The college football season is close to starting. Technically, it started last week with a few games during what is known as “week 0”, but most teams start their season this weekend. This season will be the last season before the college football environment changes forever, due to a large number of teams moving conferences. The result of this means that from next year, the SEC, Big 12, and Big 10 will essentially become so-called super conferences, while the PAC-12 is at the moment, all but dead.
With the new season starting, many teams think they can be the ones to challenge the Georgia Bulldogs and prevent them from winning three consecutive national championship games, a feat that has never been done. In fact, the most recent team to win three successive College football titles was the California Golden Bears between 1920-1922, but this was during a time when the organizers just selected a national champion.
But, let’s not dwell on both the past and the future, and turn to the present.
Here are my top 5 teams who I think will challenge for the national championship.
1. Georgia BulldogsEmbed from Getty Images
Probably the most obvious place to start is with the two-time defending champions. Last year, The Bulldogs went unbeaten on their way to both the SEC title and the National Championship, where they destroyed the TCU Horned Frogs 65-7.
In the most recent offseason, Georgia lost many key members of their winning teams as they declared for the draft, and became professional. Quarterback Stetson Bennett was a 4th round pick for the L. A Rams to serve as the backup QB to the aging Matthew Stafford and a lot of the team were drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles. Time will tell how that will work out. But many more from that talented side will be returning for another year, including the likes of tight end Brock Bowyers (who could have a very good year) and Ladd McConkey. Many professional media outlets have rated the Bulldogs’ recruiting class to be the second best for this year, so it is likely that Kirby Smart’s team will have a strong team for years to come.
However, what I am concerned with about the Georgia Bulldogs this year is not their talent, which they have lots of or their coaching staff. It is their schedule. The teams that you face have a massive impact on the rankings. The best way to climb the rankings in the poll is to defeat teams that are of similar strength or stronger than you. Being the number 1 seed going into the season, Georgia can’t do this, so they need to play tough games against their SEC rivals to not only keep them in the national picture but also to prepare the team for when they have to face strong teams in the CFP.
Georgia has one of the weakest strength of schedules in the SEC. Last year, the Bulldogs opened their season against the Oregon Ducks, a ranked team, and then they played the ranked 25 Stamford in their first two weeks. This year, it’s UT Martin and Ball State. Hardly a competitive game. Georgia does not face what could be seen as a tough team to be at the moment until their penultimate game of divisional play against Tennessee.
The Georgia Bulldogs are a team that is expected to make the CFP, but one slip-up against these weaker teams could mean that the three-peat attempt could be over before it has even started.
2. Alabama Crimson TideEmbed from Getty Images
Staying in the SEC, if Georgia does not win the SEC this year, then it is likely that the Alabama Crimson Tide will. Alabama has always been a competitive force in college football, led by legendary coach Nick Saban. This year will be Saban’s 17th season with the Crimson Tide, where he has won 6 national championships and has been always or around the number-one seed for most of his time in Tuscaloosa. Last year, Bama underperformed. They were lucky to defeat the Texas Longhorns in week 2 but suffered two close defeats to Tennessee and LSU. Those 2 losses put the Crimson Tide out of contention for the College Football playoff for only the second time since its conception in 2014.
The Crimson Tide lost some key talent in the offseason, most notably quarterback Bryce Young and star wide receiver Will Anderson Jr. However, this is Nick Saban’s Alabama. There is always another strong talent to fill these positions, so they do not need to worry. Returning this season are running back Jase McClellan and cornerback Kool-Aid McKinstry, a player many say could become a high-level cornerback in the NFL.
When compared to Georgia’s schedule, Alabama’s schedule could be seen as brutal. Their schedule is the strongest in the SEC, and for good reason. Just like last year, the Crimson Tide faces the Longhorns in week two, this time at home. This will be the last time that this matchup will be an inter-conference affair, as Texas moves to the SEC next season. They will also face the likes of Ole Miss, Tennessee, LSU, and state rivals Auburn. Unlike Georgia, many ranked teams will face Alabama. Defeating these teams will almost guarantee a place in the College Football playoffs, and Bama will be looking to regain the national championship, something that they are synonymous with.
3. Michigan WolverinesEmbed from Getty Images
Moving away from the SEC and into the Big Ten conference, which has 14 teams because that makes sense. The Michigan Wolverines went undefeated last season in the regular season, winning the Big Ten championship. This put them into the College Football Playoffs, where they faced the surprise team of the year, TCU. The Horned Frogs would win that game 51-45. Last season also had a battle for Wolverines quarterback, between J. J McCarthy and Cade McNamara, which McCarthy easily won. J. J. returns this year, along with many others from last year’s side.
The Wolverines are coached by Jim Harbaugh, or at least they will be from week 4. For the first three games of the season, which are all against non-conference opponents in Ann Arbor, a carousel of interim coaches will be in charge. This is because of a 3 game suspension from Michigan themselves on Harbaugh because of violations in recruitment. Reports say that an investigation by the NCAA into this matter is still ongoing, so the story may change during the season. For these 3 games, Harbaugh being suspended should have a minimal effect on the team’s on-field performance, as the three teams they are playing (East Carolina, UNLV, and Bowling Green) are minnow compared to the Wolverines. In fact, in terms of schedule, Michigan has got it extremely easy. Their trips to Minnesota and Penn State could be interesting, but the Wolverines should fly through this season undefeated.
That is, until the final game of the regular season. They face their arch-rivals, the Ohio State Buckeyes, in a game that should be the de facto championship game for the Big Ten. But, as they are in the same division, they cannot face each other for the championship. I think it is safe the say that the winner of this game will book themselves a slot in the College Football Playoffs.
In terms of the Wolverines winning the national championship, it all depends on the SEC. If Alabama and Michigan face each other in the championship game, the money on Bama. However, if we see a Georgia-Michigan final, in my eyes, it could go either way.
4. Ohio State BuckeyesEmbed from Getty Images
Earlier on, I said that if Georgia does not win the SEC, Alabama will. I can say the same for the Big Ten. If Michigan does not win the conference, THE Ohio State Buckeyes will. Last season, as the Wolverines did, Ohio State went unbeaten until the last week of the season, where they lost to Michigan. This gave them a 11-1 record on the season, and the fourth seed in the College Football Playoff. They would face number-one-ranked Georgia in the Peach Bowl in what would be a very close game. The Buckeyes would lose the match 42-41 when the Bulldogs kicked a game-winning field goal and time ran out on both the game and the calendar year.
One major difference between this year’s Ohio State team to last year’s will be the absence of quarterback C. J. Stroud. Stroud was drafted as the second overall pick by the Houston Texans, a team needing a quarterback. In the past week, the Texans announced Stroud would be the team’s starting quarterback in week one. The Buckeyes will not need to worry about how they will score points, their offense has the Big Ten’s best receiver from last year, Marvin Harrison Jr., who is tipped by many this year to be the best, or at least one of the best receivers in the whole country this season.
Ohio State’s schedule this year is a mixed bag. Like last year, I expect the team to go near undefeated against their fellow Big Ten teams, but games against Penn State and Wisconsin could cause the Buckeyes to trip up. In week 4 of the season, they travel to South Bend to face Notre Dame, in a game that could cause a headache for Ohio State. If they successfully pass through all of their opponents, they face the ultimate test in the last week of the season. The Michigan Wolverines at the Big House. This game will decide whether Ohio State makes the College Football Playoff or is on the outside looking in.
5. Texas LonghornsEmbed from Getty Images
This choice may surprise some people. The Texas Longhorns are about to have a massive change. From next season, the Longhorns and rivals the Oklahoma Sooners will leave the Big 12 and move to the SEC. This move started the mass relocation we have seen from other schools throughout the country. The big question in relation to Texas concerns competitiveness, as recently they have been struggling in the Big 12. Would throwing them into the even tougher SEC help this team? Luckily, this team is on the up, at least in my eyes.
Last season, the Longhorns were somewhat competitive, going 8-5 with all their losses against ranked opposition. One of these losses included a one-point defeat to Alabama, a game that they should have won, but Longhorns’ quarterback Quinn Ewers suffered an injury early in the game. The high point of last year’s season for Texas was their 49-0 thrashing of Oklahoma.
The only real absence that could hurt the Longhorns in relation to talent will be the lack of star running back Bijan Robinson, who was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons, and who is someone I am tipping to be Rookie of the Year this season. While Robinson has moved on, many members of last year’s team return, including improving quarterback Quinn Ewers. On the subject of the Texas Longhorns quarterback position, some say that there might be a battle for this position between Ewers and highly touted recruit, Arch Manning, the nephew of Eli, and Peyton Manning, two of the best quarterbacks of all time. Whatever happens, talent is something the Texas Longhorns will not lack in the coming years.
Their schedule could be difficult this year. They visit both Alabama and TCU, in what will be tough games for the Longhorns. But the rest of the games are just the standard Big 12 conference play, for what will be the last time for the Longhorns. These are games that Texas will need to win to allow them to return to the Big 12 championship game for the first time since 2018. If they were to win this game, they would certainly be in the CFP. From there, anything could happen.
Oregon DucksEmbed from Getty Images
The Oregon Ducks are another team that will join another conference in 2024. From next season, the Ducks will move to the Big 10 (which will now have at least 18 teams) from the Pac-12. The Pac-12 has felt the brunt of team re-conferencing the hardest, and many people, including myself, are wondering what is the future of the conference. The Oregon Ducks have for many seasons been competitive in the Pac-12, but never seem to achieve the same level of success as teams from other, more prestigious conferences. This may explain the re-conferencing.
A lot of people’s money is on the USC Trojans (another team moving to the Big 10 next year) to win the Pac-12. I think they will as well, but I would not count out the Ducks. They have one of the easiest schedules this season, with only the games on the road to Washington and Utah being potential hiccups. Talent-wise, Ducks quarterback Bo Nix can easily lead this team to victories.
The College Football Playoffs are a long shot for the Ducks, but a final PAC-12 title before they move to face the likes of Michigan, Ohio State, and Wisconsin on a regular basis is a possibility for Oregon.
North Carolina Tar HeelsEmbed from Getty Images
With all the attention on the other conferences because of the mass relocation next season, the ACC has been somewhat forgotten about. Coming into this season, many people say that the two teams who could challenge for the ACC title are the Clemson Tigers and the Florida State Seminoles. Allow me to make the case for another team, the North Carolina Tar Heels. Like divisional rivals Duke, they are known for basketball, but I think the Tar Heels are good at football (they gave us Lawrence Taylor for example), at least more than Duke is (Duke has only really given us Daniel Jones, and as a Giants fan I am grateful for that, but that all that Duke has recently done).
Last year, North Carolina made the ACC championship game, where they lost 39-10 to Clemson. The main star on this team was and is their quarterback, Drake Maye. Last season, Maye threw for 4,321 yards and scored 38 touchdowns in a season in which he won both ACC Rookie of the Year and ACC Player of the Year. Maye has a maximum of 3 more seasons to develop. I expect that while the Tar Heels won’t challenge for the CFP, under Maye they are more than able to challenge Clemson and Florida State for the ACC title and a top-10 ranking.