Crowning a champion in college football's 2023 64-team playoff

ByChris Low ESPN logo
Tuesday, March 21, 2023

The old survive-and-advance adage, the football version anyway, has us down to 16 teams.

Yep, the Sweet 16 awaits in ESPN's 2023 fictional NCAA football tournament.

The early rounds have already provided a few shockers, not to mention some memorable moments and games. Both veterans and freshmen have stepped up to steer their teams to this point. All four No. 1 seeds are still alive: Georgia, Michigan, Ohio State and Alabama. The lowest remaining seed is No. 10 Pittsburgh.

To recap, the original seeds were based to some degree on ESPN's latest SP+ projections entering the 2023 season. We're long past seeds meaning anything. All that matters now is how a team plays on game day. So let's finish football's version of a 64-team tournament.

We'll dedicate it to the late Mike Leach, who suggested a decade ago when he was at Texas Tech that college football should go to a 64-team tournament like basketball.

SOUTH REGION

SEMIFINALS

(1) Georgia34, (4) Ole Miss24: Back in the day, Kirby Smart and Lane Kiffin used to go at it on the Alabama practice field when they were working under Nick Saban. Both had elite players, too. Kiffin has significantly upgraded the Rebels' roster, but the Dawgs are still too strong on the defensive side of the ball and get a two-sack performance from Mykel Williams to thwart Ole Miss drives in the fourth quarter.

(3) Washington38, (2) Oregon35: Kalen DeBoer and Washington take a massive step in DeBoer's second season in Seattle. The Huskies' balance on offense and defense is on full display against longtime rival Oregon, which takes the lead midway through the fourth quarter onBo Nix's 67-yard touchdown pass to Kyler Kasper. Michael Penix Jr. answers, though, in the final seconds with his fourth touchdown pass of the game to send the Huskies to the Elite Eight.

REGION FINAL

(3) Washington 24, (1) Georgia 23: Georgia's quest to win a third straight national championship comes to a bitter end when Washington defensive end Bralen Trice bats down a fourth-down pass at midfield inside the final minute to keep the Dawgs from moving into field-goal range. Georgia tight end Brock Bowers has a huge game with a pair of touchdown catches, but Washington receiver Rome Odunze has the biggest catch of the game, a 24-yard touchdown in traffic that puts Washington ahead to stay and keeps the Huskies' dream season alive.

HOW WE GOT HERE

First round: (1) Georgia over (16) East Carolina, (2) Oregon over (15) Syracuse,(3) Washington over (14) Washington State, (4) Ole Miss over (13) Houston, (12) Nebraskaover (5) TCU, (6) Mississippi Stateover (11) Michigan State, (10) Marylandover (7) Oregon State,(9) Oklahoma Stateover (8) Arkansas

Second round: (1) Georgia over (9) Oklahoma State, (2) Oregon over (7) Maryland, (3) Washington over (6) Mississippi State, (4) Ole Miss over (12) Nebraska

MIDWEST REGION

SEMIFINALS

(4) Notre Dame30, (1) Michigan27: Would love to see these two Midwest blue bloods still playing every year, but a marquee postseason showdown will do for now. Blake Corum and the Wolverines' running game set the tone early, and the Irish don't get many offensive possessions. But then Notre Dame quarterback Sam Hartman heats up, and with some excellent protection from his offensive line, he picks apart the Michigan secondary and leads the Irish into the Elite Eight.

(2) LSU37, (6) Wisconsin20: One of the hottest teams in the tournament, LSU does a little bit of everything right in racing past Wisconsin. The Tigers pass for more than 300 yards, rush for more than 200 yards and hold the Badgers to just one offensive touchdown. If that's not enough, defensive tackle Maason Smith comes up with a strip-sack touchdown to give LSU a cushion too steep for Wisconsin to overcome.

REGION FINAL

(2) LSU 31, (4) Notre Dame 27: Brian Kelly left Notre Dame after a highly successful tenure in South Bend to chase national championships at LSU. As fate would have it, Kelly has to go through his old school in Year No. 2 on the Bayou to get to the Final Four. It's not easy, either, as Marcus Freeman's club plays with confidence and swagger, and even with some early mistakes, Notre Dame manages to hang around. LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels isn't sharp to open the game, but he's clutch when it counts and leads a game-clinching touchdown drive in the final minutes.

HOW WE GOT HERE

First round: (1) Michigan over (16) Western Kentucky, (2) LSU over (15) UTSA, (3) Clemsonover (14) Kansas, (4) Notre Dame over Wake Forest(13), (5) Oklahomaover (12) Cincinnati, (6) Wisconsin over (11) Miami, (7) North Carolinaover (10) Baylor, (8) Missouriover (9) Minnesota

Second round: (1) Michigan over (8) Missouri, (2) LSU over (7) North Carolina, (6) Wisconsin over (3) Clemson, (4) Notre Dame over (5) Oklahoma

EAST REGION

SEMIFINALS

(1) Ohio State40, (4) Texas A&M31: Ohio State's defensive secondary play has received its share of heat the past couple of seasons, and the Buckeyes again give up too many big plays in the passing game. The Texas A&M combination of Conner Weigman-to-Ainias Smith is especially effective, and Smith does a lot of his damage after the catch. The Buckeyes are able to withstand the Aggies' offensive onslaught with a running game that wears down Texas A&M's defense with a rotation that goes four deep.

(2) Tennessee44, (3) USC41: It's always fun when a football game turns into a tennis match, and that's what happens with these two high-powered offenses as they go back and forth. USC quarterback Caleb Williams is dynamic (as usual), and Tennessee quarterback Joe Milton III plays like he has something to prove with everybody hyping Williams before the game. A special teams play, however, turns the game in the Vols' favor. Dee Williams returns a punt 66 yards to set up the go-ahead touchdown.

REGION FINAL

(1) Ohio State 37, (2) Tennessee 31: The Vols have come a long way in three years under Josh Heupel, and their offense is a daunting challenge for any defense to stop. The Buckeyes don't necessarily stop the Vols, but they're successful in limiting their possessions on offense. One of the ways they do that is by feeding the ball to running back Dallan Hayden, who runs for 131 yards and churns out one first down after another to keep drives alive. It's a big day for the entire Hayden family. Dallan's dad, Aaron Hayden, was a star running back for Tennessee in the early 1990s.

HOW WE GOT HERE

First round: (1) Ohio State over (16) South Alabama, (2) Tennessee over (15) BYU, (3) USC over (14) Duke, (4) Texas A&M over (13) West Virginia, (5) UCLAover (12) Iowa State , (11) Illinoisover (6) Kentucky, (10) Louisvilleover (7) Iowa, (8) South Carolinaover (9) Texas Tech

Second round: (1) Ohio State over (8) South Carolina, (2) Tennessee over (10) Louisville, (3) USC over (11) Illinois, (4) Texas A&M over (5) UCLA

WEST REGION

SEMIFINALS

(1) Alabama29, (5) Texas21: These two teams played a year ago in the second week of the season with Alabama squeaking by on the road. Now, it's win or go home, and with Bryce Young taking his wizardry to the NFL, the Crimson Tide go back to their roots with a bruising running game under first-year coordinator Tommy Rees. Three different Alabama runners rush for more than 60 yards, led by Jam Miller's 130 yards, to keep the Tide's national championship hopes alive.

(3) Florida State38, (10) Pitt17: Pittsburgh's impressive run into the Sweet 16 comes to an end, and even though the game isn't close, it's a reminder of the job Pat Narduzzi has done with the Panthers' program. It's also a reminder that Mike Norvell has Florida State back in the national discussion. Trey Benson rushes for a season-high 184 yards, and the Seminoles are three wins away from their first national title since 2013.

REGION FINAL

(1) Alabama 33, (3) Florida State 28: Quarterbacks make their names in big games, especially when championships are at stake. Ty Simpson, following in the massive footsteps of Bryce Young, goes from a good player to the best player on the field in an epic game that sees the two teams trade leads, game-changing plays and memorable moments. Simpson's ability to scramble out of trouble and find open receivers is the difference, and Alabama's running game helps open up some things for Simpson and the passing game.

HOW WE GOT HERE

First round: (1) Alabama over (16) Colorado, (2) Penn State over (15) SMU, (3) Florida State over (14) Troy, (4) Utahover (13) Purdue, (5) Texas over NC State(12), (6) Kansas Stateover (11) UCF, (10) Pitt over (7) Florida, (8) Auburnover (9) Tulane

Second round: (1) Alabama over (8) Auburn, (10) Pittsburgh over (2), (3) Florida State over Kansas State (7), (5) Texas over (4) Utah

FINAL FOUR

(1) Alabama 31, (3) Washington 23: Coaching turnover has been nothing new for Nick Saban, and with two new coordinators this season, everyone was watching to see how the changes would impact the offense and defense. On defense, the Crimson Tide force more turnovers under Kevin Steele and create more negative plays. Outside linebacker Dallas Turner makes a living in the Washington backfield, and tackle Jaheim Oatis stonewalls anything the Huskies try to get inside and collapses the pocket. Defense has defined Saban's career, and it's the defense that spearheads Alabama's trip to the national championship game.

(1) Ohio State 30, (2) LSU 28: The last time LSU won a national championship, it did so with a quarterback that started his career at Ohio State, a guy by the name of Joe Burrow. The Tigers again have a transfer quarterback. Jayden Daniels came to the Bayou by way of Arizona State, and he's up to the challenge against an Ohio State defense that rolls the dice with its pressure. The Buckeyes don't give up any big plays, but Daniels moves the chains with short passes and key conversion runs. Ohio State gets one last shot after a short LSU punt, and the Buckeyes' best player reminds everybody why he's the best receiver in college football. Marvin Harrison Jr. turns a slant route into a 56-yard touchdown, and Brutus Buckeye breathes a huge sigh of relief.

NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP

(1) Alabama 35, (1) Ohio State: 28: We're down to two of the true powerhouses in college football, two programs that have defined excellence for a long time. Some of the names have changed, but new ones emerge at the most important time of the season. Ohio State quarterback Kyle McCord takes the Alabama defense's best shot and just keeps getting back up and making plays. The list of great receivers who've come through Alabama over the past few seasons is staggering, but it's a junior college transfer, Malik Benson, who makes the play that changes this game. He gets behind the Ohio State secondary for a 72-yard touchdown, and Alabama ends its "lengthy drought" with its first national championship since the 2020 season. It's Saban's seventh national title at Alabama, and under his leadership, the Tide have never gone more than two seasons without a title.