Jan 11, 2022; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; A detailed view of College Football Playoff National Championship logo helmet at 2022 Indianapolis Host Committee press conference at the JW Marriott. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

We still have a few weeks before the end of the 2023 college football season, but it’s never too early to look ahead to next season.

The 2024 season will bring several changes to the college football landscape, chief among them is the expanded playoffs from four teams to 12, giving many more teams a chance to make a championship run.

It should make for an exciting season to know that, instead of the usual suspects contending for a championship, several dark horse candidates will be in the mix. These teams have often been one win or even one play away from being in the playoffs in the past.

Here is our list of the top five darkhorse contenders to win the national championship next season.

Travis Hunter
Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

5. Colorado Buffaloes

I know it may be weird to see the Buffs on this list considering they only won four games this year, but the nucleus of this team is returning with the main pieces returning quarterback Shedeur Sanders and wide receiver/cornerback Travis Hunter. Head coach Deion Sanders has proven himself to be a great recruiter, especially out of the transfer portal. He’s already revamped the offensive line, and if he can add a few more key pieces, Colorado could more than some noise in the Big 12 next year.

Now that Texas and Oklahoma have both left for the SEC, Colorado has a real shot of contending for not only a Big 12 title but a national championship as well.

Penn State Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin leads his team on to the field before the game against Michigan State at Ford Field.
Credit: David Reginek-USA TODAY Sports

4. Penn State Nittany Lions

James Franklin and the Penn State Nittany Lions have come some close over the years to taking down either the Ohio State Buckeyes or Michigan Wolverines, but they can’t seem to get over that hump. Well, with the new playoff system, they won’t have to get over that hump. The Nittany Lions have always had a good defense, the problem has been with their offense which can’t seem to muster enough points to overtake either the Buckeyes or the Wolverines.

With the College Football Playoff now expanding to 12 teams, there’s a real chance Penn State could make the playoff even with losses to Ohio State and Michigan. After that, who knows what could happen?

Oklahoma's Dillon Gabriel (8) celebrates scoring a touchdown with Oklahoma’s Troy Everett (52) in the first quarter during an NCAA football game between University of Oklahoma (OU) and Iowa State at the Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in Norman, Okla., on Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023.
Syndication: The Oklahoman

3. Oklahoma Sooners

It might be weird to see the Oklahoma Sooners on this list as a “dark horse” but that’s understandable. The Sooners haven’t won a national championship in decades but now that they have joined the SEC, their chances have increased. They’ve already beaten one of the major contenders in this year’s playoffs, Texas, which was the Longhorns’ only loss but the problem with the Sooners is, that they continue to struggle on defense and lose to teams they shouldn’t have which kept them out of the playoffs this year.

Their upcoming SEC schedule is going to test whether or not they are contenders or pretenders because they will find out there are no off weekends in the SEC, even the so-called bad teams can give contenders like OU a hard time, ask Alabama and Georgia. If the Sooners can find some kind of solution on defense, they are definitely in the mix to contend for a national championship.

Mississippi Rebels head coach Lane Kiffin reacts during the second half against the Texas A&M Aggies at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
Credit: Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

2. Ole Miss Rebels

Just think if Ole Miss didn’t have to face either Alabama or Georgia this past season, they’d be in the playoffs. The Rebels have proven that they are a dangerous team to contend with but like Penn State, they can’t seem to get over the hump when it comes to winning the SEC. Now that the SEC is getting rid of divisions, the Rebels’ chances of getting in increased, not to mention the fact that their schedule doesn’t include Alabama which has been their bugaboo.

The Rebels have several returning pieces coming back on this 10-2 team one of them being quarterback Jaxson Dart, who may be a contender for the Heisman along with running back Quionshon Judkins who was one of the leading rushers in the nation this past season.

Their two biggest games next season will be Georgia and Oklahoma, both games they will host which should give the Rebels an advantage. The Rebels still have a tricky schedule that includes the LSU Tigers in Baton Rouge which won’t be an easy game as we saw this past season but if Lane Kiffin can get by both Georgia and Oklahoma or either win one out of the two, they walk to the playoffs next year should be an easy one.

Missouri Tigers tight end Brett Norfleet (87) celebrates after scoring a touchdown in the third quarter against the Arkansas Razorbacks at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. Missouri won 48-14.
Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

1. Missouri Tigers

The Missouri Tigers were just a few points away from an undefeated season and a trip to the SEC Championship game with a trip to the College Football Playoff on the line as Mizzou was a play or two away from ending Georgia’s winning streak and winning the SEC East.

The Tigers had one of the best offenses in the country led by quarterback Brady Cook who shocked many with his play this season. Cook threw for over 3,000 yards, 20 touchdowns, and only six interceptions.

The good news for Missouri is that Cook is only a junior and more than likely will return for his senior season. The other good news is that All-SEC wide receiver Luther Burton will also be returning for his junior season. Burton had over 1,000 yards receiving and eight touchdowns this past season.

The Tigers’ schedule favors them making the playoffs next year. The only real test they will have will be at Alabama, which will not be easy, and Oklahoma which they host at home. If they win both or split those games, they are still in good shape. Another thing in their favor is that they don’t play the Georgia Bulldogs, who have been an obstacle to the Tigers over the past few years, now they may not face the Bulldogs until the SEC Championship game.

The schedule favors them, the core of their offense is coming back and their defense wasn’t bad either. All of this points to the Tigers being a serious contender for a national championship in 2024.

Three of the five teams on this list will be in New Year’s 6 bowls and a few will be facing each other in these bowls. But all five have legitimate reasons to think that they could be the dark horse to win the national championship in 2024.

About Stacey Mickles

Stacey is a 1995 graduate of the University of Alabama who has previously worked for other publications such as Sportskeeda and Saturday Down South.