While Michigan fans are still basking in the glory of the Wolverines’ national championship, the rest of the college football world is left to look ahead to next season.
We’ve already gazed into a crystal ball for our Way-Too-Early Top 25 and Way-Too-Early All-America team. Now we’re looking more specifically at what we’re most excited to see once the teams take the field in 2024.
ESPN’s college football reporters weigh in on the games they’re most excited to see, the freshmen or transfers who could make a major impact and the teams they think might be ready to take a significant step forward.
What game on next season’s schedule are you most looking forward to?
Miami at Florida, Aug. 31
Though this in-state rivalry game may not have national championship implications right out of the gate, this is a huge game for both programs and head coaches. Mario Cristobal and Billy Napier each head into critical Year 3 seasons with fan bases that are eager for results. Interestingly enough, they have nearly identical records in their first two seasons — Cristobal 12-13 as the hometown hero tasked with bringing Miami back, Napier 11-14 facing the hardest schedule in the nation. What happens in this game will set the narrative and tone for what is to come at both schools. — Andrea Adelson
Texas at Michigan, Sept. 7
While the defending national champions will be undergoing a significant transition — most notably with Jim Harbaugh off to the NFL — Texas should be rocking and rolling heading into 2024 with a trip to Ann Arbor on the docket in Week 2, the programs’ first meeting since the 2005 Rose Bowl. With his team a play away from playing for the national title last season, Longhorns quarterback Quinn Ewers surely will be on many preseason Heisman lists, and the Wolverines get the early-season litmus test they haven’t dealt with in the past. — Blake Baumgartner
Georgia at Alabama, Sept. 28
Kalen DeBoer was already on the clock the minute the Alabama plane touched down in Tuscaloosa after he was announced as Nick Saban’s replacement. As the late Keith Jackson would say, “Whoa Nellie!” DeBoer understands exactly what he’s walking into, but it will get real (almost surreal) when Kirby Smart and Georgia come to town in Week 4. It will be only the fifth time in the past 20 years the two SEC powerhouses have played in the regular season. Five of their past six meetings have come in either the SEC championship game or the CFP National Championship game. Saban was 5-1 in those games, but will be watching from the stands in this one. — Chris Low
Ohio State at Oregon, Oct. 12
It’s probably no coincidence that the Buckeyes decided to go all in on the transfer portal shortly after rival Michigan ended its 26-year drought without a national title. By adding Alabama safety Caleb Downs, Kansas State quarterback Will Howard, Ole Miss tailback Quinshon Judkins and other impact players, the Buckeyes might be the team to beat in the newly expanded Big Ten. The Ducks will have something to say about it, however, after adding former Oklahoma starter Dillon Gabriel to replace record-setting quarterback Bo Nix. A long trip to Eugene won’t be easy for the Buckeyes, especially after facing Iowa’s stout defense the week before. — Mark Schlabach
Georgia at Texas, Oct. 19
Georgia likely will enter the season at No. 1 with an excellent chance to win its third national title in four seasons after claiming none between 1980 and 2021. A midseason trip to Austin will tell a lot, though, especially if Texas can build on its breakthrough 2023 season with quarterback Quinn Ewers back alongside several key transfer portal additions. The teams have met only once, at a neutral site in 1958 at Texas’ Memorial Stadium, but these types of clashes will be more common in the new-look SEC. — Adam Rittenberg
Florida State at Notre Dame, Nov. 9
This game will have playoff implications for both programs, but particularly Notre Dame, which can only earn a spot in the 12-team College Football Playoff through an at-large bid. (Only the five highest-ranked conference champions are guaranteed a spot.) The Irish could get a significant boost to their résumé if they can claim a win against the potential ACC champs. If FSU finishes as a one-loss or undefeated conference champion, a road win against a ranked Notre Dame team could boost its seeding in the 12-team field. — Heather Dinich
Michigan at Ohio State, Nov. 31
No one knows what this game will look like by the time it comes around. With Harbaugh gone, will offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore, who was the interim coach against Ohio State this past season for the Wolverines, be the head coach? We don’t know who Michigan’s replacement at quarterback will be for the outgoing J.J. McCarthy. We do know that Ohio State has loaded up in the transfer portal and added a lot of talent. This game is always interesting, but this season will have new storylines to watch and could have a ton of ramifications. — Tom VanHaaren
Utah at Oklahoma State, date TBD
Consider this one a placeholder. The Big 12 has long been a conference of tight games and wild finishes — I always joke that every game is decided by three points, and it’s only so much of a joke — and it just traded its two blue-blood programs for four teams that, with the right breaks this year, could be equal to everyone else, no better or worse. We could get even closer to “every game is decided by three points” becoming a reality, in other words. There might not be a national title contender in this conference, but it’s going to be a nonstop ride of fun games. — Bill Connelly
Which true freshman or transfer are you most excited to see?
Jeremiah Smith at Ohio State
With Marvin Harrison Jr. likely a top-five NFL draft selection come April after three very successful seasons in Columbus, there’s a significant void to fill at the wide receiver factory that exists at Ohio State. Enter five-star receiver Jeremiah Smith, the second-best receiver in the recruiting cycle. Smith (No. 7 overall in 2024) caught 90 passes for 1,389 yards and 19 touchdowns as a senior for Florida high school power Chaminade-Madonna Prep, and he should provide an immediate impact for Ryan Day and Kansas State import Will Howard. — Baumgartner
Dylan Raiola at Nebraska
The five-star quarterback from Buford, Georgia, stunned a lot of folks when he flipped from his longtime commitment to Georgia to sign with Nebraska, his father Dominic’s alma mater, shortly before national signing day. There is a strong family connection to the Cornhuskers; Raiola’s uncle Donovan is the team’s offensive line coach. Raiola was looking for immediate playing time as a freshman, and he might be able to find it with the Cornhuskers. In 2023, Nebraska ranked next-to-last in the Big Ten in passing (only Iowa was worse) with 135.9 yards per game. — Schlabach
Dillon Gabriel at Oregon
Quarterback free agency in college football has never been hotter. Oregon hit it just right with Bo Nix the past two seasons, and now it’s Gabriel’s turn to take his shot at piloting the Ducks’ offense. This will be Gabriel’s third stop after starting his career at UCF and playing the past two seasons at Oklahoma. There’s not much Gabriel hasn’t seen. He’s entering his sixth season of college football and has thrown 25 or more touchdown passes in four of his previous five seasons. He also rushed for 12 touchdowns a year ago. He has been tutored by Josh Heupel and Jeff Lebby and is the kind of experienced playmaker the Ducks need at quarterback as they transition to the Big Ten. — Low
DJ Uiagalelei at Florida State
It feels strange even typing DJU and Florida State in the same sentence, considering the path he has traveled to get to Tallahassee. One of the most highly touted quarterbacks in the nation out of high school, Uiagalelei started his career at Clemson, where he struggled for two seasons as the starter, then sought a fresh start at Oregon State. After a solid 2023 season, Uiagalelei decided to transfer once again — this time to Clemson’s ACC nemesis. Will he handle the pressure that comes with the spotlight at Florida State any better than he did at Clemson? Time will tell. Mark an X on Oct. 5 in your calendar; that’s the date Clemson comes to Doak Campbell Stadium. — Adelson
Caleb Downs at Ohio State
The Buckeyes were able to get Downs, who was arguably the best transfer player this offseason. He was the first true freshman at Alabama to lead the team in total tackles with 107. Coordinator Jim Knowles has improved this Ohio State defense in two seasons, but adding Downs will push the group up another level. Downs should be an instant impact player who could help Ohio State compete for a national championship when combined with everyone else the Buckeyes have returning on defense for the 2024 season. — VanHaaren
Malachi Nelson at Boise State
Nelson’s situation stands out for a number of reasons. Most No. 1 overall recruits, especially quarterbacks, would appear in more than one game and log more than three pass attempts in their freshman season. Should they choose to transfer, they often would pick a similar type of program or at least one in a power conference. But Nelson is headed to Boise State, which comes off a surprise Mountain West title run, returns key players such as running back Ashton Jeanty, and may be poised to reclaim its place as the nation’s elite Group of 5 program — just in time for the expanded CFP. Nelson’s evolution on the blue turf will be fascinating to watch. — Rittenberg
Cam Ward at Miami
I think I’m most excited about the uncertainty here — I have absolutely no idea what to expect from Ward, who was beautifully prolific at Incarnate Word, then tantalizing but inconsistent in two years at Washington State. Ward seemed to want to go pro, declaring for the draft but apparently not getting the draft grade he was looking for, and that could make him particularly hungry for a big year. He’s a pretty accurate passer with a scrambling streak. Can he unlock what has been a very frustrating Miami offense? Or will he frustrate too? — Connelly
What team are you most interested in seeing if it can take a big step forward?
The Rebels finished 11-2 with losses to Georgia and Alabama in 2023. So the big step here is trying to compete with those two and trying to get to the SEC championship game. The offense returns a ton of production, including quarterback Jaxson Dart. But the coaches have completely retooled the defense, which was the area that needed improvement. Lane Kiffin and Pete Golding added Texas A&M defensive tackle Walter Nolen, Florida edge Princely Umanmielen, Oklahoma safety Key Lawrence, Arkansas linebacker Chris Paul Jr., Indiana safety Louis Moore, Tennessee corner Brandon Turnage, Michigan corner Amorion Walker and Alabama corner Trey Amos. That team, with those additions, should be in line for another great season as one of the elite teams in the country. — VanHaaren
The Orange have won 10 games in a season exactly once in the past 22 years, going 10-3 under Dino Babers in 2018. Babers couldn’t sustain that success and was fired after his teams produced one winning season in the past five. The Orange took a gamble on former Georgia defensive backs coach Fran Brown, who is a top-notch recruiter but has never been a head coach. He landed former Ohio State starter Kyle McCord out of the transfer portal. The Orange don’t play ACC foes Clemson, Florida State or North Carolina during the regular season, and they play Virginia Tech, Miami, Stanford and Georgia Tech at home. There’s a chance for improvement in Brown’s first season. — Schlabach
Given what Jonathan Smith did at Oregon State and the decision to leave his alma mater to coach in the newly loaded Big Ten, it will be interesting to see if he can get Michigan State back on track after the Mel Tucker era ended in disgrace. The entire quarterback room transferred out following a tumultuous 4-8 campaign. Aidan Chiles joined Smith from Corvallis and should be given the keys to the Spartans’ offense after seeing limited time as DJ Uiagalelei’s backup (309 passing yards, 79 rushing yards and seven total TDs in nine games). The Spartans’ offense needs a jolt in the worst way after finishing 125th in FBS in total offense (289.3 YPG) and 96th nationally in passing (199.8 YPG). With in-state rival Michigan still reveling in its first national title since 1997, Michigan State can’t fall too far behind. Smith’s track record suggests he may be up for the task. — Baumgartner
It’s a credit to Kyle Whittingham and his entire Utah program that an 8-5 record is seen as a “down” season. But the Utes lost four conference games for the first time since 2017 and lost four of their last six games to end the season. That’s after winning back-to-back Pac-12 championships. As they transition to the Big 12 in 2024, don’t be surprised if the Utes are right there at the top challenging for the title. That’s significant, too, because the Big 12 champion gets an automatic berth into the new 12-team playoff, and potentially a top-four seed and a first-round bye. Some of the best news for Utah is that star quarterback Cam Rising will be back after missing all of last season with a knee injury, and the Utes have also filled some key holes in the transfer portal. — Low
It would seem as though the only direction to go is up for the Bears. Baylor struggled on both sides of the ball last year, but with the hire of proven offensive coordinator Jake Spavital — along with coach Dave Aranda returning to defensive playcalling duties — there should be noticeable improvements. The offensive line was extremely young last season, which should start to pay off soon. The pressure is on Aranda after a 3-9 finish last year that included just one win at home (vs. Long Island University). — Dinich
The Trojans were the nation’s most disappointing team in 2023, going from preseason No. 6 to five losses, two more than any previous Lincoln Riley-coached team. Riley now leads USC into the Big Ten, which will bring different challenges and opportunities. There will be less national hype around USC and its quarterback, Miller Moss, entering the fall, but the Trojans have a chance to be a more balanced and better team. The defense will be particularly interesting to watch after Riley overhauled the coaching staff, with the group now led by D’Anton Lynn. One way or another, Riley’s third USC team will set the trajectory for the program under his leadership. — Rittenberg
When quarterback Preston Stone got hurt late in the season, the Mustangs had won eight games in a row by an average score of 46-17. Thanks to a dramatically improved defense, they managed to beat Tulane on the road to win the AAC championship game without Stone, before finishing the season with a dreary performance in dreary conditions against Boston College in the Fenway Bowl. But with Stone back, and with head coach Rhett Lashlee thus far holding on to dynamite defensive coordinator Scott Symons (and adding another round of fun transfers), SMU enters the ACC with one of the highest ceilings in its new conference. — Connelly
The Hokies last played for an ACC championship in 2016, and last won a conference title in 2010 — a long streak considering the heyday of the program under Frank Beamer. This upcoming season could be their best chance to elevate the program back to Top 25 status and championship contender. Coming off a 7-6 season, Virginia Tech returns nearly every key offensive contributor off a team that got better as 2023 progressed. Quarterback Kyron Drones is a star in the making as a passer and rusher, while running back Bhayshul Tuten and top receivers Da’Quan Felton, Stephen Gosnell, Jaylin Lane and Ali Jennings are back. — Adelson