The 2023 season is the final chapter of an era in college football, and it delivered all the on- and off-field drama one could have expected from a sport that keeps us talking 12 months a year despite only having 12 regular-season games in a campaign. We will remember the 2023 season as a true turning point for the sport, because when we return for 2024, nothing will be the same.
We will remember the conference realignment chaos of July and August, watching a 100-year-old league collapse in a matter of days while the Big Ten and Big 12 saw their future membership balloon to 18 schools. The news of the Pac-12 (as we knew it) falling apart reverberated throughout every corner of college athletics, setting the stage for a season that would be packed with angst and anxiety.
We will remember Coach Prime and the wild ride that was Colorado's first month under Deion Sanders as the focus of the entire sports world turned to the start of the college football season. We will remember all the coaches who used on-field interviews as a chance to shoot their own wrestling promos, from Ryan Day's call out of Lou Holtz to Dabo Swinney's stock advice and so much more. We will remember Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan sign-stealing scandal, and how it drew such an intense and varied reaction across both fans and coaches. Depending on how things go for the Wolverines in the College Football Playoff, we may continue to remember that scandal as an extremely pivotal moment in the 2023 season.
Speaking of the CFP, it would take years of advanced hypnosis and therapy to not remember Florida State's exclusion from the top four, marking the first time the CFP Selection Committee has ever left out an undefeated power conference champion. The bitter taste the news left some fans was often delivered with the digestif of next year's 12-team playoff format, as though "it won't happen like this again" does anything to soften the blow for Mike Norvell's resurgent Seminoles program.
So, when we gather next offseason to preview 2024, it will all look different. Conferences will have memberships that span the entire country, the playoff will have automatic bids, byes and 12 teams competing for the national championship. On Saturdays, it will still be the sport that we all love, but from 35,000 feet, it might be unrecognizable. And when your mind drifts to recall what things looked like in the before times of college football, you'll remember the 2023 season.
One way that we crystalize every season is by honoring the best and brightest. When we remember 2023, these names will be some of the first that come to mind. Check out our Player of the Year, Coach of the Year and Freshman of the Year below, and don't miss our, released earlier this week.
2023 CBS Sports college football awards
Player of the Year: Jayden Daniels, QB, LSU
Sometimes college football's history can be a great way to put what we are watching into context, and Jayden Daniels' 2023 season stands up as one of the most outstanding individual efforts in the modern era. Daniels currently leads or is tied among all FBS quarterbacks in total yards per game (412.2), passing touchdowns (40), total touchdowns (50) and pass efficiency rating (208.0). That passer rating mark, by the way, currently leads Grayson McCall (2021), Mac Jones (2020) and Joe Burrow (2019) as the best in FBS history, so depending what Daniels wants to do in the bowl game, it could go down as the most efficient passing season of all time.
Daniels' 2023 season has him as only the second player in SEC history with 3,500+ yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing, joining Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel. His 50 total touchdowns in a season put him on a short list of SEC quarterbacks that include Joe Burrow, Tim Tebow, Cam Newton and Bryce Young. All of them, as you might have noted, won that famous stiff-arm trophy that Daniels is favored to capture Saturday night.
And while Daniels winning CBS Sports Player of the Year is a focus exclusively on his performance this season, it's impossible to celebrate him without noting the story of his career. When the promise of his recruiting projections weren't panning out at Arizona State, Daniels used the transfer portal to find a new home at LSU. And it wasn't a "just add water" recipe for success as he slowly improved throughout the 2022 season before making a jump into the elite tier in 2023.
Daniels worked on his downfield passing and now stands as one of the best deep ball passers in college football with his yards per attempt jumping from 7.5 in 2022 to 11.7 in 2023. The threat of Daniels running has always been a part of his game, but paired with an improved deep ball, the LSU quarterback became nearly impossible to contain. Daniels doesn't win this award if he doesn't use the extra time and opportunities in college football to strengthen every aspect of his game, and in that sense, he's a modern success story in the transfer portal era.
Coach of the Year: Kalen DeBoer, Washington
Washington has always been a program capable of reaching college football's highest levels when it has the right coach in place, and that's certainly the case two years into Kalen DeBoer's tenure in Seattle. The Huskies are 24-2 since DeBoer took over, currently riding a 20-game winning streak after going 13-0 and winning the Pac-12 in 2023. DeBoer joins Chip Kelly as the only coach in Pac-12 history to go 9-0 in conference play, matching Kelly's 2010 campaign at Oregon when the Ducks finished as national runner-up. And while Washington has gotten to the top of college football before, DeBoer's sustained success in this short run brings notoriety as the first coach in school history to win 11+ games in consecutive seasons.
DeBoer has long been viewed as an elite offensive coach, and those skills have been on display with the Huskies offense -- led by quarterback Michael Penix Jr. and wide receiver Rome Odunze -- ranking among the best in the country. But there's an intangible strength that DeBoer has helped foster this season that's been on display as Washington rounded out its 2023 campaign. The Huskies won each of their last nine games by 10 points or fewer, some of them high-scoring shootouts and some of them as low-scoring defensive battles. According to the Pac-12, Washington is the only team since at least 1973 to win at least eight games by 10 points or less, which can only suggest that we are talking about one of the most clutch teams in the modern era.
That confidence in close games, many of them played with the immense pressure of an undefeated record and College Football Playoff stakes, comes from the top. DeBoer has a lot of numbers to support his strength and added value as a coach, but how the Huskies continued to keep their undefeated season alive week after week reflects positively on the leadership of their coach.
Freshman of the Year: Caleb Downs, DB, Alabama
The buzz on Caleb Downs started the moment he arrived in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, when insiders made it clear we weren't going to be dealing with your average five-star prospect. Every Nick Saban recruiting class is loaded with blue-chip players, but not every five-star is alike, and not many of them have been able to step right in and have the impact that Downs had for the Alabama defense in 2023.
Downs leads Alabama with 99 tackles on the season and also tallied two interceptions and a forced fumble. Saban has credited Downs' maturity throughout the year as he stepped right into the starting lineup from the beginning of the season. Thanks to his elite instincts, he has not looked at all the part of a rookie even on some of the game's biggest stages. He also assumed some punt return duties in recent weeks, running one punt back for a touchdown against Chattanooga.
With Kool-Aid McKinstry and Terrion Arnold at cornerback, Alabama was an elite safety away from having one of the best secondaries in the country. Downs, a player who can make a difference in coverage while also being unafraid to get into the action around the line of scrimmage in the run game, has been that elite player. The defense is a big reason why Alabama was able to win the SEC championship over Georgia and why the Crimson Tide, even after a tough home loss in Week 2, will be competing for a national championship in the College Football Playoff.