Every college football team has personnel issues and question marks headed into the 2022 season. The degree and potential impact of those concerns can vary, but whether it's a team in contention for a bowl, conference title or playoff spot, finding out the answer to preseason concerns shapes how the season will play out. Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State are widely considered the favorites to make the CFB Playoff this season, but the Crimson Tide have holes to fill at receiver and on the offensive line, the Bulldogs need to reload a dominant defense, and the Buckeyes need to get back on track on defense. Outside of the top three, question marks at Clemson (quarterback), NC State (offensive line), USC (defense), and Michigan (defense) will play a huge role in determining whether or not those teams are playoff contenders or simply in the Top 25.
What players could play a huge role in college football’s national championship picture? Athlon examined 15 players and coaches to watch – some well-known names, as well as a few under-the-radar players at key positions for 2022.
15 Players and Coaches Who Will Decide College Football's 2022 National Championship
1. DJ Uiagalelei, QB, Clemson
High expectations surrounded Uiagalelei after a promising two-game stint as Clemson’s starter versus Boston College and Notre Dame in 2020. However, the California native didn’t live up to the hype, as he ended ’21 with just 2,246 passing yards and nine touchdowns while in control of the Tigers’ worst offense (26.3 points a game) since ’10 (24.0). Uiagalelei connected on just 55.6 percent of his passes, averaged six yards an attempt, and ranked near the bottom of the ACC in quarterback rating (108.65).
Why Uiagalelei is Important: Clemson’s defense should be among the best in college football. Can the Tigers get enough offensive production to win the ACC and return to the CFB Playoff? A run to the playoff could hinge on Uiagalelei’s development. And if he struggles, coach Dabo Swinney has a talented replacement – 5-star freshman Cade Klubnik – waiting in the wings.
2. Jim Knowles, Defensive Coordinator, Ohio State
Ohio State’s defense hasn’t played up to its usual standard in recent years, surrendering the most points a game in school history (25.8) in ’20 and allowing 22.8 last season. This unit was arguably the biggest reason the Buckeyes failed to win the Big Ten and earn a trip to the CFB Playoff last fall, as it allowed 35 points in a loss to Oregon and 42 in a defeat to Michigan. Ohio State wasn't good enough at stopping the run, generating a pass rush or containing the pass (ninth in the Big Ten in pass efficiency defense).
Why Knowles is Important: Knowles is tasked with bringing improvement to this unit after a successful stint at Oklahoma State (2018-21). The Cowboys ranked first in the Big 12 in scoring defense (18.1 points a game allowed), yards per play (4.6), and sacks (56) last fall. Talent isn’t an issue here, as the Buckeyes have the right pieces to rank among the Big Ten’s best along the defensive line, linebacker and in the secondary. If the defense doesn’t improve, Ohio State could have trouble getting past Michigan once again. But if it takes a step forward as expected, the Buckeyes can push for a trip to the national title.
3. Dillon Gabriel, QB, Oklahoma
Massive change is the main theme for Oklahoma going into the 2022 season. Lincoln Riley left to be the coach at USC, and former Oklahoma assistant Brent Venables was hired to take the top spot in Norman. The Sooners also experienced significant roster turnover on both sides of the ball (just eight returning starters), including the loss of two talented quarterbacks to the portal in Spencer Rattler and Caleb Williams. However, Venables restocked the quarterback room through the portal, with Gabriel coming to Norman as one of the top impact options for ’22.
Why Gabriel is Important: Although his ’21 season ended early due to injury, Gabriel threw for 8,037 yards and 70 touchdowns in 26 appearances with the Knights. Offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby worked with Gabriel at UCF in ’19, so there’s already a familiarity and an understanding of what to expect on offense. If the transition is as seamless as expected, and Oklahoma’s offense retains its high-scoring ways, it might be enough to lift Venables to a conference title – and potentially the CFB Playoff – in his debut.
4. Michigan’s Defensive Line
Physical or standout play in the trenches was a big reason why Michigan unseated Ohio State in the Big Ten last year. Replicating that play on the defensive side hinges on how well new coordinator Jesse Minter can restock a front losing Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo. The two edge rushers combined for 25 of the team’s 34 sacks and helped lead a defense that held teams to just 17.4 points a game. Although there may not be an All-America candidate going into the preseason, Minter and line coach Mike Elston have proven options like Mazi Smith, Mike Morris, Kris Jenkins, and Taylor Upshaw to build around.
Why this Unit is Important: Hutchinson and Ojabo wreaked havoc all year at the point of attack. Does Michigan have a way to replicate that production? Is one player poised to emerge as a standout or is this more of a committee approach? Matching what Hutchinson and Ojabo did up front seems unlikely for any player. But with potential depth and talent, the Wolverines can still have an effective rotation here.
5. Tyler Buchner, QB, Notre Dame
It’s not hyperbole to suggest Buchner’s development holds the keys to Notre Dame’s hopes of a run at the CFB Playoff. The former 4-star prospect in the ’21 signing class got his first taste of experience last season by playing in 10 games. The California native showcased his mobility with 336 yards and three scores on the ground but also showed work was needed to develop as a passer (21 of 35 for 298 yards and three touchdowns and interceptions).
Why Buchner is Important: Notre Dame is a heavy underdog against Ohio State and faces an uphill battle to pull off the upset. But the Fighting Irish will be favored in their next seven games before a showdown against Clemson in South Bend. That window gives Buchner plenty of time to develop as a passer and grow into the starting role. That timeframe also gives the Fighting Irish a chance to sort out a receiving corps reeling from the loss of Avery Davis in fall practice. If Buchner develops and weapons emerge outside, beating Clemson and winning the final three games to get to 11-1 (and CFB Playoff consideration) is within reach.
6. Tyler Steen/JC Latham, OL, Alabama
Alabama’s roster doesn’t have a glaring flaw, but the offensive line was a weak spot last year and allowed 41 sacks – nearly as many as this unit surrendered from 2018-20 (46). The arrival of Steen as a transfer from Vanderbilt is just one of the reasons for optimism in Tuscaloosa. The senior registered 33 starts from 2019-21 and allowed 11 sacks with the Commodores. Steady play from Steen would stabilize the left side of the line to replace Evan Neal, while there’s hope Latham – a 5-star prospect in the ’21 class – is primed for a breakout year. Also, coach Nick Saban hopes a new assistant (Eric Wolford) helps to get this unit back on track.
Why Steen/Latham are Important: Protecting quarterback Bryce Young is priority No. 1. Can Steen and Latham provide two solid anchors at the edges and bring needed improvement to this line?
7. Jalen Carter/Jamon-Dumas Johnson/Kelee Ringo, Georgia
Georgia’s defense returns only three starters from last year’s dominant unit. However, thanks to the ability of coach Kirby Smart and staff to stockpile talent, the concern level is relatively low in Athens. Carter, Dumas-Johnson and Ringo are just three of the next stars in Athens. Add in Nolan Smith, Robert Beal, Christopher Smith and a couple of talented incoming freshmen – Mykel Williams, Malaki Starks and Daylen Everette – and it’s easy to see how the next standout group comes together.
Why Georgia’s Defenders are Important: Considering how high the bar was set in 2021, matching last year’s production on defense seems unlikely. However, another dominant group is likely in store. How fast can the next wave of stars elevate this unit? With a favorable schedule, the Bulldogs should have 12 contests to figure things out before a potential showdown against Alabama in the SEC Championship Game.
8. Haynes King, QB, Texas A&M
King took over as Texas A&M’s starting quarterback last year after the departure of Kellen Mond to the NFL. However, after throwing for 292 yards and two scores and adding 22 yards rushing in the Aggies’ 41-10 victory over Kent State in the opener, King suffered a season-ending injury in Week 2 versus Colorado. Zach Calzada replaced King the rest of the way, and Texas A&M’s offense sputtered to generate much through the air. As a team, the Aggies ranked 12th in the SEC in yards per attempt (6.8) and 13th in quarterback rating (122.97).
Why King is Important: Listing King here comes with a caveat: He has to hold off LSU transfer Max Johnson for the starting nod. But assuming he does, King’s potential and upside would be a massive boost to a Texas A&M offense that finished eighth in the SEC in scoring last fall. The sophomore brings more mobility to the offense than Johnson can, adding another dimension for coach Jimbo Fisher. If King emerges as one of the SEC’s top quarterbacks and the Aggies’ downfield passing game steps up, an 11-1 record and a chance at the CFB Playoff are both within reach.
9. Jermaine Burton/Traeshon Holden, WR, Alabama
There’s a significant amount of turnover in Alabama’s receiving corps with Jameson Williams, John Metchie III and Slade Bolden gone at wide receiver, along with Jahleel Billingsley departing at tight end. But as usual in Tuscaloosa, talent is not an issue at this spot. Sophomore Ja’Corey Brooks is primed for a breakout year, and the Crimson Tide added two key weapons – Burton and Tyler Harrell – through the portal. Burton should get more opportunities in Tuscaloosa after catching 26 passes for 497 yards at Georgia last fall, while Holden (21 catches for 239 yards in ’21) seems primed for a bigger role after a strong offseason.
Why Burton/Holden are Important: The speed of Williams and steady play of Metchie III won’t be easy to replicate in ’22. But for Alabama’s offense to fire on all cylinders, Burton, Holden, Brooks and others must step up and provide consistent play on the outside. The early schedule allows the Crimson Tide time to find the right answers before a showdown at Arkansas and a home date versus Texas A&M.
10. Alex Grinch, Defensive Coordinator, USC
It’s a given USC will score points in 2022. New coach Lincoln Riley is one of the nation’s top minds on offense, and the portal additions of quarterback Caleb Williams, running back Travis Dye and receivers Mario Williams and Jordan Addison add plenty of firepower. However, USC’s place in the national rankings and race to win the Pac-12 will have an impact on how Utah’s hopes of a top-four finish. For the Trojans to challenge for the Pac-12 title, massive improvement is needed on defense. USC allowed 31.8 points a game and surrendered 167.1 rushing yards per contest in ’21. How far can Grinch help this unit progress in ’22?
Why Grinch is Important: If USC’s defense significantly improves to go with a high-powered offense, what’s the ceiling for this team? A much-improved Trojans’ squad could push Utah in the Pac-12.
11. Cameron Rising, QB, Utah
Rising isn’t a question mark or unknown like many on this list, but his emergence was crucial to Utah’s rebound from a 1-2 start to the Pac-12 title last season. The California native is now more than a year recovered from a shoulder injury that limited him to just one game in ’20. Could Rising’s play and downfield accuracy be even better in ’22? If so, it’s another reason to believe the Utes are ready to make the leap into the playoff.
12. Marvin Harrison Jr., WR, Ohio State
Losing two first-round picks is usually cause for alarm. However, that’s not the case at Ohio State, as Harrison Jr., Julian Fleming and Emeka Egbuka will fill the void left behind by Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson.
13. Beaux Collins, WR, Clemson
Clemson’s 2021 offensive struggles weren’t solely on the quarterback. Subpar play up front and inconsistent receivers only added to the pressure on Uiagalelei last fall. Collins and Joseph Ngata should be the go-to targets for Uiagalelei in ’22. Can either step up to make plays downfield and fill the No. 1 role left behind by Justyn Ross?
14. NC State Offensive Line
Can the Wolfpack make history in 2022? NC State has won 10 games just one time in its program history and has yet to make an appearance in the ACC title game. But with 17 starters back, NC State tops the list of dark-horse CFB Playoff contenders. Quarterback Devin Leary ranks among the nation’s best after throwing for 35 touchdowns to just five picks last season, and a defense that held teams to 19.7 points a game in ’21 returns 10 starters. Also, NC State already slayed the ACC giant (Clemson) last year, so coach Dave Doeren’s team should have confidence going into Death Valley this fall.
Although the list of concerns is relatively small, the offensive line lost standout left tackle Ikem Ekwonu and must do a better job of clearing rushing lanes in conference play (3.3 per carry in ’21). Getting this unit ironed out fast is a priority with Clemson looming on Oct. 1.
15. Blake Shapen, QB, Baylor
Could Baylor become the next team to make the CFB Playoff for the first time? The Bears should have a strong defense once again, but coach Dave Aranda’s squad likely needs a little more out of its passing game to get to 12-1 or 13-0. Shapen performed well in limited time (62 of 86 for 596 yards and five scores) last year and picked up wins over Texas Tech and in the Big 12 title game against Oklahoma State. Can he take the next step in his development and upgrade the passing attack? An x-factor to watch: Baylor lost its top three receivers from ’21.