It’s never too early to think about the 2022 college football season, and with the '21 season complete after the Georgia-Alabama showdown in the national championship on Monday night, Athlon Sports is here with its way-too-early top 25 preseason rankings for 2022. Alabama ranks as the No. 1 team in the very early top 25, followed by Georgia at No. 2 and Ohio State at No. 3. Those three teams are a step above the rest, with Michigan, Clemson, Texas A&M, Utah and Notre Dame headlining the rest of the top 10 for the college football preseason rankings.
The NFL Draft’s early entry deadline is still to come, along with coaching moves, transfers, injuries and recruiting classes taking shape. Also, rosters are more in transition than ever with the ongoing chaos of the transfer portal. With that in mind, this top 25 ranking could look a lot different by May, after the completion of spring practice. However, the strengths and weaknesses for all 130 CFB teams are largely recognizable at this point. The early rankings take into account early schedule projection, overall team strength, and where teams stand after the 2021 season and prior to spring practice.
Here is Athlon’s way-too-early look at the top 25 teams in college football for 2022, followed by other teams to watch this offseason:
Way-Too-Early Top 25 College Football Rankings for 2022
Nick Saban’s team is positioned for another run at the title in 2022. The Crimson Tide will return the top quarterback in the nation in Bryce Young, along with the No. 1 defensive player in college football in linebacker Will Anderson. In addition to a loaded roster with two top Heisman candidates in place, Alabama’s schedule is very manageable. A road trip to Austin to play Texas is on tap, and Texas A&M and Auburn come to Tuscaloosa. Also, there’s no crossover game against Georgia. The list of concerns for this team is small, but as the ’21 season showed, the Crimson Tide have room to improve up front, and more weapons at receiver need to be found. Georgia Tech transfer Jahmyr Gibbs should be an impact addition at running back. Alabama’s defense could lose a few pieces to the NFL, but as usual, there’s no shortage of talent waiting in the wings. Additionally, LSU transfer Eli Ricks will add a shutdown corner to a standout secondary.
Similar to Alabama, Georgia is going to lose some of its key pieces from the ’21 squad, but coach Kirby Smart will simply reload and make another run at the national championship. There’s intrigue at quarterback. Stetson Bennett could return for another year, JT Daniels is back for his senior campaign, and the Bulldogs have talented freshman Brock Vandagriff waiting in the wings. Running back James Cook is set to depart for the next level, and Zamir White could follow. However, as usual in Athens, depth and talent at running back isn’t a concern. Kendall Milton and Kenny McIntosh should become the new tandem in the backfield for coordinator Todd Monken. Tight end Brock Bowers is expected to be a preseason All-American next fall, with the receiving corps among the deepest in the SEC thanks to Adonai Mitchell, Kearis Jackson and Jermaine Burton returning. A few holes must be plugged along the offensive line, but guard Tate Ratledge returns after missing nearly all of ’21 due to injury. A defense that ranked as one of the best in recent memory is expected to lose several contributors to the next level, including linemen Jordan Davis and Devonte Wyatt, linebackers Nakobe Dean and Channing Tindall, and cornerback Derion Kendrick. However, a major drop-off isn’t expected on this side of the ball. Georgia opens with Oregon in Atlanta and catches South Carolina on the road on Sept. 17. Also, the Bulldogs hit the road to play Mississippi State and Kentucky in league play but won’t have to face Alabama or Texas A&M in crossover action.
3. Ohio State
The Buckeyes missed the CFB Playoff in 2021 for the first time under coach Ryan Day. A repeat of that seems unlikely next fall, as Ohio State should be the favorite to win the Big Ten thanks to the return of quarterback C.J. Stroud and running back TreVeyon Henderson. Day will have some holes to fill on the offensive line, and the receiving corps will miss Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave, but both units have talent waiting to step into the starting lineup. Addressing a struggling defense was the top priority for Day this offseason. The hire of Jim Knowles as coordinator should help to fix a unit that allowed 22.8 points a game and 5.3 yards per play. There are question marks about the personnel at every level, but a new scheme and approach should get this unit back on track. Ohio State opens ’22 with a home game versus Notre Dame, while Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan visit Columbus in league play. Trips to Penn State and Michigan State dot the road slate next fall.
Coach Dabo Swinney’s team won 10 games for the 11th year in a row despite an offense that managed only 26.3 points a game and ranked last in the ACC in yards per play (5.2). Change also is in the air for Clemson this offseason. The Tigers will have new play-callers on both sides of the ball after offensive coordinator Tony Elliott left to be the head coach at Virginia, and defensive counterpart Brent Venables departed to take the top spot at Oklahoma. The top priority for new OC Brandon Streeter is figuring out the quarterback situation, which figures to be a battle between DJ Uiagalelei and five-star freshman Cade Klubnik. Additionally, while the offensive line could return intact, marked improvement is needed in the trenches. The Tigers could use more consistency at receiver, but the backfield should be a strength with Kobe Pace and Will Shipley returning. Clemson’s defense is slated to lose a couple of key cogs, but a unit that limited opponents to just 14.8 points a game in ’21 will be among the best in the nation once again – especially with tackle Bryan Bresee back after suffering an ACL injury in late September.
With a win over Ohio State, a Big Ten championship, and a trip to the Orange Bowl and the CFB Playoff, the Wolverines had a breakthrough year in 2021. After exiting the ’20 season with uncertainty, coach Jim Harbaugh’s team enters ’22 on stable ground and poised for another playoff push. Cade McNamara and J.J. McCarthy will be among the top quarterback battles this offseason. The winner returns a strong stable of backs featuring Donovan Edwards and Blake Corum, along with a deep receiving corps slated to bring back several key pieces, along with the return of standout Ronnie Bell from injury. Harbaugh and coordinator Josh Gattis may have to retool a bit up front, but Virginia transfer Olusegun Oluwatimi should ease the transition. Michigan’s defense ranked among the best in college football by limiting opponents to 17.4 points a game in ’21, but ends David Ojabo and Aidan Hutchinson are headed to the next level, and there could be other losses to the NFL. Assuming the Wolverines reload along the line of scrimmage and on defense, the Nov. 26 trip to Ohio State could decide the Big Ten East Division winner once again.
6. Texas A&M
The Aggies lose a handful of key pieces from their 2021 squad, but optimism is running high in College Station for a return to the top 10 and a potential push for a playoff spot in ’22. Coach Jimbo Fisher reeled in the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class, and other prospects from standout classes should see more snaps next fall to up the talent level for Texas A&M. LSU transfer Max Johnson, Haynes King, and true freshman Conner Weigman will compete to start at quarterback. Isaiah Spiller will be missed at running back, but the backfield doesn’t lack for options with Devon Achane likely to take on a bigger workload. Tight end Jalen Wydermyer is the biggest loss in the receiving corps, as Ainias Smith, Demond Demas, Caleb Chapman and Jalen Preston are set to return. The departure of guard Kenyon Green is a big loss up front. The defense has to replace coordinator Mike Elko (left to be the head coach at Duke) and key contributors at every level, including Tyree Johnson, Jayden Peevy and DeMarvin Leal up front and Leon O’Neal at safety. However, the returning talent, plus additions from the recruiting trail in recent years, should keep Texas A&M’s defense near the top of the SEC.
The Utes suffered a heartbreaking loss in the Rose Bowl after claiming the program’s first Pac-12 title, but coach Kyle Whittingham’s team has a good shot to get revenge in ’22 with the pieces in place. Quarterback Cameron Rising was instrumental in the team’s rebound from a 1-2 start, and a full offseason to work as the starter will only help the California native continue to develop under coordinator Andy Ludwig. The backfield is set to lose TJ Pledger to the NFL, but Tavion Thomas (1,108 rushing yards) has already said that he is returning. Additionally, tight ends Brant Kuithe and Dalton Kincaid will both be back. The Utes should have one of the top offensive lines in the Pac-12 next fall. Defensively, linebacker Devin Lloyd and lineman Mika Tafua will be missed, but the depth chart featured mostly underclassmen. Cornerback Clark Phillips III should push for All-America honors. Utah opens at Florida on Sept. 3 and gets UCLA, Washington State and Oregon on the road in conference play. The Oct. 15 matchup versus USC could decide the winner of the Pac-12 South.
8. Notre Dame
Marcus Freeman’s first full year in charge features a season opener at Ohio State, a home date versus Clemson, and a road trek to USC to close out November. However, the rest of the slate is manageable for the Fighting Irish, so hitting double digits in wins should be within reach once again. Unless a transfer arrives in South Bend, Tyler Buchner will slide into the full-time quarterback spot with Jack Coan off to the NFL. Chris Tyree and Logan Diggs should form a standout one-two punch in the backfield, with tight end Michael Mayer and receivers Deion Colzie and Braden Lenzy headlining the top targets in the passing game. The offensive line, which is slated to return largely intact and regains a healthy Blake Fisher at tackle, needs to improve in all areas next fall. Freeman’s defense held opponents to 19.7 points a game in 2021 and is likely to be a strength once again, especially with edge rusher Isaiah Foskey returning to South Bend, along with the addition of Northwestern transfer Brandon Joseph at safety. Buchner’s development is crucial if Notre Dame wants to push for a playoff spot in ’22.
The pieces could be in place for new coach Brent Venables to start fast in his debut in Norman. However, the high-powered Oklahoma offense currently has a sizeable question mark. Venables’ hire of Jeff Lebby to call plays is one of the top coordinator moves for ’22, but quarterback Caleb Williams entered the transfer portal to explore his options. Williams could return, but the Sooners had to consider Plan B at the position and added UCF transfer Dillon Gabriel. Marvin Mims returns as the top option at receiver, while Eric Gray and Marcus Major will handle the bulk of the work at running back after Kennedy Brooks departed for the NFL. The offensive line lost a couple of starters and has room to improve after giving up 33 sacks in ’21. The Sooners have made strides on defense in recent years, but Venables’ presence should help this unit take that improvement up a notch. Linebacker Nik Bonitto and linemen Isaiah Thomas and Perrion Winfrey top the list of departures, but the cupboard isn’t completely bare for Venables. Both Baylor and Oklahoma State visit Norman in ’22, but road treks to Nebraska, TCU, Iowa State and West Virginia are on tap.
10. Michigan State
Mel Tucker successfully used the transfer portal to make the Spartans one of the most improved teams this past season, jumping from 2-5 in the abbreviated ’20 campaign to 11-2. Tucker’s rebuilding effort will continue into ’22 with running back Kenneth Walker III and receiver Jalen Nailor off to the NFL, but quarterback Payton Thorne and receiver Jayden Reed are back to guide an offense that averaged 31.8 points a game this year. Restocking the line and replacing Walker top the list of offseason priorities for Tucker in ’22. Defensively, Michigan State has room to improve after giving up 5.6 yards per play and struggling mightily in pass defense. This unit isn’t going to lose a ton of key contributors, but end Jacub Panasiuk (11 TFL) will be missed.
One of the best coaching jobs of the 2021 season went to Dave Aranda. After the Bears went 2-7 in his debut in ’20, the program rebounded by winning 12 games (the most in school history), claimed the Big 12 title with a victory over Oklahoma State, and captured the Sugar Bowl thanks to a 21-7 win over Ole Miss. A key reason for the turnaround was the hire of play-caller Jeff Grimes and the emergence of running back Abram Smith behind an improved line. The offense jumped from 23.3 points a game in ‘20 to 31.6 in ’21. The Bears received good news in early January, as four key senior offensive linemen are set to return next fall, giving the program one of the top units in college football. Smith is off to the NFL, and receivers Tyquan Thornton and R.J. Sneed must be replaced, while Grimes also has to settle a quarterback competition between Gerry Bohanon and Blake Shapen. The Bears were one of the Big 12’s top defenses in ’21, but Aranda is losing linebacker Terrel Bernard and needs to retool the secondary. An early trip to BYU (Sept. 10) is tough, and the Bears catch Iowa State, Oklahoma and Texas on the road next year. However, Oklahoma State, TCU and Kansas State come to Waco.
The Badgers opened the 2021 season with a 1-3 mark, yet rebounded with victories in eight out of their last nine games to finish 9-4 in ’21. A loss to Minnesota prevented Wisconsin from playing in the Big Ten title game, but coach Paul Chryst’s team could get revenge and return to the top of the West Division next fall. Rising star running back Braelon Allen powers the offense after recording 1,268 yards as a true freshman in ’21. For Wisconsin to climb in the rankings, quarterback Graham Mertz needs to take a big step forward after a sluggish season, and the receiving corps has to be restocked after the departures of Danny Davis III and Kendric Pryor, along with tight end Jake Ferguson. The Badgers are likely to be a work in progress on offense early in the year, but the team can lean on a standout defense to contend in the West. This unit paced the Big Ten in both fewest yards per play (4.1) and scoring defense (16.2) in ‘21. Each level of this unit lost a key piece from last year, including linebackers Leo Chenal and Noah Burks and cornerback Faion Hicks. The schedule currently features crossover games against Michigan State and Ohio State, along with a road date at Iowa next fall.
13. Oklahoma State
In 2021, the Cowboys tied the school mark for most wins in a season (12), came inches away from a victory in the Big 12 title game, and rallied from a 21-point deficit in the Fiesta Bowl to defeat Notre Dame. Coach Mike Gundy has work to do on both sides of the ball for Oklahoma State to win the league crown, but in a wide-open Big 12 next year, the Cowboys should be near the top of the list of favorites. A defense that limited opponents to 4.6 yards per play and 18.1 points a game faces a significant overhaul with coordinator Jim Knowles off to Ohio State, along with personnel departures including All-Big 12 linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez. The return of ends Collin Oliver and Brock Martin (19.5 combined sacks) is a good place to start the rebuilding effort. Quarterback Spencer Sanders closed out the year on a high note by throwing for 371 yards and four touchdowns in the Fiesta Bowl and is set to start under center for the fourth year in a row. Receiver Tay Martin will be missed, but the Cowboys return promising options in Brennan Presley (50 catches in 2021) and Blaine Green (21). The offensive line is in good shape, while Dominic Richardson will power the ground game. Gundy’s squad gets Baylor, TCU, Kansas State and Oklahoma on the road, with Texas Tech, Arizona State, Iowa State and Texas coming to Stillwater.
The Pac-12 North enters 2022 in a state of transition with three new coaches, but Oregon’s Dan Lanning inherits a team capable of winning the division. The Ducks open with Lanning’s former team (Georgia) in the season opener, but the home slate features matchups against BYU, UCLA, Washington and Utah. Auburn transfer Bo Nix will battle with Ty Thompson to start at quarterback, and the winner should have one of the Pac-12’s top offensive lines at their disposal. Oregon doesn’t lack for promising options at the skill positions, including receivers Devon Williams, Kris Hutson and Troy Franklin. However, running backs Travis Dye and CJ Verdell could opt to go pro. Lanning’s impact should be felt on a defense that allowed 27 points a game and 5.4 yards per play in ’21. Injuries enabled several players to gain valuable experience, and linebackers Noah Sewell and Justin Flowe return to anchor a unit losing edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux, cornerback Mykael Wright and safety Verone McKinley III to the NFL.
15. Wake Forest
Coming off a historic season that included an ACC Atlantic Division title and tying the most wins in school history (11), Wake Forest should be back in the mix to win the conference in 2022. Quarterback Sam Hartman (39 TDs and 4,228 yards) is among the top signal-callers in the ACC and returns to direct the offense. Jaquarii Roberson is off to the NFL, but Hartman won’t lack for receiving options with A.T. Perry, Taylor Morin, Ke’Shawn Williams and Donavon Greene on the outside. Leading rusher Christian Beal-Smith opted to transfer, but Justice Ellison and Christian Turner are back after combining for more than 1,000 yards in ’21. Wake Forest has ranked eighth or worse in scoring defense in the ACC for each of the last five years, but there’s hope for improvement with former Charlotte head coach Brad Lambert returning as the new defensive coordinator. The Demon Deacons lose a few pieces on this side of the ball, but the bulk of the two-deep is back, including end Rondell Bothroyd (eight sacks in ’21). VMI, Vanderbilt, Liberty and Army should allow Wake Forest to go 4-0 in non-conference play, and Clemson visits Winston-Salem next fall.
16. NC State
The Wolfpack just missed a trip to the ACC Championship Game in 2021, but coach Dave Doeren’s team still knocked off Clemson (27-21) and used a last-minute rally to defeat rival North Carolina (34-30) to finish the season at 9-3 (Holiday Bowl vs. UCLA was canceled due to Bruins' COVID-19 issues). However, ’22 could be just as successful (or better) in Raleigh. Left tackle Ikem Ekwonu is a big loss to the NFL, and the backfield has to replace Bam Knight and Ricky Person after both departed. However, an NC State offense that averaged 33.1 points a game brings back quarterback Devin Leary (35 TDs) and receivers Devin Carter and Thayer Thomas. Also, center Grant Gibson opted to use an extra year of eligibility, giving the line a strong foundation on the interior. The Wolfpack finished second in the ACC in scoring defense (19.7 points per game allowed) and is set to return largely intact. The biggest loss is end Daniel Joseph, but the linebacker unit is among the best in college football with Payton Wilson, Isaiah Moore and Drake Thomas. The schedule is manageable, but road dates are on tap against Clemson, Louisville and North Carolina.
Defense led the way for Iowa’s Big Ten West Division title and a 10-win season in 2021. The Hawkeyes limited teams to 4.7 yards per play and ranked fifth in the conference by holding opponents to just 19.2 points a game. Cornerback Matt Hankins is off to the NFL, but a strong foundation is in place once again on this side of the ball for coach Kirk Ferentz. Riley Moss is back to anchor the secondary, and linebacker Jack Campbell is among the nation’s best at his position. Despite losing end Zach VanValkenburg, the trenches will be a strength once again for Iowa. However, if the Hawkeyes want to repeat as division champs or push for a New Year’s Six bowl, improving the offense is a must. This unit averaged only 4.7 yards per play and 23.4 points a game, which doesn’t leave much room for error against the top teams in the conference. Running back Tyler Goodson is off to the NFL and will be missed. Spencer Petras and Alex Padilla will battle for the starting quarterback job, and the winner will throw to a receiving corps that’s expected to return largely intact. Even if center Tyler Linderbaum returns for his senior year, Iowa needs to get better up front in ’22. The crossover schedule in ’22 isn’t easy with games against Michigan and Ohio State. However, Wisconsin comes to Iowa City for a matchup that could decide the winner of the West.
The improvement of Arkansas over the last two seasons under coach Sam Pittman has been remarkable. The Razorbacks won nine SEC games from 2015-19 but have already posted seven under Pittman. There’s optimism Arkansas is poised to take another step forward in ’22 with the return of rising star quarterback KJ Jefferson and a deep backfield featuring young playmakers like Dominique Johnson and Rocket Sanders. Replacing Treylon Burks (66 catches for 1,104 yards) is the biggest concern for coordinator Kendal Briles this spring. Oklahoma transfer Jadon Haselwood should alleviate some of the concerns at receiver. Up front, the Hogs lost left tackle Myron Cunningham, but center Ricky Stromberg and right tackle Dalton Wagner opted to return. The defense received good news when linebacker Bumper Pool and safety Jalen Catalon announced their return for ’22, but coordinator Barry Odom lost several other key cogs, including linebacker Grant Morgan, defensive backs Montaric Brown and Joe Foucha, and linemen John Ridgeway and Tre Williams. Arkansas plays Cincinnati, Texas A&M and Alabama in the first half of the season, followed by road dates at Mississippi State and BYU before an off week. Three of the last five games are at home, but trips to Auburn and Missouri are on tap.
As usual, the ACC’s Coastal Division is likely to feature its share of chaos in 2022. Four teams – Miami, Virginia Tech, Virginia and Duke – have new coaches and another program (North Carolina) is losing its touted quarterback (Sam Howell). In other words, the Coastal is wide-open again. However, it’s hard to bet against the defending champs right now. USC transfer Kedon Slovis was a key pickup in the quest to replace Kenny Pickett at quarterback, and the Panthers are slated to return all five starting offensive linemen. Also, reigning Biletnikoff winner Jordan Addison (17 TDs) is back, with Jordan Wayne, Jaylon Barden and Akron transfer Konata Mumpfield providing support in the receiving corps. In addition to replacing Pickett, the biggest question mark on offense is the play-caller after Mark Whipple departed and was later hired at Nebraska. A defense that held opponents to 5.1 yards per play should again rank among the best in the ACC. Coach Pat Narduzzi’s group has a few holes to fill at linebacker and loses tackle Keyshon Camp and cornerback Damarri Mathis. However, Calijah Kancey (13 TFL) is among the nation’s top interior defenders, and linebacker SirVocea Dennis has earned All-ACC honors in each of the last two years. West Virginia and Tennessee come to Pittsburgh in non-conference play, and the Panthers hit the road for key ACC games against Louisville, Miami, North Carolina and Virginia.
The Bearcats are coming off the best season in school history, which culminated in a trip to the CFB Playoff and a Cotton Bowl loss to Alabama. A repeat of 2021 seems unlikely with several key contributors moving on, but coach Luke Fickell’s team is still the early pick to be the top Group of 5 team in ’22. Former four-star prospect Evan Prater will battle Eastern Michigan transfer (and former Bearcat) Ben Bryant to replace Desmond Ridder at quarterback. The winner will have an experienced offensive line at his disposal, and while top receiver Alec Pierce is off to the NFL, the Bearcats have other weapons in place, including tight end Josh Whyle and receivers Tyler Scott and Tre Tucker. With Jerome Ford leaving for the NFL, the trio of Charles McClelland, Ryan Montgomery and Ethan Wright will power the backfield. Cincinnati’s standout defense is going to look a lot different with end Myjai Saiders and linebacker Darrian Beavers departing for the next level and defensive backs Ahmad Gardner, Bryan Cook and Coby Bryant no longer patrolling the back end. However, Fickell and coordinator Mike Tressel should reload on this side of the ball, with linebacker Deshawn Pace a name to watch next fall. Safety Ja'Von Hicks and lineman Malik Vann also opted to return for '22. A Sept. 3 date at Arkansas is a key early test for the rebuilt Bearcats.
21. Penn State
James Franklin’s Nittany Lions are just 11-11 overall over the last two years, but six of those losses came by one score. Turning around those trends requires improvement on both sides of the ball, starting with an offense that averaged only 5.3 yards per play and 25 points a contest. A big reason for the lackluster production on offense was a shaky line (34 sacks allowed), along with an attack that was too one-dimensional with 108 rushing yards a game. Quarterback Sean Clifford improved from an uneven 2020 but has to take his play up a notch in ’22. Jahan Dotson is off to the NFL, but Parker Washington and KeAndre Lambert-Smith are back at receiver, while Brenton Strange and Theo Jackson return at tight end. New defensive coordinator Manny Diaz inherits a group that finished second in the Big Ten in scoring defense (17.3 ppg) in ’21. Restocking the trenches and linebacker unit tops the list of priorities for Diaz, but this unit received a boost with the return of PJ Mustipher and safety Ji’Ayir Brown for an extra year. A favorable schedule will help Penn State’s hopes of improvement in the win column. Games versus Michigan State, Ohio State and Minnesota take place in Happy Valley, with Michigan the toughest road trek next fall.
The Wildcats are coming off their second season of 10 or more wins under coach Mark Stoops. With quarterback Will Levis returning, Kentucky should squarely be in the mix for a spot in the top 25. However, the list of departures from both sides of the ball is significant. Top receiver Wan’Dale Robinson and All-America tackle Darian Kinnard are off to the next level, and running back Christopher Rodriguez Jr. could follow. Virginia Tech transfer Tayvion Robinson is likely to slide into the No. 1 target role for Levis, and the line may not drop off too much in production if Dare Rosenthal returns at left tackle. Kentucky’s defense scored an early victory when coordinator Brad White turned down overtures from LSU to remain in Lexington. This unit ranked as one of the best in the SEC last year, but pending a few NFL Draft decisions, White and Stoops could have gaps to fill at every level.
Tennessee’s hopes of a finish in the top 25 received a boost when quarterback Hendon Hooker decided to return for an extra year of eligibility in 2022. Hooker should be one of the SEC’s top signal-callers next season after throwing for 2,945 yards and 31 touchdowns and rushing for 613 yards and five scores en route to guiding the offense to an average of 39.3 points a game. Hooker returns one of his top targets in Cedric Tillman (64 catches), and Wyoming transfer Isaiah Neyor will help fill the void left behind by JaVonta Payton and Velus Jones in ’22. Tackle Cade Mays is a big loss for a line that surrendered 44 sacks last year. Tennessee’s defense gave up too many points in conference games (33.6) and must replace cornerback Alontae Taylor and lineman Matthew Butler next season. Coach Josh Heupel’s first year was a success, as the Volunteers climbed to No. 11 in ESPN’s SP+ rankings after finishing No. 50 the previous season. If Heupel’s offense continues to develop, and the defense takes a step forward, Tennessee has a chance to finish higher on this list next season.
The 2022 season marks the final year for BYU as an FBS Independent, as coach Kalani Sitake’s team will play in the Big 12 starting in ’23. The Cougars have compiled 21 victories over the last two seasons, and despite the loss of a couple of key players, there’s plenty of staying power in Provo. Jaren Hall threw for 2,583 yards and accounted for 307 yards on the ground in his first full year as the starting quarterback. Hall should be more of a focal point for BYU’s offense with running back Tyler Allgeier off to the NFL, and the return of a couple of standout receivers including Puka Nacua and Gunner Romney. Center James Empey is a big loss in the middle, but the bulk of the line returns intact. Also, California transfer Christopher Brooks committed to the team in early January to add to the options at running back to replace Allgeier. BYU’s defense gave up 5.8 yards per play and 24.8 points per game in ’21, but Sitake and coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki should generate improvement here, as the defense returns nearly every player from the Independence Bowl two-deep. Also, Payton Wilgar and Keenan Pili are back healthy after missing a chunk of the ’21 season due to injury. The ’22 slate features five Power 5 opponents – Baylor, Oregon, Notre Dame, Arkansas and Stanford – and road games versus Liberty and Boise State.
The Cougars showed marked improvement in coach Dana Holgorsen’s third season with a 12-2 mark and an appearance in the AAC title game. Holgorsen’s offense is poised for another step forward in ’22 with quarterback Clayton Tune, running back Alton McCaskill and receiver Nathaniel Dell in place. Improving along the offensive line is a must after giving up 38 sacks, and center Kody Russey must be replaced. Houston’s defense gave up 5.8 yards per play and 32 points a game in 2020 but cut those numbers to 4.93 a snap and 20.4 points per contest behind rising star coordinator Doug Belk. This unit must replace standout cornerback Marcus Jones and a few other pieces, but Belk should keep the defense near the top of the AAC. Houston has two opportunities for wins against Power 5 opponents (at Texas Tech and Kansas), along with a non-conference matchup at UTSA. The Cougars are also slated to host Cincinnati in league play.
The Next Tier
The Hurricanes now seem to have the right coach, but how fast can Mario Cristobal turn things around in Coral Gables? Quarterback Tyler Van Dyke should be among the ACC’s top signal-callers, but the receiving corps needs to be restocked after Mike Harley and Charleston Rambo departed, and the defense has to take a big step forward after giving up 28.4 points a game in ’21.
27. Fresno State
Jeff Tedford returns to the sidelines in Fresno after Kalen DeBoer took the top spot at Washington. The Bulldogs could be the early favorite in the Mountain West thanks to the return of quarterback Jake Haener, running back Jordan Mims and receiver Jalen Cropper. Non-conference matchups versus Oregon State and USC give Fresno State a chance to make some noise in September.
Lincoln Riley won’t fix everything that ails USC in one offseason, but there should be noticeable improvement from this program in 2022. If the Trojans don’t land a transfer, Jaxson Dart will get the nod under center, inheriting the controls for Riley’s high-powered attack. Receiver Drake London will be missed, but the offense returns Tahj Washington, Gary Bryant and Kyle Ford on the outside. The arrival of assistant Josh Henson, as well as Virginia transfer Bobby Haskins, should bolster the line. A defense that allowed 31.8 points a game should improve under the direction of coordinator Alex Grinch, but there are key question marks to address. The secondary lost cornerbacks Chris Steele and Isaac Taylor-Stuart to the NFL, and edge rusher Drake Jackson also took his talents to the next level. Tuli Tuipulotu and Korey Foreman provide a good foundation for Grinch to build around in the trenches. The road schedule – at UCLA, Arizona, Utah, Oregon State and Stanford – is manageable and Notre Dame comes to the Coliseum to close out the regular season. Riley inherits a team with question marks, but enough talent remains to push for a finish in the top 25 next fall.
Intrigue surrounds Brian Kelly’s Bayou Bengals for 2022. LSU has more talent in the program than the ’21 record (6-7) would suggest, but how fast will it all fall into place for the new staff? The return of Myles Brennan is big for the quarterback room, while the passing game will benefit from a healthy Kayshon Boutte at receiver. The offensive line and defense are a concern going into next season.
30. Coastal Carolina
Quarterback Grayson McCall has powered Coastal Carolina to a 22-3 mark over the last two years, but coach Jamey Chadwell will have to count on his signal-caller even more in ’22. The Chanticleers face a rebuilding effort up front, a handful of key seniors on defense are departing, and tight end Isaiah Likely is off to the NFL.
Other Teams to Watch
Quarterback Haaziq Daniels, fullback Brad Roberts and receiver Micah Davis return to lead an Air Force team that quietly won 10 games in 2021. The Falcons have a few holes to plug up front and on defense, but coach Troy Calhoun’s squad gets Colorado, Navy and Boise State in Colorado Springs.
The Mountaineers have won at least nine games in seven consecutive years and return quarterback Chase Brice and running backs Camerun Peoples and Nate Noel for another run at the Sun Belt title.
Tank Bigsby is back, and Auburn’s defense should be strong once again. However, the Tigers have a big question mark at quarterback and concerns at receiver and along the offensive line.
Receiver Khalil Shakir is off to the NFL, but the Broncos return quarterback Hank Bachmeier and running back George Holani. Improving the offensive line and defense (5.5 yards per play allowed) top the list of priorities for second-year coach Andy Avalos.
The Gators should improve under first-year coach Billy Napier, but how high can this team climb in 2022? More consistency and production at the quarterback spot is a must, and the Gators need to improve significantly on defense (26.8 points a game allowed in ’21).
The return of quarterback Jordan Travis, as well as a few additions through the transfer portal and an improving offensive line, should give the Seminoles a chance for the program’s first winning record since 2017. Replacing defensive lineman Jermaine Johnson won’t be easy.
Brock Purdy and Breece Hall are gone, but the Cyclones will still be a tough out in the Big 12 under coach Matt Campbell.
The combination of Adrian Martinez and Deuce Vaughn makes the Wildcats a team to watch in the Big 12 next fall.
The Ragin’ Cajuns are coming off a Sun Belt title, but Billy Napier is now the head coach at Florida, and quarterback Levi Lewis and lineman O’Cyrus Torrence headline the list of key departures.
Taulia Tagovailoa to Rakim Jarrett should be one of the Big Ten's top connections in 2022. The Terrapins need to make big strides on defense (30.7 points a game allowed in '21) to move up the pecking order in the East Division.
If the right pieces fall into place, the Golden Gophers can challenge Iowa and Wisconsin for the top spot in the Big Ten West Division. The return of Kirk Ciarrocca as play-caller is a huge boost for the offense and quarterback Tanner Morgan. The backfield is deep with proven options, but a revamped offensive line is a concern. Also, Minnesota lost several key defenders off a group that limited teams to 17.3 points a game.
The Bulldogs improved their win total by three in coach Mike Leach’s second year, and came within a couple of plays from a few more wins, as four of the team’s losses came by 10 points or less. Quarterback Will Rogers is among the SEC’s top signal-callers next season, and with the bulk of the two-deep returning, a top-25 finish is within reach. Left tackle Charles Cross and cornerback Martin Emerson departed for the NFL.
The 2022 season is a make-or-break year for Scott Frost in Lincoln.
The Tar Heels have to replace quarterback Sam Howell, but the roster talent has increased under coach Mack Brown.
Lane Kiffin’s Rebels finished 10-3 in 2021 but will look significantly different in ‘22. Quarterback Matt Corral is off to the NFL, and both sides of the ball are set to have new coordinators. Running backs Jerrion Ealy and Snoop Conner and receiver Dontario Drummond declared for the NFL Draft.
Jonathan Smith has Oregon State trending in the right direction. The Beavers return quarterback Chance Nolan, but running back B.J. Baylor and standout linebacker Avery Roberts departed for the NFL. Oregon State’s defense (6.1 yards per play allowed in conference games) needs to improve under new play-caller Trent Bray.
Last year's win total (nine) was the best mark for Purdue under coach Jeff Brohm. Quarterback Aidan O'Connell will return, but the Boilermakers lost receiver David Bell and edge rusher George Karlaftis early to the NFL.
San Diego State
The Aztecs posted a new school record for wins (12) and capped the season with a bowl victory over UTSA. Finishing in the top 25 should be within reach, but coach Brady Hoke lost a handful of key players, including punter Matt Araiza, offensive lineman William Dunkle, running back Greg Bell, quarterback Lucas Johnson, and defensive lineman Cameron Thomas.
The arrow is trending up on Shane Beamer’s program entering 2022. The Gamecocks exceeded preseason expectations with a 7-6 record and followed up the on-field success with a huge addition in the transfer portal in former Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler. The junior immediately boosts South Carolina’s quarterback room to among the best in the SEC. Also, receiver Josh Vann opted to return for an extra year, giving Rattler a No. 1 target in ’22. Kingsley Enagbare will be missed on defense, but the Gamecocks received good news when Zacch Pickens and Jordan Strachan opted to return next fall. Swing games versus Florida, Kentucky and Arkansas take place on the road, but Rattler’s arrival should help South Carolina push for a spot in the top 25.
New coach Sonny Dykes inherits a team that went 5-7, but a quick return to a winning mark could be in store for ’22. Quarterbacks Max Duggan and Chandler Morris are back and receiver Quentin Johnston headlines the skill talent. TCU’s defense has room to improve after giving up 7.2 yards per play last year.
Can the Longhorns take a step forward in coach Steve Sarkisian’s second year? The arrival of Ohio State transfer Quinn Ewers upgrades the quarterback spot, but Texas has to get better up front and on defense.
Running back DeWayne McBride and a stingy defense power a UAB team ready to push UTSA again at the top of Conference USA.
The Knights finished coach Gus Malzahn’s first year with a solid 9-4 mark. UCF should be in the mix for a spot in the AAC title game next season, especially with a favorable schedule featuring home dates versus Cincinnati, SMU, Georgia Tech and Louisville is on tap, along with the return of quarterback Mikey Keene and running back Isaiah Bowser.
The 8-4 mark in 2021 was the Bruins’ best season under coach Chip Kelly. Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson could return as a super senior, but there’s too much uncertainty on defense to rank UCLA in the top 25 right now.
The defending Mountain West champs will be in the mix again, but coach Blake Anderson’s staff has to replace several key seniors on both sides of the ball. Wyoming transfer Levi Williams will battle Cooper Legas for the No. 1 spot at quarterback.
Dynamic running back Sincere McCormick tops the list of key departures for coach Jeff Traylor’s team. However, quarterback Frank Harris is back, giving the Roadrunners a chance to repeat as Conference USA champs. A tough non-conference slate awaits with games against Houston, Army and Texas in 2022.
New coach Tony Elliott inherits one of the nation’s top quarterbacks in Brennan Armstrong.
New coach Kalen DeBoer should immediately improve the Huskies’ struggling offense. Indiana transfer Michael Penix Jr. is an intriguing addition to the quarterback room.
New coach Jake Dickert kept the Cougars rolling despite a ton of turmoil in Pullman in 2021. However, quarterback Jayden de Laura entered the transfer portal on Jan. 7.