Clemson’s offense is in trouble! Arch Manning is all hype! There’s no way Georgia can three-peat!
Not so fast.
Spring football is prime time for overreactions. So with spring games wrapped up and the latest transfer portal window closed, let’s go through some of the season’s hottest takes while also providing a reality check for each one.
Alabama will return to the College Football Playoff
Spectating hasn’t been part of “The Process” under Nick Saban at Alabama. But that’s what the Crimson Tide were last season come College Football Playoff time — spectators. They watched from home as Georgia captured its second straight national championship. Alabama has been to every playoff but two since the 2014 season, but it will be back on college football’s grand stage in 2023. Saban likes the makeup of his new-look coaching staff, and there’s an edge and physicality to this team that might have been lacking a year ago. There’s also plenty of motivation — or the “yummy” rat poison — as Saban calls it. Already, we’re starting to hear (yet again) that the window is closing on Alabama’s dynasty and that perhaps Saban’s best days are behind him. The last time we heard that, Alabama won two of the next three national titles and played in four straight national championship games. There’s plenty of blossoming talent on this team in receiver Malik Benson, defensive tackle Jaheim Oatis, offensive guard Tyler Booker, offensive tackle Kadyn Proctor, running back Jam Miller and safety Caleb Downs. Talent or depth won’t be a problem in 2023.
Reality check: Yes, there’s the obvious question about quarterback. It’s a fair one: If the Crimson Tide can’t win a national title with Bryce Young (they did win an SEC title), is it realistic to expect them to win with Jalen Milroe or Ty Simpson, and now, last-minute Notre Dame transfer Tyler Buchner? How well Alabama is able to run the football this season will be a key, and look for the defense to be much more aggressive in forcing turnovers and negative plays. It also helps that just about all of Alabama’s toughest opponents (LSU, Ole Miss, Tennessee and Texas) have to visit Bryant-Denny Stadium in 2023. So probably best not to sleep on the Tide.
— Chris Low
Colorado will compete in the Pac-12
The Deion Sanders experiment has been a phenomenon in Boulder. Everything about it. An overnight transformation from a program fading toward irrelevancy to one of the most talked-about in college football is nearly impossible in the sport. Yet, here the Buffs are. The hype matters, too. Without talent, there is no winning. And the most important thing Sanders has accomplished is that he’s made CU a place where sought-after players want to compete. With every player who enters the portal to leave, there is seemingly several more — mostly better — players ready to step into that scholarship spot. By the time the roster movement stabilizes prior to next season, the Buffs will have a roster capable of competing in the Pac-12. Now, let’s be clear: Having the ability to compete does not mean Colorado is suddenly a betting favorite to win the conference. But a betting slip for that to actually happen might not turn to trash until the middle of the season.
Reality check: Taking away the 2020 season for obvious reasons, Colorado’s second-best record in the Pac-12 since joining the conference was 3-6 (twice). Let’s pump the brakes and watch an actual game before expecting someone who has never coached at the FBS level try to win games against several proven commodities.
— Kyle Bonagura
Arch Manning can’t contribute this year
Texas fans rose to their feet as Arch Manning entered the Longhorns’ spring game and seemed to be holding their breath on every play. It was their first glimpse of perhaps the most famous recruit of his generation, a new line in football royalty. So when Manning struggled in his first appearance in a Longhorns uniform, completing 5 of 13 pass attempts for 30 yards, the message boards lit up. After arriving to much fanfare, Manning finished the spring as the third-string quarterback behind returning starter Quinn Ewers and redshirt freshman Maalik Murphy, a four-star recruit last year. Ewers looked comfortable, completing 16 of 23 passes for 195 yards and a touchdown, and Murphy showed off his arm, completing 9 of 13 for 165 yards, including a 79-yard touchdown to another freshman, Johntay Cook II. Manning, it seems, has a long way to go.
Reality check: Manning was often playing with backups and several other freshmen, and only coach Steve Sarkisian knows the plan for what he hoped to show off in the spring game. Manning spent most of the day on the move: On his 20 dropbacks, he was sacked four times (including three times on his last drive), scrambled three times for 15 yards and was hurried three more times on the 13 occasions in which he actually got rid of the ball. Ewers was sacked three times, but on 27 dropbacks with zero hurries, and Murphy wasn’t sacked or hurried. The freshman could take his lumps, but there’s not much to judge off this one performance, until he gets to play with the line and receivers his counterparts do.
— Dave Wilson
The Pac-12 preseason conversation likely will center on USC, led by reigning Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams, and two-time defending league champion Utah. But Washington might be the most complete team in the conference. After watching the Huskies practice on a beautiful morning — thank you, Seattle weather gods — I came away impressed with the star power on both sides of the ball. Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. might become Williams’ primary challenger for the Heisman. He will throw to two 1,000-yard receivers (Rome Odunze and Jalen McMillan) and a good group of tight ends, and play behind a solid line that protected him well in 2022. The key is the Huskies’ defense, which had been the program’s calling card until recently, but could soon be again. Washington returns one of the nation’s best edge-rushing tandems in Bralen Trice and Zion Tupuola-Fetui. There’s optimism at linebacker with Edefuan Ulofoshio and USC transfer Ralen Goforth. If the secondary can avoid injuries, the unit could be significantly better. I also liked how confident Washington’s players were in setting big goals for the season.
Reality check: Washington’s schedule is an absolute grind, as the Huskies face Boise State and Michigan State in nonleague play, and open November with USC, Utah and Oregon State. The defense is filled with talented players who have some troubling injury histories, too, so a wait-and-see approach there makes sense.
— Adam Rittenberg
The Clemson offense isn’t fixed!
If you tuned in to watch the Clemson spring game, you saw an offense that looked average … again. But how could that be with Garrett Riley as offensive coordinator? GASP! When Dabo Swinney decided to make perhaps the splashiest hire of the college football offseason, there came with it raised expectations. If anyone could get the Tigers back to the offensive production that had been missing the past two seasons, it would be Riley. After all, he helped Max Duggan go from backup to Heisman finalist, as TCU made it into the national championship game. Surely, he would immediately do the same with Cade Klubnik. But once the spring game rolled around, Klubnik had some good plays and some bad — throwing two interceptions and no touchdown passes. His first-team offense moved in starts and stops, and while we got a small glimpse of what plays Riley could potentially rely on, it was hard to come away from the spring game and think, “Everything is all better now!” Afterward, Klubnik conceded there were “lots of ups and downs,” but he also said he feels comfortable in the offense. “I would just say I feel like I’m playing like me again,” he said. “I feel comfortable to step out there and I don’t have to play for anybody I just get to go play free. I just feel at peace right now.”
Reality check: There is no reason to read into how Clemson looked on offense and think it’s doomsday all over again. Clemson played without several key players, including running back Will Shipley, three starters on the offensive line and receivers Beaux Collins and Adam Randall. Defenses tend to be ahead of offenses in spring games, and that was the case here. That’s especially true this year as Klubnik and his teammates adjust to a new scheme. Plus, Riley wasn’t going to give away everything for opponents to scout with his playcalls, so we still don’t really know how this will all look once the season opens. One spring game performance should not damper the enthusiasm for 2023.
— Andrea Adelson
Georgia can’t win three national championships in a row
No team in modern FBS history has won three straight national championships. Georgia, which waited 41 years to win a national title before finally getting over the hump in 2021, will have a chance to do it this coming season. After setting an NFL draft record with 15 players being selected in 2022, including five defensive starters in the first round, Georgia still managed to finish 15-0 and win its second straight CFP National Championship this past season. The Bulldogs had three more players — defensive tackle Jalen Carter, offensive tackle Broderick Jones and edge rusher Nolan Smith — picked in the first round on Thursday. They also lost quarterback Stetson Bennett, tailback Kenny McIntosh, cornerback Kelee Ringo and tight end Darnell Washington to the pros. Perhaps more importantly, offensive coordinator Todd Monken, who helped Kirby Smart get his program past the finish line, left for the same position with the Baltimore Ravens. Former Colorado State coach Mike Bobo, who played quarterback at Georgia, is back for his second tenure as his alma mater’s playcaller.
Reality check: Until someone knocks off Georgia in the SEC, it will be among the favorites to win a national championship every season. Smart and his staff have stockpiled that much talent in Athens, Georgia. Safety Malaki Starks and end Mykel Williams were starters as freshmen last season. Georgia’s linebacker corps — Jamon Dumas-Johnson, Smael Mondon Jr. and Jalon Walker — is as good as any in the FBS. Carson Beck will probably end up winning the quarterback job, and he’ll have All-America tight end Brock Bowers and a deep receiver corps to work with. Georgia’s offensive line should have won the Joe Moore Award last season, and it’s going to be good again. After canceling a nonconference game against Oklahoma, the Bulldogs will play nonconference games against FCS program UT Martin, Ball State, UAB and Georgia Tech. They won’t play Alabama, LSU or Mississippi State during conference play. They’ll be heavy favorites in every game going into a Nov. 18 showdown at Tennessee.
— Mark Schlabach
Sam Hartman will struggle at Notre Dame
Hartman has always had his doubters, even as he was rewriting the ACC record book at Wake Forest, but his decision to transfer to Notre Dame for a sixth season certainly came with some questions — questions that grew even more prominent after the coach who recruited him there, offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, bolted for Alabama. It’s one thing for Hartman to throw for a million yards in Wake’s unique offensive attack (and one that had its share of top receiving talent, too). It’s another thing to assume Hartman’s role in that offense will translate well to Notre Dame’s more pro-style approach on a team with bigger questions at receiver and a far bigger spotlight put on the program. Hartman often shunned media during his time at low-key Wake, but at Notre Dame, each pass will come with a slew of second-guessers. The questions were on display early in spring, too, as coach Marcus Freeman suggested last month that the QB competition between Hartman and incumbent Buchner could go all the way to fall camp.
Reality check: Well, so much for that QB competition. Hartman delivered in Notre Dame’s spring game, completing 13 of 16 passes for 189 yards and two touchdowns in a little less than a half. Freeman gushed over Hartman’s development when it was over, noting the slow start to spring was understandable for a guy who’d just arrived in South Bend, but the version fans saw in the finale was what the team expected from the veteran QB. It was such an impressive performance, in fact, that Buchner opted to follow Rees to Tuscaloosa, announcing a transfer to Alabama on April 27. If Hartman’s late-spring performance wasn’t enough to quiet the doubters entirely, it at least served notice that he’s the clear-cut QB1 for the Irish, and his five years at Wake Forest have prepared him for a quick transition to his new home.
— David Hale
You don’t sign a five-star quarterback away from a conference rival — the highest-rated QB in school history, no less — to let him sit on the bench while there’s no surefire starter on the roster. College football is no longer the sport in which freshmen come in and bide their time, especially not quarterbacks, and Moore is no different. Not only does he ooze with talent, but during a spring camp that has featured five Bruins quarterbacks pining for the job, Moore has stood out. Chip Kelly will never tip his hand on a decision, and it’s likely that a starter won’t be named until deep into fall camp, but Moore’s dual-threat ability and overall poise at a young age has set him up well to supplant Kelly’s longtime quarterback in Westwood — Dorian Thompson-Robinson. In fact, Moore has been spending time with and learning from DTR on campus while the longtime staple of the Bruins offense prepared for the NFL draft.
Reality check: For all his talent, Moore has no college experience, and the leap from high school ball to Saturdays is one not many quarterbacks make well. Kelly is coming off his best season since he took the coaching job at UCLA, and while Moore’s ceiling is skyscraper high, there’s a line of thinking that could push Kelly toward a safer choice such as redshirt junior Ethan Garbers, who backed up DTR last season, or incoming Kent State transfer Collin Schlee in order to assure another solid, though not spectacular, season.
— Paolo Uggetti