Halfway through the 2023 season, the national championship race feels more wide open than it has been in years.
But is it really?
“I think I would say if there was a 12-team playoff this year, it would be tremendous,” Fox analyst and former Washington quarterback Brock Huard said.
That will have to until 2024. For now, the College Football Playoff is still a four-team bracket (and the first rankings are coming up on Oct. 31).
The CFP era has been mostly dominated by super teams. An exclusive group of programs have had a realistic shot at winning a national title. Five teams have split up the nine CFP championships: Alabama has three, Clemson and Georgia have 2 each and LSU and Ohio State each have one.
Coming into this year it looked like defending national champion Georgia and Michigan, coming off two straight playoff appearances, would be a cut above the rest with the usual suspects of Ohio State and Alabama closest behind.
With half the season in the books, No. 1 Georgia and No. 2 Michigan have not lost or budged from their spots at the top of the AP Top 25.
But in the eyes of poll voters, the field has gained on the Bulldogs and Wolverines. This week, No. 3 Ohio State, No. 4 Florida State and No. 5 Washington all received first-place votes. No. 8 Texas also made a case for No. 1 before being losing to No. 6 Oklahoma.
The top teams in the country are either unbeaten or in the case of No. 9 Oregon and No. 11 Alabama, beaten only by another highly ranked team.
“NIL has kept players like (Washington quarterback) Michael Penix on campus. The transfer portal has leveled the playing field as far as depth goes in a lot of places,” Huard said.
The first tier might seem more crowded this season because it’s filled with high-ceiling programs. The top nine teams in the country have all won at least one national championship or played for a BCS title or reached the CFP — or some combination of the three. And that doesn’t include No. 11 Alabama.
The analytics seem to be telling a similar story.
ESPN’s SP+ has the difference between Michigan at No. 1 and Alabama at No. 9 as a mere five points.
For comparison, at this point last season, the difference between the top team in SP+, Ohio State, and No. 5 Tennessee was seven points and Tennessee was almost seven points better than No. 11 Utah. The difference this year between No. 5 Texas and No. 11 Florida State is about four points, according to SP+
“I’m seeing it as an 11-team race right now,” ESPN’s Bill Connelly, the brains behind SP+, said on the GameDay Podcast.
Here’s a caveat, and a hunch: There is a chance Georgia and Michigan emerge as a tier all to themselves, though reaching peak performance just got tougher for the Bulldogs after star tight end Brock Bowers was sidelined with an ankle injury.
The schedules for both the Wolverines and Bulldogs pick up significantly in the second half. If they can be at their best against their best opponents, the separation at the top come playoff time could look a lot more like it has in recent years.
Midseason highlights, low-lights and awards, and predictions for the second half.
Surprise team: No. 16 Duke
It has been a chalky season so far. Twenty of the 25 teams currently ranked were in the preseason poll.
The Blue Devils (5-1) get the nod as the most pleasant surprise halfway through the season. Regression was predicted for coach Mike Elko’s team after it won nine games in his debut last year. Instead, Duke started the season by beating Clemson and went toe-to-toe with No. 15 Notre Dame. The back half of the schedule is tough but even an eight-win season would exceed expectations.
Disappointing team: Clemson.
This might be overly harsh, and look foolish in a few weeks. The Tigers (4-2) still look capable of closing strong behind a really good defense. But when Clemson is eliminated from playoff contention and buried in the ACC standings before the end of September it’s a disappointment.
Most frustrating for Clemson fans is the offense is still mediocre after the splashy offseason hiring of coordinator Garrett Riley.
In a couple weeks the answer to this question might be No. 18 Southern California.
Best game: Washington 36, Oregon 33.
The Huskies and Ducks played 60 minutes of intense and intriguing football and did so at a remarkably high level. The Pac-12 (and soon-to-be Big Ten) rivals combined to run 145 offensive plays and committed one turnover and 10 penalties.
September sensation: Colorado.
Coach Deion Sanders’ transfer-heavy team became must-see TV while getting off to a 3-0 start. Reality has set in since, but the Buffaloes were great for the content business for a few weeks.
Halfway Heisman: Jayden Daniels, LSU.
Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. emerged from the Oregon game as the new favorite to win the Heisman Trophy after USC’s Caleb Williams played the worst game of his career against Notre Dame on the same day.
Still, Daniels is the choice here. No. 19 LSU (5-2) has serious defensive issues, and if not for Daniels, who leads the nation in total offense at 401 yards per game, the Tigers would likely have another loss or two.
Coach of the first half: Kyle Whittingham, Utah
Coach awards can be a little weird because they usually go to the guy leading the team that most exceeded preseason expectations.
On the surface that’s not the 14th-ranked Utes (5-1), but keeping this team afloat without what figured to be its two best offensive players — QB Cam Rising (knee) and TE Brant Kuithe (knee) — has been a testament to Whittingham and his staff.
It could also be tough to keep it up.
— Texas A&M finishes 7-5 and pays a nearly $78 million buyout to fire coach Jimbo Fisher. UTSA coach Jeff Traylor is hired to replace him.
— The Heisman Trophy usually goes to a player on a team that enters championship weekend in playoff contention. That probably won’t be Daniels. The race will come down to Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy, Florida State’s Jordan Travis and Penix. The Huskies’ prolific passer becomes Washington’s first Heisman winner.
New Year’s Six Bowls
Fiesta Bowl: Air Force vs. Washington.
Cotton Bowl: Oklahoma vs. Penn State.
Orange Bowl: Florida State vs. Ohio State.
Peach Bowl: Alabama vs. North Carolina.
Rose Bowl: Michigan vs. Oregon.
Sugar Bowl: Georgia vs. Texas.
National championship: Georgia vs. Michigan. The Bulldogs pull off the three-peat.