2024 CFB: Power-4 Dark Horse Title Contenders

Jon Joseph Editorials

Oh, Stewball was a racehorse,
And I wish he were mine,
He never drank water,
He always drank wine.

I bet on the gray mare,
I bet on the bay,
If I’d bet on ol’ Stewball,
I’d be a free man today.

1966 – Peter, Paul and Mary

According to one gaming site, the favorites for the 2024 Power 4 conference championships and an almost assured spot in the 2024 playoff, are Georgia in the SEC, Ohio State in the B1G, Utah in the B12, and Clemson in the ACC. When I pulled Mr. FishDuck from his fun at top Ireland betting sites and explained these–he agreed, especially with the final one listed below.

What teams among those with lesser odds have the best chance to be a Power 4 conference dark horse champion, to come from back in the pack and win an unexpected crown? Here are my best guesses…


VA Tech has the 7th-best odds at +2000 to win the ACC behind Clemson, FSU, Miami, Louisville, NC State, and SMU. The Hokies are the darkest dark horse among my four Power 4 outliers.

In 2023, VA Tech started the season 0-5. VA Tech elevated backup QB Kyron Drones to 1st string and after the terrible start went 7-1 the rest of the way with its only loss a 35-28 defeat at the hands of NC State. In the 41-20 Military Bowl victory over Tulane, Drones rushed for 176 yards and a TD and threw 2 TD passes. Drones is far from the only VA Tech player returning in 2024. The Hokies lead the nation in Returning Production at 86%. 100% of the starting players on offense return.

Although not germane to conference standings, VA Tech has a manageable out-of-conference schedule, playing Marshall, Old Dominion, and Rutgers in Blacksburg and Vanderbilt on the road.

Miami on the road should be the toughest conference road game, with the other conference road games against Stanford, Syracuse, and Duke. VA Tech plays Boston College, Georgia Tech, Clemson, and Virginia at home. With 17 ACC teams plus Notre Dame and an 8-game conference schedule, the Hokies miss FSU, Notre Dame, Louisville, NC State, and SMU, the four ACC teams VA Tech misses all have better odds to win the conference title.

At +2000 this dark horse may be well worth a small wager.

Kansas beat Oklahoma in 2023. (Screenshot from Fox Sports Video)

Big 12 – KANSAS

OK, Kansas has the third-best odds to win the B12 so is it a dark horse contender or simply a contender? Because of the separation between Kansas +650, Utah +340, and Kansas State +360, I think the dark horse tag is warranted.

Kansas Coach Lance Leipold, 163-60 in his college career, was just rewarded with a new contract that will pay him $7M a year. At Kansas! At Wisconsin-Whitewater where he played QB, head coach Leipold won six Division II championships and posted five undefeated seasons. He revived the program at Buffalo, going 37-33 with two MAC E titles, three bowl games, and two bowl wins. After replacing Les Miles as the Jayhawks head coach, Leipold went 2-10 in 2021, 6-7 in 2022, and 9-4 in 2023 with a 49-36 bowl victory over UNLV.

QB Jalon Daniels comes into 2024 having battled injuries in 2023. But when he was healthy and played, Daniels generated the highest Total QB Ranking of any returning CFB QB over the past two seasons.

Out-of-conference, Kansas plays Lindenwood (?), at Illinois and a bowl rematch vs. UNLV. Kansas does not play B12 title contenders Arizona, Oklahoma State, and Utah. The 2024 Sunflower Showdown will be played in the Little Apple. One reason why K-State has better odds.

IMO, +650 with a QB coming off an injury and his capable backup no longer on the roster is not enough value for a wager, but with the B12 teams it misses in 2024 I think Jayhawks have an excellent chance to win the B12, and capture a 1st round playoff bye.

LSU could sneak up on the SEC this year? (Screenshot from Bengal Tiger Video)


Heisman winner JT Daniels and likely 2024 1st round draft picks wideouts Makik Nabers and Brian Thomas, Jr. have departed. One reason why LSU at +950 has only the 5th best odds, behind Georgia, Texas, Alabama, and Ole Miss, to win the SEC in the SEC’s first season without divisions since 1992.

Including out-of-conference games where LSU will play both USC and UCLA, the Bayou Bengals have a 2024 SEC schedule that is the 13 easiest of the 16 teams in the SEC. QB Garrett Nussmeir in relief of Daniels in the RealiQuest Bowl, brought LSU back from a 14-point deficit against Wisconsin and threw for 395 yards and three TDS. Athlon Sports ranks Nussmeier as the nation’s 14th-best QB returning in 2024. Nussmeier will have the advantage of playing behind four returning offensive line starters who played on a Joe Moore Award OL candidate in 2023.

Like USC’s Lincoln Riley, LSU’s Brian Kelly made a clean sweep of his coaches on defense. Kelly poached DC Blake Baker away from Missouri. Baker was the Tigers linebackers coach in 2021. Baker is bringing in three new hires on the D side of the ball. Baker improved the Mizzou defense from a ranking in the 90s to 33rd in the nation. At $2.5 M a season, Baker will be the highest-paid assistant coach in CFB.

LSU draws Vandy at home in 2024 and also plays Alabama (sans Saint Nick), Ole Miss, and Oklahoma in Baton Rouge. The only 2024 top 25 preseason ranked team LSU plays on the road is Texas A+M. LSU does not play Georgia, Auburn, Tennessee, Missouri, and Texas in the regular season.

With LSU playing all of its toughest SEC opponents in Death Valley, I think LSU has a very good chance of going 7-1 in the conference and playing in the SEC champ game. At +950 I think it is worth putting down a bob and a quid on the Bayou Bengals.

USC “Ducks” Oregon in the 2024 schedule. (Photo by Craig Strobeck)


OK, I can hear the guffaws over going with Traveler as the B1G dark horse echoing out of Eugene, all the way in Aiken, South Carolina. And with USC having the 2nd most difficult strength of schedule (SOS) coming into 2024, I cannot say that the laughter is unwarranted.

USC at +2500, way back of Ohio State and Oregon, has the 5th best odds to win the B1G in 2024, coming in behind Michigan and Penn State as well as behind the two Os. It’s not the Oregon eight-in-a-row games without a break gauntlet, but SC does play seven games in a row without an off week.

One reason SC’s 2024 SOS is so robust is because in 2023, 10-3 LSU is on the schedule as is 10-3 Notre Dame. However, in 2024, SC does not play Ohio State and does not play Oregon, the two teams with the best odds to win the conference title. Like Oregon, SC does play Michigan in Ann Arbor, but plays Penn State in LA the Saturday after Penn State plays UCLA in Happy Valley, and the Trojans should be favored in all of the other conference games including the games against Wisconsin and Nebraska in LA and the game in Seattle versus UW.

USC comes into 2024 with a Blue Chip Roster (50% or more of the roster being made up of 4* and 5* recruits.) SC’s only regular season opponents Michigan and Penn State will field teams with a Blue Chip Roster.

The Grinch who stole defense is gone, replaced at DC by D’Anton Lynn who in 2023 improved UCLA’s defense from the 90s in scoring against to 15 in the nation. Lynn, who coached the Baltimore Ravens safeties in 2021 and 2022, is bringing in LA Rams defensive line coach Eric Henderson, and linebacker coach Matt Entz, the head coach at North Dakota State who in the last five seasons had ND State playing for three FCS titles and winning two of the three. The only coach on defense returning for the Trojans is Shaun Nua who will be the defensive ends coach.

USC opened the wallet for Lincoln Riley and is doing the same on the other side of the ball, hiring Lynn at twice the salary he was paid by UCLA and also bringing in experienced assistants. Even without the new coaches on the scene, in the Holiday Bowl upset of No. 15 ranked Louisville, the defense played far more as a unit and did far better tackling in space.

Trojans won’t be trailing on defense in 2024. (Photo by Craig Strobeck)

And in the Holiday Bowl starting in place of Heisman winner Caleb Williams, QB Miller Moss went 23-33 for 372 yards and a school-record six TDs. Moss completed five passes of 35 yards or more with all five going to freshmen wide receivers. SC. like Oregon, will have more team speed than most of the teams in the B1G.

USC will defeat Utah State out-of-conference, and even if SC were to lose to LSU and Notre Dame, if it finishes 8-1 and possibly 7-2 in the conference, Troy will be a threat to sneak into the B1G champ game; especially, if the Ducks lose to Ohio State or take a loss in Ann Arbor with SC winning its game in Ann Arbor. Oregon plays a more difficult conference schedule than USC.

The Trojans play Wisconsin at home and in addition to Michigan and UW, go on the road to play Maryland, Minnesota, and UCLA. As noted above, no Ohio State with Penn State tripping to LA. Oregon plays at Michigan and Wisconsin on the road with the game in Wisconsin being the 8th of Oregon’s eight games in a row.

No way I’d bet on USC because I want no conflict of interest with OBD, but at +2300 if you believe that the SC D will be much improved, go for it.

Virginia Tech, Kansas, LSU, and USC, if I hit one and it isn’t SC, I’ll be very pleased with the prognostications.  Share yours in the forum-with-decorum…

Jon Joseph
Aiken, South Carolina
Top Screenshot from ACC Digital Network

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