In less than two weeks, the USFL returns to kick off its 2023 season on Saturday, April 15th. The league kicks off with a showcase doubleheader on FOX Saturday, April 15 at 4:30 PM ET as the Memphis Showboats return in their home opener at Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium against the Philadelphia Stars.
In the primetime matchup, the 2022 USFL Champion Birmingham Stallions take on the New Jersey Generals from Protective Stadium in Birmingham, Ala., at 7:30 PM ET.
Year Two In The New USFL
Projecting year two of this iteration of the USFL is a lot less challenging than it was a year ago. Simply because, although there’s been some changes and departures throughout the league. The USFL’s top teams from 2022 have retained most of their core from last season.
In many ways, the dynamic of year two in this USFL mirrors what typically happens in the NFL. The top contending teams retool and tweak. Yet maintain to keep their best qualities intact. While the non-contenders go back to the drawing board, seeking new solutions.
With that in mind, let’s start this thing from the bottom to the top. Here are my preseason rankings for the 2023 USFL season, from eight to one.
#8: Houston Gamblers (3-7 in 2022)
The teams on the bottom end of the USFL in 2022 have a lot in common. Changes in leadership and uncertainty at QB. The Gamblers follow that pattern with Curtis Johnson taking over for Houston’s head coach last season, Kevin Sumlin, who departed for an assistant position with the University of Maryland.
Johnson, the longtime college and receivers coach, has a 15-34 overall NCAA head coaching record in the NCAA as coach of Tulane for four years. His track record as an assistant over the years is sound, having won a national championship and a Super Bowl as a receivers coach. Johnson’s experience in that area should benefit the Gamblers, who were inconsistent offensively in 2022.
The Gamblers are relying on the growth of QB Kenji Bahar in year two. They also have the unproven Terry Wilson, and Montell Cozart at QB. The Gamblers do have a dynamic runner in Mark Thompson. However, there weren’t a lot of improvements to the overall offensive roster this season. The loss of playmaker Isaiah Zuber to the NFL is significant.
This season, Houston will have a new playing hub, sharing the space with the Showboats at their home in Memphis. It’s not an ideal competitive setup playing the tenant role in someone else’s house.
The Gamblers had an excellent defense in 2022. However, many of their top players and defensive assistants from a year ago haven’t returned. The team lost Donald Payne, Reggie Northrup, Chris Odom, Tegray Scales, and Will Likely to other leagues.
Because of this, no team in the USFL got it worse than them in the offseason.
#7: Pittsburgh Maulers (1-9 in 2022)
I expect the Maulers to be better in 2023. After all, there’s nowhere to go but up after last year.
The newly christened Black and Yellow Pittsburgh Maulers suffered a lot of black and blues last season. A year ago, the Kirby Wilson-led Maulers were the subject of much scrutiny and ridicule.
Wilson has stepped away from the USFL. And in comes longtime NFL assistant coach Ray Horton, who joins his son Jarren Horton, the Maulers’ assistant head coach and defensive coordinator.
After nearly four decades in the NFL as a player and coach, this is Ray Horton’s first-ever shot at being a head coach.
The Maulers will also have a new home in 2023. Pittsburgh will share a new playing hub with the New Jersey Generals in Canton, Ohio. The switch at the head coaching position and their new home venue seem like upgrades from 2022.
Pittsburgh is trying to build off a 22 campaign that saw them score the fewest points in the league (147) and tie for the most points allowed defensively in ten games (243). The earmarkings of a 1-9 finish.
Pittsburgh is returning a lot of the same players they had in 2022. One of their most productive players from a year ago, WR Bailey Gaither, returns after testing the NFL waters. However, the two major additions to the Maulers roster that could change their fortunes in 2023 are 2020 NFL 4th round pick, Quarterback James Morgan, and Alabama standout/former first-round selection of the San Francisco 49ers, linebacker Reuben Foster.
If Morgan and Foster hit as star players for Pittsburgh. They can change the overall complexion of the new-look Maulers.
#6: Michigan Panthers (2-8 in 2022)
Like the Maulers, the Michigan Panthers have a new football leader in Mike Nolan. Jeff Fisher stepped away from the league after a disappointing 2022 season.
Like Ray Horton, Nolan has been away from the pro ranks for a few years after a lifetime of coaching in the NFL. Unlike Horton, Mike Nolan does have head coaching experience, albeit an 18-37 record with the San Fransisco 49ers nearly two decades ago.
What the two-win Panthers do have in their favor heading into 2023 is that they will be at home playing at Ford Field this season. In the USFL a year ago, all but one team had home-field advantage. It was a disadvantage for the non-Stallions. The Panthers having home games in their market is a plus.
The Panthers added some exciting players to their roster from a year ago like veteran WR Trey Quinn and linebacker Noah Dawkins. Star RB Reggie Corbin returns to give the team balance.
However, Michigan has an underwhelming roster overall. The key will be their quarterback position. The team brings back promising young prospect Eric Barriere and the recently signed Carson Strong. If either one of these two players lives up to their potential and impressive college resumes. The Panthers can be much more competitive than they were last season.
#5: Memphis Showboats (First season back in the USFL, inheriting the roster of the 4-6 Tampa Bay Bandits)
It didn’t take long for the new USFL to relocate one of its teams. The Tampa Bay Bandits have a new paint job and have returned as the Memphis Showboats. The trade-in of one legacy USFL team for another makes all the sense in the world. Because this team has a home to play in. And a market that seems ready to embrace them.
The big difference for former Bandits and current Showboats coach Todd Haley’s team is the moves they made at quarterback. Jordan Ta’amu left the league after leading the USFL in passing yards and touchdowns. And has been replaced by an intriguing trio of young signal-callers: former Memphis Tiger Brady White, the 6’7 Cole Kelley, and TSL standout Ryan Willis.
If anyone of these three young quarterbacks shows out for the Showboats. Todd Haley’s offense could be one of the better ones in the USFL. Memphis inherited some very good players from the Bandits roster a year ago. LSU speedster Derrick Dillon, John Franklin, Vinny Papale, and Rashard Davis return. But also joining them is former Stallions receiver Osiris Mitchell.
The big addition on offense, however, is NFL veteran RB Alex Collins. A year ago, the then Bandits’ leading rusher was Jordan Ta’amu. The addition of Collins is a very important ingredient in providing balance this season.
On the offensive line, 2022 All-USFL player Jarron Jones returns. The defense is largely unchanged from 2022 as well. With the exception of new defensive coordinator Carnell Lake, who was elevated from his position as defensive backs coach.
The Showboats have a chance to be one of the sleeper USFL teams this season. Continuity from a year ago helps, and the QB room has a chance to be pretty good.
#4: New Orleans Breakers (6-4)
Of all the USFL teams that have had changes at the top. The Breakers may have ended up with the best QB-Head coach re-do in the league.
Larry Fedora deciding to leave the USFL because the Breakers weren’t going to be in New Orleans was a tough blow. But his replacement, John DeFilippo, is a respectable choice. The 44-year-old has a ton of experience working with quarterbacks and coordinating offenses on the NFL level. That type of expertise is perfect for a league like the USFL.
The QB room for New Orleans has a chance to be one of the best ones overall in the USFL. Aqeel Glass and Davis Cheek are two small college rookies with great upside. But it’s CFL defector McLeod Bethel-Thompson, who brings a ton of seasoning and experience to the Breakers.
As someone who has followed MBT his entire career. He can be a maddening player at times. The type of quarterback that runs hot and cold in almost every game he plays. But Bethel-Thompson, who led the CFL in passing a year ago, is a leader, has excellent toughness, great arm strength, and is battle tested. The well-weathered journeyman quarterback has a chance to be a star in the United States in what could be his final swan song.
Three other prominent CFL players also jumped onto New Orleans’s tide this offseason. RB Wes Hills and receiver Hergy Mayala. The latter two join two talented wideouts on the Breakers roster from last year, Jonathan Adams and Johnnie Dixon.
The Breakers’ defense has some good players as well. Mostly in their secondary. But how far they go will come down to their offense.
#3: New Jersey Generals (9-1)
The top three teams in the USFL have a ton of similarities. They have ready-made and proven systems with good leaders at the top.
Mike Riley was a five-star general for New Jersey last season. His leadership was a big factor in the Generals’ 9-1 season. Riley is beloved by his players and has had a ton of success in non-NFL leagues dating back decades. He’s won as a head coach in the CFL, AAF, WLAF, and last year in the USFL.
When everyone else was zigging last year in the USFL. Riley zagged. The Generals developed an excellent smashmouth style last year that dominated the league. That same system, along with OC Steven Smith, returns.
The Generals’ dynamic duo of Darius Victor and Trey Williams will be back in business, pounding the rock this season repeatedly.
The QB trio of DeAndre Johnson, Kyle Lauletta, and Dakota Prukop has a chance to be one of the more entertaining. Johnson, in particular, has a chance to be a breakout star if he can stay healthy. The big question is how will New Jersey replace league MVP and current NFL pro-Bowl player KaVontae Turpin. The team added veteran DeMornay Pierson-El. But someone else needs to step up.
There’s also a question about how good the defense will be from a year ago after losing some of its best defensive backs in DeJuan Neal and DeVante Bausby.
But as long as Mike Riley is at the helm. I fully expect new players to emerge and for New Jersey to remain a contender.
#2: Birmingham Stallions (9-1, USFL 2022 Champs)
It seems pretty foolish to knock the defending champions down a peg in 2023. Especially considering the fact that Birmingham is returning virtually the same nucleus as a season ago. But there’s another team, I think, that is going to overtake them for the crown. More on that in a moment.
What’s not to like about the Stallions? They have a good coach in Skip Holtz. A solid overall staff. Two competent quarterbacks in JaMar Smith and Alex McGough. An all-world RB in Bo Scarborough, and they have added two playmakers in Deon Cain and Davion Davis at receiver.
Birmingham will have a tough time replacing USFL yards leader and championship game MVP Victor Bolden. But players like Cain have a chance to be breakout stars in his stead.
The Stallions’ defense is not too shabby, either. Although they did lose arguably their best player DeMarquis Gates to the NFL.
When it’s all said and done. Because of continuity. The path to a championship in the South will still go through Birmingham.
#1: Philadelphia Stars (6-4)
My preseason pick to win it all in 2023. And if not for a Case Cookus injury in the championship game against Birmingham. The Stars may have shined brightest in 2022. All signs point to them doing so this coming season.
Under Bart Andrus, Philly has the most QB-friendly system in the USFL. The Stars have a deep backfield with the likes of Matt Colburn, Dexter Williams, and Darnell Holland. And an excellent receiving corps that has a chance to get better with the acquisition of Corey Coleman. The addition of Coleman helps offset the loss of Maurice Alexander, who departed for the NFL.
The return of standout cornerback Channing Stribling defensively is a huge help to Philly. But the player who has a chance to be defensive player of the year this season is DE Ali Fayad. The 2021 MAC defensive player of the year showed glimpses of brilliance in his role up north in Canada. Expect the dog in him to be released in Philly, as no restrictions are put on him in any type of rotation.
Philly’s defense tied for most points allowed a season ago with Philly. It’s what kept them from winning more than six games during last year’s regular season. The tandem of Rodriguez and Fayad should be one of the best in the USFL this year.
The improvements on defense are why I see the Stars as the team everyone will be shooting for in USFL 2023.