March 1, 2024

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Stuart Mandel's top 25 college football players so early for the 2024-25 season

Stuart Mandel's top 25 college football players so early for the 2024-25 season

While Michigan and Washington pursued a national championship, most of the sport has spent the past five weeks reshaping its rosters for 2024. My preliminary rankings only assess who will come and go. I didn't try to predict season records.

1. Georgia (13-1 in 2023)

Georgia will be busy again, especially on defense. The entire front seven that started the Orange Bowl is back, led by defensemen Mykel Williams and Nadhir Stackhouse, as well as linebacker Samael Mundon and defensive back Malaki Starks.

Quarterback Carson Beck shined in his first year. Georgia loses star tight end Brock Bowers and wide receiver Ladd McConkey, but brings back WR Dominic Lovett and TE Oscar Delp. Kirby Smart added Florida running back Trevor Etienne, Miami WR Colby Young and Vanderbilt WR London Humphries.

Star QB Jalen Milroe returns, and he's joined by WRs Isaiah Bond and Kobe Prentice and TEs CJ Dippre and Amari Niblack. Even if RB Jase McClellan turns pro, freshman Justice Haynes is ready for his moment. Three O-line starters return, but the unit needs improvement.

The defense loses OLBs Dallas Turner and Chris Braswell and linebackers Kool-Aid McKinstry and Terrion Arnold, but freshman safety Caleb Downs has been sensational, and LBs Deontae Lawson and Jihaad Campbell are expected to return. The secondary adds USC CB Domani Jackson.

Dan Lanning acquired the top QB in the portal, Dillon Gabriel from Oklahoma, to replace Bo Nix. Star WR Troy Franklin is out for the NFL, but Tez Johnson (1,182 yards) and Trayshaun Holden return. There's no longer RB Bucky Irving, but Division II All-American Jay Harris joins Jordan James. Left tackle Josh Connerly Jr. leads one of the best offensive lines in the country.

The defense loses some big names, but defensive end Jordan Burch, cornerback Geoffrey Basa, and DB Techem Johnson return, as do promising new pass rushers Matayo Uyagalelei and Tetum Tuioti.

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Since the Cotton Bowl, Ryan Day has hired veteran Kansas State QB Will Howard to replace Kyle McCord, who transferred to Syracuse; star Ole Miss RB Quinshon Judkins (2,725 yards in two seasons); and Alabama OL Seth McLaughlin. Even assuming Marvin Harrison Jr. announces, it's a deep receiving group that includes Emeka Egbuka, Carnell Tate and three former five-stars.

The Buckeyes' top five defense could be stronger. Defensive end Jack Sawyer, DT Tyleik Williams and DBs Lathan Ransom have announced their return, and DE JT Tuimoloau, CB Denzel Burke and DB Jordan Hancock may do the same.

Howard will take over for Kyle McCord, who will play for Syracuse next season. (Scott Sewell/USA Today)

Assuming QB Quinn Ewers returns, the Texans will field another potent offense with RBs CJ Baxter and Jaydon Blue and a strong O-line. Houston moving WR Matthew Golden will help soften the blow if Adonai Mitchell joins Xavier Worthy in declaring for the draft.

Standout DTs T'Vondre Sweat and Byron Murphy lead the way, but UTSA transfer Trey Moore (14 sacks last season) joins Barryn Sorrell and Ethan Burke as rushers. LB Anthony Hill Jr. shined as a freshman. Transfer S Andrew Mukuba started 31 games at Clemson.

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6. Michigan (15-0)

Consider this a spot-ty rating, given the uncertainty surrounding Jim Harbaugh and nearly a dozen players with NFL decisions to make. For now, let's assume QB JJ McCarthy, RB Blake Corum, and perhaps RB Donovan Edwards leave. Michigan will also lose at least four starters on the O-line.

Stars DB Mike Sainristil and LB Michael Barrett are gone, while DT Kris Jenkins and perhaps LB Junior Colson will go pro. But the defense should still be excellent behind playmaker Will Johnson, DT Mason Graham, Ernst Hausmann, and S Rod Moore.

7. Washington (14-1)

Will Rogers, a four-year starter at Mississippi State, has the unenviable task of replacing Heisman runner-up Michael Penix Jr., and star WR Rome Odunze is supposed to go pro, as are Jalen McMillan and Jalen Polk. Sophomore Jeremie Bernard and Cal transfer Jeremiah Hunter (731 yards) are next. Standout LT Troy Fautanu and perhaps RT Roger Rosengarten could go pro as well.

The defense has been very top-heavy, and star DE Bralen Trice is expected to be the starter, but LB Carson Bruener and CB Elijah Jackson are expected to return.

8. Ole Miss (11-2)

Quarterback Jaxson Dart, WRs Tre Harris and Jordan Watkins and TE Caden Prieskorn headline a potential College Football Playoff contender. Star RB Quinshon Judkins was a surprise entry into the portal, but Ulysses Bentley IV will return.

Meanwhile, Lane Kiffin has been filled with proven defensive players, adding DL Walter Nolen (Texas A&M), and taking on Brinsley Omanmilin (Florida), Tyler Barron (Tennessee), CB Decamerion Richardson (Mississippi State) and K Lawrence (Oklahoma). ). With returnees like D-linemen Jared Ivey and JJ Pegues.

The Irish should return much of their top five defensemen, led by All-American S Xavier Watts, DT Howard Cross and CB Benjamin Morrison. Marcus Freeman made some big plays, landing LSU (and former Notre Dame) offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock, Duke QB Riley Leonard, and FIU WR Chris Mitchell (1,118 yards).

Running back Audric Estime is a big loss, but Jadarian Price and Jeremiah Love have emerged as freshmen.

10. Clemson (9-4)

The Tigers, who finished the year with a five-game winning streak, lose RB Will Shipley, but return QB Cade Klubnik, RB Phil Mafah, WRs Tyler Brown and Antonio Williams and most of the O-line. Pro, but Barrett Carter is back. Freshman All-Americans TJ Parker and Peter Woods appeared on the D line. Safeties RJ Mickens and Khalil Barnes anchored the secondary.

11. Utah (8-5)

Injuries have doomed the Utes' 2023. Quarterback Cam Rising, RB Micah Bernard, WR Mycah Pittman and TE Brant Kuithe will all likely return after missing most or all of the season. Kyle Whittingham added Idaho RB Anthony Woods (1,131 yards, 16 TDs) and UCLA TE Carsen Ryan. Most of the O-line returns.

The defense should return eight starters led by LBs Levani Damone and Karen Reed. UTEP DE Kanious Vaughn and Georgia Tech CB Kenan Johnson can plug holes.

The Big 12 runners-up welcome back almost their entire offense — Doak Walker RB Ollie Gordon II (1,732 yards), QB Alan Bowman (granted seventh season), top WRs Brennan Presley and Rashod Owens and all five starters on the O-line. Oklahoma State must improve its scoring defense No. 89. Returning All-Big 12 LBs Collin Oliver and Nick Martin (140 tackles) and UTEP CB Kobe Hylton were a nice pickup.

What does a 12-team field look like in these rankings? Remember, first round games are played on the campus of the higher seeds.

Coming off their best season in 25 years, the Wildcats return QB Noah Fifita, star WR Tetairoa McMillan (1,402 yards) and top RB Jonah Coleman. Stud LT Jordan Morgan has turned pro, but the other four players on the O-line are returning. Jedd Fisch must replace DC Johnny Nansen, but the defense returns most of its linebackers and secondary. Fisch also added UC Davis DT Chubba Maae.

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Five-star QB Nico Iamaleava had a promising start in the Citrus Bowl, as did RB Dylan Sampson (20 carries, 133 yards vs. Iowa). WRs Squirrel White and Bru McCoy, who missed most of last season, are back, as is C Cooper Mays. All-SEC DE James Pearce Jr. (10 sacks), LBs Keenan Pili and Elijah Herring lead the defensive front, and DE Tire West flashes in the bowl. Oregon State CB Jermod McCoy helps a depleted secondary.

Jackson Arnold stepped up to QB1 in the bowl game. Gavin Sawchuk returns running back, as do WRs Nic Anderson, Jalil Farooq and Andrel Anthony, and they are joined by All-Big Ten Purdue WR Deion Burks. Transfer O-linemen Spencer Brown (Michigan State), Michael Tarquin (Florida/USC) and Febechi Nwaiwu (North Texas) are all experienced starters. New DC Zac Alley will inherit two All-Americans, LB Danny Stutsman and S Billy Bowman, as well as DE Ethan Downs and CB Woodi Washington.

Louisville loses QB Jack Plummer, star RB Jawhar Jordan and WR Jamari Thrash, but Jeff Brohm does get a new QB1, Tyler Shough (Texas Tech). He also named MAC Offensive Player of the Year, RB Peny Boone (Toledo), and RB Don Chaney Jr. (Toledo). (Miami), WR Caullin Lacy (South Alabama), and WR Ja'Corey Brooks (Alabama). The defense returns All-Americans DE Ashton Gillotte, DE Mason Reiger and LB TJ Quinn. Broome added All-Ivy League DT Thor Griffith (Harvard) and Tennessee S Tamarion McDonald.

Jalon Daniels returns to Kansas, as does most of the Jayhawks' offense. (Jay Biggerstaff/Getty)

The Jayhawks should be a legitimate Big 12 contender behind star QB Jalon Daniels, after missing most of last season. Running back Devin Neal (twice for 1,000 yards) and fellow tailback Daniel Hishoe Jr. return. The O line will need some retooling. Corners Kobe Bryant, a first-team All-Big 12 selection, and Milo Dotson headline an experienced secondary. But Kansas needs to improve on its 89th-ranked rushing defense.

Despite the ten wins, Penn State had a disappointing season. Quarterback Drew Allard needs to make a big leap under new OC Andy Kotelnicki. Linebackers Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen are entering their third seasons. Ohio State WR Julian Fleming was a great pickup truck. New defensive coordinator Tom Allen must replace several big names like DE Chop Robinson and CB Kalen King, but LBs Abdul Carter, Kobe King, DT Dvon Ellies, and CB Cam Miller return.

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The NFL may be taking a big step backwards, as nearly all of its best players as of 2023 are tied to the NFL. Former Clemson and Oregon State starter DJ Uiagalelei is the new QB1. All-ACC OL Darius Washington is a key piece. Lawrence Toffele becomes top fullback. Young WRs will need to emerge. Defensive tackles Joshua Farmer, DB Shyheim Brown and CB Ventrell Cypress II lead a defense that is losing stars Jared Fiers, Kalen DeLoach and Braden Fisk.

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20. LSU (10-3)

Quarterback Garrett Nussmeier takes over after a strong ball game. Star WRs Malik Nabers and Brian Thomas Jr. NFL bound, but Kyren Lacy and Zavion Thomas are proven at Mississippi State, as is TE Mason Taylor. Running back Logan Diggs has entered the portal. New DC Blake Baker should revitalize a unit that ranks 81st nationally in scoring. He will work with LBs Harold Perkins Jr. And Greg Penn and Major Burns.

Quarterback Brady Cook and WR Luther Burden III return, but All-American RB Cody Schrader is a big loss. Eli Drinkwitz picked up Georgia State RB Marcus Carroll (1,350 yards) and Appalachian State RB Nate Noel. All-SEC running back Javon Foster is gone, but the O-line has experience. The defense loses several key pieces: DE Darius Robinson, LB Ty'Ron Hopper, and CB Kris Abrams-Draine. Adds Miami LB Corey Flagg Jr. 24 career starts.

22. Iowa (10-4)

As Kirk Ferentz prepares to revive his woeful offense, he is getting QB Cade McNamara and TE Luke Lachey back from injuries to go with RB Leshon Williams (821 yards) and the entire O-line. He needs to add some WRs. The Hawkeyes' stingy defense loses All-American DB Cooper DeJean but gets back LB Jay Higgins (171 tackles), DE Deontae Craig, DT Yahya Black, and S Sebastian Castro. Punter Tori Taylor is a notable loss.

The junior Cyclones are 6-3 in Big 12 play, with ranking wins over Oklahoma State and K-State, and should return 18 starters. Quarterback Rocco Bichette, RB Abu Sama III and TE Benjamin Brahmer emerged as freshmen. Top WRs Jayden Higgins and Jaylin Noel return, as do all five starters on the O-line. Iowa State's league-leading defense returns all 12 safeties, Jeremiah Cooper and Bo Freiller, and the entire offensive duo.

24. Kansas State (9-4)

The Avery Johnson era began with K-State's win over NC State, now under new OC Matt Wells. The former Top 100 recruit takes over an offense that returns RB DJ Giddens (1,226 yards) and WR Jayce Brown. North Dakota T Easton Kilty could bolster the O-line replacing four starters. All-Big 12 S Kobe Savage transferred to Oregon, but standouts LB Austin Moore and S Marques Sigle (leading tackler) return.

The Mountaineers were one of the most surprising performers of the season and produced a top-30 offense. Returns quarterback Garrett Green, top running backs Jahiem White, CJ Donaldson, TE Kole Taylor and three starters on the O-line. The defense must replace six starters, most notably CB Beanie Bishop Jr., but it does get S Anthony Wilson (80 tackles) and LB Trey Lathan back. (injured). Cornerback Montre Miller, a former Kent State transfer, was given the seventh year.

Just missed: NC State, USC, Kentucky, Wisconsin, Virginia Tech

Best team in the Group of Five according to Mandel: freedom

(Top Image: Nick Trey Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)