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College football realignment 2024: Freshman contenders for conference title

On July 1, a historic round of college football conference realignment began that will forever change the national map of the sport.

The expansion will become official this season, threatening old rivalries, reviving old ones and creating a new schedule for the teams competing for the expanded playoffs.

More: Which CFB teams will be promoted or relegated after the 2024 realignment?

What does all this mean for teams and conferences this fall? Usually, new members go through an adjustment period as they try to fit in, and schools experience some initial difficulties as they find their feet.

For a lucky few, however, the conference change could be a perfect opportunity to compete for the title in their new leagues. Which first-year schools currently have the best chance of winning?

Big 12: Utah

Even though the Utes are new to the Big 12 after moving from the Pac-12, they could begin this season with arguably the most talented roster in the entire conference.

This is certainly true if they manage to avoid the injuries that plagued the team a year ago.

In this regard, quarterback Cameron Rising, who missed the entirety of last season with a knee injury, is expected to return to center. The same goes for star tight end Brant Kuithe. Running back Micah Bernard missed eleven games last year but is expected to return. And wide receiver Dorian Singer is an important transfer addition.

Despite injuries on defense, Utah allowed just over 19 points per game, and although the unit is losing star Jonah Elliss to the NFL, eight other starters are expected to return and quality transfers have been made in the secondary, setting the stage for another dominant year.

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

Related: College Football Conference Champions Predictions

Big 12: Arizona

After a 10-win season, the Wildcats suffered a major loss when head coach Jedd Fisch left the program he helped build and took the job in Washington following the departure of Kalen DeBoer.

However, the program retained key players on the field who chose not to follow their coach and stay to help Brent Brennan maintain the progress Arizona made 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 managed 1,402 yards on 90 grabs and scored 10 times.

Defensively, the Wildcats lost three linemen but kept their leading tackler Jacob Manu at linebacker and seven other key players such as safety Dalton Johnson and Tacario Davis at corner.

Arizona's schedule presents big challenges early on, with a trip to Kansas State on Sept. 13 and Utah on Sept. 28 after a week off. A date at BYU could be a challenge, and the Wildcats travel to TCU in late November.

Given the competition expected in the expanded Big 12, Arizona has a real chance of winning the conference title.

Big Ten: Oregon

Dan Lanning has built a recruiting behemoth and put his program in the center of the Big Ten title race, thanks in part to the return of talent on both sides of the ball and some new additions from the top class.

Tez Johnson, Gary Bryant and Traeshon Holden form the core of arguably the best wide receiver rotation in college football, and the unit has been bolstered by former Texas A&M 5-star Evan Stewart.

Jordan James takes over the RB1 role after averaging over 7 yards per carry and scoring 15 touchdowns a year ago, and he works behind another strong, aggressive line.

To replace Bo Nix at quarterback, the Ducks signed veteran Dillon Gabriel, a dual-threat player who has the potential to maintain Oregon's dominance on offense. Last year, that offense managed over 531 yards per game and averaged over 44 points.

Oregon faces a challenging schedule to begin with: It hosts Group of Five contender Boise State, then faces Oregon State, and after the week off, a trip to UCLA follows.

Ohio State comes to Autzen on October 12 and the Ducks visit Michigan on November 2. Two weeks later, they travel to Wisconsin.

With Oregon's perimeter speed keeping up in the secondary and at the receiver position, the Big Ten defense could face a real challenge now and in the future.

SEC: Texas

After a 13-12 record in his first two years, Steve Sarkisian made the huge leap forward that he and the Longhorns needed in the year before moving to the SEC.

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

Although the Longhorns lost four key offensive players, they were able to bring back quarterback Quinn Ewers and make important transfer acquisitions in wide receivers such as Matthew Golden, Isaiah Bond and Silas Bolden.

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

One area to keep an eye on on the roster is defense. Strong play up front is always key to success in the SEC, and Texas has lost the players that helped them rank second in the running game last year.

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

One key addition, however, is Trey Moore, the former UTSA edge rusher who recorded 14 sacks last season. He should mesh well with backer Anthony Hill Jr., the team's second-leading tackler in 2023.

Texas has a date with defending national champion Michigan in Week 2, but the Wolverines are currently undergoing a major rebuild (or re-alignment, depending on your point of view), and a good UTSA team comes to the Forty Acres the following week.

The Red River Shootout on October 12th marks the start of a tough phase, as the following week there is a monster home game against Georgia. Three weeks later it's Florida, then it's on to Arkansas, then there's a home game against Kentucky and finally an away game at rival Texas A&M.

The talent is there and there are also some high-caliber pairings that, should the Longhorns win, would help propel the team into SEC contention and catch the attention of the selection committee.

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