No matter how college football's championship format looks, winning a conference title will always be celebrated.
In future years, earning a league crown will be especially important. The expanded College Football Playoff will include each power-conference champion. Looking at 2023, the reward might not be as high. But that won't stop the winners from proudly hoisting the trophy.
Three-plus months away from the opening kickoff, which 10 programs do you think will secure the hardware?
I have my early answers. The picks are subject to change—given the possibility of injuries, suspensions, transfers or other factors—but are a product of returning talent, incoming transfers, 2023 schedules and program trends.
AAC: UTSA Roadrunners
This revamped version of the AAC is full of question marks. Not only are we weighing year-to-year changes, but the league is welcoming six teams from Conference USA—including UTSA. There will be new environments and a lot less familiarity with league opponents.
Ultimately, the American feels like a four-program race of Memphis, SMU, Tulane and UTSA.
Memphis and SMU fit a similar mold as offense-driven teams that may struggle on the opposite side. Tulane returns a strong group of players from its 2022 champion team, as does UTSA—which won C-USA last season. Notably, starting quarterbacks Michael Pratt and Frank Harris are still with both programs, respectively.
UTSA is my early favorite because of its overall continuity. The team is built well enough to replace key wideout Zakhari Franklin, who nonetheless would be a major loss if he doesn't back out of the transfer portal. Plus, the Roadrunners miss Memphis and SMU in the regular season.
Tulane will likely be a factor, but UTSA has a definite path to a third straight conference (and first AAC) title.
ACC: Clemson Tigers
Clemson or Florida State? Florida State or Clemson?
Thanks to the ACC's new format, the September clash between the programs may only be Part 1 of a longer battle. No longer will the championship game feature the Atlantic and Coastal division winners; the league's top two teams will square off in Charlotte.
Florida State is a flashy and understandable pick. The roster brings back a heavy majority of its main contributors from a 10-win team and brought in several high-value transfers.
But I'm not picking against Clemson.
In a relatively down season, the Tigers were basically a one-point loss to South Carolina removed from a CFP trip. The defense should be outstanding, and quarterback Cade Klubnik has enormous potential.
Outside of Clemson and FSU, any other champion—say Pitt, Miami or North Carolina—would be a moderate surprise.
Big Ten: Michigan Wolverines
Spoiler alert: The champion will be the winner of The Game. Ohio State travels to Michigan for a Nov. 25 showdown in 2023.
Penn State presumably will have something to say here, considering the potential of the Nittany Lions defense. Still, the expectation is that the recent powerhouses will continue their Big Ten reign.
Michigan is the front-runner because of how thoroughly the Wolverines have outclassed OSU recently. Home-field advantage and a powerful running game can propel Michigan to another conference title—and, right or wrong, we'd start hearing more calls for Ryan Day's job if that happens.
Let's be serious, though: Ohio State is loaded at skill positions on offense and boasts what might be the nation's top defensive line. This is absolutely a Big Ten (and CFP) threat, too.
Wisconsin and Iowa headline the West contenders, but that division has continually lagged behind the East.
Big 12: Texas Longhorns
Texas is back—pause for laughter—to an extent.
I am not rushing to crown the Longhorns as a national championship threat. That can only happen if Texas beats Alabama and drops a single Big 12 contest or loses to Bama and avoids any conference loss. I do not believe that will be reality in 2023.
As a whole, the Big 12 has plenty of competitive, bowl-caliber teams thanks to the arrival of BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF. The result may be a season full of entertaining upsets.
In short: Expecting a TCU-level rise is awfully bold.
Texas, though, should be excited for a healthy Quinn Ewers and high-upside receiving corps. Perhaps more importantly, the defense made considerable improvements under first-year coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski.
Kansas State, the reigning champion, and Oklahoma are prime contenders in the final season that OU and Texas spend in the Big 12.
C-USA: Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
On paper, Liberty and Western Kentucky are the best teams in Conference USA. While it's fair to wonder if their defenses will hold up, the rest of the conference is suspect at best.
Middle Tennessee's offense has to reload. Louisiana Tech needs to find an effective defense. UTEP has become more competitive yet stumbled down the stretch in three consecutive years. New arrivals Jacksonville State and Sam Houston State aren't eligible to win a league title as they transition to the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Seems a bit messy, right?
Liberty's uncertainty at quarterback is the decisive point for me. Western Kentucky star Austin Reed entered the portal after throwing for 4,744 yards and 40 touchdowns but returned to the Hilltoppers.
In a conference filled with change and unbalanced teams, WKU enters the summer as a slim favorite.
MAC: Toledo Rockets
Back to the Toledo well, it appears. At least it worked in 2022.
For what feels like the eleventy-fourth straight year, the Rockets are my preseason front-runner. They have dropped four-plus MAC contests in only one season since 2010. They are the reliable team in a volatile league, and I—to a fault—like safety.
Returning quarterback? Check. Experienced playmakers and offensive line? You bet. Most of the defense? Got it.
While stability isn't as high at Buffalo, Miami or Ohio, each one holds championship potential. Miami has a promising defense, while Buffalo and Ohio have seasoned quarterbacks behind a veteran front—with the latter returning lots of skill, too. Ohio is Toledo's biggest challenger.
Nevertheless, the Rockets won the MAC in 2022, and their roster looks even stronger in 2023.
Mountain West: Boise State Broncos
Reigning champion Fresno State must overhaul its offense, so a new champion should be coming to the Mountain West.
And it might be a very familiar name.
In the last decade, Boise State has reached the MWC title game six times and won three championships. Led by quarterback Taylen Green, the offense should be great. While the overall schedule is brutal—the nonconference slate includes Washington, UCF and Memphis—Boise's league run is manageable. Notably, the Broncos host Air Force.
Beyond the longtime power, Air Force and Fresno State are intriguing because of their defenses. However, the level of turnover at offensive skill positions for both programs keeps them behind Boise.
San Diego State typically has a feisty defense but cannot be trusted until its offense scores 24-plus points consistently.
Pac-12: USC Trojans
Starting with any program but Utah feels inappropriate. In addition to back-to-back titles, the Utes have appeared in each Pac-12 Championship Game during the last four full seasons.
Thanks to the return of quarterback Cam Rising, Utah is again that level of contender. Once again, however, the Utes are not alone. Oregon, Oregon State and Washington all have compelling teams with experienced QBs—Oregon and UW especially—and USC padded the Caleb Williams-led roster with plenty of marquee transfers.
The cruel juxtaposition is the conference—which hasn't made the College Football Playoff since 2016—might actually keep itself out of the national championship race.
Can any program squeeze out an 11-1 record?
USC seems to have the strongest chance. Transfers have provided much-needed upgrades to the Trojans defense. It doesn't hurt to host Utah and Washington, either.
Because the Pac-12 has such a strong top tier, though, this opinion is very much liable to change about 17 times in the offseason.
SEC: Georgia Bulldogs
What a surprise.
The back-to-back national champs, Georgia has monstrous expectations in 2023. Kirby Smart will inevitably find a way to manipulate some underdog motivation, and the schedule is very appealing—provided UGA navigates Auburn and Tennessee on the road.
Really, the greater question is which SEC West program emerges to challenge the Dawgs. Alabama and LSU are highest on the presumptive list, followed by Ole Miss and Texas A&M.
No matter the answer, though, UGA looks better. Average QB play would solidify an exceptionally talented team, and my suspicion is Carson Beck wins the competition and is better than that anyway.
If the Big 12 and Pac-12 dismantle each other as predicted here, look for either the Big Ten or the SEC to land a second CFP team.
Sun Belt: Troy Trojans
Let's begin with a big ol' asterisk: James Madison would've played for the Sun Belt crown last season, but NCAA rules say a team transitioning to the FBS must wait two years for postseason eligibility. The NCAA denied JMU's waiver for 2023, as well.
So, despite the team's ability, JMU is only an indirect factor.
Coastal Carolina is otherwise the East front-runner after quarterback Grayson McCall elected to return. Appalachian State and Marshall are in the picture, but the former needs to replace quarterback Chase Brice and the latter travels to both CCU and App State.
In the West, another in-state battle is brewing. Troy edged South Alabama last season, and both programs are primed for another championship-worthy year in the conference.
While my earliest impression is South Alabama is a stronger team, Troy has a more favorable slate—USA travels to JMU in crossover play, but Troy avoids the Dukes—and hosts the October showdown between them.
Two fortunate breaks may be the difference in Troy's favor.