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Ranking College Football's Potential First-Time Playoff Teams for 2022

Kyle Whittingham, Utah Utes Football

No college football season goes exactly according to preseason predictions, but most projections and odds agree Alabama, Ohio State and Georgia are the heavy front-runners to make the playoff for 2022-23. If the prediction of those three teams in a separate tier from the rest of the nation holds true, the path to a playoff spot for the rest of college football is very narrow. Last year saw two teams - Michigan and Cincinnati - make the playoff for the first time, and another newcomer is possible for '22. 

Utah ranks as Athlon Sports' top contender to make the playoff for the first time this fall, as coach Kyle Whittingham's program doesn't have many glaring flaws and brings back 13 starters from a squad that won the Pac-12 last fall. Texas A&M seems primed to make a playoff trip soon under coach Jimbo Fisher, but a young roster might signal a better chance in '23. NC State's path to the playoff likely goes through Clemson, while Baylor is a dark-horse pick after winning the Big 12 title last year. USC is also on the rise, but new coach Lincoln Riley may need a year or two to build up the program's depth and defense. 

Which teams are likely to make the College Football Playoff for the first time in 2022? Athlon Sports ranks the five biggest contenders:

Ranking College Football's Potential First-Time Playoff Teams for 2022

1. Utah (projected to finish No. 8 by Athlon Sports)
Returning Starters: Offense-8, Defense-5
Odds: +425 Yes/-600 No on DraftKings

The Utes were on the doorstep of the College Football Playoff in 2019 and are the Pac-12's best bet to return to the four-team playoff in '22. The emergence of quarterback Cameron Rising and running back Tavion Thomas helped Utah overcome a 1-2 start to win the Pac-12 last fall, and both players return to anchor the offense (36.1 points a game last year). Finding a couple of playmakers at receiver and developing the right five along the offensive line are the top priorities for coach Kyle Whittingham this preseason. As always in Salt Lake City, expect the Utes to be tough on defense. This unit limited teams to 22.6 points a game last season, and despite some turnover, little drop-off is expected from a unit featuring standouts up front in Van Fillinger and Junior Tafuna, along with cornerback Clark Phillips III. Getting through Pac-12 play undefeated won't be easy, which adds extra importance to Utah's opener at Florida. A road date at Oregon (Nov. 19) looms large in conference action, but USC visits Salt Lake City on Oct. 15.

Related: Ranking All 131 Quarterbacks for 2022

2. Texas A&M (projected to finish No. 5)
Returning Starters: Offense-4, Defense-5

Odds: +700 Yes/-1200 on DraftKings

Texas A&M's path to its first appearance faces arguably the biggest road blocks of any of the teams on this list. With Alabama or Georgia at the top of the SEC in 2022, making the playoff won't be easy. It's possible the SEC can get three teams into the four-team postseason, but it's also difficult to envision barring several upsets in other conferences and the Aggies getting to 11-1 with a loss to Alabama. The talent level in College Station has increased under coach Jimbo Fisher, and the No. 1 overall recruiting class for 2022 will help to restock a defensive front under construction, as well as needed playmakers (Evan Stewart) to spark the downfield passing attack. Despite the turnover on defense, new coordinator DJ Durkin should keep this unit near the top of the SEC. The quarterback battle between Haynes King, Max Johnson and Conner Weigman extended into fall practice, with King a slight favorite after missing the final 10 games of '21 due to injury. Running back Devon Achane should have a breakout year running behind one of the SEC's top offensive lines. Outside of the road trip to Alabama on Oct. 8, Texas A&M could be favored in all 11 of its other contests. The development of the Aggies' offense behind King or Johnson will determine just how high this team climbs in the playoff chase.

Related: College Football's Most Improved Teams for 2022

3. USC (projected to finish No. 9)
Returning Starters: Offense-6, Defense-3

Odds: +400 Yes/-550 No on DraftKings

Thanks to the arrival of coach Lincoln Riley and a massive influx of talent through the transfer portal, USC should be among the nation's most improved teams in 2022. The additions of quarterback Caleb Williams (Oklahoma) and receiver Jordan Addison (Pitt) immediately give the Trojans a high-powered offense capable of outscoring every opponent on their schedule. The biggest area of concern for Riley's program is a defense that allowed 31.8 points a game and 6.4 yards per play last year. Although portal additions like Mekhi Blackmon (Colorado), Romello Height (Auburn), Tyrone Taleni (Kansas State), Shane Lee (Alabama), and Eric Gentry (Arizona State) improved the defense, this unit still needs more depth and overall playmakers to push this team into playoff consideration. Last year's in-season coaching turnover likely played a huge role in how USC performed in '21. However, going from 4-8 to playoff contender with coaching and massive roster transition seems like a big leap. 

4. NC State (projected to finish No. 12)
Returning Starters: Offense-7, Defense-10
Odds: +1400 Yes/-4000 No on DraftKings

2002 was the only season NC State posted double-digit wins in its program history. Thanks to 17 returning starters and one of the ACC's top quarterbacks (Devin Leary), the Wolfpack are poised to at least push for 10 wins - and perhaps something bigger in '22. Leary threw for 3,433 yards and 35 touchdowns to just five picks in a breakout campaign and firmly ranks among the nation's top 10 signal-callers. The junior's supporting cast needs a few faces to emerge, especially at running back after Bam Knight and Ricky Person departed, and coach Dave Doeren needs to solidify an offensive line losing standout left tackle Ikem Ekwonu. Payton Wilson and Drake Thomas lead one of the top linebacker units in college football and are key parts of an NC State defense with few question marks for '22. The Wolfpack knocked off Clemson 27-21 in Raleigh last year, but this year's matchup is slated for Death Valley. If NC State gets by the Tigers again, Doeren's team would be in the driver's seat for the ACC Atlantic title.

5. Baylor (projected to finish No. 11)
Returning Starters: Offense-6, Defense-7

Odds: None on DraftKings

The Bears just missed on two previous playoff trips in 2014 (No. 5) and '21 (No. 7). With no clear candidates marked as preseason favorites outside of Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State, a 12-1 Baylor with a Big 12 championship would be a prime candidate for that final spot. A defense that limited teams to just 18.3 points a game last year must replace a couple of key players - namely linebacker Terrel Bernard and safety Jalen Pitre - but this unit should remain a strength behind a standout front anchored by Siaki Ika and linebacker Dillon Doyle. The offense showed marked improvement last year (31.6 points a contest), and there's a strong possibility for another step forward with new quarterback Blake Shapen helping this unit open up the passing attack more in '22. 1,000-yard rusher Abram Smith and three of the team's top four receivers must be replaced. However, the Bears bring back one of the nation's top offensive lines to help ease the transition around Shapen. The schedule features a handful of toss-ups, including road dates at BYU, West Virginia, Oklahoma and Texas. 

Related: Ranking All 131 College Football Teams for 2022

The Next Tier 

With a schedule featuring games against Baylor, Oregon (road), Notre Dame (Las Vegas), Arkansas, Boise State (road), and Stanford (road), the Cougars would certainly earn a playoff spot if they can go 12-0. Quarterback Jaren Hall leads a standout offense, but the defense has to take a step forward (5.8 yards per play allowed) to push for a trip to the playoff.

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Could the Cougars match their AAC counterpart Cincinnati and make a trip to the CFB Playoff? Coach Dana Holgorsen's team would obviously need to run the table, but the schedule doesn't have an opportunity for a marquee win like the Bearcats scored at Notre Dame last year.

The 'Canes are on the rise under new coach Mario Cristobal. Quarterback Tyler Van Dyke returns after helping to engineer a late-season surge that saw Miami win five out of its last six games. Restocking the receiving corps is the top concern for new coordinator Josh Gattis. Miami's defense struggled with tackling and gave up 28.2 points per contest last fall. The schedule - at Texas A&M and at Clemson - might be too much for this team.

Oklahoma State
Mike Gundy's team was inches away from a Big 12 title last year and should begin 2022 near the top of the list of favorites in the conference once again. Better (and more consistent) play out of quarterback Spencer Sanders is a must, and the Cowboys have to rebuild a standout defense behind new coordinator Derek Mason.

Despite some heavy turnover on defense (just three returning starters), the Badgers should be stingy on this side of the ball once again. But for Wisconsin to get past Ohio State on Oct. 24 (and likely again in the conference title game), quarterback Graham Mertz has to play better (10 TDs to 11 INTs) for an offense that needs more overall production.

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