20 June, 2023
The absence of the Cinderella story is one of the criticisms leveled against college football by people who dislike the sport. People who don’t follow college basketball throughout the regular season but fall in love with little colleges in March are the same ones who complain that the College Football Playoff is boring because it always features the same teams.
They are unaware that there are Cinderellas in college football, but they can only be found during the regular season and not the postseason. When no one anticipated it to win more than four games all season, a team that no one had great hopes for suddenly rises up and wins nine games, or even starts the season strong with a 6-0 record.
These Cinderella tales do have a way of sticking. They develop into strong programs that frequently make it to bowl games and even contend for conference titles. There were a lot of these stories throughout the 2022 season. However, they frequently revert to their pumpkin status. And now I’m here to deflate any inflated expectations by listing five Power Five programs that had successful seasons in 2022 but are probably going to regress in 2023.
Last year’s list included schools like Kentucky, Michigan State, Oklahoma State, Pitt, and Purdue. They went 36-29 last year after going a combined 53-14 in 2021 with those five. None of the five increased their victory total, however Purdue did win the Big Ten West despite only winning eight as opposed to nine games. All but Michigan State at least advanced to a bowl game. Will the five teams I mention this year experience the same outcomes? Most likely, yes.
It was a perfect way to make his Blue Devils debut for Mike Elko. In the Coastal competition for almost the entire 2022 season, Duke finished with a 9-4 record (5-3 in the ACC), but that is unlikely to happen again this year. The Blue Devils participated in seven one-score games last season, and while they weren’t particularly “lucky” in those games (they only finished 3-4), it shows that their final record overstates how superior they were to the opponents they faced.
Consider the schedule as well. Even though Miami and Virginia Tech combined to finish 8-15, Duke shouldn’t minimize its victories over both teams. However, do you know who Duke didn’t play last season? Maybe Florida State or Clemson. The two teams with a combined record of 21-6 are predicted to repeat as the top two in the league this season. Both are scheduled for 2023 by Duke. The Blue Devils play Clemson at home to start the season, and in late October, they travel to Florida State. Oh, and in September, they will also host Notre Dame, and four of their final six games will be away from home. Elko should be given Coach of the Year consideration in 2023 if they manage to win nine games once more.
It saddens me to say it, but I don’t think Illinois will be as good as the squad they were last year. After starting the year 7-1 with divisional victories over Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota, the Illini finished 8-5 but dropped four of their final five games. The lone victory after November 1 came against a 1-11 Northwestern squad. Yes, Illinois fought hard against Michigan in Ann Arbor and might have prevailed had it not been for several dubious calls made by the referees.
The 2023 season might be more difficult. A number of important pieces for Illinois’ defense were lost. Nearly the entire starting secondary at Purdue, where defensive coordinator Ryan Walters is now the head coach, is in the NFL. The good news is that, if not the greatest defensive line in the nation, the Illinois Illini should still have one of the finest defensive lines in the Big Ten. However, that secondary was crucial in forcing many of the turnovers that helped Illinois finish fifth nationally in points off turnover margin (+60).
The offensive is the other worry. Despite ranking in the lower half of the Power Five in several significant statistical categories last season, Illinois won eight games, and their workhorse running back Chase Brown is currently playing in the NFL. This team will struggle to win as many games if the defense slightly regresses (which is not absurd given the defeats and how fantastic it was last year) and the offense doesn’t make up for it. The good news for any Illinois fan reading this is that, under coach Bret Bielema, the days of three-win seasons are probably behind you. Then again, eight wins in 2023? I’m not certain.
There are a few football-related reasons to think Mississippi State won’t finish in the top 20 and win nine games once more in 2023, but the greatest one is something the team cannot change. Mike Leach’s passing dealt a terrible blow to both the sport and the Mississippi State team. Leach inscribed his name on the software, and the outcomes followed. In Leach’s second and third seasons, the Bulldogs increased their win total, but now they must rebuild under a new head coach in Zach Arnett, who is developing a new offensive strategy.
The Bulldogs’ schedule won’t be very kind to them either. Georgia won’t be on the schedule for them this year, and they’ll host Alabama and LSU, but they’ll travel to face South Carolina, Arkansas, Auburn, and Texas A&M. Since you are unlikely to win them anyplace, it is occasionally preferable to play your most difficult games away from home. Your “coin flip” games will be far less in your advantage once you take them on the road.
Yes, Purdue, I’ve got you back here for a second consecutive year. Even though Purdue’s record declined past season, the team still performed better than I had anticipated. It won the Big Ten West, after all. The fact is, despite the team’s outstanding win-loss record, the underlying data indicates that the Boilermakers did regress last season.
For instance, despite having an 8-6 record, Purdue gave up more points than it scored the previous season. It was one of just two teams in the nation to win at least eight games and have a poor point differential last season. The other was Coastal Carolina, which finished 9-4 despite losing 414-378.
In one-score games last season, Purdue had a 5-2 record. Its eight victories each had a margin of victory of 13.13 points. It lost six games, averaging -19.33 points per contest. Although the 63-7 loss to LSU in the Citrus Bowl skews the data, Purdue’s last four defeats have all been by a margin of at least two scores after two tight losses to Penn State and Syracuse in September. Usually, that’s not a good sign. There is a reason bookies have Purdue’s win total at five when you consider the new coaching staff, significant departures, and a schedule that includes Ohio State and Michigan.
Am I taking a risk by predicting that the team that had a preseason win total of 6.5 last season but went on to go 13-2 and make it to the national title game is inevitably going to regress this season? The Horned Frogs’ season in 2023 is almost certainly going to be worse than it was this year. Even still, the decline might be bigger than most people think. Their season-opening win total from bookies is only 7.5.
Why? First things first, TCU lost a ton of output from the team from the previous season. TCU is ranked 118th nationwide in Bill Connelly’s returning production metric, which he releases annually for ESPN.com. The Frogs also lost their offensive coordinator, Garrett Riley, to Clemson, but I still think this team will score touchdowns because Sonny Dykes is still in Fort Worth and Kendall Briles has been hired.
Even though the Frogs had a successful season last year, some luck must be discounted. No team in the nation, aside from Troy, had as many victories by a single point as TCU’s six, and the Frogs went 6-1 in those contests. They won nine of their 13 games by no more than 10 points. They only defeated Tarleton State, Oklahoma, and Iowa State by a margin of at least three. Of those three, Tarleton State was the only one to have a winning record at the end of the previous campaign.