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100 Things to Know for the 2022 College Football Season

C.J. Stroud, Ohio State Buckeyes in 2022 Rose Bowl vs. Utah Utes

The arrival of May 19 on the calendar officially marks 100 days until the start of the 2022 college football season. To celebrate, Athlon Sports is taking a look at 100 things to know for the upcoming year. Whether it's a player on the rise, teams with major question marks, stats to know, a small preview on a team, position battles, or just key units to watch, we've covered everything you need to get prepped for the upcoming year.

100 Things to Know for the 2022 College Football Season

New Oklahoma (100) quarterback Dillon Gabriel worked under coordinator Jeff Lebby when both were at UCF in ’19. As a true freshman that year, Gabriel threw for 3,653 yards and 29 touchdowns and averaged 9.2 yards per attempt. How fast can Gabriel and Lebby get on the same page in Norman?

Wisconsin returns the fewest starters of any team in the Big Ten (eight). Coordinator Jim Leonhard (99) lost three starters at linebacker and all four in the secondary. In addition to replenishing the defense, the Badgers need to get quarterback Graham Mertz on track. Against teams with a winning record over the last two years, Mertz has completed 56.3 percent of his throws for 1,858 yards and five touchdowns to 13 interceptions.

West Virginia (98) is the only team in the Big 12 to return all five starters along the offensive line. Tackle Wyatt Milum (just three sacks allowed in ’21 as a freshman) is a rising star to watch.

A healthy year from quarterback Phil Jurkovec should make a huge difference for Boston College’s (97) offense. In the six games Jurkovec started last year, the Eagles averaged 31.2 points a game. In the six games he missed, the offense averaged only 18.2 a contest.

Air Force’s (96) Haaziq Daniels didn’t qualify for the national leaderboard, but the quarterback would’ve ranked second in FBS by averaging 11.4 yards per attempt last season. Also, of Daniels’ 51 completions, 12 went for 30-plus yards. The senior is a big reason why the Falcons can win the Mountain West title in ’22.

Wake Forest (95) will miss Jaquarii Roberson (71 catches for 1,078 yards last year), but the offense should remain one of the best in the ACC. The Demon Deacons return A.T. Perry and Taylor Morin at receiver, while Donavon Greene (20.1 yards per catch) is back after missing ’21 due to injury. Also, the return of second-team All-ACC quarterback Sam Hartman (39 TDs) and four starters up front is enough for the Demon Deacons to challenge for the ACC title once again.

Oklahoma State (94) won six games (the most by a team in the Big 12) by one score last year. With six key starters on defense departing, along with the team’s leading rusher (Jaylen Warren) and receiver (Tay Martin), can coach Mike Gundy’s team replicate that close-game magic to push for a conference title again?

Developing a pass rush is crucial for new Virginia Tech (93) coach Brent Pry. The Hokies had only 25 sacks overall and just 16 in ACC games. 10 of those sacks came in two games (North Carolina and Duke), while no lineman registered more than 3.5 last season.

California (92) has ranked no higher than eighth in the Pac-12 in scoring offense under coach Justin Wilcox. The Golden Bears should be stingy on defense again, but the offense lost starting quarterback Chase Garbers, leading rusher Christopher Brooks, three of the team’s top four statistical receivers, and returns only two starters up front.

Just how valuable is Jordan Travis to Florida State’s (91) offense? In the eight games Travis started last year, the Seminoles averaged 32.9 points a game. In the four contests he didn’t, the offense posted only 17 points a contest.

College football’s FBS division will grow by one in 2022. James Madison (90) will officially join the FBS level on July 1, and the Dukes are slated to play a full Sun Belt slate. Two other programs – Sam Houston and Jacksonville State – are poised to make the jump to FBS in ’23.

In ACC-only matchups last season, Louisville quarterback Malik Cunningham (89) had the highest rating (163.3) and yards per attempt (9.4) of any quarterback in the conference. 

Looking for a breakout quarterback in the Big 12? Take a look at KansasJalon Daniels (88). In three starts to end the season, Daniels threw for six touchdowns and 706 yards, added three more scores on the ground, and guided the Jayhawks to a win over Texas, along with losses by one score to TCU and West Virginia.

Indiana’s offense (87) averaged 10.4 points in Big Ten games last year. Overhauling this side of the ball was a priority for coach Tom Allen, as he brought aboard a new play-caller (Walt Bell) and mined the portal for help at quarterback (Connor Bazelak), running backs (Shaun Stivers and Josh Henderson), and receiver (Emery Simmons and Andison Coby).

Conference realignment dominated the college football world last summer, and it’s likely many of those moves will be made official next offseason. However, one conference has already solidified its recent round of realignment. The Sun Belt (86) is now a 14-team conference, bringing James Madison, Marshall, Southern Miss and Old Dominion into the mix for ’22.

UCLA (85) went 8-0 in 2021 when it rushed for 200 or more yards in a game. Replicating last year’s success could be challenging with three starters (including both tackles) gone from the offensive line. Running back Zach Charbonnet and quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson are back, however. 

It’s no secret new Duke (84) coach Mike Elko has a huge rebuilding project in Durham. A task made more challenging with running back Mataeo Durant and quarterback Gunnar Holmberg departing after ’21. Durant was the team’s first 1,000-yard rusher since ’03.

The Sun Belt East (83) will be one of the deepest divisions in college football next season. Marshall and Old Dominion join from Conference USA, and the conference also adds James Madison from the FCS level. Throw those three programs into a mix that already features Appalachian State and Coastal Carolina – a combined 41-10 over the last two years – a program on the rise in Georgia State and Georgia Southern under new coach Clay Helton.

Seven Key Coordinator Hires (76-82) for 2022: Josh Gattis, Offensive Coordinator, Miami, Jeff Lebby, Offensive Coordinator, Oklahoma, Derek Mason, Defensive Coordinator, Oklahoma State, Jim Knowles, Defensive Coordinator, Ohio State, Patrick Toney, Co-Defensive Coordinator, Florida, Zach Kittley, Offensive Coordinator, Texas Tech, Mark Whipple, Offensive Coordinator, Nebraska

Help for Vanderbilt’s (75) offense (13.6 points a game in SEC play last year) could come in the form of receiver Jayden McGowan. The true freshman made an impression in his first semester on campus, including a touchdown catch in the team’s spring game.

Replacing David Bell (93 catches for 1,286 yards) was already a tough assignment for Purdue (74), but coach Jeff Brohm learned in May he wouldn’t have Milton Wright (academically ineligible). With Bell, Wright and Jackson Anthrop departing, the Boilermakers are losing their top three receivers that accounted for 203 receptions last season.

Which version of Kedon Slovis will Pitt (73) get in 2022? The one that threw for 3,502 yards, averaged 8.9 yards per attempt and 30 touchdowns as a freshman at USC in ’19? Or the one that passed for 4,074 yards and 28 scores to 15 picks and averaged 7.3 yards per attempt in 15 games from 2020-21?

Kent State (72) will miss All-MAC quarterback Dustin Crum, but new starter Collin Schlee should keep the offense firing on all cylinders. Schlee impressed by connecting on 17 of 24 throws for 238 yards and a score and rushing for 127 yards and three touchdowns last season.

Washington State (71) quarterback Cameron Ward is one of the Pac-12’s top x-factors for ’22. He accounted for 4,648 yards and 47 passing scores at FCS Incarnate Word last year and is working under Eric Morris – his former head coach at UIW that was hired to coordinate the Cougars' attack – which should ease his transition period to the FBS level. 

Only one player (Alabama’s Jameson Williams) had more catches of 50-plus yards than Jacob Cowing (seven) at UTEP last season. The pairing of Washington State transfer Jayden de Laura and Cowing is a boost to an Arizona (70) offense that averaged only 17.2 points a game last fall.

Northern Illinois (69) – the reigning MAC champion – had seven wins by one score last year. Coach Thomas Hammock’s team may not need good fortune in close games to win the league this year. The Huskies return 18 starters, including quarterback Rocky Lombardi and nearly everyone on defense. Also, NIU has a chance for a Power 5 win with Vanderbilt visiting DeKalb in mid-September.

Utah State (68)– the reigning Mountain West champions – lost Deven Thompkins, Brandon Bowling and Derek Wright at receiver. Those three players accounted for 206 of the team’s 303 receptions last fall. However, the concern level in Logan is low for quarterback Logan Bonner. The Aggies return Justin McGriff (35 catches) and brought in Power 5 transfers in Brian Cobbs (Maryland) and Xavier Williams (Alabama). Also, junior college prospect Terrell Vaughn will help right away. 

Kyren Williams is off to the NFL, but Notre Dame’s (67) ground game might not miss a beat in 2022. Four starters – including likely All-American center Jarrett Patterson – return up front. Chris Tyree and Logan Diggs combined for 452 yards last season and should be a capable one-two punch. After averaging 80.8 rushing yards a game through the first five contests last year, the Fighting Irish upped that total to 183.5 over the final eight.

The 2022 season is likely to be a make-or-break year for Syracuse (66) coach Dino Babers. The Orange have just one winning season (2018) under Babers, and outside of a 6-2 finish in the ACC that year, the team’s record in conference play since ’16 is only 9-33.

LSU (65) returns the fewest starters (six) of any team in the SEC. New coach Brian Kelly alleviated some of the immediate roster concerns by bringing in 13 transfers, including quarterback Jayden Daniels, running back Noah Cain and defensive backs Jarrick Bernard-Converse, Sevyn Banks, Greg Brooks Jr. and Joe Foucha.

Colorado (64) scored 20 or fewer points in eight of its 12 games last year. Adding to the challenge of a turnaround for new coordinator Mike Sanford was the departure of running back Jarek Broussard (Michigan State) and receiver Brenden Rice (USC) to transfer.

TCU’s (63) defense allowed 7.2 yards per play and 34.9 points a game last season. Both of those totals were the highest for the team since joining the Big 12 in 2012.

For Rutgers (62) to post its first winning season since Greg Schiano’s return to the sideline in 2020, the program needs redshirt freshman quarterback Gavin Wimsatt to deliver. The Kentucky native ranked as a four-star prospect after reclassifying into the ’21 class and arrived on campus in early September. In four games, Wimsatt threw for 45 yards over nine completions and rushed for 68 yards on nine carries.

The quarterback battle between Max Johnson, Conner Weigman and Haynes King will continue into the fall at Texas A&M (61), but the winner has to do a better job of connecting on downfield throws. Over the last three years, the Aggies have just 15 completions of 40-plus yards. By comparison, Alabama has 56 and Ole Miss has 35 over that span.

Assuming Dontay Demus (28 catches in six games last year) returns to full strength from a leg injury suffered against Iowa, Maryland (60) should have one of the top receiving trios in college football. Rakim Jarrett (62 catches) is a candidate for All-America honors, and Jacob Copeland transferred to College Park after recording 41 receptions last year at Florida.

Liberty (59) must replace Malik Willis at quarterback, but coach Hugh Freeze has three intriguing candidates. Former Baylor and Utah signal-caller Charlie Brewer could be the front-runner, with sophomore Johnathan Bennett and former Tennessee (and four-star recruit) signal-caller Kaidon Salter also poised to push for snaps.

Virginia (58) lost all five starters along its offensive line and return just three players with experience (214 total snaps) from last season. Also, two transfers from the FCS level could start at tackle. That could make for a slow transition for quarterback Brennan Armstrong under new coach Tony Elliott.

With quarterback Will Rogers (57) and 17 returning starters in place, Mississippi State can challenge for a top-25 finish in coach Mike Leach’s third season. But if there’s a concern for the Bulldogs’ high-powered passing game, it’s an offensive line losing both tackles – including first-round pick Charles Cross. After giving up 34 sacks last year, the development of two new tackles is a key storyline to watch in Starkville.

Northwestern (56) left tackle Peter Skoronski has allowed just four sacks in 784 snaps as a pass blocker according to PFF. He’s the anchor of a Wildcats’ line returning four starters and the strength of an offense looking to show marked improvement after averaging only 4.7 yards per play last year.

Georgia Tech (55) will miss running back Jahmyr Gibbs (transferred to Alabama), but the cupboard isn’t completely bare at running back. Dontae Smith (5.6 per carry last year) can pick up more of the slack, while transfers Hassan Hall (Louisville) and Dylan McDuffie (Buffalo) will provide help. But in a make-or-break year for coach Geoff Collins, the Yellow Jackets need quarterback Jeff Sims (12 TDs, 7 INTs in ’21) to show progress under new play-caller Chip Long.

Texas Tech’s defense (54) has allowed at least 30 points a game in each of the last 12 years. 

A healthy Zion Tupuola-Fetui at edge rusher should have a huge impact on Washington’s (53) pass rush (20 sacks last year). Tupuola-Fetui had seven sacks in the abbreviated ’20 season but was limited to one after missing the first half of the year due to an offseason Achilles tear.

It’s no secret Ole Miss (52) loses a lot from last year’s team that won 10 games. Lane Kiffin (also known as the portal king) wasn’t afraid to target transfers for help. Just how many transfers could start for the Rebels in 2022? It could be as many as nine. That number includes potential dynamic playmakers in running back Zach Evans and receiver Jaylon Robinson.

Sam Howell has departed North Carolina (51) for the NFL, but coach Mack Brown’s team likely has two capable signal-callers in Drake Maye and Jacolby Criswell. Bigger concerns remain for the Tar Heels up front on offense (49 sacks allowed and just two returning starters), and on defense (4.64 ypc allowed last year).

Auburn’s (50) offense averaged only 17.3 points a game over its final three matchups following a season-ending injury to quarterback Bo Nix. His transfer to Oregon leaves a void under center, and the battle resumes in the fall with four players – Zach Calzada, Robby Ashford, T.J. Finley and Holden Geriner – battling for the No. 1 spot.

Transfers are needed in a big way to keep Arizona State (49) competitive in the Pac-12 this fall. Coach Herm Edwards’ team lost all four starters in the secondary, three starting defensive linemen, quarterback Jayden Daniels, three starting offensive linemen, leading rusher Rachaad White, and the top two statistical receivers (Ricky Pearsall and LV Bunkley-Shelton) from ’21.

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Look for UCF (48) to have one of the top defensive backfields in college football this season. The Knights finished seventh nationally in pass efficiency defense last season and return cornerbacks Corey Thornton and Davonte Brown, along with safeties Quadric Bullard and Divaad Wilson. Also, FCS Austin Peay transfer Koby Perry could win a starting job, only adding to the depth and talent on the back end of coach Gus Malzahn’s defense.

Illinois(47) defense quietly showed big-time improvement under coordinator Ryan Walters last fall. After giving up 34.9 points a game in 2020, the Fighting Illini surrendered only 21.9 a contest in ’21. This unit lost edge rusher Owen Carney Jr., linebacker Jake Hansen and safety Kerby Joseph, but keep an eye on linebacker Calvin Hart Jr. The NC State transfer had six tackles (1.5 for a loss) and a sack in the opener against Nebraska but suffered a season-ending knee injury. He could be an impact player for Illinois this fall.

Reloading at receiver is a key offseason priority in Baylor’s (46) hopes of a Big 12 title. The top three receivers departed after accounting for 138 of the team’s 237 catches last season. Also, with Josh Fleeks moving to running back, no wide receiver on this year’s roster recorded more than one reception in ’21. Gavin Holmes (33 catches in ’20) returns from injury and should be a key cog in the passing attack.

With a handful of transfers coming to reinforce the roster, along with the arrival of new coach Joe Moorhead, Akron (45) could surprise in the MAC East. Miami (Ohio) or Kent State will be the preseason favorite in the division, but the Zips are poised to improve significantly under the new staff.

Iowa State’s (44) eight returning starters are the fewest in the Big 12. However, one of those is end Will McDonald IV, who led the Big 12 with 11.5 sacks last year. Even with the significant personnel losses, don’t count out coach Matt Campbell’s team from making noise in the Big 12 title race.

Replacing running back Kenneth Walker III’s production (1,636 yards and 18 TDs) won’t be easy for Michigan State (43). Quarterback Payton Thorne is poised to improve in his second full season as the starter, but coach Mel Tucker mined the portal for help again at this position, bringing in Jarek Broussard (2020 Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year) from Colorado and Jalen Berger (389 yards in two years) from Wisconsin.

Last season was the first year since 2010 Clemson (42) averaged under 30 points a game (26.3 over 13 contests last season). Also, the Tigers recorded the fewest yards per play (5.2) of any team in the ACC last fall. Better quarterback play is a must, but new coordinator Brandon Streeter also has to address concerns along the offensive line and at receiver.

Arkansas (41) has work to do on defense after giving up 29.6 points a game in SEC play last season, but the team’s biggest concern in ’22 is how to replace receiver Treylon Burks. The first-round pick of the Tennessee Titans accounted for 11 of the team’s 22 touchdown catches and 1,104 receiving yards (No. 2 receiver on team had just 337 yards).

Don’t be surprised if Stanford’s Tanner McKee (40) has a breakout year in 2022. The path for the Cardinal to rebound after last season’s disappointing 3-9 mark rests on his right arm. McKee threw for 2,327 yards and 15 scores last year and is surrounded by one of the Pac-12’s top receiving corps and five returning starters along the offensive line.

Tennessee’s (39) offense made drastic improvement under coach Josh Heupel last year. After averaging 21.5 points a game in 2020, the Volunteers jumped to 39.3 last season. With quarterback Hendon Hooker and receiver Cedric Tillman returning, expect another high-powered offense in Knoxville in ’22.

Troy linebacker Carlton Martial (38)– a likely preseason All-American – needs just 104 tackles to set a new FBS career record. 

Kansas State (37) is an interesting sleeper team to watch in the Big 12 for 2022. The Wildcats return dynamic running back Deuce Vaughn and standouts along both lines (left tackle Cooper Beebe and defensive end Felix Anudike-Uzomah). Also, Nebraska transfer Adrian Martinez should be a good fit for K-State’s offense.

The sample size was small, but Florida (36) quarterback Anthony Richardson averaged 8.1 yards per play (115 plays) last season. That mark would’ve ranked second in the SEC if he qualified. How far Richardson develops under new coach Billy Napier will have a huge impact on the Gators’ 2022 outlook.

Oregon State (35) quietly boasted one of the Pac-12’s top offensive lines last season and should rank near the top of the conference once again. Both left tackle Joshua Gray and guard/center Jake Levengood should be in the mix for first-team all-conference honors in’22.

Despite having center Tyler Linderbaum anchoring the trenches last season, Iowa (34) allowed 32 sacks and rushers averaged just 3.4 yards per carry. With four starters back, the Hawkeyes have experience to lean on for improvement, but this unit’s development, along with better quarterback play from Spencer Petras or Alex Padilla, will decide whether or not Iowa returns to the Big Ten title game.

Georgia (33) is tied with LSU for the fewest (three) returning starters on defense in the SEC. However, coach Kirby Smart’s group won’t slip far on the stat sheet with the next wave of stars ready to emerge, including linebackers Nolan Smith, Robert Beal and Jamon Dumas-Johnson, lineman Jalen Carter and cornerback Kelee Ringo.

East Carolina (32) is a program on the rise going into the 2022 season. After winning seven games from 2019-20, coach Mike Houston guided the Pirates to seven wins last fall. Quarterback Holton Ahlers and a standout backfield featuring Keaton Mitchell and Rahjai Harris headline 14 returning starters this fall. Also, ECU will have a chance to make some noise right away with NC State visiting on Sept. 3.

Over the last six games of 2021, Miami (31) quarterback Tyler Van Dyke completed 65.9 percent of his passes for 2,194 yards and 20 touchdowns to only three interceptions.

Oregon (30) already returns one of the nation’s top linebackers in Noah Sewell, but the defense has an x-factor at that position in Justin Flowe. The former five-star recruit has played in just two games over the last two years due to injury. A healthy season from Flowe would be a huge boost for new coach Dan Lanning.

29 – That’s the number of new FBS head coaches in college football this season. From Lincoln Riley and Brian Kelly (A+) to Dan Lanning (B) to Stan Drayton (C), Athlon Sports has graded every hire going into this year.

How will Michigan (28) replace Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo on the defensive line this season? Those two players accounted for 25 of the Wolverines’ 34 sacks last year.

UTSA (27) was one of 2021’s breakout teams, and there’s plenty of staying power behind coach Jeff Traylor. The Roadrunners must replace running back Sincere McCormick and lost six starters on defense, but quarterback Frank Harris Jr. returns to anchor a team capable of another run at the C-USA title. The schedule is tougher in 2022, however. UTSA gets Houston, Army and Texas to start the year and plays at UAB in conference play.

A stat that may surprise some: New Nebraska quarterback Casey Thompson (26) led the Big 12 in touchdown passes (24) at Texas last year. Thompson’s arrival is just one cog in what coach Scott Frost hopes is an improved offense in ’22. The Cornhuskers have a new play-caller (Mark Whipple) and added transfer help at receiver (Trey Palmer and Isaiah Garcia-Castaneda) and along the offensive line. Last year’s group was productive (6.4 yards per play) but struggled with turnovers and got little help from special teams. 

Related: Will Nebraska Make a Bowl in 2022?

Kentucky (25) has a new play-caller (Rich Scangarello), but the transition period on offense is eased by the return of quarterback Will Levis. Although the line has been a strength in recent years, the Wildcats lost two first-team All-SEC linemen (Luke Fortner and Darian Kinnard) and left tackle Dare Rosenthal. This unit’s development will be under the microscope early in ’22.

Cincinnati and Houston are likely to open 2022 as the favorites to rank as the top Group of 5 team in college football. However, Fresno State (24) returns quarterback Jake Haener and receiver Jalen Cropper for new coach Jeff Tedford. Also, marquee opportunities for wins are on tap with games against Oregon State and USC in non-conference play and a road trip to Boise State in October. Could the Bulldogs become the first Mountain West team to make a New Year’s Six bowl since Boise State did in ’14?

The return of Kirk Ciarrocca should be good news for Minnesota’s (23) offense and quarterback Tanner Morgan. The Golden Gophers averaged only 25.5 points a game and 5.5 yards per play last year. In 2019 under Ciarrocca’s watch, Minnesota ranked second in the Big Ten in yards per play (6.4) and tied for third in scoring (34.1 a game).

Even though Cincinnati (22) returns only four starters from its standout ’21 defense, it’s hard to worry too much about coach Luke Fickell’s group. The next wave of standouts includes end Malik Vann, linebackers Deshawn Pace and Ty Van Fossen, and defensive backs Arquon Bush and Ja’von Hicks. Also, the quarterback spot is in good shape with Ben Bryant (a former Cincinnati QB that transferred to Eastern Michigan and returned to UC this offseason) and Evan Prater.

Scoring points won’t be a problem for USC (21) under new coach Lincoln Riley and quarterback Caleb Williams, but the defense is likely to decide just how high the Trojans can climb in the national landscape. Last year’s unit gave up 31.8 points a game (the highest mark in school history) and surrendered 175.4 rushing yards and 6.6 yards per play in Pac-12 games. 

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How will Missouri replace running back Tyler Badie (20) is one of the keys to a winning season for coach Eli Drinkwitz. Badie quietly ranked second in the nation in all-purpose yards (161.6) last year. Stanford transfer Nathaniel Peat is a name to watch in the Tigers’ backfield.

Don’t be surprised if Ohio State’s (19) defense is among the nation’s most-improved groups in 2022. New coordinator Jim Knowles is one of the top assistant hires this season, and the Buckeyes don’t lack for talent behind linemen Zach Harrison, Jack Sawyer and J.T. Tuimoloau, an improving set of linebackers, along with rising stars in the secondary in cornerback Denzel Burke and safety Ronnie Hickman. The ’20 defense (5.9) and ’21 group (5.3) ranked in the top five in school history for worst yards per play allowed in a single season.

If you’re looking for an under-the-radar star to watch in 2022, check out Army linebacker Andre Carter II (18). The Texas native recorded 18.5 tackles for a loss and 15.5 sacks for the Black Knights last year.

Post-Spring Top-5 Heisman Rankings (13-17): 1) C.J. Stroud, QB, Ohio State, 2) Bryce Young, QB, Alabama, 3) Caleb Williams, QB, USC, 4) Will Anderson Jr., LB, Alabama and 5) Bijan Robinson, RB, Texas 

Houston defensive coordinator Doug Belk (12) is one of the nation’s top rising stars in the assistant ranks. The Cougars gave up 32 points a game and 5.8 yards per play in ’20 but cut those totals to 20.4 a contest and 4.9 yards a snap last fall. In addition to the play of quarterback Clayton Tune and receiver Nathaniel Dell, Houston’s defense is a big reason why this program won 12 games last season and could make a run at Cincinnati once again for the top spot in the AAC. 

BYU (11) is coming off back-to-back seasons of double-digit wins for the first time since 2008-09. Reaching 10 or more victories in ’22 will require the Cougars to navigate a schedule featuring home games versus Baylor, Utah State, Arkansas, East Carolina and road dates at Oregon, Boise State and Stanford. And if that wasn’t challenging enough, there’s also a neutral-site battle in Las Vegas against Notre Dame.  

One way for South Carolina to get Spencer Rattler (10) back on track? Big plays. After leading the Big 12 with 25 plays of 30-plus yards in 2020, Rattler hit on just six last year. Also, his yards per attempt dropped from 9.6 in ’20 to 7.9 last fall.

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An ongoing quarterback battle between Quinn Ewers and Hudson Card will garner most of the attention, but for Texas (9) to take a step forward in coach Steve Sarkisian’s second year, improving an offensive line that allowed 27 sacks and a defense that surrendered 35 points a game is just as important.

Penn State (8) is just 11-11 over the last two years. Getting back on track in 2022 hinges on a handful of factors, but the Nittany Lions have to spark their ground game in a big way. The offense averaged only 2.96 yards per carry in conference matchups and posted more than 150 yards in a Big Ten contest just once last fall. Also, no player reached 100 rushing yards in a game. Penn State’s last 100-yard rusher came on Nov. 28, 2020, when Keyvone Lee ran for 134 yards against Michigan.

NC State (7) returns one of the best linebacker units in college football for 2022. Payton Wilson (108 tackles and 11.5 TFL in ’20) returns after missing nearly all of ’21, and Isaiah Moore is back after missing five games last year. Also, Drake Thomas (99 tackles and 13.5 TFL last season) had a breakout fall in ’21. 

Utah (6) has won the Pac-12 South title in three out of the last four years and is likely to be the preseason favorite in the division once again. Next step CFB Playoff? Coach Kyle Whittingham’s squad returns 13 starters, with key voids to fill at linebacker (Devin Lloyd), offensive line (Nick Ford) and receiver (Britain Covey). A tough non-conference game against Florida is on tap, and the Utes have to play at Oregon. But if they can split those games and knock off USC in Salt Lake City, there’s a path for a trip to the CFB Playoff. 

Could the offensive line be the only thing that prevents Alabama (5) from winning the national title this year? The Crimson Tide allowed 41 sacks last season – the most under coach Nick Saban – and lost standout left tackle Evan Neal to the NFL. An interior of Emil Ekiyor, Javion Cohen and Seth McLaughlin seems solid, and Vanderbilt transfer Tyler Steen should solidify a tackle spot. How far will this group develop under new assistant Eric Wolford?

The toughest preseason debate might be which team gets the (No. 4) playoff spot. Can Clemson rebound on offense to go with an elite defense? Will Utah become the first Pac-12 team since Washington in 2016 to make the CFB Playoff? Could the SEC get three teams in with Texas A&M joining Alabama and Georgia? What about a two-loss team? Could Michigan run the table and only lose to Ohio State and get in? Is there a wild-card team poised to make a run? All of those questions were debated in Athlon Sports’ preseason prediction meeting – and this was arguably the toughest decision we had to make during the playoff era.

Three teams we will feel good about as CFB Playoff front-runners going into the summer: Alabama (1), Georgia (2) and Ohio State (3).

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