The 2023 season was unforgettable for Florida State. The Seminoles finally capitalized on years of potential with a 13-0 season and ACC championship — both firsts since 2014. Bookending the perfect record was a three-touchdown win over LSU and likely Heisman winner Jayden Daniels in the season opener and a pair of end-of-season victories without star quarterback Jordan Travis.
That triumph turned to heartbreak, however, when the College Football Playoff committee, considering Travis’ injury, nudged the Seminoles out of the field in unprecedented fashion. Never before had an undefeated power-conference champion been left out of the four-team field.
Winning in the margins given such adversity is difficult for any team, and the Seminoles should be celebrated (and rewarded) justly. At the same time, that celebration is clouded by the decision of the CFP’s selection committee and its impact on the rest of the season.
The Seminoles stood above as the biggest winner and loser of college football in 2023, but plenty of others deserve mention in the final season of college football as we know it. The Pac-12 is set to scatter after more than 100 years; the four-team College Football Playoff expands to 12; Texas and Oklahoma leave historic rivals for the SEC; California and Stanford will soon have to play conference games in Boston.
College football is a double-sided coin. It brings joy and heartbreak that can define a program. Now, it’s time to look back at the biggest swings that will stick with us from the 2023 college football season. Only seven of the preseason AP Top 25 teams fell out of the rankings compared to 16 last year. Most of the top programs in the sport will look back on this season as a success. For others, it’s not as simple.
Here are the biggest winners and losers of the 2023 college football season.
Texas: By any measure, the Longhorns are actually “back.” Texas was selected as the Big 12’s preseason favorite and went on to roll through conference play, only picking up one loss against rival Oklahoma. The Longhorns went on the road and beat Alabama in Week 2, still perhaps the most impressive win of the entire season. Now, Texas has a realistic shot to win the national championship for only the second time in the last 50 years. This is everything Texas prayed could happen when it hired Steve Sarkisian and announced plans to move to the SEC. The Longhorns are building a power in Austin.
Pac-12 football: It’s a deep injustice that the Pac-12 is crumbling, but the conference gave us a swan song for the ages. The league championship was a legitimate CFP play-in game between Oregon and Washington. Four Pac-12 teams finished ranked in the CFP top 20, and four others had at least a stint in the polls. Arizona was one of the surprise teams in the sport, overcoming a bad loss against Mississippi State to finish in the top 15, a masterful performance from Jedd Fisch’s squad. Two of the four Heisman Trophy finalists hail from the conference. Colorado brought crazy attention in the first year of the Deion Sanders era, posting several of the most-watched games in the sport. This was not only the best year of Pac-12 football in quite some time, it was the must-watch conference in college football in 2023.
Northwestern coach David Braun: Few programs had to deal with what Northwestern dealt with in 2023. The Wildcats fired coach Pat Fitzgerald just weeks before camp started amid a hazing scandal and promoted first-year defensive coordinator David Braun to the interim job before even coaching a game. Braun responded by flipping a 1-11 team to 7-5, the program’s best non-pandemic season since 2018. Two additional conference losses came by just one score. After the season, Braun was promoted to the full-time position. Braun comes from the North Dakota State tree and has an opportunity to build another robust program in Evanston.
Transfer quarterbacks: Three quarterbacks were named finalists for the Heisman Trophy this week. All three, amazingly, were transfers. LSU’s Jayden Daniels (from Arizona State) is the betting favorite for the award, while Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. (Indiana) led his squad to the College Football Playoff. Oregon’s Bo Nix (Auburn) led a resurgent Oregon squad and put together historic numbers. They joined fellow transfers Dillon Gabriel, Cameron Ward, Caleb Williams, Jacob Zeno and Kaidon Salter as some of the most productive quarterbacks in the country.
More than 100 quarterbacks have entered the transfer portal since Monday, including at least 15 sitting Power Five starting quarterbacks. Nebraska coach Matt Rhule claimed in November that a quality starting quarterback can cost seven figures in the portal. This is only the beginning of the transfer quarterback carousel.
SMU: The Mustangs got off to a 2-2 start and looked a little disappointing early in the season. Then, the buzzsaw dropped. SMU blew through its final AAC slate to the tune of 8-0, capped off by a 26-14 victory over Tulane in the AAC Championship Game. The run was truly historic for the Mustangs. SMU has not won a conference championship since 1984, two years before the NCAA’s death penalty. It captured the third 11-win season in program history, trailing only the 1935 squad for most wins in a season. Just as important, the program locked in coach Rhett Lashlee to a contract through 2029.
New Mexico State: Last season, coach Jerry Kill led the Aggies to their first winning season since 2017 and second since 2002. This season, Kill proved that he’s just getting started when New Mexico State went on the road and crushed Auburn 31-10, the first win over an SEC team in program history. The Aggies won 10 games for the first time since they were members of the Border Intercollegiate Athletic Association in 1960. Kill and New Mexico State have been a perfect fit. Perhaps just as exciting, New Mexico State’s success has brought added urgency to other programs in the region. UTEP (Scotty Walden) and New Mexico (Bronco Mendenhall) both invested big in exciting new hires. The Land of Enchantment is set to play its best football … ever?
Ohio State coach Ryan Day: An emotional post-game tirade directed at Lou Holtz was a defining moment Day’s 2023 season. Following a tough, physical win over Notre Dame, Day challenged any notion (and, with Holtz by name, any person claiming) that his team was soft. But for the third straight year against rival Michigan, Day couldn’t muscle the win he needed most. The last time Ohio State lost three straight games against Michigan was 1997. Following the season, Ohio State lost starting quarterback Kyle McCord to the transfer portal. Receivers Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka, as well as running backs TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Williams, are NFL-caliber players, so their futures are uncertain. The Buckeyes are starting over on offense, which is the last thing Day needs as he enters the new era of the Big Ten on the hot seat.
USC: For all intents and purposes, Lincoln Riley has never had a bad season as a head coach. Previously, his worst was his last at Oklahoma in 2021 — a 10-2 campaign that ended with a top-10 finish. That ended in 2023 when the Trojans stumbled to a brutal 7-5 record despite returning Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams. USC lost five of its last six games during the streak, and it needed a failed 2-point conversion against Cal and triple-overtime to beat Arizona. Otherwise, the Trojans would have missed a bowl game. Now, Riley faces existential questions about his ability to build a program from the ground up. Williams is gone, along with a handful of the program’s top talent. This is the biggest moment of Riley’s career.
Big 12 newcomers: Houston, UCF, BYU and Cincinnati all entered the Big 12 after years of success in their previous respective stops. However, entering the power conferences was a different challenge entirely. The quartet combined to go 18-30 and 8-28 in conference play during their first Big 12 season. For comparison, they went a combined 78-29 over the previous two seasons playing in the Group of Five. All four programs will have to go back to the drawing board and try to revamp their rosters and depth. The task only gets more difficult as Utah, Arizona, Arizona State and Colorado join the mix next season.
Arkansas: After back-to-back winning seasons under Sam Pittman, the Razorbacks tanked in 2023. Arkansas nabbed just one conference win, a 39-36 overtime upset against a bad Florida team. The other three wins were over FIU, Kent State and Western Carolina. More concerning, the last two losses were by a combined 96-24 after firing offensive coordinator Dan Enos. Arkansas is hoping that former Hogs coach Bobby Petrino can fix the offense next year, but this is a terrible time to fall behind.
Pittsburgh: The Panthers were starting to become a consistent power under coach Pat Narduzzi, but 2023 undid a tremendous amount of work. Despite being picked in the top half of the preseason ACC poll, Pitt flew down the rankings and finished just 3-9 overall. If not for a bizarre, shocking 38-21 victory over ACC finalist Louisville, the Panthers would sit alone as the worst team in the ACC. Since winning the ACC in 2021, Narduzzi has been stubborn offensively and stayed away from the high-flying attack that led the title run. The Panthers are back in the offensive coordinator market after firing Frank Cignetti Jr. Will Narduzzi learn from his mistake?
The Bluebonnet Battle: Baylor and TCU picked an unfortunate year to debut their new rivalry trophy as both programs posted wildly disappointing seasons. TCU had a miracle run to the national championship game last year, but all the magic was gone in 2023. The Frogs went 0-4 in one-score games and astonishingly missed a bowl game. Baylor, somehow, was even worse. The Bears were hard to place in the preseason but absolutely no one had them projected to finish with the worst record in the conference just two years removed from a Big 12 championship. At one time, Baylor and TCU appeared on track to be the signature programs of the “new” Big 12. Now, both programs are at major risk of setting themselves back for years.
UAB: While Deion Sanders got most of the attention for being a player-turned-coach, Trent Dilfer quietly took over a consistent winner at UAB. The Blazers posted six straight winning seasons under Bill Clark, dating back to the reinstatement of the football program in 2017. It took just one year for the system to collapse. In Dilfer’s first season, UAB went 4-8, the worst season in Birmingham since 2013. The losses averaged 18.4 points per game, a miserable performance for one of the proudest programs in the Group of Five.