More than a month after finishing the season with back-to-back losses, including a convincing home loss to rival Michigan and a 42-41 loss to eventual national champion Georgia in the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl, Ohio State coach Ryan Day conceded both games still sting.
“You’re talking about one or two plays, one or two calls, and that hurts, it does,” he said. “… When you get that close, and you don’t win the rivalry game, they sting, and certainly they wake you up in the morning.”
And so it begins again — the motivation, the winter workouts and eventually spring practices — with the intent to reassert themselves as the best in their league. The Buckeyes are in good company, as heavyweights Alabama, Clemson and USC also have something to prove. What unfolds this fall will be a product of how certain questions are answered now.
Here are five offseason questions that will have a direct impact on the 2023 season — the final season of a four-team College Football Playoff before it expands to 12 teams in 2024.
Can Alabama regain control of the SEC after losing both coordinators and its top two players?
Is Tommy Rees the right fit as offensive coordinator at Alabama?
Paul Finebaum reacts to Alabama hiring Notre Dame offensive coordinator Tommy Rees to the same position.
Following back-to-back national titles, Georgia is the undisputed heavyweight of the SEC and the sport. That doesn’t mean Alabama has surrendered its dynasty — yet — but the Tide’s current challenge is twofold: close the gap with Georgia and hold off surging programs Tennessee and LSU, the two teams it lost to in 2022.
The committee showed last year that Alabama doesn’t make the playoff on its name alone. The Tide was eliminated because it finished with two regular-season losses, didn’t play for the SEC title, and wasn’t as fundamentally sound or disciplined as past semifinalist teams. Alabama was No. 126 in the country last year with 7.92 penalties per game and ranked No. 123 with an average of 68.7 penalty yards per game. The Tide was No. 80 in the country with a minus-two turnover margin.
In addition to cleaning up those mistakes, Alabama coach Nick Saban has been tasked with replenishing his roster and staff. Alabama loses two of the best players in the country in linebacker Will Anderson Jr. and quarterback Bryce Young. The Tide also replaced defensive coordinator Pete Golding, who took the same position at Ole Miss, and offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien, who accepted the same position with the New England Patriots.
Saban recently hired Notre Dame offensive coordinator Tommy Rees and longtime defensive coordinator Kevin Steele from Miami. Saban and Steele have known each other for about 40 years, so no surprises there or time needed to get acclimated. It’s a different story for Rees, a rising star who has the opportunity of a lifetime if he can learn how to work for Saban and help the Tide run the ball more effectively.
If Saban can reload as he typically does, the schedule works in the Tide’s favor, with home games against Texas, Tennessee and LSU — including a bye week to prepare for the Tigers on Nov. 4. A nonconference win against a Texas team that should contend for the Big 12 title will impress the committee, but for the Tide to return to the CFP, it has to return to the SEC championship game first. The work to get there begins now.
Can Ohio State reassert itself as the Big Ten’s best without C.J. Stroud?
Ohio State’s offense was one of the nation’s best in nearly every relevant statistical category last year, but it’s one of the team’s biggest unknowns this offseason.
Playcalling and quarterback are the two biggest question areas, and coach Ryan Day has said he hopes to have answers by the end of the spring. Day is contemplating relinquishing his playcalling duties during the season and will give rookie offensive coordinator Brian Hartline the opportunity to call plays this spring. The Buckeyes must find a new quarterback to execute those plays with Stroud heading to the NFL.
Sophomore Kyle McCord and Devin Brown are the front-runners to replace Stroud, and Day said the biggest difference between the two of them is McCord’s additional year of experience. McCord started one game in 2021 as a true freshman and has 58 total pass attempts. Brown, who joined Ohio State last winter, has 15 snaps in two games, but threw for 4,881 yards and 57 touchdowns as a senior at Corner Canyon High School in Utah.
“It’s going to be a heck of a competition,” Day said. “I’m really looking forward to seeing it. They both have a little bit of a different skill set, and it’s going to be fun to watch them compete this spring. I hope one of them emerges and we can name a starter, I really do, because I think the way that our dynamic is, it would be great for our program to be able to do that.”
For Ohio State to beat Michigan, though, and win its first national title under Day, the Buckeyes must also eliminate giving up big plays on defense. According to ESPN’s Stats & Information, Ohio State allowed 16 plays of 20-plus yards across their final two games last season (six against Michigan; 10 against Georgia). Ohio State allowed 14 offensive touchdowns of 20-plus yards last season; half of those came over its final two games (five against Michigan; two against Georgia).
With no divisions, can Clemson AND Florida State resurrect the ACC’s playoff profile?
After winning two national titles in three years (2016 and 2018), Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has gone 21-6 the past two seasons. Critics have pointed to a drop-off in the Tigers’ offense, but it could be on the upswing again with Cade Klubnik taking over at quarterback, the return of four starting offensive linemen and the hire of offensive coordinator Garrett Riley from TCU.
“I just felt like it was the right time, and we weren’t quite where we needed to be,” Swinney said of hiring Riley. “I have no doubt he’s going to make us better offensively.”
But can Clemson win the ACC at a time when Florida State is poised for a playoff run of its own under coach Mike Norvell?
The ACC, which has dismantled its divisions and this fall will pit its top two teams against each other in the conference championship game, should be a fascinating race highlighted by the two former Atlantic Division rivals. This could open the door for both Clemson and Florida State to have a top-four finish if their only losses are to each other — during the regular season and then the ACC championship game. Clemson would have wins against Notre Dame and South Carolina, while Florida State would have defeated LSU and Florida along the way.
Can USC find its defense?
The Trojans have the reigning Heisman Trophy winner in quarterback Caleb Williams. They’re oozing talent (again) and have a manageable schedule that should result in an 6-0 start heading into the Oct. 14 trip to Notre Dame.
But USC has the same issues Oklahoma had under Riley — an all-too-forgiving defense. USC lost only one regular-season game last fall, but it allowed Utah to score 43 points in that game. Then USC lost 47-24 to Utah in the Pac-12 championship game with a playoff berth on the line.
The Oct. 21 game against Utah this fall will again be critical to USC’s playoff hopes, but it’s going to take more than that. With nonconference games against San Jose State and Nevada to start the season, USC needs to hope the committee has other Pac-12 teams and Notre Dame in its top 25. It also has to show the committee some major strides on defense along the way, as that was a shortcoming the group noticed last fall during deliberations.
USC had 156 total missed tackles last year, ranking No. 120 in the country. The Trojans ranked No. 124 in opponents yards per play (6.53), No. 117 in opponents yards per rush attempt (4.98), and most importantly, No. 112 in points allowed (409) and No. 94 in points allowed per game (29.21).
Can any of the Big 12 newcomers take advantage of a Power 5 playoff path?
The 14-team Big 12 will include newcomers BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF this fall, while league co-founders Texas and Oklahoma remain members before leaving for the SEC in 2024.
With nine league games and no divisions, it could be the nation’s most interesting conference race. The top two teams by conference win percentage will play in the Big 12 conference title game — which means any of those newcomers now have a more realistic shot at the CFP.
Strength of schedule in this new-look Big 12 will not be nearly as much of an issue in the selection committee meeting room as it was for the previous American Athletic Conference members. When Cincinnati became the first Group of 5 team to finish in the top four, it was undefeated with a win against Notre Dame, which was huge in the eyes of the committee.
Now? Cincinnati has road trips to Pitt and BYU and it has to win the state of Oklahoma. Houston has the welcome gift of hosting Texas before back-to-back road trips at K-State and Baylor. UCF will experience conference road games at K-State, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas Tech. BYU is the only one of the four that will face Texas AND Oklahoma this fall.
The committee won’t have questions about the validity of any of the Big 12’s new teams, it’s more a matter of if any of them can escape their schedule with a playoff-worthy record.