Predicting the Winner of Each College Football Conference in 2022
The path to a college football team's ultimate goal typically involves winning a conference championship.
Plus, for dozens of teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision with limited access to the College Football Playoff, celebrating a league title is that peak.
At the midpoint of the 2022 offseason, we're previewing the second level of the championship hierarchy. After buying or selling 15 prime contenders for the CFP, our focus is on the conferences and predicting which program will stand atop each FBS league.
The choices consider a team's returning production, incoming transfers, regular-season schedule and current roster status (i.e. injuries, suspensions, etc.).
AAC: Houston Cougars
Last season, Cincinnati pulled off the improbable and became the first Group of Five team in the College Football Playoff.
What does the AAC have for an encore?
Early perception suggests a race between Cincinnati and Houston—which finished 12-2 in 2021 and returns a lethal QB-WR combination in Clayton Tune and Nathaniel Dell. However, both UCF and SMU also have a reasonable shot to contend next season.
Houston might be the strongest team anyway, yet avoiding Cincinnati and UCF in the regular season offers an extra boost. That favorable path should put Houston on the championship stage with a shot to earn the G5's slot in a New Year's Six bowl game.
ACC: Clemson Tigers
There is no question Clemson will remember 2021 as a disappointing year. Also, the Tigers managed a 10-3 record.
Not exactly a disastrous season for the ACC powerhouse, which has a clear opportunity to regain its throne. Led by a defensive line with a handful of 5-star prospects, Clemson is expected to boast one of the nation's top defenses.
The prime competition will likely be from Atlantic Division foes North Carolina State or Wake Forest. NC State has dropped eight straight road games in the series, though, and Wake Forest hasn't stayed within 14 points of Clemson since 2011.
That two-game stretch for Clemson—at Wake on Sep. 24 and against NC State the following week—will quickly shape the ACC picture.
Big Ten: Ohio State Buckeyes
As usual, expect the Big Ten champion to emerge from the East Division. Since the conference wisely abandoned the "Legends" and "Leaders" in 2014, the East is a perfect 8-of-8.
Michigan is the reigning champion after snapping Ohio State's four-year streak of league titles. The rival programs are soundly the main contenders for 2022, and an 8-4 home/road split for both Michigan and OSU certainly doesn't hurt either one.
The opposite side features Iowa and Wisconsin, which have six of the West's eight trips to the championship game. But barring an enormous surge in offensive efficiency, the defense-powered teams are still at a disadvantage. The same applies to Penn State in the East, while Michigan State has a ton of production to replace offensively.
Whichever team wins the 2022 edition of The Game should back up the victory with a league title. And the explosive OSU offense won't be denied at home.
Big 12: Oklahoma Sooners
Welcome to the first blindfolded dart throw.
Oklahoma has built an undeniable reputation, but a near-total overhaul of the program leads to plenty of reasonable uncertainties. Baylor needs to replace a bunch of production at receiver and in the secondary, which is often difficult. Oklahoma State's defense has major turnover to address in both personnel and coaching.
And, as always, Texas has lots of talent, plenty of upside and earned approximately zero trust. For good measure, Kansas State is again a stable mid-tier squad thanks to a terrific pass rush and the arrival of Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez.
In mid-May, Oklahoma lands the nod because of UCF transfer quarterback Dillon Gabriel and the experience he brings to a wide-open conference. But this prediction is far from permanent.
C-USA: UAB Blazers
Following the departure of Marshall to the Sun Belt, Conference USA has seemingly shifted to a three-team race.
All three programs—UTSA, Western Kentucky and UAB—have recent trips to the championship game; UTSA toppled WKU last season, and UAB made the previous three with titles in 2018 and 2020.
Simultaneously, none of them stands out as the definite No. 1 contender. UTSA is without star running back Sincere McCormick and has a handful of key departures to address defensively, while WKU needs to overhaul last year's transfer-infused offense. UAB has to improve a defense that basically disappeared in red-zone moments.
UAB, though, has been the most consistent team of the group. In a league this congested, the reliable choice is proper.
And boring, yes.
MAC: Toledo Rockets
Toledo has fallen shy of preseason expectations lately, but we're returning to the well—uh, launch pad in 2022.
The main appeal is a defense that is returning a majority of its havoc-creators, including Jamal Hines, who amassed 15 tackles for loss, and Desjuan Johnson, who notched 12.5, in 2021. Plus, dual-threat quarterback Dequan Finn had a strong freshman year with 2,549 yards from scrimmage and just two interceptions in 250 passing attempts.
Over the last two seasons, Toledo is a dismal 1-7 in one-possession games. Reversing that trend will be paramount for the Rockets to escape Northern Illinois in the West division and Miami (Ohio) in the East.
Mountain West: Fresno State Bulldogs
The championship game may be a familiar one in 2022.
Midway through the offseason, Boise State and Fresno State are firmly among the conference's top tier. Whether that tier includes any of Air Force, San Diego State or Utah State is a worthwhile conversation, but Boise and Fresno—which met in the 2014, 2017 and 2018 title games—are secure up top.
Given that Boise State stomped Fresno State 40-14 during the regular season last year, it's unfair to say Fresno State is a clear favorite.
Still, the Bulldogs have the edge because of a dynamic skill-position group led by quarterback Jake Haener and a healthy majority of a top-four Mountain West defense.
Pac-12: Utah Utes
In each of the last three full seasons, Utah has represented the South Division in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
USC is probably on the verge of an ascent with new coach Lincoln Riley, and there's a legitimate shot the transfer-bolstered Trojans can surge in 2022. But the reigning-champion Utes seem better built for a title pursuit behind an experienced group on both sides of the ball. Hosting USC in mid-October helps too.
Oregon, meanwhile, is handily the North front-runner despite losing coach Mario Cristobal to the Miami Hurricanes and the bulk of the secondary. The remainder of the division is loaded with volatile mid-tier teams.
Although the Utes need to retool the defense, they relied on a dozen freshmen in regular roles last season. If a young unit solidifies as hoped, it'll be a great complement to a championship-worthy offense.
SEC: Alabama Crimson Tide
If anything can bring down Alabama from within, it's the offensive line. That's a serious area of concern for the Crimson Tide, who have plenty of highly recruited players but few proven options.
Head coach Nick Saban usually figures it out, however. Alabama, to nobody's surprise, is a preeminent SEC team, heading up the list with 2021 national champion Georgia. At least one of the programs has appeared in each of the last eight conference title games.
Georgia is inarguably the class of the East Division anyway, and the Dawgs will avoid all of Alabama, Arkansas, LSU and Texas A&M in regular-season crossover play.
But when Alabama makes the SEC championship, it rarely loses.
More precisely, the Crimson Tide haven't fallen since Tim Tebow and Florida defeated them in 2008. Alabama has eight straight victories in the game, and the returning talent and this season's favorable slate—the Tide host Texas A&M and Auburn—should set up Saban's squad for a chance at No. 9.
Sun Belt: Marshall Thundering Herd
During the recent wave of realignment, the Sun Belt emerged as a massive winner. This season in particular, it means Marshall and James Madison are added to an already-competitive East Division with Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina and Georgia State.
If you like dramatic title races, monitor this division. It might be the most entertaining in all FBS leagues in 2022.
And a newcomer can make an immediate splash.
Marshall is practically returning everyone but a quarterback, yet Texas Tech transfer Henry Colombi made nine starts in the Big 12. His transition to the Sun Belt will be helped by star running back Rasheen Ali and top receiver Corey Gammage.
Appalachian State and Coastal Carolina are major threats, and Louisiana-Lafayette is clearly the West Division favorite. But the Thundering Herd have the preposterous luck of hosting all three in their debut season.