Friedlander: ACC's most likely College Football Playoff contenders in 2023
The page has turned to the start of a new year. But before we begin looking ahead to 2023, there’s still a bit of unfinished business to resolve.
The final college football game of the 2022 season will take place Saturday when reigning national champion Georgia will take on upstart TCU at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif. It will mark the 3rd straight year in which the ACC has been shut out of the title game.
Which teams stand the best chance of ending that drought next season?
Here’s a look at the ACC’s most likely College Football Playoff contenders, including at least 1 that might surprise you:
The Tigers might have missed out on the playoffs during the past 2 seasons, but they remain a brand-name program. As such, they’ll almost certainly start the season ranked among the top 10, which will position them to have the best shot at getting into the playoffs.
All they’ll have to do is take care of business.
That’s easier to say than do. We learned that this season.
The good news is that 2 of their 3 toughest tests, Notre Dame and Florida State, will be at home. And other than the Irish and rival South Carolina, their other nonconference games will be against Charleston Southern and Florida Atlantic.
There are plenty of questions to be answered, though. They start quarterback Cade Klubnik, who showed he still has a lot to learn during Clemson’s Orange Bowl loss to Tennessee. He’ll lead an offense whose receiving corps could use a major upgrade and will have to replace All-American guard Jordan McFadden and star tight end Davis Allen, along with reliable kicker BT Potter.
The reloading process on defense will be even more extensive. Star end Myles Murphy and tackle Bryan Bresee have declared for the NFL draft. So has linebacker Trenton Simpson. Two other key linemen, KJ Henry and Tyler Davis, have yet to announce their intentions, leaving open the possibility of a total reboot up front.
There’s plenty of 5-star talent waiting in the wings to fill the vacancies. The question is whether it’s plug-and-play or if the replacements will need time to adjust.
The Seminoles have become a chic pick to make the jump into playoff contention in 2023. They created the buzz by winning their final 6 games, including victories against opponents from both the SEC (Florida in the regular-season finale) and Big 12 (Oklahoma in the Cheez-It Bowl).
The optimism is further fueled by the return of numerous key players from the ACC’s highest-scoring offense, including quarterback Travis Jordan – a potential Heisman Trophy candidate – and 990-yard rusher Trey Benson.
Although safety Jammie Robinson is leaving for the NFL draft, coach Mike Norvell has softened the blow considerably with the addition of All-ACC transfer Fentrell Cypress from league rival Virginia. And while star pass rusher Jared Verse has yet to announce his decision, FSU’s defense got some good news Sunday with the announcement that defensive Fabian Lovett plans to be back in Tallahassee next season.
For as much as the Seminoles have going for them heading into 2023, there are questions to answer. First and foremost is how they handle the pressure that comes along with being a frontrunner. And the schedule isn’t a cakewalk, starting with a neutral-site game against SEC West LSU, to go along with a trip to Clemson’s Death Valley.
The Tar Heels played themselves onto the periphery of the CFP conversation this season by winning 9 of their 1st 10 games, including 6 straight on the road, before falling back to Earth with a thud by losing their final 4.
They will have to make a dramatic improvement on a defense that statistically was the worst in the ACC and lost nearly half its starting lineup to the transfer portal. The departures, however, could turn out to be addition by subtraction. Coach Mack Brown also must significantly upgrade his offensive line and find a reliable kicker.
All that being said, UNC still has 1 big thing going in its favor. As long as it has Drake Maye pulling the trigger of its offense, it has a fighting chance of beating anyone on its schedule – even a schedule that includes games against South Carolina, Minnesota and Clemson.
I know it sounds far-fetched. But who in their right mind could have imagined TCU playing for the national championship back during September?
The Blue Devils are an extreme longshot, to be sure. But after winning 9 games in their 1st season under coach Mike Elko, with all 3 ACC losses coming by a combined total of 8 points, they weren’t that far from being in contention this season.
And virtually every player who contributed to the 2022 success will be back. The list of upperclassmen who have elected to stay for an extra year includes All-ACC defensive tackle DeWayne Carter, fellow defensive lineman Ja’Mion Franklin and center Jacob Monk.
Combine them with a young core group led by quarterback Riley Leonard, top receiver Jordan Moore, 3 talented running backs and All-ACC left tackle Graham Barton and it’s understandable why ESPN analyst – and former Florida State quarterback EJ Manuel – has declared that Duke is “a legit contender for the ACC championship next year.”