Ranking college football's 10 surprise teams in 2024, per Phil Steele

Phil Steele predicts the 10 college football teams that could make some waves in the 2024 national championship picture.
Don't be surprised if these college football teams turn some heads in the 2024 season.
Don't be surprised if these college football teams turn some heads in the 2024 season. / SCOTT CLAUSE/USA TODAY Network / USA

With the historic expansion of the College Football Playoff to 12 teams this season, the race for the national championship is about to open up in a way it never has been before.

And that means more teams will have a chance to play their way into contention for the title, provided they can finish the regular season as one of the 12 best teams in the rankings.

Related: College football teams we're excited to watch in 2024

And... Ranking college football's 10 likely first-time Playoff teams

What schools are in position to take advantage of the new situation?Preseason college football magazine publisher Phil Steele revealed his nominations for the 10 teams that can surprise fans can make some noise this season.

Ranking 10 Surprise College Football Teams in 2024

10. SMU

SMU Mustangs quarterback Preston Stone runs with the ball during a college football game.
Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Rhett Lashlee steps into Year 3 as the reigning American champion coming off an 11-win season heading into the expanded ACC. While few analysts project the Mustangs will contend for the league crown this year, but aside from dates against Louisville and Florida State, there are winnable games that could put this team in the AP rankings.

9. Virginia Tech

Virginia Tech Hokies quarterback Kyron Drones on a rushing attempt during a college football game in the ACC.
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Coming into his third year as head coach, Brent Pry has the best of both worlds, boasting both depth and continuity, with an expected 22 starters coming back, including the entire offense. That includes Kyron Drones, a potential breakout star at quarterback who helped lead an offensive revival late last season.

8. LSU

LSU Tigers wide receiver Kyren Lacy catches a pass during a college football game in the SEC.
Matt Pendleton-USA TODAY Sports

Major questions remain around LSU's shot at the SEC and the playoff given its lamentable performance on defense a year ago, plus the departure of Heisman quarterback Jayden Daniels, key receivers, and defensive personnel. Blake Baker steps in to revive the Tigers' defense while Garrett Nussmeier is more than capable of stabilizing the offense this fall.

7. Iowa

Iowa Hawkeyes tight end Luke Lachey celebrates a touchdown during a college football game in the Big Ten.
Bryon Houlgrave/The Register / USA TODAY

Kirk Ferentz returns another strong defensive core at all levels to repeat last year's success on that side of the ball, but there is still the question of replacing corner Cooper DeJean. After ranking last nationally in offense a year ago, Tim Lester steps in with an eye towards moving the ball downfield with Cade McNamara returning from injury, as is tight end Luke Lachey.

6. Kansas State

Kansas State quarterback Avery Johnson on a rushing attempt during a college football game in the Big 12.
Annie Rice/Avalanche-Journal / USA TODAY

The expanded Big 12 looks very competitive at the top this fall, with several credible contenders, among them a Wildcats team that, although it loses veteran quarterback Will Howard, also returns Avery Johnson. He accounted for 4 total TDs in the bowl game. Incoming transfer back Dylan Edwards should pair well with returner DJ Giddens.

5. Miami

Miami Hurricanes wide receiver Xavier Restrepo catches a pass during a college football game in the ACC.
Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

Few college football teams did as much important work in the transfer portal as the Hurricanes, who added dynamic quarterback Cameron Ward, veteran tailback Damien Martinez, and wide receiver Sam Brown, among key defensive acquisitions. But that firepower taking The U anywhere special depends on how well Mario Cristobal can repair the secondary.

4. Oklahoma State

Oklahoma State Cowboys quarterback Alan Bowman celebrates a touchdown during a college football game in the Big 12.

Somewhat overlooked in the new Big 12, the Cowboys boast an expected 20 returning starters all over the field. And that includes an offense that gets star rusher Ollie Gordon back after leading college football in rushing last season. And he's working behind a solid line and in tandem with veteran quarterback Alan Bowman making his return.

3. Florida State

Florida State Seminoles wide receiver Malik Benson runs out of the end zone during a college football game in the ACC.
Melina Myers-USA TODAY Sports

Branding the reigning ACC champs as a surprise team might itself be a surprise, but the Seminoles oversaw a talent exodus at key positions this offseason. Not to worry, though: Mike Norvell worked the transfer portal hard, bringing on quarterback DJ Uiagalelei, wideouts Jalen Brown and Malik Benson, and edge rusher Marvin Jones, Jr. from Georgia, among others. They should keep Florida State in the thick of the ACC again.

2. Clemson

Clemson Tigers running back Phil Mafah on a rushing attempt during a college football game in the ACC.
Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

Defense should once again be the strength of Clemson's roster, even when accounting for personnel losses in the secondary. But the Tigers' recent playoff absence largely stems from the offense lacking big-play threats, especially at receiver. Until that gets fixed, Garrett Riley's offense won't be able to take that great leap forward, even with a budding star like Cade Klubnik in at quarterback.

1. Utah

Utah Utes quarterback Cameron Rising escapes the pocket during a college football game in the Big 12.
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

One of college football's decisive home-field advantages, another physical defensive rotation, the return of quarterback Cameron Rising and tight end Brant Kuithe, the addition of transfer wideout Dorian Singer, and a competitive Big 12 make the Utes a contender for the expanded playoff.

More: College football games in 2024 we're looking forward to


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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.