College football realignment 2024: First-year conference title contenders

These college football teams have the best chance to make a run at their conferences after a historic 2024 realignment shift becomes official.
As college football realignment becomes official ahead of the 2024 season, let's predict what teams have a chance to win their new conferences this year.
As college football realignment becomes official ahead of the 2024 season, let's predict what teams have a chance to win their new conferences this year. / Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The first day of July kicked off a historic round of college football conference realignment that will forever change the sport's national map.

Expansion is set to become official for this season, threatening old rivalries, restoring old ones, and creating a new-look schedule for teams to grapple with as they compete for the expanded playoff.

More: What CFB teams will jump, slump after 2024 realignment

What does it all mean for teams and conferences this fall? Usually, a period of adjustment for new members as they look to fit in, and some growing pains as schools find their way.

But for a lucky few, changing conferences could spell a perfect opportunity to make a run at the title in their new leagues. What first-year schools are in position to win right now?

College Football Realignment 2024: First-Year Conference Title Contenders

Big 12: Utah

While the Utes may be new to the Big 12 after their move from the Pac-12, they could come into this season armed with arguably the single most talented roster in the conference.

That is, if they can avoid the injuries that plagued the team a year ago.

On that front, quarterback Cameron Rising is slated to return under center after missing all of last season with a knee injury. As is star tight end Brant Kuithe. Running back Micah Bernard missed 11 games a year ago, but should return. And wide receiver Dorian Singer is a key transfer pickup.

Despite injuries on defense, Utah allowed just over 19 points per game, and while the unit loses star Jonah Elliss to the NFL, it returns an expected eight other starters and made quality transfer gains in the secondary, building up to what should be another dominant year.

Utah's schedule looks very winnable, avoiding Kansas State and Kansas, but there's an early game at Oklahoma State that can set the tone for the whole rest of the season.

Related: Predicting college football's conference champions

Big 12: Arizona

Coming off a 10-win season, the Wildcats suffered a major loss as head coach Jedd Fisch left the program he helped rebuild and took the Washington job after Kalen DeBoer's departure.

But the program retained key personnel on the field who elected not to follow their coach and stick around to help Brent Brennan maintain those gains Arizona made in the last year.

Among them are two offensive dynamos: quarterback Noah Fifita, who set a school record with 72.4 percent completion while adding 25 TDs and just 6 INTs; and wide receiver Tetairoa McMillan, who stacked up 1,402 yards off 90 grabs and scored 10 times.

Defensively, the Wildcats lost three linemen, but retained leading tackler Jacob Manu at linebacker and back seven assets like safety Dalton Johnson and Tacario Davis in the corner.

Arizona's schedule presents big tests early on: going to Kansas State on Sept. 13 and then to Utah on Sept. 28 following the bye week. A date at BYU could be a challenge, and the Wildcats go to TCU in late November.

With all the competition expected to take place in the expanded Big 12, there could be plenty of opportunity for Arizona to make a run at the conference title.

Big Ten: Oregon

Dan Lanning has built a recruiting colossus and put his program in the thick of the Big Ten title chase, thanks in part to returning skill on both sides of the ball and some top-flight transfer acquisitions.

Tez Johnson, Gary Bryant, and Traeshon Holden form the core of arguably college football's best wide receiver rotation, and the unit added former 5-star Evan Stewart from Texas A&M.

Jordan James steps into the RB1 role after posting over 7 yards per carry and scoring 15 touchdowns a year ago, and he's working behind another strong, aggressive line.

To replace Bo Nix at quarterback, the Ducks added veteran Dillon Gabriel, a dual-threat piece who has every potential to maintain Oregon's dominance on offense. Last year, this attack posted over 531 yards per game and scored over 44 points on average.

Oregon faces a robust early schedule, hosting Group of Five contender Boise State and goes to Oregon State after that, followed by a trip to UCLA after the bye week.

Ohio State comes to Autzen on Oct. 12 and the Ducks visit Michigan on Nov. 2 with a trip to Wisconsin coming two weeks after that.

Boasting the kind of perimeter speed Oregon does in the secondary and at receiver, Big Ten defenses could be in store for a real challenge stopping this team now and in the future.

SEC: Texas

After going 13-12 in his first two years, Steve Sarkisian took the giant leap forward he and the Longhorns needed in the year before making the move to the SEC.

A road win against Alabama served as a statement to future conference rivals, as did a Big 12 title, and the school's College Football Playoff debut.

Despite losing four key offensive skill threats, the Longhorns return quarterback Quinn Ewers and scored major transfer gains at wide receiver like Matthew Golden, Isaiah Bond, and Silas Bolden.

Four starters are back on the line, as are backs CJ Baxter and Jaydon Blue in tandem with tight ends Gunnar Helm and Juan Davis.

One area to watch on the roster is up front defensively. Playing strong at the line is always key to success in the SEC, and Texas lost the pieces that helped it rank No. 2 against the run a year ago.

Outland Trophy winner T'Vondre Sweat is gone, as is Big 12 Defensive Lineman of the Year Byron Murphy, and so is All-Big 12 linebacker Jaylan Ford.

One important addition, however, is Trey Moore, the ex-UTSA edge rusher who had 14 sacks last season. He should pair well with 'backer Anthony Hill, Jr., the team's second-leading tackler in '23.

Texas gets a date at defending national champion Michigan in Week 2, but the Wolverines are undergoing a major rebuild (or reload, depending on your view), and a good UTSA team comes to the Forty Acres the week after.

The Red River Shootout on Oct. 12 kicks off a tough stretch with a monster home date against Georgia coming the week after. Florida visits three weeks later, followed by a trip to Arkansas, a home game against Kentucky, and it all ends on the road at rival Texas A&M.

The talent is there, and so are some high-quality matchups that, should the Longhorns win, would help propel the team into SEC contention, and force the selection committee to take notice.

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James Parks

JAMES PARKS

James Parks is the founder and publisher of College Football HQ. He previously covered football for 247Sports and CBS Interactive. College Football HQ joined the Sports Illustrated Fannation Network in 2022.