Ranking Top 10 Contenders for the CFB Playoff in 2022

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistJanuary 3, 2022

Ranking Top 10 Contenders for the CFB Playoff in 2022

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    After Alabama and Georgia advanced to the national championship game from Friday's College Football Playoff semifinals, we can look ahead to the 2022 season.

    No matter how excited we are about a Crimson Tide-Bulldogs rematch, it's always fun to take a glimpse into the future.

    The 2021 CFP brought us all some new, welcome blood with the Group of Five powerhouse Cincinnati Bearcats running the table, dominating Notre Dame, Indiana and an American Athletic Conference schedule and waltzing into the final four. Though that was their ceiling, it still made for a terrific story.

    Same goes for Jim Harbaugh's Michigan Wolverines, who surprised everybody by living up to the perennial elite expectations the season after the much-maligned coach restructured his contract. 

    Can the '22 playoffs have some similar Cinderellas? Of course it can, but we'd be remiss to not recognize some of the usual suspects, too. Those guys abound, and while the Bearcats expect to rebuild next year, other great stories can replace them.

    Let's rank the top playoff contenders for next season, taking into consideration the players currently on the roster (note these can change with premature defections to the NFL).

10. Texas A&M Aggies

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    This past year was a bit of a disappointment from a Texas A&M Aggies team that moved on from the Kellen Mond era. Though it beat Alabama, there were how-did-that-happen moments, too, such as losses to Mississippi State and LSU.

    It's not a bad thing the Aggies are moving on from quarterback Zach Calzada, either. He entered the transfer portal after an up-and-down season, and though he had a big game in the shocking win over Alabama, there were plenty of subpar performances, too.

    Perhaps that's because he never was supposed to be "the guy." Haynes King beat him out in the preseason but suffered a season-ending injury. Now, it's an almost-certainty he'll battle LSU transfer Max Johnson for the starting gig for '22 under coach Jimbo Fisher.

    Everywhere else, the Aggies are loaded, even if they're going to be young and inexperienced. Losing Kenyon Green, Jalen Wydermyer and Isaiah Spiller are going to be massive voids to fill considering those were the team's three best players.

    But Devon Achane is a budding star in the offensive backfield, and Fisher's top-ranked 2022 recruiting class will provide some immediate-impact talent, too. And you know Fisher is going to fill some holes through the transfer portal.

    The talent gives the Aggies the slight nod on this list over teams like Michigan State, Baylor, Wake Forest and BYU.

9. Oregon Ducks

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    For a large swath of the season, it looked like the Oregon Ducks would finally provide a Pac-12 representative in the College Football Playoff.

    Then, everything fell apart late, as injuries continued to mount, Utah dominated the Ducks twice, and Oklahoma concluded the colossal fall from grace with a thorough de-feathering in the Alamo Bowl. All the while, coach Mario Cristobal bolted Eugene for his hometown Miami Hurricanes.

    Now, the Ducks are rebuilding with new coach Dan Lanning, currently Georgia's 35-year-old fiery, competitive defensive coordinator who has never led his own program. Questions abound, sure, but with the way Cristobal has recruited, the cupboard is stocked with elite potential.

    With Auburn quarterback Bo Nix transferring in and young, potentially dynamic backups (for now) in Ty Thompson and Jay Butterfield, the signal-caller position appears to be in strong hands. If running backs CJ Verdell and Travis Dye (or just one of them) come back, the running game will be in strong shape.

    Offensive linemen Ryan Walk and T.J. Bass and safety Verone McKinley III could decide to declare for the NFL draft, though there is value for all of them in coming back for another year. With players like Noah Sewell, Mase Funa and others coming back, there's depth and talent on both sides of the ball.

    How often is it that a shuffle winds up producing improved results? The Ducks are a candidate to accomplish this if Lanning can strike the right balance in his first year.

8. Oklahoma Sooners

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    No college football team experienced a more pronounced postseason upheaval than the Oklahoma Sooners.

    Following Lincoln Riley's decision to follow his California dreamin' and head to USC in November, many Sooners filled the transfer portal and then commitments dropped like December temperatures. Players such as receiver Jadon Haselwood and quarterback Spencer Rattler left the program.

    Recently, running back Kennedy Brooks decided to skip his senior season for the NFL.

    But there are still weapons in the arsenal for incoming coach Brent Venables, and you know that as well as former defensive coordinator Alex Grinch (who left OU for USC with Riley) recruited defenders in recent years, Venables can continue the transformation of that OU defense.

    Everything hinges on the decision to return by quarterback Caleb Williams, who unseated Heisman hopeful Rattler this year and turned into one of college football's young, most exciting stars. If he elects to stick around Norman, he can be the perfect maestro for Jeff Lebby's high-octane offense.

    No, there isn't a ton of depth thanks to players leaving, but the portal will provide others who want to play for the Sooners, and receivers like Mario Williams, Marvin Mims, Theo Wease and (potentially) Michael Woods II, as well as running back Eric Gray, promise weaponry, too.

    Don't feel sorry for Oklahoma. The Sooners have talent, and they've got two brilliant minds running the program in Venables (defense) and Lebby (offense). This wagon train may just keep rolling.

7. Clemson Tigers

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    It's fair to question whether Dabo Swinney's dynasty is going to get knocked down a couple of notches.

    After a frustrating offensive season when seemingly everything went wrong and the Tigers couldn't find consistent playmakers other than Justyn Ross, they now must replace coordinators Tony Elliott and Brent Venables, who are the new head coaches at Virginia and Oklahoma, respectively.

    The Tigers also haven't recruited quite as well as normal in this cycle, and Swinney seems reluctant to embrace the transfer portal. He'd better get with the new age, or he'll get left behind.

    All that said, Clemson still managed to go 10-3 in a "down" year. While DJ Uiagalelei struggled at times, he still has massive potential and will be pushed by incoming 5-star prospect Cade Klubnik. A young receiving corps has plenty of talent, and the running back combo of Kobe Pace and Will Shipley are enviable.

    The defense is loaded with talent, and there are quality players at all levels. That side of the ball carried the Tigers all year.

    Swinney trusts the program he's built, as evidenced by promoting Brandon Streeter and Wes Goodwin from assistants to coordinators, and he has stacked quality recruiting classes, even if this year's is a bit more developmental.

    Plus, while Mario Cristobal will up the talent ante in the ACC eventually at Miami, it's still a weak conference that needs massive improvement across the board. Clemson wasn't a conference title-game participant last year, but don't look for that to be the trend. There are still plenty of pieces in this championship puzzle.

6. Michigan Wolverines

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    What a season by the Michigan Wolverines.

    Coach Jim Harbaugh played his cards perfectly all season, shuffling quarterbacks Cade McNamara and JJ McCarthy perfectly, putting them in position to make just enough plays to keep defenses honest. Running backs Blake Corum and Hassan Haskins carried the team offensively.

    Then, of course, the defense was elite, driven by Heisman Trophy finalist Aidan Hutchinson and fellow pass-rusher David Ojabo. But others like linebackers Josh Ross and Junior Colson, defensive lineman Donovan Jeter and defensive back Daxton Hill had big years, too. All of them have eligibility remaining (along with Ojabo).

    If Haskins goes pro, as expected, the Wolverines will just replace him with Donovan Edwards, who has elite potential that flashed at times during his freshman year as he ran for 174 yards and added 265 receiving yards.

    Harbaugh has quality pass-catchers returning, and he has added another stellar recruiting haul in 2022.

    The Wolverines also experienced a major off-field win when offensive coordinator Josh Gattis actually lost out on the Virginia head coaching job that ultimately went to Tony Elliott. While you always want your coordinators to get opportunities, Gattis could have another huge year orchestrating the offense and get his own gig after '22.

    With the Ohio State monkey off Big Blue's back, there are a lot of reasons to like the makeup of what's returning. If Harbaugh can dial up the right chemistry again, there's no reason to believe the Wolverines can't be right back in the playoff picture.

5. Utah Utes

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    Maybe it's time we all start giving Utah coach Kyle Whittingham his just due.

    Every year, the Utes are right there in the mix for the Pac-12 title, yet it's Oregon and USC that get most of the headlines, hype and preseason publicity. That's not going to be the case in 2022.

    Yes, linebacker Devin Lloyd is going to be a massive, irreplaceable loss. Not only does he provide do-it-all capabilities against the run and pass, but the linebacker is a leader who loves the university and will be a longtime ambassador.

    But Whittingham has a lot of playmakers on defense, led by Pac-12 defensive freshman of the year Junior Tafuna and defensive backs Cole Bishop and Clark Phillips III. 

    Offensively, first-team all-conference quarterback Cameron Rising returns along with explosive running back Tavion Thomas and the receiving yards leader in tight end Brant Kuithe. While the offensive line must replace guys like Bamidele Olaseni and Nick Ford, there is plenty of talent there, too.

    With Lincoln Riley needing more time to build his program with the Trojans, Utah should be considered the conference favorite, even if Oregon may have more top-to-bottom talent and teams such as UCLA and Arizona State are returning quality players, too.

    This team has the players in place to win out in the Pac-12, and if the Utes can guard against the early-season slumber they experienced this year, they always seem to get better as the season progresses. This is a CFP sleeper for sure.

4. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

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    Nobody should benefit more from the infusion of talent from the 2022 recruiting class as Notre Dame will on the defensive side of the ball.

    The Fighting Irish recruited a generational class of linebackers, led by elite Jaylen Sneed, who is a sideline-to-sideline second-level defender that coach Marcus Freeman plucked from SEC country.

    Speaking of Freeman, he was promoted from defensive coordinator to head coach when Brian Kelly left for LSU, and he may wind up being an upgrade. Yes, Kelly was a terrific coach, but Freeman is young, energetic and a dynamic recruiter. He also retained Tommy Rees to lead the offense.

    Will there be some growing pains as Freeman learns to run his own program? Sure, as we saw in the Fiesta Bowl debacle against Oklahoma State. But there is a whole lot to like about the net gain in South Bend. He inherits a program that went 11-2, giving the Irish five consecutive seasons of at least 10 wins.

    The Irish have several seniors who actually could return because of the extra year of eligibility granted in 2020, and that's huge news because they could help bridge the gap. After all, this was supposed to be a transitional year.

    Perhaps the best news for the Irish offense is Tyler Buchner got plenty of reps behind Jack Coan, so he's ready to take over. He threw 36 passes and finished as the team's second-leading rusher with 336 yards on 46 carries.

    While running back Kyren Williams will be a big loss, Chris Tyree and Logan Diggs have elite potential.

    The receivers are capable, and returning is the best tight end in the nation, Michael Mayer. Oh yeah, don't forget about Blake Fisher, too. The young left tackle suffered a season-ending injury but is a true force along the front.

    Freeman may just have a playoff team on his hands.

3. Georgia Bulldogs

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    There is going to be a talent overhaul in Georgia in 2022, and it's time for everybody to see coach Kirby Smart's recruiting muscle flexed.

    Not only are the Bulldogs going to lose a lot of senior talent to the NFL draft, others like linebackers Nolan Smith, Channing Tindall and Nakobe Dean, offensive tackle Jamaree Salyer, receiver George Pickens, safety Lewis Cine and defensive lineman Travon Walker could depart, too.

    While all those guys may not leave, several of them will, and the Bulldogs are going to have to plug and play youngsters who aren't as experienced. Oh well. This program has stacked six consecutive top-five classes nationally, so the reinforcements are there.

    Conceivably, Stetson Bennett and JT Daniels could return in 2022, which would be big news for a team that could use the leadership, despite a talent upgrade being desirable at the position. The Dawgs have former top prospects like Carson Beck, Brock Vandagriff and incoming Gunner Stockton who could seize the gig.

    With top-shelf youngsters like tight end Brock Bowers and receivers Ladd McConkey and Adonai Mitchell, along with wild cards like Darnell Washington and (maybe) Arik Gilbert, an infusion of offensive playmakers could be forthcoming. UGA has plenty of capable running backs for coordinator Todd Monken, too.

    How Georgia ultimately replaces Dan Lanning, the elite defensive coordinator who left to be Oregon's head coach, is a major storyline worth watching. But talent, depth and potential greatness aren't in question.

    With some sprinkles of talent from the transfer portal, this program won't miss a beat.

2. Ohio State Buckeyes

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    When it comes to the core nucleus of talent returning in 2022, few can boast the prowess of Ryan Day's Ohio State Buckeyes.

    Losing Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson is going to hurt considerably, but the Buckeyes have waves of talent at the receiver position, led by Jaxon Smith-Njigba. Emeka Egbuka, Marvin Harrison Jr., Julian Fleming and others will get their turn next year, and the Buckeyes could add help from the portal.

    With quarterback CJ Stroud back and leading the way after a Heisman Trophy finalist campaign as a redshirt freshman in 2021, anything is possible. Throw in another potential Heisman candidate in running back TreVeyon Henderson, and there are lots of things to like about the offense.

    Day has playmakers all over the offense.

    The biggest question marks that need to be addressed are on defense. It was a down year for a Buckeyes program used to churning out NFL players on that side, and it needs a major upgrade. How that unit progresses will determine just how far the Buckeyes can soar.

    Youngsters like Jack Sawyer, Tyleik Williams and JT Tuimoloao, Ty Hamilton, Denzel Burke, Jakailin Johnson could take a huge step to improve the defense next year. Factor in incoming freshmen like linebackers C.J. Hicks and Gabe Powers who could bolster that unit right away, and there's potential.

    The Buckeyes didn't have the season they wanted in '21, but it still ended in the Rose Bowl. Expect bigger things next year, even without Olave and Wilson.

1. Alabama Crimson Tide

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    Nobody reloads like Nick Saban.

    In what was supposed to be a bit of a rebuilding year for the Alabama Crimson Tide in 2021 following a runaway national title a year ago, they boasted the Heisman Trophy winner in quarterback Bryce Young and they are playing for another championship next week.

    Ho-hum.

    Next year, Young returns, and so does pretty much everybody else in what could wind up being a team that rivals (at least talentwise) the '20 Crimson Tide. The dynasty is nowhere near over in Tuscaloosa, and as a matter of fact, it's probably healthier than ever.

    While Jameson Williams probably will head to the NFL, John Metchie III (who may not return), Slade Bolden and Ja'Corey Brooks will anchor a receiving corps that got even faster from the '22 recruiting haul. JoJo Earle and Co. are just waiting in the wings, too.

    The running back corps was already talented and now will welcome Georgia Tech transfer Jahmyr Gibbs, arguably the best player in the portal.

    Defensively, everything revolves around "Jack" linebacker Will Anderson Jr., who, like Young, is only a sophomore and must return in '22, even though NFL scouts are drooling just watching him play. The Tide have plenty of other weapons on that side of the ball, too, like Dallas Turner.

    Even if players like Henry To'oTo'o, Christian Harris and Jalyn Armour-Davis don't come back, there are still playmakers everywhere. Don't ever bet against the Tide and titles.

                        

    All stats courtesy of CFBStats and Sports ReferencePlayer and recruiting class rankings courtesy of 247Sports.

    Follow Brad Shepard on Twitter, @Brad_Shepard.

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