2023 CFB preview: An early look at the biggest games, players and storylines

ByESPN Staff ESPN logo
Wednesday, May 31, 2023

We're less than 100 days away from the start of the 2023 college football season, and the full September schedule is being released. So we're gearing up for what the first month of the campaign will have to offer.

Our reporters break down must-see games for September, identify newcomers to watch and address questions that are still lingering. Plus, Adam Rittenberg lists coaches who are already on the hot seat, and Heather Dinich breaks down how September will impact the College Football Playoff picture.

Jump to: September's must-see games | Playoff|Under pressure

Newcomers | Unanswered questions|Teams in new places

Most intriguing September games

LSU vs. Florida State (7:30 p.m. ET, Sept. 3 on ABC/ESPN App). The 2022 season opener between these two teams delivered a wild, heart-stopping, back-and-forth game that ended up being one of the most memorable of the campaign. But the stakes for both teams are vastly different headed into their season opener this year, this time in Orlando. Florida Stateused the win over LSUlast year to help propel the program to its first 10-win season since 2016, and with the vast majority of its team returning, the expectation is for the Seminoles to be big-time contenders this year. Meanwhile, LSU also goes into this season with huge expectations in Year 2 under Brian Kelly, coming off an unexpected 10 wins of its own. There is already talk this game could have College Football Playoff implications. At the very least, we will get a sense of whether these teams are for real in 2023. Get your popcorn ready. -- Andrea Adelson

Texas at Alabama (7 p.m. ET, Sept. 9 on ESPN/ESPN App). The dynamics for both teams entering this year's matchup in Tuscaloosa are fascinating. Alabamaneeds to catch Georgiaand reclaim its spot atop the college football kingdom, while sorting out a quarterback situation that added a layer with Tyler Buchner's transfer from Notre Dame. Texas enters its final year in the Big 12 without a CFP appearance and no conference titles since 2009. Coach Steve Sarkisian needs to deliver the results that match his playcalling and recruiting prowess. Texas largely outplayed Alabama last year before Crimson Tide quarterback Bryce Young saved the day. A road win for the Longhorns would put them squarely on the CFP radar and create more angst around Nick Saban and Alabama. A convincing Alabama win would propel the team into SEC play, where the home schedule (Ole Miss, Arkansas, Tennessee, LSU) favors the Tide. -- Adam Rittenberg

Ohio State at Notre Dame(Sept. 23, time and network TBD): A season-opening victory over Notre Damein Columbus helped bolsterOhio State's résumé last year -- despite a second straight defeat toMichigan-- on its way to reaching the College Football Playoff. By the time Ohio State touches down at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana, for the first time since 1996, whoever wins the QB competition betweenKyle McCord andDevin Brownto succeedC.J. Stroudwill have had a road trip to theIndiana Hoosiersunder their belt. But Marcus Freeman's team will offer a stiffer test, especially withWake Forestimport Sam Hartman under center. -- Blake Baumgartner

Tennessee at Florida (Sept. 16, time and network TBD): Tennesseewon for only the second time in the schools' past 18 meetings a season ago, fueling the Vols to their first 11-win campaign since 2001. Josh Heupel was able to break through in only his second year as Tennessee's coach. The venue shifts to the Swamp on Sept. 16. Billy Napier, entering his second year as Florida's coach, gets a chance in front of the home folks to show he has the Gators heading in the right direction after their 6-7 finish in 2022. The obvious question: If Heupel could do it in two years (especially in the shadow of an NCAA investigation), why can't Napier? Each team will have a new starting quarterback. And the Gators will be facing their second preseason top-15 team in the first three weeks of the season; they open at Utah on Aug. 31. -- Chris Low

Pitt at West Virginia (Sept. 16, time and network TBD). This isn't going to be the most talented matchup you'll see in September, but it will be the most hate-filled. The Backyard Brawl ended an 11-year hiatus last season at Acrisure Stadium in Pittsburgh, with the Panthers coming out on top 38-31. While the revival last year was great for the teams and for college football, many in the rivalry would tell you it is different when it's played in Morgantown, with stories of Mountaineers fans throwing anything they can find at the Pitt bus as it rolls up to the stadium. Pitt hasn't won in Morgantown since 2007, when it spoiled the Mountaineers' BCS title hopes with a 13-9 decision. The energy of the feud didn't go away despite the long pause, and it will be nothing less than at its peak in Morgantown. -- Harry Lyles Jr.

South Carolina at Georgia (Sept. 16, 3:30 p.m., CBS): All due respect to UT Martin and Ball State, but this will be Georgia's first real test of the 2023 season. The Bulldogs, fresh off back-to-back national championships, have some questions to answer. Chief among them: Who will start at quarterback now that Stetson Bennett is gone? Will it be Carson Beck or Brock Vandagriff? Neither has much experience. And what about the defense now that Jalen Carter, Chris Smith and Kelee Ringo have left?This team has recruited at an elite level since Kirby Smart arrived in 2015, but don't lose sight of those 25 NFL draft picks over the past two seasons. That's a lot of talent to replace. Meanwhile, South Carolinahas Spencer Rattler back at quarterback and is riding a wave of momentum after beating top-10 teams Tennessee andClemsonto close out the 2022 regular season and losing a close game to Notre Dame in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl. -- Alex Scarborough

USCatColorado(Sept. 30, time and network TBD): For the past several seasons, this matchup has had no real consequence or fanfare. This year, that changes with the arrival of Deion Sanders in Boulder. If we're being honest, every Colorado game will have some level of noteworthiness or excitement surrounding it. But this one in particular sticks out due to the parallel nature of the teams. Lincoln Riley was the newcomer last season, and he proceeded to take USC from a 4-8 squad to a team that was one win away from the College Football Playoff. That kind of leap isn't expected of Sanders, but with the hype still very much present around him, the matchup with Riley will be an attention grabber, nonetheless. Plus, this will be an entertaining duel that we might get only once given USC is headed to the Big Ten after this season. --Paolo Uggetti

What we'll learn about the playoff in September

Hey Texas, are you back?! No really ... for real this time?

A win at Alabamaon Sept. 9 will help answer that, and it would legitimize Texas as an early College Football Playoff contender. According to the Allstate Playoff Predictor, Texas at Alabama will have the biggest impact on the playoff race of any of the September nonconference games, and it's one of the eight most impactful games of the regular season.

It's certainly possible for Alabama and Texas to finish in the top four together -- especially if they win their respective leagues -- but if they are competing for a top-four spot with similar records, the selection committee could use the head-to-head result as one of the tiebreakers.

Texas could ultimately have a win over the SEC champion -- and not win the Big 12. That's a scenario that could mirror what happened toOhio Statethis past season, which might not have finished in the top four last fall without its season-opening win againstNotre Dame.

But in a four-team CFP, it is more complicated than just winning; that win needs to continue to resonate. For Ohio Statelast season, the Fighting Irish finished as a top-25 team, bolstering the Buckeyes' final résumé and helping Ohio State compensate for not winning the Big Ten East. The same scenario could unfold this year, with Ohio State at Notre Dameon Sept. 23. The winner of that game will earn instant credibility among CFP committee members, while the loser will be under tremendous pressure for the rest of the season.

Bottom line: For September games to continue to matter, both teams have to stay relevant. That wasn't the case for Florida Statelast year, which eked out a one-point win over eventual SEC West champion LSUbut couldn't do anything with it because the Seminoles lost three straight to Wake Forest, NC Stateand Clemson. Expectations are higher in Tallahassee, and a convincing win in Week 1 against an even better LSU team would validate that.

September also can have a negative impact on contenders' playoff hopes. Once again, Michiganhas a weak nonconference lineup, starting September against East Carolina,UNLVand Bowling Green-- teams that each finished with at least five losses last season. It would only be a factor if Michigan doesn't win the Big Ten again. If the Wolverines lose to either Ohio State or Penn State, they'd likely have only one statement win -- and no conference title -- for the committee to consider.

-- Heather Dinich

Coaches who need to get off to a hot start

The 2023 college coaching hot seat doesn't have the same sense of inevitable doom as last season's.

Unlike in 2022, when four coaches -- Nebraska's Scott Frost, Arizona State's Herm Edwards, Georgia Tech's Geoff Collins and Auburn's Bryan Harsin -- began the season with little to no chance of making it through, those currently feeling the heat still have a chance to change course. West Virginia's Neal Brown, who survived a tumultuous season while the athletic director who hired him (Shane Lyons) did not, might be the only major conference coach who needs a quick start to avoid the increasingly popular early-to-midseason dismissal. The Mountaineers will face Penn State, Pitt, Texas Techand TCU--all in September -- in a stiff challenge for Brown, who enters his fifth season at 22-25.

Other than Brown, few notable coaches are squarely on the hot seat. Syracuse's Dino Babers likely needs a solid September after a poor finish to the 2022 season. Justin Wilcox can't fall further behind in an improving Pac-12, although Cal's financial and administrative challenges could save him. Jimbo Fisher's situation will be hotly debated if Texas A&Mstumbles early, but his bloated contract makes a dismissal expensive, if not impossible. Coach-friendly contracts also favor Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald, Indiana's Tom Allen and others who have endured recent struggles. Still, they could benefit from strong starts, as could Missouri's Eliah Drinkwitz and a host of Group of 5 coaches, including Memphis' Ryan Silverfield and Arkansas State's Butch Jones.

The upcoming coaching cycle could be on the lighter side, possibly a residual effect of the historic 2021 carousel and last year's, which featured 24 total changes and surprise moves at Wisconsin, Stanfordand Louisville. But the carousel only needs an A-list job or two to open, either through firing, retirement or NFL exit, for things to become wild again.

What could those jobs be? Texas A&M certainly will be watched. Floridacoach Billy Napier deserves more time to implement a layered plan, but what if the team endures a losing season? Jim Harbaugh's NFL discussions have become an annual annoyance for Michigan, but what if a pro squad gives him the opportunity he seems to covet? Harbaugh's teams have become more than an annoyance for Ohio State coach Ryan Day, who tries to avoid a third loss to the Wolverines. The job pressure around Day is fan-created, but continued struggles against Michigan could nudge one of the nation's top quarterback coaches closer to the NFL.

Several prominent coaches will be on the annual retirement radar, with none more significant than Alabama's Nick Saban, who turns 72 on Halloween. Others being watched include North Carolina's Mack Brown (turns 72 on Aug. 27), Iowa's Kirk Ferentz (turns 68 on Aug. 1) and Utah's Kyle Whittingham (turns 64 on Nov. 21).

Calling for a coaching cycle to be light or dull essentially guarantees chaos, but don't expect the run of early firings like in 2022. When November rolls around, though, all bets are off.

-- Rittenberg

Newcomers we're most excited to see

ClemsonDL Peter Woods. Much has been made of Woods' exceptional play as an early enrollee this spring, which has everybody in the Clemson fan base excited to see what happens when the season opens. Clemson spent nearly all of last season banged up along its defensive line, but with veterans Xavier Thomas, Tyler Davis and Ruke Orhorhoro returning, integrating Woods into the lineup should be seamless. During the spring game broadcast, coach Dabo Swinney described him as "like a Halley's comet. Every now and then you get a guy that physically and mentally and maturity and all the intangibles, he's just ready." -- Adelson

A new-look Colorado. There are two surefire ways to create excitement: Do something no one has ever seen before, or turn into a complete train wreck. It's entirely possible Deion Sanders will do both at Coloradothis season, and there's no storyline more intriguing in all of college sports. Coach Prime has completely turned over his roster. He installed his son, Shedeur Sanders, at quarterback. He backed up an 18-wheeler to the entrance to the transfer portal and announced, "All aboard!" He has landed some extremely interesting prospects like Travis Hunter, Jimmy Horn Jr. and Tar'Varish Dawson Jr., but how much chemistry can a team have when 80% of the roster is brand new? Is Sanders writing a new script for how to win or just scripting college football's most chaotic reality show? Honestly, there's no outcome that seems entirely out of the question. -- David Hale

New faces for Alabama:Not that Alabama has ever lacked for talent under Nick Saban, but there will be three new faces this fall who Tide fans will want to keep their eyes on. Let's start on offense with massive true freshman Kadyn Proctor. At 6-foot-7, 354 pounds, he will be hard to miss (literally) and was impressive enough in the spring that he could be Alabama's starting left tackle by the opener, or at the very least, a few games into the season. Junior college receiver Malik Bensonwill provide an immediate boost to the receiving corps with his explosive playmaking ability, and freshman safety Caleb Downs might have been the best of the bunch in the spring. Alabama needed some help in the secondary, and Downs looks game-ready. Even Saban had trouble finding flaws in Downs' game. -- Low

Freshman RBs for the Tide:To piggyback off Low here, keep an eye on Alabama's two freshman running backs: Richard Young and Justice Haynes. They were ESPN's No. 1- and No. 2-ranked backs in the 2023 class, respectively. We've already gotten a sneak peak at Haynes, who enrolled early and scored three touchdowns during Alabama's spring game in April. He has the power and speed to be a top back in the SEC. Paired with Young, Alabama could have a special backfield for the next three-plus years. And they should get plenty of opportunities as the Tide look to make more of a commitment to the running game under new offensive coordinator Tommy Rees. -- Scarborough

UCLA QB Dante Moore.Five-star quarterback Moore's decision to flip from Oregon to UCLA in the days before the December signing period was one of the biggest takeaways and a boon for Chip Kelly in the post-Dorian Thompson-Robinson era. Kelly did secure former Kent State QB Collin Schlee through the portal to join sophomore Ethan Garbers in the QB room. But convincing Moore, who threw for 2,392 yards and 32 TDs as a senior for Martin Luther King High School (Michigan), to make the move from Detroit to Pasadena could be the perfect way for the Bruins to keep the offensive momentum going after finishing third in the Pac-12 in total offense (503.5 YPG) last season. -- Baumgartner

OklahomaSPeyton Bowen: Bowen's recruitment became one of the wilder stories heading into the December signing period. The five-star safety from Texas (ESPN's No. 17 overall prospect) initially committed to Notre Dame for a year before flipping to Oregon and then Oklahoma during a furious 24 hours. He joins quarterback Jackson Arnold, his high school teammate and ESPN's No. 3 overall prospect, in Norman. Bowen and five-star defensive end Adepoju Adebawore are the types of defensive recruits Oklahoma hired coach Brent Venables to sign, especially with the SEC transition on the horizon in 2024. They should see the field this fall, and their performances could open eyes of similar defensive prospects toward OU and the chance to play for Venables. Bowen is Oklahoma's highest-rated defensive recruit since ESPN launched its rankings. -- Rittenberg

TheUiagaleleisin Oregon. TheUiagalelei family has made Oregon its home. Between DJ's transfer to Oregon State and his brother, five-star freshman defensive end Matayo, committing to Oregon, the two will be spotlighted plenty come the start of the season in the Pacific Northwest. Matayo, in particular, will be a fun one to watch in Dan Lanning's defense. While it remains unclear how big of a role the freshman will have in next year's team, there's an expectation he'll get plenty of snaps due to his athleticism and size already at such a young age. --Uggetti

Unanswered questions for September

Alabama's QB situation.The default opinion on Alabama's QB situation is that, "Hey, it's Alabama. It'll get figured out." Indeed, Nick Saban has won a lot of games even when he hasn't had a future first-rounder at QB, and in the seven previous instances in which Saban lacked a clear-cut incumbent at Alabama, the eventual starters in those seasons completed 67% of their throws, accounted for 192 touchdowns and just 53 turnovers and posted a combined 79-4 record, with the Tide winning four national championships. And yet ... when Tommy Rees is recruiting the guy who just lost Notre Dame's QB battle to come to Alabama, it has the feel of a red flag. Every dynasty comes to an end eventually. You'd be a fool to assume Alabama's best days are behind it just because of a little QB controversy now, but it's just as hard to feel like the Tide have a good answer at the most important position on the field, too. -- Hale

Can Payton Thorne succeed in the SEC?Thorne, if he's healthy, will provide Hugh Freeze and Auburn an experienced signal-caller to try to navigate the SEC. Thorne's 3,233 passing yards and 27 touchdowns in Michigan State's 11-win season in 2021 proved he's capable of playing at a high level. The Tigers' first three conference games -- at Texas A&M, Georgia and at LSU -- will see Auburn thrown into the fire early. A two-year starter in Thorne may give Freeze the best chance to improve an offensive attack that finished 10th in total yards (378.5 YPG) and last in passing yards (172.7 YPG) in the SEC last year. -- Baumgartner

How will Garrett Riley impact Cade Klubnik's play?Give Dabo Swinney credit. He hasn't been one to make many changes on his staff at Clemson, but he saw a chance to go out and get one of the brightest offensive minds in the game in Garrett Riley and brought him in to run a Clemson offense that had finished outside the top five nationally in scoring offense for two straight seasons. The passing game had really suffered, and Clemson fans are anxious to see what the offense looks like with Riley and sophomore quarterback Cade Klubnik stepping into their new roles together. Klubnik spent most of last season as the backup to DJ Uiagalelei (who's since transferred to Oregon State) before coming off the bench to replace him in the ACC championship game and then starting in the Orange Bowl loss to Tennessee. Riley has been outstanding at molding his offenses around his quarterback. Max Duggan is a great example at TCU. We'll see if he can have that same success with Klubnik at Clemson. -- Low

What exactly is going on at Texas A&M? Last season was an abject failure, as the Aggies finished 5-7 and sixth in the SEC West. But then some two dozen players started making their way to the transfer portal. And then Jimbo Fisher hired one of the most polarizing coaches in college football in Bobby Petrino to be his offensive coordinator. Given Fisher's hesitancy to give up playcalling, that could turn into a combustible situation if things go sideways. The early part of the schedule seems manageable (September will feature New Mexico, Miami, Louisiana Monroe, Auburn and Arkansas), but remember this is a team that lost to Appalachian State last year. A rocky start could place Fisher and his $95 million contract squarely on the hot seat. -- Scarborough

UCLA's quarterback battle? Situation? Whatever you (or Chip Kelly) wants to call it, I'm fascinated by the rise of Dante Moore and whether Kelly pulls the trigger and starts the five-star freshman from the get-go instead of going for the more conservative route such as Ethan Garbers or Kent State transfer Collin Schlee. As Blake outlined above, Moore is a star in the making, and his statistics and accolades make him as much of a foolproof prospect as you can have in the sport. In spring camp this year, Moore impressed as well, turning what could have been a development year sitting on the bench into a real chance to start come the fall. Whether Kelly opts for Moore to be the replacement for the departing Dorian Thompson-Robinson in Week 1 remains to be seen. But one thing is for sure: If Moore starts on the bench, he won't be there for long. -- Uggetti

Teams in new places

Three FBS conferences will have a new look this season. A snapshot of who's coming and going in the American, Big 12 and Conference USA in 2023:


Additions: Charlotte, FAU, North Texas, Rice, UAB, UTSA

Losses: Cincinnati, Houston, UCF

Big 12

Additions: BYU, Cincinnati, Houston, UCF

Conference USA

Additions: Jacksonville State (FCS), Liberty, New Mexico State, Sam Houston (FCS)

Losses: Charlotte, FAU, North Texas, Rice, UAB, UTSA

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