Will Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M ever realize expectations?
There’s been so much craziness in the world of realignment, it has been easy to forget how close we are to the 2023 college football season.
As part of our preview of this season, we will be rolling out the Yahoo Sports Top 25 in the lead-up to the seven FBS games being played in Week 0.
Starting with Nos. 25 through 21, we’ll roll out the teams ranked No. 25 through No. 11 in our rankings this week (Nos. 20-16 on Wednesday and Nos. 15-11 on Friday) before counting down from No. 10 to No. 1 in the days leading up to the season openers on Aug. 26.
UTSA enters its first year in the AAC as one of the best teams in the conference. The defending Conference USA champions return a bevy of key players on offense including QB Frank Harris, WR Joshua Cephus and RB Kevorian Barnes. Though WR Zakhari Franklin (Ole Miss) was a big loss, Cephus and De’Corian Clark are both seniors and tight end Oscar Cardenas is another reliable target for Harris, who threw for over 4,000 yards in 2022.
The defense doesn’t bring back quite as much talent as the offense but the front seven looks strong. Trey Moore led the Roadrunners with eight sacks and 18 tackles for loss last year and he was just a redshirt freshman. Nicktroy Fortune and Rashad Wisdom are also all-AAC caliber players in the secondary.
UTSA has a tough non-conference schedule with trips to Houston and Tennessee and home game against Army, but don’t be surprised with a split on the road. A quirk in the AAC schedule could also mean UTSA plays Tulane on consecutive weeks. The Roadrunners visit the defending conference champion Green Wave in the final week of the regular season. It could end up being a matchup for home field advantage in the AAC title game.
After some rough years to start the Chip Kelly era, UCLA is 17-8 over the past two seasons and has the personnel to compete with the big boys in the Pac-12 before the move over to the Big Ten next fall.
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Kelly has to figure out the starter at quarterback after five seasons with Dorian Thompson-Robinson. He’s got a few good options with Ethan Garbers (DTR’s backup for the past two seasons) and freshman Dante Moore, a top-five recruit in the class of 2023. Elsewhere on offense, the Bruins brought in some heralded transfers with ex-Ball State RB Carson Steele and ex-Cal receiver J. Michael Sturdivant. There are also a few transfers expected to start immediately on the line. On the other side, the defense has a pretty impressive front seven. If those guys up front can get to the quarterback more consistently, it should take some pressure off a veteran secondary that has been quite porous in recent seasons.
From a schedule perspective, the Bruins avoid Oregon and Washington and will play each of the bottom-six projected teams in the Pac-12. Road games against USC, Utah and Oregon State won’t be easy, but don’t be surprised if the Bruins are in serious contention for a Pac-12 title game berth in late November.
It may take Badger fans a while to realize they’re watching their favorite team in 2023. The hire of Luke Fickell from Cincinnati also brought a massive shift in offensive approach. Gone is the run-based offense with heavy personnel. In is the Air Raid with new offensive coordinator Phil Longo and former SMU quarterback Tanner Mordecai.
Mordecai threw for over 3,500 yards in each of his two seasons with the Mustangs after transferring from Oklahoma and is very familiar with the Air Raid’s concepts. There will still be plenty of running the ball with Braelon Allen as well; he’s rushed for over 1,200 yards in each of his two years with the Badgers.
Wisconsin is also switching to a 3-3-5 base defense that Fickell has used at Cincinnati. All the philosophy shifts may not be seamless and there could be an adjustment period. But the Big Ten West is wide open and Wisconsin should be near the top. The Badgers could be favored in eight of their nine Big Ten games.
22. Texas A&M
Texas A&M has to be better than it was last year, right? On the heels of bringing in a historic recruiting class, the Aggies face-planted and finished 5-7 last fall after being ranked in the top 10 in the preseason AP poll. That’s definitely not what the A&M brass envisioned for Jimbo Fisher’s fifth year as head coach after he signed a fully guaranteed 10-year, $95 million contract before the 2021 season.
The Aggies have been brutal on offense and Fisher finally relented and hired an offensive coordinator who will have significant authority in the room. And that hire was none other than Bobby Petrino. Should Fisher and Petrino (and the rest of the staff) co-exist, there are plenty of reasons to expect a much-improved A&M team in 2023.
The Aggies return promising QB Conner Weigman and have a stellar receiver corps with Evan Stewart, Ainias Smith and Moose Muhammad leading the way. A&M also has a ton of promise along both lines of scrimmage. The defensive line is especially loaded, but needs to produce more sacks for the unit to really reach its potential.
From a sheer talent perspective, this is easily a top-15 team in the country. At the same time, it’s hard to look past a combined 6-10 record in SEC play over the past two seasons. It’s time for the Aggies to live up to the expectations.
21. Oregon State
Oregon State has a chance to win 10 or more games in back-to-back seasons for the first time in what’s the last season of the Pac-12 as we know it.
The Beavers allowed just 20 points per game in 2022 but must replenish a defense that loses several starters. One of those departures is LB Omar Speights as he transferred to LSU. Safety Kitan Oladapo is one of the team’s returning starters after he had 80 tackles and 2.5 sacks and so is corner Ryan Cooper after he tied for the team lead with three interceptions.
Ben Gulbranson was the team’s primary QB in 2022 after taking over for Chance Nolan but will likely be the backup in 2023 after the arrival of D.J. Uiagalelei. The former Clemson starter was a five-star recruit out of high school but struggled over the past two seasons with the Tigers and transferred after he was replaced by Cade Klubnik. The Beavers have a prolific running game, so if Uiagalelei can realize his potential Oregon State can be a serious contender for the Pac-12 title with games against Utah, UCLA and Washington all at home.