The 10 most intriguing figures in college football this season

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With the first official games less than three weeks away, the 2023 college football season is fast approaching. And there are a lot of intriguing players and coaches across the landscape. Our list of the 10 most intriguing figures in college football includes the defending Heisman winner, an offensive coordinator with a points-per-game incentive in his contract and a coach who won’t be on the sidelines in Week 1.

*List is in alphabetical order.

The highly touted 2022 recruit and 2023 Heisman dark horse takes over at QB for the team best positioned to challenge Michigan and Ohio State in the Big Ten.

After throwing for 344 yards and four TDs on 60 attempts in limited playing time as a freshman, Allar will have a strong supporting cast in his first season as a starter. Kent State transfer Dante Cephas joins a receiving corps that brings back Keandre Lambert-Smith and Theo Johnson, and RB Nicholas Singleton averaged almost seven yards a carry in 2022.

If Allar is as good as advertised, the Penn State offense has the chance to be really, really good in 2023 and make the Nittany Lions a contender for the College Football Playoff.

The former five-star recruit is the No. 3 betting favorite to win the Heisman Trophy behind USC QB Caleb Williams and LSU QB Jayden Daniels. His 2022 shoulder injury left Texas fans to wonder if the Longhorns could have won 10 games a season ago.

Ewers was 9-of-12 for 134 yards before he was injured in the first half of the Longhorns’ 20-19 loss to Alabama in Week 2. Texas then lost at Texas Tech two weeks later while Ewers was sidelined. He returned to the field two weeks later against Oklahoma and threw for four TDs in UT’s 49-0 blowout win.

While the Texas offense loses star RB Bijan Robinson, WR Xavier Worthy is back along with the entire starting offensive line and WR Jordan Whittington and TE Ja’Tavion Sanders. Ewers has the talent to be a high first-round pick in the 2024 NFL Draft and be a serious contender for the Heisman ahead of the likely beginning of the Arch Manning era in 2024.

NASHVILLE, TN - DECEMBER 31: Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz is interviewed before the TransPerfect Music City Bowl game between the Kentucky Wildcats and the Iowa Hawkeyes on December 31, 2022, at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, TN (Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Brian Ferentz’s Iowa offense has to be better in 2023, right? (Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz

Ferentz has one of the most unique contracts in college football after Iowa’s disastrous 2022 offensive performance.

The Hawkeyes scored fewer than 18 points per game a season ago as Iowa QBs threw for just seven TDs over 13 games. While Iowa finished 2022 at 8-5, an average offense could have given the Hawkeyes a special season — the defense allowed just 13.3 points per game.

Such a bad offensive performance over the course of the season would cost most offensive coordinators their jobs. Instead, the son of coach Kirk Ferentz got a $50,000 pay decrease and had two interesting incentives added to his deal. If Iowa doesn’t score 25 points per game and wins at least seven games, Ferentz’s contract will terminate in June of 2024.

Unless things go horribly wrong, those incentives should be met. Iowa has won at least seven games in each full season since 2012 and two-thirds of FBS programs scored more than 25 points per game in 2022. The offense also has former Michigan QB Cade McNamara; he’s a significant upgrade over Spencer Petras and the other QBs who saw time for the Hawkeyes in 2022.

Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher and offensive coordinator Bobby Petrino

The most fascinating pairing of coach and offensive coordinator is in College Station. After two underachieving seasons on offense while being the team’s primary play caller, Fisher brought in the former Louisville coach to run the unit. But who will be calling plays? At first it looked certain that Petrino would be the play-caller, but Fisher made it seem like it’d be a collaborative effort.

“He’ll call a lot of — hopefully he’ll call the game,” Fisher said at SEC media days. “We’ll have suggestions on things we do, whether it’s offense or defense. Every coach is always involved.”

“It’s a more collective thing than people want to give it room for, but when you get to calling and you get on a roll, you’ve got to have a guy that can do it and I think Bobby can definitely do that, and does it as well as anybody in college football.”

Texas A&M faces a lot of expectations in 2023. If the Aggies don’t live up to them and the offense is a big reason why, we’re not sure what the next step will be.

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh speaks during an NCAA college football news conference at the Big Ten Conference media days at Lucas Oil Stadium, Thursday, July 27, 2023, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh is set to miss the first four weeks of the 2023 season. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh

The Wolverines are aiming for a third consecutive playoff berth and third straight win over Ohio State in 2023. And they’ll likely be starting the season without Harbaugh on the sidelines. Harbaugh is facing a four-game suspension for allegedly making false statements to NCAA investigators regarding a recruiting investigation.

Harbaugh declined to comment on any NCAA discipline at Big Ten media day, and we’re intrigued to see if he continues to stay quiet about the suspension after it concludes. If Harbaugh does find himself in the mood to talk about a suspension, he could have some sharp words about the NCAA and its processes.

Michigan shouldn’t suffer without Harbaugh to start the season. The Wolverines have one of the easiest non-conference schedules in the country with games against East Carolina, UNLV and Bowling Green at home before the first Big Ten game of the season against Rutgers. Harbaugh should be returning to a Michigan team that’s 4-0 and ranked in the top five.

Tennessee QB Joe Milton

The former Michigan quarterback takes over for Hendon Hooker at Tennessee and it’s not unfair to say that Tennessee’s chances of dethroning Georgia in the SEC East hinge on how well Milton performs.

Milton may have the strongest arm in college football and showed flashes of what he could do after Hooker went down with a torn ACL last season against South Carolina. He completed 68% of his passes for 251 yards and three TDs in the Orange Bowl against Clemson and finished with 10 passing TDs on 82 attempts in 2022.

While Tennessee lost WRs Jalin Hyatt and Cedric Tillman to the NFL, Bru McCoy and Squirrel White are back along with a loaded running back group. Milton has the ceiling to be as good as Hooker was in 2022 if it all comes together.

Alabama offensive coordinator Tommy Rees

The former Notre Dame quarterback ran an efficient offense in South Bend over the past three seasons and comes to Tuscaloosa as the Crimson Tide are looking for a quarterback to succeed Bryce Young.

At the moment, the quarterback competition is among Jalen Milroe, Ty Simpson and former Notre Dame QB Tyler Buchner. Rees is very familiar with Buchner and said that it’s been a “healthy transition” for Buchner into a familiar offensive philosophy. Buchner threw for more interceptions (eight) than TDs while at Notre Dame, but also rushed for seven scores in 13 games over two seasons.

No matter who is playing quarterback, you can bet the Alabama offense will look significantly different than it did in recent years with Bill O’Brien calling plays and Young throwing the ball. The running game and play-action passes look set to be much more of a focal point than they were over the last two seasons as the Alabama offense will adapt to the skill set of whoever is under center.

How much better will Colorado be in Deion Sanders' first season? (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)
How much better will Colorado be in Deion Sanders’ first season? (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

Colorado coach Deion Sanders

It’s obvious why Sanders is on this list, right? The outspoken former NFL star has overhauled the Buffaloes’ roster ahead of his first season in Boulder and the team’s last in the Pac-12.

Colorado should be a lot more competitive in 2023 than it was a season ago, but that’s a low bar to clear. Colorado was the worst Power Five program in the country in 2022.

A bowl game is probably asking too much, however, given the talent on both the offensive and defensive lines and Colorado’s schedule. The Buffaloes play TCU and Nebraska to open the season before a game against an improved Colorado State squad. The Pac-12 gauntlet includes Oregon, USC, Oregon State and Utah. But even if Colorado finishes the season with three or four wins, there will be a lot of optimism about the future.

USC QB Caleb Williams

Can Williams do what multiple quarterbacks before him have been unable to do? College football is still waiting for its first back-to-back Heisman winner since Archie Griffin, as numerous quarterbacks have had the chance to go back-to-back in the 2000s.

So far, the best finishes by defending Heisman winners since 2000 has been third. Matt Leinart was third in 2005, Tim Tebow was third in 2008 and Lamar Jackson finished third in 2017. Bryce Young was sixth in 2022 after winning in 2021.

Williams enters 2023 as the favorite for the Heisman Trophy and the likely No. 1 pick in the 2024 NFL Draft. He has every skill NFL teams look for in a modern quarterback and plays in an offense that maximizes those talents. USC was active in the transfer portal to replenish the offense around Williams and the Trojans are the favorites to win the Pac-12 in their last season before moving to the Big Ten.

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