The biggest strengths for college football's top 25 teams

Thursday, February 29, 2024

Last week, we spelled out the biggest spring questions for every team in our Way-Too-Early Top 25. Now, we're looking on the bright side by analyzing their biggest strengths. Surprise: There are some big expectations for new and returning quarterbacks. But there are also running backs, receivers and defensive players who we expect to excel in the fall.

These are the biggest strengths for each team, according to our reporters.

1. Georgia Bulldogs

Biggest strength: Linebackers

Most teams would take a step back after losing an All-SEC linebacker to a conference rival via the transfer portal and one of its top young linebackers to his father's alma mater. But Georgia's linebacker corps might still be the best in the FBS, even after Jamon Dumas-Johnson transferred to Kentucky and Marvin Jones Jr. left for Florida State. Coach Kirby Smart has stacked up four- and five-star linebackers like cord wood over the past few seasons. Senior Smael Mondon Jr., the No. 1 athlete in the Class of 2021 according to ESPN Recruiting, has grown into a dominant inside linebacker. Sophomores C.J. Allen and Raylen Wilson were the No. 2 recruits at inside linebacker and outside linebacker in the Class of 2023, respectively. Junior Jalon Walker was the No. 3 outside linebacker in 2022. The Bulldogs just added the No. 1 inside linebacker (Justin Williams) and No. 1 outside linebacker (Chris Cole) in their most recent recruiting class. While Georgia might no longer have a dominant superstar on its defensive front like Jalen Carter or Jordan Davis, it has plenty of star power behind it. --Mark Schlabach

2. Ohio State Buckeyes

Biggest strength: Running backs

When running back TreVeyon Henderson decided to return for his senior season, that was already a boon for the Buckeyes. But then Mississippi running back Quinshon Judkins made his move to Columbus official on the night Michigan won the CFP national title against Washington. Henderson (926 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns in 2023) and Judkins (2,725 rushing yards and 31 touchdowns in two years with the Rebels) may be the best running back duo in the country and will make life easier as quarterbackWill Howard makes the transition from Kansas State. -- Blake Baumgartner

3. Oregon Ducks

Biggest strength: Edge rushers

Oregon clearly has two elite options at quarterback in Dillon Gabriel and Dante Moore, but where they are perhaps even stronger is at the edge rusher position. Junior Jordan Burch was a standout last season, tallying at least three sacks for the second year in a row. Burch's decision to return to Eugene is a boon for the Ducks, while freshman outside linebacker Teitum Tuioti (19 solo tackles, two sacks) as well as defensive end Matayo Uiagalelei (two sacks) head into their sophomore seasons having shown plenty of potential to make an even bigger impact in 2024. -- Paolo Uggetti

4. Texas Longhorns

Biggest strength: Offensive line

Four starters return --Jake Majors, Hayden Conner, Kelvin Banks Jr., and DJ Campbell-- from an O-line unit that was a semifinalist for the Joe Moore Award last year as the country's best. Only Christian Jones departs, but he's expected to be replaced by 6-foot-5, 369-pound junior Cameron Williams, who played in nine games last year with one start. -- Dave Wilson

5. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Biggest strength: Secondary

There's a good case to be made that Notre Dame enters 2024 with the nation's best secondary. Safety Xavier Watts returns after an All-America season in which he picked off seven passes. He'll be surrounded by veteran corner Benjamin Morrison and an intriguing transfer from Northwestern, Rod Heard II, whose versatility should allow him to fit anywhere there's a need. Arizona State transfer Jordan Clark and junior Jaden Mickey have ample upside, too. -- David Hale

6. Ole Miss Rebels

Biggest strength: High-scoring offense

The Rebels have never had problems scoring points under Lane Kiffin, and that again shouldn't be an issue in 2024. In all four of his seasons in Oxford, Kiffin's offenses have averaged more than 33 points per game. This will be Jaxson Dart's third season as Ole Miss' starting quarterback, and the combination of experience and big-play ability at the quarterback position is always a good place to start. Dart's receiving corps, led by wideout Tre Harris and tight end Caden Prieskorn, should be one of the best in the country. The Rebels also added size and experience to their offensive line with four transfers, including Diego Pounds, who was North Carolina's left tackle last season.-- Chris Low

7. Missouri Tigers

Biggest strength: QB-receiver combo

The quarterback-receiver combo of Brady Cook to Luther Burden III has a chance to be as productive as any pass-catch duo in the nation. Cook returns as a senior after a breakthrough season a year ago that saw him pass for 3,317 yards, 21 touchdowns and six interceptions. He'll do his best to get the ball to Burden as much as possible. Now a junior, Burden was second in the SEC last season with 86 receptions and ranked third nationally with 725 yards after the catch. Cook and Burden connected for six passing plays of 40 yards or longer in 2023. --Low

8. Penn State Nittany Lions

Biggest strength: Running game

The Nittany Lions' offense rushed for 184.8 yards per game last fall, which ranked 28th. Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen will be back for their junior seasons, and there's little reason to believe the running game won't provide similar results this season. Allen ended up fifth in the Big Ten with 902 rushing yards while Singleton's eight touchdowns led the team and was tied for fourth in the league. The Big Ten's second-best total offense (399.8 YPG) from a year ago rode its ground game to success. The script likely won't change in 2024. --Baumgartner

9. Alabama Crimson Tide

Biggest strength: New-look offense

New coach Kalen DeBoer has one of the brightest offensive minds in college football. Even though there will be a lot that's new surrounding the program, what won't be new is DeBoer's ability to get his quarterback to play at a high level. He's got a talented one to work with in Jalen Milroe, who was one of the most improved players in college football last season and finished No. 6 overall in the Heisman Trophy voting. Milroe accounted for 35 touchdowns (23 passing and 12 rushing) last season and ranked fifth nationally in passer rating (172.1). -- Low

10. Utah Utes

Biggest strength: Quarterback

Perhaps no team in the country will benefit more from a returning quarterback than the Utes will when they finally see Cam Rising suit up for their season opener. Rising's recovery from knee surgery forced him to miss last season and held back Utah's entire campaign. After two seasons where he threw for over 5,500 yards and 46 touchdowns, Rising's production -- as well as his leadership -- should re-energize an offense that struggled to look comfortable, let alone be productive, in his absence. -- Uggetti

11. Arizona Wildcats

Biggest strength: Quarterback

After Brent Brennan was hired to be the Wildcats' head coach in the wake of Jedd Fisch's departure, his main priority was clear: Keep Noah Fifita in Tucson. Brennan has done just that as Fifita reaffirmed his commitment to Arizona after a breakout, 2,869-yard, 25-touchdown freshman campaign that has him positioned as a sleeper Heisman candidate heading into his second year. The Wildcats' offense -- and their whole team, really -- will go as far as Fifita takes them in the Big 12. The 5-foot-11 quarterback from Huntington Beach, California, started only nine games last season, so his first full season as QB1 could be quite the encore. -- Uggetti

12. LSU Tigers

Biggest strength: Offensive line

LSU is going to have a new look on offense in 2024 with Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jayden Daniels and star receivers Malik Nabers and Brian Thomas Jr. departing for the NFL. One area that won't change for the most part, however, is LSU's offensive line, which was a finalist for the Joe Moore Award as the top unit in the FBS last season. The Tigers have the best duo of offensive tackles in Will Campbell and Emery Jones. Guards Garrett Dellinger and Miles Frazier also opted to come back for one more season, despite having NFL draft grades that probably would have gotten them selected. The only starter who left was center Charles Turner. Collectively, the four returning starters have 83 career starts between them, and each of them has logged more than 700 career snaps. DJ Chester might be the top candidate to replace Turner, but incoming freshman Coen Echols might also get a look. New quarterback Garrett Nussmeier has some massive shoes to fill, but at least he knows he'll have great protection. --Schlabach

13. Michigan Wolverines

Biggest strength: Defense

The Wolverines' defense suffocated the opposition all year long en route to posting a 15-0 record, winning the program's first undisputed national championship since 1948. Michigan led the country in total defense (247.0 YPG) and scoring defense (10.4 PPG). New defensive coordinator Wink Martindale comes from the New York Giants and will be leading a rebuilt defensive coaching staff. The schedule is a bear (home games against Texas, USC and Oregon while visiting both Washington and Ohio State), so the defense will need to maintain the standard that has been set. -- Baumgartner

14. Oklahoma Sooners

Biggest strength: Wide receiver

Yes, the Sooners lose the ultimate gamer in Drake Stoops, who had 84 catches for 962 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. But nearly every other major contributor is back. Jalil Farooq caught 45 passes for 694 yards. Nic Anderson showed off big-play skill with 798 yards and 10 TDs on just 38 catches. Andrel Anthony had 27 grabs for 429 yards before suffering a season-ending knee injury in early October. Add in Purdue transfer Deion Burks, one of the most coveted receivers in the portal, and there is a ton to work with for new OC Seth Littrell and starting QB Jackson Arnold. -- Wilson

15. Florida State Seminoles

Biggest strength: Depth on defense

Although Florida State loses three key players from its defensive front, this is a unit that will continue to be a strength for the Seminoles. Defensive linemenPat Payton and Joshua Farmer return, and Darrell Jackson finally eligible to play for Florida State after sitting out last season as a two-time transfer. Coaches have raved about Jackson since his arrival, and at 6-5 and 334 pounds, he will be tough to handle inside. Add in transfers Sione Lolohea, Marvin Jones Jr., Tomiwa Durojaiye and Grady Kelly and there is a reason defensive coordinator Adam Fuller feels good about not only the talent but the depth this group has headed into the spring. -- Andrea Adelson

16. Tennessee Volunteers

Biggest strength: Defensive line

Tennessee kept veteran defensive line coach Rodney Garner from returning to his alma mater (Auburn) this offseason, which was a big win. He has a strong record of producing elite defensive linemen, and the returning talent across the defensive front should be a tone-setter for the Vols in 2024. James Pearce Jr. is back for his junior season after tying for the SEC lead with 10 sacks last season. Pearce is poised to be one of the top edge rushers taken in the 2025 NFL draft. Starting defensive tackles Omari Thomas and Omarr Norman-Lott are also back. -- Low

17. Oklahoma State Cowboys

Biggest strength: Running back

Every football coach in America will tell you that one of the most demoralizing things an opposing team can do is run the football at will. Doak award winner Ollie Gordon II is one of the best in the country at doing so. He rushed for 1,732 yards and 21 touchdowns last season, and that was after not getting many touches in Oklahoma State's first three games against the lighter portion of their schedule. There's a great chance he ends up in New York for the Heisman ceremony by the end of the season. -- Harry Lyles Jr.

18. NC State Wolfpack

Biggest strength: Offensive line

The NC State offensive line looks like it could be among the ACC's best in 2024. Five members of the two-deep are fifth-year players, led by returning starters tackle Anthony Belton and Anthony Carter Jr. on the left side, along with right guard Timothy McKay. Notre Dame transfer Zeke Correll should be a terrific fit in the middle of the line, and Jacarrius Peak has a chance to become a star at right tackle after allowing just three pressures (and no sacks) on 406 snaps at the position last year. -- Hale

19. Clemson Tigers

Biggest strength: Defensive line

The defensive line has long been Clemson's bread and butter, and it should be again in 2024. While some of the unit's veterans -- Xavier Thomas, Tyler Davis, Ruke Orhorhoro -- have moved on, there's ample young talent ready to take over. Peter Woods exploded onto the scene as arguably the nation's best freshman interior lineman last year, and his ceiling is incredibly high. T.J. Parker racked up 12.5 tackles for loss off the edge as a freshman last season, too. A host of veterans stepping into bigger roles, led by Cade Denhoff and Payton Page, add to the depth. This should, once again, be among the ACC's best fronts. -- Hale

20. Kansas State Wildcats

Biggest strength: Running game

Kansas State's personnel on offense is going to look very different in 2024, with essentially a new offensive line and quarterback Will Howard gone to Ohio State. But QBAvery Johnson is a great athlete (he managed almost 300 yards and seven touchdowns on 52 carries in eight appearances in 2023), and the Wildcats return running back DJ Giddens, who rushed for 1,226 yards and 10 touchdowns. Giddens is their best player on that side of the football. It feels like there's a lot of potential on the ground between those two, as long as this new offensive line works. -- Lyles

21. Louisville Cardinals

Biggest strength: Ashton Gillotte

Though the Cards lost some players along the defensive line, they return their best overall player here in Ashton Gillotte, who will be a preseason favorite to win ACC Defensive Player of the Year. Gillotte had 11 sacks and 14.5 tackles for last season and has steadily improved every year he has been at Louisville. Dez Tell, Jermayne Lole, Ramon Puryear and Mason Reiger also return, and the Cards added Tyler Baron, Harvard transfer Thor Griffith (won't be there until the summer) and FIU transfer Jordan Guerad. Rebuilding the depth this group had last season will be a top priority. -- Adelson

22. Kansas Jayhawks

Biggest strength: Quarterback

There are certainly concerns about Jalon Daniels' ability to stay healthy, given that he missed about half of his breakout 2022 season with a shoulder injury, and then a majority of the 2023 season due to back issues. However, when Daniels has been on the field, he's been one of the most dynamic players in college football. In his nine-game sample from 2022 when he was a Heisman contender, Daniels completed 66 percent of his passes for 2,014 yards with 18 touchdowns against four interceptions. In three games in 2023, he completed 75 percent for 705 yards, five touchdowns and just one interception. He will be must-see once again in 2024. -- Lyles

23. Kentucky Wildcats

Biggest strength: Defensive front

If the Wildcats are going to turn the corner under coach Mark Stoops, it's going to start with their defensive front seven. Six starters are back on the defensive line and at linebacker, and Stoops snagged Jamon Dumas-Johnson to fill the hole at linebacker. Tackle Deone Walker is a physical mismatch for most opponents and is one of the most disruptive interior linemen in the FBS. The 6-foot-6, 348-pound junior is utilized in a lot of different ways in Kentucky's system. Last season, he had 55 tackles, 12 tackles for loss and 7 sacks. He had 48 quarterback pressures, which led all defensive tackles in 2023, according to Pro Football Focus. He's a potential top-10 pick in the 2025 NFL draft because of his size, strength and athleticism. Tackles Josaih Hayes and Keeshawn Silver are big and experienced, as well. Last season, Kentucky allowed just 3.27 yards per rushing attempt, which ranked second in the SEC. It had 36 sacks, including nine in its 38-35 loss to Clemson in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl. If UK can fix some things in the secondary, it might have one of the better defenses in the SEC. -- Schlabach

24. Miami Hurricanes

Biggest strength: Offense

On paper, the answer to Miami's offensive woes should be transfer quarterback Cam Ward, whose late signing after pulling his name from the NFL draft gave the Hurricanes a huge boost. This is a program that struggled to move the ball consistently through the air the past two seasons and improving that is a major area of emphasis this spring. But there are some questions attached to this answer. Spring will be our first chance to see how Ward fits into the offensive system under Shannon Dawson. It will also be our first chance to see how his chemistry and rhythm is developing with Miami's receivers. Two standouts return in Xavier Restrepo and Jacolby George. How Ward helps the others come along will be an area to watch. The good news for Ward and the offense is the running back room should be a major strength with Henry Parrish Jr. and Mark Fletcher Jr. returning, alongside the continued development of the offensive line. -- Adelson

25. Texas A&M Aggies

Biggest strength: Quarterback

The Aggies have been trying to find the right man for the job since the departure of Kellen Mond in 2020, and Jimbo Fisher's complex offense -- combined with a struggling offensive line -- did them no favors. But the upside of all those quarterbacks getting thrown into the fire due to injuries is that there's now a solid QB room full of confidence. Starter Conner Weigman threw for 979 yards, eight TDs and two INTs in four starts with a 68.9 completion percentage. Unheralded Fresno State transfer Jaylen Henderson got the job after an injury to backup Max Johnson, and Henderson completed 67.9 percent for 715 yards and six TDs to 2 INTs. When Henderson was hurt on the first play of the Texas Bowl against Oklahoma State, true freshman Marcel Reed completed 20 of 33 passes for 361 yards and added a 20-yard TD run. New offensive coordinator Collin Klein molded Will Howard and Avery Johnson before departing for College Station and Weigman could be the best Aggies quarterback since Johnny Manziel if he lives up to his potential. -- Wilson