College football 2024: Who has the most to prove next season?

Friday, February 16, 2024

Next season, the competitive landscape of college football will undergo some massive shifts. More teams than ever will have a shot to make a playoff appearance, but they'll also be dealing with greater in-conference competition. Everybody in the sport will have more opportunities to look good -- and bad.

So, we asked our staffers which coaches and players -- transfers and non-transfers -- will have the most to prove during the surely chaotic upcoming season. Here's what they had to say.

What coach has the most to prove in 2024?

Kalen DeBoer, Alabama

DeBoer just took Washington to the national title game in only his second year -- two seasons after the team went 4-8 -- so this designation feels a bit unfair, but so are Alabama's expectations after Nick Saban's historic tenure. If the College Football Playoff remained at four teams, DeBoer could miss them during a transition year and be given somewhat of a pass. But Alabama expects to be part of the 12-team field every year, and if DeBoer falls short, the pressure and comparisons to Saban will reach nauseating levels in Tuscaloosa. --Adam Rittenberg

James Franklin, Penn State

Franklin's tenure in State College has featured a lot of winning. He picked up where Bill O'Brien left off in compiling four 11-win seasons. However, in the Nittany Lions' most prominent games under Franklin, there hasn't been a lot of winning. With the College Football Playoff expanding from four to 12, Penn State has a great opportunity to break through with both Michigan and Oregon not on the schedule and Ohio State coming to Beaver Stadium in 2024. It just needs to find a way to close out against the better teams on the schedule. -- Blake Baumgartner

Mack Brown, North Carolina

Brown is in the Hall of Fame, is one of just three active coaches with a national championship and has taken UNC to five straight bowl games, something the program hadn't done since Brown's last tenure there in the late 1990s, so perhaps he doesn't really have all that much to prove. But when Brown returned to UNC in 2019, it was with the intent to take the Heels from a regular bowl team to a regular playoff contender. At times, he's seemed close, but despite having two extremely talented quarterbacks in Sam Howell and Drake Maye, UNC still seems stuck on the margins. Brown brought in Geoff Collins this offseason as his third defensive coordinator, and he'll turn to either veteran Max Johnson or sophomore Conner Harrell to replace Maye. Brown will be 73 when the season kicks off, and while age doesn't seem to be slowing him down, the window to transform UNC into a real playoff threat won't be open forever, and there's certainly those who'll wonder if he already missed his best chance with Maye. -- David Hale

Billy Napier, Florida

In two years with the Gators, Napier is 11-14 and has not come close to beating rival Georgia, which means Florida hasn't come close to challenging for the SEC East title. How much longer can that go on? Napier enters a crucial Year 3 with perhaps the most difficult schedule in the country, opening against rival Miami while also having to play Tennessee, Georgia, Texas A&M, LSU, Ole Miss and Texas in the SEC. He has to prove the program is headed in the right direction to have any shot at convincing the fan base he's the right coach for the job. --Andrea Adelson

Lincoln Riley, USC

I was going to say Chip Kelly at UCLA, but that all changed when Kelly bolted Westwood to call offensive plays at Ohio State for another guy who has some heat on him, Ryan Day. So I'll stay on the West Coast with Riley, who enters his third season at USC still looking for a College Football Playoff appearance and/or conference title. He's also facing life without former Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Caleb Williams and brought in a new defensive coordinator, D'Anton Lynn, to replace Alex Grinch after the Trojans finished 121st nationally in scoring defense (34.4 points per game) in 2023. It's premature to suggest Riley is on the cusp of losing his job after just two seasons at USC. But coming off a disappointing 8-5 finish and the playoff expanding to 12 teams in 2024, he needs to make a strong comeback in the new-look Big Ten, or the restlessness will ratchet up considerably in Year 4. --Chris Low

Ryan Day, Ohio State

Few schools have signed a more high-upside set of transfers (Alabama safety Caleb Downs, Ole Miss running back Quinshon Judkins, quarterbacks Will Howard for the present and Julian Sayin for the future) than Ohio State. After coming up just short of their goals the past couple of years, Day and the Buckeyes appear to be going all-in this year as Michigan undergoes massive turnover. The odds of success are high, but the perils of another year of missed expectations could be awfully damning. --Bill Connelly

What player has the most to prove in 2024?

Wisconsin QB Tyler Van Dyke

When Van Dyke won ACC Rookie of the Year honors in 2021 at Miami, the expectation was that he would be long gone to the NFL by now. But after two sometimes solid, sometimes choppy seasons with different coordinators under coach Mario Cristobal, Van Dyke entered the portal and sought a fresh start. He lands at Wisconsin, which enters Year 2 of its Air Raid-style offense under coordinator Phil Longo after finishing 91st nationally in scoring and 69th in passing last season. If Van Dyke can be the quarterback who makes the Air Raid go in Madison, he will not only boost his NFL chances, but bring Wisconsin closer to the 12-team CFP mix. -- Rittenberg

Clemson QB Cade Klubnik

Fairly or not, DJ Uiagalelei carried the bulk of the blame for Clemson's playoff absences in 2021 and 2022, so Tigers fans were eager to turn the page to Klubnik last season. The results, however, looked a lot more like the DJU era than the Trevor Lawrence era. Klubnik finished the season completing 64% of his throws with 19 TDs and nine interceptions to go with a Total QBR of 55, good for 11th out of 12 qualified ACC QBs. He flashed potential at times, but made frustrating decisions in losses to Duke, Florida State and NC State that overshadowed the intermittent success. Dabo Swinney brought in Matt Luke to rebuild the O-line, and Klubnik is entering his second year with offensive coordinator Garrett Riley. The clock feels like it's ticking on Klubnik's chances to prove he's Clemson's next star quarterback -- and it may be ticking on the Tigers' chances to return to the playoff, too. -- Hale

Tennessee QB Nico Iamaleava

The good news for Iamaleava is that he certainly appears to have all the tools to be a difference-maker at quarterback and accounted for four touchdowns in his first start last season in Tennessee's 35-0 victory over Iowa in the Citrus Bowl. But from the time Iamaleava signed with the Vols, he's been under a bright spotlight -- from the reported $8 million NIL deal he signed, to being hailed as the quarterback that would vault the Vols back into championship contention, to being at the center of the recent NCAA investigation into Tennessee's program. No player since Peyton Manning has walked onto Tennessee's campus with this much pressure to perform at an elite level. -- Low

Oregon QB Dillon Gabriel

Expectations are going to be sky-high for the Ducks, who are still smarting about last season's two losses to Washington and their College Football Playoff near miss. Oregon will bring a potent offense (531.4 YPG in 2023, second in the FBS) as it moves to the Big Ten. The faithful out in Eugene will be pinning their collective hopes on Gabriel, who led the Big 12 in passing yards (3,660) and touchdowns (30) last year. -- Baumgartner

LSU OLB Harold Perkins Jr.

One of the biggest revelations of 2022 was one of the biggest disappointments of 2023, relatively speaking. After recording 13.5 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks and 4 forced fumbles in only 498 snaps as a freshman, Perkins produced 15, 5.5 and three, respectively, in 746 snaps last season. Good? Obviously. But not quite as transcendent. If he rediscovers the per-snap dominance that he had in 2022 under aggressive new coordinator Blake Baker, that alone could transform LSU's defense. --Connelly

Which transfer has the most to prove in 2024?

Ohio State QB Will Howard

No national contending team made a more aggressive offseason personnel push than Ohio State, which will seek its first CFP championship in a decade. Elite quarterback play has been the standard for most of Day's tenure, though, and Howard must reach that level after a four-year run at Kansas State that included a Big 12 title and good production both as a passer and a runner, but also two seasons with 10 interceptions. Howard will have the nation's best running back tandem (TreVeyon Henderson and Quinshon Judkins) and a gifted wide receiver group at his disposal. He doesn't have to be the sole reason why Ohio State wins a national title, but he can't be the reason the Buckeyes fall short, either. -- Rittenberg

This is going to be quite the thought experiment. I found myself thinking, "Man, if Ohio State just had a top-20 level quarterback, they'd be the best team in the country with this defense" multiple times in 2023, and in Howard it has inked the quarterback who ranked 22nd in Total QBR last season, right on that top-20 borderline. He's not C.J. Stroud, but he might be good enough, especially in such a transition year for quarterbacks overall. -- Connelly

Ole Miss DT Walter Nolen

Nolen was the No. 1 recruit in the country when he signed with Texas A&M to headline the Aggies' top-ranked recruiting class in 2022. He showed flashes of being an All-SEC performer with 11 tackles for loss and five sacks in his first two seasons in the SEC. The key now is being that kind of player on every down, as Ole Miss will look to Nolen to be an enforcer in its defensive line on what should be Lane Kiffin's most talented defense yet in Oxford. The 6-4, 295-pound Nolen was one of the most coveted players in the 2023 transfer portal. If he plays to that level and becomes a more consistent player -- along with some of the other key transfers Ole Miss brought in -- the Rebels should be right in the middle of the 2024 playoff chase. -- Low

Notre Dame QB Riley Leonard

All eyes are going to be on the latest ACC transfer signal-caller to come through South Bend. That's just the way it is. Leonard showed glimpses of what he could do when healthy during the last two seasons at Duke (2,967 passing yards and 20 touchdowns for a nine-win Blue Devils' team in 2022). After playing in only seven games because of injury last season, he now gets the opportunity to shine on a far bigger stage for perhaps the sport's biggest brand. A third 10-win campaign in four years and a potential return to the CFP is well within reach if Leonard can effectively pilot the offense for Marcus Freeman. -- Baumgartner

Florida State QB DJ Uiagalelei

At the risk of turning this into a pro-ACC quarterback fest, we have been waiting on Uiagalelei to play like an elite quarterback since his arrival at Clemson in 2020. That has not quite happened yet. Uiagalelei transferred to Oregon State for the 2023 season after a constant barrage of criticism during his two years as a starter with the Tigers. He played better in his one season with the Beavers, but now finds himself joining the reigning ACC champions with the belief he can put it all together. Uiagalelei has never thrown for 3,000 yards or more than 22 touchdowns in three years as a starter. "He's been in some tough situations," coach Mike Norvell said. "I don't get too caught up on what other people's perceptions are at quarterback, because we just lived it. Plenty of people didn't perceive Jordan Travis to be a great quarterback, and I'm really glad that I got the opportunity to show that he was. I'm excited to work with him, excited about what he brings, and obviously where that can go." -- Andrea Adelson

Miami QB Cam Ward

A number of coaches viewed Ward as the crown jewel of this year's quarterback class. Ward toyed with entering the NFL draft -- even announcing his intent to do so at one point -- but instead landed at Miami. It could be a match made in heaven. Mario Cristobal has been stockpiling talent in Coral Gables, and he believes this Canes team is close to fulfilling its potential. On the other hand, Miami's QB play in two years under Cristobal has been mediocre at best, with many of Tyler Van Dyke's biggest miscues playing directly into inexplicable Miami losses. Can Ward be the long-awaited answer for Miami? His passer rating and Total QBR last year both trailed Van Dyke's, so there's a lot of big assumptions in play here. The upside is awfully high though, and a career year from Ward could be the missing ingredient that finally puts Miami over the top. Since joining the ACC, Miami has never had a first-team all-conference quarterback. -- Hale