100 days to college football: Top games, players, contenders

Illustration by ESPN

In exactly 100 days, Florida State and Georgia Tech will kick off the season on Aug. 24 at Aviva Stadium in Dublin. With what's unofficially dubbed "Week 0," college football's offseason drought will mercifully end with a game that has ACC title implications.

But this isn't just a countdown to kickoff.

It's a flare ahead of a 12-team College Football Playoff -- the most historic change to the sport's postseason since the Bowl Championship Series ended in 2014. It's the start of a football season without the Pac-12 for the first time in more than a century. And it's the beginning of historic conference realignment that includes moving the L.A. schools to the Big Ten and the Big 12's biggest brands to the SEC.

It's also the end of some eras, as former Alabama coach Nick Saban has retired, and former Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has moved onto the NFL after winning a national title.

To get you ready for 100 days from now, ESPN reporters compiled 10 lists of 10 (100! Even sportswriters can do that math). We've got you covered -- from the best stories to the best games, Heisman hopefuls and upsets to watch, first-time playoff participants and first-time conference matchups. Just three more months and one week until it all unfolds.

Who's counting?

Well, we are ...

Jump to a Top 10:
Stories | Games
FCS upsets | New conference games
Coaches | Heisman
Breakout players | Playoff G5
Playoff first time | Playoff byes

Ten best stories

The key storylines leading up to the 2024 college football season

Check out some of the most important storylines and numbers as the 2024 college football season nears.

10. The Pac-2: What exactly will this season look like for Oregon State and Washington State as they embark on a new journey together as the Pac-2, left on the outside looking in during this latest round of conference expansion and realignment. Both teams took major hits in the transfer portal -- losing their starting quarterbacks to the ACC (Cam Ward to Miami; DJ Uiagalelei to Florida State). Plus, Oregon State has a new coach in Trent Bray.

9. Florida State after the CFP snub: The last time we saw Florida State take the field, the Seminoles played without the majority of their starters in a 63-3 loss to Georgia in the Orange Bowl, putting a damper on what was a 13-0 season filled with CFP hopes. So how does the team respond after such a devastating end to 2023? Coach Mike Norvell went into the transfer portal again to revamp his roster. Despite the new faces, this is an experienced team eager to get to the playoff.

8. Texas 2-QB Step? Texas coach Steve Sarkisian has made it clear the program is on the "cusp" of an "epic" run. Will that be with Quinn Ewers or Arch Manning? Ewers opted to come back for one more year and is entrenched as the starting quarterback. But after Manning threw for 355 yards and three touchdowns in the spring game, there are renewed questions about who will be the guy to bring the Longhorns all the way back.

7. Georgia bounce-back: Like Florida State, Georgia felt it was snubbed from a spot in the four-team CFP a year ago after losing to Alabama in the SEC championship game. With quarterback Carson Beck returning, another No. 1 recruiting class and key additions from the transfer portal (running back Trevor Etienne, Colbie Young, Michael Jackson III, Benjamin Yurosek), the Bulldogs seem poised to make another run.

6. No Harbaugh, no problem? Reigning national champion Michigan will look decidedly different headed into 2024. Sherrone Moore replaces Jim Harbaugh, who left for the NFL, and has got a revamped roster to try and shape into another championship contender. Michigan had a school-record 13 players selected in the NFL draft, including quarterback J.J. McCarthy, running back Blake Corum, defensive tackle Kris Jenkins and defensive back Mike Sainristil. Given all the turnover, it is hard to know what to expect from the Wolverines this season.

5. Kalen DeBoer at Alabama: Everyone wants to know what the Crimson Tide will do without Nick Saban, and the most fascinating dynamic to watch is how the quarterback-friendly DeBoer will impact QB Jalen Milroe. For proof, look at the way Michael Penix Jr. flourished under DeBoer at Washington. If DeBoer can have the same effect on Milroe, Alabama will be in position to be just fine this season.

4. Now or never for Ohio State? Ryan Day has lost three straight to Michigan, and that has caused much consternation in Columbus. So what did the Buckeyes do? They rallied their collective to spend big -- keeping important players in the fold (receiver Emeka Egbuka, running back TreVeyon Henderson, defensive ends JT Tuimoloau and Jack Sawyer, cornerback Denzel Burke) while also going into the transfer portal for quarterback Will Howard, tailback Quinshon Judkins and defensive back Caleb Downs. It certainly feels as if this is a now-or-never type season for Ohio State.

3. What does Deion do for an encore? If you think Deion Sanders has become less polarizing because Colorado went 4-8 last season, look no further than the firestorm that erupted after he went on social media and criticized a former player who had been critical of the program. Sanders returns two players with first-round potential in the 2025 NFL draft in quarterback Shedeur Sanders and receiver/defensive back Travis Hunter. Sanders went back into the portal for another roster makeover, revamped the offensive line and has vowed to make a bowl game this season. Will the team get it done?

2. New faces, new places: We have talked a lot about expansion over the past two years, but now we get to actually see what it looks like when Texas and Oklahoma play SEC schedules; Oregon, Washington, USC and UCLA play Big Ten schedules; and Stanford, Cal and SMU get into some #goacc action. Then there is the Big 12, which feels more wide open than ever with Texas and Oklahoma gone, and the additions of Utah, Arizona, Arizona State and Colorado. Buckle up!

1. Expanded playoffs! A 12-team playoff is here, and it could not have come at a better time after the way last season ended. The five highest-ranked conference champions, plus the next seven highest-ranked teams will play for the national championship. How the committee will decide the rankings is always put under a microscope, and while there will not be the same pressure as getting four teams right, there will be scrutiny over how many of the at-large teams come from the same conferences. Add in first-round games played in home stadiums (a first!) Dec. 20 and Dec. 21, and there is plenty to get excited about ... even if we are still 100 days from kickoff. -- Andrea Adelson

Ten games to watch

10. Kansas State at Colorado, Oct. 12: By Week 2 of the 2023 season, Colorado-mania had taken over the country and Buffs games were the biggest show around. Sure, the hype didn't last, but coach Deion Sanders is back with what should be an improved team in 2024 and there's every reason to think the show could be even bigger this time around. Colorado starts with North Dakota State, Nebraska, Colorado State, Baylor and UCF -- and only NDSU of the FCS finished with a winning record last year. So, imagine a world where Coach Prime has his team sitting at 5-0 with K-State, one of the Big 12's top teams, coming to town? There's a good chance Sanders will find some beef with coach Chris Klieman that no one quite understands but we will nevertheless talk breathlessly about for days.

9. Texas at Texas A&M, Nov. 30: It's baaaaack! Realignment removed one of college football's best rivalries from the schedule after Texas A&M left the Big 12 for the SEC in 2012, but 12 years later, another round of realignment has brought the two together again. When last we saw these two face off, Case McCoy and Ryan Tannehill were the starting quarterbacks. A lot has changed since then.

8. Clemson vs. Georgia, Aug. 31: Want to identify the moment Georgia became the behemoth of college football and Clemson started its slow decline from perennial playoff contender? It might well be the opener in 2021, when the Bulldogs outlasted the Tigers 10-3 thanks to a pick-six of DJ Uiagalelei. If Clemson wants to reverse those trends, winning the 2024 opener would be an excellent start -- not to mention a healthy dose of redemption.

7. Florida State at Notre Dame, Nov. 9: This will mark the 12th time FSU and Notre Dame have faced off, and boy has this quasi-rivalry included memorable moments -- from the "Game of the Century" in 1993 in which the Irish prevailed 31-24 but FSU got the last laugh with a national title, to the 2021 game when FSU stormed back from down 18 in the fourth quarter to force overtime behind McKenzie Milton (in a game Notre Dame eventually won, but ended with Brian Kelly joking he wanted to execute his team).

6. Ohio State at Penn State, Nov. 2: In the four-team playoff era, no program knocked on the door of a berth without ever making the final cut more than Penn State. Why? As good as the Nittany Lions were against most teams, they simply couldn't get past Michigan and Ohio State consistently. The scheduling overlords removed one obstacle from their slate for 2024, making the matchup with the Buckeyes the biggest of the year in State College.

5. Clemson at Florida State, Oct. 5: The 2023 season proved a return to normalcy in the ACC, with the FSU-Clemson showdown effectively determining who was top dog in the league. Both teams should be battling for a spot in the ACC championship game again this year, though the winner would probably prefer an exit from the ACC altogether.

4. Ohio State at Oregon, Oct. 12: Preseason expectations aren't always accurate, but Oregon and Ohio State certainly look like the class of the Big Ten at this point, and their Week 6 showdown in Eugene could go a long way toward determining who will be atop the league and, likely, earn a playoff bye. Both teams are loaded with talent, including QBs Will Howard and Dillon Gabriel, and barring an upset, they'll both be 5-0 and likely inside the top 10 when they meet up. More than all that, however, this game might mark the true start of a new era in the Big Ten -- the first true showdown of powers from the old guard and the new faces added from the Pac-12.

3. Georgia at Texas, Oct. 19: These two blue bloods have played just once in the past 40 years -- a 2018 thriller in New Orleans -- but they're now conference foes. The Longhorns are fresh off a playoff bid. Georgia had a good case as the best team that didn't make the playoff last year. The teams will also have two of the top QBs in the country in what figures to be an epic showdown with SEC and playoff implications.

2. Michigan at Ohio State, Nov. 30: There are lots of great rivalries, but none bigger than "The Game." And while Michigan lost its head coach and a host of talent from last year's national title team, the Wolverines still own a three-game winning streak in the series and turning around that trend might be necessary for Ryan Day to keep his job at Ohio State.

1. Georgia at Alabama, Sept. 28: These teams combined for nine championship game appearances during the 10-year run of the four-team playoff, and while much has changed over the past year at both schools, there's no reason to assume the Dawgs and the Tide won't be at the very top of the college football power rankings again in 2024. -- David Hale

Ten potential FCS-over-FBS upsets

10. South Dakota State at Oklahoma State, Aug. 31: The Jackrabbits will take a 29-game winning streak into 2024 after winning the past two FCS national titles, but a trip to Stillwater will be their most difficult test in years.

9. Colgate at Akron, Sept. 14: With Akron coming off a 2-10 season without much reason to be optimistic for a major step forward, Colgate -- which won six of seven to finish 2023 -- is looking for its first win against an FBS team since 2003.

8. Saint Francis (PA) at Kent State, Sept. 7: This is more about the state of Kent State, which ranks No. 133 (of 134 FBS teams) in Bill Connelly's preseason SP+ rankings and hasn't earned the assumption that anything is a gimme.

7. Gardner-Webb at Charlotte, Sept. 14: After winning the Big South-OVC the past two seasons, Gardner-Webb will look to pick up its first FBS win since 2010, against a Charlotte team coming off a dismal 3-9 season.

6. Sacramento State at San Jose State, Aug. 29: Sac State was one of just four FCS teams to beat an FBS team last year (Stanford) and there is every expectation they'll compete with San Jose State, which lost coach Brent Brennan to Arizona.

5. North Dakota State at Colorado, Aug. 29: North Dakota State is among the preseason national championship FCS favorites and will begin the season with what will almost certainly be its most-watched game ever at Colorado, which is full of question marks after losing eight of nine to end Deion Sanders' first year in charge.

4. Nicholls at Louisiana Tech, Aug. 31: After going undefeated in the Southland Conference last year, Nicholls returns a pair of first-team all-conference running backs -- Jaylon Spears and Collin Guggenheim -- and an experienced offensive line. Meanwhile, Louisiana Tech is coming off a disastrous 2023 that saw the Bulldogs lose their final six games and eight of nine.

3. Lafayette at Buffalo, Aug. 29: With Buffalo having lost to Patriot League teams in 2022 (Holy Cross) and 2023 (Fordham), Lafayette will be confident it can make it three in a row after finishing atop the league last year.

2. Montana State at New Mexico, Aug. 24: New Mexico's first game under new coach Bronco Mendenhall has real potential to be dicey as Montana State comes into the season as an FCS national title contender.

1. UT Martin at Kennesaw State, Sept. 28: Considering Kennesaw State didn't have a program until 2015, transitioned to FBS last year and has never beaten an FBS program, this shouldn't come as a surprise. UT Martin finished tied for first with Gardner-Webb in the Big South-OVC last year and has won 25 games over the past three years. -- Kyle Bonagura

Ten first-time conference matchups

10. Florida State at SMU, Sept. 28: The Mustangs host the defending ACC champs in their first ACC conference game.

9. BYU at Utah, Nov. 9: The Holy War is back after a three-year hiatus and, as a conference game going forward, should be the most hotly contested rivalry in the new Big 12.

8. USC at Michigan, Sept. 21: The Trojans make their Big Ten debut in Ann Arbor, as both teams try to replace quarterbacks drafted in the top 10 in last month's draft (Caleb Williams, J.J. McCarthy).

7. Oklahoma State at Colorado, Nov. 29: This old Big Eight rivalry has been revived, with coach Mike Gundy facing off against Deion Sanders in a meeting that could hold Big 12 title game implications.

6. Michigan at Washington, Oct. 5: A rematch of last year's national championship is set to feature several new players on the field as well as new head coaches (Sherrone Moore, Jedd Fisch) on the sidelines.

5. Oklahoma at LSU, Nov. 30: The Sooners, who have never faced LSU during the regular season, make their first trip to Death Valley.

4. Alabama at Oklahoma, Nov. 23: Alabama is Oklahoma's only home bout during a brutal stretch against four straight conference opponents ranked in the top 12 of ESPN's Way-Too-Early Top 25 (No. 6 Ole Miss, No. 7 Missouri, No. 9 Alabama, No. 12 LSU). Welcome to the SEC.

3. Ohio State at Oregon, Oct. 12: Then a nonconference game, the Ducks won the last meeting in Columbus in 2021. Ohio State has won the other nine meetings, though, with victories over the Ducks giving the Buckeyes the 1957 and 2014 national titles.

2. Texas at Texas A&M, Nov. 30: After years of unsuccessful haggling to resume this series, this old Southwest Conference and Big 12 rivalry is back for the first time since 2011 with both schools now residing in the SEC.

1. Georgia at Texas, Oct. 19: In what could be a preview of playoff participants, the Bulldogs make their second-ever trek to Austin -- and first since 1958. -- Jake Trotter

Ten coaches to watch

10. Clemson's Dabo Swinney: He's a future Hall of Famer and the first coach to truly challenge Nick Saban's stranglehold on the sport, winning national titles in 2016 and 2018. But his hands-off approach toward the transfer portal has raised questions, especially after Clemson dropped four games last season for the first time since 2011. A return to the CFP is essential for Swinney.

9. Washington's Jedd Fisch: He takes over one of the most unusual situations in college football history -- a national runner-up with no returning offensive starters, set to enter a new conference mostly based at least two time zones away. Fisch should benefit from a career hopscotching the college and NFL ranks, as he is accustomed to new settings.

8. Notre Dame's Marcus Freeman: He is more well-liked than his predecessor, Brian Kelly, and has made key gains in recruiting and further elevating the defense. But the expectations for Freeman in Year 3 are clear, especially with the CFP expanding to 12 and the possibility of Notre Dame hosting a playoff game.

7. Oklahoma's Brent Venables: OU fans jilted by Lincoln Riley's departure celebrated Venables' return to Norman, but Year 3 overall and Year 1 in the SEC loom large for a program accustomed to CFP appearances. Venables ultimately must upgrade a defense that ranks 120th in yards allowed and 71st in points allowed under his watch.

6. Ole Miss' Lane Kiffin: The Lane Train is never boring, but he recently has added more substance to the entertainment factor. After two AP top-12 finishes in the past three seasons, Ole Miss made a significant push in the portal/NIL space and should deliver a team capable of earning the school's first CFP berth.

5. Michigan's Sherrone Moore: His rise from low-profile staff addition to offensive line guru to Jim Harbaugh's successor for a championship program was remarkable. Now the real work begins for Moore, whose first team loses a record 13 NFL draft picks and faces significant questions at quarterback and elsewhere, but also returns enough star power to compete.

4. Baylor's Dave Aranda: He led Baylor to a Big 12 title and a No. 5 finish in 2021 but is just 11-23 during his other three years in Waco. Aranda reclaimed defensive playcalling duties and needs more from the Jake Spavital-led offense to earn a return for Year 5 in 2025.

3. Florida's Billy Napier: He waited patiently for an A-list job and seemed to be a strong fit at Florida, which has provided the resources to compete. But the Gators are just 6-10 in SEC play under Napier, and this fall will face Miami, UCF and Florida State, in addition to the conference grind. Napier must show progress to ensure a fourth year in Gainesville.

2. Ohio State's Ryan Day: After three straight losses to Michigan, Ohio State went pedal-down for personnel, adding significant transfers and retaining several of its NFL-caliber players. What does it mean for Day? Anything less than a Big Ten title, a deep CFP run and, of course, a win over Michigan would equal extreme disappointment in Columbus.

1. Alabama's Kalen DeBoer: He's the guy following The Guy in Tuscaloosa but brings a different approach and a distinct track record of success, which includes a national runner-up finish with Washington last season. DeBoer's every move will be under the microscope as he replaces Nick Saban, and anything short of a CFP appearance will turn up the pressure. -- Adam Rittenberg

Ten Heisman contenders

10. Avery Johnson, QB, Kansas State: Insert your "Hey, didn't he play in the NBA and coach at Alabama" joke here. But the sophomore with the luscious locks electrified Little Manhattan one year ago whenever he had the football in his hands. Then again, he already owns a Pop Tarts Bowl MVP trophy, so a Heisman might feel like a letdown.

9. Cam Ward, QB, Miami: Miami's back! Maybe. But Ward will most certainly be back on the national college football radar, taking his talents to South Beach(ish) after tossing a combined 13,875 yards and 119 TD passes at Incarnate Word and Washington State, aka the Incarnate Word of the Palouse.

8. Quinshon Judkins, RB, Ohio State: Judkins showed moments of true brilliance in Oxford -- see: 31 TDs and 2,725 yards rushing in two seasons -- but seemed to always be overshadowed by his quarterback (more on him coming up). Now he anchors the new-look Buckeyes, who had the best talent-seizing offseason of any organization not named the Philadelphia Eagles. Also, he's a running back and we refused to do an all-QB list.

7. Garrett Nussmeier, QB, LSU: After waiting patiently for four years, Nussmeier finally got to start for the Tigers in their ReliaQuest Bowl win over Wisconsin, where he won the game's MVP award. Now he'll try to become the third LSU quarterback to win the Heisman in the past six years. No pressure, kid.

6. Jaxson Dart, QB, Ole Miss: Told you we'd get to this guy. Remember one year ago when there were doubts he'd even be the starter? The guy with the Anakin Skywalker eye black went full Jedi Temple attack with 3,364 yards passing and 31 total TDs versus only five INTs, then decided to come back for more.

5. Will Howard, QB, Ohio State: Kansas State's Johnson is on this list because Howard, the guy Johnson was behind on the depth chart, transferred to Columbus. And the only reason Howard isn't higher on this list is because he might not even be atop his new depth chart, sitting in what might be America's most competitive position room. Devin Brown also has appeared alongside Howard on many preseason Heisman lists.

4. Jalen Milroe, QB, Alabama: New coaching staff. New offensive system. So many new teammates. Completely new SEC conference structure. Same QB, aka the dual-threat guy who went from being benched to leading the Tide to the CFP.

3. Dillon Gabriel, QB, Oregon: How amazing is it to get to see a player who played for Knute Rockne still in action? Oregon is Gabriel's third stop under center after being the starter at UCF and Oklahoma. He has thrown for nearly 15,000 yards and has more than 1,000 yards rushing. This also seems like an important note: The last QB who moved to Eugene was Bo Nix. That worked out pretty well.

2. Quinn Ewers, QB, Texas: Everything's bigger in Texas, especially expectations. Few came to Austin with bigger eyes upon them than Ewers, who finally cashed in on that promise last season, with a 12-2 season that was capped by a CFP appearance. Now he just needs to outrun his backup: His Royal Armness, Prince Arch Manning of New Orleans.

1. Carson Beck, QB, Georgia: The Dawgs are still raw over their lack of a CFP invite and will enter fall with Silicon Valley's worth of chips on their big ol' hairy shoulders. It's the shoulders of Beck that will be asked to dish out that revenge, having made 14 starts one year ago and losing only once. It's his fifth season in Athens and if he can improve even a little on his numbers -- 3,941 yards, 24 TDs, 6 INTs, 72% completion -- from a year ago on a CFP team, it'll be impossible to keep him out of New York in December. -- Ryan McGee

Ten breakout players

10. Teitum Tuioti and Matayo Uiagalelei, Edge, Oregon: It's nearly impossible to mention one without the other. The two freshman edge rushers received plenty of snaps last season, combining for 28 tackles and four sacks. With a year under their chinstraps and better knowledge of the Ducks' scheme, both Tuioti and Uiagalelei could have monster second seasons in Eugene.

9. Rueben Owens, RB, Texas A&M: Under new coach Mike Elko, the Aggies' offense may finally find its way out of the wilderness, and a large part of that could be thanks to Owens. In his first year at Texas A&M, Owens got 101 carries for 385 yards and three touchdowns, but as a five-star prospect in the 2023 recruiting cycle, it feels like Owens' true potential has not yet been fully unlocked. New offensive coordinator Collin Klein will aim to do just that with Owens and the rest of the Aggies' backs this season.

8. Darrell Jackson Jr., DL, Florida State: No single player may be as motivated coming into this season as Jackson. After transferring from Miami to Florida State last season, NCAA eligibility rules prevented him from playing in the regular season and a waiver was also denied. The 6-foot-3, 334-pound lineman has all the potential to be a force for the Noles.

7. Zachariah Branch, WR, USC: One could argue that Branch already broke out last season. In his freshman campaign, Branch wowed the college football world with his unique speed and agility, which he most often displayed on special teams. The freshman saw his role as a wide receiver grow as the season went along. Now Branch will be expected to be a focal part of the Trojans' offense without quarterback Caleb Williams.

6. Rueben Bain Jr., Edge, Miami: Bain was one of the more impressive freshmen in the country on defense last season. The 6-3, 275-pound edge rusher started 11 games and had 44 tackles, 12.5 for loss, 7.5 sacks and 3 forced fumbles. The Hurricanes disappointed as a team last year, dampening the shine on Bain's season, but if his first year in college is any indication, the ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year has the makings of a star.

5. Justice Haynes, RB, Alabama: Last year in Tuscaloosa may not have gone the way Haynes, then a true freshman, envisioned. He finished with 168 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries, but he showed enough flashes to let the Tide faithful know what was coming in the future. Now, under new head coach Kalen DeBoer and with the departure of both Jase McClellan and Roydell Williams, Haynes could be primed for a big second season.

4. Suntarine Perkins, LB, Ole Miss: With Lane Kiffin at the helm, there is always plenty of buzz surrounding his team's offense, but Perkins is a talent on the defensive end ready for his close-up. In his freshman campaign, Perkins started only two games but finished with 38 total tackles (5.5 of those for loss) and 3.5 sacks. It was the ideal debut season for a player who will be crucial to the Rebels' defense this season.

3. Jeremiah Smith, WR, Ohio State: Surprise, surprise -- just as one star Ohio State receiver leaves for the NFL, another is waiting in the wings, ready to shine. Smith is a true freshman and one of the top prospects in the 2024 class. He has already earned rave reviews from those who have watched him show off his speed, skill and athleticism during spring ball following the departure of Marvin Harrison Jr. Look for him to be a factor for the Buckeyes right away.

2. Raylen Wilson, LB, Georgia: It would not be a true list of breakout players without a member of Georgia's defense. Wilson looks like the next great linebacker for the Bulldogs. Despite dealing with a knee injury, Wilson was an SEC All-Freshman Team selection and the transfer of linebacker Jamon Dumas-Johnson to Kentucky should further open up an opportunity for Wilson to become yet another household name.

1. Nico Iamaleava, QB, Tennessee: There's no surprise here. One of the most highly touted and anticipated players in last year's high school class is set to get his shot at being Tennessee's starting quarterback this season after a four-touchdown, MVP-winning performance in the Citrus Bowl last season. Iamaleava may be young, slight and inexperienced, but the hype surrounding him has been present for a reason. -- Paolo Uggetti

Ten G5 teams that can make the playoff

10. Troy: The Sun Belt champs have a lot to replace (star running back Kimani Vidal, most of the D-line and secondary), but hungry new head coach Gerad Parker should know what to do with a sturdy O-line. The Trojans get early marquee games against Memphis and Iowa, and hey, the two-time winner of what is now the best G5 conference is definitely making the list.

9. UNLV: Offensive coordinator Brennan Marion will need a new quarterback to run the show, but with star receiver Ricky White III and most of the offensive line back, coach Barry Odom's Rebels will score plenty of points. They also get résumé-boosting shots at Kansas, Houston and Syracuse in nonconference play.

8. Tulane: The Green Wave replaced a proven coach (Houston-bound Willie Fritz) with a proven coach (Troy's Jon Sumrall), who brought in blue-chip transfers such as quarterback Ty Thompson and receiver Mario Williams. Upset either Kansas State or Oklahoma in September, and they move to the top of the résumé pile.

7. Miami (Ohio): Chuck Martin's RedHawks rode an absurdly effective defense to last year's MAC title, and a majority of key defenders return, including star end Brian Ugwu. Veteran QB Brett Gabbert is still around to pilot the offense, and Miami has a lovely nonconference slate (Northwestern, Cincinnati, Notre Dame) for making some noise.

6. James Madison: There is a lot of "new" for the Dukes this year: new coach (Holy Cross' Bob Chesney), new QB, mostly new WR corps and defensive line. Chesney hit some transfer portal home runs, including Washington quarterback Dylan Morris, and when you're 19-5 in your two-year FBS life, you get the benefit of the doubt.

5. Appalachian State: Star quarterback Joey Aguilar (3,757 yards, 33 TDs) and almost his entire receiving corps return to supercharge one of the G5's best offenses. The defense is ultra-experienced and the Mountaineers get Liberty at home in a CFP elimination game of sorts. (They get a shot at Clemson, too.)

4. Fresno State: Jeff Tedford is back on the sideline after a health scare, quarterback Mikey Keene is back behind center, and the Bulldogs boast one of the most experienced two-deeps of the G5 contenders. They open the season at Michigan and get a late-November game against UCLA that could burnish their résumé at a key time.

3. Liberty: Coach Jamey Chadwell, quarterback Kaidon Salter and 1,400-yard rusher Quinton Cooley all return for the defending C-USA champions. The offense should roll again, and Chadwell brought in a big load of transfers to boost a faulty defense. Poor schedule strength will be an obstacle, though.

2. Boise State: The Broncos won their fifth MWC title after a late hot streak, and coach Spencer Danielson has surrounded 1,300-yard rusher Ashton Jeanty with former blue-chippers in quarterback Malachi Nelson and receiver Chris Marshall. A Week 2 trip to Oregon will be a nice barometer for maybe the most high-upside team in the G5.

1. Memphis: If Boise State doesn't have the most upside, Memphis does. The Tigers have experience, too. Quarterback Seth Henigan and the receiver duo of Roc Taylor and DeMeer Blankumsee could lead a 40 PPG offense, the defense adds 10 transfers, and Memphis could be favored in every game but its Week 3 trip to Florida State. -- Bill Connelly

Ten first-time playoff teams

10. Boise State: The Broncos have a chance to win the MWC with former USC transfer quarterback Malachi Nelson, the No. 1 prospect in the 2023 class. Their nonconference schedule is tailor-made to impress the committee with opportunities against Oregon, Oregon State and Washington State.

9. Miami: Proven transfer quarterback Cam Ward will have a veteran offensive line to work with, and the Canes built depth around him through the transfer portal. They don't have to leave the state of Florida once in the month of September.

8. Arizona: Plenty of talent remains after former coach Jedd Fisch left for Washington, starting with quarterback Noah Fifita, who threw for 2,869 yards and 25 touchdowns in just nine starts.

7. Oklahoma State: Without OU and Texas in the way, the Cowboys' chances of earning the Big 12's automatic bid increase, especially with quarterback Alan Bowman returning along with Doak Walker Award winner Ollie Gordon II and receiver Brennan Presley.

6. Kansas State: The Wildcats lost to Mizzou and Texas last year by a combined six points and continue to trend up under coach Chris Klieman. Their schedule includes home games against Arizona, Oklahoma State and rival Kansas.

5. Tennessee: With a loaded schedule that includes road trips to Georgia and Oklahoma -- plus a neutral site nonconference game against NC State -- the Vols have ample opportunities to impress the selection committee even as a two-loss team.

4. Penn State: The Nittany Lions no longer have to beat Ohio State and Michigan to earn a spot in the CFP, but they still need to hope quarterback Drew Allar and a strong running game can impress the committee against enough ranked opponents to earn an at-large bid.

3. Utah: The Utes have a strong chance to win the Big 12 and earn an automatic bid as the champion of their new conference with the veteran leadership of quarterback Cam Rising and a team that is always well-coached and formidable up front.

2. Missouri: Confidence is brewing in this program after an 11-2 season and Cotton Bowl win over Ohio State. The Tigers will have a potent offense with quarterback Brady Cook (3,317 passing yards, 21 touchdowns, six interceptions and eight rushing touchdowns) and leading receiver Luther Burden III (86 receptions, 1,212 yards, nine touchdowns).

1. Ole Miss: The Rebels have the talent and the schedule, as veteran quarterback Jaxson Dart returns (23 passing touchdowns, five interceptions last year), and Ole Miss skips Alabama and gets Georgia and Oklahoma at home. -- Heather Dinich

Ten playoff bye contenders

10. Clemson: The Tigers need to make strides on offense after finishing outside the top 50 nationally a year ago in scoring offense, but their defense should keep them in every game. The game to circle is their trip to Florida State on Oct. 5. The Tigers haven't been to the playoff since the 2020 season, but they've won seven of the past nine ACC titles. So don't count out Dabo & Co.

9. Florida State: There will be a lot of new faces for Florida State this season after Mike Norvell's club went unbeaten in the regular season a year ago and won the ACC championship. Nobody in Tallahassee has forgotten about the playoff snub, and while Clemson and Miami are both strong contenders for the ACC title in 2024, the Seminoles get the slight nod.

8. Kansas State: The Big 12 race figures to be wide open, and even though we've pegged Utah as the favorite, K-State and Utah don't play in the regular season. So their only meeting could end up being in the conference championship game. The other team to watch in the Big 12 is Oklahoma State, which returns 21 starters. K-State and Oklahoma State play Sept. 28 in Manhattan.

7. Alabama: One of the reasons Alabama isn't ranked higher is the Crimson Tide's schedule in Kalen DeBoer's first season. They face Georgia at home the first month of the season and have road games at Tennessee, LSU and Oklahoma. Simply making it to the SEC championship game will be a challenge, but the Tide have more than enough talent to make the playoff.

6. Utah: The Utes will be counting on two players returning from serious knee injuries that forced them to miss all last season -- quarterback Cam Rising and tight end Brant Kuithe. They also added some talented players in the portal. Coach Kyle Whittingham led Utah to Pac-12 championships in 2021 and 2022. Now it's time to collect some hardware in the Big 12.

5. Ole Miss: As the 2024 season approaches, the "rat poison" gets more potent by the week for Lane Kiffin and his Rebels. Expectations are soaring, as well they should be when you look at the talent on Ole Miss' roster. The schedule is one of the more manageable ones in the SEC, and if the Rebels can get to the conference championship game, look out.

4. Oregon: Oregon moves over to the Big Ten and Dan Lanning's club did some serious work in the transfer portal this offseason after losing twice to then-Pac-12 rival Washington last season. It's worth noting that Oregon gets Ohio State at home Oct. 12.

3. Texas: A year after making the playoff for the first time, Texas has its sights set on even bigger goals in Steve Sarkisian's fourth season as the Longhorns' coach. Texas and Georgia meet Oct. 19 in Austin and could meet again in December with an SEC championship and No. 1 seed in the playoff on the line.

2. Ohio State: If anybody is going to challenge Georgia for that No. 1 seed, it's an Ohio State team that stocked up on talent in the transfer portal this offseason. The Buckeyes' roster, top to bottom, is as good as there is in college football, making them the favorite to win the Big Ten championship after a three-year hiatus.

1. Georgia: The Bulldogs have an elite quarterback in Carson Beck, their usual bevy of talent and depth on defense and the best coach in the country in Kirby Smart. Until proven otherwise, they're the team to beat in college football -- period. It all adds up to the likely No. 1 seed in the playoff as the SEC champion. -- Chris Low