At the time, Nick Saban was probably unaware he was creating a monster. Saban’s singular focus on winning and the process of maintaining dominance made him the king of college football. He has won seven national championships, including six as Alabama coach.
The monster Saban helped create was Kirby Smart, who served as his defensive coordinator from 2008 to 2015, when the Crimson Tide won four titles. Smart got his head-coaching start at Georgia in 2016, and look who’s on top now.
The Bulldogs have won 29 of 30 games the past two years and are eyeing a national championship three-peat, a feat not even accomplished by Saban. Smart has become the new dominant force of the Southeastern Conference, and Georgia has earned the right to be the starting point for VSiN’s college football power rankings in 2023.
“I still have Georgia No. 1, so I’m definitely buying in,” South Point sports book director Chris Andrews said. “It seems like they are reloading every year, and I hate to use that expression, but it’s really true.”
After winning the 2021 title, the Bulldogs had a record 15 players selected in the 2022 NFL Draft. Smart reloaded and went 15-0 to record back-to-back championships. Georgia lost 10 players in this year’s draft, including two-year starting quarterback Stetson Bennett. It’s remarkable a program could lose 25 players to the draft in two years and remain preseason No. 1.
The Bulldogs’ projected starting quarterback is sophomore Carson Beck, who attempted only 35 passes last year, and some might see a new QB as a sign of weakness. But Alabama and Ohio State also must replace star quarterbacks — Bryce Young and CJ Stroud, respectively — so no other team is an obvious pick to knock Georgia from the top spot.
“I’m just not sure who I would power-rate over Georgia,” Fox Sports analyst Chris “The Bear” Fallica said. “Ohio State lost a ton, including on the offensive line, which most are not talking about. I guess Michigan would be the answer, but are we buying into that team which gave up 51 points to TCU in the playoff? It almost feels like a by-default situation. I do know someone who sees Georgia every day and said this is the best two-deep Smart has had. Maybe not the best from an elite NFL draft-pick standpoint right now, but they are stacked. It’s on the QB.”
From a quarterback standpoint, USC owns the best starting point in reigning Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams. The Trojans were a win away from the four-team playoff last season before falling to Utah in the Pac-12 title game, and coach Lincoln Riley has more horses in his second season.
Paul Stone, a college football handicapper from Texas, said LSU and USC are teams with second-year coaches that could make the playoff if any other top teams stumble. Brian Kelly won 10 games in his first year with the Tigers and returns quarterback Jayden Daniels.
“I believe the landscape in college football is ripe for a team outside the usual suspects to make the playoff," Stone said. "Georgia, Ohio State and Alabama all have first-time starting quarterbacks, so the door’s at least slightly open.”
Stone offered his analysis of several teams and provided his power rankings, which I combined with my own rankings to form the VSiN preseason Top 25.
I have suspicions about the superiority of this team, but there’s no proof of significant decline, and a soft schedule will help the Bulldogs avoid upsets while their new quarterback matures. Georgia’s only true road tests will be at Auburn (Sept. 30) and Tennessee (Nov. 18), so Kirby Smart should be secure at the top until reaching the SEC title game.
2. Ohio State
The schedule is stacked against the Buckeyes, who play Notre Dame, Wisconsin and Michigan on the road, so they face a few high hurdles on the way to the playoff.
Stone: “Ohio State has some uncertainty at quarterback entering the season, but if Kyle McCord or Devin Brown can just be good — they don’t have to be great — the Buckeyes will once again field one of the nation’s premier offenses. Ohio State is absolutely loaded at both receiver and running back and will be better defensively.”
Caleb Williams passed for 4,537 yards and 42 touchdowns with only five interceptions while rushing for 10 touchdowns last season. He’s the college version of Patrick Mahomes and the likely No. 1 pick of the draft. A defense that allowed 29.2 points per game returns nine starters and adds several transfers, including tackle Bear Alexander (Georgia) and linebacker Mason Cobb (Oklahoma State). I rank the Trojans No. 2, and Stone ranks them No. 6. "USC’s Achilles’ heel last year was clearly its defense,” Stone said, “but the Trojans will be significantly improved on that side of the ball through transfer additions."
Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh has won back-to-back Big Ten titles and brings back his most productive offensive players — quarterback J.J. McCarthy and running backs Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards. The defense is a minor concern after getting exposed in last season’s final two games against Purdue and TCU.
Jayden Daniels is the top returning quarterback in the SEC, and linebacker Harold Perkins could be the conference’s top defensive player. Brian Kelly’s first year in Baton Rouge produced a victory over Alabama and a 20-point loss to Georgia in the SEC title game.
It’s tough to rank the Tide outside the top five, but Nick Saban has only 10 starters returning and must replace quarterback Bryce Young and both coordinators. Young worked some miracles to get Alabama to 11-2. Ty Simpson, Jalen Milroe and Notre Dame transfer Tyler Buchner are battling for the starting quarterback job.
Sophomore quarterback Cade Klubnik has some questions to answer after a poor finish to last season, but he’s a dual threat with a lot of talent. The Tigers also return running back Will Shipley, an experienced offensive line and eight defensive starters.
8. Penn State
The Nittany Lions won 11 games, losing only to Michigan and Ohio State, and return eight starters on both sides of the ball. Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen form an elite backfield tandem, and new quarterback Drew Allar could be an upgrade at the position.
The Big 12 preseason favorite, Texas has not won the league since 2009. The Longhorns have stayed Under their win total in 10 of the past 11 years, so underachieving is a long trend. Third-year sophomore Quinn Ewers leads an offense that should be explosive. The schedule is far from easy, and coach Steve Sarkisian is one game over .500 after two seasons in Austin. According to Stone, “Texas clearly has the best roster in the Big 12, and there are no glaring weaknesses. If Ewers can take the next step and fulfill his immense promise, the Longhorns could be one of college football’s biggest stories.”
Kalen DeBoer took an offense that averaged 21.5 points the previous year and improved it to 39.7 ppg in his debut as coach. Michael Penix ranked second in the nation with 4,641 passing yards last season, and Jalen McMillan and Rome Odunze are elite receivers. The Huskies will be a legit threat to win the Pac-12, so circle their Nov. 4 game at USC.
11. Florida State
The development of quarterback Jordan Travis, who passed for 24 touchdowns and rushed for seven, was the key to coach Mike Norvell’s turnaround to 10-3 in his third season in Tallahassee. The Seminoles, who return 17 starters, will get tested against LSU and Clemson in September.
12. Notre Dame
Sam Hartman, a transfer from Wake Forest, will give the Irish the quarterback play they need to complement coach Marcus Freeman’s veteran defense. Ohio State and USC visit South Bend.
Expect a big bounce-back season for the Badgers, who return 18 starters and get a quarterback upgrade from SMU transfer Tanner Mordecai. Braelon Allen and Chez Mellusi will lead a powerful running attack. New coach Luke Fickell will design one of the nation’s top defenses.
Ducks coach Dan Lanning, a former Georgia defensive coordinator, enters his second year with eight starters back on both sides of the ball. Senior quarterback Bo Nix, a burnout at Auburn, was rejuvenated last season in a new conference and accounted for 43 total touchdowns.
The Volunteers must replace star quarterback Hendon Hooker, who beat LSU and Alabama, and former Michigan transfer Joe Milton has been a talented enigma in his career. Still, most signs are encouraging for coach Josh Heupel after an 11-win season and a dominant 31-14 victory over Clemson in the Orange Bowl.
Kyle Whittingham is a classic tough-guy coach who could have the toughest offensive and defensive lines in the Pac-12. The Utes finished 10-4 in each of the past two seasons and won the conference championship game in a blowout each year. Senior quarterback Cameron Rising suffered a torn ACL in the Rose Bowl loss to Penn State, but he’s reportedly ahead of schedule in rehab and expects to be ready for the Aug. 31 opener against Florida.
17. Texas A&M
The Aggies (5-7) were a jumbo disappointment for coach Jimbo Fisher last year, but he’s got 20 starters returning and gambled on hiring Bobby Petrino as offensive coordinator.
18. Kansas State
Chris Klieman, the Big 12’s best coach, knocked off TCU in the conference title game, and he’s got eight starters back on offense. Running back Deuce Vaughn will be missed, but veteran quarterback Will Howard is a winner.
19. Oregon State
Jonathan Smith’s work in Corvallis has been extraordinary, coaching the Beavers from 2-10 in his first year to 10-3 in his fifth year. The new quarterback is Clemson transfer DJ Uiagalelei, who was inconsistent while going 22-6 as the starter. Oregon State went 12-1 at home the past two years and hosts UCLA, Utah and Washington.
Despite his efforts to escape Oxford and get to Auburn, coach Lane Kiffin is back with nine starters on offense and seven on defense. He has three quarterbacks — Jaxson Dart, Oklahoma State transfer Spencer Sanders and freshman Walker Howard — competing for the top job. The schedule will take Kiffin to Alabama, Auburn and Georgia.
Brent Venables was a bust in his first year as a head coach. The Sooners finished 6-7 for their first losing record since 1998. Oklahoma, which suffered five losses by seven points or fewer, faces a weaker schedule, and quarterback Dillon Gabriel returns.
Michigan transfer Cade McNamara will be the new quarterback for the Hawkeyes, who were in desperate need of a competent passer. The defense will be typically strong. Iowa will challenge Wisconsin atop the Big Ten West.
23. Texas Tech
Eleven starters return on offense, including quarterback Tyler Shough, and six on defense for underrated coach Joey McGuire. Don’t be too surprised if the Red Raiders are playing for a Big 12 title on Nov. 24 at Texas.
24. North Carolina
Drake Maye passed for 4,321 yards and 38 touchdowns last season. He also ran for 698 yards and seven scores. He’s the likely No. 2 draft pick behind USC’s Williams. The Tar Heels bring back 17 starters for coach Mack Brown.
A fall from the Top 25 would not be surprising for the Horned Frogs, who were crushed 65-7 by Georgia in the national title game and waved goodbye to quarterback Max Duggan. TCU coach Sonny Dykes gets the benefit of the doubt with this ranking.