Our way-too-early top 10 for 2024
Don’t etch it in stone. Not yet.
My way-too-early top 10 for 2024 is just that — way too early. The transfer portal will still have movement, we’ve got another week of NFL Draft announcements and dare I say, the coaching carousel could still be spinning.
So take this all with a grain of salt.
Don’t, however, assume that these rankings have anything to do with future strength of schedule. That’s silly. This is not a ranking of where I’m predicting these teams will finish in 2024. This is a ranking of where I believe they should be ranked tomorrow based on what we know today.
Here’s my way-too-early top 10 for 2024:
1 thing I like — If you listen to The Saturday Down South Podcast, you know where I’m going. It’s Noah Fifita. Like, the guy who took over Jedd Fisch’s offense and helped Arizona win 7 in a row to cap off a 10-win season. By the way, 5 of those wins were against AP Top 25 teams at the time of the matchup. The only FBS players with more TD passes against Power 5 competition than Fifita (25) were the 3 quarterbacks who made it to New York. He’s that dude.
1 thing I don’t like — Before 2023, Arizona had 1 AP Top 25 finish in the 21st century. The last time the Wildcats did that in consecutive years was 30 years ago. This team only ranked No. 42 in the 247sports talent composite, and as my guy Cole Cubelic brought up, it felt like a ragtag group of misfits. Perhaps an offseason of buzz won’t gel with the underdog vibe that was fully embraced in 2023.
1 thing I like — Kirby Moore is set to return to lead the Mizzou offense after Eli Drinkwitz made the self-aware decision to fire himself/hire someone as his primary play-caller. That yielded a versatile attack that hung with every team it faced. Replacing Cody Schrader will be difficult, but adding a couple of former 1,000-yard rushers in Marcus Carroll (No. 6 in FBS in rushing in 2023) and Nate Noel from Appalachian State should complement the passing game, which features the improved Brady Cook and likely preseason All-American Luther Burden.
1 thing I don’t like — Losing Blake Baker to LSU in the first week of January was a tough pill to swallow. The Mizzou defensive coordinator was a revelation after 2 years of taking the Tigers’ defense to the next level. We forget about how much of a doormat that run defense was under Steve Wilks in 2021. It took the right scheme to maximize the abilities of that Mizzou defense, which won’t be among the most talented in the SEC.
1 thing I like — Losing Blake Baker was the 1 thing I didn’t like about Mizzou, so naturally, he’s what I like about LSU avoiding that step back in 2024. His impact on Mizzou’s defense was immense. The same should be true at LSU, where the blitz-happy coordinator will work with the nation’s top returning pass-rusher, Harold Perkins. Something tells me that Perkins will have more than 12 pass-rush snaps per game as he had under Matt House, who led a woeful unit that prevented Brian Kelly’s most talented team he’s ever had from reaching the Playoff.
1 thing I don’t like — It doesn’t feel fair to say that the passing game is an area of concern because I do have plenty of Garrett Nussmeier intrigue (I also have AJ Swann-away-from-Vanderbilt intrigue). But LSU is replacing a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, the guy who should’ve won the Biletnikoff and the guy who led the nation in receiving touchdowns. That’s a ton of production gone. While there’s an internal confidence that a post-Mike Denbrock world won’t be as scary as some might forecast, there could still be a bit of a feeling-out process with the moving pieces.
1 thing I like — Is it weird to just say Dan Lanning? Like, the guy that’s 22-5 as a head coach with only 2 losses to teams that didn’t play in a national championship? OK, fine. I can’t just say the head coach. I’ll instead go with the ageless Dillon Gabriel, who took that next step at Oklahoma in 2023. Oregon OC Will Stein helped Bo Nix take that next step, and he should be able to do the same with an experienced signal-caller like Gabriel.
1 thing I don’t like — One might assume that Oregon’s pass defense was a weakness because of the 2 Washington losses, and it barely ranked in the top half of FBS in passing yards/game allowed. But it was top-10 in the country in passing efficiency defense (6.1 yards/attempt allowed) with a secondary that’ll lose 3 starters, most notably former Alabama transfer Khyree Jackson. While Lanning landed a key addition in Kobe Savage from Kansas State, there are still question marks about that group on the back end. Fortunately for Oregon, it’ll roll with that transition in the Big Ten, where passing attacks haven’t exactly been anything to write home about.
6. Ohio State
1 thing I like — The portal additions of Will Howard and Quinshon Judkins changed my ranking of the Buckeyes. I would’ve had them closer to that 8-9 range, but adding the proven Kansas State transfer will help at the game’s most important position, and Judkins is the program’s best tailback since Ezekiel Elliott. Judkins is that good. He’ll give the Buckeyes a go-to weapon that’ll take pressure off the new-look passing game in a post-Marvin Harrison Jr. world in Columbus.
1 thing I don’t like — This is arguably the least amount of offseason momentum that Ohio State has had in over a decade. The Mizzou loss didn’t help, but there were legitimate questions about the lack of development on the offensive line. I don’t know that adding scrutinized Alabama center Seth McLaughlin makes one feel like that area is taken care of. Ryan Day assured us that he had a physical football team. On the defensive side of the ball, I don’t question that. On the offensive side of the ball, that’s still an area of concern that could limit the Buckeyes’ offensive upside.
5. Ole Miss
1 thing I like — It’s the portal additions that were added to an 11-win team. Lane Kiffin went out and got All-SEC caliber players in Juice Wells, Princely Umanmielen, Walter Nolen, Chris Paul Jr. and Tyler Baron. That was for a group that returned JJ Pegues and Jared Ivey on the defensive line, as well as likely preseason All-SEC guys Tre Harris and Caden Prieskorn catching passes for an improved Jaxson Dart on the offensive side of the ball. Kiffin might’ve lost Judkins to the transfer portal, but he’s as well-equipped as any coach in America to find alternate ground game options.
1 thing I don’t like — The offseason of buzz. That seems crazy, but hear me out. This isn’t where Kiffin has typically found success. As a head coach, he has 1 season in which he started in the top 10, and it was the 2012 USC team that started No. 1 and finished 7-6. Yes, much has changed since then. Ole Miss had 1 preseason top-10 ranking in the last 50 years. The hype will be off the charts. Kiffin will be working against that during this 8-month buildup to break through and make a splash in Year 1 of the 12-team Playoff.
1 thing I like — Mason Graham is back to anchor that defensive line. He was such a difference-maker for this Michigan defense, especially in the Playoff. His ability to win those battles on the interior creates a significant advantage for a Michigan team that’ll lose a ton in the trenches on both sides of the ball. The alpha on the Wolverines’ defense should take on a whole bunch of double teams.
1 thing I don’t like — The uncertainty is everywhere. What’s Jim Harbaugh’s future? And if he’s off to the NFL, what does that mean for his assistants? What about JJ McCarthy? Is he gone, too? We know that Michigan will lose a high number of players to the NFL Draft. Jim Harbaugh forecasted that the Wolverines could break the record for that. Not everyone can pull a 2022 Georgia and repeat as national champs after losing 15 players to the NFL Draft. The Dawgs had the benefit of stability with their coaching staff and at quarterback. To be determined if Michigan will do the same.
1 thing I like — Jalen Milroe is going to get all of those first-team reps in Year 2 with Tommy Rees. As much as those 2 took heat for that final play in the Rose Bowl, let’s not forget that Rees arrived in February just ahead of spring ball and Milroe battled through the fall to win the starting job. Shoot, he didn’t even get all the first-team reps once the season started. He should benefit from more experience and perhaps have a better mental clock to avoid taking so many sacks.
1 thing I don’t like — There are still so many questions for Alabama, including if it’ll have a true go-to receiver in 2024. Alabama hasn’t had that in the last 2 years. Maybe this group of Year 3 players will produce one, but Isaiah Bond, Kobe Prentice and Amari Niblack haven’t shown that they can consistently separate. Do I believe that Alabama dips into the portal and plucks a big-name receiver in the post-spring cycle? Yes, I do. But for now, it feels like we’re heading into a season in which Alabama has a bunch of complementary pass-catching options and not a true WR1.
1 thing I like — The idea of Quinn Ewers returning for a third year with Steve Sarkisian is extremely appealing. Ewers might not have been a Tier 1 quarterback, but he was still darn good. He was No. 14 among Power 5 quarterbacks in QB rating, but more impressively, Ewers was No. 5 in QB rating against teams who finished in the AP Top 25 (min. 3 games). Ewers was at his best in that road game against Alabama, as well as the all-important Big 12 Championship. If he can stay healthy — he missed multiple starts in his first 2 seasons as a starter — there’s a path for him to be as good as there is at the quarterback position.
1 thing I don’t like — Texas’ top 5 pass-catchers (in terms of receiving yards) are gone. For the Steve Sarkisian offense to work, it needs veteran, skilled route-runners like what he had with Xavier Worthy and AD Mitchell. Those guys are gone, as are the valuable Jordan Whittington and game-breaking tight end Ja’Tavion Sanders. Even Jonathan Brooks is off to the NFL. That means Texas’ top returning pass-catcher is backup tight end Gunnar Helm, who had 14 catches for 192 yards and 2 touchdowns in a 14-game season. Texas got Houston wideout Matthew Golden out of the portal, and the recruiting at the position has been top-notch, but it’s still a group that’s as solid as it was in 2023.
1 thing I like — A 1-2 punch of Carson Beck and Trevor Etienne could be special. It might be the best quarterback-running back duo that Kirby Smart has had in Athens. Adding Etienne from Florida will give Georgia perhaps its most dynamic backfield threat since D’Andre Swift. Etienne and Beck might take turns being the dominant force of a Georgia offense that obviously has major holes to fill with Brock Bowers and Ladd McConkey off to the NFL. But if Beck and Etienne are both runaways for first-team All-SEC spots by season’s end, it shouldn’t be a surprise.
1 thing I don’t like — It’s not common that we ask questions about a Kirby Smart secondary, and maybe the return of Malaki Starks will prevent some from doing that. But after losing the likes of Javon Bullard, Tykee Smith and Kamari Lassiter to the NFL Draft with Nyland Green (Purdue) and AJ Harris (Penn State) gone by way of the transfer portal, I think it’s at least fair to wonder if that’ll consistently be a strength in the way that it’s often been under Smart. Knowing Georgia, though, there’ll be a bevy of household names in the secondary by season’s end.