Here are my top five:
1. Ohio State
The Buckeyes didn’t even win the Big Ten last season, largely because they struggled on defense. Wide receivers Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson were first-round NFL draft picks. A Big Ten team hasn’t finished No. 1 since Ohio State in 2014. The 2020 Buckeyes were the last Big Ten team to play in the CFP Championship Game, and Bama blew them away. These are all valid reasons to doubt the Buckeyes can break through.
I like their chances because they have a lot of good players coming back from last season’s Rose Bowl champion team. Ohio State is the highest-ranked team in ESPN analyst Bill Connelly’s weighted return production formula. Quarterback CJ Stroud has been fantastic in his first season as a starter. The Buckeyes also added one of the best transfers in the country, former Oklahoma State defensive back Tanner McCallister. Coach Ryan Day’s team is ready for another national championship.
Obviously Nick Saban’s beef with NIL and the liberalized transfer rules is driven by his rational self-interest in not having other teams steal talent from him. It’s just as obvious that Saban doesn’t have to worry about that. The Crimson Tide landed three of the 247Sports Top 10 transfers without losing any. Cornerback Eli Ricks (LSU), running back Jahmyr Gibbs (Georgia Tech) and wide receiver Jermaine Burton (Georgia) are good players who will fill Bama’s immediate needs.
Bryce Young, the 2021 Heisman Trophy winner, is back. He is expected to be the first QB selected in the 2023 draft (watch out, Falcons fans). Ricks, Gibbs, linebacker Will Anderson and defensive back Malachi Moore could also be 2013 first-round picks. Alabama has a sweatless non-conference game in Texas and gets Texas A&M at home. The Tide made the CFP in seven of the eight seasons. This season will be eight out of nine.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart finally beat his old boss, and he did it in the biggest game of the season. Now Smart will have to replicate Saban’s talent to replace the wave of NFL talent heading for the door. Five ex-Bulldogs were selected in the first round of the draft, all defensive players, and 15 Georgia players were selected overall. Smart didn’t have that kind of attrition in the NFL after his first five seasons. We will now see if his recruitment is at the level of Saban in the long term.
I still assume Smart will field an elite defense. I was never proven wrong, so I will stick with that idea even though so many good defenders are gone. I think Stetson Bennett is a very good quarterback. That seems to put me at odds with many Bulldogs fans, even after Bennett won a national championship. I just doubt Bennett can make it in consecutive years without an elite wide receiver and with the Georgia defense due to a bit of regression.
The country’s worst-performing program got a big boost when Coach Lincoln Riley decided to leave Oklahoma for Los Angeles. Normally it would be a rebuilding job, but Riley has added 16 players from the transfer portal. There are two offensive stars among them. Quarterback Caleb Williams was a top rookie who played for Riley at Oklahoma, and wide receiver Jordan Addison was an All-American for Pitt in 2021.
The Trojans have the kind of talent on offense that can overcome what seems like a lackluster defense. That’s how Riley won in Oklahoma. USC faces a tough game at Utah in October, but the schedule doesn’t include Oregon. The top non-conference opponent, Notre Dame, travels to Los Angeles in November. USC is poised to go 4-8 in CFP contenders.
5. NC status
OK, I couldn’t help it. I had to put an underdog in my top 5. The Wolfpacks are a good choice. They have a lot of production coming back from last season’s 9-3 team. NC State’s toughest game is at Clemson on Oct. 1. This Wolfpack team is better than the one that lost in overtime to No. 3 Clemson in 2016.
NC State quarterback Devin Leary returns after being fantastic in 2021, his first season as a full-time starter. The Wolfpack are to replace left tackle Ikem Ekwonu, who was the sixth pick in the NFL Draft. Otherwise, NC State has everything it needs to knock Clemson off and make a bid for CFP.