For as much as it seemed significant swaths of the country were rooting against Michigan’s run to the program’s first national championship since 1997, college football fans of historically relevant programs not named Georgia, Alabama and Ohio State should have been inspired by Monday night’s result.
The Wolverines featured just two consensus five-star recruits — running back Donovan Edwards and cornerback Will Johnson, each of whom just happened to make massive contributions to Michigan’s 34-13 victory over Washington. But the Wolverines were a true team in every sense of the word. They were developed methodically by an excellent staff led by Jim Harbaugh and came together to change every narrative that existed about their program.
On one hand, if Michigan can do it, many programs can do it. On the other, the Wolverines did it the hard way. It took three years of getting to this point that formed a resolve that wouldn’t break.
Who has the best chance to dethrone Michigan in 2024, the first year of the College Football Playoff’s 12-team format?
The fun part about this year’s “way-too-early top-25” is that basically any team listed here should have a puncher’s chance to find itself in the bracket next December if some things break the right way.
Ranking teams this early in the era of the transfer portal is a fool’s errand. Knowing rosters will remain in flux through the spring, I’ll be leaning toward teams with a proven quarterback and a dependable culture of winning more than going deep into the depth charts for answers.
Watching Michigan and Washington slog through some poor execution in the middle section of Monday’s title game, it was hard not to think that Alabama did them quite the favor in knocking the Bulldogs out. In the 12-team field, a team like Georgia would still make the playoff and have the chance to rain havoc, starting with a home game. Next year, Georgia will be poised to return to its perch atop the sport, with quarterback Carson Beck coming back to lead an efficient offensive attack. The Bulldogs added Florida running back Trevor Etienne and Miami receiver Colbie Young from the transfer portal, which should help them recover from the loss of star tight end Brock Bowers as the team’s top playmaker. Kirby Smart’s defense will never be a question.
The Crimson Tide enter the offseason feeling like they let one slip away against Michigan in the Rose Bowl. A Nick Saban team with a clear motive is always dangerous. Alabama has now watched three seasons pass without a championship. Dynamic quarterback Jalen Milroe will be back to change that, and he should benefit from his year of seasoning. Running back Justice Haynes flashed in Pasadena, and the Tide return leading receiver Isaiah Bond and two experienced tight ends. Alabama got welcome news when linebacker Deontae Lawson announced he was coming back to school.
The Wolverines enter an uneasy period now, with Harbaugh’s NFL decision looming. Quarterback JJ McCarthy could also choose to go out a national champion and enter the NFL draft (the gut feeling here is that McCarthy knows he has more developing to do and returns to Ann Arbor to keep Michigan humming). The Wolverines are going to lose a Mount Rushmore figure in running back Blake Corum, but it’s possible Edwards decides to enjoy his shot as the team’s top back for the first time. Tight end Colston Loveland, McCarthy’s security blanket, will be back. After three years as the nation’s top offensive line, the Wolverines will have to reload in the trenches. Michigan loses some key pieces from its dominant defense, but it has top talent returning at each level, including Johnson and defensive tackles Mason Graham and Kenneth Grant. If Harbaugh leaves, Michigan has already shown it can win with offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore at the helm. Defensive coordinator Jesse Minter could receive a strong look, too.
Has Lane Kiffin finally figured out how to complement his offensive acumen as a program CEO? The Rebels beat Penn State in the Peach Bowl to finish an 11-2 season, and they now have the highest-ranked transfer portal recruiting class for 2024. Kiffin’s biggest portal fish is more like a whale — defensive tackle Walter Nolan, who was considered the nation’s top player when he committed to Texas A&M. Nolen will anchor what should be an improved Ole Miss defense, and veteran quarterback Jaxson Dart, the former USC transfer, will take care of the rest. The Rebels lost star running back Quinshon Judkins to Ohio State in the transfer portal, but they won’t lack for talent in the backfield. For the first time in recent memory, due to the new SEC scheduling, the Rebels won’t play Alabama. They host Georgia and Oklahoma instead, and Kiffin will need to win one of those games to get Ole Miss to its first playoff.
Steve Sarkisian’s Longhorns finally did it, winning the Big 12 and receiving the program’s first CFP invite. Now, Sark’s challenge will be to keep the team hungry for more as it enters its first year of SEC play. As of now, quarterback Quinn Ewers is returning for his senior season, and, if he does have a change of heart, it would mean the debut of Arch Manning. Texas is stacked at running back and wide receiver, which is no surprise given Sark’s reputation for developing high-scoring offenses. The biggest question will be on defense, where they will lose stalwart defensive tackle T’Vondre Sweat in the middle. Still, if Texas is actually “back” as it now appears, it would be a surprise if the Longhorns don’t make a repeat playoff appearance.
6. Ohio State
There is not a program in the country with more on the line in 2024 than Ohio State. Will that mounting pressure to put the Wolverines back in their place bring out the best in Ryan Day’s team? It hasn’t yet. The Buckeyes will swap out quarterback Kyle McCord, who transferred to Syracuse, for Kansas State transfer Will Howard, a proven winner in the Big 12. But Howard does not fit the mold of Day’s previous quarterbacks at Ohio State, so it’s possible Day is going to tinker a bit with his scheme. The addition of Judkins points toward more emphasis on the running game, despite the Buckeyes’ gaggle of young five-star receivers. The defense should be one of the country’s best once again.
No quarterback has embraced college football’s era of player movement quite like Hawaiian Dillon Gabriel, who must be trying to get as much mainland flavor as possible. He started at Central Florida, transferred briefly to UCLA, played for Oklahoma the past two years and has now made one last move to Oregon. The Ducks can only hope he approaches the success of their last transfer, Bo Nix, who helped give Dan Lanning’s tenure an exciting jumpstart. The only thing Nix couldn’t do was beat Washington, a task that will now fall to Gabriel. Oregon loses running back Bucky Irving and wide receiver Troy Franklin, but the Ducks still look fierce all over the depth chart.
8. Louisiana State
This was one of those seasons LSU just couldn’t get off the ground, losing to Florida State in its opener and never playing its way back into national title contention. But the talent is there, and Brian Kelly knows what it takes to make the playoff. He just has to show it now in the SEC. The Tigers lose Heisman Trophy winner Jayden Daniels and top wide receiver Malik Nabers, but quarterback Garrett Nussmeier and his supporting cast seemed up for their new roles in beating Wisconsin in the ReliaQuest Bowl. LSU must figure out its defense, which has not been the same since winning the 2019 national championship. Giving up 31 points to the Badgers was not the greatest sign, but Kelly announced the hire of Blake Baker, the Missouri defensive coordinator who led the Tigers to an 11-2 season.
The Volunteers used veteran quarterback Joe Milton to bridge the gap between Hendon Hooker and Southern California product Nico Iamaleava. During Iamaleava’s first college start against Iowa in the Capital One Bowl, he led the Vols to a 35-0 thumping of the Hawkeyes. The Iowa defense is a tough draw for a young quarterback, but Iamaleava met the challenge, compiling four touchdowns, including three on the ground. Tennessee feels poised for its CFP breakthrough in the coming years.
10. Florida State
The Seminoles enter the offseason flaming mad that they were denied a spot in the playoff after an undefeated season and ACC championship. But now they know that if they repeat as ACC champs, they’ll be in the playoff and very likely enjoying a first-round bye. Mike Norvell has the full faith of Florida State to get the job done, and he’ll be counting on the maturity of former St. John Bosco quarterback DJ Uiagalelei, the two-time transfer who previously played for Clemson and Oregon State, to provide a stabilizing force after a turbulent time. Uiagalelei’s presence should make the Clemson game very interesting.
Quarterback Brady Cook and wide receiver Luther Burden are back to try to prove last year’s Missouri uprising was no fluke.
The Huskies are hoping that they hit the quarterback transfer jackpot yet again with Mississippi State’s Will Rogers.
13. Penn State
To make their first CFP, the Nittany Lions will need quarterback Drew Allar to live up to his five-star potential for the first time.
Three playoffs without Dabo Swinney’s Tigers would have seemed unfathomable five years ago, but he has failed to adapt well to the changes across the sport.
15. Notre Dame
The Fighting Irish seem to be struggling to develop a home-grown quarterback. They’re hoping Duke transfer Riley Leonard can get them further than Sam Hartman this season.
Jedd Fisch’s team was a revelation in 2023. If the Wildcats continue their trajectory, they’ll win a Big 12 championship and receive a first-round bye in the playoff. Wow.
The Sooners are hoping top quarterback prospect Jackson Arnold is ready to lead them into the SEC.
18. Texas A&M
The Aggies needed a new leader to harness all that talent they’ve been recruiting, but getting to the playoff in Year 1 will be a tall task for Mike Elko.
Cam Rising’s knee didn’t heal in time to play in 2023, so he’ll get a seventh college season to try to make the Utes champions in their new league.
20. Kansas State
There was a reason Will Howard hit the portal, and his name is Avery Johnson. The Wildcats may have a higher ceiling now.
Could the Trojans have a better season with Miller Moss at quarterback than Caleb Williams? The early returns were great against Louisville, and it seems Lincoln Riley has realized he has to start putting a defensive mentality first.
22. Oklahoma State
Rising won’t be the only seventh-year senior quarterback in the Big 12, as Alan Bowman will be back. To sum up the absurdity: This guy played at Texas Tech for Kliff Kingsbury in 2018.
The Jayhawks are building something with head coach Lance Leipold, and quarterback Jalon Daniels is back to try to win a Big 12 title.
Tyler Shough continues the seventh-year quarterback trend with the Cardinals, who may be better off if they give those reps to talented Southern California prospect Pierce Clarkson.
If the Hawkeyes improve just a little offensively — and they should with a healthy Cade McNamara at quarterback — they could sneak into the playoff conversation.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.
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