College Football: B/R Experts Answer Biggest Questions for 2022 Season
College football season—wait, take a deep breath—is back.
For the next four months, we'll spend our Saturdays virtually welcoming 131 Football Bowl Subdivision teams (and occasional lower-division visitors) into our homes. Once in a while, you and I may personally travel into their environments too.
The tailgates, the sun-soaked games in the South, the brisk afternoons in the Midwest and early mornings in the West—they're no longer on the horizon. It's all here.
And it's time to chase a national title.
Every week, B/R's panel of experts will provide picks and more. Your crew for 2022 is Max Escarpio, David Kenyon, Adam Kramer, Kerry Miller, Morgan Moriarty and Brad Shepard.
In this preseason edition, we're looking at storylines, sleeper teams, Heisman Trophy candidates, the College Football Playoff and more.
What's Your Favorite Storyline for 2022?
I can't wait to see which transfer-portal moves have the biggest on-field impact.
Schools that made the biggest splashes in the portal include Alabama, Oklahoma, USC, Ole Miss and Texas.
Alabama is always a playoff contender. But a player such as Georgia Tech transfer running back Jahmyr Gibbs can elevate the Alabama offense to new heights in 2022.
Oklahoma is beginning a new era under head coach Brent Venables; can UCF transfer quarterback Dillon Gabriel lead the Sooners to a playoff berth? Lincoln Riley brought a ton of talent with him to USC from Oklahoma, including quarterback Caleb Williams. Is it enough to help the Trojans navigate a tough schedule?
Ole Miss and Texas have outside shots to contend. Still, both teams landed big names from the portal, including Rebels quarterback Jaxson Dart (from USC) and running back Zach Evans (from TCU) and Longhorns quarterback Quinn Ewers (from Ohio State).
From the 2017 season through 2020, the national hierarchy stayed overwhelmingly consistent.
Clemson (ACC), Ohio State (Big Ten) and Oklahoma (Big 12) won their respective conference each year. Alabama (SEC) and Oregon (Pac-12) both earned two league titles, and Alabama made the CFP in another one of those years too.
Overall, the quintet of Bama, Clemson, independent/ACC Notre Dame, Ohio State and OU combined for 14 of the 16 CFP qualifiers in that four-year stretch.
But the 2021 season brought a power shift. Pitt claimed the ACC, while Michigan ascended in the Big Ten and Baylor took the Big 12. Utah finally broke through in the Pac-12, as well.
Will the changing of the championship guard be temporary? Will the traditional powers—namely Clemson, Ohio State and OU—regain their place? Or can an NC State or Miami or Wisconsin, Iowa, Oklahoma State, etc., create a trend?
Which Preseason AP Top 25 Team Are You Not Buying?
The Pitt Panthers face an interesting start to the season with home matchups against West Virginia and Tennessee. They don’t have a grueling schedule in 2022, but a No. 17 ranking for a team with a new quarterback and offensive coordinator in Frank Cignetti Jr. doesn’t seem right.
There are two extremes in this situation. Head coach Pat Narduzzi may put the Panthers in a good position to compete for an ACC title, or Pitt’s offense could struggle to regain its previous form. The main hype around Narduzzi’s team is welcoming back a proven defensive line with players such as Calijah Kancey, Tyler Bentley and David Green.
USC transfer Kedon Slovis won the quarterback battle against Nick Patti. That decision could settle the offensive unit after it brought back every starter on the line in front of a quality running back room. The offense is just too disorderly to place the Panthers above competitive SEC squads such as Kentucky and Ole Miss.
Pitt. Look, I don't mean to throw shade at Narduzzi, but the Panthers will have a down year. This isn't a particularly strong take, either, especially considering the losses of Heisman Trophy finalist Kenny Pickett and star receiver Jordan Addison.
There's a lot of hype surrounding Slovis, and I do believe that starting Slovis—who played in 27 games for the Trojans over three seasons—makes the Panthers' quarterback situation not completely dire. But he can't match the experience that Pickett had for five seasons in the Pitt system.
Maybe Slovis will prove me wrong, but having Pitt at No. 17 is quite high.
The Baylor Bears. I know, I know…doubt Dave Aranda at your own risk. But last year’s team of destiny was senior-laden and had leadership that seems impossible to replace.
I buy Baylor finishing in the Top 25, but ranking the Bears 10th is way, way high. Why? You can’t just replace a pair of runners such as Abram Smith and Trestan Ebner, who combined for 2,759 yards from scrimmage and 16 touchdowns in 2021. Yes, Blake Shapen beat out the now-transferred Gerry Bohanon for the QB1 job, but it’s asking a lot to step in and star.
While Aranda normally has a salty defense, the back seven has several holes, especially having to replace safeties Jalen Pitre and JT Woods, linebacker Terrel Bernard and cornerback Raleigh Texada. The recruiting just hasn’t been strong enough to think it’ll magically be fixed.
Which Unranked Team Do You Love?
First-year head coach Brian Kelly will take the helm of the LSU Tigers this fall. Their success rests on the decision-making of their starting quarterback and the consistency they show against top-level talent.
If Arizona State transfer quarterback Jayden Daniels can find some of the magic he was working with in 2019, he’ll have the necessary weapons to thrust this team into the Top 25. The Tigers have some of the top receivers in the country yet again—including potential superstar Kayshon Boutte, who can make their offense explosive.
Kelly doesn’t stand for teams without structure. He’ll need a commanding offense that’s ready to face Alabama, Tennessee, Auburn and Texas A&M. He may not have fared well against SEC talent in the past, but Kelly has no choice if he wants to get LSU back in playoff form.
Listen, "love" is a strong word. I don't "love" Texas. It's hard to "love" anyone who has betrayed your trust in the type of spectacular, repetitive fashion that the Longhorns have in recent years.
But, come on, how in the world is this team not ranked?
Bijan Robinson is an absolute star at running back—and his "Bijan Mustardson" NIL deal is worth at least a few Heisman brownie points. Quinn Ewers is supposed to be the next big thing at quarterback, and Hudson Card is one heck of a backup plan if Ewers falls flat on his redshirt freshman face.
And thanks in no small part to the additions of former Alabama guys Agiye Hall (though he's suspended for now) and Jahleel Billingsley, the receiving corps should be stacked. Combine all that with Steve Sarkisian's offensive genius fully rooted in year No. 2 and Texas really should have one of the five most prolific offenses in the country.
I do "love" the potential for points. I don't love the perennially underachieving defense or the difficulty of the schedule (four games against preseason AP Top 12 teams) enough to pick Texas to reach a New Year's Six bowl. But I could see it happening.
What Are You Most Excited to Watch?
This is a difficult question this time of year, many months removed from the last real football game. While I could tell you a team or a player or a conference, I prefer to highlight something much larger—something with far greater purpose.
I cherish it. I seek it. And college football, through all of the missed field goals, blown calls and massive, field-storming upsets, delivers in a way no other sport can.
I am excited to watch Hawai’i play football at ungodly hours. I am excited to watch two middling Big Ten teams play before lunch. I am excited for really good football teams to play really important football games on college campuses. And I am excited to debate and process it all to the point of exhaustion.
Bring me all of it.
How about quarterbacks in the ACC?
Clemson has a fascinating situation with returning starter DJ Uiagalelei and star freshman Cade Klubnik. Uiagalelei was brilliant in temporary relief of Trevor Lawrence two years ago but then struggled badly for most of 2021. Klubnik—a top prospect just like Uiagalelei—is pushing for snaps.
However, there's also NC State's Devin Leary, Miami's Tyler Van Dyke, Wake Forest's Sam Hartman (when healthy), Virginia's Brennan Armstrong and even Virginia Tech's Grant Wells, a transfer from Marshall. All five finished in the top 16 nationally in passing yards per game last season.
And we're not even close to finished.
Louisville's dual-threat star Malik Cunningham is a thrilling talent, and Boston College's Phil Jurkovec has NFL potential. Florida State's Jordan Travis and Georgia Tech's Jeff Sims are experienced starters, along with Slovis at Pitt.
Which Transfer Makes the Most Significant Impact?
The boring answer here is also the correct one. Caleb Williams was perhaps the biggest portal prize, and when he followed coach Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma to USC, it immediately elevated the Trojans into at least a Pac-12 contender.
Collectively, Riley’s transfer haul to L.A. is amazing, with receivers Jordan Addison and Mario Williams and running backs Travis Dye and Austin Jones. But Williams is the maestro who can make it all soar. Those pieces mean nothing without a guy who can get them all the ball.
To me, "significant impact” means you elevate the team’s win total. These won’t be the same Trojans with Williams at the helm.
Seconded on Williams and win impact, so let's take a different angle. Incidentally, it's the player he replaced at Oklahoma.
The preseason Heisman Trophy favorite in 2021, Spencer Rattler had a frustrating year. Remove the game against FCS school Western Carolina, and he tossed five touchdowns with five interceptions and just 7.6 yards per pass attempt in the Sooners' first five games of the season. Williams entered in the victory over Texas and basically never left.
Rattler transferred after the season, joining former OU assistant Shane Beamer at South Carolina. And, man, did the Gamecocks need that.
Last year, they started four different QBs—including Zeb Noland, who shifted from the coaching staff to the huddle after an injury to Luke Doty. The patchwork group managed to throw for 2,548 yards and 21 touchdowns.
Rattler can provide the stability that the offense simply did not have in 2021. Opposite a merciless schedule, it's a much-needed boost for the Gamecocks, too.
Which G5 Team Reaches a New Year's 6 Bowl?
Conventional wisdom says Cincinnati, right? If it ain't broke, don't fix it. And while the Bearcats have gone 0-2 in the New Year's Six over the past two seasons, they haven't lost a regular-season football game since before COVID-19 turned into a pandemic.
However, Cincinnati did lose more players as NFL draft picks (nine) than all other teams not named Georgia and LSU. Although those SEC teams just reload year after year with highly touted recruiting classes, the Bearcats don't have that luxury.
I love me some Luke Fickell as the head coach of this squad, but the Bearcats will miss Desmond Ridder, Jerome Ford, Alec Pierce and those six starters on defense.
I'm not saying Cincinnati will be bad. Heck, if it wins Week 1 at Arkansas, it probably should go 12-0 against what is otherwise a weak schedule. But the Bearcats will slip just enough to allow Houston to win the AAC and represent the Group of Five in the Cotton Bowl.
If it's not the AAC champion in the NY6 for what would be the first time since 2016, though, my money would be on Fresno State. Jeff Tedford is back as head coach after a two-year hiatus for health reasons, and he's inheriting a way better roster than the last time he took over this program in 2017.
Early games against the Pac-12's Oregon State and USC will immediately test the Bulldogs' mettle and could knock them out of the NY6 conversation in a hurry, but they should be the team to beat in the Mountain West.
One way or another, the AAC's streak will continue. Cincinnati and Houston are prime contenders, and both SMU and UCF are quality teams.
The wild card to remember is BYU.
While the Cougs are headed to the Big 12 next season, they're technically not a power-conference team yet. The roster—led by dual-threat QB Jaren Hall—is very experienced, though, and BYU has no shortage of opportunities for key wins.
BYU hosts Baylor, travels to Oregon, plays Notre Dame in Las Vegas and hosts Arkansas. That's a tough schedule, for sure, but a 2-2 mark in those contests may be an excellent result.
Win the rest, and BYU has NY6 potential.
Who Wins the Heisman Trophy?
It’s going to be C.J. Stroud, and I understand how boring that is.
Stroud was the favorite to win this award last year before Alabama's Bryce Young erupted and Ohio State fell apart against Michigan. While he started off a little shaky, the talent eventually took over.
For the year, Stroud accounted for 44 touchdowns and only six interceptions. He threw for more than 4,400 yards, including 573 in the Rose Bowl. Although he lost two wideouts to the first round of the NFL draft in Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave, he still has a loaded group to throw to. He’ll also play behind an excellent offensive line.
All of the pieces are in place for Stroud, who will also get the majority of his biggest games at home. Ohio State plays Notre Dame, Wisconsin and Michigan in Columbus, which will help his campaign further.
And let’s be honest: To win the Heisman, you probably need to be a QB. He plays for the right team and in the right offense.
He’s the guy.
The trendy pick is Alabama edge-rusher Will Anderson Jr., and with last year’s winner (teammate Bryce Young) returning, it’s hard to deviate from him. But you can’t ignore Ohio State’s Stroud. This feels like his year.
Anybody who was worried about how the post-Olave and Wilson era would look should have had any concerns alleviated in the Rose Bowl. With Jaxon Smith-Njigba (347 yards receiving in that game), Marvin Harrison Jr. and a cast of young, talented playmakers in the receiving corps, Stroud has an elite arsenal.
Opponents must respect running back TreVeyon Henderson (another Heisman candidate) too. All that sets up nicely for Stroud to have a mammoth year on his way to being the top QB taken in the NFL draft.
CFP Teams and National Champion?
Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide and Ryan Day’s Buckeyes are the easy choice to play on New Year’s Eve. Alabama will be placed in the No. 1 slot and Ohio State at No. 2. While Georgia is probably an obvious selection to play in the CFP, the fourth team is still a mystery.
If Clemson can find consistency at quarterback, the Tigers may steer their way back into the CFP. They had arguably their worst season since 2014 last year, so head coach Dabo Swinney and Co. will show no mercy in their possible "return."
With the return of Bryce Young and Will Anderson Jr., it’s Alabama’s title to lose.
First two: Alabama—my title pick—and Ohio State. Nothing surprising there, considering Alabama's all-around excellence and Ohio State's offense.
Georgia needs to avoid an early loss but otherwise should waltz back to the CFP. Really, this schedule is incredibly easy compared to what it could be. Georgia avoids Alabama, Texas A&M, Arkansas, Ole Miss and LSU in SEC crossover games.
The last one is Clemson, primarily because the defense should be sensational. I have concerns about the offense, and that'll be the Tigers' undoing eventually. It will be tough to beat Clemson if you can't score, though.
My final teams are Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson and Georgia. Yes, it will be chalky. And yes, Clemson will find just enough offense and Georgia will reload just in time.
In the title game, we will get Alabama and Ohio State. Both of these teams will live up to the preseason standing, assuming both can stay healthy.
My title pick is Ohio State. The Buckeyes will win with both offense and defense, and Day will get his title. To me, it’s not just Stroud. It’s the many weapons on offense, the evolution of the defense and the development of a really deep roster.
It's the Buckeyes' year.
Per usual, I'll give you three boring picks and one eyebrow-raiser: Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia...and the Miami Hurricanes. They'll need to pull off a road stunner—either at Texas A&M on Sept. 17 or at Clemson on Nov. 19—but the rest of the schedule is doable for an 11-1 finish. From there, win the ACC championship and The U is back, baby!
However, the 'Canes will get trounced by No. 1 seed Alabama in the semifinals, followed by the Crimson Tide repeating their 2020 feat with a convincing national championship victory over Ohio State.
Clemson, Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State. Alabama will win the national title. I know that may sound boring and predictable, but the Crimson Tide are in a much better spot to reload than the Bulldogs.
Georgia should go undefeated during the regular season thanks to a pretty favorable schedule. Even if the Dawgs lose in the SEC title game to Alabama, they'll probably still be in a good spot to make it in. Clemson and Ohio State should have no problems winning their respective conferences.
Given all Alabama’s superstars, I’d be shocked if the Crimson Tide didn’t win the title. The defense may be the best ‘Bama has trotted onto the field in a decade, and Young is still running the offensive show.
The tough question is who—beyond Ohio State—will join them? Clemson feels like a strong guess to rebound if the defense is healthy and the Tigers get any improvement at quarterback.
That final spot is a blind guess. I’m going to go out on a limb and say "why not Utah?” If the Utes get past an early-season test at Florida, the only real roadblocks are USC and Oregon. It’s no fun going status quo, so we’ll roll with Kyle Whittingham.