Day. There is no risk that I will omit Georgia from my post again this year.

University of Georgia, two-time defending national champ

Georgia is the two-time defending CFP Champion, having defeated Texas Christian University by the astonishing score of 65-7 in January’s championship game. Despite having ten players from its championship team drafted by NFL teams in April, Georgia received sixty first-place votes in the preseason Associated Press Coaches Poll earlier this month.

university of Michigan and Ohio state

Michigan, the team ranked second in the poll behind Georgia, received two first place votes. Ohio State, the team ranked third in the poll, received the only other first place vote. Moreover, Georgia welcomed the NCAA’s second-highest ranked 2023 high school recruiting class to campus earlier this month. You can’t go wrong in any conversation about the upcoming 2023 season if you predict that Georgia will “three peat” by winning its third consecutive CFP Championship.

other highly-ranked teams in the AP preseason poll

You will, however, get pushback from fans of the following teams who also have legitimate CFP Championship aspirations, and who are highly ranked in the preseason AP Poll:

  • The aforementioned Michigan Wolverines and Ohio State Buckeyes, and the Penn State Nittany Lions, from the Big Ten;
  • The Alabama Crimson Tide and the Louisiana State Tigers from the Southeastern Conference;
  • The University of Southern California Trojans from the Pacific-12;
  • The Florida State University Seminoles and The University of North Carolina Tar Heels of the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Don’t sleep on these two teams who start the season with relatively little fanfare, but with relatively significant talent: the Washington Huskies and The University of Texas Longhorns. If fans are yelling either “get your Dubs up” (Washington) or “Hook ‘Em Horns” (Texas) at the CFP Championship game next January, remember that you heard this prediction from Dandelion Chandelier first.

Conclusion: could be a season for the ages

In what will be the last season of NCAA football as a truly regional sport, it is fitting that practically every region of the country has at least one team that could plausibly earn one of the four CFP berths. The 2024 season will be quite different. We are unlikely to return to a time like the present again.

preview of what you need to know for the college football 2023 season

Let’s not just enjoy the 2023 season, let’s savor it.

Vincent Thomas is a community college academic dean, a former practicing attorney, and the older brother of Dandelion Chandelier founder Pamela Thomas-Graham. After earning a B.A. degree in English from the University of Michigan and a J.D. degree from the University of Wisconsin, he settled in a third Big Ten university city, Minneapolis, Minnesota, a place where both of his beloved alma maters are viewed as college football rivals.