AP poll reaction: What we’ll learn about each Top 25
Georgia begins the 2023 college football season in the same place it finished the last two — atop the AP Top 25 poll. The two-time defending champ Bulldogs were a runaway pick for the top spot in the preseason poll.
While the Bulldogs will be breaking in a new quarterback, there aren’t a lot of unanswered questions with Kirby Smart’s squad.
What about for the teams chasing Georgia? No. 2 Michigan looks like it will have coach Jim Harbaugh on the sidelines in September, after he was staring at a four-game suspension. Ohio State and Alabama, like Georgia, will both have new signal callers this year, replacing C.J. Stroud and Bryce Young, respectively.
We expect to hear plenty from these teams in November, December and beyond. But what can we learn about them — and the rest of the AP Top 25 — in September? Let’s break it down.
2022 record: 15-0
What we’ll learn about Georgia in September: Given Georgia’s especially soft schedule in September, the first month of the season is about finding this team’s identity after it lost another boatload of players to the NFL draft. After Saturday’s first scrimmage at Sanford Stadium, coach Kirby Smart told his players that they’ve yet to earn anything after the Bulldogs won back-to-back national championships in 2021 and 2022. “We have an extremely long way to go as a football team,” Smart said. “So many people make an assumption off of last year’s team and their accomplishments. I asked this team, after the scrimmage and after we ran, ‘What have you done to deserve anything you have gotten?’ They have done nothing. We have got to get the right guys in the right spot, find the guys that can really compete.” That starts at quarterback, and all signs point to junior Carson Beck taking over for Stetson Bennett. Beck completed 26 of 35 passes for 310 yards with four touchdowns as a backup last season. He has the strongest arm of the contenders and has the edge over Brock Vandagriff and Gunner Stockton. There’s also a new playcaller in offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, a former Georgia quarterback, who is back coaching at his alma mater for a second time. Beck will have time to get comfortable. Georgia opens against FCS program UT Martin and Ball State before its SEC opener at home against South Carolina on Sept. 16. After another home contest against UAB, it plays its first SEC road game at rebuilding Auburn on Sept. 30. — Mark Schlabach
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2022 record: 13-1
What we’ll learn about Michigan in September: Michigan plays East Carolina, UNLV, Bowling Green and Rutgers to start the season, so we’re not likely to learn too much from those games. Michigan has the target on its back this season after beating Ohio State and winning the Big Ten championship the past two years. The team also returns most of its starters from last season. However, the defense lost defensive linemen Mike Morris, Mazi Smith, Taylor Upshaw and Eyabi Okie, who combined for 12.5 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss last season. If Michigan is searching for anything this season as it tries to make it back to the College Football Playoff, it’s looking for help on the edge. The staff brought in Josaiah Stewart from Coastal Carolina, who had 10 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks this past season. The coaches are also hoping that Braiden McGregor and Derrick Moore can contribute more in 2023, and that Jaylen Harrell improves on his successful 2022 season. There aren’t many questions for the Wolverines, but if the team doesn’t have a drop-off from its edge players, this should be another season where Michigan finds itself in the mix for the playoff. For a while, it looked like Michigan might have to go through September without coach Jim Harbaugh. But when the negotiated resolution between Harbaugh and the NCAA was not approved by the Committee on Infractions, it opened up the possibility of him coaching the entire season. — Tom VanHaaren
2022 record: 11-2
What we’ll learn about Ohio State in September: If the defense has truly turned a corner and whether coach Ryan Day has found another superstar quarterback. The Buckeyes fully believe they can have the nation’s best defensive line, although ends J.T. Tuimoloau and Jack Sawyer — former top-5 national recruits — must find consistent excellence to complement talented tackle Mike Hall Jr. and others. A truly disruptive line will help mask potential issues in the secondary, particularly at cornerback, as Ohio State faces reigning FBS passing leader Western Kentucky in Week 3, followed by Notre Dame and new quarterback Sam Hartman in Week 4. Other than in 2019, the defenses have been very un-Ohio State-like under Day, but a second year under coordinator Jim Knowles should help. Day’s track record with quarterbacks, meanwhile, is un-Ohio State-like for all the best reasons. His next QB, favorite Kyle McCord or underdog Devin Brown, will have to navigate September trips to Indiana and Notre Dame. C.J. Stroud had a bit of a rocky start in 2021 before hitting his stride, so it will be interesting to see how Day’s next quarterback fares. — Adam Rittenberg
2022 record: 11-2
What we’ll learn about Alabama in September: What the new offense will look like. This isn’t as simple as deciding who will replace Bryce Young at quarterback, whether it’s last season’s backups Jalen Milroe and Ty Simpson, or Notre Dame transfer Tyler Buchner. This is about picking a direction for this season and beyond. Will Alabama continue to be so reliant on the passing game — as it had become with Young, Mac Jones and Tua Tagovailoa at quarterback — or will it return to the more balanced approach of years past in which the running game sets the tone? New coordinator Tommy Rees, who also comes from Notre Dame, has shown more pro-style leanings when compared to previous Alabama OCs, lining up more under center and running more between the tackles. Backs Jase McClellan and Roydell Williams return, and should pair nicely with freshmen Richard Young and Justice Haynes, the Nos. 1 and 2 backs in the 2023 class, respectively. A ball-control style of offense could help more than whoever steps up at quarterback. It should also benefit the defense when it goes against up-tempo offenses like Texas (Week 2) and Ole Miss (Week 4). — Alex Scarborough
2022 record: 10-4
What we’ll learn about LSU in September: If the Tigers deserve all the love they’ve received during the offseason. It won’t take long to discern whether the big expectations were warranted for a program that made it to the SEC championship game in Year 1 under Brian Kelly. Just like the expectations, there will be plenty of big tests in the month of September, and three are away from home. It all starts with a nationally ranked showdown with Florida State in the Sept. 3 season opener in Orlando, Florida. There are also road games against Mississippi State and Ole Miss in September and a home game against Arkansas. So we’ll find out pretty quickly what kind of team LSU is away from Tiger Stadium. The Tigers were stacked with young talent a year ago — tackles Will Campbell and Emery Jones Jr. on offense and linebacker Harold Perkins Jr. on defense — and are they ready to take that next step as sophomores? Some in and around the LSU program think Campbell could end up being the best player on the team as the Tigers’ starting left tackle. The front seven on defense will be worth watching, too, especially if sophomore tackle Maason Smith is healthy after injuring his knee in the first quarter of the first game last season. If he is back to 100%, look out. The Tigers are ultratalented across the front defensively. — Chris Low
2022 record: 11-3
What we’ll learn about USC in September: While Caleb Williams has garnered plenty of the headlines since the season finished, all eyes will understandably be on the Trojans’ defense in the first month of the season. The teams Alex Grinch’s defensive unit will face in September aren’t exactly projected to be offensive juggernauts (San Jose State, Stanford, Arizona State, Colorado), but that will just place a bigger focus on how much exactly the defense has improved since last season’s disappointing finish against Utah and Tulane. On paper, there are plenty of additions and returns that should project improvement for USC’s defense. The transfer portal was good to the Trojans as they went and grabbed players like linebacker Mason Cobb from Oklahoma State, defensive lineman Bear Alexander from Georgia, and defensive lineman Kyon Barrs and cornerback Christian Roland-Wallace, both from Arizona. USC also returns first-team All-American Calen Bullock at safety and versatile linebacker Eric Gentry, while hoping that highly touted prospects like Zion Branch and Domani Jackson can also add their share of impact to a unit that will be facing a lot of pressure from day one. — Paolo Uggetti
2022 record: 11-2
What we’ll learn about Penn State in September: If the Nittany Lions have a winning quarterback. They have a September slate that includes West Virginia, Delaware and Illinois. It’s an ideal lineup for a rookie quarterback to ease into the starting job, but Drew Allar or Beau Pribula also must be good enough to avoid an upset. While the selection committee will never encourage teams to run up the score, it does look for convincing wins, so finding a quarterback early who avoids turnovers and gets the ball to Penn State’s talented running backs will be critical. This should also be the deepest, most talented offensive line coach James Franklin has had in his career there, which means all the offensive pieces are in place for a talented quarterback to succeed — and yet not have to be heroic. Allar was the No. 51-ranked recruit in the 2022 class, and the coaching staff methodically got him playing time last fall, but coach James Franklin said the competition will continue this summer. “Although we’ve had some good ones here, that’s probably been the difference between us winning three New Year’s Six bowl games and getting into the playoff and winning a national championship,” Franklin said, “is having an elite quarterback that can make the plays that change games.” — Heather Dinich
2022 record: 10-3
What we’ll learn about Florida State in September: Simply, whether the Seminoles are College Football Playoff contenders. Their two biggest tests happen to come in the first month of the season: the opener against LSU and then three weeks later a huge showdown against ACC preseason favorite Clemson. Florida State beat LSU in New Orleans last year, and that victory completely changed the narrative on its season. But the stakes are much higher this year — with both teams vastly improved. Unlike last year, Florida State goes into 2023 with higher preseason buzz and greater outside expectations attached to the program. Losing to LSU could be deflating, but it is impossible to say that would eliminate the Seminoles from CFP contention. Losing to Clemson to start September 2-2 would certainly put a different spin on expectations (but also would not eliminate Florida State from the ACC championship game since there are no divisions this year). Win both to start 4-0? Imagine how many more expectations we will place on the Seminoles, who would likely be favored in their remaining games. — Andrea Adelson
2022 record: 11-3
What we’ll learn about Clemson in September: We have talked endlessly about the hire of offensive coordinator Garrett Riley and what he will do for the offense. We will know plenty more about his impact through September — especially since the Tigers play ACC rival Florida State on Sept. 23. Clemson has won seven straight over the Seminoles, but this will be a deeper, more veteran team that believes it can win at Clemson. Winning this game will be crucial to the Tigers’ early CFP hopes, especially since there are those critics who believe Clemson might not be as dominant as it once was because the offense has taken a step back over the past two years. What people most want to see out of Riley and the offense is a step forward for quarterback Cade Klubnik. Clemson has struggled for consistency at the quarterback position over the past two years and has missed the CFP both those seasons. That is no coincidence. In addition to Klubnik, the Clemson receivers have to step up, too, not only as reliable pass-catchers but as players who can stretch the field. — Andrea Adelson
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2022 record: 11-2
What we’ll learn about Washington in September: We know the offense will be explosive. We know expectations are high. What we don’t know is just how high they should be after Washington won 11 games last season. By the end of September we should have a pretty good sense if the Huskies are legit conference title and playoff contenders. With games against Boise State and Michigan State in the nonconference, there can’t be any easing into the season. Even Cal and Arizona at the end of the month won’t be walks in the park, and the schedule ramps up from there. — Kyle Bonagura
2022 record: 8-5
What we’ll learn about Texas in September: Are the Longhorns really ready for prime time? A year ago, Quinn Ewers came out dealing against Alabama, living up to his status as the No. 1 recruit in the country. Then he was injured on a big hit in the first quarter and missed several weeks. He returned and tossed four TDs against Oklahoma in a historic 49-0 beatdown. But as the year went on, Ewers had his struggles, particularly in the second half of losses against Oklahoma State and TCU, when both teams dared Ewers to beat them and he couldn’t, and finished 97th nationally in raw QBR in the fourth quarter and 104th on third downs. Steve Sarkisian has spoken all offseason about the work Ewers has put in, and his teammates have vouched for his leadership. Texas has the talent to be a contender. If the whole is as good as the sum of the parts, the Longhorns will roll into Tuscaloosa on Sept. 9 looking to finish what Ewers started last year. On Sept. 23, Texas will visit Baylor, which has played the Longhorns tough under Dave Aranda, with the past three games (two Texas wins) averaging a score of 30-25, before Kansas comes to town. As September ends with Oklahoma looming the next weekend, it should show if the Longhorns have put it all together. — Dave Wilson
2022 record: 11-2
What we’ll learn about Tennessee in September: If quarterback Joe Milton III and the Vols can set themselves up for an all-important month of October. Milton has been the rage in the offseason with his ability to throw the ball a mile and his mobility. He now gets a chance to show that he can run Josh Heupel’s high-powered offensive machine just as efficiently as Hendon Hooker did the past two seasons. Milton played well at the end of last season when he filled in for the injured Hooker. After starting his career at Michigan, this is Milton’s chance to show that he is “The Man” for an entire season. His coaches and teammates have raved about his leadership and focus. The Vols shouldn’t have much trouble against Virginia in the season opener in Nashville, but a trip to the Swamp to face Florida awaits two weeks later. Milton is on record as saying, “I don’t lose in Florida.” Getting out of September unbeaten would set up a crucial three-game stretch in October — home against Texas A&M, on the road against Alabama and on the road against Kentucky. Nobody has ever questioned Milton’s arm strength. But making key decisions and key throws during critical points of the game — and in big games — is what will shape this season for him and the Vols. — Low
2022 record: 9-4
What we’ll learn about Notre Dame in September: If Marcus Freeman has the Irish back in the national spotlight in his second season. On Sept. 23, Notre Dame hosts Ohio State, and the Irish should be undefeated heading into what will likely be their most difficult game and best chance to impress the CFP selection committee. Last year, Freeman started his first season as a head coach with a respectable 21-10 loss at Ohio State but then suffered one of the biggest upsets of the season in a home loss to Marshall. Notre Dame shouldn’t lose to Navy in Ireland, and the trip to NC State could be tricky, but Freeman could reassert the Irish as a CFP contender with a 5-0 start. “Last year, I’m talking about national championships, winning the 12th and all this stuff and you’re 9-4,” Freeman said. “You can’t talk national championships. You have to work. Winning a national championship is a result of so many things. We were 0-2 to start the season, so now what do we do? What’s the motivation now? That’s what I’ve gone away from. Don’t talk about those things. All we can focus on is reaching our full potential.” — Dinich
2022 record: 10-4
What we’ll learn about Utah in September: How’s this for an opening two weeks: Florida at home and a road game at Baylor. After winning the Pac-12 the past two years but missing the playoff, Utah has all the motivation it needs to get off on the front foot. A loss in either of those first two nonconference games would eliminate all margin of error from a playoff standpoint, while two wins would go a long way toward establishing the Utes as playoff contenders. — Bonagura
2022 record: 10-3
What we’ll learn about Oregon in September: Oregon won 10 games last season, including a bowl game, and one of its three losses was against the eventual national champion, Georgia. But Dan Lanning’s team did fail to make the Pac-12 title game and couldn’t beat state rival Oregon State. During that loss and the loss to Washington, questions about Lanning’s decision-making and time management during games arose, and it will be interesting to see how he tackles his second season at the helm. There is no Georgia to face this time around, as the Ducks will only have to go to Lubbock in Week 2 to face a tough Texas Tech team. They do have plenty of returning talent led by Bo Nix at quarterback as well as some key transfer additions like wide receiver Gary Bryant Jr. With Lanning having been a defensive coordinator with the Bulldogs, the evolution of the Ducks’ defense will be interesting to watch early on as they were 105th in the nation in defensive EPA per game. — Uggetti
2022 record: 10-4
What we’ll learn about Kansas State in September: Does this offense still have the playmakers? Deuce Vaughn and his 1,936 yards from scrimmage are gone. So is Malik Knowles (725 receiving yards, 15.1 per catch). No. 3 receiver Kade Warner had some big moments; he’s gone, too. K-State brings a lot to the table after last year’s Big 12 title run — quarterback Will Howard, the Big 12’s most proven offensive line, a ridiculously reliable linebacker duo in Austin Moore and Daniel Green — but while the defense has some transition to work through on the line and (especially) in the secondary, the Wildcats will be fine as long as they’re making as many big plays as they’re allowing. They should have what they need at running back, where sophomore DJ Giddens (5.8 yards per carry) and Florida State transfer Treshaun Ward (6.6) have flashed exciting explosiveness. But slot man Phillip Brooks is the only wide receiver who caught more than seven balls last year. K-State has to find some new weapons for Howard if the Wildcats are going to survive a trip to Missouri and tricky home games against Troy and UCF unbeaten. — Bill Connelly
What we’ll learn about TCU in September: Can the Horned Frogs avoid the sophomore slump? In 2020, No. 12 Oklahoma claimed a 27-21 win over No. 8 Iowa State in the Big 12 championship game. Neither team made the title game the next season, with the Cyclones going 7-6 in 2021. That year, No. 9 Baylor held off No. 5 Oklahoma State, 31-21. In 2022, those two teams combined to go 13-13 as TCU and Kansas State played a thriller in Arlington, Texas. In a league with great parity, can TCU survive another season on the brink like last year? Can the Frogs plug all the holes left by eight NFL draft picks, TCU’s most since 1957? In September alone, they will be in the national spotlight against Colorado in Deion Sanders’ debut, make a conference road trip to Houston in the Cougars’ Big 12 debut, and play a century-old rivalry game against SMU before West Virginia comes to town for another conference game. With a new offensive coordinator in Kendal Briles, a plethora of transfers playing key roles, especially at receiver, and a new QB in Chandler Morris, the Frogs will get to see what they have in a hurry. — Wilson
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2022 record: 10-3
What we’ll learn about Oregon State in September: Three letters: DJU. The arrival of D.J. Uiagalelei in Corvallis via the transfer portal was, at first blush, a surprising one but also one that immediately made sense for both sides. The Beavers haven’t had an elite quarterback in recent years and would likely never have the chance to recruit someone of DJU’s caliber out of high school. They also had a team that went 10-3 last season and could use a quarterback of Uiagalelei’s potential. For DJU, September alone won’t prove the decision to transfer from Clemson was the right move, but it could be the start of a career-defining season for a player who has plenty to prove after struggling to fulfill his five-star potential under Dabo Swinney. Oregon State’s September schedule is no easy task, either. The Beavers get UC Davis and San Diego State at home to start and they also get Utah in Corvallis, which will be an early test for how much Jonathan Smith’s team can replicate its success from last season as well as how comfortable Uiagalelei is in this new environment. — Uggetti
2022 record: 7-6
What we’ll learn about Wisconsin in September: If the new offense has the right pieces this season or if the Badgers still have some retooling to do with the roster. With Luke Fickell and Phil Longo on the staff, the Wisconsin offense is going to be a style of air raid that will be a departure from the past. The coaches have brought in quarterback Tanner Mordecai from SMU and Nick Evers from Oklahoma, as well as receivers CJ Williams from USC, Bryson Green from Oklahoma State and Quincy Burroughs and Will Pauling from Cincinnati to help transition to the new style. The Badgers are also returning running back Braelon Allen, but changing systems in one offseason can be difficult for any program. Longo was the offensive coordinator at North Carolina last season, when the Tar Heels ranked No. 11 in pass yards per game, averaging 309.3 per contest. Wisconsin was ranked 114th with 183.8 pass yards per game in 2022. That won’t just be a drastic shift in personnel but philosophy as well and could take some time for the players to fully grasp in real game settings. — VanHaaren
2022 record: 6-7
What we’ll learn about Oklahoma in September: Did the patches fix the leaky defense? Year 1 of the Brent Venables era was a nightmare for the longtime defensive coordinator. The Sooners finished No. 122 out of 131 teams in total defense (106th against the run, 119th against the pass), giving up 461 yards and 30 points per game. Venables started his fixes up front, signing six transfers on the defensive line alone, along with linebacker Dasan McCullough, a speedy fit for Venables’ hybrid “Cheetah” position. The Sooners also added five-star recruits Peyton Bowen (safety) and P.J. Adebawore (DE), who are expected to push for immediate playing time. There’s not much reason for concern on offense with the return of quarterback Dillon Gabriel, and the Sooners have a star recruit to back him up in Jackson Arnold, a reassurance for Sooners fans who saw the team pass for 39 yards in a 49-0 loss to Texas when Gabriel was injured. They’ll have time to work out kinks with a manageable September schedule: Arkansas State, SMU, at Tulsa, at Cincinnati and then home against Iowa State. — Wilson
2022 record: 9-5
What we’ll learn about North Carolina in September: Questions about UNC’s defense aren’t likely to go away even if the Heels have a terrific September (and, for what it’s worth, two of the three top-40 offenses from 2022 they’ll face this year — Appalachian State and Minnesota — are September games), but we should learn a great deal about one of the biggest pieces to the puzzle: the pass rush. South Carolina, App State, Minnesota and Pitt all figure to feature among the more physical and tenacious offensive lines the Heels will see this year, and if there’s real improvement from last year’s dismal pass rush — 111th nationally in non-blitz pressure rate; just 10 sacks in 14 games when not blitzing — that’s a great sign for UNC moving forward. — David Hale
2022 record: 8-5
What we’ll learn about Ole Miss in September: Is Pete Golding’s defense going to be an improvement over 2022’s unit? Golding comes over from Alabama and is tasked with fixing a defense that gave up 35 points per game over the final seven outings, resulting in a 2-5 record after starting the season 6-0. The Rebels’ defense should be tested in Week 2 in New Orleans by the Green Wave’s experienced quarterback, Michael Pratt. A week after facing a Georgia Tech team under new head coach Brent Key, the Rebels travel to Tuscaloosa to face Alabama and then welcome LSU to Oxford. And while there are also questions offensively for this team, that has hardly ever been a concern for a Lane Kiffin-coached team. If Ole Miss is able to get stops, this team will be a tough out every Saturday this season. — Harry Lyles Jr.
2022 record: 5-7
What we’ll learn about Texas A&M in September: Will the offense really change now that Bobby Petrino is (theoretically) calling the plays? On paper, the month of September should be a good proving ground for the Aggies. It’s arguably the easiest stretch of the season with games against New Mexico, Miami, Louisiana Monroe, Auburn and Arkansas. But last season’s loss to Appalachian State taught us not to take anything for granted. With that said, we should learn — win or lose — whether the unlikely marriage of Jimbo Fisher and Petrino will work. Petrino has a checkered past and a reputation as a prickly personality, but he has proved time and again he knows how to get the most out of his offenses. The question is how involved Fisher will be with the process, especially on game day. Fisher has never handed over playcalling duties before, and his public comments this offseason have fueled speculation that he might not fully let go of the reins. — Scarborough
2022 record: 12-2
What we’ll learn about Tulane in September: The Green Wave were one of the best stories of the 2022 season, in part because of the leadership of linebacking duo Nick Anderson and Dorian Williams. Both are set to be playing on Sundays this fall, and finding out who will replace their leadership on that side of the football will be key. Offensively, Michael Pratt has four offensive linemen returning with him, and he will certainly be among the leadership group for Tulane. But for a team that was known for being bullies defensively, replacing Anderson and Williams (despite not lacking talent coming into 2023) will be something to look out for. Shiel Wood comes over from Troy as the Green Wave’s new defensive coordinator after Chris Hampton left for Oregon. Most of their September schedule isn’t daunting, aside from welcoming Ole Miss to town in Week 2. But by the end of the month, we will have seen whether the momentum this team has fought hard to build over the…