25 burning questions about the 2022 college football season
Editor’s note: Our annual Top 25 preview week continues with national insider Matt Hayes asking the key questions about the 2022 season.
Why wait? Let’s jump in with the question on everybody’s mind …
1. Can Georgia repeat?
After winning the national championship for the first time in 41 years, can Georgia replace a record 15 players selected in the NFL Draft — another record 5 first-rounders on defense — and win it again?
The last team to win back-to-back national championships was Alabama in 2011-12. Another Georgia championship, with all it has lost from 2021, would be more impressive than Alabama’s 2011-12 run.
2. Will the SEC make it 4 in a row? Or …
Can a non-SEC team not named Clemson win the Playoff national championship for the first time since 2014, when Ohio State won it all?
The top 5 candidates, according to FanDuel: Ohio State, Clemson, USC, Oklahoma and Notre Dame.
3. Will another new team crash the Playoff field?
Cincinnati broke through to the Playoff in 2021. Which teams have the best chance to increase from 13 the number of teams who have reached the Playoff since 2014?
The top 5 candidates (in order): Baylor, Texas A&M, Utah, USC, Miami.
4. Who are the top 10 impact players from the transfer portal?
- QB Caleb Williams, USC (from Oklahoma).
- TB Jahmyr Gibbs, Alabama (Georgia Tech).
- QB Dillon Gabriel, Oklahoma (UCF).
- QB Quinn Ewers, Texas (Ohio State).
- WR Jordan Addison, USC (Pittsburgh).
- RB Zach Evans, Ole Miss (TCU).
- WR Isaiah Neyor, Texas (Wyoming).
- QB Spencer Rattler, South Carolina (Oklahoma).
- WR Jermaine Burton, Alabama (Georgia).
- DE Jared Verse, Florida State (Albany).
5. Can Alabama coach Nick Saban continue to work his transfer portal magic?
Saban’s run dates all the way back to transfer QB Jacob Coker’s national championship season in 2015.
Last year it was All-America WR Jameson Williams. This year’s candidates: Gibbs, WRs Burton (Georgia) and Tyler Harrell (Louisville), LT Tyler Steen (Vanderbilt) and CB Eli Ricks (LSU).
6. What are the top 5 quarterback competitions in fall camp (projected winner with *)?
- DJ Uiagalelei* vs. Cade Klubnik, Clemson.
- Max Johnson* vs. Haynes King, Texas A&M.
- Myles Brennan* vs. Jayden Daniels vs. Garrett Nussmeier, LSU.
- Cade McNamara vs. JJ McCarthy*, Michigan.
- Tyler Buchner* vs. Drew Pyne, Notre Dame.
7. Will Lincoln Riley’s impact be felt immediately at USC?
The Playoff projections are out of whack, but Riley will change the product from Game 1. At the very least, the Trojans will be the most dangerous offense in the Pac-12 with Williams, WRs Addison and Mario Williams and TBs Travis Dye and Austin Jones — all of whom weren’t at USC in 2021.
8. Will new DC Jim Knowles do for Ohio State what Joe Brady did in 2019 for LSU?
Despite the obvious age difference and different sides of the ball, the impact could be the same: Taking a group of talented players and molding a previously inconsistent unit into a championship team. There’s too much defensive talent — S Ronnie Hickman, DE Zach Harrison, CB Cameron Brown, DT Taron Vincent — for Ohio State to not be a top 15 defense.
9. Can Utah change its road woes and reach the Playoff?
The Utes lost 3 road games as heavy favorites last year — BYU, San Diego State, Oregon State — preventing a potential unbeaten regular season. This time around, Utah’s 6 road games begin at Florida in the season-opener, and include Arizona State, UCLA, Washington State (Thursday night), Oregon and Colorado.
10. Michigan beat Ohio State and won the Big Ten in 2021. Now what?
This is a sneaky good team in 2022, even with some significant losses on both sides of the ball. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh proved last year that a tough, fast team (that believes in itself) can overcome a more talented team (see: Ohio State). McCarthy is the great unknown: He’s full of dynamic ability, and can change the offense — and how teams defend it.
11. Is Harbaugh at Michigan for good?
Short answer: no. Long answer: Harbaugh loves his alma mater and has been refreshingly bubbly (did I just write bubbly and Harbaugh in the same sentence?) this offseason after conquering Ohio State and winning the Big Ten. But he’s an NFL guy, and the failed interview — or whatever you want to call it — with Minnesota after last season isn’t his last run at returning to the league. It will happen again; it just depends on the job and fit.
12. Is Cincinnati, 33-5 under coach Luke Fickell in the past 3 seasons, the best Group of 5 option to reach the Playoff?
No matter the leader, they must have key nonconference wins. That will hurt Houston (Texas Tech, Kansas), UCF (Louisville, Georgia Tech) and Boise State (Oregon State). San Diego State (at Utah) can make a statement in the first half of the season, and BYU (Baylor, Oregon, Notre Dame, Arkansas) is a lock if it finishes the season unbeaten and there are less than 4 unbeaten Power 5 champions. The best bet is still Cincinnati, with a history of reaching the Playoff and a statement game at Arkansas to begin the season.
13. Who has the easiest road to the Playoff?
Oklahoma. The 3 nonconference games are 2 gimme putts (UTEP, Kent State) and a quasi-testy road game against Nebraska. Other than that, the two toughest conference games (Baylor, Oklahoma State) are in Norman.
14. Who has the toughest road to the Playoff?
Texas A&M. Even the games that should be easy look difficult, including a season-opener against Sam Houston State, the top seed in last year’s FCS Playoff, and Appalachian State, a loaded Group of 5 team that won 10 games in 2021. Then there are SEC road games (Mississippi State, Alabama, South Carolina, Auburn), a neutral game against Arkansas and home games against Florida, LSU and Ole Miss. And a nonconference game in College Station against Miami. Good luck, fellas.
15. Can anyone challenge Georgia in the SEC East?
It’s not as easy as you’d think. Kentucky won 10 games last season and is surging with a hot quarterback (Will Levis). The Tennessee offense will be as dangerous as any in college football and could force Georgia into a Big 12-style shootout. South Carolina will be completely reshaped offensively, and that’s a testy game in Columbia a week after a walk-through vs. FCS Samford. Florida could be a vastly different team by Halloween weekend, and the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party is always a different animal.
16. Who are 5 surprise teams for 2022?
Mississippi State: Quarterbacks in their 3rd season under Mike Leach have record-breaking numbers (Kliff Kingsbury in 2002, Graham Harrell in 2008, Luke Falk in 2017), and combined to win 29 games. Will Rogers, who threw for 4,739 yards and 36 TDs last year, enters his 3rd season with Leach at Mississippi State.
Miami: The Canes are loaded with skill talent and have an elite quarterback (Tyler Van Dyke). Can new coach and Canes alum Mario Cristobal develop the toughness and moxie of those great Canes teams of the past?
Wisconsin: Badgers have been a quarterback away for the past 2 seasons. Time for Graham Mertz, the highest-rated quarterback recruit in the program’s history, to start playing like it on a consistent basis. If he reaches his potential, Wisconsin will be playing in the Big Ten Championship Game with a Playoff spot on the line.
NC State: No one returns more starters (17) in the ACC, and Devin Leary (3,433 yards, program-record 35 TDs) is the best quarterback you’ve never heard of. NC State was No. 14 in the nation in scoring defense in 2021, and they’ll be better this fall.
Kansas State: It’s Year 4 for Chris Klieman in Manhattan, and he may finally have the answer at quarterback: Adrian Martinez. That’s right, the same Martinez whose uneven and turnover-fueled play inevitably dragged down Nebraska. But also the same Martinez who, when he’s on and protecting the ball, is as dangerous as any quarterback in college football. Watch Klieman change Martinez’s production — and ball security — and win big.
17. Who are 5 coaches on the hot seat?
Scott Frost, Nebraska: For any number of reasons, it didn’t work. He should’ve stayed in the state of Florida — where he was a known commodity in a state full of elite high school players — and taken the Gators’ job instead of returning home to Nebraska.
Bryan Harsin, Auburn: The fatcat boosters at Auburn tried to run him off after last season. It might take 9 wins for Harsin to keep his job this time around.
Herm Edwards, Arizona State: The looming NCAA issues aren’t as big a problem as the lack of important wins. Now Edwards’ crossroads season will rely on the impact of Florida transfer QB Emory Jones, who left Gainesville after an average season as a first-year starter.
Mike Norvell, Florida State: No matter who you are, or what you’ve been asked to clean up, you can’t respond with 3 straight seasons without a bowl game. The Noles must be bowl eligible, and must get a signature win — or Norvell won’t get another season in Tallahassee.
Geoff Collins, Georgia Tech: Last chance for Collins to prove he’s the coach who can transition Georgia Tech from triple option football under Paul Johnson to the 21st Century with everyone else.
18. Is Texas back?
Offensively, Texas will be better than it has been in a long, long time. Ewers isn’t the only significant upgrade on offense, which returns All-American candidates at tailback (Bijan Robinson) and wideout (Xavier Worthy), and adds legit stars at tight end (Alabama transfer Jahleel Billingsley) and wide receiver (Neyor). Defensively, it’s a crapshoot. If you can’t stop anyone, you better be able to outscore them.
19. Is Notre Dame a different team under new coach Marcus Freeman?
Too many “players’ coach” hires have devolved into disaster — the most recent being Frost at Nebraska and Clay Helton at USC. Maybe Freeman is different. A different voice, a different plan, and exactly what Notre Dame needs to clear the final obstacle and win it all. Or maybe Brian Kelly, the winningest coach in Notre Dame history, had a bigger impact than most think on the toughest job in college football.
20. Is the transition at LSU under Brian Kelly ugly or seamless?
A combination. It won’t be pretty at times, but when Kelly finally does choose a quarterback for good at some point in the season (Nussmeier?), everything will fall in place. Until then, there could be a few rough spots.
21. Who are the top 5 boom or bust players?
- QB Sean Clifford, Penn State
- WR Kayshon Boutee, LSU
- DT Gervon Dexter, Florida
- QB Spencer Sanders, Oklahoma State
- QB JT Daniels, West Virginia
22. Who are the top 5 players poised for a breakout season?
- WR Marvin Harrison Jr., Ohio State
- DE/OLB Dallas Turner, Alabama
- MLB Jamon Dumas-Johnson, Georgia
- RB Zach Evans, Ole Miss
- QB Clayton Tune, Houston
23. Who is the most overlooked player in college football?
Plenty of good answers, including Tennessee QB Hendon Hooker and Virginia QB Brennan Armstrong. None come close to Army OLB Andre Carter II (6-7, 260 pounds). He had 15.5 sacks last season and will become the highest-drafted player from a service academy in the Super Bowl era since Roger Staubach in 1969. Carter had 1 sack in his first season at West Point and improved that number by 14.5 in 2021. He was originally signed as a tight end and moved to the defense because of his long arms and bend.
24. Who advances to the College Football Playoff, and how does it play out?
Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State, Baylor.
Alabama beats Baylor in the Peach Bowl, and Ohio State beats Georgia in the Fiesta Bowl.
Alabama beats Ohio State in the Playoff national championship game, giving coach Nick Saban his 7th national title in 16 seasons with the Tide and 8th overall.
25. Who are the finalists for the Heisman Trophy, and who wins it?
The 4 finalists: Alabama QB Bryce Young, Ohio State QB CJ Stroud, Georgia QB Stetson Bennett, Wisconsin RB Braelon Allen.