We’re back with some predictions for the 2023 season as previously done in 2021, 2017, and 2016 although we have decided to provide 15 this year instead of
25 26. This edition will feature the first five predictions focused on the Group of 5 conferences while the final 10 predictions will focus on the Power 5 schools with those found here and here.
Predictions 15 Through 11
Prediction 15 – Conference USA
Jacksonville State Will Have a Winning Record – The new look C-USA will have two FCS to FBS teams in Jacksonville State and Sam Houston State. Both could make some noise in year one although neither school will be eligible for a bowl game in 2023 thanks to the NCAA’s wonderful transition rules. The Gamecocks were 9-2 in 2022 with the losses coming against Tulsa (54-17) and Southeastern Louisiana (31-14). That squad has a total of 16 returning starters – 9 on offense and 7 on defense.
The big playmakers are back on offense including quarterback Zion Webb who threw for 1,737 yards and 10 touchdowns while also being the team’s 2nd leading rusher with 647 yards and 13 TDs. Anwar Lewis will also be in the backfield after leading the team with 818 rushing yards alongside 8 rushing TDs. The top two receivers and 7 of the top 8 return in the second year of Rich Rodriguez’s tenure.
The defense has 7 starters back from a group that allowed 23 points and 390 yards of total offense per game. The move to the FBS is a huge step up but added a few key junior college recruits to help plug the holes. JSU will have a non-conference schedule of East Tennessee State (home), Coastal Carolina (away), Eastern Michigan (home), and South Carolina (away) that could see them go 2-2. They also drew two of the favorites to win C-USA – UTEP and Western Kentucky – at home with the former being the opening game on August 26. There’s enough talent to pull some upsets this year with a lot of C-USA teams having question marks.
Prediction 14 – MAC
Toledo Will Win the MAC and Have 11+ Wins – When looking at the MAC, there’s one standout team: Toledo. They return nearly every major piece on offense and defense from a team that won the MAC Championship in 2022. Offensively, the top QB (Dequan Finn), top four RBs led by Jacquez Stuart and Finn, and the top two WRs (Jerjuan Newton and Devin Maddox). In 2022, those players helped propel the offense to 31.3 points and 402 yards per game. In 2023, it should be more of the same, if not higher output.
On defense, 8 starters return led by linebacker Dallas Gant. Gant led the team with 116 tackles but it must be noted the Rockets lost three of the top 6 tacklers from 2022. What they didn’t lose was anyone in the secondary with all five starters back from a unit that allowed 183 yards passing per game. The Rockets could easily go 8-0 in conference play and have a non-conference schedule of Illinois (away), Texas Southern (home), San Jose State (home), and Massachusetts (away). It is likely they will go 3-1 in those games and could even give Illinois fits in the season opener.
Prediction 13 – Sun Belt
Southern Miss Will Win the Sun Belt – The race for the Sun Belt is wide open in the East but there’s one team to beat in the West in South Alabama. That’s what we’re going to predict will happen with Southern Miss. There’s a lot to like about the Golden Eagles with 9 starters back on offense led by Frank Gore Jr. He ran for 1,382 yards and 9 touchdowns (he also threw for 4 TDs as well). The real bet is on the quarterback position being solidified early as it will be a battle between Holman Edwards, Billy Wiles, and the best returning QB from 2022 Zach Wilcke. Whichever QB wins the starting job, they’ll have a great asset in Gore, which could also help develop the receivers.
On defense, Southern Miss loses the top three tacklers from 2022 but six starters return from a group that allowed 23.5 points and 372 yards per game. If the games are truly won in the trenches, then the Golden Eagles are great there with three returning starters along the defensive line. Southern Miss opens conference play with three winnable games against Arkansas State on the road, Texas State at home, and Old Dominion at home. A bye week will separate the ODU game and back-to-back road trips to South Alabama and Appalachian State, which will likely determine if Southern Miss is for real or fighting for a winning season.
Prediction 12 – Mountain West
New Mexico Will Score at Least 25 Points Per Game and Make a Bowl Game – Here’s a prediction out of left field but both criteria go hand-in-hand. The last two seasons have seen a putrid offensive output from New Mexico. In 2021, they averaged 12.2 points and 235 yards per game. They followed up that onslaught with 13.1 points and 229 yards per game in 2022.
In 2023, they are getting some key additions including quarterback Dylan Hopkins from UAB. Hopkins threw for 1,1913 yards and 10 touchdowns last year despite missing some time due to injury. Andrew Henry is another transfer (from Louisiana-Monroe) and will split time at running back with Christian Washington who ran for 310 yards on 73 carries for the Lobos last season. The defense is a serious concern with only 2 starters back from a squad that gave up a respectable 26 points and 360 yards per game. It’s not to envision the Lobos doubling the offensive output given the previous two seasons now that they have an experienced backfield in an era of college football tilted towards offense.
The schedule is somewhat favorable for the Lobos as well. The non-conference features Texas A&M, Tennessee Tech, New Mexico State, and Massachusetts. A 2-2 record seems plausible but a third victory against New Mexico State would do wonders for the team. In conference play, they drew Hawaii, UNLV, and Utah State at home along with Nevada on the road. All four of those teams are expected to finish in the bottom half of the MW standings. It may take just one upset for New Mexico to finish 6-6 and reach a bowl game, which shouldn’t be difficult if the offense makes a large jump forward.
Prediction 11 – American Athletic Conference
SMU Will Reach the AAC Championship Game – This may seem like a familiar prediction because we made the same one in 2021. Apparently, we didn’t learn our lesson so it’s back in this season. SMU hasn’t won an outright conference title since 1982 when they were part of the Southwest Conference. They also were co-champions of the SWC in 1984, which is the last title of any kind for a program that suffered the dreaded “Death Penalty” and crippled the program for two decades.
Offensively, SMU lost starting quarterback Tanner Mordecai (transfer to Wisconsin) and top wide receiver Rashee Rice (NFL Draft ) but top talent is waiting in the wings. Preston Stone was a redshirt in 2022 making five appearances with 1 start at quarterback. The lone start came against Tulsa when he went 11 for 17 with 219 yards and a touchdown in a 45-34 win for SMU. Stone was a top quarterback recruit and specifically recruited by head coach Rhett Lashlee so he’s expected to produce at the same level as Mordecai.
The Mustangs also have the top three running backs returning from 2022 and good depth at wide receiver. Five of the top 7 leaders by receiving yards return but the #1 target – Rice – isn’t one of them. The pieces are there for the current receivers to break out because the offensive line has four returning starters meaning lots of time for Stone to find his targets.
The scheduling gods are with SMU this season – at least on paper. They managed to avoid drawing Texas-San Antonio, Tulane, and Florida Atlantic, which are expected to be three of the top teams in the AAC. They do have to play at East Carolina (after a bye) and at Memphis for the toughest road games. Assuming Stone lives up to the hype and the wide receiving group picks up Rice’s production then SMU should reach the AAC title game. Maybe an AAC title or title game appearance can put SMU over the top and into a Power 5 conference in the current realignment shuffle.
Be sure to check back on Saturday, August 12 for the next set of predictions!
Photo courtesy of SMU Athletics