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Early CFB top 25: Ohio State leads heading to spring practice

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With the coaching turnover complete, the transfer portal slowing down, and National Signing Day in the rear view, it's time to take stock of the college football landscape heading into spring practice.

Nick Saban's retirement and Jim Harbaugh's departure for the NFL grabbed headlines in the wildest January in recent memory and left plenty of uncertainty heading into the 2024 season.

Here's our first ranking of how the teams sit with practices and workouts set to begin.

1. Ohio State

If Ryan Day doesn't win the Big Ten next year, he'll need to update his LinkedIn profile. There is no team in the country bringing back as much firepower as Ohio State, with at least seven players projected to be top-100 picks in the NFL draft returning for another collegiate season. The Buckeyes also brought in superstar transfers Quinshon Judkins from Ole Miss and Caleb Downs from Alabama. The roster is loaded, but the national-title hopes might come down to how prolific Kansas State transfer Will Howard is at quarterback.

2. Georgia

Georgia once again sees a mass exodus to the NFL draft, and Kirby Smart once again reloads with some top transfers and one of the nation's top recruiting classes. The offense should continue to cook. Carson Beck is back off a brilliant first season as starting quarterback, and one of Smart's youngest defensive units in Athens is a year older and more experienced. It won't take long to get a glimpse at the Bulldogs' potential in 2024, as they open with a blockbuster matchup versus Clemson.

3. Texas

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The only school from the playoff this past season to retain its head coach comes in at No. 3. Steve Sarkisian made huge strides in his third year with Texas and is primed for a repeat performance with plenty of talent returning. Quinn Ewers lost his five top pass-catchers, but the Longhorns restocked with transfers Isaiah Bond from Alabama and Houston's Matthew Golden. Add in a loaded recruiting class, and Texas is set up to shine in its first SEC season.

4. Ole Miss

Lane Kiffin still rules the transfer kingdom, as the Portal King pulled in another impressive haul for Ole Miss. Walter Nolen and Juice Wells headline a massive talent infusion for the Rebels - one that has them primed for a run to the 12-team playoff. Ole Miss also has one of the friendliest SEC schedules in 2024 - hosting Oklahoma and Georgia, with LSU the only road date against a ranked opponent from last year.

5. Oregon

Bo Nix is gone, but Dan Lanning brought in Dillon Gabriel from Oklahoma to ensure the quarterback position is covered in 2024. With Tez Johnson, Gary Bryant Jr., and Traeshon Holden back to catch passes, the offense should shine once again, while the defense returns a number of starters that should ease the transition to the Big Ten. Oregon will need to get hot early, with the back half of the schedule featuring a home date against Ohio State and road trips to Michigan and Wisconsin.

6. Notre Dame

The Riley Leonard era brings massive expectations to Notre Dame for the 2024 season. The Duke standout will bring some pop to the rushing attack, and he'll have an elite coordinator in Mike Denbrock, who's returning to the Fighting Irish after leading the nation's top offense at LSU. If that combo can get the offense rolling in South Bend and the defense remains stout, Notre Dame could be an easy pick for a playoff spot.

7. Michigan

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Jim Harbaugh left for the NFL after winning the national title and took almost the entire coaching staff with him. Sherrone Moore remained and is the new headman at Michigan, and he returns a dominant defense that should keep the Wolverines among the top teams in the Big Ten. The biggest question mark for Michigan is on the offensive side of the football, with J.J. McCarthy, Blake Corum, Roman Wilson, and Cornelius Johnson all off to the NFL. While the Wolverines opted for friendly early-season schedules in previous years, the start of the 2024 season comes fast and furious with Texas and USC inside the first month.

8. Alabama

The first season after Nick Saban could be rough for Alabama. Kalen DeBoer is unquestionably an elite college coach, but the schedule features road trips to Wisconsin, LSU, Tennessee, and Oklahoma. Add home dates versus Georgia and Missouri, and it's going to be a challenge for DeBoer to hit the 10-win mark. Saban's exit led to a high number of transfers in Tuscaloosa, but DeBoer's previous work with quarterback Michael Penix should have Jalen Milroe supporters feeling positive heading into 2024.

9. Missouri

Eli Drinkwitz is cranking up Missouri to unprecedented hype levels heading into 2024. The Tigers will try to build off an 11-2 season in 2023 by returning quarterback Brady Cook and the elite pass-catching tandem of Luther Burden III and Theo Wease Jr., who can terrorize defenses. Losing the nation's leading rusher in Cody Schrader hurts, but Georgia State transfer Marcus Carroll should help ease those concerns.

10. Utah

How long has Utah star quarterback Cam Rising been in college? He was in the same recruiting class as Trevor Lawrence, who is entering his fourth season in the NFL. Rising sat out last season while recovering from knee injuries suffered in the 2022 finale and is back for a seventh year of eligibility. The Utes succeeded in 2023 in spite of questionable quarterback play, and a healthy Rising should solve that issue as they enter the Big 12.

11. Penn State

Penn State brought in Kansas offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki to unlock Drew Allar and the passing attack. The Nittany Lions also nabbed Ohio State's Julian Fleming in the portal to give the talented passer a new No. 1 wide receiver. If Penn State can add some success through the air to the explosive running back duo of Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen, the Nittany Lions are set to make serious noise in the new Big Ten.

12. Florida State

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The core of last year's ACC championship team is gone, but Florida State once again reloaded its roster via the transfer portal. Mike Norvell took advantage of Saban's departure to grab five players from Alabama. The Seminoles also addressed Jordan Travis' graduation by bringing D.J. Uiagalelei back to the ACC after he moved from Clemson to Oregon State last year.

13. Oklahoma

Oklahoma's move to the SEC comes with a new quarterback-coordinator combo in Jackson Arnold and Seth Littrell. The highly touted Arnold takes over after starting in the bowl game last year, while Littrell gets a promotion following Jeff Lebby's departure for Mississippi State. Brent Venables also added a new defensive coordinator to his staff in Zac Alley from Jacksonville State. The Sooners need to take care of business early, as the final four FBS games of the year are at Ole Miss, at Missouri, versus Alabama, and at LSU.

14. Oklahoma State

Oklahoma and Texas leaving the Big 12 leaves Oklahoma State as one of the favorites to claim the conference title in 2024. All-American running back Ollie Gordon returns and veteran quarterback Alan Bowman joins him in the backfield. With the Sooners and Longhorns both off the schedule, the path to 10 wins should be significantly easier for Mike Gundy than in previous years.

15. Arizona

Jedd Fisch left for Washington, but the vibes are still high at Arizona. That's largely based on the fact new coach Brent Brennan was able to retain the star duo of quarterback Noah Fifita and receiver Tetairoa McMillan. The move to the Big 12 should lighten the challenge for Arizona in 2024, as former conference foes USC, Oregon, and Washington are no longer on the schedule.

16. Tennessee

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Tennessee fans got a glimpse of the future in its bowl game with freshman quarterback Nico Iamaleava's four-total-touchdown performance against Iowa. The sophomore passer has a ton of options with Bru McCoy and Squirrel White back in the fold, while transfers Chris Brazzell and Holden Staes are joining the Volunteers.

17. Louisville

Jeff Brohm somehow won 10 games in his first season at Louisville despite a roster built almost entirely on transfers at key positions. That will be the Cardinals' plan yet again in 2024, and they'll be led by quarterback Tyler Shough, who arrives from Texas Tech. Louisville has road trips to Notre Dame and Clemson on the schedule, but the rest looks very manageable amid aspirations of a return trip to the ACC title game.

18. Clemson

A difficult season flipped in the final month, with Clemson ripping off five straight wins to finish the slate. Dabo Swinney will be hoping his program can ride that high into the 2024 campaign with an opening-weekend matchup against Georgia. Whether there's enough talent on the Tigers' roster - Swinney once again ignored the transfer portal - will reveal itself early, with NC State and Florida State also among the opening five games. If Cade Klubnik can make a jump in his second season with coordinator Garrett Riley, the Tigers could be back in the playoff after a three-year absence.

19. Miami

Mario Cristobal again brought in an elite recruiting class to load Miami with talent ahead of last season, and the veteran coach again disappointed greatly, as the Hurricanes lost four of their last five games to finish 7-6. After much deliberation, Cristobal was able to secure coveted transfer quarterback Cam Ward - a move that should get the offense cooking in south Florida.

20. LSU

Heisman winner Jayden Daniels and elite receivers Malik Nabers and Brian Thomas are gone, with offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock also leaving LSU in the offseason. Brian Kelly promoted from within for that side of the football while poaching Missouri's Blake Baker for his new defensive coordinator role. Baker's first task is unlocking star linebacker Harold Perkins Jr. to help fix the nation's 109th-ranked defense.

21. Kansas State

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It's Avery Johnson's show now at Kansas State after Will Howard joined Ohio State in the offseason. The freshman quarterback showed plenty of promise in his first season with the Wildcats and should produce big numbers for Chris Kleiman's program despite very few weapons returning. The defense is at the opposite end of the spectrum, as 80% of its starters last season will be back in 2024.

22. Kansas

Kansas lost elite offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki but brings back the dynamic duo of quarterback Jalon Daniels and running back Devin Neal. Keeping Daniels healthy will important without prolific backup Jason Bean on the sidelines. The defense returns a number of starters that performed well down the stretch for Lance Leipold.

23. USC

If the USC bowl game showed us what life will be like without Caleb Williams, the Trojans are in excellent shape. Miller Moss tossed six touchdowns in place of the star passer and should have the inside track to the starting job over UNLV transfer Jayden Maiava. Lincoln Riley beefed up his defensive coaching staff, nabbing UCLA coordinator D'Anton Lynn and North Dakota State head coach Matt Entz to coach linebackers.

24. Texas A&M

The Mike Elko era begins in College Station with the former Duke head coach leading the Aggies into the 2024 campaign. The roster is again loaded with talent, and it will be up to Elko to produce better on-field results than his predecessor Jimbo Fisher. A healthy Conner Weigman at quarterback will help, as the junior passer should thrive under new coordinator Collin Klein.

25. NC State

NC State will go as far as prolific Coastal Carolina transfer Grayson McCall takes them. The Wolfpack were a solid all-around team in 2023 that was held back by struggles at the quarterback position. McCall should help ease those issues, along with four offensive line returnees to help with protection. The defense will be hard-pressed to replace star Payton Wilson, so increased offensive production will be needed to compete in the ACC in 2024.

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