Predicting the 20 biggest surprise teams of the 2023 college football season
Now that the first transfer portal window is closed (until May) and we have at least some idea of what teams are working with, it’s a bit easier to suss out which teams should play to script in 2023 and which have the potential to raise a few eyebrows.
Surprise teams come in all shapes and sizes. A 1-11 improvement to 5-7 is just as impressive as going from 7 wins to 11. Well, maybe not quite as impressive, but at least statistically even. And sometimes, that 5-7 team had no business even being 5-7. What’s more impressive: Jim Mora taking UConn from 1 win to 6 wins or USC going from 4 wins to 11 wins in Year 1 under Lincoln Riley. Given the talent shift out west — it isn’t often a team simply adds a Heisman winner through the transfer portal — you could argue that Mora had a much tougher task with that 5-game turnaround than Riley did in winning 7 more games than 2021.
Either way, both are impressive. Could we see some more quick fixes in 2023?
Here is who each of our columnists — Saturday Down South’s Connor O’Gara, Saturday Road’s Brett Friedlander, Saturday Tradition’s Alex Hickey and Saturday Out West’s Jon Gold — expect to surprise some folks during the 2023 college football season.
Is it fair to call Colorado a surprise team at this point? Are the Buffaloes really going to sneak up on anyone this year? Coach Prime has wielded a pretty loud microphone and gotten his fair share of attention. But I’m not sure fans nationally realize the depth of Colorado’s improvement in just a short time. Travis Hunter and Shedeur Sanders got much of the smoke, and they deserve it, but tight end Seydou Traore and wide Jimmy Horn Jr. should become instant offensive threats and the Buffaloes’ cupboard wasn’t completely bare, just mostly. Compared to the less-than-fiery Karl Dorrell, Deion Sanders must appear like a dragon or something other mythical. It’s such a radical change, there’s almost no comparison. It’s not as if Sanders has the longest track record. His act played in the SWAC where he brought the swag, but in the Pac-12, against teams like Oregon, USC and Utah, it’ll be interesting to see how far he can take the Buffs. — Jon Gold, Pac-12 columnist for Saturday Out West
2. Mississippi State
MSU somewhat quietly finished as a Top-25 team with a 9-win season. I say “quietly” because the death of Mike Leach understandably overshadowed the on-field success. But with Zach Arnett taking over, they should have one of the SEC’s better defenses after retaining some key contributors in the middle, most notably Jett Johnson. And offensively, it’ll be a bit of a facelift with Kevin Barbay coming in and implementing a pistol base offense, which will be a transition from the Air Raid. But MSU still brings back the ageless Will Rogers, who returns as one of the most prolific quarterbacks in America. Of course, a team with 1 winning record in SEC play in the 21st century isn’t usually tabbed as a “surprise” team, but MSU was a collapsed 4th quarter away from winning 10 games in 2022. — Connor O’Gara, SEC columnist for Saturday Down South
The Badgers were 7-6 in 2022, so it’s not like Luke Fickell has to tear the thing down to the studs in Year 1. Wisconsin has a lot of talent that didn’t quite reach its potential and is bringing in even more talent through the transfer portal, including SMU quarterback Tanner Mordecai. Combined with former Ole Miss and North Carolina offensive coordinator Phil Longo, Wisconsin’s offense will look like nothing we’ve ever seen in Madison. — Alex Hickey, Big Ten columnist for Saturday Tradition
I don’t know if you can call them a surprise because of what they did this year, but Duke is definitely not a fluke. They’ve got virtually everyone of consequence back and could legitimately challenge for a spot in the conference title game. The biggest hurdle is their schedule — which includes dates with Notre Dame, Clemson, FSU, UNC and NC State. — Brett Friedlander, ACC columnist for Saturday Road
Kentucky, on the other hand, took a step back in 2022. So what leads me to think they’ll be improved? The offense will be better. It has to be. Rich Scangarello didn’t work as a play-caller, so Mark Stoops brought back the guy who did, Liam Coen. It was Coen who led UK to its best offense in 14 years. Now, 2022 preseason ACC Player of the Year Devin Leary is under center. Dare I say, Leary might be a better fit to run that offense with a potentially subpar offensive line. He gets rid of the ball quicker than Will Levis, who played through multiple injuries that limited his mobility in a disappointing 2022 season. If you pair a decent Stoops defense with an improved Kentucky offense — which brought back its top 3 receivers while also adding 1,000-yard rusher Ray Davis from Vandy — the Cats can be frisky in 2023. — Connor O’Gara, SEC columnist for Saturday Down South
Pity the poor Terrapins, who are trapped behind 3 probable top-10 teams in the B1G East. But if Maryland can beat everyone else on its schedule, or at least work its way to 8-4, it should finish a season in the Top 25 for the first time since 2010. With Taulia Tagovailoa (3,008 passing yards, most among returning B1G QBs) back and a defense that showed major improvement in 2022, that outcome is possible. — Alex Hickey, Big Ten columnist for Saturday Tradition
Kansas went winless in 2020 and won just twice in 2021, so the Jayhawks became the darlings of college football after starting 5-0 last year with wins over Tennessee Tech, West Virginia, Houston, Duke and Iowa State. But they lost 6-of-7 to end the season, with the lone win a good one: 37-16 against Oklahoma State. The Kansas defense fell apart down the stretch, allowing at least 35 points in every other game during the slog. With Jalon Daniels back to lead the offense after throwing for 2,014 yards and 18 scores with 4 interceptions and rushing for 419 yards and 7 touchdowns, and some necessary improvements made by Lance Leipold on defens, the Jayhawks should go bowling once more. — Jon Gold, Pac-12 columnist for Saturday Out West
At this point a winning season qualifies as a surprise for the Cornhuskers. And Matt Rhule’s turnarounds at Temple and Baylor didn’t take until Year 2. So that’s the baseline Nebraska fans should be using for his first Huskers team. Typically, an immediate turnaround should be a hope, not an expectation. But this is also a better situation than at those stops. The Huskers didn’t lack talent; they were just coached by a ding-dong. Given the state of the Big Ten West, Nebraska is a valid dark horse and should challenge for their first winning conference record since 2016, when the ‘Skers went 6-3 in the B1G. — Alex Hickey, Big Ten columnist for Saturday Tradition
If the Wildcats, with 2 years under Jedd Fisch and 1 year with the impressive battery of quarterback Jayden de Laura and wideouts Jacob Cowing and Tetairoa McMillan, can get through Mississippi State in Starkville in Week 2, they should be 4-0 entering one hellacious stretch against Washington, USC, Washington State, Oregon State, UCLA, Colorado and Utah. It finally eases up in the season-finale against Arizona State, but the Sun Devils should also be much improved and the Territorial Cup is never easy sledding. And yet … I like what Fisch is doing in Tucson. He’s totally changed the trajectory of a moribund program and the Cats are highly motivated to return to the postseason for the first time since 2017. — Jon Gold, Pac-12 columnist for Saturday Out West
After a 2-win season in Ken Wilson’s 1st year at the helm almost any marked improvement would be a surprise, and given the losses up front, with both Grant Starck (Oregon State) and Aaron Frost (Arizona State) moving to Pac-12 teams, not much is expected out of Wilson in Year 2. But the Wolf Pack rebounded well, picking up some Pac-12 talent in former Oregon running back Sean Dollars and linebackers Jackson LaDuke and Adrian Jackson and former Cal running back Ashton Hayes, tight end Keleki Latu and linebacker Malcolm McClure. The biggest get, though, could be former Colorado starter Brendon Lewis, who was pretty brutal for the Buffs but has a decent arm. — Jon Gold, Pac-12 columnist for Saturday Out West
Imagine the Hawkeyes with, I don’t know, a top-60 offense. You can’t. Which is why the possibility of Iowa upgrading to average on that side of the ball next season qualifies as a potential surprise. With quarterback Cade McNamara transferring in from Michigan and a solid group of running backs, Iowa may just need improved play up front to become a respectable offensive team. — Alex Hickey, Big Ten columnist for Saturday Tradition
As for other teams that could surprise, I’ll start with Louisville because of the Brohm brothers’ arrival and the addition of Jack Plummer at QB. Plummer threw for 3,095 yards with 21 TDs against 9 INTs last season at Cal. Louisville hasn’t had a 3,000-yard passer since Lamar Jackson’s final season in 2017. Before arriving at Cal, Plummer spent 3 seasons with Jeff Brohm at Purdue. — Brett Friedlander, ACC columnist for Saturday Road
13. Texas Tech
A friend who covers the Big 12 likes the Red Raiders as a dark horse behind Texas, TCU and Kansas State because “they haven’t been completely decimated by the portal.” Texas Tech closed Joey McGuire’s first season on a 4-game winning streak to finish 8-5. That will surely create positive vibes this offseason. — Alex Hickey, Big Ten columnist for Saturday Tradition
14. Oregon State
The Beavers have quietly become a force to be reckoned with under former star quarterback Jonathan Smith, who has returned Oregon State to a glory it hasn’t seen since his heyday 20-plus years ago. Without dominating either the transfer portal or the high school recruiting ranks, the Beavers have nonetheless improved from a 2-win season in Smith’s first season to a 10-win season this year. That’s no small potatoes. And he basically did that this year with no quarterback play. If he can tap into the talent that lurks in DJ Uiagalelei and get the former Clemson quarterback to regain his confidence, the Beavers will be a threat for the conference title. — Jon Gold, Pac-12 columnist for Saturday Out West
15. East Carolina
Admittedly, ECU’s offense still hasn’t reached the highs it enjoyed when Lincoln Riley was calling plays and the Pirates were hanging 50 on ACC opponents in the mid 2010s, but they have been on a steady rise under Mike Houston and have done some serious work in the transfer portal. While they definitely will miss QB Holton Ahlers, they’ve been grooming Mason Garcia for 2 years. The Pirates are poised to take advantage of the fact that 3 American big hitters (Cincinnati, UCF and Houston) bolted to the Big 12. — Brett Friedlander, ACC columnist for Saturday Road
South Carolina would be a candidate, but I don’t think it’s fair to say that South Carolina will be a surprise team because the Gamecocks could earn preseason Top 25 love for the first time in the post-Steve Spurrier era. So I’ll go with Arkansas. There won’t be many people putting the Hogs in their preseason Top 25, nor should they. They lost a wealth of defensive production and Sam Pittman had to replace both coordinators from a 7-6 team. But I wonder if new DC Travis Williams will be just what the doctor ordered defensively after producing a top-50 scoring defense at UCF last season. They need more help on that side of the ball, but they’ve been extremely active in the portal already, which I’d expect to continue through the spring. Can that group flirt with mediocrity? If so, the Hogs could be sneaky with KJ Jefferson returning as, for my money, the best quarterback in the SEC. — Connor O’Gara, SEC columnist for Saturday Down South
If there’s a Group of 5 team from the Southeast that I’m keeping my eye on as a potential surprise team, it’s Memphis. I know, I know. Tulane is getting all the buzz out of the AAC, as it should. But with Cincinnati, UCF and Houston all off to the Big 12, I think Memphis has a sneaky opportunity to reach a New Year’s 6 bowl. Yes, it was a 7-win season. During that 4-game skid, the Tigers’ most lopsided defeat was by 10 points. They choked away a 13-point lead in the final 77 seconds against Houston and they lost a 4-overtime game at East Carolina. Water could find its level by virtue of returning a top-25 offense, led by 2-year starter Seth Henigan. Ryan Silverfield added 7 Power 5 transfers. The schedule also sets up well. They have a Power 5 nonconference game in St. Louis against Mizzou, which has been somewhat disappointing in non-SEC games under Eli Drinkwitz. They also get Tulane at home and play 0 road games against FBS teams with a winning record in 2022. Don’t sleep on Memphis having a 2019-like season. — Connor O’Gara, SEC columnist for Saturday Down South
Like Smith at Oregon State, Timmy Chang, a mid-2000s icon for the Warriors when he set numerous national passing records under June Jones, has Hawaii primed for a big turnaround. The Warriors went just 3-10 last year, but Chang has helped correct a culture that cratered under Todd Graham. Notable transfer arrivals like Cam Stone (Wyoming), Kuao Peihopa (Washington), Josh Jerome (Eastern Washington), Patrick Hisatake (Cal) and Elijah Robinson (East Carolina) should deliver quickly for Chang. — Jon Gold, Pac-12 columnist for Saturday Out West
19. Wake Forest
Even without Hartman and AT Perry, Wake Forest is going to surprise again by being a 7-8 win team and I also think Georgia Tech has the potential to make a nice jump now that Brent Key’s situation is stable and because of his staff hires. — Brett Friedlander, ACC columnist for Saturday Road
Dave Aranda’s squad lost 4 straight games to end the season putting a stain on what was budding into a respectable Year 3. The Bears expected a bit of a regression last year after a 10-game improvement from 2 wins in 2020 to 12 in 2021, but they didn’t do themselves any favors in losses to No. 19 Kansas State, No. 4 TCU and No. 23 Texas. The defense, even with the talented defensive mind of Aranda, allowed an average of 32 points in the last 4 games of the season. — Jon Gold, Pac-12 columnist for Saturday Out West