In 2024, the format will go from four teams to 12, meaning refreshingly there will be a few new faces added to the postseason festivities. Of course, we here at ESPN have been ahead of the curve for a few years and will again count it down from 64 teams in our fictional 2023 NCAA football tournament.
Here’s the format: We’ve seeded the teams 1 through 64, and the seeds are based to some degree on ESPN’s latest SP+ projections entering the 2023 season.
The top four seeds are Georgia, Michigan, Ohio State and Alabama (yes, 17 playoff appearances among them). With the Crimson Tide being the fourth No. 1 seed, that means they will travel to the West Region. Keep in mind that seeds aren’t written in stone, and just like in any tournament in any sport, there will be upsets. The basketball committee insists it doesn’t look for compelling storylines when setting up its bracket. We’re just the opposite. We’ll do our best to create those storylines.
So let the second-guessing begin. We’re braced for it, the claims of SEC bias (even though 13 of the past 17 national champs were produced by the SEC) and the chastising over so-called snubs and perennial powers being slayed in the early rounds.
We’ve done our homework as we look ahead to the 2023 season, but remember to have a little fun. It’s called March Madness for a reason.
Today, we will examine the field and work our way through the first two rounds of the tournament, narrowing the pool from 64 to 16. We’ll then play the rest of the games and crown a national champion.
1-seeds: Georgia, Michigan, Ohio State, Alabama
2-seeds: Penn State, Tennessee, LSU, Oregon
3-seeds: Florida State, USC, Clemson, Washington
4-seeds: Utah, Texas A&M, Notre Dame, Ole Miss
5-seeds: Texas, UCLA, Oklahoma, TCU
6-seeds: Kansas State, Kentucky, Wisconsin, Mississippi State
7-seeds: Florida, Iowa, North Carolina, Oregon State
8-seeds: Auburn, South Carolina, Minnesota, Arkansas
9-seeds: Tulane, Texas Tech, Missouri, Oklahoma State
10-seeds: Pittsburgh, Louisville, Baylor, Maryland
11-seeds: UCF, Illinois, Miami, Michigan State
12-seeds: NC State, Iowa State, Cincinnati, Nebraska
13-seeds: Purdue, West Virginia, Wake Forest, Houston
14-seeds: Troy, Duke, Kansas, Washington State
15-seeds: SMU, BYU, UTSA, Syracuse
16-seeds: Colorado, South Alabama, Western Kentucky, East Carolina
First four out: Indiana, Memphis, James Madison, Georgia Tech
(1) Georgia 40, (16) East Carolina 14: For the first time since seemingly the Reagan administration, Stetson Bennett isn’t Georgia’s starting quarterback in a postseason game. Carson Beck, though, gets it done with three touchdown passes to three different players, and Mike Houston’s best season yet at ECU comes to a close.
(2) Oregon 34, (15) Syracuse 17: This one is closer than anyone expected in the first half, as Syracuse holds Oregon to just field goals inside the red zone. But a 13-10 halftime lead for Oregon quickly swells to a 24-point cushion thanks to a defensive touchdown by the Ducks and another touchdown set up by a Trikweze Bridges interception.
(3) Washington 31, (14) Washington State 21: It’s an Apple Cup rematch, and the Huskies complete the season sweep to win 11 games for the second straight season. Rome Odunze catches a 60-yard touchdown pass in the first half and adds a tackle-breaking 45-yarder in the second half.
(4) Ole Miss 40, (13) Houston 37: It’s never dull when a couple of offensive gurus like Lane Kiffin and Dana Holgorsen face off in the postseason. Both are known for their explosive, high-scoring offenses, but Ole Miss’ running game — Quinshon Judkins rushes for 164 yards — helps the Rebels play keep-away from the Cougars in the fourth quarter.
(12) Nebraska 28, (5) TCU 26: The time-honored tradition of a No. 12 seed knocking off a No. 5 seed continues with Matt Rhule making a resounding statement in his first season in Lincoln. The Huskers are led by a two-sack performance from linebacker MJ Sherman, a Georgia transfer.
(6) Mississippi State 38, (11) Michigan State 28: The Bulldogs’ offense looks a little different under new coordinator Kevin Barbay, but veteran quarterback Will Rogers is his usual productive self with 404 passing yards and four touchdowns in an emotional win the Bulldogs dedicate to their late coach, Mike Leach.
(10) Maryland 33, (7) Oregon State 30 (OT): Mike Locksley has been steadily building a winning program at Maryland, and this is his biggest step yet in a back-and-forth contest that sees Taulia Tagovailoa outduel Clemson transfer DJ Uiagalelei in a game that is decided in overtime.
(9) Oklahoma State 35, (8) Arkansas 31: Mike Gundy and the Cowboys entered the year stinging from a disappointing 2022 season that saw them lose five of their last six games. And while there were some bumps along the way with an overhauled roster, Oklahoma State finds a way to play its best game in the postseason and upset the Hogs.
(1) Georgia 45, (9) Oklahoma State 12: This one is never really close. The Cowboys can’t get anything going on offense against a Georgia defense that allows a total of three first downs until the latter part of the fourth quarter. Once again, Beck plays turnover-free football and leads the Dawgs to touchdowns on their first three possessions.
(2) Oregon 38, (7) Maryland 34: Talk about a quarterback classic. Bo Nix and Tagovailoa take turns entertaining the crowd with one pinpoint throw after another. They combine for more than 900 yards of total offense, and it’s a 21-yard touchdown run by Nix that proves to be the winning points for the Ducks.
(3) Washington 26, (6) Mississippi State 23: The defenses (and turnover-prone offenses) do their part to make this more of a grind-it-out game. Washington’s talented pass-rush tandem of Bralen Trice and Zion Tupuola-Fetui lives in the Mississippi State backfield, and the Huskies hold on to win after coming up with a late fourth-down stop.
(4) Ole Miss 33, (12) Nebraska 24: Once upon a time, Kiffin and Rhule were both NFL head coaches. Their meeting in this second-round game boils down to Ole Miss quarterback Spencer Sanders time and time again scrambling for the first-down marker on critical third and fourth downs. The Rebels punt only once in the game, as Kiffin in vintage fashion keeps going for it on fourth down.
(1) Georgia vs. (4) Ole Miss
(2) Oregon vs. (3) Washington
(1) Michigan 27, (16) Western Kentucky 24: This one is way too close for anybody’s liking at Michigan, and for a while, it looks like a No. 1 vs. No. 16 upset is a real possibility. But the Wolverines rally from a 24-17 deficit to avoid an embarrassing first-round exit. The Hilltoppers play valiantly and have a chance to put the game away, but they go three-and-out on their last two possessions.
(2) LSU 35, (15) UTSA 16: Way too much Harold Perkins Jr. in this game for UTSA, which simply can’t block the Tigers’ star pass-rusher. Perkins runs his sack total to 14 on the season with two sacks and another hurry that leads to an interception that LSU turns into a short touchdown drive.
(3) Clemson 37, (14) Kansas 21: One of college football’s most versatile players all season, Will Shipley cranks out 288 yards of total offense (138 rushing, 82 receiving and 68 in returns) to lead the Tigers to a first-round win. The highlight for the Jayhawks is a spectacular diving catch in the end zone by Jared Casey.
(4) Notre Dame 28, (13) Wake Forest 27: Notre Dame quarterback Sam Hartman goes up against his old team after transferring from Wake Forest, and the Deacons’ defense is ready for him. They force him into a pair of interceptions and lead most of the way until Audric Estime bullies his way across the goal line in the final minute of the game.
(5) Oklahoma 35, (12) Cincinnati 13: The Sooners save their most complete effort of the season for when they need it most. Highly rated freshman quarterback Jackson Arnold pushes Dillon Gabriel some during the regular season, but Gabriel’s 330 passing yards and a stifling Oklahoma defense lift the Sooners over the Bearcats in their second and last meeting as Big 12 foes.
(6) Wisconsin 31, (11) Miami 7: In his first postseason game as Wisconsin’s coach, Luke Fickell has his team focused and playing its best football. That’s bad news for the Hurricanes, who fall behind early and end up throwing the ball 40 times and repeatedly find themselves in unfavorable down-and-distance situations.
(7) North Carolina 35, (10) Baylor 32: Quarterback Drake Maye only further solidifies his position as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2024 NFL draft with four touchdown passes, completing 10 in a row at one point, as the Tar Heels storm back from a two-touchdown deficit.
(9) Missouri 28, (8) Minnesota 21: One of the biggest offseason wins for Missouri was holding on to talented freshman receiver Luther Burden III and keeping him out of the transfer portal. Burden’s 10-catch, 178-yard receiving game (and two touchdowns) sends the Tigers into the second round.
(1) Michigan 45, (9) Missouri 21: After a first-round scare against Western Kentucky, Jim Harbaugh and his Wolverines take out Missouri in a second-round contest that is never close. Michigan remains unbeaten on the season and plays a sixth straight game where its opponent fails to score more than 24 points.
(2) LSU 31, (7) North Carolina 28: Maye is again spectacular and avoids LSU’s fierce pass rush over and over again to keep drives alive. Jayden Daniels’ ability to both run and pass is a nightmare for the North Carolina defense, and Damian Ramos boots a 43-yard field goal inside the final minute to win it for the Tigers.
(6) Wisconsin 34, (3) Clemson 30: After previous stops at Oklahoma and SMU, quarterback Tanner Mordecai picks up where he left off with the Mustangs. His experience pays off handsomely in this game against a talented Clemson defense that is unable to rattle him. Twice in the final three minutes, Mordecai and the Badgers convert on third down to pull off the upset.
(4) Notre Dame 41, (5) Oklahoma 24: Hartman is too good and too seasoned to struggle in back-to-back games, especially on big stages. He throws four touchdown passes, three in the first half, and the Irish cruise into the Sweet 16 with the kind of momentum that has been building since Marcus Freeman’s first season.
(1) Michigan vs. (4) Notre Dame
(2) LSU vs. (6) Wisconsin
(1) Ohio State 48, (16) South Alabama 17: Kane Wommack has done a terrific job at South Alabama and leads the Jaguars to their second straight 10-win season. But they’re no match for an Ohio State team that just seems to reload every year no matter how many players the Buckeyes lose to the NFL.
(2) Tennessee 45, (15) BYU 24: These two teams were originally scheduled to open the 2023 season in Provo before Tennessee opted to buy out of the game to instead face Virginia in Nashville. Eventually, they meet up in the first round, and the Vols reach the 40-point mark for the fifth time in their past six games.
(3) USC 38, (14) Duke 17: Like Wommack at South Alabama, Mike Elko has done a fabulous job at Duke. Here the Blue Devils are in the NCAA tournament after winning nine games in Elko’s first season. Their problem in this game is the guy playing quarterback on the other side. Caleb Williams accounts for all five of the Trojans’ touchdowns in a runaway win.
(4) Texas A&M 31, (13) West Virginia 20: Bobby Petrino’s stamp on Texas A&M’s offense is obvious from the beginning of the season. The Aggies are more consistent, more balanced and able to finish games. Sophomore quarterback Conner Weigman grows each week in Petrino’s offense and plays a mistake-free game in the win over West Virginia.
(5) UCLA 41, (12) Iowa State 17: The Bruins, coming off their best season under Chip Kelly in 2022, make a loud statement to open the 2023 tournament. What a story edge rusher Laiatu Latu has been after missing two seasons at Washington with a neck injury and then transferring to UCLA. The Cyclones have no answers for him in this game.
(11) Illinois 31, (6) Kentucky 30: In a matchup of two Hayden Fry disciples (Bret Bielema vs. Mark Stoops), Illinois pulls off the upset in one of the better games of the tournament. Kentucky quarterback Devin Leary, a transfer from NC State, is tremendous, but Illinois defensive tackle Jer’Zhan Newton is a one-man wrecking crew in the fourth quarter.
(10) Louisville 27, (7) Iowa 20: After a number of flirtations with his alma mater, Jeff Brohm is back home. And in his first season, he leads the Cardinals to a first-round upset of Iowa, which can’t overcome two costly turnovers in the red zone and can’t block a Louisville front seven that takes over in the fourth quarter.
(8) South Carolina 24, (9) Texas Tech 20: South Carolina quarterback Spencer Rattler lost a lot of his top playmakers on offense following the 2022 season, but he doesn’t flinch in his second season with the Gamecocks and makes up for an early interception with two fourth-quarter touchdown passes to send the Red Raiders packing.
(1) Ohio State 44, (8) South Carolina 24: Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka take turns catching touchdown passes for the Buckeyes, and the Gamecocks simply can’t keep up in a game that’s close at halftime and gets away from them in the second half when Harrison hauls in a 57-yard touchdown pass on Ohio State’s first possession.
(2) Tennessee 28, (10) Louisville 24: Josh Heupel’s offense is plenty explosive but not automatic. The Vols and quarterback Joe Milton III struggle to move the ball, and defensive tackle Jared Dawson has a big game for the Cardinals. Ultimately, it’s the defense that saves the day for the Vols, as freshman cornerback Jordan Matthews has a game-clinching interception.
(3) USC 37, (11) Illinois 24: Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch took some serious heat in 2022, but one of the things USC did really well on defense a year ago was force turnovers (28). That’s the story of this game as defensive line transfers Anthony Lucas and Kyon Barrs both force turnovers that lead to points for the Trojans.
(4) Texas A&M 35, (5) UCLA 21: Texas A&M fans were restless after a losing season in 2022, and the grumbling was only getting louder. But Jimbo Fisher and the Aggies ease a lot of those concerns with their second straight convincing win in the tournament and their second straight game in which the defense is dominant in the second half.
(1) Ohio State vs. (4) Texas A&M
(2) Tennessee vs. (3) USC
(1) Alabama 42, (16) Colorado 14: We’ll call this the Aflac Bowl, although Nick Saban and Deion Sanders won’t be cutting commercials together. Coach Prime needs another recruiting class or two and some key additions out of the transfer portal before he and the Buffs can line up and play with the Crimson Tide.
(2) Penn State 42, (15) SMU 20: The Nittany Lions open the tournament on fire and showcase a running game that has been potent all season. Kaytron Allen flirts with 100 yards in the first half, and Nick Singleton goes for more than 100 yards in the second half.
(3) Florida State 34, (14) Troy 21: Florida State meets the big expectations surrounding its postseason chances head-on in its first-round win over a Troy team that wasn’t going to be an easy out for anybody. The Seminoles jump out front early and are simply too physical and too athletic on defense for Troy to make a run.
(4) Utah 34, (13) Purdue 16: Good luck finding a more underrated coach and a more underrated program than Kyle Whittingham and his Utes. All they do is win and win big games. Star quarterback Cam Rising only adds to his legacy with three passing touchdowns and one rushing touchdown.
(5) Texas 30, (12) NC State 26: Nobody needed to announce his arrival. Arch Manning has been and is a big deal, and he shows just how big by leading the Longhorns into the postseason on the heels of a record-breaking season for a Texas freshman. His two clutch throws on third down help hold off the Wolfpack.
(6) Kansas State 24, (11) UCF 23: The Wildcats captured the Big 12 championship a year ago, and with UCF moving over to the Big 12 in 2023, this is an all-Big 12 showdown. It’s a good one, too. The Knights, with four new starters in their offensive line, stand their ground in the running game, but the Wildcats are the stronger of the two units in the offensive line.
(10) Pittsburgh 28, (7) Florida 20: Go back and look over the past couple of years, and Pittsburgh has produced some elite talent on both sides of the ball. It takes a while for the Panthers to find their identity on offense in 2023, but their defense is as good as ever. And with Florida starting over again at quarterback, the Gators aren’t good enough offensively to get out of the first round.
(8) Auburn 20, (9) Tulane 17: Nobody was necessarily predicting a defensive struggle, but that’s what we get in a game that sees almost as many punts as first downs. Part of it is the defenses on both sides play really well, but Auburn’s Jarquez Hunter cashes in on the only long run of the game, a 44-yard touchdown romp that seals it for the Tigers.
(1) Alabama 34, (8) Auburn 17: The Iron Bowl being played in the NCAA tournament means a second Iron Bowl in one season. The state of Alabama is bursting at the seams, but it’s outside linebacker Dallas Turner who blows up everything the Tigers try to do on offense in Alabama’s fifth straight win in the series.
(10) Pittsburgh 30, (2) Penn State 24 (OT): Once annual rivals, these two schools have played only five times since 2000. The sixth meeting is memorable, albeit not in a good way for the Nittany Lions. After Penn State goes for it on fourth-and-short and doesn’t score in overtime, Pittsburgh quarterback Phil Jurkovec scores on a quarterback draw on the Panthers’ first overtime possession.
(3) Florida State 27, (6) Kansas State 21: Maybe it’s not quite the FSU of the Bobby Bowden glory years, but the Seminoles look a lot closer to that level than they have in a long time. Quarterback Jordan Travis is too much for the Wildcats to handle on offense, and edge rusher Jared Verse is too much on defense.
(5) Texas 31, (4) Utah 27: Rising’s experience is a huge factor for the Utes, who commit two early turnovers and dig themselves into a two-touchdown hole. But Rising never panics and leads Utah back to a 27-24 lead. That’s when Manning lives up to his last name and delivers a strike to Xavier Worthy for the game-winning touchdown.
(1) Alabama vs. (5) Texas
(3) Florida State vs. (10) Pittsburgh