Ari Wasserman’s post-spring Top 25: Is Notre Dame really a top-5 team? (2024)

This was very difficult. And forgive me in advance if I made some of you angry, but here’s my honest — and best — attempt at ranking teams in this wild sport.

1. Ohio State

Ohio State had only four players selected in the 2024 NFL Draft, the lowest output for the Buckeyes since 2013. Why? Almost everyone is returning. Ohio State also added quarterback Will Howard, running back Quinshon Judkins and safety Caleb Downs through the portal. Ohio State won the offseason, but that doesn’t matter in Columbus. Beating Michigan, winning the Big Ten and playing for national titles does. The offseason success helped Ohio State fans deal with the pain of losing three straight to Michigan. But if the Buckeyes don’t beat the Wolverines and advance deep in the 12-team College Football Playoff field, next year is a failure for Ryan Day.

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2. Georgia

In today’s college football world, everything is about the transfer portal. But I won’t soon forget the importance of dominating high school recruiting. Yes, the Bulldogs added some key pieces in the portal — running back Trevor Etienne, receivers London Humphreys, Colbie Young, and Michael Jackson III — but it also just signed the No. 1 recruiting class and returns quarterback starter Carson Beck.The depth is off the charts, talent is in the Bulldogs’ favor and they’ll be back as monsters in the fall.

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3. Oregon

How about the Big Ten this year, eh? It still feels weird to me. But Oregon embarks on its journey into a new conference as one of the top teams in the sport. The Ducks added quarterbacks Dillon Gabriel and Dante Moore and a receiver with legit Heisman potential (in the right situation) in Evan Stewart. Running back Jordan James is set up for a huge year. Dan Lanning also has done a great job of building the lines on both sides of the ball, and he addressed the thin secondary. The Ducks will be talented, fast and physical. Lanning is one of the top coaches in the sport — now it’s time for him to go out and win something.

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4. Texas

Did you see how Arch Manning performed in the spring game? The Horns are back, baby! All kidding aside, Texas won’t actually be back until it keeps winning. Being back isn’t just about one Playoff run. Being back is about having sustainable success, and the Longhorns have a chance to do that with one of the nation’s most talented rosters. A lot is on quarterback Quinn Ewers and how big of a jump he takes this season, but Texas has a loaded offensive line — led by Kelvin Banks — and its defense features playmakers all over the field. The Longhorns addressed losing AD Mitchell and Xavier Worthy by landing three receivers in the portal, most notably Isaiah Bond, and signing five-star recruit Ryan Wingo, potentially an early impact player. Steve Sarkisian has questions about defensive line depth after losing Byron Murphy and T’Vondre Sweat, but this team is loaded and prepared for the SEC.

5. Notre Dame

Someone, please save me. I have Notre Dame in the top five! Your first reaction may be Notre Dame is a little high. It was mine, too. For a recruiting nerd, it really was hard to put the Irish in the top five when Marcus Freeman hasn’t reached his potential in talent accumulation. But when you take a deeper look at the Fighting Irish, you see a team that has everything in place to break through in 2024.Notre Dame hired OC Mike Denbrock back from LSU and added quarterback Riley Leonard through the portal. It addressed its receiver issues with Kris Mitchell and Beaux Collins. It should have one of the best defenses in the country with a ton of returning production. And its schedule sets up to where 10-2 would be a disappointment.

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6. Ole Miss

Lane Kiffin isn’t shy about voicing his concerns with the current state of college football — specifically the transfer portal. But as long as these are the rules, Kiffin is going to take advantage of them, and the 2024 Rebels are yet another case study of what going all-in on the portal can do for a roster. Quarterback Jaxson Dart returns from a team that won 11 games in 2023, and the Rebels added big-time receiver Juice Wells, running backs Logan Diggs and Henry Parrish Jr. (for his second tour in Oxford), edge rusher Princely Umanmielen, defensive tackle Walter Nolen and many others. Can you portal your way to a deep run in the new 12-team College Football Playoff?

7. Alabama

It may be jarring not to see Alabama in the top five of an offseason ranking, and that leads us to this important question: How much benefit of the doubt do the Crimson Tide deserve? Nick Saban is gone and a tidal wave of players departed the program after his retirement. Alabama responded by hiring Kalen DeBoer, who has won everywhere he’s gone, and the new staff added a bunch of big pieces in the transfer portal. The Crimson Tide brought offensive tackle Kadyn Proctor back from Iowa and also landed interior offensive lineman Parker Brailsford, defensive lineman LT Overton and safety Keon Sabb. This team is still ultra-talented. But is this Alabama program still what we’ve been accustomed to seeing? A lot falls on the shoulders of returning quarterback Jalen Milroe.

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8. Missouri

Is Eli Drinkwitz in the process of building something special at Mizzou? The Tigers are coming off an 11-win season, including a victory over Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl, and made some moves in the offseason that should make them really exciting in the fall. Yes, Mizzou had to replace defensive coordinator Blake Baker, who left for LSU, but it returns quarterback Brady Cook and receiver Luther Burden III and added five-star defensive lineman Williams Nwaneri in the 2024 recruiting class. This roster looks ready to compete in the new-look SEC (with a pretty favorable schedule).

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9. Michigan

Michigan is a hard team to rank. The Wolverines are the defending national champs, but they lost coach Jim Harbaugh, quarterback J.J. McCarthy and a ton of other big-time contributors. Under the leadership of first-year head coach Sherrone Moore, Michigan returns important pieces like running back Donovan Edwards, tight end Colston Loveland, cornerback Will Johnson and defensive linemen Mason Graham and Kenneth Grant. Michigan also has to figure out who its starting quarterback will be. Is this still a program that can make noise in the Playoff?

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10. Miami

Quarterback Cam Ward is in the picture now, which infuses some electricity, and Miami cleaned up in the portal. But acquiring talent has never been Mario Cristobal’s issue. Translating that talent into wins and not losing in mind-blowing ways — take a knee, Mario! — has to be the next step. We’re going into Year 3 in Coral Gables, and if this team drops five games again, it’s fair to question: Can anyone bring The U back?

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11. Penn State

Penn State’s offensive numbers were fine last year — the Lions actually led the Big Ten in scoring — but anybody who watched this team knows it struggled to make big plays against good teams. So James Franklin made a move and hired Andy Kotelnicki away from Kansas with the hopes that his creativity, combined with the continued development of quarterback Drew Allar, will result in an offensive renaissance in Happy Valley. The defense will also be transitioning to a new coordinator, with former Indiana coach Tom Allen taking over for Manny Diaz, now the head coach at Duke. Penn State might benefit from the expanded CFP, but we still have to ask the question: Can Franklin ever turn a good team into a great one? Can the Nittany Lions ever get over the hump?

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12. Florida State

Kiffin may want a word, but Mike Norvell is the Portal King. Norvell hasn’t just signed guys out of the portal — he’s received big-time, NFL Draft-level production out of those players. The problem with building through the portal is having to do it year over year and continue to get production like what he got out of Keon Coleman, Jared Verse, Jordan Travis and others. Florida State is now in the DJ Uiagalelei business and was active, yet again, in the portal. But can this program sustain success with this roster-building strategy?

13. Oklahoma

All the eyes are on Texas as the Longhorns head to the SEC. But are we overlooking Oklahoma? There is a reason, after all, that Gabriel is out in Oregon right now. Jackson Arnold is a stud in the making, and the Sooners got big receiver help in Purdue transfer Deion Burks. Both lines are also stacked with top-tier talent. Things haven’t gone perfectly for Brent Venables in Norman, but if things click, Oklahoma could surprise this year. It feels like the Sooners are flying under the radar a bit too much.

14. LSU

LSU had a Heisman-winning quarterback who was selected second in the NFL Draft as well as two first-round receivers — and lost three games last year. The defense was, simply put, horrid. Brian Kelly addressed that in hiring Baker away from Mizzou and it has one of the best defensive players in the country returning in Harold Perkins. Garrett Nussmeier is the new quarterback, and though LSU has a ton of talent to replace on offense, the main concern for this Tigers team is if it can stop anyone. There are a lot of new faces in the secondary. Can LSU put it together?

15. Tennessee

Many of the headlines in college football this offseason were about the NCAA’s probe into Tennessee’s program, specifically when it came to the recruitment of former five-star quarterback Nico Iamaleava and his NIL situation. Tennessee’s legal response to that probe was fascinating. But now it’s time to find out: Is Iamaleava worth it? He’s the new face of the Volunteers program, one that returns a big chunk of its defense from a year ago. Can Tennessee recapture some of the magic from 2022?

16. Kansas State

When Texas and Oklahoma left the Big 12, some felt like that was the end of appointment television for the conference. Nope. If you haven’t watched quarterback Avery Johnson play, you’re in for a real treat this year. Add in Colorado transfer and Kansas native Dylan Edwards at running back, and that’s one heck of a 1-2 punch. This is going to be one of the most entertaining teams to watch in 2024.

17. Texas A&M

After Jimbo Fisher’s firing and the departure of a lot of top-tier talent from that record-breaking 2022 recruiting class, everyone is just assuming Texas A&M is going back into rebuilding mode. But this program amassed so much talent during the Fisher era that it could be really dangerous if first-year head coach Mike Elko figures something out. Quarterback Conner Weigman is expected to thrive under new offensive coordinator Collin Klein and the Aggies should have one of the best defensive lines in the country. What do things look like in College Station under functional leadership?

18. Clemson

When you look at the other teams on this list, you see coaches who tried very hard to address holes on their roster through the portal. Clemson’s offense was difficult to watch at times last year yet the Tigers did nothing in the portal, which has been my ongoing critique of Dabo Swinney. Though Clemson should have one of the best defenses in the country, quarterback Cade Klubnik is going to have to turn into a magician to get this team back into the national championship discussion. It’s a shame that’s the case because we aren’t far removed from the Tigers being a national favorite year after year.

19. Arizona

Could you imagine this Arizona team if Jedd Fisch stayed another year in Tucson? Still, the Wildcats held onto quarterback Noah Fifita and receiver Tetairoa McMillan, which should form one of the best connections through the air in the sport. Arizona also held onto defensive back Tacario Davis despite his lengthy stay in the portal. This team, despite its personnel losses, could compete for a conference title in Year 1 in the Big 12 under new head coach Brent Brennan.

20. Iowa

This is a program that made the Big Ten title game a year ago despite having one of the worst offenses in the history of organized football. Kirk Ferentz was forced to fire offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz — his son. Iowa replaced him with former Western Michigan head coach Tim Lester, who should have quarterback Cade McNamara back healthy. Maybe he’ll come up with some ideas to get some first downs? This program has remained competitive because of Phil Parker’s defense. Parker returns some top-level talent, and this Iowa team should be exactly what we expect — a hard-nosed, defensive squad with (hopefully) a below-average offense. That has somehow got them to double-digit wins quite a bit during Ferentz’s tenure.

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21. NC State

The Wolfpack made a huge acquisition at quarterback in landing Coastal Carolina transfer Grayson McCall. They also added former Ohio State wide receiver Noah Rogers, a North Carolina native and one-time top-50 national prospect. It’ll be hard to overcome the loss of linebacker Payton Wilson, one of the best defensive players in the country a year ago, and there are plenty of personnel questions in the secondary. But Dave Doeren always has this team ready to go.

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22. Louisville

Jeff Brohm was brought to Louisville to make this program great again, and he got off to a heck of a start last year, leading the Cardinals to the ACC Championship Game. Louisville had one of the best portal classes of the cycle, headlined by quarterback Tyler Shough. The Cards also have a potential first-round pick on the defensive line in Ashton Gillotte. Don’t be shocked if you see this team right back in the ACC title game in December.

23. Kansas

What is most impressive about Lance Leipold’s build is that it isn’t a flash in the pan. Kansas is a well-coached football team that has increased the baseline talent level on the roster. Quarterback Jalon Daniels is back, and keeping him healthy has to be the prime objective. Add a (hopefully) healthy Daniels in the mix with running backs Devin Neal and Daniel Hishaw Jr., and the Jayhawks should be competitive in every Big 12 game in 2024.

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24. Oklahoma State

Say what you want about Oklahoma State, but head coach Mike Gundy has been a consistent winner. The Cowboys have one of the most explosive running backs in the country in Ollie Gordon II, and the offense also returns quarterback Alan Bowman (for his seventh season of college football!) and receivers Brennan Presley and Rashod Owens. In this new-look Big 12, the Cowboys could be in prime position to make some noise.

25. Utah

I was initially going to slide USC into the final slot, but it felt wrong. The Trojans have too many questions and haven’t shown the ability to stop anyone since Lincoln Riley took over. Utah is a far more appropriate selection, especially considering Cam Rising is back and the Utes have studs like running back Micah Bernard and tight end Brant Kuithe. Add in a playmaker such as wide receiver Dorian Singer, and veteran coach Kyle Whittingham has an opportunity to win 10-plus games in the program’s first season in the Big 12. Utah is the model of consistency and should once again be very good. Let’s hope Rising can stay healthy.

(Photos of TreVeyon Henderson, Avery Johnson, Jackson Dart: Adam Cairns, Jeremy Reper, Petre Thomas / USA Today)

Ari Wasserman’s post-spring Top 25: Is Notre Dame really a top-5 team? (10)Ari Wasserman’s post-spring Top 25: Is Notre Dame really a top-5 team? (11)

Ari Wasserman is a senior writer for The Athletic covering college football and recruiting nationally. He previously spent 10 years covering Ohio State for The Athletic and Cleveland.com, starting on the Buckeyes beat in 2009. Follow Ari on Twitter @AriWasserman

Ari Wasserman’s post-spring Top 25: Is Notre Dame really a top-5 team? (2024)

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