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College football offseason stock watch: Which programs are trending up?

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As Memorial Day weekend approaches and the calendar gets set to flip to June, more and more college football top 25 rankings will appear, and the majority will feature the same powerhouse programs at the top: Ohio State, Georgia, Oregon and Texas, to name a few.

But while those traditional powerhouse programs seem to always find their way into college football’s preseason rankings, there are plenty of other programs that are new to these projections. And, conversely, there are those programs that used to appear in these rankings year in and year out, but are nowhere to be found heading into the 2024 campaign.

There are certain programs that have found great success in utilizing the transfer portal, and in return, appear to be on an upward trajectory in the sport. With that, there are certain players who will now get the chance to shine at new schools and develop into household names. And, there are coaches who have managed to balance all these changes thrown their way and have thrived, in return, setting them up to take on bigger jobs with bigger programs in the future.

FOX Sports college football experts Michael Cohen and RJ Young take a look at the risers (and some fallers) in the new-look college football landscape.

Aside from the traditional powers for whom annual success feels like a given, which program is on an impressive trajectory for 2024 and beyond?

Michael Cohen: Missouri is quickly becoming a program to watch under head coach Eli Drinkwitz, a rising star in the profession. Drinkwitz finished .500 or worse during his first three years with the Tigers from 2020-22 before enjoying a breakthrough 11-2 campaign last season, capped by a win over Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl. It was the first time Missouri had won at least 11 games since 2014. 

Just as important as the on-field improvements are the player acquisition efforts from Drinkwitz and his staff, both in terms of traditional high school prospects and the transfer portal. Beginning with the 2021 recruiting cycle, Missouri’s last four high school classes have ranked 26th, 15th, 34th and 20th, and the Tigers are on track for another top-30 finish in 2025. They scored one of the biggest recruiting wins in recent memory last December by securing five-star defensive lineman Williams Nwaneri (No. 8 overall, No. 1 DL in 2024), an elite in-state prospect from Lee’s Summit, Missouri. 

The Tigers have also been increasingly proficient in the transfer portal, which reflects positively on the program’s NIL situation. Their transfer portal classes have improved from 18th in 2022 and 41st in 2023 to 14th overall in 2024. Drinkwitz’s latest batch of newcomers includes four players rated among the top 185 overall players in the 247Sports Transfer Portal Rankings, headlined by former Oklahoma offensive lineman Cayden Green (No. 11 transfer, No. 2 OT). If Missouri can hold onto Drinkwitz, the Tigers should continue to rise. 

RJ Young: Ole Miss. The SEC Championship is a realistic goal for Lane Kiffin’s Rebels following the winningest season they’ve had in Oxford, Mississippi, in over 100 years of playing the sport.

Only Ohio State did a better job in the transfer portal than the flagship in Mississippi. While the Rebels lost an All-American caliber tailback in Quinshon Judkins — to Ohio State, of course — they have Ulysses Bentley IV returning, Henry Parrish joining, and they will be stout in the passing game with Jaxson Dart throwing darts to Tre Harris, Antwane Wells and tight end Caden Prieskorn.

If Pete Golding can turn around a middling 2023 defense, it wouldn’t shock me to see Ole Miss win the SEC title.

Ohio State, Texas & Michigan in RJ Young’s post-spring top 25

Conversely, which program is headed in a dangerous direction as the college football landscape evolves?

RJ: What is Vanderbilt doing in FBS, let alone the SEC? If we drop James Franklin’s back-to-back 9-4 seasons, we’re looking at a Power 4 program with just two winning seasons since 1982 and not a single winning season since the inception of the College Football Playoff. 

At a moment when conferences are going to join hands and squeeze out $2.8 billion in money that isn’t even here yet to settle House v. NCAA, NIL collectives are doling out millions of dollars in payroll to FBS rosters and the future of the sport is reaching its largest inflection point since the NCAA devised Division IA and Division II, there’s not a great reason for the Commodores to play big-time college football. And fans don’t seem to be enthusiastic about the FBS program in Nashville as Alabama-Birmingham outdrew it in 2022.

Perhaps Vanderbilt can afford it. But is that enough in a league that prides itself on being the best in the country? Not every university in the south plays college football.

Michael: The optics weren’t great earlier this month when a peculiar stat involving Clemson began making the rounds on social media: With the 2024 transfer portal beginning to wind down, the Tigers were one of just four programs that didn’t add a single player to their roster. The others? Army, Navy and Air Force. Not exactly the company most college football fans would expect for Clemson, which has won two national championships in the last decade and averaged 13.8 wins per season from 2015-19. 

But minimal involvement in the transfer portal has become the newest line on head coach Dabo Swinney’s résumé, a sticking point that seems likely to jeopardize the Tigers’ place in the sport’s upper echelon. Clemson has added just two transfers in the last four portal cycles combined — one apiece in 2022 and 2023 — and both of them were backup quarterbacks: Hunter Johnson from Northwestern and Paul Tyson from Arizona State. They have thrown one touchdown pass between them since joining the program. 

While there’s plenty to be said for a coach who chooses to build his program around player development and long-term commitments to high school prospects, it’s difficult to see how Clemson can keep pace with programs that are adding legitimate difference makers through the portal. Swinney needs to find a middle ground. 

Which under-the-radar player can become a household name in 2024?

Michael: Oklahoma State running back Ollie Gordon II finished seventh in last year’s Heisman Trophy voting after carrying the ball 285 times for 1,732 yards and 21 touchdowns on a team that reached the Big 12 Championship game — yet he’s probably not well known outside Big 12 circles ahead of the 2024 campaign. 

Gordon, a rising junior, was a four-star prospect in the 2022 recruiting cycle with scholarship offers from Arkansas, Michigan and Texas, among others. He carried 62 times for 308 yards and two touchdowns as a true freshman with increased involvement as the season progressed. He averaged 39 snaps over the final three games of the season, including a 17-carry, 136-yard outburst against West Virginia.

That set the stage for an incredible 2023 campaign in which Gordon led the nation in rushing yards, finished second in rushing touchdowns and third in carries. He topped 100 yards nine times in 13 games and surpassed 200 yards in back-to-back weeks against West Virginia (282 yards, four TDs) and Cincinnati (271 yards, two TDs). Gordon won the Doak Walker Award, given to the nation’s most outstanding running back, was named the Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year and received unanimous All-America honors. 

He could be a legitimate Heisman Trophy challenger this season.

RJ: Dallan Hayden is in a position to take advantage of the largest spotlight in the sport at Colorado. With a run game that, putting it kindly, wasn’t great in 2022, and a retooled offensive line, he’s the best tailback in a backfield shared with Shedeur Sanders, on a team that will play in front of sellout crowds on national television.

Hayden rushed for over 500 yards — averaging more than 5.0 yards per carry — in 2022 as a true freshman at Ohio State. And he’s shown he can be a bell cow back with three games of over 100 rushing yards, including 146 on 27 carries against Maryland.

RJ Young reacts to the NCAA College Football 25 video game cover

Which coach or coordinator is positioned to be a central figure in the carousel discussion with a strong showing this season?

RJ: Will Stein at Oregon is in position to take full advantage of what has been an outstanding start to his career. At 35, he’s already put together a top-10 offense at UTSA — averaging better than 486 yards per game in 2022, along with a 4,000-yard and 40 TD-passer in Frank Harris.

Then, last year, Stein coordinated an offense that led to a New Year’s Six Bowl win, a Heisman candidate in Bo Nix, a Biletnikoff Award finalist in Troy Franklin, and he’s poised to make a national title charge in the Big Ten with Dillon Gabriel wearing Marcus Mariota’s number.

Michael: This should finally be the year when a Power 4 school takes a chance on Jason Candle, the incredibly successful head coach at Toledo. Candle, 44, guided the Rockets to an 11-3 finish in 2023 for his eighth consecutive season with a record of .500 or better. He’s won two MAC championships since taking over the Rockets ahead of the 2015 campaign and has an overall record of 65-35 (43-19 MAC) at a time when larger programs are picking clean the rosters of successful mid-majors via the transfer portal. That the Rockets have won 20 games over the past two seasons despite losing 17 more transfers than they’ve brought in speaks to the infrastructure and efficacy of Candle’s program.

Candle has also shown that he can develop mid-major talent into bona fide NFL prospects. In the 15 years before Candle took over, Toledo produced just six total draft picks: two third-rounders, three sixth-rounders and one seventh-rounder. That number has spiked to 10 selections in the last eight drafts alone, including first-round cornerback Quinyon Mitchell, the 22nd overall pick by the Philadelphia Eagles last month. The rest of Candle’s draft picks include two third-rounders, one fourth-rounder, two fifth-rounders, one sixth-rounder and two seventh-rounders.

Overall, Candle has sent the same number of players to the NFL from 2017-present as Toledo did from 1992-2016.

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Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Cohen13.

RJ Young is a national college football writer and analyst for FOX Sports and the host of the podcast “The Number One College Football Show.” Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Young and subscribe to “The RJ Young Show” on YouTube.


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