College football’s 2023 season: A thrilling ride from start to finish

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HOUSTON — All good things must come to an end, and so another college football season came to a close on Monday night.

As the confetti fell onto the compact turf of NRG Stadium in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game, so too did the curtain drop on an unforgettable 2023 season.

While it can be hard to distill the essence of such a run that began in the searing heat of August with fall camp and wound its way through to the surprisingly rain-soaked heart of Texas in the middle of winter, it’s not hard to pick out a handful of key storylines that came to define the year which just transpired.

With that in mind, here are 10 notable narratives that emerged from this past season and what you should take away from each.

Jim Harbaugh Reaches the CFP promised land

“The Team, The Team, The Team” is a constant and never-ending utterance around the halls of Michigan football. Though it is often said to underscore the bond and focus of the players and coaches within the program, it became a particularly appropriate phrase over the course of the Wolverines’ embattled 2023 campaign. They were thrust into the spotlight every week while navigating not one, but two, suspensions of their head coach and a sea of doubt that felt omnipresent everywhere but Ann Arbor. 

Yet The Team became The Team in Michigan lore, beating Washington 34-13 as a final stamp of dominance to secure a perfect 15-0 campaign and the school’s first national title since 1997. It also gave the winningest program in the sport its first undisputed national championship since 1948 and earned its head coach an elusive piece of hardware that only comes with winning the final game of the season. 

“Took on all comers. Last one standing. It’s a great feeling,” remarked a relieved and equally joyful Harbaugh after what could have been his final game in charge at his alma mater. “It couldn’t have gone better. It went exactly how we wanted it to go — to win every game.” 

That they did, surviving scandal (see below), a few close calls and some additional self-inflicted wounds to wind up unparalleled in 2023 and sitting proudly on the mountaintop of college football in the end.

What does Michigan winning the championship mean for the future of CFB?

What does Michigan winning the championship mean for the future of CFB?

The Year of Realignment breaks up the Pac-12

The makings of the latest round of conference realignment began two summers ago when Texas and Oklahoma announced their departure for the SEC, but it was this season when the most tectonic of moves was made in the form of the breakup of the Pac-12. Less than a week after preaching a united front at a hotel on the strip in blisteringly hot Las Vegas, Colorado became the first defection when the school announced it would be returning to the Big 12 in 2024. After a new media deal failed to materialize, a set of dominoes kicked off that led to Oregon and Washington joining USC and UCLA in the Big Ten while Utah, Arizona and Arizona State then decamped for the Big 12.

That left the once proud conference of champions on its last legs, with over a century-long run of schools being reduced to just Washington State and Oregon State. Several legal battles followed concurrently, which on the field had the air less of a disappointing breakup and far more of a sad goodbye from players, coaches, administrators and fans recognizing that West Coast football would not be the same.

Connor Stalions scandal

It’s not often that a low-level staff member becomes a household name, but that’s exactly what transpired as the world learned about former Michigan analyst Connor Stalions. The NCAA and Big Ten revealed an investigation into in-person scouting at opponent venues amid a sign-stealing saga that the former Naval Academy graduate was at the center of back in mid-October, casting a pall over the entirety of Michigan’s run to the title game and eventually leading to a second three-game suspension for head coach Jim Harbaugh. While the outcome of the investigations into the program figure to take several more months. 

Bruce Feldman provides exclusive update on Connor Stalions’ resignation

Bruce Feldman provides exclusive update on Connor Stalions' resignation

Coach Prime

Only in college football could a formerly one-win program capture the entire sporting world’s attention, but that was the case as August and September lived up to the moniker of Prime Time in the wake of Deion Sanders’ debut with Colorado. The Buffaloes and their boisterous head coach kicked things off with a massive upset of national runner-up TCU in their Big Noon Kickoff opener and kept things rolling with an entertaining victory over ex-Big 8 rival Nebraska the following week. A thrilling late comeback against Colorado State kept much of the country up past its bed time in Week 3 and thrust quarterback Shedeur Sanders firmly into the Heisman Trophy spotlight.

All good things must come to an end, however, as the hype train in Boulder seemed to be derailed with a pair of crushing defeats to Top-10 opponents to start off conference play. Injuries mounted, the sacks piled up and after looking like a lock to return to the postseason, Colorado won just one more game the rest of the season. While such a thud of an ending revealed just how much Sanders still had to do in returning CU to winning ways between the lines, it wasn’t a boring slide out of the headlines in any respect. 

Colorado’s Top 10 plays from the 2023 season

Colorado's Top 10 plays from the 2023 season

Florida State — on and off the field

Talkin’ about the ‘Noles? There was a lot of that in 2023 pretty much everywhere. A lot of credit has to be given to Mike Norvell and company for an enthralling campaign that saw FSU go undefeated in the regular season and capture the ACC title for the first time since 2014. However, a late-season injury to quarterback Jordan Travis not only knocked him out for the year, but it spawned the controversy of all College Football Playoff controversies when the Selection Committee left one of the Power 5 champions out of the semifinals. A rash of opt-outs led to a lopsided Orange Bowl loss and plenty of angry fans in garnet and gold.

As if that wasn’t enough, the school’s administration also openly decried its position in the ACC and vowed publicly to explore leaving the conference — filing a lawsuit to challenge the grant of rights just days after being left out of the CFP.

Jayden Daniels’ Heisman Run

This season’s Heisman race took more twists and turns than any in recent memory. Reigning winner Caleb Williams looked primed to win the award again before falling significantly off the pace after the midway mark while a half dozen other contenders rose and fell in his place as front-runner status felt like a baton being passed by players around the country from week to week. Through it all, Daniels’ incredible numbers and impressive heroics to carry LSU every Saturday emerged through the chaff to allow him to be named the most outstanding player in college football.

LSU’s Jayden Daniels wins Heisman Trophy. Who will win in 2024?

LSU’s Jayden Daniels wins Heisman Trophy. Who will win in 2024?

Coaching turnover

What would you do with $77 million? That’s a question that Jimbo Fisher surprisingly found himself wondering around Thanksgiving after Texas A&M backed up the Brinks truck for the biggest buyout ever paid by a school, sending their head coach packing after previously thinking he was the one to deliver an elusive national title. The move was easily the most notable of an active coaching carousel during and after the 2023 season but did not completely overshadow the likes of Michigan State poaching Jonathan Smith from his alma mater to fill their opening in East Lansing, Spencer Danielson getting the interim tag taken off after leading Boise State to a MWC title or San Diego State plucking Colorado OC Sean Lewis to inject some life into their offense.

The Fall of Troy

While the Pac-12’s emotional conclusion was an overarching thread that tied the West Coast together as the year wore on, there was also an equally notable secondary story emanating from Los Angeles as USC went from shooting star in Year 1 under Lincoln Riley to borderline disaster in the followup. Williams, the face of college football from his ubiquitous NIL deals that made him a commercial star, tried to do too much with nearly every dropback and faltered at times as the weight of being a reigning Heisman winner seemed to become apparent. As disappointing as his play was at times though, it was still mostly at a high level — something that couldn’t be said of the defense he was trying to make up for with each passing series. DC Alex Grinch was eventually fired mid-season, but it was too little and too late for a team that harbored CFP aspirations but fell incomprehensibly flat in the end.

USC fires defensive coordinaor Alex Grinch

USC fires defensive coordinaor Alex Grinch

Texas and Oklahoma’s Big 12 swan song

Realignment added an extra layer to a number of games on the calendar and was notably apparent in the Big 12, as Texas and Oklahoma bid farewell to many of the schools who were dragged through the ringer by the Longhorns and Sooners over two decades in the conference. While many fans showed their displeasure with their former rivals in every mocking S-E-C chant or by flashing the Horns down sign, it was mostly a case of 2023 being about the last laugh. OU wound up the winner in the final Big 12 edition of Red River while winning 10 games, and it was Texas that lifted the football championship trophy for the final time to help punch their CFP ticket in the process.  

The Drive for 325

Who calls a team’s offensive plays is often an inherently local topic of interest as wins come and go, there was a surprising amount of national focus on one of the most anemic attacks in the country as a result of Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz’ contract being changed before the season. In a unique set of language, the school had stipulated that the oft-criticized assistant needed to have the team score at least 25 points a game and win a minimum of seven times to have his deal extended beyond this upcoming summer. The Hawkeyes accomplished the latter as they wound up 10-4 on the year and won the Big Ten West, but it was a case of déjà vu on the latter as injuries, transfers and some downright mediocre play on that side of the ball saw them come up short in the points department. That didn’t stop fans inside and outside Iowa City from tracking the team’s progress toward scoring a total of 325 on the scoreboard however, with a 41-point outburst against Western Michigan being balanced out by continued struggles to find the end zone as conference play began. 

The school eventually announced mid-year that the younger Ferentz, the son of the head coach, would not return to his position but any sort of hope about an inspired run in the wake of such a proclamation failed to materialize as Iowa ended the season on a two-game losing streak that featured two offensive shutouts and the 132nd (out of 133) scoring offense. 

Bryan Fischer is a college football writer for FOX Sports. He has been covering college athletics for nearly two decades at outlets such as NBC Sports, CBS Sports, Yahoo! Sports and NFL.com among others. Follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.

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