Never in all my years writing way-too-early Top 25s was there ever so much January upheaval.
Three of the four College Football Playoff teams — Alabama (Nick Saban), Washington (Kalen DeBoer) and Michigan (Jim Harbaugh) — lost their coaches, the first two unleashing an onslaught of transfers that benefited fellow contenders like Ohio State and Texas. Version 2.0 consists of an obvious top four, followed by a whole bunch of teams people will invariably say are overrated. And poor Washington fell out altogether.
Stewart Mandel’s too early Top 25 for the 2024 college football season
1. Georgia (Previous: 1)
No notable changes to report in Athens, besides Kirby Smart plucking new co-defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson from Alabama. The Dawgs, 42-2 over the past three seasons, return a wealth of experience on defense, led by LB Smael Mondon Jr. and S Malaki Starks. Florida transfer Trevor Etienne should be the new go-to running back, and QB Carson Beck gets new targets in Miami WR Colbie Young and Vanderbilt WR London Humphreys.
2. Ohio State (Previous: 4)
Since Michigan’s national title, Ohio State has been on an apparent NIL spending spree. Nearly every major Buckeyes underclass draft prospect — RB TreVeyon Henderson, WR Emeka Egbuka, CB Denzel Burke and DEs JT Tuimoloau and Jack Sawyer — announced their returns. Meanwhile, Ryan Day has added Kansas State QB Will Howard, Ole Miss RB Quinshon Judkins, Alabama OL Seth McLaughlin and, most stunningly, Alabama S Caleb Downs, named first-team All-SEC as a freshman.
GUESS WHO’S 🔙😈 https://t.co/Nu2FsuAJHH
— Ohio State Football (@OhioStateFB) January 10, 2024
3. Texas (Previous: 5)
After QB Quinn Ewers opted to stay, Steve Sarkisian added Oregon State WR Silas Bolden and both Alabama WR Isaiah Bond and TE Amari Niblack to fill the void left by Xavier Worthy, Adonai Mitchell and Ja’Tavion Sanders. He’d previously landed Houston WR Matthew Golden. Texas will be experienced up front on offense and throughout its defense, which added stud UTSA pass rusher Trey Moore (14 sacks last season) and Clemson S Andrew Mukuba (31 starts).
4. Oregon (Previous: 3)
Dan Lanning made several big portal adds in December, most notably Oklahoma QB Dillon Gabriel, and has since landed coveted Texas A&M WR Evan Stewart, Duke DB Brandon Johnson and Washington CB Jabbar Muhammad. Stewart joins WRs Tez Johnson and Traeshon Holden and TE Terrance Ferguson, to go with returning RB Jordan James and Division II All-America RB Jay Harris. Houston DL Jamaree Caldwell (second-team All-Big 12) joins DE Jordan Burch and LB Jeffrey Bassa.
5. Ole Miss (Previous: 8)
The Rebels were already returning QB Jaxson Dart, WRs Tre Harris and Jordan Watkins and TE Caden Prieskorn. Then Lane Kiffin spent December raking in established SEC defensive transfers like Texas A&M DE Walter Nolen. After star RB Judkins defected, he picked up LSU’s (formerly Notre Dame’s) Logan Diggs. And then he recently landed LG Nate Kalepo and RG Julius Buelow from Washington’s Joe Moore Award-winning offensive line, moving Ole Miss to No. 1 in 247Sports’ portal rankings.
6. Michigan (Previous: 6)
A drop-off is likely unavoidable in Sherrone Moore’s first season with all the talent Michigan has lost, notably QB J.J. McCarthy, RB Blake Corum and nearly the entire O-line. But RB Donovan Edwards put off the NFL, TE Colston Loveland returns and young WRs Semaj Morgan and Tyler Morris will have bigger roles. DTs Mason Graham and Kenneth Grant, pass rushers Josaiah Stewart and Derrick Moore, CB Will Johnson and S Rod Moore should anchor another strong defense, but QB is a big question mark.
7. Notre Dame (Previous: 9)
Marcus Freeman boosted his offense by hiring away LSU OC Mike Denbrock and landing Duke QB Riley Leonard and adding three quality receivers, including Florida International’s Kris Mitchell (1,118 yards). He also brought in Northwestern CB Rod Heard II (85 tackles last season) to team with standout CB Benjamin Morrison, All-America S Xavier Watts and Arizona State S Jordan Clark. DTs Howard Cross III and Rylie Mills return up front.
8. Alabama (Previous: 2)
It’s hard to say where the first post-Saban Alabama team should be ranked, especially after losing key players like Downs, Bond, T Kadyn Proctor (Iowa) and RB Roydell Williams (Florida State). But the Tide still bring back QB Jalen Milroe, RB Justice Haynes, LBs Deontae Lawson and Jihaad Campbell and DB Malachi Moore, with a whole bunch of blue-chippers in the next wave. They can still be a CFP contender.
9. Utah (Previous: 11)
Amid all the turmoil and inexperience elsewhere, the Utes stand out with their two-decade head coach (Kyle Whittingham), seventh-year QB (Cam Rising) and tight end (Brant Kuithe), plus veterans like RB Micah Bernard, LBs Levani Damuni and Karene Reid and CB Zemaiah Vaughn. Meanwhile, Utah has added former Arizona/USC WR Dorian Singer, UCLA TE Carsen Ryan and veteran Stanford S Alaka’i Gilman.
Doak Walker Award-winning RB Ollie Gordon II will carry the load for the Cowboys once again, but Mike Gundy also added Arkansas’ AJ Green as a potential complement. QB Alan Bowman and WRs Brennan Presley and Rashod Owens all return, and Ohio transfer Tyler Foster fills a need at tight end. But bumping Oklahoma State into the top 10 comes with an acknowledgement that its defense will need to be more consistent.
Jeff Brohm now boasts the No. 4-ranked portal class on 247Sports. The 26 newcomers include QB Tyler Shough (Texas Tech), 1,400-yard rusher Peny Boone (Toledo), All-Sun Belt T Rasheed Miller (Georgia Southern) and five other O-linemen. Louisville’s defensive front is stacked with returning star Ashton Gillotte, All-Ivy League DT Thor Griffith (Harvard) and Tennessee DE Tyler Baron, to go with fellow Vols transfer DBs Tamarion McDonald and Wesley Walker. The Cards may be ACC favorites.
12. Missouri (Previous: 21)
Angry Mizzou fans prompted me to reexamine the Tigers, and, they were right. While national rushing leader Cody Schrader was a huge loss, Eli Drinkwitz picked up Georgia State’s Marcus Carroll, who ranked sixth in the FBS in rushing last season with 112.5 yards per game. QB Brady Cook and WRs Luther Burden III and Mookie Cooper return. The defense has more concerns, especially the secondary. Clemson CB Toriano Pride Jr. brings experience.
13. Arizona (Previous: 13)
It’s always hard to predict how much a coaching transition will affect the team, but new coach Brent Brennan was able to hang on to most of the Wildcats’ key returnees, including star QB Noah Fifita and WR Tetairoa McMillan, first-team All-Pac-12 LB Jacob Manu and RT Jonah Savaiinaea. Top RB Jonah Coleman followed Jedd Fisch to Washington, which Brennan will need to address in the spring portal window.
14. Florida State (Previous: 19)
FSU lost nearly all its best players from last year’s 13-1 team, but Mike Norvell has hit the portal hard again. Three-year starter DJ Uiagalelei (Clemson/Oregon State) is the Noles’ presumed QB1. Five Alabama transfers, including RB Roydell Williams and WR Malik Benson, should be impact players, as well as Oregon State DE Sione Lolohea and Georgia OLB Marvin Jones Jr. But some young receivers will need to step up.
15. Oklahoma (Previous: 15)
Not much has changed in Norman since my last edition, though OU added veteran QB Casey Thompson (Texas/Nebraska/FAU) as backup to Jackson Arnold as well as Washington OL Geirean Hatchett. Brent Venables previously loaded up on experienced O-linemen and added All-Big Ten WR Deion Burks (Purdue) to a stacked receiving corps. Notably, OU will have new coordinators in OC Seth Littrell (promoted) and DC Zac Alley (Jacksonville State).
Penn State lost a few big names to the NFL (OT Olu Fashanu, DE Chop Robinson, CB Kalen King) but had few transfers exit while bringing in two prominent in-staters who originally got away, Ohio State WR Julian Fleming and Wisconsin T Nolan Rucci. LB Abdul Carter headlines new DC Tom Allen’s unit, while new OC Andy Kotelnicki needs to get more out of QB Drew Allar, RBs Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen and the receivers.
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17. Tennessee (Previous: 16)
Tennessee arguably lost more than it gained, but Notre Dame TE Holden Staes, LSU T Lance Heard, Oregon State CB Jermod McCoy and Middle Tennessee S Jakobe Thomas will vie for starting jobs. Touted QB Nico Iamaleava began his reign in the Vols’ Citrus Bowl win over Iowa. Key returnees include RB Dylan Sampson and WRs Squirrel White and Bru McCoy, C Cooper Mays and All-SEC DE James Pearce Jr. (10 sacks).
18. Kansas (Previous: 17)
Lance Leipold hired former BYU and Baylor OC Jeff Grimes to take over what could be a lethal offense behind star QB Jalon Daniels, who missed most of last season, RBs Devin Neal and Daniel Hishaw Jr. and veteran receivers. Defense remains a question mark, even with All-Big 12 CB Cobee Bryant returning. Utah State S Devin Dye (89 tackles) and North Dakota State DT Javier Derritt (29 career starts) could help.
19. Clemson (Previous: 10)
Another portal cycle came and went without Dabo Swinney signing a single transfer — though he at least pursued several O-linemen. It’s harder for me to envision a 9-4 team making a huge jump with no talent infusion besides freshmen. But Clemson won five straight to close last season and brings back QB Cade Klubnik, RB Phil Mafah, WR Tyler Brown, LB Barrett Carter and D-linemen T.J. Parker and Peter Woods.
Will Clemson’s decline continue? Or can Dabo Swinney get Tigers back to top of CFB?
20. LSU (Previous: 20)
Brian Kelly completely remade his staff, hiring Missouri’s Blake Baker as DC, promoting Joe Sloan to co-OC/play caller, luring renowned Texas D-line coach Bo Davis and bringing back revered DBs coach Corey Raymond. Four O-line starters return to protect QB Garrett Nussmeier. Mississippi State’s Zavion Thomas helps a gutted receiving corps. But the defense, led by LB Harold Perkins Jr., must improve its No. 109 ranking.
21. Texas A&M (Previous: NR)
Texas A&M should benefit from a fresh start under Mike Elko and an influx of 20 full-time starters from other schools. Key adds include pass rushers like Purdue’s Nic Scourton (10 sacks) and Bowling Green’s Cashius Howell (9.5), Florida LB Scooby Williams, K-State CB Will Lee III and Troy WR Jabre Barber (999 yards). New OC Collin Klein gets QB Conner Weigman back from injury. DL Shemar Turner opted to put off the NFL.
22. Iowa (Previous: 22)
Kirk Ferentz tapped former Western Michigan head coach Tim Lester to rescue his woeful offense. He gets back QB Cade McNamara from injury to go with RB Leshon Williams (821 yards), and landed Proctor, the five-star OT who started as a freshman at Alabama. DC Phil Parker’s dominant unit brings back two All-Americans, LB Jay Higgins (171 tackles) and DB Sebastian Castro, plus DE Deontae Craig and DT Yahya Black.
When Kadyn Proctor decided to leave Alabama, he knew exactly where he wanted to go
23. NC State (Previous: NR)
Four-year Coastal Carolina QB Grayson McCall has the tools to shine in OC Robert Anae’s offense, especially with help from All-ACC WR Kevin Concepcion and Duke RB Jordan Waters. Four returning O-line starters are joined by Notre Dame C Zeke Correll. The defense will miss stars Payton Wilson and Shyheim Battle but gets back CB Aydan White, S Devan Boykin and DE Davin Vann and LB Caden Fordham.
Matt Campbell did not need to load up in the portal because the Cyclones return nearly their entire starting lineup, most notably QB Rocco Becht. RB Abu Sama III (7.3 YPC), top WRs Jayden Higgins and Jaylin Noel and all five O-line starters return. Army WR Isaiah Alston could help the passing game. The Big 12’s No. 1 defense gets back DE Joey Petersen, LB Caleb Bacon and All-Big 12 safeties Jeremiah Cooper and Beau Freyler.
25. Miami (Previous: NR)
Sought-after Washington State QB Cam Ward backed off his initial NFL Draft plans and picked Miami. He joins a squad that finished 28th in SP+ despite going 7-6. The Canes return top WRs Xavier Restrepo (1,092 yards) and Jacolby George and RBs Henry Parrish Jr. and Mark Fletcher Jr. The O-line and D-line, led by DE Rueben Bain Jr., should be strengths. And Mario Cristobal signed a top-five recruiting class.
Just missed: Kansas State, Kentucky, USC, Wisconsin, West Virginia
A note about Washington: The Huskies are down to two returning starters, with not much depth on the lines. Fisch will need to load up in the spring for the Huskies to return to the rankings.
(Top photo of Ohio State running back TreVeyon Henderson (32): Nick Tre. Smith / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)