Way-too-early Power 5 conference championship game predictions for 2023
Already wondering who will play in next year’s college football conference championship games?
Good. We’ve got you covered.
Until the transfer portal re-opens in May, we have a good idea of who every contender will have back next season. NFL Draft declarations have been made. The initial postseason wave of transfers is complete.
There will be some talented incoming freshmen signing in February, and another round of transfers from May 1-15. But unless something groundbreaking happens in those windows, the favorites are pretty well established.
There will be a significant adjustment in 2 conferences next season. Both the ACC and Pac-12 are doing away with divisional champions. In each conference, the 2 teams with the best records will meet for the title. The Big Ten and SEC, on the other hand, will continue with their East vs. West arrangements until each conference expands to 16 teams.
Here is who each of our columnists — Saturday Road’s Brett Friedlander, Saturday Tradition’s Alex Hickey, Saturday Out West’s Jon Gold and Saturday Down South’s Connor O’Gara and — expects to see in next year’s conference championship games. (We didn’t include the Big 12 because that league is adding 4 teams and won’t release its schedule until later in January.)
ACC: Clemson vs. Florida State
Clemson and Florida State are the clear-cut favorites in the ACC. There are others that could challenge, of course. But given Clemson’s hiring of Garrett Riley as OC to work with quarterback Cade Klubnik and the return of Florida State stars Jordan Travis, Jared Verse and others — along with the addition of Fentrell Cypress — the gap between the Tigers, Noles and the rest of the conference (at least at this point) seems pretty large.
In previous years, those 2 teams would have had to battle it out for the Atlantic Division title. Only one could have made the conference title game. But with the ACC doing away with divisions, it is now possible for them to meet again in Charlotte in the ACC Championship. (Clemson and FSU are permanent partners, by the way, in the ACC’s new 3-5-5 scheduling model.)
Other than those 2, the next most likely candidates are Drake Maye and the Tar Heels — provided they can play any defense at all — and Pitt because of Pat Narduzzi.
— Brett Friedlander, ACC columnist for Saturday Road
B1G: Michigan vs. Wisconsin
It’s the battle of which state should have possession of the Upper Peninsula, though the stakes will only be the Big Ten title and a College Football Playoff berth.
On paper, Michigan appears to be the most experienced national championship contender in the country next season. Led by running back Blake Corum, multiple draft-eligible Wolverines announced their return to Ann Arbor. JJ McCarthy didn’t have a draft decision to make, yet, but he’s also back to lead an offense that scored 566 points — the 3rd-highest total in program history and most since 1904.
There is a potential complication, however.
Ohio State and Penn State will be potential Playoff contenders next season. It’s possible, though unlikely, that all 3 teams could finish 11-1 with Michigan beating Penn State, Penn State beating Ohio State, and Ohio State beating Michigan. In that scenario, the division champ could be determined by the Big Ten’s 8th tiebreaker: a random draw.
Really, that’s a thing. And it could come into play next season.
As for the West, Wisconsin coach Luke Fickell looks poised to accomplish the same feat as USC’s Lincoln Riley and TCU’s Sonny Dykes in 2022: Get his team to the conference championship game in his first season.
Led by new offensive coordinator Phil Longo and SMU transfer quarterback Tanner Mordecai, these will be unlike any Badgers you’ve ever seen. And though the B1G West is home to several of the nation’s best defenses, not many of them are accustomed to facing the up-tempo attack Wisconsin will feature next season.
Wisconsin will have a chance to finish a couple of games in front of any other West contender. If you had to bet the Badgers vs. the field, Wisconsin would be the pick.
— Alex Hickey, Big Ten columnist for Saturday Tradition
Pac-12: USC vs. Washington
A year after the Pac-12 did away with division champions, we’ll find ourselves with a traditional North-South matchup in the title game — which will also be USC’s final game in the conference it has called home for 100 years.
USC was on the doorstep of the Playoff last season but couldn’t get it done. With Heisman winner Caleb Williams back for a repeat performance, the Trojans are set up for another big year. But it will all be for nothing unless that putrid defense takes a big step forward.
The Huskies bring back a ton of talent aside from just their Heisman candidate quarterback, Michael Penix Jr. Had guys like Bralen Trice and Rome Odunze left for the NFL or transfer portal, the Huskies would be looking at a 2- or 3-game regression. As it stands, it’s Rose Bowl or bust for UDub. And yes, next year the Rose Bowl is a Playoff semifinal.
Oregon, Oregon State and 2-time defending Pac-12 champ Utah won’t go down without a fight, though.
— Jon Gold, Pac-12 columnist for Saturday Out West
SEC: Alabama vs. Georgia
I hate to be boring, but the answer is Alabama and Georgia.
How can you pick against Georgia knowing that the majority of that defense is set to return and whoever becomes the starting quarterback is going to be absolutely loaded with pass-catching options?
Everyone has already penciled Georgia in for 12-0, but even 11-1 should be good enough to get to Atlanta once again.
As tempting as it is to say a team like Tennessee or South Carolina could enter the fray, I’m reminded that Georgia’s last East loss came in the middle of 2020. Oh, and a UGA team that lost 15 players to the NFL Draft after the 2021 season dominated both of those teams in 2022.
Kirby Smart fought against complacency in a historic way in 2022, and I’d expect that to be the case again in 2023. Somehow, the Dawgs will feel disrespected that I mentioned 11-1 is a possibility.
Go figure that Alabama is a bit more debatable of a pick coming off a year in which LSU beat the Tide and won the SEC West and ultimately, the Tide spent December saying “what if?”
Yes, Bryce Young and Will Anderson are generational players to replace. But this is usually when Alabama is most dangerous.
People don’t talk about the fact that the Tide only won it all once after starting as a preseason No. 1 under Nick Saban. Those other 5 rings came after offseasons like this one.
While I don’t think it’s fair to assume that Young’s successor will turn into a bona fide star, I also don’t know how one can predict LSU to go at least 11-1 with a win in Tuscaloosa. Why 11-1? Saban has never had consecutive seasons with multiple regular season losses. I don’t expect that to change in 2023.
— Connor O’Gara, SEC columnist for Saturday Down South