Predicting Every CFB Conference's Player of the Year in 2022

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistJanuary 24, 2022

Predicting Every CFB Conference's Player of the Year in 2022

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    Every year, some of the top college football players leave to try their hand at the NFL, but there are a bunch of elite playmakers with eligibility remaining who will return in 2022.

    It looks like the sport is going to be loaded again next season.

    The transfer portal makes everything more interesting because you never know where some of the top players will wind up. If things aren't going according to plan at their current program, they can pick up and head out.

    It's a formula for the rich to get richer, and there's no reason to think the programs we're used to seeing at the top will take any kind of tumble. But which stars are going to be the class of each conference? That's a little tougher to predict.

    In the SEC, Alabama coach Nick Saban will have juniors on both sides of the ball who will stake their claim to the individual honors (and both could win since the league has an offensive and defensive player of the year).

    From high-profile quarterbacks to game-changing runners and a couple of defenders, there are plenty of guys to watch.

    Let's take an early look at who will be the 2022 conference players of the year.

AAC: Clayton Tune, Quarterback, Houston

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    Coach Dana Holgorsen's Houston Cougars took a gigantic leap forward in 2021 with some quality offensive pieces and Doug Belk's incredible defense leading the way.

    Though they couldn't overcome a generational Group of Five powerhouse in the College Football Playoff-bound Cincinnati Bearcats in the AAC title game, it was still an outstanding year that resulted in a 12-2 record with a Birmingham Bowl win over Auburn.

    The Cougars have plenty of stars returning next season for a run at the league championship. With underclassman running back Alton McCaskill back to provide balance and the defense expected to be strong once again, it's not out of the realm of possibility for Houston to be the league favorite.

    The guy who makes it all tick, though, is quarterback Clayton Tune. The 6'3", 215-pound signal-caller could be on track for a special senior season after accumulating 3,546 passing yards with 30 touchdowns and 10 interceptions this past year.

    With top target Nathaniel Dell back at receiver, there is a lot to like about Holgorsen's nucleus, and Tune is in tune with the offensive philosophy, playbook and the players returning around him. Everything is set up for him to have the kind of season that warrants All-American consideration.

    Even with players like East Carolina's Keaton Mitchell and Holton Ahlers, Memphis' Seth Henigan and SMU's Tanner Mordecai back in the league, Tune should be the favorite.

ACC: Sam Hartman, Quarterback, Wake Forest

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    This year's ACC Championship Game was billed as an offensive slugfest with elite quarterbacks going head-to-head in Pittsburgh's Kenny Pickett and Wake Forest's Sam Hartman.

    The Panthers got the best of that battle, but Hartman is returning to Winston-Salem to give it another go.

    That's huge news for Demon Deacons head coach Dave Clawson, who has built a nice program at a place where it's historically difficult to recruit football players and doesn't have much of a tradition. While the Deacs have some defensive issues, there isn't anything broken about the offense.

    Hartman is an ideal leader for that unit—cerebral and quick to get the ball in the hands of his playmakers. In leading his team to an Atlantic Division title, Hartman threw for 4,228 yards and 39 touchdowns and completed 58.9 percent of his passes while averaging 8.3 yards per attempt.

    He also ran for 11 touchdowns, so he's a dual threat with the skill set to post six points anytime he touches the ball.

    Clemson and North Carolina State have several players on both sides of the ball who could give Hartman a run for the honors, and if Pitt receiver Jordan Addison builds the same rapport with Kedon Slovis that he had with Kenny Pickett, that could be fun, too. But Hartman should be the favorite.

    The Deacs must deal with losing wideout Jaquarii Roberson to the NFL draft, but Hartman's top target, A.T. Perry, will be back, so there's still a lot of firepower in the receiving corps. Things are setting up for a repeat run with Hartman at the center of it all.

Big 12: Deuce Vaughn, Running Back, Kansas State

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    The Big 12 landscape is going to change before long with Oklahoma and Texas moving to the SEC, and it's going to be interesting to see if league officials gravitate toward honoring players from those member institutions that are sticking around.

    The Longhorns are going to have several player of the year candidates, such as running back Bijan Robinson (who would have finished second on this list) and perhaps even new quarterback Quinn Ewers, who is going to have Xavier Worthy and Wyoming transfer Isaiah Neyor catching passes.

    Oklahoma transfer signal-caller Dillon Gabriel (with coordinator Jeff Lebby calling the shots) and Oklahoma State veteran quarterback Spencer Sanders are used to posting big numbers, and there are other players around the league who could have a say.

    But the nod goes to Kansas State dynamo, do-it-all running back Deuce Vaughn. He fits the bill of being at a program that looks like a Big 12 lifer, and while the offense is losing quarterback Skylar Thompson, it is gaining Nebraska transfer Adrian Martinez, so it still has the chance to churn out big numbers.

    Vaughn is the centerpiece. 

    Last year, he finished with 1,404 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns, and he caught 49 passes for 468 yards and four more touchdowns. Most importantly, the diminutive (5'6", 172 lbs) Texas native stayed healthy, proving he can be dependable and durable.

    Things set up well for his junior season, so look for him to edge out Robinson, as Texas is going to be more balanced with explosiveness in the passing game.

Big Ten: C.J. Stroud, Quarterback, Ohio State

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    Everybody saw in the Rose Bowl just how much it was going to hurt C.J. Stroud and the Ohio State offense after Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave declared for the NFL draft and opted out of the game.

    The short answer is: Not much.

    In Ohio State's thrilling 48-45 win over Utah, Jaxon Smith-Njigba finished with a cool 15 catches for 347 yards and three touchdowns. Marvin Harrison Jr., Emeka Egbuka and Julian Fleming flashed, too. This is a well-oiled offensive machine, and the engine is Stroud.

    He'll be back for his redshirt sophomore season in what almost certainly will be his last in Columbus, and look for the California native to put up huge numbers once again.

    This past year, he won the battle to be the starting quarterback and promptly finished with 4,435 passing yards, 44 touchdowns and just six interceptions. The 6'3", 215-pound signal-caller flashed from the very beginning and only improved as the season progressed under coach Ryan Day's tutelage.

    He's got an abundance of good-looking, young pass-catchers returning along with do-it-all running back TreVeyon Henderson, and while the Buckeyes need to fix some things on defense, they're going to score a bunch of points.

    This is Stroud's award to lose, and though Henderson, Smith-Njigba, Wisconsin's Braelon Allen, Michigan's Blake Corum and Purdue's Aidan O'Connell could challenge for the conference's top individual honor, it would be a stunner for anybody besides Stroud to win it. He'll be one of college football's top three players again.

    Then, he'll head to the NFL.

CUSA: Rasheen Ali, Running Back, Marshall

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    The Marshall Thundering Herd have some really strong, young pieces to the offense for coach Charles Huff to build around.

    While quarterback Grant Wells' decision to transfer to Virginia Tech to finish his career hurts, the youth movement is strong. The real centerpiece of the offense this past year was running back Rasheen Ali, who thrived under Huff.

    The freshman led Conference USA with 107.8 rushing yards per game, and his 23 rushing touchdowns were also tops among running backs. Remember, this is a league that included UTSA's Sincere McCormick, who is now off to the NFL. Ali returns on the heels of 1,401 rushing yards and should only build on that.

    Given the transfer portal and the fact that he has been in school two years, Ali could still bolt for the NFL or another, bigger program. But so far, he's decided to stick in Huntington.

    Huff told Grant Taylor of the Charleston Gazette-Mail his star "is going to have some decisions to make" after the season, not shying away from the possibility of having to replace him. So far, that hasn't happened.

    If August rolls around and Ali is still running the ball for the Herd, he's a no-brainer option for conference player of the year, and Marshall is a threat to win the league. He's a game-changer who can do a lot of things with the ball in his hands.

    Ali is a guy who can dominate at a Group of Five program.

MAC: Lew Nichols III, Running Back, Central Michigan

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    Central Michigan head coach Jim McElwain knew he had a good player in freshman running back Lew Nichols III because he proved it in a COVID-19-shortened 2020 season when he got opportunities.

    But Nichols wasn't supposed to be the first Chippewas runner to trot onto the field in '21. That distinction was expected to belong to Kobe Lewis, who combined for 574 yards and seven touchdowns rushing and receiving in 2020 and was hurt in the preseason.

    Nichols stepped in, and the rest is MAC history. 

    The budding star led the nation in rushing with 1,848 rushing yards, averaged 5.4 yards per carry and scored 16 touchdowns. He wound up winning MAC Offensive Player of the Year, and he is talented enough to win the Vern Smith Leadership Award, which goes to the league's MVP, next season.

    He torched Washington State in the Sun Bowl, too, with 32 touches for 176 yards from scrimmage and a score. No matter what teams key on him, he hasn't been stopped yet.

    The 5'10", 220-pound Detroit native looks like a future player on Sundays, and after winning the MAC's Freshman of the Year a season ago and Offensive Player of the Year in '21, you wonder what he could have on tap for an encore.

    Don't rule out the possibility of him getting enough recognition to make some All-America teams.

Mountain West: Logan Bonner, Quarterback, Utah State

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    When trying to predict the Mountain West Conference Player of the Year, there are a lot of quality options, but it comes down to a pair of upperclassman signal-callers.

    On one side, there's Fresno State's Jake Haener, who had a spectacular season for Kalen DeBoer in leading the Bulldogs back to the cusp of the conference championship conversation. Then there is Utah State quarterback Logan Bonner, who transferred from Arkansas State to join his head coach in Logan.

    Either one would be a good pick to follow in Nevada quarterback Carson Strong's footsteps, but the nod here goes to Bonner.

    Not only is he familiar with Blake Anderson's offensive scheme, but he ran it to perfection in 2021 as the Aggies completed a dream season by winning the league title game a year after firing their coach. Nobody expected this type of turnaround, but Anderson worked miracles in his first year.

    Bonner was the biggest reason.

    The 6'1", 230-pound Texas native completed 61.3 percent of his passes for 3,628 yards, 36 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. As the season progressed, Bonner improved, and he is going to be a catalyst for an Aggies team with the pieces to repeat in '22.

    Haener should have a strong year, too, but with DeBoer off to Washington, who knows if the Bulldogs can replicate the same offensive prowess. The nod goes to Bonner.

Pac-12: Noah Sewell, Linebacker, Oregon

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    Out in the Pac-12, there are a lot of potentially exceptional players, but nobody has really stood out as a front-runner for awards. Of course, all that could change if Oklahoma quarterback Caleb Williams elects to follow Lincoln Riley to USC.

    Others like Utah's Tavion Thomas and Cam Rising, Arizona State's Jayden Daniels and UCLA's Dorian Thompson-Robinson and Zach Charbonnet could all emerge. Even incoming transfer Bo Nix could make a splash with Oregon.

    But we're going to go out on a huge limb here and pick another Ducks player, one on the defensive side of the ball.

    This past season saw a major breakthrough from second-year linebacker Noah Sewell, who was a massive difference-maker. The 6'3", 251-pound freshman finished second in the Pac-12 with a career-high 114 tackles and added four sacks and 8.5 tackles for a loss.

    A man that big shouldn't be able to cover the field the way he does, but he can, and he's only going to get better in what may be the type of catalyst season he needs to be a high pick in the 2023 NFL draft. Now, factor in new head coach Dan Lanning, and that's another ingredient for success.

    Lanning developed Nakobe Dean into college football's top true linebacker at Georgia in '21, and Sewell is sure to follow. He'll be the best player in the league.

SEC: Will Anderson Jr., Edge, Alabama

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    An even bigger surprise than choosing Noah Sewell to be the Pac-12 Player of the Year is not going with reigning Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young as the SEC's top playmaker.

    Don't worry, Alabama fans, Young is still going to have an amazing follow-up season, but with Jameson Williams, John Metchie III and Slade Bolden set to enter the NFL draft, he's going to have to build a rapport with young, talented pass-catchers.

    That's why his teammate on the defensive side of the ball is getting the nod.

    It's arguable nobody had a bigger impact on college football games in 2021 than Crimson Tide sophomore edge-rusher Will Anderson, who was simply unblockable on every occasion. He looks like the most talented player and hardest worker on the field every single play.

    That combination is scary for SEC offenses.

    Anderson led the nation with an astounding 17.5 sacks and 33.5 tackles for loss this past year, and with other elite pass-rushers like Dallas Turner coming back for Alabama, opponents can give him extra attention, but not the type they need to.

    The Georgia native is going to continue to work on his craft, continue to get better, and it's possible he could even improve this year. Anderson already has a Chase Young-level impact on games, and he has the ability to be an even better defender than the former Ohio State great. Can an edge-rusher win the Heisman?

    We may find out in 2022.

Sun Belt: Grayson McCall, Quarterback, Coastal Carolina

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    Grayson McCall is a character. And he's a star.

    Thankfully for Coastal Carolina, he's going to be doing his thing in college for at least another year, following his amazing tweet announcing he was coming back to the Chanticleers where he said he "piss(es) teal."

    Following an injury-riddled 2021 season that wasn't the follow-up he'd hoped for after winning Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year a season ago for the Cinderella Chanticleers, he'll get another chance to show what he can do. The Indian Trail, North Carolina, native is going to do huge things.

    When he was healthy this past year, he was a catalyst, leading Coastal Carolina to another strong season with 2,873 passing yards, 27 touchdowns and three interceptions to go along with 290 rushing yards. While those numbers are excellent, they pale in comparison to his '20 total.

    During that magical run, McCall had 3,057 combined passing and rushing yards and 33 touchdowns. With another year to run coach Jamey Chadwell's system, you have to believe the Chants are the favorites to repeat as conference champions.

    When McCall was his normal self again, he torched Northern Illinois to the tune of 315 passing yards and another 40 on the ground along with four touchdowns in a Cure Bowl win, showing just what kind of dynamic dual-threat quarterback he is.

    There's no question he's going to get an NFL shot if he stays healthy, but that will have to wait till 2023.

            

    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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