Jon Wilner’s ‘ridiculously early’ 2023 Top-25 college football rankings

The Hotline’s 16th annual early top-25 rankings are unlike any in recent years in their leftward lean.

The Pac-12 leads all conferences with six representatives, followed by the Big 12 and SEC with five each and the Big Ten with four.

Credit a stellar lineup of quarterbacks for the Pac-12’s placement atop the heap.

Then again, projections of this nature have become exponentially more difficult — some might say ludicrous — with the creation of the transfer portal, which closes next week and reopens in May.

Speaking of May: Our not-quite-as-early-top-25 rankings will be published after spring practice, followed by the Hotline’s preseason Top 25 during training camp.

Also considered: Baylor, Coastal Carolina, Fresno State, Iowa, Louisville, Minnesota, Mississippi, NC State, North Carolina, Oklahoma State, Pittsburgh, Purdue, Troy and UTSA

1. Georgia: The NFL attrition will be heavy (again), and the Bulldogs must find a replacement for quarterback Stetson Bennett. But they are better equipped to dominate the 2023 season than any other team based on rosters at this point. And we’re not sure it’s close.

2. Michigan: With stout lines of scrimmage, loads of talented tailbacks and the return of quarterback JJ McCarthy, the rugged Wolverines are built to beat Ohio State and well positioned for a Big Ten threepeat … unless, of course, Jim Harbaugh declares for the NFL.

3. Alabama: Nick Saban began preparing for Bryce Young’s departure before Young even became the starter — such is the nature of the Crimson Tide’s recruiting machinery. The last time Saban did not make the CFP (2019), he won the national title the following year. Don’t be surprised if that cycle repeats.

4. LSU: The Tigers are set at quarterback with Jayden Daniels’ return and possess the SEC’s best defender in linebacker Harold Perkins. And LSU being LSU, the other 20 positions have more than enough talent for coach Brian Kelly to duel with Alabama for supremacy in the SEC West.

5. Washington: The best team in the Pac-12 at the end of 2022 looks like the best for the beginning of 2023 with the return of quarterback Michael Penix, a slew of playmakers and several premier edge rushers. Our question: To what extent, if any, will the offensive line regress?

6. Ohio State: CJ Stroud’s successor will have a stellar array of tailbacks and receivers available. We’re more interested in what second-year defensive coordinator Jim Knowles conjures from a unit that has been far from dominant in big games. This is a huge season in Columbus after back-to-back losses to Michigan.

7. Notre Dame: The outlook brightened considerably last week when the top quarterback on the transfer market, Wake Forest’s Sam Hartman, selected the Irish and filled their greatest need. Add the fruits of all those top-10 recruiting classes, and Notre Dame should return to relevance.

8. Florida State: The Seminoles quietly produced a 10-win season for coach Mike Norvell, and they are stacked with returning talent. (The list starts with quarterback Jordan Travis.) Also worth noting: With Clemson no longer dominant, there is opportunity galore in the ACC.

9. Oregon: Continued success in Eugene was secured when quarterback Bo Nix announced his return for ’23. There are holes to fill on the offensive line, but our focus is on the other side of the scrimmage: Can second-year coach Dan Lanning craft a championship defense?

10. Kansas State: We’re predicting a repeat for the 2022 Big 12 champions, who beat TCU in the conference title game on their way to a 10-4 season. Coach Chris Klieman has proven (repeatedly) that he can maximize the talent at hand.

11. USC: We expect more of the same from the Trojans (ie, stellar offense, wobbly defense), but with one notable change: Their incredible turnover margin cannot be repeated. That reversion to the mean will result in two or three regular-season losses.

12. TCU: So much broke right for the Horned Frogs to produce this incredible season, it’s difficult to envision an encore. That said, Sonny Dykes’ program will remain highly relevant in a Big 12 that welcomes Houston, Cincinnati, BYU and UCF next season.

13. Penn State: The Nittany Lions returned to prominence in 2022 after two mediocre seasons, and the ascent should continue with an elite group of playmakers offsetting the loss of quarterback Sean Clifford. Don’t rule out a Big Ten title, especially if Harbaugh leaves Ann Arbor.

14. Clemson: Have the Tigers slipped, or has their ACC competition (finally) improved? We believe it’s some of both as coach Dabo Swinney clings to dominance.

15. Oregon State: One of the best-run programs on the West Coast should produce another high-level season as long as one of the quarterbacks produces consistently. And the options now include Clemson transfer DJ Uiagalelei.

16. Tennessee: Dynamic quarterback Hendon Hooker is off to the NFL; same with star receiver Jalin Hyatt. But Josh Heupel will find a way to plug-and-play and generate another first-rate season in Knoxville. Can he close the gap on Georgia? We’re skeptical.

17. Utah: It’s difficult to get an accurate reading on the Utes given the uncertainty over quarterback Cam Rising’s recovery from a leg injury in the Rose Bowl. (“It doesn’t look good,” coach Kyle Whittingham said after the game.) But the two-time defending Pac-12 champs are long past the point where significant regression is a threat. The floor is eight wins; the ceiling, 11.

18. Texas Tech: The Red Raiders finished with four consecutive wins and beat Ole Miss decisively in the Texas Bowl. The upturn under rookie coach Joey McGuire should continue.

19. Wisconsin: The Badgers executed one of the top coaching hires of the winter by luring Luke Fickell away from Cincinnati. He inherits a roster talented enough to win the Big Ten West. Then again, the Big Ten West is a muddled mass of mediocrity.

20. Tulane: Quarterback Michael Pratt, who engineered the dramatic Cotton Bowl rally that topped USC, has already announced his return for 2023. And best we can tell, miracle-working coach Willie Fritz isn’t going anywhere. The Green Wave wasn’t a one-hit wonder.

21. South Carolina: While the outlook doesn’t depend entirely on quarterback Spencer Rattler’s decision — he hasn’t declared for the NFL draft, yet — we reserve the right to reassess the Gamecocks’ placement once Rattler’s immediate future is official.

22. Texas: Dare we suggest that quarterback Arch Manning’s rookie season in Austin might be underwhelming while Steve Sarkisian’s third season could produce an upside surprise? Nope, we won’t suggest that. Never.

23. UCLA: We have checked and rechecked and, yes, Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s eligibility has finally expired. But a breakthrough season hinges as much on upgrading the turnstile defense as it does finding a replacement for DRT.

24. Oklahoma: A deeply disappointing rookie year under Brent Venables — the Sooners lost four games by a field goal — will be followed by a not-as-disappointing Year Two. But we don’t foresee a serious run at the Big 12 title in what could be the Sooners’ final season in the conference.

25. Boise State: It took a few weeks too many for the Broncos to figure things out offensively in 2022. That shouldn’t be an issue next season.

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