Feb. 2—CHAMPAIGN — Anybody else looking forward to the 2024 college football season?
So much potential. A 12-team playoff that will be glorious. Expanded leagues with the Big Ten growing from 14 to 18 and the Big 12 hitting 16.
You're going to need a cheat sheet to remember which team is where. Don't forget, Oklahoma and Texas are in the SEC and Oregon and Southern California are in the Big Ten. It might not make sense to everyone, but I'd suggest you roll with it.
Because the leagues aren't likely to shrink. In fact, I'm guessing the ACC will be gone in the next few years with a handful of those schools joining the Big Ten/24.
Since the end of the 2023 season, the Big Ten has undergone a string of coaching changes. The two teams in the national title game — Michigan and Washington — have new bosses. A new coach is also in place at Michigan State and a holdover miracle worker got the full-time gig at Northwestern.
Am I missing anybody?
Here is my initial top-to-bottom look at the Tony Pettitti's conference with heavy consideration given to who the teams play.
1. Ohio State
In my preseason Top 25, the Buckeyes are right behind No. 1 Texas. And that one is debatable. The difference for me between the two is the Longhorns have a returning quarterback (Quinn Ewers), while Ohio State will start Kansas State transfer Will Howard. New offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien takes some of the game-day pressure off coach Ryan Day. Ohio State brings back a boatload of talent on both sides of the ball, starting with running back TreVeyon Henderson and corner Denzel Burke. Mark down the first four games (Akron, Western Michigan, Marshall and Michigan State) as wins. Then, the fun begins with games against Iowa, Oregon and Penn State, the latter two on the road. But the only other challenge is the finale against Michigan ... at home.
Returning coach Dan Lanning's team earns the runner-up spot in a close call ahead of reigning national champion Michigan, which is under new management. Dillon Gabriel steps in at quarterback for Bo Nix. The guess here is the drop-off will be limited. The Big Ten loaded the schedule with trips to Michigan and Wisconsin. Lanning made good use of the transfer portal, bringing in stars at receiver, tight end and running back. Visits from Ohio State and Washington are on the slate. But the biggie is the nonconference trip to Oregon State on Sept. 14. Oh, the abandoned Beavers are mad.
Don't feel too sorry for Sherrone Moore. Yes, quarterback J.J. McCarthy is off to the NFL. And so are a bunch of star players. But running back Donovan Edwards returns after a monster performance against Washington in the national title game. And the defense gets a boost from the return of Rod Moore in the secondary and Josaiah Stewart up front. Michigan has a chance to make a statement in the second game when it hosts Texas. Southern Cal, Washington, Oregon and Ohio State are also part of the loaded schedule.
4. Penn State
Tom Allen takes over the defense and Andy Kotelnicki will run the offense for James Franklin. Plenty of skill is left on the team, most notably in the backfield on offense and the back half of the defense. What the Nittany Lions need more than anything is improvement from quarterback Drew Allar, who has not lived up to expectations at this point. The Nittany Lions get a scheduling break with no Michigan or Oregon.
So now we know who is in charge of the offense as Tim Lester takes the reins from fired Brian Ferentz. He will count on quarterback Cade McNamara, who is returning from injury. The Hawkeyes are set at tailback with Leshon Williams. The nation's best defensive coordinator, Phil Parker, welcomes back linebacker Jay Higgins and Sebastian Castro in the secondary. The schedule works in Iowa's favor, with no Michigan or Oregon. It's just a matter of if the offense can score enough points. Again.
The best thing that has happened for new coach Jedd Fisch is Will Rogers reconsidering his transfer and returning to the team. The Huskies have been hit hard by early departures and transfers, but Fisch has a chance to keep the team toward the top of the conference. The Big Ten didn't do Washington any favors in scheduling with games against Michigan, Iowa, Southern Cal, Penn State and Oregon. But hey, no Ohio State at least.
You knew there would be some rough spots with Luke Fickell changing so much of the way the Badgers do business. The kinks have been worked out and it should look better with Miami transfer Tyler Van Dyke behind center. No Ohio State or Michigan on the conference schedule, which is good. Probably not a great year to have Alabama visit. Oh, well.
8. Southern Cal
Yes, Caleb Williams is gone. But Lincoln Riley is still running the show, which means the offense will be humming again and the defense will be a work in progress. Miller Moss started in the Holiday Bowl against Louisville and eased many of the fears for Trojans fans. He threw six touchdown passes and scared off any serious transfer who might have been thinking of joining the team. No Ohio State or Iowa on the schedule, but the team travels to Michigan early and hosts Notre Dame late.
Mike Locksley just won eight games, then saw his quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa leave for the NFL after a record-setting career. Former North Carolina State quarterback M.J. Morris could be the answer. Whoever gets the nod won't have to worry about Ohio State or Michigan, but will have to travel to play at Oregon.
Chip Kelly's team won eight games in 2023, but jumps into a much tougher league. Kelly has been busy in the transfer portal and might not be done shopping. UCLA got a schedule break in its first Big Ten season with no Ohio State or Michigan, but the Bruins have back-to-back games in September against LSU and Oregon.
Having Luke Altmyer back at quarterback is important. The offensive line looks viable with two new starters plugging in. The defense will miss the presence of Johnny Newton and Keith Randolph Jr. But linebacker should be a strength. No Ohio State on the schedule. But Michigan visits for the 100th anniversary of Red Grange's famous game against the Wolverines, and the Illini travel to Oregon.
How long will it take second-year coach Matt Rhule to turn the team over to hotshot freshman quarterback Dylan Raiola? I'm going with the opener against UTEP. Rhule's team doesn't play Michigan or Oregon. Colorado visits in September.
P..J. Fleck is counting on a transfer from New Hampshire (Max Brosmer) to be the answer at quarterback. Reviews are good. The Gophers don't play Ohio State or Oregon, so that helps the mood in Minneapolis.
14. Michigan State
Jonathan Smith did an unbelievable job at Oregon State. The demise of the Pac-12 forced him to move, and he found a terrific landing spot. Quarterback Aidan Chiles could be a hit in the Big Ten after his transfer from Oregon State. The Spartans draw a difficult slate, though, with games against Ohio State, Oregon and Michigan.
Greg Schiano did a bang-up job getting the Scarlet Knights to the postseason. Minnesota transfer Athan Kaliakmanis takes over at quarterback. The defense will be better than solid. Schiano is living right as Rutgers doesn't play Ohio State, Oregon or Michigan.
You would think after last season, I would have learned to expect the unexpected from the Wildcats. But can lighting strike twice for David Braun? Let's go with we'll see. The Wildcats face Michigan and Ohio State in consecutive weeks at the end of the season before hosting Illinois at an unknown venue. OK, probably Wrigley Field.
It is a marathon, not a sprint for second-year coach Ryan Walters. The staff is full of former Illini assistants, which will be fun when the teams play in Champaign in October. While the Boilermakers don't play Michigan, they do get Ohio State, Oregon and Notre Dame.
Someone has to be last. Sorry, Hoosiers. New coach Curt Cignetti will get it done eventually. But the first year will be rough. Oregon isn't on the schedule, but Ohio State and Michigan are, in the 10th and 11th weeks.