The 2022 college football season is right around the corner and most of the usual suspects are considered the favorites to contend for the national championship.
There hasn’t been much parity atop the rankings, but these teams aren’t completely flawless. Below, we highlight the biggest question marks and points of uncertainty surrounding the top teams entering the season.
(Odds via BetMGM)
AP poll ranking: 1
National championship odds: +190
In a season Nick Saban recently characterized as a “kind of a rebuilding year,” Alabama played in the national championship game for the sixth time in a seven-year span. Instead of adding an eighth national title to his trophy case (seventh at Alabama), the Crimson Tide lost to Georgia, which of course is coached by longtime Saban assistant Kirby Smart.
Entering 2022, Alabama is the favorite to get that next national title and you know Saban will have this group motivated. The Tide return Heisman Trophy-winning QB Bryce Young and All-American linebacker Will Anderson, who had 34.5 tackles for loss and 17.5 sacks. Those two highlight arguably the most-talented roster in college football, but there are still a few areas of concern.
That starts on the offensive line. Alabama struggled to protect Young at times last year and that was with first-rounder Evan Neal at tackle. Without Neal, the Tide dipped into the transfer portal to bolster its group of tackles and landed Tyler Steen from Vanderbilt. Steen is a solid player, but may be a bit below the standard we’re used to seeing from an Alabama tackle. He’s battling for a starting spot as both tackle positions are open competitions in camp.
The interior of the unit has experience but there was quite a bit of inconsistency last year. Expect the coaches to mix and match different lineups until they find one that sticks. And they won’t be afraid to move underclassmen up the depth chart if they’re the best options.
The other question marks come on the outside. At receiver, Alabama lost John Metchie, Jameson Williams and Slade Bolden to the NFL. While Jermaine Burton from Georgia was a strong addition, this group may not be as explosive as Williams and Metchie were a year ago.
The Tide also need two new starters at corner. Kool-Aid McKinstry is expected to be one of them with LSU transfer Eli Ricks and Khyree Jackson competing on the other side.
AP poll ranking: 2
National championship odds: +320
Ohio State had a national championship-caliber offense in 2021, but the defense was quite bad. The Buckeyes started out with poor performances against Minnesota and Oregon and made adjustments as the year progressed, but they still ended up getting gashed for 87 total points in their last two games, including a loss to rival Michigan. That loss, OSU’s first to the Wolverines since 2011, gave the Big Ten East to Michigan and kept the Buckeyes out of the playoff.
Soon after the season, Ryan Day made changes to overhaul the defense. That started with hiring Jim Knowles from Oklahoma State to be the Buckeyes’ defensive coordinator. Oklahoma State had struggled on defense for years until Knowles arrived. The Cowboys got better and better under Knowles’ watch and last year’s defense was one of the best in the country.
With the way Ohio State recruits, Knowles will have much better talent at his new job. There’s no reason to believe the Buckeyes won’t show some improvement in 2022. The secondary looks really promising and linebacker play needs to be better.
The Buckeyes are loaded on the defensive line but are still looking for a dominant edge rusher to emerge in the mold of Chase Young or Nick Bosa. Keep an eye on sophomore J.T. Tuimoloau.
AP poll ranking: 3
National championship odds: +350
After winning its first national title since 1980, will there be a championship hangover at Georgia? The Bulldogs finally broke through and pushed past Alabama behind the efforts of a historic defense. That unit saw five starters go in the first round of the NFL draft. In all, 15 UGA players were drafted, including eight from the defense.
How will Georgia fill the massive hole left behind by those players? Well, that’s what recruiting is for. Kirby Smart and his staff have been recruiting at an elite level for years and expect the next wave of blue chip prospects to step in. Still, the Bulldogs will be fairly inexperienced at some spots on the defense, particularly linebacker and in the secondary. There’s also less depth along the defensive line, though Jalen Carter could be the next No. 1 pick.
If the defense isn’t quite as good (DC Dan Lanning also left for Oregon), the offense could be asked to pick up the slack a bit. There will be several new faces up front. Additionally, Georgia lost running backs Zamir White and James Cook to the NFL, but has consistently produced high-level running backs, so that’s not much of a concern.
The wide receiver room is pretty solid and is complemented by the best tight end room in the country. Stetson Bennett is still the guy at quarterback and it’ll be interesting to see if the coaches put a bit more on his plate this year. Bennett was able to hit some explosive passes in the national title game against Alabama. Perhaps that will carry over to 2022.
AP poll ranking: 4
National championship odds: +1200
This is basically the opposite of Ohio State. While the Buckeyes had an elite offense and a bad defense, Clemson had an awesome defense and a terrible offense.
Clemson’s struggles began with quarterback DJ Uiagalelei. Uiagalelei was excellent during his two starts in 2020 but was one of the worst starters in the ACC last fall. The inconsistent play at receiver and injuries at running back and on the offensive line didn’t help his cause, but Uiagalelei needs to be much better — especially with his accuracy.
If Uiagalelei continues to falter, Cade Klubnik is waiting in the wings. Klubnik is the latest five-star QB in Clemson’s pipeline and he got an early start to his college career by enrolling in January. Dabo Swinney took some time to play Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence as freshmen, so it’s feasible that this situation follows a similar path and Klubnik moves into the starting role midway through the season.
The issues weren’t only on Uiagalelei’s shoulders, though. The line still could be average at best while the receiver group has underwhelmed over the past few seasons. The Tigers could really benefit from the emergence of a reliable slot receiver in the mold of Hunter Renfrow.
If this offense is even marginally better, Clemson can compete for a playoff spot. This team won 10 games last year despite the aforementioned struggles.
Also worth noting is the fact that Swinney promoted from within to replace both coordinators, who left Clemson in the offseason be head coaches. Will the new coordinators be up to the task?
AP poll ranking: 5
National championship odds: +4000
The key questions for Notre Dame almost exclusively come on offense.
After three years of Ian Book, the Irish filled the gap at quarterback last year with Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan. Coan did a solid job, but his replacement has much more upside. That replacement is sophomore Tyler Buchner, who was used primarily as a runner last year. Buchner rushed for 336 yards and six touchdowns on 46 carries. As a passer, he went 21-of-35 for 298 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions.
With his athleticism, Buchner allows for more creativity out of offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, but he’s still unproven as a passer. The offensive line should be stellar, but the receiving group is extremely thin. It was already thin when camp began, but became an even bigger concern when starting slot Avery Davis went down with a torn ACL.
Without Davis, sophomore Lorenzo Styles is hoping to build off a breakout performance in the bowl game. Veteran Braden Lenzy (50 catches in three seasons) also returns. Beyond those two, there isn’t much else. Joe Wilkins and Deion Colzie have also missed time this summer, leaving former walk-on Matt Salerno and freshman Tobias Merriweather in line for roles on the offense.
We can’t forget about All-American tight end Michael Mayer, who caught 71 passes last fall, but there needs to be some help at wide receiver for a young quarterback.
AP poll ranking: 6
National championship odds: +2500
Texas A&M snapped an eight-game losing streak to Alabama last year but it still came in a disappointing 8-4 season. If the Aggies want to take the next step — especially after Jimbo Fisher’s war of words with Saban this offseason — they need to find a way to be more explosive on offense.
That starts with identifying a quarterback. Haynes King, LSU transfer Max Johnson and freshman Conner Weigman are all competing for the starting job. King, who opened the 2021 season as the starter before a going down with a Week 2 injury, is the favorite. Is King good enough to propel the Aggies to the next level?
Whoever plays quarterback will play behind a strong offensive line. Beyond star Ainias Smith, the Aggies could be counting on some young talents at receiver. There’s also a big opening at tight end with Jalen Wydermyer moving on. Fisher loves to use the tight end in the passing game, but there is no obvious candidate to step into a prominent role.
On the other side, defensive coordinator Mike Elko left to become the head coach at Duke. Elko was one of the top coordinators in the country, so it’s a significant loss. The secondary should be excellent and the line is extremely talented. However, the line is very, very young. It can be tough relying on so many underclassmen in the SEC.
AP poll ranking: 8
National championship odds: +5000
Michigan is coming off its first outright Big Ten title since 2003 but has to replace several high-level players on defense and both coordinators.
The offense is still in search of a starting quarterback between Cade McNamara and J.J. McCarthy, but both have already proven to be very capable. With the personnel returning, the offense could be even better than it was last year but replaces offensive coordinator Josh Gattis. Jim Harbaugh opted to fill the role internally by promoting Sherrone Moore and Matt Weiss to co-coordinators.
The defense is more of a concern. Not only did coordinator Mike Macdonald return to the NFL (he’s being replaced by ex-Ravens assistant Jesse Minter), but the Wolverines have to replace three All-American-caliber talents. Most notable are defensive ends Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo. Hutchinson compiled 62 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss and 14 sacks and was a Heisman finalist. With 35 tackles, 12 tackles for loss and 11 sacks, Ojabo was also excellent. All-Big Ten safety Daxton Hill also moved on to the NFL, joining Hutchinson in the first round (Ojabo went in Round 2).
Will anybody make that big of an impact in 2022? Mazi Smith at defensive tackle is viewed as a potential star with linebacker Junior Colson also looking very promising. A light early season schedule should help some new starters round into form before Big Ten play, but it won’t be a surprise if the defense takes a step back.
AP poll ranking: 9
National championship odds: +5000
What will Oklahoma look like without Lincoln Riley and Caleb Williams?
That coach-QB duo left Norman for the bright lights of USC, but the Sooners seem to have found solid replacements. That starts with Brent Venables, the longtime Clemson defensive coordinator who also had a long stint on Bob Stoops’ staff at OU. He’s been in college football but is a first-time head coach. Is he ready to run his own program?
And at quarterback, the Sooners added UCF transfer Dillon Gabriel. Gabriel played under Oklahoma OC Jeff Lebby as a freshman and has the talent to make the jump to the Big 12. The line should be pretty solid for Gabriel, but that unit is not very deep. A few of OU’s top receivers left, but there’s experience left behind. The defense also lost several players to the draft and the portal and will be relying on incoming transfers of its own.
On the whole, there has been a lot of turnover in the program since Riley’s departure. It may be tough to ask so many new faces to come together and immediately produce at a high level.
AP poll ranking: 7
National championship odds: +5000
Utah finally broke through and won the Pac-12. No longer the underdog, how will the Utes fare now that they are considered the favorites to win the conference?
Utah is replacing a lot of talent on the defense, particularly Devin Lloyd and Nephi Sewell at linebacker. The Utes were also really light on numbers at cornerback against Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, but the position should be in much better shape when the year begins. The defensive line has consistently been a strength for Kyle Whittingham’s program, so there are players in the pipeline ready to step into bigger roles. The same goes for the offensive line, which needs several new starters.
There’s also the challenge of representing the Pac-12 in a marquee non-conference game in Week 1. As the conference’s preseason favorite, it’d be big for the perception of the Pac-12 if Utah is able to knock off Florida on the road to open the season. Florida has a new coaching staff and is considered a middle of the pack SEC team this year. Despite the humidity in Gainesville, Utah needs to take care of business — especially in the trenches.
AP poll ranking: 14
National championship odds: +2000
The hype for USC is massive entering Year 1 of the Lincoln Riley era, but is it justified?
The Trojans went 4-8 last year but brought in so much transfer help on offense with QB Caleb Williams as the headliner. Based on Riley’s track record, the offense should be really good. But the defense is a major question mark.
The Trojans were miserable on that side of the ball in 2021 and the transfers they brought in on defense are much less proven than guys like Williams, WR Jordan Addison and RB Travis Dye on offense. The Trojans are especially thin along the defensive line, with the pass rush looking like a major concern.
When you’re trying to mesh so many new parts together, it’s hard to execute the massive turnaround that’s expected of Riley’s Trojans.