Every college football conference's biggest surprises and disappointments in 2023

Controversy aside, this is one heck of a College Football Playoff field: Michigan, Washington, Texas and Alabama.

How did we get here?

The regular season saw the just-in-time return of the Pac-12 as a national player, scandals galore involving the Wolverines alone, one of the most unpredictable races for the top four of the playoff era, Georgia's quest for college football history and the Longhorns' prominent return before this summer's move to the SEC.

And that doesn't even include the weekly mathematics involving Iowa, Brian Ferentz and the Hawkeyes' underperforming offense.

With bowl play close on the horizon, here's looking back at the best coaches, biggest surprise teams and most disappointing teams in every Bowl Subdivision league during the 2023 regular season:


Coach of the year: Rhett Lashlee, SMU

Biggest surprise: South Florida

Biggest disappointment: East Carolina

Lashlee and SMU went unbeaten in conference play and captured the AAC title over Tulane to allay any concerns over the Mustangs' post-Sonny Dykes future and give the program a boost entering life in the ACC.

South Florida was picked ahead of only Charlotte in the preseason media poll but managed to win six games under new coach Alex Golesh. East Carolina seemed very much on the climb under coach Mike Houston but took a huge step back with just the second 10-loss season in program history.

POSTSEASON LINEUP: Complete bowl schedule for the 2023 season

LOOKING AHEAD: What if a 12-team playoff was in place this year?


Coach of the year: Jeff Brohm, Louisville

Biggest surprises: Louisville and North Carolina State

Biggest disappointment: North Carolina

It would take a magical, out-of-nowhere season for an ACC coach to draw the nod ahead of Florida State's Mike Norvell, but that's exactly what Brohm delivered: Louisville won 10 games and reached the ACC championship game for the first time with a slim chance at making the playoff.

That makes it easy to name the Cardinals as the league's most pleasant surprise, but let's not forget about N.C. State. The Wolfpack finished third in the ACC and cracked the Top 25 to reinforce the outstanding work coach Dave Doeren continues to do with almost zero national fanfare. In-state rival UNC was unbeaten at the midway point but dropped four of six in the second half, including borderline unforgivable losses to Virginia and Georgia Tech.

Big 12

Coach of the year: Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State

Biggest surprise: West Virginia

Biggest disappointment: Baylor

Gundy overcame two rough losses in September to make an unexpected appearance in the conference championship game. West Virginia started fast, hit a speed bump and than rallied to win eight games for the first time since 2018 and remove a good chunk of the pressure on coach Neal Brown.

The less said about Baylor the better, but one short note: Both of the Bears' league wins came against newcomers Central Florida and Cincinnati, and only then by a field goal over the Bearcats and via a historic comeback against the Knights.

Big Ten

Coach of the year: David Braun, Northwestern

Biggest surprise: Northwestern

Biggest disappointment: Minnesota

If you can remember long ago, all the way back in the preseason, Northwestern was embroiled in a hazing scandal that cost longtime coach Pat Fitzgerald his job and set the baseline for wins this season at somewhere more than zero but less than, say, two. Despite the odds, the Wildcats finished second in the Big Ten West as one of just three teams in the division and seven teams in the conference to post a winning record.

On the flip side, Minnesota struggled to replace a parade of starters to graduation and finished last in the West. This was the Golden Gophers' first losing finish in a non-COVID year since 2017, coach P.J. Fleck's debut season.

Conference USA

Coach of the year: Jerry Kill, New Mexico State

Biggest surprise: Jacksonville State

Biggest disappointment: Florida International

Jamey Chadwell might've led the Liberty to the New Year's Six in his first season with the Flames, but Jerry Kill posted New Mexico State's first 10-win season since 1960 and just the second in program history. Enough said.

But the league's biggest surprise might be the successful FBS debut for Jacksonville State. Despite being one of the few holdovers in the hodgepodge Conference USA lineup, FIU finished dead last in the standings and gave up at least 40 points in each of its last four games.


Coach of the year: Chuck Martin, Miami (Ohio)

Biggest surprise: Bowling Green

Biggest disappointment: Buffalo

The RedHawks won the conference title at Toledo's expense thanks to a careful offense, underrated defense and wonderful special teams. That makes this a breakout year for Martin, who hadn't won more than eight games in a year before going 11-2 this season.

Picked fourth in the MAC East in the preseason media poll, Bowling Green has reached back-to-back bowl games for the first time since 2014-15. Also in the East, Buffalo suffered a huge decline from 2022 and won just three games, with two coming against Akron and Kent State.

Mountain West

Coach of the year: Barry Odom, UNLV

Biggest surprise: UNLV

Biggest disappointment: San Diego State

UNLV rocketed out of the gate under new coach Barry Odom with one of the best seasons in program history. While the Rebels' offense was one of the most improved in the Group of Five, the Aztecs' annual offensive woes were joined by a steep drop on defense, contributing to a four-win finish and a wholesale shift in a new direction under newly hired coach Sean Lewis.


Coach of the year: Jedd Fisch, Arizona

Biggest surprise: Colorado

Biggest disappointment: Southern California

While Washington and Oregon dominated the conference headlines, Fisch should be a candidate for national coach of the year for his work rebuilding Arizona from the depths of his first season.

Picking USC as the biggest disappointment in the Pac-12 is easy; the Trojans were the biggest disappointment in the FBS. Naming Colorado as the biggest surprise requires looking beyond the three-win improvement to appreciate how Deion Sanders made the Buffaloes one of the biggest stories in all of sports.


Coach of the year: Nick Saban, Alabama

Biggest surprise: Missouri

Biggest disappointment: Florida

Nick Saban has national championship rings for fingers on both hands but might've pulled off his greatest work yet in getting this Alabama team from the depths of September to the top of the SEC and into the playoff. This puts Saban just ahead of Missouri's Eli Drinkwitz, architect of one of the program's rare 10-win seasons thanks to the heavy contributions of former walk-on running back Cody Schrader, a USA TODAY Sports first-team All-America pick.

You'll need to go down the SEC East standings to find Florida, which flopped once again and has now posted back-to-back losing seasons under Billy Napier.

Sun Belt

Coach of the year: Curt Cignetti, James Madison

Biggest surprise: Texas State

Biggest disappointment: Marshall

What Cignetti and JMU achieved over the past two seasons represents the gold standard for FBS transitions. Texas State set a program FBS-era record with seven wins and could be poised to make some noise the next few seasons. Marshall still got to a bowl game but finished in a three-way tie for last in the East division, falling short of expectations.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College football conferences biggest surprises and disappointments