Predicting Every CFB Conference's Player of the Year in 2023

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured Columnist IVJanuary 23, 2023

Predicting Every CFB Conference's Player of the Year in 2023

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    ARLINGTON, TX - JANUARY 02: USC Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams (13) passes during the Goodyear Cotton Bowl between the Tulane Green Wave and the USC Trojans on January 2, 2023 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX. (Photo by George Walker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
    George Walker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    Let's face it: No matter how much we want to positionally diversify these articles and add defensive players and pass-catchers, when it comes to conference players of the year, the award goes to quarterbacks and running backs the majority of the time.

    Looking ahead to next year, it's no different.

    Predicting the top talent isn't that hard, but in the case of some of the Power Five conferences, plenty of the best playmakers are departing for the NFL.

    In some Group of Five cases, several of the marquee players bolt for the transfer portal and bigger, more lucrative opportunities elsewhere.

    Then, in the case of a returning Heisman Trophy winner, predicting the player of the year in his conference is a no-brainer. So, in case you didn't know, USC's Caleb Williams made the cut.

    But who else did? The following slides give you a sneak peek into our predictions for every Football Bowl Subdivision conference's player of the year in 2023.

AAC: Michael Pratt, Tulane Quarterback

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    ARLINGTON, TX - JANUARY 02: Tulane Green Wave quarterback Michael Pratt (7) reacts after a favorable call by the referees for a touchdown during the game against the USC Trojans on January 2nd, 2023 at ATT Stadium in Arlington Texas. (Photo by William Purnell/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
    William Purnell/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    Tulane coach Willie Fritz and his burgeoning program got some outstanding news when leader and starting quarterback Michael Pratt decided to come back for another year.

    While it remains to be seen how good of a pro prospect the 6'2", 200-pound signal-caller is, one thing is clear: He's a darn good college quarterback. He has the potential to give the Green Wave back-to-back offensive players of the year.

    In 2022, Tyjae Spears was the conference's recipient, and he was not only an explosive force but also a security blanket on which the Green Wave leaned game after game during a historic season.

    Pratt is going to miss Spears next year after his runner is off to the NFL, but he returns some playmakers around him in the receiving corps, so Fritz could gear his offense a little more toward the passing game, and Tulane will keep charging.

    This past year, Pratt threw for 3,010 yards, 27 touchdowns and five interceptions. He also displayed his athleticism with 478 rushing yards and 10 more scores.

    That dual-threat ability was on display in Tulane's huge win over USC in the Cotton Bowl, and he should use that as a springboard to massive things next year. Fritz's program isn't going anywhere with Pratt in control.

ACC: Drake Maye, North Carolina Quarterback

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    CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA - DECEMBER 03: Drake Maye #10 of the North Carolina Tar Heels gets called for a facemask penalty against Trenton Simpson #22 of the Clemson Tigers in the second quarter during the ACC Championship game at Bank of America Stadium on December 03, 2022 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Eakin Howard/Getty Images)
    Eakin Howard/Getty Images

    Entering the 2022 season, nobody outside of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, knew Drake Maye was going to be the man under center for the Tar Heels.

    He was in a battle with Jacolby Criswell to take over for departed Sam Howell, and there were a lot of question marks surrounding Phil Longo's offense and, quite frankly, Mack Brown's program.

    Now, Criswell has transferred to Arkansas, Longo is off to run Luke Fickell's offense at Wisconsin, but Maye is back for another season at the program for which his father and brother played. Maye bleeds Carolina Blue, and he's a star-in-the-making.

    Though UNC fell off a little at the end of the season, it was a banner year for the offense, and the Heels were right in the thick of the College Football Playoff talk three-quarters into the season with a spotless record.

    Maye was the catalyst, and he rode it to this year's conference player of the year award. The guess here is he repeats; he's just too talented not to.

    The 6'4", 220-pound redshirt freshman threw for 4,321 yards, 38 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He also flashed his athleticism with 698 rushing yards and seven more scores.

    He can do it all with his arm or his feet, and his ability to make all the throws will help the Heels transition into the Chip Lindsey era on offense. Look for Maye to post big numbers; he narrowly beat out Jordan Travis and Will Shipley for my winner in the ACC.

Big 12: Jalon Daniels, Kansas Quarterback

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    MEMPHIS, TN - DECEMBER 28: Kansas Jayhawks quarterback Jalon Daniels (6) in action during the AutoZone Liberty Bowl between the Kansas Jayhawks and the Arkansas Razorbacks on December 28, 2022 at the Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium in Memphis, TN. (Photo by Kevin Langley/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
    Kevin Langley/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    Kansas was college football's biggest surprise through the first half of the season, and a big part of that was Jalon Daniels showcasing his outstanding abilities.

    The Jayhawks were off to a 5-0 start and going toe-to-toe with TCU in early October when a shoulder injury sidelined Daniels for a large swath of the season. Though Jason Bean performed admirably in his stead, KU wasn't the same.

    Still, Lance Leipold's program is on the come-up, and Daniels is going to be back in 2023 to orchestrate another step in the right direction. There won't be anymore what-might've-beens if he stays healthy.

    The guess here is Kansas is one of the most fun-to-watch teams in an uncertain Big 12, and Daniels puts up some ridiculous numbers. This past year, he threw for 2,014 yards, 18 touchdowns and four interceptions and ran for 419 more and seven scores in nine games.

    In a 55-53 loss to Arkansas in the Liberty Bowl, Daniels was unstoppable after some time off to fully heal. He completed 37 of 55 passes for 544 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions.

    That's just a sneak peek of what's to come for a player who is just now beginning to realize his limitless potential. He still has a couple of seasons to become one of the biggest stars in college football, and he got the nod over Dillon Gabriel for this award.

Big Ten: Blake Corum, Michigan Running Back

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    COLUMBUS, OHIO - NOVEMBER 26: Head Football Coach Jim Harbaugh (R) and Blake Corum #2 (C) of the Michigan Wolverines slap hands with fans as they walk out of the tunnel before a college football game against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Ohio Stadium on November 26, 2022 in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images)
    Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images

    With C.J. Stroud off to the NFL and with Blake Corum expecting to have a completely healthy season, it's a pretty clear bet who should win the Big Ten player of the year in 2023.

    The only things holding Corum back are injuries and possibly the emergence of Donovan Edwards.

    But the Michigan backup running back who was downright special when Corum's injury sidelined him for the back end of the schedule and the playoffs will only make the Wolverines' rushing attack stronger next year. Corum is going to have every opportunity to show out.

    He capitalizes when he gets them, too.

    The Marshall, Virginia, native was being mentioned for the Heisman Trophy before tweaking his knee on November 19 against Illinois and hurting it further against Ohio State, leading to surgery.

    Rather than head to the NFL, though, Corum is back for unfinished business in Ann Arbor, with the hopes he can improve on an elite '22 season that saw him run for 1,463 yards, 18 touchdowns and nearly a 6.0 yards-per-carry average before going down.

    With Corum and Edwards carrying the load again next year, coach Jim Harbaugh's team could make its third consecutive trip to the College Football Playoffs. Corum narrowly edged out Ohio State receiver Marvin Harrison Jr., Penn State's Nicholas Singleton and Maryland's Taulia Tagovailoa for this honor.

Conference USA: Austin Reed, Western Kentucky Quarterback

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    NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - DECEMBER 21: Austin Reed #16 of the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers reacts during the game against the South Alabama Jaguars at Caesars Superdome on December 21, 2022 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
    Chris Graythen/Getty Images

    With beast UTSA off to the American Athletic Conference, the new-look Conference USA is wide-open in 2023.

    But an old face is going to be the standard-bearer in the league, leading the most prolific, fling-it-around offense, and that's big news for Western Kentucky.

    Austin Reed decided to stick around Bowling Green rather than test the NFL waters or re-enter the transfer portal, and he is poised to put up ridiculous numbers for Tyson Helton's Hilltoppers next year.

    Offensive coordinator Zach Kittley left to head back to his Texas home and take the same position for the Texas Tech Red Raiders, but Helton went out and hired Mississippi State assistant Drew Hollingshead, a disciple of Mike Leach's Air Raid offense.

    There's no doubt the Toppers want to sling around the ball, and why not with a guy like Reed taking over for former star quarterback Bailey Zappe. After transferring from Division II West Florida, the 6'2", 230-pound signal-caller had a standout season.

    He wound up throwing for 4,744 yards, 40 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He had four games of 400 or more passing yards and nine games of at least 300 passing yards.

    With a conference that has a little less firepower in '23, Reed is going to steal the show and win the school's first player of the year since Zappe a couple of seasons ago.

MAC: Kurtis Rourke, Ohio Quarterback

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    AMES, IA - SEPTEMBER 17:  Quarterback Kurtis Rourke #7 of the Ohio Bobcats scrambles for yards in the first half of play at Jack Trice Stadium on September 17, 2022 in Ames, Iowa. The Iowa State Cyclones won 43-10 over the Ohio Bobcats. (Photo by David K Purdy/Getty Images)
    David K Purdy/Getty Images

    Much like Blake Corum at Michigan, Kurtis Rourke was on his way to a magnificent season before a late-season injury cost him a chance to play in the postseason.

    You just haven't heard of Rourke because the stage on which he plays in Athens, Ohio, and the MAC isn't quite as big as the Big Ten.

    Still, if you're a fan of early-weeknight MACtion on ESPN, the chances are you've seen the ultra-athletic Bobcats quarterback play. Like several players on this list, Rourke is a returning recipient of the league's top player award.

    Really, though, who else would you give it to? He's by far the most talented player in the league.

    The Bobcats were a surprise in 2022, and a big reason was Rourke. He finished the year for coach Tim Albin's program with 3,256 passing yards, throwing 25 total touchdowns in 11 games, and he added 249 rushing yards.

    Along the way, Rourke broke a 39-year school record with 527 passing yards in a win over Fordham. His older brother, Nathan, plays in the Canadian Football League, and he has a bright enough future that it's a bit surprising he didn't explore options through the portal.

    If he sticks around and plays for the Bobcats, big things will follow, for him and the team, if he can remain healthy.

Mountain West: Chevan Cordeiro, San Jose State Quarterback

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    SAN DIEGO, CA - NOVEMBER 12:  San Jose State Spartans quarterback Chevan Cordeiro (2) passes during a game between the San Jose State Spartans and the San Diego State Aztecs on November 12, 2022, at Snapdragon Stadium in San Diego, CA.  (Photo by Justin Fine/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
    Justin Fine/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    Predicting the Mountain West Conference player of the year for next season is a gamble and a major toss-up.

    While teams like Air Force—which is losing quarterback Haaziq Daniels and running back Brad Roberts—and Fresno State, which has to move on from quarterback Jake Haener and other offensive weapons, are losing tons of talent, there's still talent in the league.

    Boise State is loaded with potential, and Taylen Green finished a close second on this list, but he needs better playmaking receivers.

    Instead, the signal-caller with the potential for the best season is San Jose State veteran Chevan Cordeiro, who knows the conference. He transferred to the Spartans last year after starting his career at Hawaii.

    The 6'1" quarterback threw for 3,251 yards and 23 touchdowns a season ago against just six picks. He has 68 scoring tosses in his career, and now in 2023, he will return for his sixth and final collegiate season.

    The prediction here is Brent Brennan winds up leading another big season for SJSU and rides Cordeiro's huge final season to a better season, perhaps in the Power Five. The Spartans have some question marks, but they could wind up the best team in a wide-open league.

    If they do, it's because of a massive season from their veteran field general.

Pac-12: Caleb Williams, USC Quarterback

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    PASADENA, CALIF., NOV 19, 2022. USC quaarterback Caleb Williams, center, celebrates with teammates after the Trojans defeated the UCLA Bruins in the annual crosstown rivalry game, played at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena on Saturday night, Nov. 19, 2022. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
    Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

    The fourth player on this list trying to repeat as his respective conference's player of the year is also the biggest no-brainer.

    Caleb Williams followed coach Lincoln Riley to USC a season ago and promptly won the Heisman Trophy with a gargantuan first season in Los Angeles, helping turn around the Trojans' fortune and put them back on the map.

    Do they still have a ways to go to be considered a national powerhouse? Sure. But none of those question marks are on the offensive side of the ball, and that's largely because of Williams, a rising true junior who looks to be on a collision course for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2024 NFL draft.

    With stars like Mario Williams, Brendan Rice and Tahj Washington, along with incoming talent like Zachariah Branch coming to play in Riley's explosive system, Williams is going to have no shortage of weapons around him. Will they miss Jordan Addison? Of course, but talent abounds.

    Williams orchestrates it all. This past year, he completed nearly 67 percent of his passes for 4,537 yards, 42 touchdowns and five interceptions. He ran for 382 more yards and 10 scores and had to carry the offense on his back at times once star running back Travis Dye went down.

    USC's defense and one-dimensional offense with a hobbled Williams let it down late in the year, but this was just the first step back into the national spotlight for the Trojans. With their star back trying for a second Heisman, it's playoffs or bust next year.

SEC: Quinshon Judkins, Ole Miss Running Back

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    OXFORD, MISSISSIPPI - NOVEMBER 24: Quinshon Judkins #4 of the Mississippi Rebels reacts during the first half against the Mississippi State Bulldogs at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium on November 24, 2022 in Oxford, Mississippi. (Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images)
    Justin Ford/Getty Images

    The SEC is losing a lot of stellar stars like Alabama's Bryce Young and Will Anderson, Tennessee's Hendon Hooker and Jalin Hyatt, and Georgia's Stetson Bennett and Jalen Carter.

    So, who's going to carry the torch for the league as its top talent next year?

    We could have gone a bunch of different directions here, and while there is a ton of unproven talent ready for the spotlight, proven players like Devin Leary (Kentucky) coming in, this one came down to a runner beating two star quarterbacks.

    Arkansas' KJ Jefferson and LSU's Jayden Daniels got plenty of consideration, but Quinshon Judkins is coming off a terrific true freshman season in Oxford under Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin. With Spencer Sanders and Walker Howard coming in to challenge Jaxson Dart, the Rebels are going to have a more balanced offense.

    That spells big things for Judkins, who is going to have a lot of help in the offensive backfield but doesn't have to split carries with Zach Evans, who is off to the NFL.

    A season ago, Judkins was the most special first-year running back among a lot of great ones around the nation, finishing the year with 1,567 yards, 16 touchdowns and a 5.7 average.

    The 5'11", 220-pound Pike Road, Alabama, native was not a sought-after recruit, but he is an exceptional playmaker who already has proved he's an every-down back. Next year, he gets the nod for the best conference in the nation's top overall player.

Sun Belt: Frank Gore Jr., Southern Mississippi Running Back

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    MOBILE, ALABAMA - DECEMBER 17: Frank Gore Jr. #3 of the Southern Miss Golden Eagles rushes for a touchdown during the first half against the Rice Owls of the LendingTree Bowl at Hancock Whitney Stadium on December 17, 2022 in Mobile, Alabama. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
    Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

    Talk about a springboard.

    Frank Gore Jr. emerged a bit from his father's considerable shadow with a LendingTree Bowl for the ages, scampering for an NCAA bowl record 329 yards on just 21 carries against Rice, shattering the record set by Appalachian State' Camerun Peoples in 2020.

    He had runs of 64, 59 and 25 yards, showing not only is he a between-the-tackles powder keg but that he can also break it for the big gain.

    Now, the Southern Mississippi star is set to be one of the biggest names in the Group of Five next year and should get the nod for the Sun Belt's player of the year.

    Everybody knows Gore's father of the same name, longtime NFL starting running back, former Pro Bowler and Miami Hurricanes star Frank Gore, who actually hasn't been retired too long.

    Now, his son is ready to carry that torch, especially following a breakout sophomore season where he wound up with 1,382 yards and nine touchdowns on the season, and it's just a matter of time before he proves he's one of the best runners you don't know.

    After the bowl season, you've probably heard the name and thought "that sounds familiar." Well, he's blazing his own path.

    All stats courtesy of cfbstats and Sports Reference. Player rankings courtesy of 247Sports unless otherwise noted.

    Follow Brad Shepard on Twitter, @Brad_Shepard.