The calendar has officially flipped to July as college football fans across the country begin to map out their fall Saturdays, jotting down which games they plan to attend in the upcoming season.

Week 1 will be filled with excitement, highlighted by Penn State‘s trip to Morgantown, West Virginia, where James Franklin’s squad will be tested by a talented Mountaineers team.

The following week will feature one of the most anticipated non-conference matchups in recent memory as the defending national champion Michigan Wolverines welcome Heisman Trophy hopeful Quinn Ewers and the Texas Longhorns to the Big House.

FOX Sports college football experts Michael Cohen and RJ Young take an early look at the 2024 college football schedule and examine both of those early-season matchups, which non-Power 4 team could make a run at this year’s College Football Playoff, and if both Ohio State and Michigan could be 11-0 for a third consecutive season heading into their regular-season finale.

What is the most compelling non-conference game on the 2024 college football schedule?

Michael Cohen: Texas @ Michigan, Sept. 7, FOX

There’s a reason FOX’s television executives coveted this game during the annual network draft to determine broadcast schedules. Not only does this game feature two of the biggest brands in college football — the Longhorns have their own TV network; the Wolverines became the first school in the sport’s history to reach 1,000 wins — but it also features two entrants in last year’s College Football Playoff, one of which just happens to be the reigning national champion. Toss in the added bonus that Michigan Stadium will begin serving alcohol for the first time this fall, and the atmosphere in Ann Arbor should be absolutely electric.

From a football perspective, the storylines are just as fascinating: Can Ewers, the former No. 1 overall recruit from the 2022 cycle, finally bring Texas its first national championship since 2005? Can Sherrone Moore, who earned the job by posting a 4-0 record as Jim Harbaugh’s suspension-induced replacement in 2023, score one of the biggest wins of the college football season without Harbaugh’s midweek guidance? Which of Michigan’s unproven quarterbacks will be trusted to run the offense as the Wolverines begin life after J.J. McCarthy? Just how good will new defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale be at Michigan after spending the last two decades in the NFL? 

Few games, if any, will have a better blend of pageantry, power brands and playoff implications. It’s the perfect September storm. 

RJ Young: Mike got it right. The 2024 Longhorns are on the precipice of becoming the kind of national power Georgia has shown itself to be over the last half-decade. Like Georgia, the flagship university in Texas has a local talent advantage over nearly all of its rivals, a coach who won a national title as a coordinator at Alabama, and a talent advantage on its two-deep roster that makes it one of the best in the country. 

Under coach Steve Sarkisian, the Longhorns have gone from five wins in 2021, to eight wins in 2022, to 12 wins last season. Texas dipped into the portal and landed Isaiah Bond from Alabama, who had 668 receiving yards and four TDs on 48 catches last season, including the “He Is Risen” catch in the 2023 Iron Bowl on fourth-and-31.

But the best portal pickup the Longhorns made was former UTEP All-Slept On, All-Edgelord outside linebacker Trey Moore, who notched 17.5 tackles for loss and 14 sacks last year, surpassing former first-round NFL Draft pick Marcus Davenport’s best season as a Roadrunner with 17 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks in 2017.

Below is the total revenue brought in by the five highest-grossing schools in 2023, according to USA Today: 1. Ohio State, $251,615,345 2. Texas, $239,290,648 3. Alabama, $214,365,357 4. Michigan, $210,652,287 5. Georgia, $203,048,566. Texas is the only school here without a national title in the CFP era.

In 2024, the Longhorns need to follow through on their 2023 breakthrough.

Texas HC Steve Sarkisian opens up about his sobriety journey

Penn State kicks off the 2024 campaign with a Week 1 showdown against West Virginia. The Nittany Lions have won 10-or-more games five times under James Franklin but have only won the Big Ten Conference once during that period. What must happen in order for this year’s Penn State team to win a Big Ten title?

RJ: Beat Ohio State. That’s obstacle No. 1. Obstacle No. 2 is Michigan, and PSU fans will be quick to note the Nittany Lions would only see the Wolverines in the conference title game or the extended CFP.

In 10 years as head coach at Penn State, James Franklin has had just one losing season. In fact, he’s had just two losing seasons as a head coach, and his first job was at Vanderbilt. He’s won nine games or more eight times. He’s won 10 games or more five times in the last eight years. He’s produced Micah Parsons, Saquon Barkley and five trips to New Year’s Six Bowl games. 

There’s an argument that Franklin has done more with less, too: The 52-year-old head coach has produced just three All-Americans, while Lincoln Riley has produced seven. Both coaches have the same number of CFP semifinal wins, and Franklin has yet to coach in one.

Yet that’s not the story in State College. The sad story is Franklin hasn’t done enough. And by enough, that means beating Ohio State and Michigan, and when beating those two programs is the difference between playing in the CFP or being relegated to the nearest NY6 designation, it’s difficult not to hold a grudge.

It’s not just that Ohio State and Michigan have ruled the Big Ten for the better part of two decades or that Penn State has just one conference title since the Big Ten expanded to 14 teams. It’s that James Franklin is 4-20 against Ohio State and Michigan with just one of those wins coming against the Buckeyes, and he’s never doubled up the kings of the conference in any one year.

Given that Ohio State and Michigan have received all 10 of the Big Ten’s invitations to the CFP — one for every year Franklin’s been at PSU — the move to bring in Andy Kotelnicki to run the offense makes sense, even if that means a fifth OC at Penn State in seven years. Never mind that each of Franklin’s last two defensive coordinators have taken head coaching gigs in the ACC. Franklin needs results, and 11 wins won’t satisfy the 106,000 Beaver Stadium faithful unless they include wins against Ohio State and Michigan.

In 2024, the Nittany Lions don’t see Michigan or a division that boxes them into third place. They see Ohio State and USC. They’ll get the full dose from West Virginia in their opener, but they should be favored in 10 of their 12 games. If there’s a breakthrough year to be had, they won’t get much better than this one.

Michael: That’s a great 20,000-foot view from RJ, who deftly summarized the incredible pressure that will be on Franklin this fall as the sport embraces a new format. Franklin has never had a clearer, and cleaner, path to the College Football Playoff than he will this fall when the Nittany Lions dodge Michigian and Oregon in the regular season. That good fortune coincides with the junior seasons for members of Franklin’s incredible 2022 recruiting class that ranked sixth nationally and included three five-star prospects, which only adds to the expectations in Happy Valley. 

If the macro viewpoint focuses on Franklin, then the micro is all about the performance of quarterback Drew Allar, who was one of the aforementioned five stars in that vaunted class. At face value, Allar’s 2023 production was somewhat comparable to that of Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy, a player viewed as a game changer for the Wolverines last season. Allar completed 233 of 389 passes (59.9%) for 2,631 yards, 25 touchdowns and two interceptions with an NFL passer rating of 98.9 in his first year as the starter. McCarthy, meanwhile, completed 240 of 332 passes (72.3%) for 2,991 yards, 22 touchdowns and four interceptions with an NFL passer rating of 116.6.

Both visually and statistically, the biggest difference between them is what each player accomplished in his team’s biggest games. Where McCarthy played near-flawless football against Ohio State, Iowa and Alabama at the business end of the season (four combined TDs, zero INTs and a 71.4% completion rate), Allar bombed against Ohio State (18-of-42 for 191 yards and one TD) and Michigan (10-of-22 for 70 yards and one TD) in two games that ended in defeat. How much improvement Allar shows from Year 1 to Year 2 in Penn State’s most critical moments will be an important barometer for the Nittany Lions’ season.

Liberty, Memphis and Boise State have been among the most popular non-Power 4 teams picked to make this year’s 12-team College Football Playoff. Which non-Power 4 team do you believe has the best chance to make the CFP, and which matchup stands out to you most on that team’s schedule this year?

Michael: Boise State should be an intriguing watch for several reasons. First-year head coach Spencer Danielson parlayed a 3-1 stint as the Broncos‘ interim coach late last season into the full-time job. Though he’s never been a head coach at any level, Danielson worked his way up at Boise State from an initial graduate assistant role in 2017 to serving as the defensive coordinator from 2021-23, a stretch in which the Broncos ranked 45th, 7th and 72nd in total defense. Can the momentum from his late-season winning streak over Utah State, Air Force and UNLV transfer to the 2024 campaign?

Then there’s the matter of Boise State’s splashy addition through the transfer portal: former five-star quarterback Malachi Nelson from USC. Now a redshirt freshman, Nelson was the No. 12 overall prospect and the No. 5 quarterback in the 2023 recruiting cycle. The California native eschewed scholarship offers from the likes of Alabama, Florida State, Georgia, LSU, Miami, Ohio State and Notre Dame to play for the hometown Trojans, whose coach, Lincoln Riley, is known as a quarterback whisperer and has the Heisman Trophy winners to prove it: Caleb Williams, Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray

But even with Williams departing USC for the NFL, where he became the No. 1 pick in this year’s draft, Nelson made the surprising decision to enter the transfer portal on Dec. 17. He committed to Boise State three weeks later and is expected to win the starting job. Had Nelson chosen to play for the Broncos out of high school, he would have been the highest-rated recruit in program history. 

RJ: Memphis. Grind City is due to pop off.

The Seth HeniganRoc Taylor show ought to be in full effect following a 10-win season in 2023. Henigan, who passed for more than 3,800 yards last year, could be a 4,000-yard, 40-TD passer in 2024. Memphis also added former Oklahoma EDGE and Tennessee native Reggie Grimes through the portal.

The Tigers have an all-mighty non-conference showdown with reigning ACC champ Florida State. But they’ve got 12 players on defense who made starts last year and added 29 transfers through the winter and spring portal period.

With $25 million over the next five years, thanks to the biggest city of Memphis fans in the world — Fred Smith and FedEx — they’re hunting not just the American Athletic Conference title, but their first CFP bid.

Seven of the last nine G5 New Year’s Six bowl bids have gone to AAC teams. Ryan Silverfield, 31-19 in five years, ought to begin the season believing this one is his.

Michigan and Ohio State have each been 11-0 heading into “The Game” the past two seasons. Both teams will be 11-0 once again this year heading into the regular-season finale if _____?

RJ: Sherrone Moore is the head coach Jim Harbaugh thinks he is and the one he showed himself to be for four games without Harbaugh in the building.

Moore was anointed for this job. Harbaugh made it certain when he had a commitment added to his contract that Moore would succeed him as head coach in Ann Arbor. Following a 15-0 season and the first national title won by Michigan since 1997, he’s tasked with keeping the Michigan machine on track to run it back.

Unlike his predecessor’s previous three years, though, he’s going to get the full dose of one of the toughest schedules in the country. Michigan’s 2024 opponents went 98-59 last year. Seven of those teams were ranked. Nine of those teams beat ranked opponents.

Every last one of those teams on Michigan’s 2024 schedule is coming for the Wolverines. Some because Michigan is the champ. Some because they can’t get to Connor Stalions, but they can get the Wolverines. Some because they quite simply hate Michigan more than anybody else (Ohio State).

In 2023, Moore acted as head coach and play-caller and held up to the pressure of his post like the patriarch Harbaugh himself did.

That was last year. 

Let’s see if the Wolverines can run it back.

Can Ohio State snap their three-game losing streak to Michigan?

Michael: It’s true that the answer to this question likely hinges more on what happens at Michigan than what happens at Ohio State, where the Buckeyes will be ranked either No. 1 or No. 2 (behind Georgia) and should be viewed as legitimate national title contenders following an incredible offseason of roster management from head coach Ryan Day. If the Buckeyes survive their trip to Oregon on Oct. 12 — which will be no easy feat against an incredibly talented Ducks team — then they should have no problems navigating the final few weeks to reach The Game unbeaten. Anything less would sound some alarm bells for Day, whose three-game losing streak to Michigan isn’t sitting well with fans.

The bigger issues are in Ann Arbor, where Moore and first-year offensive coordinator Kirk Campbell must replace 10 starters from an offense that scored nearly 36 points per game last season. Gone are McCarthy, tailback Blake Corum, wideouts Roman Wilson and Cornelius Johnson, tight end AJ Barner and the entire offensive line. Tight end Colston Loveland, a potential first-round pick in the 2025 NFL Draft, is the only returning starter at the coaching staff’s disposal. Second-string running back Donovan Edwards (370 snaps), No. 3 wideout Tyler Morris (344 snaps) and H-back/tight end Max Bredeson (238 snaps) are the other primary contributors returning in 2024. 

How successful Michigan’s offense can be in the post-McCarthy and post-Corum era likely hinges on the level of production at quarterback, where the Wolverines have a handful of inexperienced players competing for the job. Dual-threat junior Alex Orji, who did not attempt a pass last season, continues to carry himself like the starter on and off the field. But former Indiana transfer Jack Tuttle and veteran Davis Warren will battle with Orji during fall camp. The Wolverines need one of those players to take a significant step forward if they want to reach The Game unbeaten. 

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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