We're now less than 100 days out from the start of the 2024 college football season. Hallelujah! When kickoff takes place, it will be the beginning of a new era in the sport that has evolved more over the last couple of years than it has in decades. Part of that will be the inception of the new 12-team College Football Playoff tournament to determine the national champion.

Never before will there be so many schools given the opportunity to determine the best team in college football. No longer will undefeated seasons or one-loss teams be the only ones to have the chance to challenge for the sport's greatest prize. Now there's a chance we could see teams with as many as three losses as part of the 12-team field.

While this has created mixed reviews, it does have to excite a lot of universities whose teams have always felt like they were on the outside looking in. And now, especially with the way rosters can be flipped upside down due to the transfer portal, the opportunity for a dark horse team to go in and make some noise is a real possibility.

Two teams that should be dark horse candidates are the Tennessee Volunteers and Miami Hurricanes.

Why Tennessee Football will be a dark horse for the 2024 College Football Playoff

Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel during the Citrus Bowl NCAA College football game on Monday, January 1, 2024 in Orlando, Fla.
© Saul Young/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

Since Josh Heupel arrived in Knoxville back in 2021, he's made the Vols a real threat in the SEC again. The 2022 Tennessee football team surprised everyone when, at one point, they were ranked as the top team in the country. They eventually finished 11-2 with an Orange Bowl win.

Heupel has never had a losing season at Tennessee, and even though the team took a minor step back last season, that probably had little to do with coaching. The Vols suffered from subpar quarterback play and a litany of injuries to their offense, namely their wide receiver corps.

But it wasn't all bad for Tennessee football. Even with all their issues offensively, they still ranked in the top 25 in total offense, averaging almost 500 yards a game. Most of that was due to being a top 10 rushing offense. However, what was really impressive was the progress the defense made last year.

As much hype as Heupel's offense gets, the defense, led by defensive coordinator Tim Banks, continues to get better by the season. Banks' defense ranked among the top 25 in scoring defense last season (22nd), allowing 20.3 points per game.

What makes Tennessee football such a dark horse threat for the 2024 College Football Playoff is the potential progression. The offense should take a big step in the right direction with former five-star quarterback Nico Iamaleava taking over as starter. Joining him will be last year's top 20 SEC rusher Dylan Sampson, along with returning receivers Bru McCoy and Squirrel White.

Then, on the defensive side, you have defensive end James Pearce Jr., who already has the NFL waiting to make him a top pick in next year's draft. Plus, to fix their secondary needs, Heupel and staff hit the portal to bring in corners Jermod McCoy and Jalen McMurray.

The biggest challenge for the Vols in getting to the playoff will be making their way through an always daunting SEC schedule. But the playoff will likely favor SEC teams over other conferences, other than the Big Ten. Don't be shocked if the orange and white make the field come December.

Why Miami Football will be a dark horse for the 2024 College Football Playoff

Oct 7, 2023; Miami Gardens, Florida, USA; Miami Hurricanes head coach Mario Cristobal walks on the field in the second half against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets at Hard Rock Stadium.
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Mario Cristobal comes into his third year for the Miami (FL) football team needing to show progression. Since Cristobal took over in 2022, the Canes have still yet to resemble anything of the great yesteryear teams that dominated college football. In two seasons under Cristobal, the Canes are 12-13, which is on pace with previous head coach Manny Diaz, who went 21-15 in three seasons.

The Miami football program has been absent from relevance for over two decades now, with only one top 10 finish since 2004. The optimism, however, is beginning to heighten again with all the work that Cristobal and his staff have done via the recruiting classes and the transfer portal the last couple of years. In the last two cycles, the Canes have brought in two composite top 10 ranked classes (No. 4 and No. 7), per 247Sports.

Where Miami makes the biggest jump to be considered a dark horse for the 2024 College Football Playoff is the transfer portal class they've brought in during the last winter and spring cycles to be coupled with their recruiting classes.

The most notable addition is former Washington State quarterback Cam Ward. There's been a lot of things missing at the Miami football program over the years, but the biggest has been that of quarterback. Ward should completely change that in 2024. Ward was ranked in the top 10 in most Pac-12 passing categories last season in what was a conference loaded with quarterback talent.

That's just one upgrade, though. Joining him on the offense is Damien Martinez out of Oregon State, who was the Pac-12's No. 2 leading rusher. Cristobal loves a good running game, so Martinez should get plenty of carries. But Miami also has Pro-Football-Focus' highest graded returning wide receivers in the ACC as well in Xavier Restrepo, Jacolby George, and transfer Sam Brown. Needless to say, offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson has plenty to work with.

As for the defense, it actually ranked in the top 25 in total defense last season (24th). Defensive coordinator Lance Guidry will have a mostly new-look defensive front to play with, though, after some departures to the NFL. Between the portal and recruiting, they'll have 12 new bodies — three of which are five-stars — who will be playing beside All-ACC selections Francis Mauigoa and Reuben Bain Jr.

This Miami football team is made to not just compete in the ACC but make the 12-team College Football Playoff and perhaps even upset some teams.