With the first official games less than two weeks away, the 2022 college football season is fast approaching. And there are a lot of intriguing players, coaches and administrators across the landscape. And our list of the 10 most intriguing figures in college football includes the defending Heisman winner, a quarterback who could be battling for a starting job with one of the most famous high school recruits in 2023 and two conference commissioners tasked with navigating a suddenly tumultuous landscape.
*List is in alphabetical order.
Texas QB Quinn Ewers
You likely remember Ewers as the player who sacrificed his senior season of Texas high school football to enroll early at Ohio State and take advantage of the new NCAA rules allowing players to make money off their image rights. Ewers spent just one season at Ohio State, as C.J. Stroud showed he was one of the best quarterbacks in college football, and Ewers transferred to Texas at the end of the season.
Ewers enters 2022 in a competition with Hudson Card to win the Texas QB job and will likely win that battle. After all, he’s a top-five Heisman favorite, according to BetMGM. If Texas bounces back in 2022, it will be largely because of Ewers and star running back Bijan Robinson.
And no matter how well Ewers plays in 2022, all eyes will be on another player in the Texas quarterback room ahead of 2023. Five-star recruit Arch Manning is heading to Texas in 2023, and there will likely be a faction of Texas fans wanting to see Manning hit the field right away even if Ewers lives up to his preseason Heisman odds.
Alabama RB Jahmyr Gibbs
Gibbs enters the 2022 season as a wild card for the Alabama offense and an unfamiliar face for many college football fans. Gibbs operated in relative obscurity the last two seasons at Georgia Tech, where he was the team’s best offensive player in 2021. Now he’s one of three key offensive skill position transfers at Alabama poised to make an immediate impact.
He had over 1,200 combined rushing and receiving yards a season ago and could easily surpass that with a starring role in Alabama’s stellar offense. Gibbs is +3000 to win the Heisman and should be a great safety valve for Bryce Young if and when Alabama’s receivers are covered deep. Don’t be surprised if Gibbs is a first-team all-SEC selection at the end of the season.
Auburn coach Bryan Harsin
It sure felt for a while this offseason that Bryan Harsin was going to be one-and-done at Auburn. An investigation into Harsin’s program after a 6-7 season and a flood of player transfers had his future hanging in the balance. But Auburn ultimately made the decision to stick with Harsin for another season.
Whether or not Harsin has a third season at Auburn will likely hinge on some serious improvement. Auburn has one of the toughest schedules in the country in 2022 as a product of being in the SEC West, an annual rivalry game with Georgia and a non-conference matchup with Penn State. But the Tigers have their first five games of the season at home before the Georgia matchup. With Penn State and LSU among those five games, a 4-1 start would be phenomenal — and potentially necessary for a bowl berth given that Auburn visits both Mississippi teams in addition to Georgia and Alabama.
If Auburn goes 3-2 to start the season, it’s not inconceivable that the Tigers will be underdogs in their remaining six SEC games and fighting to get to six wins and another bowl game.
Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff and Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark
Yeah, our list actually has 11 people. We couldn't leave off either Kliavkoff or Yormark as the two new Power Five commissioners head into the 2022 college football season with the potential futures of their conferences hanging in the balance. No pressure, right?
The Big 12 and Pac-12 seem to be in a standoff of sorts after USC and UCLA said they were going to the Big Ten in 2024. The Pac-12 could decide to stay at 10 without two of its most marketable schools, or it could look to expand. And if it makes the latter move, where is it getting its new teams?
Yormark said at Big 12 media day that his conference was open for business and all eyes look west if the Big 12 wants to add more teams after Oklahoma and Texas officially leave for the SEC. Will the Big 12 make a move for Pac-12 teams if it senses vulnerability among the conference’s top teams? Will the Pac-12 position itself as a solid Power Five conference for the short-term future post-UCLA and USC? As 2022 showed, you should be prepared for nearly any and every conference expansion scenario. Don’t rule out anything when it comes to these two conferences.
South Carolina QB Spencer Rattler
The 2021 preseason Heisman favorite found himself benched during the season and looking for another school in the offseason. As Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley and quarterback Caleb Williams left for the USC on the West Coast, Rattler went to the USC on the east coast and reunited with former Oklahoma assistant Shane Beamer.
Rattler enters the 2022 season as South Carolina’s de facto starter and joins a team that overachieved in Beamer’s first season. South Carolina posted a winning record in 2021 despite getting outscored by its opponents and blown out by all the good teams it faced.
But expectations are much higher in 2022 because South Carolina posted that winning record with mediocre quarterback play. Injuries meant that Luke Doty, Jason Brown and Zeb Noland all played in at least five gams in 2021, and neither was a star. Above average quarterback play will go a long way to keep the Gamecocks in the SEC East mix this season and Rattler isn’t going to have much time to get acclimated. After opening the season against Georgia State, South Carolina faces Arkansas and Georgia.
USC coach Lincoln Riley
Riley’s move to USC from Oklahoma at the end of the 2021 season sent shockwaves through college football. And it also made Riley a pied piper of sorts with the Trojans.
Riley’s arrival led to the incoming transfers of Oklahoma QB Caleb Williams, Oregon RB Travis Dye, Oklahoma WR Mario Williams and Pitt WR Jordan Addison, among others. The Trojan offense is set up to be spectacular if everything clicks right away.
That could be a big if. USC may be a team that gets better as the season goes on. Trojan fans have aspirations for their team to win the Pac-12 and contend for the College Football Playoff right away. But that may be asking a bit too much. USC’s projected preseason win total is 9.5 and the Trojans have a trip to Utah and a home game against Notre Dame on the schedule.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart
Smart became the second former Nick Saban assistant to beat Saban’s Crimson Tide when Georgia avenged its SEC title game loss and won the national title. The victory led to Smart getting a contract extension worth over $100 million from the Bulldogs as he seems entrenched as Georgia’s coach for a long, long time.
Smart did a phenomenal job at Georgia in 2021 and it’s easy to wonder if 2022 will be an even tougher task. Georgia enters the season as the standard for all of college football and needs to replace a lot of pieces on a hell-raising defense that lost a lot of NFL draft picks and defensive coordinator Dan Lanning.
But Smart and his staff have also prepared very well for this scenario. Lanning was replaced by former Florida and South Carolina coach Will Muschamp. Like Alabama, Georgia has been stocking up on four- and five-star recruits over the past few seasons. A lot of blue-chippers are positioned to step into big roles on the defense. And QB Stetson Bennett returns for another season with a five-star QB right behind him in Brock Vandagriff. Will Smart get Vandagriff some playing time in 2022 in advance of 2023? Or will Bennett’s steady play entrench him as the full-time QB?
Clemson QB DJ Uiagalelei
2021 was proof that Clemson has reached such a high college football standard that 10-3 can be considered a down season. But you’re not alone if you thought Clemson’s 10-3 felt a lot worse than it was.
The ugliness of Clemson’s 2021 can be traced directly to an offense that struggled to move the ball in the first season of the post-Trevor Lawrence era. Clemson was outside the top 80 in points per game and Uiagalelei struggled mightily. He completed just over 55% of his passes for just 2,246 yards and threw for more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (9).
Those numbers need to improve significantly for Clemson to get back into the College Football Playoff mix and possibly even for Uiagalelei to keep his job in 2022. The Tigers signed the top QB in the class of 2022 in Cade Klubnik. He could open the season as Uiagalelei’s backup, but Dabo Swinney has shown he’s willing to play talented true freshmen at quarterback. After all, Clemson won its most recent national title when Lawrence seized the job as a freshman.
Washington State QB Cameron Ward
Is Ward in line to be 2022’s Bailey Zappe? Zappe followed offensive coordinator Zach Kittley from Houston Baptist to Western Kentucky and proceeded to throw for 5,967 yards and 62 TDs in his only season at the top level of college football.
Those are incredibly lofty standards for Ward — Zappe set the NCAA single-season records for passing yards and passing TDs. Asking him to be a record-setter in his first season is nearly impossible. But there are a lot of parallels ahead of Ward’s 2022 season and Zappe’s 2021.
Ward transferred to Washington State from Incarnate Word after Incarnate Ward head coach Eric Morris was named the offensive coordinator at Wazzu. Ward completed 65% of his passes for 4,658 yards and 47 TDs in Morris’ offense in 2021 while throwing for at least two TDs in all 13 of the team’s games. Thanks to his familiarity with the offense, Ward should immediately step in and be one of the Pac-12’s most productive quarterbacks.
Alabama QB Bryce Young
Can Young do what Tim Tebow didn’t? After winning the Heisman as a sophomore in 2007, Tebow looked like a strong possibility to be the first player since Archie Griffin in 1974 and 1975 to win back-to-back Heisman Trophies.
That didn’t happen. Tebow was third in 2008 and fifth in 2009. Young enters the 2022 season as the No. 2 Heisman betting favorite behind Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud and has a retooled offense around him with Gibbs at running back and transfer wide receivers Jermaine Burton and Tyler Harrell. Young won the 2021 Heisman thanks to a phenomenal performance in the SEC Championship Game and a late comeback drive against Auburn in the final regular season game of the year, while finishing the season with nearly 5,000 yards passing and 47 TDs to just seven interceptions.
Those stats may have to be the baseline for Young to win the Heisman again in 2022. Voters could be looking for a new winner in 2022 if Stroud or someone else has a strong season.