Most Impactful X-Factors for the 2022 College Football Season
In any college football season, it's easy to point out a certain player or group that shaped conferences races and the national title conversation.
They are, in short, the X-factors of the season.
Given the importance of the position, quarterbacks tend to land the most consideration, especially from a national perspective. However, a positional unit and an entire defense also stand out as potentially defining groups for the 2022 campaign.
Sam Hartman's Health
Sam Hartman played a key role in Wake Forest's ascent last season. The dual-threat quarterback racked up 4,594 yards of total offense and accounted for 50 touchdowns, guiding the Demon Deacons to the ACC Championship Game.
Clemson has regained its spot as the division favorite, but Hartman gave the Deacs a chance to compete.
Unfortunately, a non-football-related medical issue has sidelined him indefinitely. Wake Forest said the timeline for his return is uncertain.
Without him, the Deacs are still likely to defeat VMI, Vanderbilt and Liberty. But the Sept. 24 showdown with Clemson—for which Wake would've been an underdog anyway—is an entirely different story.
Bo Nix, Oregon
The highest tier of the Pac-12 seems relatively set.
Utah, the defending champion, has an experienced group led by returning quarterback Cam Rising and steady coach Kyle Whittingham. USC's new-look group is a wild card, but Lincoln Riley and Caleb Williams are a heck of a coach-QB combination. Mario Cristobal left Oregon in good shape for Dan Lanning as well.
However, Lanning has much to prove—as does Bo Nix. The first-year coach brought in Nix from Auburn, where he flashed excellence but lacked high-end consistency.
Perhaps a reunion with offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham, who coached at Auburn in 2019, will propel Nix closer to his ceiling. If not, the Ducks won't be able to dethrone the Utes or keep up with USC.
The Big QB Competitions
The outcome of a quarterback competition can make or break a season. Sometimes, the right answer only emerges after it's too late.
In the initial Coaches Poll, Michigan ranked sixth, one spot ahead of Texas A&M. Michigan has incumbent Cade McNamara trying to hold off J.J. McCarthy, and A&M is deciding between Haynes King and Max Johnson, with freshman Conner Weigman on the periphery.
Both programs need the proper quarterback to lead their championship pursuits.
Meanwhile, Texas has to choose between Hudson Card and Quinn Ewers. The Longhorns struggled mightily in 2021, but an upgrade under center would help them make the Big 12 a four-program race instead of three.
Clemson and Notre Dame could also fit the conversation, though DJ Uiagalelei and Tyler Buchner are expected to start, respectively.
Alabama's Wide Receivers
We think Alabama is OK. Ja'Corey Brooks, Christian Leary, JoJo Earle and Traeshon Holden were all highly recruited, while transfers Jermaine Burton (Georgia) and Tyler Harrell (Louisville) had encouraging years at their previous schools.
At the same time, the unit isn't flooded with proven production.
Harrell had 523 receiving yards last season, and Burton has posted a pair of 400-yard campaigns. Among the returning Crimson Tide players, Holden has a season-high mark of 239 yards.
There is seemingly way too much talent for this receiving corps not to have a few prolific options that bolster Alabama's title hopes. But we can't guarantee it'll happen, either.
Following the 2020 season, Clemson lost star quarterback Trevor Lawrence to the NFL. However, a terrific two-game sample from DJ Uiagalelei kept the Tigers as a top national threat entering the 2021 campaign.
But it didn't go anywhere near as planned.
Against their first six FBS opponents, the Tigers never scored more than 21 points. Not coincidentally, they went 3-3 in those matchups and fell out of ACC contention.
Naturally, there is optimism for a resurgence. Head coach Dabo Swinney has consistently and passionately defended Uiagalelei this offseason, even as freshman Cade Klubnik's arrival has drawn comparisons to when Lawrence overtook returning starter Kelly Bryant in 2018.
The simple truth is that Clemson's defense is likely to overwhelm most opponents, so this offense doesn't need to be much greater than solid. That should happen.
As with Alabama's wideouts, however, it's a key variable that cannot be viewed as a certainty.
Ohio State's Defense
Inconsistency plagued Ohio State's defense in 2021.
During the opener, Minnesota rushed for 203 yards. Oregon followed with 269 yards on the ground as the Ducks went into Columbus and upset the Buckeyes. Tulsa made the next weekend more uncomfortable than anticipated with 428 passing yards.
The unit recovered for about a month, but Penn State, Nebraska and Purdue all threw the ball productively against the Buckeyes. To close the year, Michigan and Utah thrived on the ground.
Ohio State's offense hid most of those putrid defensive performances, but Michigan's sensational day running the ball resulted in the Buckeyes not winning the Big Ten for the first time in five years. Shortly thereafter, head coach Ryan Day swiped star coordinator Jim Knowles from Oklahoma State to run the defense.
Ohio State is again an elite contender, and the offense should be stellar. But this defense will determine the Buckeyes' ceiling.