22 compelling storylines, teams, coaches, players that will dominate the 2022 college football season
Football — actual on-the-field, snot-bubblin’ football — can’t get here fast enough.
Over the last three years, those of us on the front lines have been asked to become amateur epidemiologists (COVID-19, 2020), ambulance chasers (Texas-Oklahoma ditching the Big 12 for the SEC, 2021) and cartologists (mapping USC-UCLA travel routes to the East Coast, 2022).
Someone make it reign … football again. Thank (Eli) Gold, we’re only a month away; season No. 153 of college football is almost here.
From this vantage point, the sport itself looks like a shining city on the hill because, frankly, we’re just about tapped out on transfers; name, image and likeness; monster coaching contracts; and conference realignment.
Unfortunately, they’re as much a part of the game these days as Mike Leach’s sense of, ahem, fashion. Somebody, somewhere, snap the ball and instead of snapping your fingers to get to a new conference.
We’ll be watching as Nick Saban most likely chases another title at age 71. Dabo Swinney will try to rebound and keep his own dynasty alive at age 52. Kirby Smart is just getting started, now as the game’s highest-paid coach.
Blink and a lot of it might be gone. Will this be the last Bedlam game for a while? Is Cincinnati becoming a national power? Is there any purity left in the game at all?
We’re getting close to where we can finally talk and watch some ball. We’re thrilled to be back with 22 things to watch during the 2022 college football season.
22 for 2022
1. Alabama, rebuilt: No, really. Last season was supposed to be a gap year before the arrival and development of massive talent in 2022. Saban even recently called it a “rebuilding year” despite the Crimson Tide going 13-2, winning the SEC and leading Georgia with 10 minutes to go in the College Football Playoff National Championship. Still, the Tide are coming off a tie for their most losses since 2010. (Gasp!) When was the last time a team returned the best players on offensive (Bryce Young) and defense (Will Anderson Jr.)? Go ahead, I’ll wait. If Bama doesn’t win the SEC and again get to the playoff — at least — something is very, very wrong. The biggest concern is an offensive line that gave up 41 sacks. As long as Young is running around back there, the offense has a chance. Anderson could have 20 sacks.
2. Back-to-back Bulldogs? Why not? Georgia’s defense isn’t as good. In fact, we may never see the likes of it again. But it’s still going to be top 10 good, probably second behind Alabama in the SEC. Now add in a seasoned Stetson Bennett IV. Yes, I said “seasoned.” Georgia led the SEC with 41 plays of 30+ yards from scrimmage. The Dawgs should walk to the SEC East crown and then tangle again with the Tide for the league title. Georgia lost the SEC Championship Game last year and won the national title. Squint and you can see it happening again. Don’t dismiss the Dawgs.
3. The four playoff teams: Beyond Alabama and Georgia …
Ohio State: Ryan Day has his best team since the 2019 powerhouse that was upset by Clemson in the CFP semifinal. Day is 28-3 since then with one Big Ten loss to his name. So, yeah. If the defense comes together under new coordinator Jim Knowles, watch out.Utah: Kyle Whittingham has reached the peak of his career entering Year 18. The Utes have the physically to match up with anyone and the ability to go undefeated. They open the 2022 season ranked No. 4 in the CBS Sports 131.
4. Conference realignment casts a shadow: You may be tired of it, but realignment will be a topic all season. Monsters have taken over the Earth. It remains to be seen only how big the SEC and Big Ten want to get. It’s unlikely that further expansion will happen during the season, but the shadow of those two conferences flexing will hover over much of the conversation. The SEC has won 12 of the last 16 national championships. The Big Ten has won one of the remaining four.
5. Five win-total locks: Odds via Caesars Sportsbook
Clemson — Under 10.5: There is too much uncertainty with quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei. Miami, NC State and Wake Forest aren’t going away. There’s also a trip to Notre Dame. Kansas — Over 2.5: Yeah, I know, it’s Kansas. But Lance Leipold continues to be one of the most respected coaches in the game. Assume a season-opening win over Tennessee Tech at your peril, but victories at home over Duke and TCU seem doable. A 3-9 finish would be impressive improvement for the Jayhawks. You’ll thank me at the pay window for this value play.Baylor — Over 7.5: Coming off a Big 12 title — and with certainty at quarterback after spring practice — there is too much young talent on this team to dismiss the Bears. I had to think long and hard about keeping Baylor out of my preseason top four. Tennessee — Over 7.5: The specter of massive NCAA wrongdoing under Jeremy Pruitt is now known, but that probably won’t impact this team. Josh Heupel has one of the best offenses in the SEC. That will be enough to at least reach 8-4 with QB Hendon Hooker at the helm of the offense. Utah — Over 9.0: Utah is the class of the Pac-12 (for now), and it gets USC at home. The Utes could “afford” a loss at Florida and still go 10-2.
6. New kids on the blocking sled: For all the talk about “lack of competitive balance” and “same old teams,” these five programs are in the process of forcing their way to the adult table in 2022.
Baylor: A playoff appearance could follow a Big 12 title and Sugar Bowl win.Houston: Dana Holgorsen has won at least 10 games at two different schools. Now, he’s coming off a career-best 12-2 season. The Cougars could be the class of the Group of Five.Wake Forest: Dave Clawson’s Demon Deacons played for the ACC title in 2021. Clawson wants a piece of Goliath this year.Coastal Carolina: Jamey Chadwell should be somewhere in the SEC or ACC by now. He’ll stick it out at least one more year with Grayson McCall returning behind center.Kentucky: While not quite there yet, in his 10th season, Mark Stoops has a shot at New Year’s Six bowl.
7. South Beach bullies: After 20 years wandering in the championship wilderness, Miami may have finally figured it out. The solution? Throw money at everything. Native son Mario Cristobal got a reported $80 milllion contract. Miami finally got a coach who understands the culture and can recruit his ass off. Add an NIL battleship (John Ruiz), and the plan to spend their way to a championship doesn’t seem outlandish and not that far off for the Hurricanes. But will it translate on the field?
8. Player empowerment: It accelerated in 2018 with the transfer portal. It went to warp speed last year with the one-time transfer rule. NIL made athletes small corporations. There was a unionization blip on the radar at Penn State. In other words: Player empowerment is not going away. The question is only how it continues to evolve this season and beyond.
9. NIL in Year 2: Millionaires. Cars. Shiny bling. Endorsements. These are among the parts of name, image and likeness rights after its first calendar year. We enter the second season of NIL with somewhat of a calm that has centered over the landscape. Remember when Young was going to be the game’s first millionaire? Let’s say he has company. NIL largely hasn’t impacted the game on the field despite the tiff between Saban and Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher. In fact, except for the breathless bleating from the coaches, fans don’t seem to care that much — at least not enough to stop watching. Still, there are issues with NIL, including potential competitive imbalance and inducements that appear to be happening without penalty given it is completely unregulated thanks to a toothless NCAA.
10. What’s Coach Prime’s play? Going 15-5 at Jackson State across two seasons, Deion Sanders has dominated the HBCU circuit, tweaking Nick’s nose along the way via the Jimbo beef. A lot of folks think Sanders will make a play for the Florida State job if Mike Norvell can’t get it done. The question remains: Is all the preening, panache and primping just Prime being Prime, or can he really coach? Early on, the answer is absolutely yes. But let’s see him in the big time. Perhaps the only thing more outrageous than Sanders as a player will be Sanders as a Power Five coach.
11. The Heisman winner will be … C.J. Stroud, Ohio State. The voters won’t likely go back-to-back on Young. Regardless, Stroud left a Heisman calling card in the Rose Bowl by throwing for a career-high 573 yards and six touchdowns. The Buckeyes needed every bit of it in a shootout win over Utah. Ohio State is back to its dominant self mostly because it has a dominant quarterback. It is unlikely to lose in the regular season. Fifty-five passing touchdowns are not out of the question for the smooth passer from California.
12. The Heisman winner could be … Will Anderson Jr., Alabama. There was much consternation in Alabama that the All-American linebacker didn’t get a Heisman invite. But the edge rusher who did, Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson, finished second in the voting. That signals that it’s at least more possible for that a defender to win the Heisman for the first time since Michigan’s Charles Woodson in 1997.
13. Decade of excellence? The new five-year deal for coaches is a 10-year deal. Michigan State coach Mel Tucker established a new market when he signed a 10-year contract worth $95 million at the end of a breakthrough 11-2 season. That deal upended the industry. If Tucker (18-14 in his career) was worth $95 million, what are more accomplished coaches worth? We found out in the offseason. Smart (Georgia), Brian Kelly (LSU) and James Franklin (Penn State) all got 10-year deals. Fisher is five years into a 10-year Texas A&M deal that has already been extended once. Day was extended at Ohio State through 2028. What do they say: mo’ money, mo’ problems? Not for now, but someday it might translate to mo’ pressure.
14. Which way, Pac-12? By the time you read this, the Left Coast could be going out of business by 2024 or having grabbed a third of the Big 12 to expand to 14 teams. That’s the uncertainty regarding the Pac-12’s future after the loss of USC and UCLA. An exclusive negotiating window with Fox and ESPN expired Thursday (Aug. 4) with no resolution. Commissioner George Kliavkoff has accused the Big 12 of subterfuge. The L.A. soul of the league has been ripped away. The Pac-12 will remain intact for the next two seasons. How it looks after that could be decided this month.
15. Opening daze: Each year, someone always asks whether college football is set to enjoy its best opening weekend ever. Well, here we go again because, well, wow.
Cincinnati at Arkansas: Two teams on the rise. One has been to the playoff. The other hopes to get there.Oregon vs. Georgia (Atlanta): Dan Lanning faces his former team as a prohibitive underdog. The Ducks may head South in more ways than one, while the Dawgs can get off on a strong paw.Utah at Florida: If the Utes are playoff contenders this would be a signature win in Florida coach Billy Napier’s first game. Napier himself also has the chance to make quite a statement given the home-field advantage of The Swamp.Notre Dame at Ohio State: Marcus Freeman has done everything right since taking over the Fighting Irish. Now, he must face his alma mater in his first game as a head coach. The Buckeyes, of course, are aiming to start a potential national title season with a bang.Florida State vs. LSU (New Orleans, Sunday): Brian Kelly’s first game with the Tigers comes close to home.Clemson vs. Georgia Tech (Atlanta, Monday): If Dabo Swinney’s defense is for real, it must start by choking off the Yellow Jackets as 21-point favorites.
16. Team no one is talking about … BYU. The Cougars start at No. 26 in the CBS Sports 131 and have somewhat-quietly won 21 games the last two seasons with a 5-0 mark against the Pac-12 in 2021. Warning flares should go out to Arkansas, Baylor, Notre Dame and Stanford, all Power Five teams that all play BYU in 2022. Kilani Sitake’s steady hand made the Cougars worthy of joining the Big 12. The five Cougars drafted in 2021 tied for the most at the school since 1986. BYU has arrived (again). Have you noticed?
17. Player no one is talking about … Army edge rusher Andre Carter II. With a lithe 6-foot-7, 260-pound frame, Carter has been a home wrecker for a while. His 15.5 sacks last season were an Army record. There is a realistic chance Carter could become the highest-drafted Black Knights player since Heisman winner Doc Blanchard was the No. 3 pick in 1946. (Runner-up: Syracuse running back Sean Tucker, who rushed for almost 1,500 yards and was a second-team All-American.)
18. Land of Lincoln: USC is cool again under Lincoln Riley. Will it win at a high level again? That’s the question after USC pushed all it chips to the middle in convincing Riley to leave Oklahoma. The administration paid him $110 million, bumped up the team’s budget and then left for the Big Ten. Things can change in a heartbeat, but this is ridiculous. In the space of year, Riley has been affiliated with four conferences: Big 12, SEC, Pac-12 and Big Ten (in 2024). He flipped the roster — 43 new players in six weeks. Now, it’s time to produce. Don’t expect a flip from 4-8 to playoff contention, but that seems to be the expectation … doesn’t it?
19. Year of the transfer: We’re one year into the one-time transfer era. You’ll need a scorecard to keep track of who has deserted and who has arrived. These players have worked it most to their advantages.
Caleb Williams, QB, USC: After Riley’s departure from Oklahoma, Williams’ transfer to USC wasn’t automatic. Much is expected of a sophomore who has started seven career games. Jordan Addison, WR, USC: Without NIL in the picture, no one would bat an eye if the best receiver at Pitt left for USC. But here we are, engaged in heated NIL accusations. Quinn Ewers, QB, Texas: After a prep year (four snaps!) at Ohio State, the former five-star signal caller returns to his native Texas. If Ewers isn’t the best Longhorns QB since Colt McCoy, Arch Manning better be. Spencer Rattler, QB, South Carolina: Seems like an odd fit, but it beats getting booed at Oklahoma as the 2021 Heisman favorite.Jahmyr Gibbs, RB, Alabama: Saban snagged an all-purpose talent from Georgia Tech who could lead the Tide and the SEC in rushing.
20. Game that will decide it all … Alabama at Texas, Sept. 10. This is only the second time since 2003 that Bama has played a Power Five nonconference road game this early in the season. It’s the first time it’s done so at all in 11 years. Lose this and the Tide might have to kiss a playoff appearance goodbye. (Imagine that berth hinging on the ‘Horns going 11-1!) Meanwhile, Steve Sarkisian cannot afford to get blown out after a 5-7 debut in 2021. Throw in this game being a hint of what Texas will face in the SEC, and the implications go way beyond a normal tasty matchup.
21. Game of the year: There’s a difference from the above. Mark Oct. 8 on your calendar. You’ll be able to cut the drama in Texas A&M-Alabama with a down marker. Nick and Jimbo went nuclear on each other in the offseason but made nice; in the process, a key SEC West game just got key-er. And for one of the few times in his Alabama career, Saban is looking for revenge. Has a postgame handshake (or not) ever been more anticipated?
22. New Year’s Six projections: We know the four playoff teams, but how will it all shake out?
Sugar Bowl: Baylor vs. ArkansasRose Bowl: USC vs. Michigan StateCotton Bowl Houston vs. OklahomaOrange Bowl: Miami vs. MichiganFiesta Bowl semifinal: Ohio State vs. GeorgiaPeach Bowl semifinal: Alabama vs. UtahCFP National Championship: Alabama over Ohio State