College football preseason Power Rankings: Realistic best case and worst
The first college football Power Rankings are here and who else but the two-time defending national champion Georgia Bulldogs reign supreme.
Michigan and Ohio State are battling it out for second with the Wolverines narrowly edging the Buckeyes for the No. 2 spot.
The rest of the top 10 is filled with fellow blue bloods like Alabama, LSU and USC while Florida State and Texas are hoping for a return to former glory in 2023.
With the Power Rankings out, our writers break down the best and worst case scenario for each top 25 team this season.
A collection of 57 college football experts at ESPN voted on the preseason top 25 Power Rankings.
Best case: A third straight national championship. Georgia would become the first FBS program in the modern era to win three straight national titles. Minnesota was the last team to do it in 1934, 1935 and 1936. Yes, Georgia’s nonconference schedule is especially soft after the SEC ordered the Bulldogs to cancel a home-and-home series against Oklahoma, which is joining the conference next year. The Bulldogs replaced the Sooners with Ball State. They’ll also play FCS opponent UT Martin, UAB and struggling Georgia Tech. The Bulldogs play South Carolina, Kentucky, Missouri and Ole Miss at home. They’ll play only three true SEC road games — at Auburn, Vanderbilt and Tennessee — and will face Florida in Jacksonville, Florida. Georgia will be heavy favorites in every game it plays. If Carson Beck steps in and plays well at quarterback, the offense should be explosive. The defense has to replace a number of key contributors again, but four of the top five tacklers are back in Smael Mondon Jr., Jamon Dumas-Johnson, Malaki Starks and Javon Bullard.
Worst case: Two losses? For the schedule reasons stated above, it’s difficult to imagine the Bulldogs losing twice in the regular season. If we’re talking lowest floor, then Beck would have to struggle in his first season as a starter and Georgia’s running game would have to be less productive. Beck will benefit from having what might be the deepest receiver corps in school history after the Bulldogs added Missouri transfer Dominic Lovett and Mississippi State transfer Rara Thomas. All-America tight end Brock Bowers and receiver Ladd McConkey are back as well. Maybe Georgia slips up against Ole Miss at home and then falls at Tennessee on Nov. 18. Probably not. Losing at Tennessee and then falling to Alabama or LSU in the SEC championship is probably a more plausible scenario. If Georgia finishes unbeaten in the regular season and falls in the SEC championship game, will it get the benefit of doubt from the CFP selection committee? Or will its nonconference schedule keep it out of another playoff? — Mark Schlabach
Best case: College Football Playoff championship. After winning the Big Ten title and making it to the playoff the past two years, Michigan’s goal is to make it to the final game and win a national championship. The team is returning key starters from last season, including quarterback J.J. McCarthy and talented running back duo Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards, and filled some holes through the transfer portal in the offseason. The schedule is back-loaded, with the team starting the season with East Carolina, UNLV, Bowling Green and Rutgers, then facing Penn State, Maryland and Ohio State to finish out the season. That stretch will determine how far this team goes, but the pieces are there for the Wolverines to reach their goal.
Worst case: 10-2 with losses to Penn State and Ohio State. Maryland has an argument here to make it 9-3, but the way this team is set up, this should be its floor. The Wolverines can’t look past Penn State, though, as that team will be better than last season. Quarterback Drew Allar has all the tools to be an excellent passer for Penn State, and the offense returns running backs Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen, who combined for 1,928 yards and 22 touchdowns last season. The Buckeyes are on a mission to end their losing streak to Michigan and have spent the entire offseason focusing on the last two games of their season. Those two losses would be devastating to Michigan’s season. — Tom VanHaaren
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Best case: National championship. The top goal in Columbus never changes, but Ohio State is way overdue for a title, especially considering its historic quarterback run under coach Ryan Day. Despite the Michigan meltdown, Ohio State outplayed eventual national champion Georgia before a calamitous fourth quarter. The Buckeyes clearly must improve on defense and limit the breakdowns that surfaced in the Michigan and Georgia losses. But a second year under coordinator Jim Knowles and a potentially elite front seven fuels hope for the unit. Knowles needs his most talented players — ends J.T. Tuimoloau and Jack Sawyer, tackle Michael Hall Jr., linebacker Tommy Eichenberg, safeties Lathan Ransom and Sonny Styles — to be great on a consistent basis. There are questions on offense, particularly at quarterback and tackle, but Day’s overall track record with the unit inspires plenty of confidence. Ohio State’s road schedule isn’t easy, especially a Nov. 25 visit to Michigan Stadium, but the Buckeyes haven’t dropped three straight to the Wolverines since 1997.
Worst case: Ohio State has never lost more than two games in a season under Day and has only dropped three or more games in a season three times since 2001. The Buckeyes will need to be road warriors this fall, as they visit Michigan, Notre Dame and Wisconsin, as well as Indiana, Purdue and Rutgers. They also host Penn State and an ascending Maryland team with a strong offense. A four-loss season is highly unlikely but possible for the Buckeyes. It would stem from continued regression on defense and the abrupt end to a stretch of superb quarterback play. The questions at the offensive tackle spots would need to be amplified, as would health and production issues at running back. The defensive line has been ordinary lately and, in theory, could continue down the path despite so much talent and experience. Anything shy of the CFP would be disappointing for Ohio State, and 9-3 or 8-4 would trigger significant changes. — Adam Rittenberg
Best case: National championship. The roster, top to bottom, is championship-caliber. Finishing in the top three of the recruiting rankings virtually every season for the past decade will do that. But at key positions, Alabama needs things to break exactly right. Whether it’s Tyler Buchner, Jalen Milroe or Ty Simpson, someone needs to separate himself at quarterback. And while the QB doesn’t necessarily have to be another Bryce Young, he does need to take care of the football and compliment what should be a solid running game with Jase McClellan, Roydell Williams, Jam Miller and the No. 1- (Richard Young) and No. 2-ranked backs (Justice Haynes) in the 2023 class. What’s more, the Tide needs to develop at receiver, and quickly, after taking a big step back last year in terms of creating separation and drops. Do that, and the offense will be solid enough to navigate a tricky SEC schedule. Remember, Alabama’s two losses last season came on the road and on the final play. And this season, both of those games — LSU and Tennessee — are at home.
Worst case: Three regular-season losses. The offense has a lot of what-ifs. Almost too many, in fact. Everyone will focus on the quarterback, but the lackluster play at receiver is almost as glaring an issue. Bryce Young was just so good that he covered up for it. Unless Ja’Corey Brooks or Isaiah Bond or someone else steps up in a big way, Alabama will struggle to score in crunch time. And if that happens, go ahead and chalk up back-to-back losses to LSU and Tennessee. From there, it’s hard to see Alabama winning both against Texas and on the road at Texas A&M. — Alex Scarborough
Best case: College Football Playoff semifinal. Nobody saw LSU getting to the SEC championship game a year ago, especially after getting pummeled by Tennessee 40-13 at home the second week of October. But the Tigers picked themselves up off the turf, kept getting better, and Brian Kelly squeezed everything and then some out of his first LSU team. His second team will be even deeper. Kelly knows more about this team, and most importantly, the Tigers have a seasoned quarterback, Jayden Daniels, who has proven on big stages he can beat teams both passing and running. If LSU can manage to get through the month of September unscathed, that Nov. 4 game at Alabama could end up being a play-in game for the playoff.
Worst case: 8-5 with losses to Florida State, Ole Miss, Alabama, Texas A&M and the bowl opponent. The Tigers finished 10-4 last season, and that was with losses in two of their final three games. Winning just eight games as an encore to what LSU did a year ago would be a disappointment on the Bayou. But there aren’t a lot of easy outs on LSU’s schedule, and the September slate is filled with potholes. Getting Alabama in Tuscaloosa this season automatically makes it a more difficult schedule, and four of the first six games are away from Tiger Stadium. LSU’s talent level is such that there shouldn’t be a significant drop-off, but making it back to the SEC championship game will prove difficult. — Chris Low
Best case: Every player and coach at USC this season knows what they have on paper. A Heisman-winning quarterback in his final season. An explosive offense that could be deeper and better than last year. A defensive unit that has heard plenty about how much it needed to improve. A slew of talented transfers at key positions who all saw the potential in Lincoln Riley’s team when they decided to leave Arizona, Georgia, and Oklahoma State for Southern California. And perhaps most importantly, the motivation of coming up just short of a playoff spot. There’s no doubt USC has the talent and ability to not just make the playoff but compete for a title. Plenty of things have to go right, but that’s what the Trojans’ ceiling looks like in Riley’s second year on the job. The task at hand is tough given Caleb Williams will be expected to replicate a historic season, while the team as a whole has a high bar to clear given the leap they made last year and the tougher schedule they face this season. Improvement isn’t always linear, but USC has the players to prove it can be.
Worst case: It’s not easy turning around a 4-8 season into a 10-3 year. What may be harder is improving upon that in the following year. That’s what Riley and USC have to deal with this season, on top of a schedule that includes Notre Dame and Oregon on the road as well as Utah, Washington and UCLA over the last six weeks of the season. The Trojans could be and likely are a better team this season, but the turnover margin that kept their defense afloat last year could regress, as could the offense despite having a Heisman-winning quarterback under center. Injuries could always get in the way as well. But all of that being said, it’s hard to see a floor lower than competing for the Pac-12 title for this team. The Trojans are too talented on offense, especially, to not be in every game they play. — Paolo Uggetti
Best case: Florida State is at a point now where it is in position to compete for championships, so it is not hard to envision a high ceiling in 2023 as a College Football Playoff appearance. The Seminoles will have an opportunity to prove themselves in the regular season (two SEC nonconference games, including the opener against LSU) and potentially in the ACC championship game. Getting there without divisions certainly made the path easier given the way Clemson had previously dominated the Atlantic Division over the past seven seasons. The Seminoles will have one of the best, most dynamic offenses in the country with virtually all its production back — including quarterback Jordan Travis, running back Trey Benson and receiver Johnny Wilson — plus a potential top-15 NFL pick in defensive end Jared Verse. The mindset, mentality and confidence has changed in this group. They are aiming for a championship.
Worst case: Florida State just might be ahead of schedule under coach Mike Norvell, entering his fourth year in the program, considering where it was when he inherited it. Until Florida State goes back to dominating its ACC opponents, there may still be some doubts about whether it can run through its schedule without a hiccup along the way. Florida State gets LSU and Clemson in September, has tough road games against Wake Forest (the Deacs have won three straight in the series) and Pitt (in November, not fun for Florida teams!) plus rivals Miami (expected to be better) and Florida (the Seminoles barely held on last year). Given the talent returning, it is hard to envision the team winning fewer than nine games. — Andrea Adelson
Best case: College Football Playoff semifinal. If Penn State can finish as a one-loss Big Ten champion, it would be extremely difficult for the selection committee to snub the Nittany Lions — but that means they have to at least beat either Ohio State or Michigan and force a three-way tie in the Big Ten East. Even then it isn’t a guarantee, because Penn State’s nonconference schedule against West Virginia, Delaware and UMass is going to be heavily scrutinized by the committee. Without more Big Ten opponents in the CFP top 25 ranking, Penn State’s best opportunities will remain against Ohio State and Michigan. If they only get one of those wins, the Nittany Lions better look the part of a top-four team every other step of the way.
Worst case: 9-3 with losses to Ohio State, Michigan and Maryland. Considering this was an 11-win team last year, there shouldn’t be much of a drop-off with so much talent returning on both sides of the ball. It’s also the first time since 2019 Penn State has had both coordinators return for a second season. Since 2013, Penn State has faced both Ohio State and Michigan every season and has never gone 2-0 against them, only defeating the Buckeyes once during that span. The third loss might be a surprise to everyone but Maryland, which will have home-field advantage Nov. 4 and has been quietly making significant strides under coach Mike Locksley. — Heather Dinich
Best case: We all know what Clemson is capable of when its offense is hitting just right, so it stands to reason that with a new offensive coordinator and better quarterback/receiver play, the Tigers will be back in the College Football Playoff. That should always be the highest ceiling for a program that reached that level six straight years from 2015 to 2020. There will be ample opportunities for the Tigers to prove themselves, with games against Florida State, Notre Dame and South Carolina among the biggest. That South Carolina game has taken on even greater meaning this season considering how that loss affected 2022. The defense should be outstanding with another strong front and the best linebacker duo in the nation in Jeremiah Trotter Jr. and Barrett Carter. If Garrett Riley can get Cade Klubnik and company to produce the type of offensive numbers we are used to seeing out of Clemson, this will be a playoff team.
Worst case: This team has won at least 10 games for 12 straight years, so it is hard to imagine any floor that goes lower than 10 wins. But there is some degree of difficulty involved in this schedule, with road games against NC State (Clemson lost here in 2021) and South Carolina and home games against preseason-ranked Florida State, Notre Dame (Clemson lost at South Bend last year) and North Carolina. Clemson should still be favored to win all or nearly all these games. Still, there have been unexpected losses over the past two seasons, so it would no longer be a surprise if a low-floor season meant no playoff appearance. The more surprising low floor would be a nine-win season. Given the strength of the team returning, Clemson should win at least 10 games yet again. — Adelson
Best case: Steve Sarkisian has won two national championships as an assistant at USC and Alabama, and the Longhorns have the talent to play for a national championship. Week 2’s showcase against Alabama doesn’t have to make or break them, but a good showing or a win in Tuscaloosa could get Sarkisian over the hump. After that, they don’t leave Texas for a game until Nov. 18 against an Iowa State team plagued by a gambling scandal. As usual, the Oklahoma game could make or break the Longhorns. If they can dominate the Sooners again, after a 49-0 win last year, there’s a manageable schedule, with road games against Baylor and Houston before a Nov. 11 showdown in Fort Worth on Nov. 11; the Frogs are 7-3 against Texas in their past 10 games.
Worst case: Several oddsmakers have Texas with a 9.5-win over/under on the season, and Sarkisian has never won more than nine games in a season as a head coach. With two of the best backs in the country last season in Bijan Robinson and Roschon Johnson, there were still puzzling lapses where Quinn Ewers struggled and the Horns couldn’t lean on their backs. If Ewers struggles again, there could be a quarterback controversy with Maalik Murphy and Arch Manning waiting in the wings. Oklahoma should be improved, and a late-season stretch against BYU, Kansas State, at TCU and at Iowa State, then a finale against an experienced Texas Tech team, could provide plenty of upsets if Sarkisian can’t get all the pieces to work together. With all the expectations, anything less than a nine-win season going into the SEC next year could raise big questions about Sarkisian’s future given the amount of talent he has had to work with. — Dave Wilson
Best case: College Football Playoff semifinal. The Vols would have been in the playoff a year ago had it not been for the November debacle in Columbia where South Carolina won in a 63-38 rout. So Josh Heupel’s club wasn’t too far off in just his second season, as Tennessee won 11 games for the first time since the 2001 season. Despite losing Hooker and some other key players, Heupel thinks this will be the deepest and most talented roster he has had, and on defense, he anticipates the Vols being able to play more players. Tennessee gets Georgia at home in the next-to-last game of the season, so there’s a chance the SEC Eastern Division title could be on the line that Nov. 18 day in Knoxville.
Worst case: 8-5 with losses to Florida, Texas A&M, Alabama, Georgia and the bowl opponent. Even though Tennessee avoids a stout nonconference test, the SEC schedule tilts against the Vols this season with trips to Florida, Alabama and Kentucky. This is the most excitement surrounding the start of a Tennessee football season in two decades, and the Vols aren’t going to catch anybody by surprise starting the season ranked so highly and with Heupel’s offense putting up record-setting numbers a year ago. If the offense falls off some with Joe Milton at the helm, is the defense good enough to make up the difference? The pivotal game is Florida. The Vols haven’t won in Gainesville since 2003. Their season could vary wildly depending on they fare in the Swamp. — Low
Best case: CFP. After winning 11 games in coach Kalen DeBoer’s first season, the Huskies have every right to dream about the playoff. With one of the nation’s best quarterbacks (Michael Penix Jr.) returning, alongside arguably the best trio of receivers in the country, Washington has the foundation to be one of the most explosive offenses in the country. The Huskies play four preseason-ranked teams in a six-week stretch starting mid-October, which provides some obvious stumbling blocks that also serve as potential résumé enhancers.
Worst case: 6-6. If there is reason to be skeptical of the Huskies, it’s that during their 11-win season a year ago, they missed the Pac-12’s two best teams, Utah and USC. Maybe that was bad luck and took away their chances to knock both from the conference title game or maybe it boosted UW’s year-end record. There’s no way to know. And with all the offseason player movement, these sorts of preseason prognostications are even more guesswork than they had been in previous years. No chance UW misses a bowl, but everything else is plausible. — Kyle Bonagura
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Best case: CFP. Had things broken slightly differently in either of the past two seasons, the Utes could have been there. Instead, they suffered the same fate as so many Pac-12 champions before them and earned the unglamorous distinction of being a Power 5 champion not to reach the playoff. That’s why it’s easy to forecast a possible scenario in which the Utes do, finally, break through. It would serve as some kind of poetic justice for the Pac-12 to qualify a team for the CFP as it crumbles to the ground. And what better way to build a playoff-contending team than with a two-time conference championship-winning quarterback (Cam Rising) and the most reliable coach in the conference (Kyle Whittingham)?
Worst case: 7-5. Starting the year with a pair of losses to Florida and Baylor and then a 6-3 conference season — with a schedule that currently shows four ranked opponents — isn’t hard to imagine. In the Conference of Parity, that’s just how things work. There’s rarely a significant gap from the best teams to those in the middle tier, but anything below seven wins would be quite the disaster for a program that had become a standard-bearer. — Bonagura
Best case: 11-1 and a CFP semifinal. Notre Dame has a chance to go from good to great with transfer quarterback Sam Hartman leading the offense. Hartman, though, never defeated Clemson in three tries as Wake Forest’s starting quarterback. That game is Nov. 4 at Clemson, and the Tigers could be playing for a spot in the CFP. Notre Dame gets Ohio State and USC at home. Because the independent Irish don’t have a conference title game, they can realistically afford to lose one game. They can really wow the committee, though, if they earn wins against Power 5 conference champs if Ohio State, USC and/or Clemson win their respective league titles.
Worst case: 9-3 with losses to Ohio State, USC and Clemson. It IS only Freeman’s second season — and this team has something to prove after losses to Marshall and Stanford last year. The offense features one of the best offensive lines and a talented group of running backs, but there were multiple staff moves, including the internal promotion of tight ends coach Gerad Parker to offensive coordinator. To be a complete CFP contender, the Irish will need to be more dominant on their defensive line, particularly against Ohio State. They lost top pass-rushers Isaiah Foskey and Jayson Ademilola. Marshall, Navy and USC all ran for more than 200 yards against Notre Dame last year, and the defense surrendered at least 32 points in the final four games. — Dinich
Best case: Making the College Football Playoff. The Ducks have the quarterback to do it, they have the talent and depth to do it, and, if Dan Lanning’s hire was any indication, they should have the defense to do it, too. Additions such as edge rusher Jordan Burch from South Carolina, safety Evan Williams and even true freshman Matayo Uiagalelei should give that side of the ball an improvement they badly need, while two SEC wide receivers (Dont’e Thornton Jr. and Traeshon Holden) will give quarterback Bo Nix more firepower to play with. Their toughest games (Utah, USC, Washington and Oregon State) are all interrupted by a game that, on paper, should be easier for the Ducks, meaning there’s no absolutely brutal stretch to their schedule. While USC may be getting more attention, the Ducks have just as good a chance to win the conference in what will also be their final year in the Pac-12.
Worst case: The Ducks’ talent makes their floor pretty high. Things could go wrong if there’s a key injury or two, but their depth should be good enough to keep them afloat in the case of anything unforeseen. The defense needs serious improvement since it will face not just Texas Tech early on, but also the Pac-12’s gauntlet of elite quarterbacks. Matching last year’s win total of 10 should be more than doable, and it’s hard to see them dropping lower than nine wins. Missing the Pac-12 championship would make the season a disappointment, but if the Ducks don’t tighten things up on both sides of the ball, especially late in games, that’s a definite possibility once again this year. — Uggetti
Best case: Another Big 12 run is well within reach, particularly if the Horned Frogs’ additions are as good as advertised. Chandler Morris finally gets his turn in Sonny Dykes’ QB machine, Trey Sanders gives TCU a bruising back to fill Kendre Miller’s shoes, a restocked WR corps is even deeper than last year’s star-heavy crew, and the Frogs are back lighting up scoreboards. The key will be replacing some key stars on defense, but if the defense can take a step forward, then all of a sudden, TCU will be a big player in the national scene again (they’ll have plenty of eyeballs in Week 1 against Colorado and Coach Prime). The Frogs are potential favorites in their first six games until a stretch that includes a Big 12 title rematch at Kansas State, a trip to Lubbock against a talented Texas Tech team and then the Longhorns coming to town Nov. 11. If TCU survives that stretch, there’s a big game at 11 a.m. on Black Friday against Oklahoma.
Worst case: Year 1 is a tough bar to clear for Dykes and the Frogs, as the coach debuted with one of the most remarkable seasons in college football history. A new offensive coordinator in Kendal Briles and a new starter in Chandler Morris, along with new faces all over the offense, could see some growing pains. If the defense isn’t stingy enough to cover for them, there are land mines in a trip to Houston and against Dykes’ old team when SMU visits. With a backloaded schedule, things could get messy down the stretch. It’s mathematically unlikely for TCU to win all those late games they won last year, and an 8-5 season could feel like a letdown. — Wilson
Best case: A Big 12 title repeat. The Wildcats face plenty of potential toss-up games — home games against TCU and a potentially resurgent Baylor, road trips to Missouri, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Texas (and rival Kansas???) — but they might only be a true underdog once, at Texas. If their remodeled receiving corps and secondary hold up and they find some of the same late-game magic that drove them win three of four one-score finishes last year, they have a clear path to another Big 12 championship appearance. And if you can make it to the big game, you can win it. They probably have too many toss-ups to win them all and reach the CFP, but an 11-2 season and title repeat are on the table.
Worst case: It’s really hard to win most or all of your close games for two straight years. If said receiver and secondary turnover flips the big-play battle in favor of KSU opponents, it could also flip quite a few games. In the Big 12, you’re constantly playing in tight contests, and if most or all of them go against the Wildcats, a floor of 6-6 or so — the same regular-season record that last year’s defending Big 12 champion (Baylor) suffered — is a possibility. — Bill Connelly
Best case: Winning the Pac-12. Seriously. The Beavers remain one of the most underrated teams — not just in the Pac-12, but in the country. There’s little flash or star power on the roster, but plenty of top-tier talent and depth that gives OSU one of the best defenses in the West. The offense is truly the question, but if the addition of D.J. Uiagalelei pays off and he fits into the current offense without a hitch, the combination of the former Clemson quarterback and rising sophomore running Damien Martinez — who had an outstanding freshman campaign — could give this team the extra boost it needs. Remember: This…