College Football Analyst
Michigan put a bow on its 2023 national title over the weekend, celebrating with a parade and ceremony in Ann Arbor on Saturday before many of its stars declared for the NFL Draft a day later. So, it’s time to move on to the 2024 season, which means it’s also time for me to release my way-too-early top 10.
Full disclosure, this is my second run at making a way-too-early top 10 for the 2024 season. I actually recorded an episode of my podcast, “The Joel Klatt Show,” where I ranked my top 10 teams for 2024 before all hell broke loose with Nick Saban’s retirement.
You’ll never see the 1.0 way-too-early top 10, which looked different than this updated version of the list.
Now that the dust has seemingly settled, here’s my way-too-early top 10 for the 2024 season.
10. Penn State Nittany Lions
2023 record: 10-3
Some people might roll their eyes at this, but with what it’s got coming back, what it did to its coaching staff and what it added in the transfer portal, I’m a big believer in Penn State at No. 10. I’ve been hyping up Penn State’s 2022 recruiting class over the last couple of years as it’s one of James Franklin’s best recruiting classes. That class is formidable and is entering its junior season, so it’s go time.
Quarterback Drew Allar, running backs Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen plus linebacker Abdul Carter headline the group of rising juniors and are all really good players. But the Nittany Lions had to address some things on offense this offseason. Their offense just wasn’t good enough last season and they’re going to lose possibly the best offensive tackle entering the NFL Draft. I really like their decision to hire Kansas offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki to be their offensive coordinator. Kotelnicki had the Jayhawks ranked fifth in yards per play in the nation over the last two seasons, and they didn’t have their starting quarterback for roughly half of those games. Former Ohio State wide receiver Julian Fleming headlines Penn State’s transfer class, giving it an outside threat it desperately lacked.
Colorado, Miami & LSU outside of Joel Klatt’s way too early top 10
Penn State also lost defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, but I liked its decision to hire former Indiana head coach Tom Allen to replace him. That defense has been really good for the last few years, and I imagine it’ll continue to be that way in 2024.
Looking at Penn State’s schedule, it has a tough five-game stretch in the middle of the season, which includes matchups against USC, Ohio State and Washington.
This program, maybe more so than any other program in the country, is excited for the 12-team College Football Playoff. Penn State never made the four-team playoff, but it would’ve made the CFP six times over the last 10 years if the 12-team format was in place. That’s the most of any team that’s yet to make the CFP.
Penn State should have a legitimate chance to make its first playoff appearance in 2024.
9. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
2023 record: 10-3
I believe in what Marcus Freeman is doing.
It’s been a bit of a rocky road this offseason. Notre Dame lost some guys who are going to be hard to replace, such as left tackle Joe Alt, running back Audric Estime and quarterback Sam Hartman. But I really believe in what Notre Dame is doing offensively because it’s bringing in Mike Denbrock to be its offensive coordinator. He worked at Notre Dame under Brian Kelly before following him to LSU, which has been one of the best offensive teams in the nation over the last two years.
Duke transfer and likely starting quarterback Riley Leonard is a good player. It also got some much-needed wide receiver help with FIU transfer Kris Mitchell. But this is going to be a defensive-oriented team. Safety Xavier Watts deciding to return was a big boost.
Note Dame’s schedule is a bit tricky. It opens at Texas A&M. If it wins that game, it has a real chance to start out 8-0 before it hosts Florida State. It only has three true road games (Texas A&M, Purdue, USC). So, this is a manageable schedule.
8. Utah Utes
2023 record: 8-5
I wanted to put this team higher, and I should’ve. So, I want to start with an apology here; I believe I’m selling Utah short.
Death, taxes and Utah football. Utah was just decimated by injuries in 2023, but it had three double-digit wins in the three full seasons prior. It still won eight games last season and here’s the kicker: Utah will get quarterback Cameron Rising back. Standout tight end Brant Kuithe is also returning. We know the defense is going to be good, it’s always good and will be good at the line of scrimmage.
Rising’s return is the big one though. He led Utah to Pac-12 titles in his last two healthy seasons. It doesn’t have to go through that Pac-12 gauntlet anymore, moving to the Big 12. It should be the favorite to win the Big 12 and if it wins the conference, it has a legitimate path to getting one of the top four seeds in the CFP.
Utah’s toughest road games will be at Oklahoma State, UCF and Colorado, which could be interesting. When you look at Utah’s schedule compared to other teams on here, it’s got a much clearer path to the playoff.
Utah’s losing some standouts, like Sione Vaki, but this team just replaces those players with ease. It might be the second-best developmental program in the country, only trailing Michigan.
7. Michigan Wolverines
2023 record: 15-0
I know this is probably low for the defending national champs, but Michigan’s losing a lot of good players and we’re still unsure what’s happening with Jim Harbaugh. My gut is telling me though that he’s going to go to the NFL. If that does happen, I’d expect Michigan to promote Sherrone Moore after he went 4-0 this season as its interim coach.
I’d love for Harbaugh to stay because it’s great for college football. But if he does opt to go, Michigan will have to replace its head coach, quarterback, several key offensive starters and defensive starters. J.J. McCarthy, Blake Corum and Roman Wilson are all moving on. It’ll have a whole new starting offensive line. Will Alex Orji or someone else start at quarterback? We don’t know.
That’s a lot of leadership to lose. But Michigan is, definitely, the best developmental program in college football. You don’t win a national championship the way it won it if you aren’t as good as it is developing players. So, it’ll probably be fine at offensive line and in the running back room with Donovan Edwards coming back.
Michigan QB J.J. McCarthy declares for the 2024 NFL Draft
So, to think Michigan will fall off the cliff is really short-sighted. It develops too well and I think that identity will remain, regardless of what happens with Harbaugh. The defense should be really good, again. I know it’s losing a lot of starters, but it’s two-deep along the defensive line, with Mason Graham among those returning. Corner Will Johnson and safety Rod Moore are also back for the Wolverines.
The question will really be whether Michigan can play at the top end. It’s got home games against Texas, USC and Oregon while it goes on the road to play Ohio State and Washington. That’s a tough schedule. Somebody is going to be like USC was this past season, where the schedule just crushed the Trojans this year. That will happen again with these new superconferences.
The difference is, if that team wins the right games, it probably makes it into the CFP.
6. Ole Miss Rebels
2023 record: 11-2
The portal kings!
I’m not talking about Colorado, I’m talking about Ole Miss. The Rebels got some significant talent in the transfer portal. They have Jaxson Dart returning at quarterback as well, and these experienced quarterbacks have paid off in the college game recently. He’s going to be a third-year starter and will have a lot of talent around him.
Now, Ole Miss had a pretty big loss in the portal, too. Quinshon Judkins, who was arguably the best running back in the SEC over the last two years, transferred out, which surprised a lot of people. Ulysses Bentley will likely be its primary running back next season and he actually rushed for nearly six yards per carry over the last two years. Leading receiver Tre Harris returns, and the Rebels got South Carolina transfer Juice Wells, so that should be a big-time receiver duo.
Michigan, Utah & Ole Miss in Joel Klatt’s way too early top 10 teams
Suffice to say, Lane Kiffin has got something going. I can see it building and I’ll be very surprised if this team is not in the playoff. Similar to Penn State, this is the perfect type of team that will benefit from the expanded playoff. It doesn’t need to win its conference in order to make it there. It just needs to take care of business.
As far as an SEC schedule, Ole Miss’ slate isn’t terrible. It has Georgia and Oklahoma, but both games are at home. It also has LSU on the road and its schedule is more backloaded. But if I’m an Ole Miss fan, I’m psyched for this new season.
5. Alabama Crimson Tide
2023 record: 12-2
Full disclosure, Alabama is ranked here based on reputation and a nod to what it’s been for such a long time. Will it continue to be that way moving forward? I’m not sure. But Alabama hired an unbelievable coach, but will he be allowed to be himself? I’m not sure.
There are a lot of unknowns with Alabama. Clearly, there were many shock waves when Nick Saban decided to retire last week. I thought he was trying to set Steve Sarkisian up to be his successor when he was the offensive coordinator at Alabama.
That didn’t happen, but I love that Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne didn’t follow the prototypical SEC search. Kalen DeBoer was the best man for the job. He’s 104-12 in his career as a head coach. Look at what he did at Fresno State and Washington. If he’s allowed to be himself, he can have a run of high-quality success at Alabama. Is it going to look like Saban’s? No, but let him be himself.
Alabama hires Kalen DeBoer as Nick Saban’s successor
Alabama is also losing some key players. Defensively, Dallas Turner, Kool-Aid McKinstry and Terrion Arnold are all likely going to be first-round picks. JC Latham, Alabama’s best offensive lineman, is also going into the draft. Roster retention will be a big priority for DeBoer as two of their top players are reportedly entering the portal in Caleb Downs and Kadyn Proctor.
My biggest question for DeBoer is going to be how he recruits. That was obviously the strength for Saban and his staff, routinely being ranked in the top three. If DeBoer is able to do that, this roster will be loaded with talent. The roster is also loaded with talent with what’s left in the cupboard. That’s not a problem.
My next biggest question is: What is the DeBoer-Jalen Milroe marriage going to look like? What will the offense and structure look like? Milroe should enter the season as one of the Heisman favorites. He’s ultra-talented, proving it with his legs and arm. He didn’t play his best game against Michigan, but nobody did. Milroe is going to be just fine, but I’ll be interested to see how he plays in DeBoer’s system.
Alabama has an interesting non-conference game at Wisconsin. In conference play, it has road games against LSU, Tennessee and Oklahoma while also playing Georgia at home. Tough schedule, but it’s the 12-team playoff era and Alabama fans need to realize that it can make the playoffs with a couple of losses.
4. Texas Longhorns
2023 record: 12-2
Texas outperformed expectations in 2023. For the first time in a long time, everyone sort of dipped their toes in the water to buy in on Texas. I said entering the year that Texas had to earn its way to being viewed as a title contender. Texas earned it, making it to the College Football Playoff for the first time in program history this past season.
Texas should be right back in the playoff hunt in 2024. It’s recruited really over the last few years and I’d be surprised if it didn’t have a good year.
The thing that will be interesting is what happens at quarterback. Quinn Ewers is back for another season. The way he played against Washington is going to inspire a ton of hope for the fan base. Now, is Ewers really good? Yes. Did he have a lot of great talent around him? Obviously. Will the next quarterback have great talent around him? Yes, and he’ll have Steve Sarkisian designing and calling plays, too. The offensive line should continue to be a real strength for the Longhorns as well.
Quinn Ewers and Jalen Milroe in Joel Klatt’s top 5 2024 Heisman Contenders
But Arch Manning is going to be sitting over there, ready to go. If there’s one guy I don’t want sitting behind me, it’d be Manning. So, we’ll see everything we need to see about the mental toughness of Ewers because every single throw he makes next season will be evaluated to no end.
Sarkisian’s tradition of having strong running backs will continue. C.J. Baxter and Jaydon Blue are returning. The defense will have to replace defensive tackles Byron Murphy and T’Vondre Sweat along with linebacker Jaylan Ford.
This isn’t a team where it’s a shoo-in that it’ll definitely be good. But we believe in them because the Longhorns have recruited at a high level and I believe in Sarkisian with an experienced quarterback.
Looking at Texas’ schedule, it has Michigan before facing Oklahoma and Georgia in back-to-back weeks. It closes out the year with its first matchup against Texas A&M since 2011. You don’t think College Station will be charged up?
3. Oregon Ducks
2023 record: 12-2
I don’t feel like many have given Oregon its due for what it’s done over the last couple of years and what its roster looks like going into next season. I’ve only seen a couple of other way-too-early rankings that have Oregon ranked as high as I do.
The Ducks are heading into Year 3 of the Dan Lanning era, and I loved that he opted to stay in Eugene. I believe that with moving into the Big Ten, Oregon can be a place where you can win a national championship. He doesn’t have to go to the SEC or Alabama to do that, and I think he’s the right guy to try and win a title at Oregon.
I actually first realized how well-positioned Oregon was going to be for the 2024 season when I was preparing to call its game against Utah this season – and this was in the midst of the Ducks’ run this year. I thought the best is yet to come for Oregon and it has great players in the trenches, particularly at edge rusher.
Dillon Gabriel announces his transfer to Oregon for the 2024 season
The Ducks did a great job in the portal. It needed to replace Bo Nix, who started 61 college games, and picked up Dillon Gabriel to do that. I think he’s perfectly suited for Oregon’s system due to his athleticism and ability to distribute the ball quickly. He wasn’t best suited for Oklahoma’s offensive system.
The roster, like I mentioned, is still extremely talented. I know they lost Bucky Irvin, Troy Franklin and Jackson Powers-Johnson on offense, but Oregon gets back Tez Johnson and picked up Texas A&M receiver Even Stewart. I also think running back Jordan James could be a breakout star and the offensive line returns three of its starters.
Oregon’s schedule is manageable, at least for the new Big Ten standards. It gets Ohio State and Washington at home. It has to go to the Big House, but it comes in a possible down year for Michigan.
2. Ohio State Buckeyes
2023 record: 11-2
Similar to Oregon, I don’t sense that people are quite understanding the returning talent and the culture that’s being built at Ohio State.
I recently compared the decisions made by many Ohio State players to return to Columbus and hold off on the NFL Draft to what happened at Michigan this time last offseason. The Wolverines had an unfinished business type of attitude entering the offseason and while Buckeyes fans might not be comfortable with it, that’s the comparison. The returning talent for Michigan in 2023 gave it a ton of depth, building the culture that later paid off in a national title.
That’s the type of run I see for Ohio State. Offensively, I thought Emeka Egbuka, TreVeyon Henderson and Donovan Jackson were all going to go into the draft. You pair them with some of the transfers that came in like Judkins, and Ohio State should have the best backfield in college football. There’s not one that’s even close.
Will Howard and key Ohio State players returning in 2024
Ohio State brought in Will Howard to likely be its starting quarterback. He won a Big 12 title while at Kansas State and is another one of these quarterbacks with a lot of experience under his belt. Marvin Harrison Jr. won’t be there, but we know Ohio State is going to be really talented at wide receiver. Ohio State also has more athleticism at quarterback than it did the last three years now with Howard, so he doesn’t have to be a dynamic passer.
Defensively, Ohio State has eight standouts coming back, including JT Tuimoloau, Denzel Burke, Jack Sawyer and Tyleik Williams. This defense was already second in scoring last season.
This team is going to be really, really good. My biggest question is going to be how good can the offensive line be? It lost right guard Matthew Jones but I think Ohio State should be able to run the ball really well and Howard’s mobility should be able to help its front.
Ohio State gets Michigan in The Shoe this year, but it also has road games at Penn State and Oregon, two of the toughest places to play. But get your minds right, Ohio State is going to be freakin’ good next season.
1. Georgia Bulldogs
2023 record: 13-1
You can’t recruit like Georgia has or go 29-1 in your last 30 games and not be ranked No. 1.
Carson Beck is returning for his second season as a starter and his fifth in the program. I like Beck a lot. Talent has never been a question for this team. Its last five recruiting classes have all been ranked in the top four, including two top-ranked classes. This program is also 46-2 over its last 48 games.
Alabama, Ohio State & Georgia in Joel Klatt’s way too early top five teams
I know Georgia is losing Brock Bowers and Ladd McConkey, but you’ve got to assume that it’s going to reload and develop. This is a team we don’t worry about its departing players because it’s recruited the top-end so well.
Georgia’s going to be able to move the football. Defensively, it loses some starters in the secondary, but it’s going to be leaning on what could be the best front-seven in college football. It returns almost everybody in its front seven, which is a scary proposition for the rest of the country.
The schedule is a lot more difficult than what it’s been over the last few years. It has Clemson to open in Atlanta. It also has to travel to Ole Miss, Alabama and Texas, who I think are the three other best teams in the SEC. It also hosts Tennessee.
Georgia has its work cut out, but it is the standard from a talent perspective, and you know it’s going to be hungry after how 2023 went. The Bulldogs will be right back in the mix.
Honorable mentions: Missouri Tigers, Tennessee Volunteers, Arizona Wildcats, Oklahoma Sooners, LSU Tigers, Clemson Tigers, Florida State Seminoles, Miami (Fla.) Hurricanes, USC Trojans, Colorado Buffaloes
Joel Klatt is FOX Sports’ lead college football game analyst and the host of the podcast “The Joel Klatt Show.” Follow him on X/Twitter at @joelklatt and subscribe to the “Joel Klatt Show” on YouTube.
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