College football teams with the potential to overachieve in 2023
The TCU Horned Frogs weren’t supposed to make it to the College Football Playoff National Championship last year. Depending on where you looked, Sonny Dykes’ team was listed as high as +23000 to win the national title before the season. But the Horned Frogs ended up going 12-0 during the regular season, which was good enough to book them a spot in the College Football Playoff despite losing to the Kansas State Wildcats in the Big 12 Championship Game.
From there, TCU beat the second-ranked Michigan Wolverines, 51-45, in a thriller in the College Football Playoff Semifinal. And the magical run ultimately ended with a blowout loss at the hands of the Georgia Bulldogs, who rolled to a 65-7 victory to win the national title.
A lot of things had to break right for TCU to do what it did last season. It started with Max Duggan turning into a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate in Garrett Riley’s first year running the Horned Frogs offense. TCU also got some solid play out of its defense, which allowed only 25.0 points per game on the year. That was just good enough to support the ninth-best scoring offense in the country. The Horned Frogs also had some good luck in close games throughout the regular season.
Will there be another TCU in 2023? Probably not. But there are surely some bettors out there that are hoping to find the next one, or something similar. So, here’s a list of some teams with the potential to overachieve and sneak into the College Football Playoff this season. None of these odds will be as outrageous as what the Horned Frogs were going for last year, but these are all very enticing payouts.
Oklahoma Sooners (+700 to make College Football Playoff / +6000 to win national title)
Last year, Oklahoma’s defense was a complete trainwreck and the team still lost five games by seven points or fewer. If the Sooners can significantly improve upon last year’s 29.6 points per game allowed, it isn’t out of the question that this team flips things around in a big way. And it’s hard to envision Oklahoma not making a sizable leap on that side of the ball.
The Sooners should be a lot more comfortable in Year 2 of Brent Venables’ scheme. This is a guy that constantly pumped out elite defenses in his time at Clemson, so this isn’t the side of the ball that we should even be worrying about. But last year was such a disaster that there are some question marks heading into the season. Fortunately for Oklahoma, Venables brings back six players with starting experience from last year and he did a nice job of adding talent in the transfer portal. The additions of former Notre Dame defensive tackle Jacob Lacey and former Houston safety Reggie Pearson should be huge.
Offensively, the Sooners have the potential to be one of the best teams in what seems like a wide-open Big 12 conference. Dillon Gabriel was one of my favorite value bets to win the Heisman Trophy, as he’s an accomplished quarterback that should do big things in his second year in offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby’s system. This team was actually first in the Big 12 in total offense in 2022, and it still seems like this group is bound to improve this year. This offensive line should be a lot better than it was a year ago.
Oklahoma also happens to play a very reasonable schedule this season. The toughest games on the schedule are a neutral-field matchup with Texas and road games against Kansas, BYU and Oklahoma State. But it isn’t completely crazy to think that the Sooners can go 3-1 in those games. And overall, it just feels like if things break right for Oklahoma, 10 or 11 wins is within reason.
Wisconsin Badgers (+900 to make College Football Playoff / +7000 to win national title)
I have written a lot about all the things I love about the Badgers heading into this season and having Wisconsin to win the Big Ten West was one of my best bets in the 2023 VSiN College Football Guide. However, most of my projections for the Badgers work under the assumption that they’ll lose their October 28 home game against Ohio State. But if Wisconsin somehow wins that game, we’ll be having a whole different conversation about the Badgers at the end of the year.
With 18 players with starting experience returning for Wisconsin, including star transfer quarterback Tanner Mordecai, the Badgers are easily the most talented team in the West. With that in mind, it’s hard to envision them having much trouble with this year’s schedule. Sure, road games against Washington State, Illinois and Minnesota seem somewhat tough on paper, but none of those teams can hang with Wisconsin if things are clicking on both sides of the ball. So, is it really that crazy to think that the Badgers can win at least 11 games this year?
From there, the question will be whether Wisconsin is capable of beating Ohio State (again), Michigan or Penn State in the Big Ten Championship Game. But at +900 odds to make the College Football Playoff, you’d be in a nice position to hedge on the Badgers if that situation even arises. VSiN Managing Editor Adam Burke’s power ratings suggest that Ohio State would be the biggest favorite over Wisconsin of all three of those teams, but his implied moneyline would have the Buckeyes at roughly -435. But that doesn’t factor in an earlier loss to the Badgers potentially making the line a bit closer. But the point is, Wisconsin has a slight chance of actually making some real noise this season. And even if you bet this without believing that, you could potentially be in a position to guarantee yourself some money down the road.
Utah Utes (+850 to make College Football Playoff / +7000 to win national title)
Of all the teams in this article, this is the only that I think has the talent to make a run to the College Football Playoff National Championship. I genuinely believe the Utes are a top-five team in the country when it comes to overall talent. The question marks with Utah are availability and strength of schedule. The two best players on this Utah offense are undeniably quarterback Cam Rising and tight end Brant Kuithe. But both players are coming off torn ACLs last season, so it’s unclear how they’ll look early in the season. And Utah happens to have one of the toughest schedules in all of college football, and early-season meetings with Florida and Baylor could test the Utes if they’re not at full strength. Even if they get through those games unscathed, they have road games against Oregon State, USC and Washington this year.
Despite all of that, the upside with this Utah program is tremendously high this year. The Utes bring back 16 players that started games last year, and a lot of those players were underclassmen that performed at high levels in 2022. This team is going to be especially tough in the trenches, as they’re elite along both the offensive and defensive lines. And I’m personally really high on Utah’s secondary this year, so this defense has the potential to be special if the linebackers can exceed expectations.
One of the only things to worry about with this team — outside of health and a difficult set of opponents — is the lack of talent at the wide receiver position. But Utah should be great in the running game, with quarterback-turned-running back Ja’Quinden Jackson returning after rushing for 6.8 yards per carry last season. If Jackson is picking up chunk yardage early in the season, that’ll allow the Utes to play off him in the passing game. Also, if Kuithe looks anything like himself this season, we won’t have to worry much about the wideouts. He’s essentially a big wide receiver in a tight end’s body.
It's also just hard to ignore the impact Kyle Whittingham has on winning. He’s the best coach in the entire Pac-12, which is why I believe the Utes can overcome the odds and be the last team standing in this conference. And if they are, I find it hard to believe they won’t be in the College Football Playoff. This conference is sneaky-good this season, so the winner deserves the chance to play for a national title.
Kansas State Wildcats (+1500 to make College Football Playoff / +10000 to win national title)
I mentioned earlier that the Big 12 seems wide open, with most of that coming from my inability to trust Texas. That said, I think a team like Kansas State has a chance to win the conference. In fact, they were my pick to do so in the 2023 VSiN College Football Guide.
I just love what Chris Klieman has done all throughout his career, and he hasn’t changed a bit since arriving in Manhattan. Last year, Klieman led the Wildcats to double-digit wins for the first time since Bill Snyder won 11 games with this Kansas State team in 2012. Now, Klieman gets back eight players with starting experience on offense, with one of them being quarterback Will Howard. In Howard’s five starts for the Wildcats last season, the team averaged 38.8 points per game. And Kansas State also happens to have a top-10 offensive line in college football.
The issue with this team is that the defense looks like it could be a bit shaky, with the secondary being the primary question mark. But Kansas State has allowed 21.9 points per game or fewer in three of the last four seasons. This unit has been one that can be trusted no matter who the head coach is, and I can’t see the wheels falling off this year.
Road games against Texas Tech, Texas and Kansas will present some challenges for the Wildcats, but this is the most talented group Klieman has had since taking over this program. And considering what he has gotten out of lesser groups, I love the idea of banking on a great coach to turn in a great year with legitimate talent in place.
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