College football’s 2022 season is slated to start in late August, but it’s never too early to project where all 131 teams will finish at the end of the year. Athlon Sports released its top 25 in May and now it’s time to project the rest of the teams 26-131. Alabama takes the top spot at No. 1, with Ohio State, Georgia and Clemson as the other projected playoff teams. Texas A&M, Michigan, Notre Dame, Utah, USC and Oregon round out the top 10.
Cincinnati ranks as the projected top Group of 5 team this fall, with Houston joining the Bearcats in the projected top 25. Boise State, Air Force and Fresno State rank just behind the two AAC teams but any of the three could easily exceed our preseason expectations and finish in the top 25. UCF, Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina and Utah State headline the next tier of teams from the Group of 5 ranks.
Power 5: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC
Group of 5: American | C-USA | MAC | MW | Sun Belt
DISCLAIMER: This is not a preseason 131 ranking of teams going into the season. Instead, this ranking takes into account where we project teams to finish after the national championship in January. Athlon Sports projects where every team will finish in the final rankings at the conclusion of the upcoming season:
Don Brown is the perfect coach to lead UMass, but the Massachusetts native is likely to find the going a little tougher in his second stint in Amherst. The Minutemen went 43-19 under Brown from 2004-08 – a far step ahead of the 2-26 mark the program has recorded over the last three years. FBS Independence isn’t easy for UMass, but a new staff and a roster returning 14 starters should be able to show some signs of progress. The strength of the offense resides at running back with Ellis Merriweather (1,138 yards last season), and a receiving corps has potential options, including Rico Arnold, Jermaine Johnson and tight end Josiah Johnson. The quarterback battle between Brady Olson and Zamar Wise will continue into the fall. Improvement on offense (16.3 points a game in ’21) is likely, but the Minutemen have greater concerns on a defense that surrendered 43.1 points a contest and 7.3 yards per snap last fall. Brown’s track record and the addition of a couple of transfers should provide some optimism, however. A schedule that features only one Power 5 opponent creates opportunities to surprise. But the goal in Brown’s first year should be small signs of progress on both sides of the ball and more overall competitiveness on the scoreboard.
130. New Mexico State
It’s no secret New Mexico State is one of the toughest jobs in college football, but things might be looking up in Las Cruces. The Aggies are joining Conference USA in 2023, which should make scheduling and overall competitiveness at the FBS level a little easier for a program currently playing as an FBS Independent. Also, the hire of new coach Jerry Kill was one of the best in an active carousel. Kill has a track record of success at every stop – including at lower levels of college football and FBS from stints at Northern Illinois and Minnesota – and knows how to maximize resources. The ’22 season is all about setting the foundation for success, and Kill has successfully mined the portal for help on both sides of the ball and looked to the junior college ranks for immediate contributors. One of those players could be quarterback Diego Pavia, who will battle for the job with Weston Eget and Dino Maldonado in the fall. The Aggies gave up 40.4 points a game last fall, so similar to the offense, plenty of work is ahead for Kill and his staff. However, the cupboard isn’t bare here with seven returning starters, including a pair of active linebackers in Trevor Brohard and Chris Ojoh. The schedule features three games against Power 5 opponents, but the rest of the slate gives NMSU a chance to be competitive right away in Kill’s debut.
The Huskies are just 4-32 over their last three seasons (did not play in 2020), and with a ’22 slate featuring four Power 5 opponents along with tough matchups against Utah State, Fresno State, Liberty and Army, there’s no easy fix for new coach Jim Mora. New play-caller Nick Charlton inherits an offense that averaged 15.8 points a game last season and only 4.04 yards per snap. Two transfers – Cale Millen (Northern Arizona) and Ta’Quan Roberson (Penn State) – are the front-runners to start at quarterback. If the staff can solidify the line (40 sacks allowed in ’21), and the quarterback play is better, UConn has capable skill talent to generate overall improvement. Nathan Carter (578 yards) and junior college transfer Will Knight anchor the backfield, with Keelan Marion, Cameron Ross, Nigel Fitzgerald and Kevens Clercius headlining a solid receiving corps. The Huskies allowed 38.5 points a game and finished ’21 by giving up 40-plus points to each of their last four opponents. Replacing lineman Travis Jones won’t be easy, but Mora and coordinator Lou Spanos added a couple of talented transfers – including former Kentucky linebacker Marquez Bembry – to give the defense a boost. The return of linebacker Jackson Mitchell (120 tackles) is another reason of optimism for UConn this fall.
New coach Mike MacIntyre has experience turning around programs from stops at San Jose State and Colorado and is the right coach at the right time for FIU. The Panthers are 1-16 over the last two seasons and ’22 is all about resetting the foundation for the future with just four returning starters. Big-play receiver Tyrese Chambers (23.9) and tight end Rivaldo Fairweather are two pieces of a talented receiving corps, and running back Lexington Joseph gives FIU a solid replacement for D’vonte Price. Duke transfer Gunnar Holmberg is likely the favorite to start at quarterback. A line that allowed 41 sacks and returns just one starter (Lyndell Hudson Jr.) is a major concern. The Panthers ranked last in Conference USA in points allowed (39.7), rush defense (228.5 yards per game), and 13th in pass efficiency defense last season. This unit does have a few talented pieces returning, including sophomore linebacker Gaethan Bernadel, end Davon Strickland, as well as defensive backs Pierce Withers and Willie Reid (Central Michigan transfer).
Timmy Chang is a great fit and hire at his alma mater, but the former record-setting quarterback may need a few years to rebuild this program. The Rainbow Warriors return only five starters and are navigating scheme changes on both sides of the ball. New offensive coordinator Ian Shoemaker returns four starters, including three along the line of scrimmage. A quarterback battle between Brayden Schager and a couple of transfers Joey Yellen (Pitt) and Cammon Cooper (Washington State) will continue throughout the summer and into fall camp. Running back Dedrick Parson should be one of the top playmakers for Shoemaker, but overall, Hawaii will be breaking in a revamped receiving corps. The Rainbow Warriors surrendered 31.4 points a game and 5.8 yards per play on defense last season. This unit brings back just one starter – linebacker Penei Pavihi – and features a handful of transfers likely to see significant time. The ’22 season is clearly a rebuilding year in Honolulu.
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There was considerable progress in Monroe last year under new coach Terry Bowden. ULM finished 2010 with a disastrous 0-10 record but improved to 4-8 with two wins in Sun Belt play last fall. Exceeding preseason expectations once again wouldn’t be a surprise with Bowden’s ability to get the most out of the roster. But the Warhawks will have to overcome new (but experienced) play-callers on both sides of the ball (Matt Kubik and Vic Koenning) and plenty of roster concerns. Quarterback Chandler Rogers (1,674 total yards) showed promise last year and top target Boogie Knight (44 catches) is back on the outside. Better play along the line of scrimmage (38 sacks allowed) and ground game (3.1 yards per carry) is a must. ULM’s defense surrendered 33.5 points a game, ranked last in the Sun Belt in pass efficiency defense, and finished eighth against the run last year. Koenning has some heavy lifting to do in order to get this group to the middle of the conference, but there are building blocks in the front thanks to the return of lineman Caleb Thomas and linebacker Zack Woodard. The post-spring departure of cornerback Josh Newton was a setback for the secondary.
The Zips are just 3-27 over the last three years, but the program took a big step towards improvement this offseason. The hire of former Mississippi State and Fordham head coach Joe Moorhead as the program’s new leader should have Akron more competitive in the MAC in short order. However, the Zips have some ground to make up after averaging only 20.3 points a game and allowing 37 in league games last fall. Moorhead improved the roster with portal additions in quarterback Jeff Undercuffler (UAlbany), running back Cam Wiley (Minnesota), wide receivers Shocky Jacques-Louis (Pitt) and Alex Adams (LSU) and defenders Tim Terry (LB), KJ Martin (S), and Victor Jones and Curtis Harper (DL). Linebacker Bubba Arslanian’s return (missed eight games) is huge for a run defense that allowed nearly 250 yards (248.9) a game in ’21.
124. New Mexico
The Lobos are in rebuild mode under third-year coach Danny Gonzales, but there’s optimism for improvement in ’22. The defense limited teams to 5.34 yards per play – down from 6.8 in ’20 – and returns seven starters this fall. Of that group, end Jake Saltonstall leads the way up front, and the linebacker and secondary units should continue to improve as both return largely intact. New Mexico needs to lean on its defense with the offense still looking to find the right pieces after averaging only 12.2 points a game last fall. Additionally, this group averaged 3.9 yards per snap and connected on seven plays of 40-plus yards. Kansas transfer Miles Kendrick is the front-runner at quarterback, and Nathaniel Jones is back at running back after missing ’21 with a redshirt year. The offensive line allowed 34 sacks last season and returns only one starter. A bowl is likely out of reach, but New Mexico should show some improvement and be a tougher out in the Mountain West in ’22.
The Owls are coming off their best season (4-8) under coach Mike Bloomgren. However, another step forward to produce the program’s first winning mark since 2014 will require big-time improvement on offense. Rice averaged only 21.5 points a game and 5.3 yards per play last fall and scored 31-plus points just one time against FBS opponents in ’21. More production on the scoreboard starts with better play under center from either Wiley Green or TJ McMahon, and the winner of the job has capable weapons on the outside with Bradley Rozner back from injury, Cedric Patterson III (38 catches), Tulsa transfer Sam Crawford and former quarterback Dylan McCaffrey competing for catches. Bloomgren wants to build a physical style of play, and there’s optimism along a line returning four starters. Ari Broussard (569 yards) is back to lead the way at running back. In addition to more production out of the offense, Rice needs an experienced defense (10 returning starters) to improve after surrendering 36.2 points and 6.7 yards per play in ’21.
New coach Stan Drayton inherits a team that went 3-9 and won just one conference game (Memphis) in league play last fall. The Owls are just 4-15 over the last two seasons, which snapped a streak of six consecutive non-losing records (2014-19). Getting the program back on track requires major improvement on both sides of the ball. Temple averaged 16.3 points a game last fall and returns quarterback D’Wan Mathis, receivers Jose Barbon and Amad Anderson Jr., along with running backs Darvon Hubbard (Texas A&M transfer), Edward Saydee and Iverson Clement. Just two starters return in the trenches. The outlook on defense was just as iffy last fall. The Owls surrendered 37.5 points a game, ranked 11th in the AAC against the run, and allowed 6.2 yards per play in conference games. This unit has concerns again up front, but the secondary is likely to be a bright spot with cornerbacks Cameron Ruiz and Keyshawn Paul returning to anchor the pass defense.
Taking over a program after spring practice is no easy assignment, so first-year coach Maurice Linguist should be graded on a curve after he replaced Lance Leipold following his departure to Kansas in late April. However, improving off last season’s 4-8 mark for Linguist isn’t going to be easy. After losing a handful of players to the portal, the Bulls return only nine overall starters and have big concerns to address on both sides of the ball. Buffalo did mitigate some of the departures to the portal with additions from the transfer ranks, including receivers Justin Marshall (Louisville) and Boobie Curry (Arizona), quarterback Cole Snyder (Rutgers) and a handful of pickups to bolster the offensive line (Nick Hartnett, Desmond Bessent and Sidney Walker) and the defense. Left tackle Gabe Wallace is the only returner up front, but the strength of the offense should be a ground game anchored by Ron Cook Jr. and Mike Washington. Snyder and senior Matt Myers will battle to start at quarterback. Buffalo’s defense should be solid in the front thanks to the return of Athlon Sports’ All-MAC selections in linebacker James Patterson and linemen George Wolo, Max Michel and C.J. Bazile. Transfers Caleb Offord (Notre Dame), Jahmin Muse (Boston College) and Elijah Blades (Florida/Texas A&M) will aim to improve the secondary under new defensive coordinator Brandon Bailey.
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Replacing Frank Solich in mid-July was a tough assignment for Tim Albin in his first year as head coach. With a full and normal offseason, the hope is for Albin to lead the Bobcats to big improvement after a 3-9 mark – the program’s lowest win total in a full season since ’03. A return to a winning record will require improvement out of an offense that averaged 22.6 points a game and struggled with turnovers, third-down offense and coming up with big gains. Quarterback Kurtis Rourke (212.8 total yards a game) has to play better, and Ohio needs a new No. 1 running back to emerge with De’Montre Tuggle departing. Finding more targets at receiver and getting better play up front are two other priorities for Albin. New coordinator Spence Nowinsky has work to on a defense that allowed 6.0 yards per play and 27.9 points a game in MAC contests last fall. Nine starters are back, but this unit ranked near the bottom of the conference in pass efficiency defense and seventh against the run. Considering the level of experience returning, this unit may need to lead the way until the pieces fall into place on offense.
119. Ball State
The Cardinals are 13-8 and have made back-to-back bowl trips, but coach Mike Neu’s squad has question marks to address in order to reach six victories once again. The biggest among them is at quarterback. John Paddock is the front-runner to replace three-year starter Drew Plitt under center, but the senior has attempted only 34 passes since ’18. Overall, the offense has room to improve after averaging only 5.24 yards per play in MAC games and 24.1 points a contest over the entire year. If Paddock (or another QB) settles under center, there’s a lot to like about the skill talent, which includes running back Carson Steele and receivers Yo’Heinz Tyler and Jayshon Jackson. Also, five starters and plenty of experience is back up front. The Cardinals allowed only 24 points in MAC games last fall and return six starters for rising star coordinator Tyler Stockton. Clayton Coll and Brandon Martin lead a solid linebacker unit, and cornerback Amechi Uzodinma II is a second-team All-MAC selection by Athlon Sports for ’22. However, three starters must be replaced in the secondary.
118. Arkansas State
The Red Wolves bottomed out in Butch Jones’ debut last year, as the 2-10 record was the program’s lowest mark since ’01. But the news in Jonesboro wasn’t all bad, as Arkansas State inked one of the top recruiting hauls in the Sun Belt to provide hope for the future. With the program in rebuilding mode, small signs of progress will be welcomed in ’22. The roster isn’t completely bare either. An offense that ranked fifth in the Sun Belt in scoring (25.2 points a game) and yards per play (5.5) has a good starting point with the return of quarterback James Blackman and receivers Jeff Foreman and Te’Vailance Hunt. However, just one starter returns along a line that allowed 48 sacks and averaged 2.8 yards per carry. The Red Wolves also need marked improvement on defense after a porous ’21 season. This group surrendered 38.6 points a game, ranked last in the Sun Belt against the run (260.9 yards allowed) and in yards per play (7.2). There’s major turnover at all three levels, but linebacker Kivon Bennett (eight sacks) returns, and Jones has sought immediate improvement through the portal.
117. Texas State
With a 9-27 mark through three years, coach Jake Spavital heads into ’22 facing an important season and needing to show progress. The good news: The Bobcats won four games last fall – the highest mark since ’14 – and lost three games by one score. Spavital hopes the addition of Arkansas State transfer Layne Hatcher at quarterback sparks an offense that averaged only 23.1 points a game and 4.9 yards per play last season. Marcell Barbee and Javen Banks lead a talented receiving corps, and the Bobcats won’t lack for options at running back with Calvin Hill and Jahmyl Jeter returning. Depth up front is a concern, but the starters are solid, especially left tackle Dalton Cooper and center Russell Baker. Spavital needs a big jump in performance from his defense after surrendering more than 30 points in each of the last three years. Stopping the run (183.6 yards a game) and the pass (eighth in the Sun Belt in pass efficiency defense) was a problem in 2021. Additions through the portal should help improve the depth, but even if the offense improves with Hatcher at the controls, getting to a bowl will require some improvement out of this group.
Related: Sun Belt Football 2022 Predictions
116. Louisiana Tech
Last season’s 3-9 record was the fewest wins for Louisiana Tech since ’06, and with an 8-14 mark over the last two years, it was no surprise the program opted for a fresh start and moved on from Skip Holtz. New coach Sonny Cumbie is expected to implement a style of play similar to the Air Raid offense in Ruston this fall, but there’s uncertainty at quarterback with two unproven transfers in Matthew Downing (TCU) and Parker McNeil (Texas Tech) the favorites to start. Whichever quarterback wins the job has a solid group of playmakers on the outside, including Tre Harris, Smoke Harris, LSU transfer Devonta Lee, and tight end Griffin Hebert. Also, three starters return up front. A porous defense (34 points a game and 6.1 yards per play) brings back eight starters and added help through the portal, so there’s optimism that this group will improve under new coordinator Scott Power. Linebacker Tyler Grubbs is among Conference USA’s top returning defenders.
After a 15-7 record over the last two seasons, Nevada is starting over in ’22. The Wolf Pack return just six starters from last year and are under the direction of a new staff after Jay Norvell left for Colorado State. New coach Ken Wilson previously worked under Chris Ault in Reno and also spent time as an assistant at Washington State (2013-19) and Oregon (2020-21). The list of departures for Wilson to replace on Nevada’s high-powered offense (35.7 points a game in ’21) is significant. Quarterback Carson Strong, receivers Romeo Doubs, Tory Horton, Melquan Stovall and Justin Lockhart, along with tight end Cole Turner are all gone. Running back Toa Taua should be the focal point of the offense until the quarterback battle between Nate Cox and Oklahoma State transfer Shane Illingworth is settled. Additionally, just one starter (Aaron Frost) is back along an offensive line that surrendered 45 sacks last season. A defense that allowed 5.6 yards per play and 26.5 points a contest and ranked last in the Mountain West against the run last fall is also under construction. Tackle Dom Peterson (10 TFL) is one of the top returning defenders in the Mountain West, and there is some experience returning in the secondary.
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114. Bowling Green
Scot Loeffler is just 7-22 in his tenure at Bowling Green, but the Falcons might be on the cusp of a breakthrough season. An experienced roster (17 returning starters) returns from a squad that went 4-8 and lost one-score games to eventual division champs Kent State and Northern Illinois. If Loeffler’s team is to have that breakthrough year, the defense has to lead the way. End Karl Brooks, linebacker Darren Anders, cornerback Davon Ferguson and safety Jordan Anderson headline a strong, talented foundation for coordinator Eric Lewis. However, this group surrendered 36 points a contest in MAC play and had issues (187.8 yards) against the run. An offense with nine returning starters seems poised for a step forward after averaging only 21.4 points per matchup last fall. Quarterback Matt McDonald (12 TDs to 7 INTs) is back, along with a collection of promising skill players, including running back Terion Stewart, tight end Christian Sims and receivers Tyrone Broden and Austin Osborne. Loeffler also hopes that Memphis transfer Jakari Robinson adds much-needed stability to a unit that allowed 39 sacks last year. Both Miami and Kent State visit Doyt L. Perry Stadium this fall.
Related: MAC Football 2022 Predictions and Preview
113. Eastern Michigan
Chris Creighton continued to do one of the more underrated coaching jobs in college football, guiding Eastern Michigan to its fourth bowl in six years in 2021. Getting back to the postseason starts under center. Troy (and former Missouri) signal-caller Taylor Powell steps into the starting quarterback role after ’21 starter Ben Bryant returned to Cincinnati. Powell has plenty of pieces to work with around him, as the Eagles return arguably the best receiving corps in the MAC thanks to the return of Hassan Beydoun, Tanner Knue and Dylan Drummond. Five players with experience are also back along an offensive line that allowed 42 sacks last fall. Although the strength of this unit is on the outside, more balance on offense is needed after EMU averaged just 2.96 yards per carry in MAC games last season. Creighton’s defense has room to improve after giving up 29.5 points and 6.2 yards a snap in MAC games in ’21. Five starters – including end Jose Ramirez (6.5 sacks) – return this fall. Addressing the run defense (197.7 yards a game) is a priority, while the Eagles finished third in the conference in pass efficiency defense last season.
A 2-10 finish represented a small step forward after UNLV went 0-6 in coach Marcus Arroyo’s debut in ’20. Also, the Rebels lost six of those games – including conference matchups to Utah State, San Jose State, and Fresno State – by one score. Replacing running back Charles Williams (1,261 yards) won’t be easy, but there’s reason for optimism in Las Vegas. Two transfers – quarterback Harrison Bailey and receiver Ricky White – are huge pickups for Arroyo’s hopes of jump-starting an offense that averaged only 20.8 points a game and 5.2 yards per play last fall. Kyle Williams (42 receptions) is another weapon on the outside for whichever QB – Bailey, Cameron Friel or Doug Brumfield – takes the first snap in ’22. Four starters are back up front but improvement is needed after giving up 41 sacks. Bigger concerns surround the defense under new signal-caller Keith Heyward. This unit gave up 32.8 points a game, 6.2 yards per play, ranked 10th in the MW in rush defense and last in pass efficiency defense. Also, the unit’s best player – linebacker Jacoby Windman – departed as a transfer.
111. Middle Tennessee
Picking the Blue Raiders to finish eighth in Conference USA and likely out of a bowl is a dangerous prediction considering coach Rick Stockstill’s team has earned postseason bids in six out of the last nine years. However, Stockstill and his staff have major question marks to address for ’22. New coordinator Mitch Stewart is shifting the offense to more of an Air Raid approach, and while there are proven quarterbacks in Chase Cunningham and Nicholas Vattiato, just one starter returns up front and a sluggish ground game (3.5 yards per carry in ’21) might not improve. The strength of this offense is on the outside where Jaylin Lane leads a solid receiving corps. End Jordan Ferguson (nine sacks) headlines a deep line, and there’s experience at linebacker thanks to the return of Johnathan Butler. However, Middle Tennessee was hit hard by departures in the secondary, as only one starter returns from a stingy unit (second in C-USA in pass efficiency defense). The Blue Raiders can expect some regression in the forced turnovers department (32 last year), but if the offense clicks, this is too low of a projection for Stockstill’s squad.
Former Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mike Elko is a good fit as head coach for Duke as it looks to get back on track following a 10-25 finish to the David Cutcliffe era (2019-21). However, the Blue Devils have a steep climb ahead in ’22. An offense that averaged 14.9 points in ACC play last season lost quarterback Gunnar Holmberg and leading receiver Jake Bobo to transfer, and running back Mataeo Durant (1,241 yards) departed for the NFL. Four returning starters provide a solid foundation in the trenches. Duke has only one way to go on defense after this unit allowed 46.6 points a contest and 7.1 yards per play in ACC games last fall. Elko’s arrival should help this group, but there are major holes in the secondary, and this unit needs to get better versus the run (218.4 rushing yards allowed in ACC play last year).
Related: ACC Football 2022 Preview and Predictions
109. Georgia Southern
The hire of former USC coach Clay Helton and subsequent scheme shift away from the option has added a layer of intrigue to Georgia Southern this fall. Also, reloading or transitioning in a deep division (Sun Belt East) is not going to be easy. However, the Eagles have an experienced roster (12 returning starters) and added a few impact transfers, including former Buffalo quarterback Kyle Vantrease. The backfield is deep with J.D. King, Gerald Green and Jalen White, and Vantrease has capable weapons at receiver with Khaleb Hood, Amare Jones and Jeremy Singleton out wide. Four starters are back along a line that allowed 28 sacks last fall and this group as a whole must adjust to a new offensive scheme and philosophy. New coordinator Will Harris has work to do on a defense that allowed 31.4 points a game, 6.4 yards per play and struggled mightily against the pass. A healthy Derrick Canteen will help at cornerback, and the line features a couple of all-conference candidates in Justin Ellis and Dillon Springer, along with North Carolina transfer Kristian Varner. How fast Helton can put the pieces into place on offense and find improvement on defense will determine just how high this team will climb in ’22.
After making a bowl and finishing 7-6 in coach Will Healy’s first year (2019), the 49ers have posted back-to-back losing seasons and are just 7-11 in that span. A return to the postseason should be within reach in ’22, especially if new coordinator Greg Brown can improve a defense that allowed 34 points a game, ranked 13th in Conference USA against the run, 14th in pass efficiency defense, and surrendered 7.1 yards per play in ’21. A healthy Davondre Robinson in the secondary should make a difference on the back end, while three new starters must be found at linebacker. The list of concerns is shorter on the other side of the ball. Behind quarterback Chris Reynolds and one of the league’s top receiving corps, scoring points shouldn’t be a problem. The top two running backs (Shadrick Byrd and Calvin Camp) are back, and three starters return to anchor the offensive line.
107. Western Michigan
Restocking a high-powered offense (32.5 points a game) is the top offseason priority for coach Tim Lester. The Broncos lost quarterback Kaleb Eleby and receivers Skyy Moore and Jaylen Moore, along with three starters in the trenches from a unit that averaged 32.5 points a game last fall. Jack Salopek, Stone Hollenbach and Mareyohn Hrabowski are battling for Eleby’s spot, and until the passing game is settled, Western Michigan should be able to lean on the one-two punch of Sean Tyler and La’Darius Jefferson (1,986 combined yards last season). Also, the receiving corps wasn’t completely wiped out, as Corey Crooms (44 catches) should push for all-conference honors. Asking for more help out of a defense that returns seven starters and finished fourth in fewest points allowed (28.2) and fifth in yards per play allowed would also help the Broncos offset quarterback concerns early in the year. Linebacker Corvin Moment (68 tackles) is among the MAC’s top returning defenders.
106. North Texas
The Mean Green overcame a 1-6 start by winning their last five regular-season games (including a win over undefeated UTSA) to earn the program’s fifth bowl trip in six years under coach Seth Littrell. But after an 18-9 mark from 2017-18, North Texas is only 14-21 over the last three seasons and the pressure is building on Littrell. A step forward in ’22 will require more consistency out of the passing game (197.1 yards a contest last fall), which could come in the form of Memphis/Arizona transfer Grant Gunnell after he joined the mix to push Austin Aune after spring ball. The Mean Green are deep at running back – a unit bolstered by promising sophomore Oscar Adaway III returning from an ACL tear to join Ikaika Ragsdale and Ayo Adeyi. Players returning from ailments also boost the receiving corps with Tommy Bush and Jyaire Shorter joining Damon Ward and Roderic Burns to form a standout receiving corps. Four starters return along an offensive line that should rank among the best in the conference. The hire of veteran play-caller Phil Bennett had a massive impact on North Texas’ defense last fall. In 2020, this unit surrendered 6.94 yards per snap and 42.8 points a game but cut those totals to 27.5 a contest and 5.7 yards a play. Improving on those numbers will require replacing ends Grayson and Gabriel Murphy (transferred to UCLA) and tackle Dion Novil. Linebacker KD Davis is among Conference USA’s top returning defenders for ’22. Key swing games against Louisiana Tech, FAU and Rice take place in Denton.
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The Owls have won five games in both of coach Willie Taggart’s seasons in Boca Raton, but with 12 returning starters, a step forward in the win column is within reach. Improving a sluggish offense (25.4 points a game) would help in the quest for six (or more victories), and Taggart has a new coordinator (Brent Dearmon) set to call plays this fall. Quarterback N’Kosi Perry (242.6 total yards a game) and ’21 top targets LaJohntay Wester and Je’Quan Burton are back. Assuming Johnny Ford (831 rushing yards) returns after missing spring ball, FAU should have a strong backfield with the arrival of Nebraska transfer Marvin Scott III and Larry McCammon III. Four starters return in the trenches, and there’s optimism around Rutgers transfer Brendan Bordner solidifying the left tackle spot. Just five starters are back on a defense that limited opponents to 24.8 points a game last fall. New coordinator Todd Orlando doesn’t lack for talent to work with, however. Up front, Jaylen Joyner and Evan Anderson are capable of creating plenty of havoc, and there’s experience in the secondary with Smoke Mungin at cornerback and Teja Young at safety.
The Miners were Conference USA’s biggest surprise last fall. After a 5-27 start to his tenure in El Paso, coach Dana Dimel guided UTEP to a 7-6 mark and the program’s first bowl trip since ’14. Quarterback Gavin Hardison (3,223 yards and 18 TDs) returns to anchor an offense that has room to improve after averaging 25.1 points a game but led C-USA in most plays of 40-plus yards (25). Ronald Awatt and Deion Hankins form one of the league’s top backfields, but a new No. 1 receiver must emerge with Jacob Cowing (19.8 yards per catch) transferring to Arizona. The Miners also return a good foundation up front with three returning starters. The optimism meter also is running high on defense. UTEP should have one of the top defensive fronts in C-USA with Praise Amaewhule and Keenan Stewart in the trenches, along with Breon Hayward and Tyrice Knight at linebacker. A secondary that helped this unit rank third in the conference in pass efficiency defense is under construction with three starters departing. A better job in the turnover department (minus-11 last year) would help UTEP close the deal in close games in ’22.
Related: Conference USA Football 2022 Predictions
103. Southern Miss
Injuries to the quarterback position wreaked havoc on Will Hall’s first season in Hattiesburg. To illustrate how dire the situation was: Eleven players attempted a pass, four different players started under center and no signal-caller threw for more than 843 yards. By the end of ’21, Hall shifted to a Wildcat look with running back Farnk Gore Jr. for the final weeks of the season, which resulted in the team winning two in a row. With better luck and a healthy quarterback room, don’t be surprised if the Golden Eagles show marked improvement in Hall’s second year. Gore returns to anchor the ground game, receiver Jason Brownlee (46 catches for 643 yards) is back, and quarterback Ty Keyes is a promising player for the offense to build around. Despite the offensive struggles and bad field position by lost turnovers (31), Southern Miss’ defense more than held its own. This group limited teams to 27.9 points a game and led Conference USA in red zone defense. Rebuilding the front is the top priority for coordinator Austin Armstrong, but the linebacker and secondary units should be a strength. Also, Hall and the staff have added reinforcements to this group through the portal.
Outside of an 11-2 finish in 2019, the Midshipmen are 10-25 in their last four seasons. However, although Navy was 4-8 last fall, the team won its last two games and lost four others – including matchups against Cincinnati, Houston, SMU and East Carolina – by one score. Turning those close defeats into wins in ’22 will require a step forward by the offense, especially quarterback Tai Lavatai (371 rushing yards) and a ground game that has averaged less than four yards per carry in each of the last two seasons. The team’s top four backs from last year are gone and just two starters return along the line of scrimmage. The outlook on defense is just as cloudy. Six starters are back, but standout linebacker Diego Fagot departed. Linebacker John Marshall, safety Rayuan Lane III and nose guard Donald Berniard Jr. return to anchor a unit that allowed 28.2 points per game last fall. If the Midshipmen improve on offense, there’s enough talent and optimism on defense to push for six wins and a return to the bowl scene.
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101. San Jose State
The Spartans took a step back after winning the Mountain West in 2020, finishing with a 5-7 record and a losing mark (3-5) in league play. However, coach Brent Brennan’s squad has the pieces to get back on track this fall. An offense that averaged only 20 points a game and 5.4 yards per play should receive a boost from transfer additions in quarterback Chevan Cordeiro (Hawaii) and receivers Justin Lockhart (Nevada) and Elijah Cooks (Nevada). There is major retooling needed along an offensive line that allowed only 22 sacks last fall but returns just one starter (Jaime Navarro). The outlook is positive on defense, where San Jose State brings back eight starters from a unit that ranked second in the Mountain West in fewest yards per play allowed (5.13) in league play last fall. Ends Cade Hall and Viliami Fehoko form a standout pair off the edge after combining for 11 sacks in ’21, while linebackers Kyle Harmon and Alii Matau are poised to push for all-conference honors. The secondary has room to improve after finishing 11th in the Mountain West in pass efficiency defense. However, the cupboard isn’t bare here with cornerback Nehemiah Shelton and safety Tre Jenkins back in the mix. Missing Boise State and Air Force in crossover play is huge for San Jose State’s hopes of a bowl trip in ’22. Also, small improvement (minus-12) in turnover margin could result in a win or two in close games.
With a 3-18 record in his first two years at USF, it’s no secret coach Jeff Scott needs to show some progress in ’22. With 18 starters back, improvement should be attainable. An offense that averaged 23.2 points a game last season might be the biggest reason for optimism. Sophomore Timmy McClain showed potential at quarterback last fall, but the staff added Baylor transfer Gerry Bohanon late in the spring. Scott and coordinator Travis Trickett should feel good about their quarterback options, and there’s a lot to like about the skill talent with running back Jaren Mangham and receivers Xavier Weaver, Ajou Ajou (Clemson transfer) and Jimmy Horn in the mix. All five offensive line starters return. After giving up 34.7 points a game last season and finishing 10th in the conference against the run and allowing seven yards per play, Scott hit the reset button on defense. Veteran (and former Penn State and Vanderbilt defensive coordinator) Bob Shoop will handle the play-calling duties in ’22, working with a group that returns eight starters. Scott hit the portal for help at all three levels and this group certainly appears deeper on paper. Linebacker Antonio Grier (92 tackles) is one of the AAC’s top defensive players.
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Escaping last place or earning the program’s first winning record since 2008 might be too heavy of a lift for the Jayhawks in ’22. But make no mistake, this program is on the right track under coach Lance Leipold. Kansas stunned the college football world with a November upset against Texas last season and lost later that month by one score to both TCU and West Virginia. With 16 starters back, another step forward in the win column is within reach. Quarterback Jalon Daniels returns after a promising finish to the ’21 season and is supported by a solid group of running backs, including Devin Neal (707 yards) and Minnesota transfer Ky Thomas. Continuing to develop depth and talent up front and more playmakers on the outside would be a boost to an offense that averaged 20.8 points a game last fall. Major progress is needed on defense. The Jayhawks ranked last in the Big 12 against the run (249.9 rushing yards allowed per game) and in pass efficiency defense, while surrendering 7.2 yards a snap. A few transfer portal additions – namely safety Marvin Grant and end Lonnie Phelps – will help a unit slated to return largely intact with seven starters. Safety Kenny Logan Jr. is one of the best defensive backs returning in the Big 12.
98. James Madison
The Dukes are the newest program at the FBS level, and while they won’t be eligible for a bowl or the Sun Belt title in ’22, this team will be a tough out in conference play. Coach Curt Cignetti has guided JMU to a 33-5 mark over the last three years and an appearance in the ’19 FCS Championship Game. Replacing quarterback Cole Johnson is the biggest question mark on an offense that averaged 38.3 points a game last fall. Colorado State transfer Todd Centeio is the name to watch under center, but the strength of the offense rests with a deep backfield. Pitt transfer A.J. Davis joins a group that includes Percy Agyei-Obese (missed ’21 due to injury) and Latrele Palmer. Receiver Kris Thornton (1,097 yards) is among the top playmakers on the outside in the Sun Belt. Three starters are back up front, but there’s some turnover on the left side of the line. Five starters return from a dominant defense (15.4 points a game and 275.2 yards a game), but this unit suffered a late setback in the summer when linebacker Diamonte Tucker-Dorsey transferred to Texas. Lineman Isaac Ukwu should push for All-Sun Belt honors this fall. Transitioning and developing the depth and talent to compete for conference titles at the FBS level will take some time. However, James Madison should be competitive right away and a winning record is within reach in ’22.
The Cowboys have won at least six games in each of the last five full years under coach Craig Bohl but getting back to that level in ’22 isn’t going to be easy. Wyoming averaged only 17.5 points in Mountain West play last fall and lost quarterbacks Sean Chambers and Levi Williams to transfer. Utah State transfer Andrew Peasley and junior college product Evan Svoboda will battle into the fall for the starting job, while the receiving corps needs a new No. 1 target to emerge after Isaiah Neyor transferred to Texas. Provided an offensive line with just one returning starter is solidified, the ground game should be a strength behind running back Titus Swen. Defense is usually a strength in Laramie, and Bohl’s group should be stingy again despite some turnover. Easton Gibbs looks like the next star linebacker with Chad Muma off to the NFL, and a couple of transfers (Jakorey Hawkins and Deron Harrell) were added to solidify the secondary. Improvement against the run (11th in the Mountain West in ’21) is needed.
Clark Lea inherited a major rebuilding effort on West End, and that project will continue into ’22 with hopes of small on-field progress. Vanderbilt’s schedule features road trips to Hawaii and Northern Illinois, along with a home date versus Wake Forest. Also, there are crossover games versus Alabama and Ole Miss. In other words: Just getting to three wins might be the best-case scenario in ’22. Although the job is unsettled, both Mike Wright and Ken Seals are capable options at quarterback. The ground game should get a boost with the return of Re’Mahn Davis from injury, but the offensive line is a major concern. Vanderbilt ranked 13th in the SEC against the run, last in pass efficiency defense, and surrendered an unpleasant combination of 6.8 yards per play and 35.6 points per game. Lea was one of the top coordinators in college football during his time at Notre Dame and another offseason to develop the roster on defense will pay some dividends. However, the climb to respectability on this side of the ball with question marks at every level is steep.
95. Old Dominion
After not playing in the 2020 season, it was no surprise Old Dominion started slow under first-year coach Ricky Rahne last fall. However, the Monarchs found their footing by midseason and reeled off five consecutive victories in the regular season to earn a bowl trip. This team also lost three games by one score, so Rahne and his staff clearly have this program trending up going into ’22. The move to the Sun Belt, along with a tough non-conference schedule, won’t make life any easier for ODU this fall. Despite those challenges, Rahne has the pieces in place to improve offensively (27.6 points a game in ’21) with four starters returning up front, running back Blake Watson (1,112 yards), receiver Ali Jennings III and tight end Zack Kuntz. Hayden Wolff is back at quarterback, but Brendon Clark and D.J. Mack will push him for the starting job. Old Dominion’s defense was tough against the run (third in C-USA) but has room to improve after giving up 27.3 points a game last fall. Safety R’Tarriun Johnson (91 tackles) leads the way in a secondary aiming to improve after finishing eighth in Conference USA in pass efficiency defense in ’21.
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The Trojans made a strong hire in bringing Kentucky assistant and Alabama native Jon Sumrall back to Troy. Sumrall worked on Neal Brown’s staff from 2015-17 before spending the last four seasons as an assistant in the SEC. Although Troy hasn’t had a winning record since ’18, the cupboard isn’t bare here. Linebacker Carlton Martial leads a loaded defense that led the Sun Belt in fewest yards per play allowed (5.1) and features the top line in the conference thanks to the return of Will Choloh, Javon Solomon and Richard Jibunor. The Trojans will need to lean on their defense until the offense works things out behind new play-caller Joe Craddock. Nine starters are back on this side of the ball, but this unit averaged only 22.8 points a game and 5.1 yards per play in ’21. Quarterback Gunnar Watson will be pushed by Utah transfer Peter Costelli and Quayde Hawkins for the starting nod. There’s good skill talent returning, including running back Kimani Vidal and receiver Tez Johnson. Also, four starters are back up front.
93. South Alabama
Louisiana is vulnerable at the top of the Sun Belt West, so with small improvement on offense (24.9 points a game last year), South Alabama could push for a division title in coach Kane Wommack’s second season. The Jaguars averaged 5.2 yards per play last fall and struggled to convert third downs, largely a result of an inconsistent offensive line and sluggish ground game (111.4 rushing yards a game). The quarterback battle between Carter Bradley and Desmond Trotter will extend into the fall. Replacing No. 1 receiver Jalen Tolbert won’t be easy, but Jalen Wayne (53 catches in ’21) is primed for a huge year. While the list of concerns on offense is lengthy, it’s a different story on defense. South Alabama held teams to 26.4 points a game and 5.4 yards per snap, while also ranking third in the Sun Belt in pass efficiency defense. Cornerback Darrell Luther Jr. is a lockdown coverman on the outside, and Wommack has a deep front to attack opposing Sun Belt offensive lines. Also, South Alabama won’t have to play any of the projected top four teams from the Sun Belt East in the regular season.
After a promising 4-2 finish in coach Karl Dorrell’s first year (2020), the Buffaloes took a major step back last fall. Colorado went 4-8 in ’21 and lost six Pac-12 games by 15 or more points. Also, the offense averaged 20.3 points and just 4.5 yards per play in conference action, while the defense surrendered 6.1 yards per play. The Buffaloes need significant improvement on both sides of the ball to contend for a bowl trip. Dorrell hopes a new coordinator (Mike Sanford Jr.) is what the offense needs to get back on track, but major personnel concerns remain going into ’22. The line struggled mightily (32 sacks allowed) and key playmakers in receiver Brenden Rice and running back Jarek Broussard opted to transfer. Quarterback Brendon Lewis returns after accounting for nearly 1,800 total yards last year, but he will be pushed by JT Shrout for the starting job. Only four starters are back on a defense that ranked near the bottom of the Pac-12 against the run and pass. Linebackers Carson Wells and Nate Landman and cornerbacks Mehki Blackmon and Christian Gonzalez top the list of key departures for coordinator Chris Wilson to address. West Virginia transfer Josh Chandler-Semedo was a key pickup at linebacker. A non-conference slate featuring games versus TCU, Minnesota and Air Force is challenging for a team in rebuild mode.
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91. Central Michigan
The Chippewas finished 2021 by winning seven out of their last eight games, which included a 24-21 win over Washington State in the Sun Bowl. The only defeat in that stretch? A one-point defeat to eventual MAC champion Northern Illinois. Coach Jim McElwain’s squad has holes to fill on both sides of the ball, but this team has enough returning to make a run at the West Division title. Running back Lew Nichols III (1,848 yards) powers an offense that averaged 32.3 points a game. Quarterback Daniel Richardson also returns, but the Chippewas must replace two standout offensive tackles – Luke Goedeke and Bernhard Raimann – and restock a receiving corps that lost two key playmakers in JaCorey Sullivan and Kalil Pimpleton. McElwain likely has greater concerns on a defense losing linebacker Troy Brown, defensive back Devonni Reed and lineman Troy Hairston II. This unit was solid last fall (25.8 points a game allowed) but ranked ninth in the MAC in pass efficiency defense and struggled with big plays allowed (21 of 40-plus). Central Michigan won’t have to play one of the projected top two (Miami or Kent State) from the East but catches Northern Illinois and Toledo on the road this year.
A four-game winning streak to close 2021 helped coach Philip Montgomery’s team reach the postseason for the second year in a row. Tulsa may need to win a few toss-up games to make a bowl in ’22, as only nine starters return from last year’s squad and the schedule features treks to Wyoming, Ole Miss, Navy, Memphis and Houston. Quarterback Davis Brin (3,244 yards and 18 TDs) returns to anchor an offense that averaged six yards a play last fall. He’s joined by a deep group of running backs – led by Deneric Prince and Anthony Watkins – and the receiving corps gets a boost with the return of Keylon Stokes, who missed nearly all of ’21 due to injury. Gerard Wheeler anchors a rebuilt line (just two returning starters) that is the biggest concern on offense. The defense not only lost several key players, but the staff is also in flux after coordinator Joseph Gillespie left to take over as the play-caller at TCU. The Golden Hurricane limited conference opponents to 25.9 points and 5.4 yards per play last fall and will have to lean on lineman Anthony Goodlow to help replace Jaxon Player (transferred to Baylor), while the linebacker unit should be a strength with Justin Wright and Jon-Michael Terry leading the way. Safety Kendarin Ray leads a rebuilt secondary.
89. Kent State
Quarterback Dustin Crum will be missed, but his departure isn’t expected to keep Kent State from contention in the MAC this year. Junior Collin Schlee impressed in limited snaps last season and is expected to replace Crum, inheriting a high-powered offense (33.0 points a game) and a strong collection of skill talent. The Golden Flashes return running backs Marquez Cooper (1,205 yards) and Xavier Williams (812) and receivers Dante Cephas (82 catches) and Ja’Shaun Poke (26). Replacing three starters along a line that allowed 40 sacks last year is the biggest concern on offense for coach Sean Lewis. Kent State’s defense has been an issue in recent years and surrendered 37.6 points and nearly six yards (5.98) per snap in MAC contests in ’21. Addressing a porous run defense (205.9 yards a game last year) is the top priority for new coordinator Jeremiah Johnson. The non-conference schedule features games against Washington, Oklahoma and Georgia. Surviving those three September matchups and finding a few answers on defense would set up Kent State for another run at the conference title.
88. Georgia Tech
With a 9-25 mark over the last three years, it’s no secret coach Geoff Collins enters the ’22 season squarely on the hot seat. In addition to a roster that returns only four starters, an unforgiving schedule is on tap featuring non-conference matchups against Georgia, Ole Miss and UCF, along with ACC crossover games versus Clemson and Florida State. For the Yellow Jackets to take a step forward, more consistency is needed at quarterback from Jeff Sims (12 TDs, 7 INTs last season). And if Sims struggles, two transfers in Zach Gibson (Akron) and Taisun Phommachanh (Clemson) are waiting to push for snaps. Although Jahmyr Gibbs transferred to Alabama, the running back room is still in good shape with Dontae Smith, Hassan Hall and Buffalo transfer Dylan McDuffie. However, just one starter returns up front, and the receiving corps brings back a single player that caught more than 15 passes (Malachi Carter) last fall. Major improvement is needed on a defense that has ranked 13th or worse in the ACC in points allowed in each of Collins’ three years at the helm. Linebacker Charlie Thomas is the unit’s top player, but he will be playing with a lot of new faces as just one other starter returns and major turnover was experienced up front and in the secondary.
87. Colorado State
A major transition is underway in Fort Collins. New coach Jay Norvell made the rare intraconference move from Nevada to Colorado State and inherits a team that went 3-9 last fall and returns only eight starters. However, the Rams might be in for a quick rebound in ’22. Norvell brought aboard several transfers, including a couple from Reno in quarterback Clay Millen and receiver Tory Horton to bolster an offense that averaged just 23.7 points a game in ’21. Horton’s arrival adds to a receiving corps that figures to rank among the best in the Mountain West with Dante Wright and Ty McCullouch already in place, although tight end Trey McBride will be missed. A couple of transfers were brought in to improve an offensive line that had issues clearing the way on the ground (3.8 yards per carry) and allowed 28 sacks last fall. Colorado State’s defense finished ninth in the Mountain West in points allowed (28.9 points a game), struggled against the run (ninth in the MW), and finished near the bottom (11th) in pass efficiency defense. Similar to the offense, Norvell added a couple of transfers to help right away, but there are holes to fill in the trenches with Scott Patchan (10.5 sacks) and Toby McBride (7.0 TFL) departing.
Can the Hilltoppers recreate the magic of ’21? Thanks to the play-calling of Zach Kittley and the production of quarterback Bailey Zappe (62 TDs), WKU won Conference USA’s East Division title and finished 9-5 after dispatching Appalachian State 59-38 in the Boca Raton Bowl. However, repeating last year’s success isn’t going to be easy. Kittley now calls the plays at Texas Tech, with Ben Arbuckle set to move into the coordinator role in Bowling Green. West Virginia transfer Jarret Doege is the front-runner to replace Zappe. In addition to the turnover at those two spots, WKU lost its top two receivers in Jerreth Sterns and Mitchell Tinsley, although there are plenty of solid playmakers returning. The offensive line brings back just two starters, so that unit will be in transition early in the ’22 campaign. WKU’s defense played well down the stretch but still allowed 29.4 points a game last fall. New coordinator Tyson Summers has the pieces in place to help this unit improve on the stat sheet. Juwuan Jones and Darius Shipp top the list of key returners up front, while cornerback Kahlef Hailassie and A.J. Brathwaite Jr. lead the way in the secondary. Jaden Hunter, Will Ignont and Niko Cooper form a solid trio at linebacker. How fast WKU reloads on offense and acclimates to a new play-caller will determine just how high this team climbs in the league.
85. Miami (Ohio)
Led by junior quarterback Brett Gabbert (2,648 yards and 26 TDs), the RedHawks should be the favorite in the East Division and return to the conference title game for the first time since ’19. Gabbert won’t have his favorite ’21 target in Jack Sorenson, but Mac Hippenhammer and Jalen Walker are back on the outside. Also, the RedHawks return a cast of experienced running backs, and four starters return to form one of the league’s top offensive lines. Coach Chuck Martin’s defense brings back six starters from a unit that allowed the fewest points per game (22.0) in MAC contests last fall. However, coordinator Bill Brechin has holes to fill with the departure of ends Lonnie Phelps, Ben Kimpler and Kameron Butler, linebacker Ivan Pace Jr. and defensive backs Sterling Weatherford and Cedric Boswell. The home date against Kent State on Oct. 8 should decide the winner of the MAC East.
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The Green Wave entered 2021 with high expectations but slumped to the worst season (2-10) under coach Willie Fritz. Even though Tulane is a tough job, don’t expect this program to be down for long. After going 0-5 in one-score games with a minus-nine turnover margin, Fritz’s team is likely due for a little better luck in ’22. Also, Michael Pratt (26 total TDs last fall) should be among the top quarterbacks in the AAC, with Tyjae Spears (863 yards) poised for a big season being a year removed from a major knee injury in ’20. New offensive coordinator Jim Svoboda could use more playmakers to emerge on the outside to join tight end Tyrick James and Shae Wyatt. Five starters return up front, but the Green Wave need better play up front (32 sacks allowed). Tulane’s defense took a step back under first-year coordinator Chris Hampton last fall, surrendering 34 points a game and 5.8 yards per play. This unit also struggled to stop the pass (10th in the AAC), gave up too many big plays and had issues getting off the field on third down. However, Hampton coaxed some improvement out of this group down the stretch, so there’s optimism that with seven returning starters this defense will take a step forward.
The Hoosiers seemed to be trending up after going 14-7 from 2019-20 under coach Tom Allen. However, the program took a massive step back last season with a 2-10 finish and an 0-9 mark in Big Ten games. Allen took steps to rectify last year’s disappointment, appointing new coordinators on both sides of the ball and taking over the play-calling duties on defense. New offensive coordinator Walt Bell inherits a group that averaged only 10.4 points a contest in Big Ten action last year. Former Missouri signal-caller Connor Bazelak should provide much-needed stability under center, with fellow transfers Shaun Shivers and Josh Henderson (RB) and Emery Simmons (WR) helping to add options at the skill talent spots. The rebuilding effort on defense probably isn’t as steep, but there’s no doubt linebacker Micah Fadden will be missed after the Hoosiers allowed 35.1 points in Big Ten matchups last fall. A few transfer portal additions should help, along with the return of cornerback Tiawan Mullen (missed six games) to full strength.
If recent trends hold, an even year (2022) could be a good one for Northwestern. After all, the Wildcats won the Big Ten West Division in ’18 and ’20 but had identical 3-9 records in the last two odd-year campaigns (’19 and ’21). Returning to the conference title game is going to be a heavy lift in ’22, however. Northwestern’s offense struggled mightily last fall, averaging only 4.4 yards per play and 13 points a game in Big Ten play. Left tackle Peter Skoronski and the backfield tandem of Evan Hull and Cam Porter headlines the strength of the offense. The Wildcats threw only 10 touchdowns in conference action last season and major questions remain under center with Brendan Sullivan pushing Ryan Hilinski for the starting job. The defense held teams to 15.5 points a game in ’20 but took a major step back last fall (34 a contest allowed) after the retirement of coordinator Mike Hankwitz. Stopping the run (213.3 rushing yards allowed) was a major problem. End Adetomiwa Adebawore (8.5 TFL) is underrated, and the secondary could be a strength with Cameron Mitchell and A.J. Hampton back at cornerback. Although the offense is likely to be a work in progress all year, getting the defense back on track would help Northwestern push for a bowl this fall.
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Despite a significant amount of turnover in personnel and on the coaching staff, the Ragin’ Cajuns are still the team to beat in the Sun Belt’s West Division. Louisiana won the West all four years under Billy Napier and got over the hump for the conference title in ’21 with a 24-16 victory over Appalachian State. The program hopes to maintain that success under former quarterback and new coach Michael Desormeaux, who started his tenure with a win over Marshall in the New Orleans Bowl. Desormeaux’s first priority is to find a replacement for Levi Lewis under center – likely sophomore Chandler Fields – and restock a standout line that returns only one starter. Although turnover at those spots won’t be easy to navigate, Desormeaux has a solid collection of skill talent returning, including running back Chris Smith (844 yards) and receivers Peter LeBlanc and Michael Jefferson. The Ragin’ Cajuns lost a chunk of talent on defense as well, but this unit can lean on some of its established depth stepping into bigger roles to ease the transition. Standout Zi’Yon Hill returns up front, while cornerback Eric Garror and safeties Bralen Trahan and Kam Pedescleaux anchor the secondary. The schedule also breaks in Louisiana’s favor. Both Troy and South Alabama come to Lafayette, and Desormeaux’s squad misses Georgia State, Appalachian State and Coastal Carolina in crossover play.
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The talent on the roster hasn’t quite matched success at Toledo in recent years. The Rockets are just 24-20 over the last four seasons and went 7-6 last fall with five losses in one score games. With a little better luck and slight improvement on both sides of the ball, coach Jason Candle’s squad could end up as the best in the MAC. Replacing running back Bryant Koback is the top priority for an offense that averaged 33.4 points a game and 6.6 yards per play last fall. Quarterback Dequan Finn (2,549 total yards and 27 TDs) is a rising star under center. Also, the Rockets bring back four starters up front, along with receiver Devin Maddox (41 catches). Candle’s hire of Vince Kehres has paid big dividends for the defense over the last two years. Toledo allowed 6.6 yards per play and 32.2 points a game in ’19 but led the conference in fewest yards per play (4.8) and scoring defense (21.8) last year. This unit should rank near the top of the conference once again thanks to eight returning starters and experience at every level. If Finn continues to develop under center, Koback’s production is replaced on the ground, and the Rockets find ways to close out games, a return to the MAC championship is within reach once again.
79. Arizona State
Uncertainty surrounds Arizona State this year. The Sun Devils lost (but restocked some) players to the portal, underwent a significant staff overhaul, and also remain under NCAA investigation. If the pieces fall into place, there’s potential to return to a bowl and six-plus wins. However, there’s also the potential for the dark clouds hanging over this program to turn into a major distraction. New play-caller Glenn Thomas can lean on a couple of transfers – quarterback Emory Jones (Florida), running back Xazavian Valladay (Wyoming) and receiver Cam Johnson (Vanderbilt) – to spark a unit that averaged 28.4 points a contest last year. The Sun Devils are also relying on transfers to restock a line that returns only two starters. Defense was a strength last fall after giving up only 20.8 points per game and 4.97 yards per snap. But similar to the offense, this unit suffered major personnel losses to the portal, including linebacker Eric Gentry and lineman Jermayne Lole. Just three starters are back for new coordinator Donnie Henderson, and the entire secondary is new for ’22. Linebackers Merlin Robertson and Kyle Soelle should be the strength of this group.
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Picking the Wildcats fourth in the South may seem like a stretch after a 1-11 mark in coach Jedd Fisch’s debut last fall. However, the Wildcats have upgraded the roster through a solid recruiting haul, and the transfer portal brought impact additions in quarterback Jayden de Laura (Washington State) and receiver Jacob Cowing (UTEP). Also, both Colorado and Arizona State come to Tucson, so the door is open to piece together a couple of wins in Pac-12 play. Four-star freshman Tetairoa McMillan is another new playmaker for de Laura on the outside, while the Wildcats also bring back four starters up front and a solid collection of running backs. Arizona’s defense made progress under veteran play-caller Don Brown last season by cutting its yards per play allowed from 6.7 in ’20 to 5.87 in ’21. Brown departed to be the head coach at UMass, prompting Fisch to hire Johnny Nansen away from UCLA to call plays. A struggling rush defense (10th n the Pac-12) and pass defense (last in pass efficiency defense) leave Nansen with a lengthy to-do list this offseason. A secondary led by cornerback Christian Roland-Wallace and safety Christian Young does provide optimism for improvement on the back end.
Greg Schiano’s return to Rutgers hasn’t netted a winning season yet, but the Scarlet Knights have showed progress by winning five games in Big Ten play over the last two years after recording seven from 2014-19. Contending for six wins and a bowl trip isn’t out of the question this fall but marked improvement on offense is needed. Rutgers struggled to generate big plays (just five of 40-plus yards) and averaged 13.7 points and 4.4 yards per play in Big Ten contests last year. Settling (and getting more consistency) the quarterback battle between Noah Vedral and talented redshirt freshman Gavin Wimsatt would go a long ways to help this offense on track. There’s also some turnover at the skill talent with running back Isaih Pacheco and receiver Bo Melton departing. A couple of transfers will be counted upon to bolster an offensive line returning only two starters. The Scarlet Knights are also dealing with significant turnover on defense with just five returning starters. This unit limited teams to 25.6 points a game but ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten against the run and was last in pass efficiency defense. Despite the statistical struggles, the secondary should be the strength of the ’22 unit, as cornerback Kessawn Abraham and safety Avery Young headline the list of returners.
76. Northern Illinois
The Huskies were one of the most-improved teams in the nation last fall after going 5-13 in coach Thomas Hammock’s first two years at the helm. NIU picked up a win over a Power 5 opponent (Georgia Tech), defeated Toledo, and avenged a regular-season loss to Kent State with a convincing 41-23 victory in the MAC title game to win the conference crown. The Huskies did have some good fortune on their side (seven wins by one score), but this team brings back 17 starters and is likely to improve overall and overcome any regression in close victories. Michigan State transfer quarterback Rocky Lombardi shined in his debut in DeKalb (236.1 total yards a game) and is back to anchor an offense that averaged 32.2 points a matchup last fall. Lombardi doesn’t lack for help in the supporting cast either. Northern Illinois returns one of the MAC’s top offensive lines, receiver Trayvon Rudolph and a deep backfield led by Harrison Waylee and Antario Brown. Repeating as a conference champion is never easy, but the path to another crown needs improvement on defense. Last year’s unit gave up 33.7 points a game, ranked 11th against the run and 10th in pass efficiency defense. Also, the Huskies surrendered 38 plays of 30-plus yards and struggled to establish a pass rush. With 11 returning starters, the experience should translate into better overall play in ’22. The Oct. 8 home matchup against Toledo should decide the MAC West crown.
The Thundering Herd return only seven starters for second-year coach Charles Huff, but there’s enough talent on the roster to push for the Sun Belt East Division title. Until Texas Tech transfer Henry Colombi settles at quarterback under new play-caller Clint Trickett, the offense can lean on running back Rasheen Ali (1,401 yards and 23 TDs). A revamped line with four new starters might hinder Ali’s production early in the ’22 campaign. Marshall also has a good set of receivers on the outside, including Corey Gammage (78 catches) and Jayden Harrison. The Thundering Herd return four starters from a defense that held teams to 23.8 points a game and 5.1 yards per play last season. Led by cornerbacks Steven Gilmore and Micah Abraham, this defense paced Conference USA in pass efficiency defense and allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete only 54.2 percent of their throws. Upgrading the run defense (10th in Conference USA) is a priority, which is why Huff sought help through the transfer portal in the form of Isaiah Gibson (Kentucky), Quentin Williams (Miami), and Anthony Watts (Purdue). The linebacker unit should also rank among the best in the Sun Belt thanks to the return of Abraham Beauplan and Eli Neal. With Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina and Georgia State all coming to Huntington, the Thundering Herd has a favorable path to the top spot in the East.
The Tigers took a step back from an 8-3 mark in 2020, finishing 6-6 and 3-5 in the AAC. Making a jump into the top tier of contenders for a trip to the conference title game will require a quick transition with new coordinators on both sides of the ball, as well as improvement out of both units. Quarterback Seth Henigan (3,322 yards and 25 TDs) is the biggest reason for optimism, and the addition of Northern Illinois transfer Jevyon Ducker should boost a ground game that averaged only 3.3 yards per rush in AAC games last fall. Henigan does need a new No. 1 target to emerge after Calvin Austin III departed to the NFL. New defensive coordinator Matt Barnes (previously at Ohio State) inherits four returning starters, including standout safety Quindell Johnson (105 tackles) and linebacker Xavier Cullens. This unit struggled to stop the run (167.4 ypg allowed) and surrendered 32.4 points in AAC games. Additionally, the Tigers ranked last in the AAC in third-down defense. Cleaning up the turnover margin (minus-four in ’21) would help Memphis (lost four games by one score) narrow the gap in close matchups.
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The Flames have posted winning seasons and earned bowl trips in each of coach Hugh Freeze’s three years at the helm. Although quarterback Malik Willis is off to the NFL, don’t expect Liberty to regress too much in the win column. A trio of quarterbacks – Kaidon Salter, Charlie Brewer and Johnathan Bennett – will battle for the job in the fall, with Brewer – a former Baylor and Utah signal-caller – expected to enter as the favorite. Whichever quarterback wins the battle has a capable set of skill players returning. Running backs T.J. Green (477 yards) and Dae Dae Hunter (651 at Hawaii in ’21) anchor the ground game, and Demario Douglas (52 catches) joins Campbell transfer Caleb Snead on the outside. Three starters return up front, with a couple of transfers Nassir Watkins (Kentucky) and Cam Reddy (Colorado State) filling the voids. Jack Curtis and Josh Aldridge take over the defensive coordinator duties after Scott Symons left for SMU. This unit was a strength for the Flames in ’21, limiting teams to 21.5 points a game and 4.8 yards a snap. However, only four starters are back this fall. A solid home schedule – UAB, BYU and Virginia Tech – provides opportunities for Freeze’s team to pull off an upset or two and push for eight wins once again.
72. Georgia State
The Panthers surged at the end of the ’21 season by winning seven out of their last eight games. In that stretch, coach Shawn Elliott’s squad beat Coastal Carolina and crushed Ball State 51-20 in the Camellia Bowl, while the only defeat came at Louisiana (21-17). With 15 starters back, Elliott has a team capable of winning the Sun Belt. Darren Grainger’s emergence at quarterback was a driving force behind the in-season improvement, totaling 2,361 overall yards and 22 scores. Tucker Gregg (953 yards) and Jamyest Williams (859) lead a ground attack that averaged 226.4 rushing yards a game in ’21. Four returning starters anchor a strong offensive line. After showing signs of improvement on defense last season, the Panthers hope to take another step forward thanks to the return of seven starters, including safety Antavious Lane, linebacker Blake Carroll and lineman Thomas Gore. This unit generated 38 sacks but gave up 27.1 points a game and struggled to get stops on third down (ninth in Sun Belt). There’s room to grow on this side of the ball to complement an emerging offense. Road treks to Marshall, Appalachian State and James Madison won’t be easy in league play, and the non-conference slate features Army, North Carolina and South Carolina.
71. East Carolina
After winning seven games in his first two years at the helm in Greenville, coach Mike Houston matched that total last season (7-5) in a breakthrough ’21 campaign. ECU was close to something bigger too, as four of the team’s five defeats – including games versus South Carolina and Appalachian State – were decided by one score. The bulk of last season’s squad returns, including quarterback Holton Ahlers (24 total TDs) and running backs Keaton Mitchell and Rahjai Harris. Leading receiver Tyler Snead must be replaced, and the Pirates have some retooling along a line that allowed 35 sacks last fall. After averaging 29.7 points a game and 5.8 yards per play in ’21, the returning pieces give Houston’s offense a chance to reach another level. East Carolina took a step forward on defense last fall, holding teams to 26.3 points a game (down from 35.4) and 5.98 yards per play (lowered from 6.21). Also, the Pirates showed improvement against the run and ranked fifth in the AAC in pass efficiency defense. Even with cornerback Ja’Quan McMillian departing, more progress should be notable in ’22, especially with a front featuring linebackers Jeremy Lewis and Xavier Smith along with linemen Rick D’Abreu, Immanuel Hickman and Elijah Morris.
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The Black Knights have won at least eight games and earned bowl trips in five out of the last six years. An extension of that performance in ’22 is expected, as coach Jeff Monken’s squad features one of the nation’s top linebackers (Andre Carter II) returning to a defense that held opponents to 22.3 points a game last fall. Only two teams – Wake Forest and WKU – scored more than 30 points against this unit last season, and Army held Missouri and Wisconsin both under 25 points. Despite the loss of quarterback Christian Anderson, don’t expect a change from the successful blueprint on offense. The Black Knights have a capable signal-caller Tyhier Tyler (1,064 career rushing yards), along with rushers Tyrell Robinson (609 yards) and Jakobi Buchanan (504) to direct an offense that averaged 280.6 rushing yards a game last season. The schedule features an intriguing opener at Coastal Carolina, along with a Week 2 game against UTSA. However, the Black Knights only play one Power 5 team (Wake Forest) on a manageable slate in ’22.
The Fighting Illini just missed a bowl in coach Bret Bielema’s first season in Champaign, but there was considerable progress in last year’s 5-7 record. Illinois knocked off Nebraska, Penn State and Minnesota, while also losing four games by one score. Getting over the hump in ’22 requires more out of an offense that averaged only 20.2 points a game and ranked last in the Big Ten in passing. Bielema made a change at coordinator, hiring Barry Lunney Jr. from UTSA to run an attack featuring balance between the run and pass and more tempo. Syracuse transfer Tommy DeVito is expected to win the starting nod at quarterback over Artur Sitkowski, and the New Jersey native will be looking to finish his career on a high note after an up-and-down stint with the Orange. The overall play from the QB room and how fast the offensive line can be rebuilt (three new starters) could decide whether or not this team gets to six (or more) wins. The ground game led by Chase Brown and Josh McCray is the strength of the offense. Receiver Isaiah Williams is an underrated weapon on the outside. After allowing 34.9 points a game in ’20, Illinois showed marked improvement on defense last year. Coordinator Ryan Walters guided this group to hold opponents to 21.9 points per contest and 5.24 yards per play. Safety Kerby Joseph and edge rushers Isaiah Gay and Owen Carney will be missed. However, six returning starters, along with linebacker Calvin Hart Jr. returning from injury, provide a good foundation for ’22.
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Dino Babers has won just two or fewer ACC games in five of his six seasons at the helm. After three consecutive losing records, a trip to a bowl game is likely needed to avoid the hot seat. However, getting to six wins won’t be easy with a tough schedule. The Orange return one of the nation’s top running backs in Sean Tucker (1,496 yards) but big progress in the passing game is needed under new play-caller Robert Anae. Quarterback Garrett Shrader (781 rushing yards and 14 TDs) struggled down the stretch and threw for less than 100 yards in three out of his last four starts. Mikel Jones and Stefon Thompson are back to lead a strong linebacker unit, and even though the secondary finished 12th in the ACC in pass efficiency defense last fall, five returning starters – including cornerbacks Garrett Williams and Duce Chestnut – provide confidence this unit will be better in ’22. While coordinator Tony White should feel optimistic about the back half of the defense, the line of scrimmage is a major concern. Syracuse must replace five key linemen, including Cody Roscoe (12.5 TFL), Josh Black (six) and Kingsley Jonathan (5.5). A bowl game should be within reach if the Orange can improve their passing attack. However, the second half of the schedule is tough, meaning Syracuse may need to start 4-1 or 5-0 to have a chance at six wins.
Can the Cardinal get back on track in 2022? Under coach David Shaw, Stanford won at least eight games every year from 2011-18. However, this program is just 11-19 over the last three seasons. Returning to a bowl game won’t be easy with crossover matchups against USC, UCLA (road) and Utah (road), along with non-conference matchups versus BYU and Notre Dame, but if Shaw’s team is going to get to six wins, it will have to be on the right arm of quarterback Tanner McKee. The junior is a rising star after throwing for 2,327 yards and 15 touchdowns last season and returns one of the Pac-12’s top receiving corps with Michael Wilson, Brycen Tremayne and tight end Benjamin Yurosek in place. All five starters are back on an improving offensive line (32 sacks allowed in ’21). It’s a good thing Stanford has plenty of firepower in ’22. A defense that surrendered 32.4 points a game (last in the Pac-12) and more than 200 rushing yards (235.7 per game) is shifting to a four-man front after utilizing a three-man look. The move also comes as the unit is in transition with just four returning starters. This unit has major turnover up front, but the secondary should be a strength thanks to the return of cornerback Kyu Blu Kelly and safety Kendall Williamson.
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Replicating a 12-2 record isn’t going to be easy for coach Jeff Traylor’s squad, but the Roadrunners have more than enough to push for the Conference USA crown once again. Running back Sincere McCormick leaves big shoes to fill on an offense that averaged 36.9 points a game last season. Arkansas transfer Trelon Smith, junior college recruit Tye Edwards, and Brenden Brady are likely to handle the bulk of the carries this fall. After leaning on McCormick last season, the focus of the offense should shift to quarterback Frank Harris (265.9 total yards a game in ’21). He’s joined by arguably the best receiving corps in Conference USA with Joshua Cephus, Zakhari Franklin and De’Corian Clark returning. The line was strong last year (just 21 sacks allowed in 14 games) and should be a strength once again with four returning starters. UTSA held opponents to 24.6 points a game last season but will be reloading early in ’22. This unit suffered key losses at every level, including linebacker Clarence Hicks, defensive lineman Jaylon Haynes and defensive backs Antonio Parks and Tariq Woolen. A tough non-conference schedule (Houston, at Army and at Texas) is on tap, and the Roadrunners’ toughest matchup in league play (UAB) is on the road.
In a late-June surprise announcement, coach Bill Clark announced he would retire on Aug. 1 due to chronic back issues. Clark was instrumental in the program’s rise in recent years, guiding UAB from not having a program in 2015-16 to winning conference titles in ’18 and ’20. Offensive coordinator Bryant Vincent is expected to work as the program’s interim coach in ’22. The Blazers had their streak of appearances in the Conference USA Championship Game end at three after a 34-31 defeat to UTSA in late November clinched the West for the Roadrunners. Falling short should provide plenty of motivation for this team in ’22. Defense has been a strength for UAB since Clark’s arrival, and there’s little reason to doubt this year’s group will be any different. Five starters – including linebackers Kelle Sanders and Noah Wilder and defensive backs Starling Thomas and Keondre Swoopes – anchor a unit that limited teams to 23.2 points a game and 5.02 yards per play in ’21. UAB has consistently churned out some of Conference USA’s top rushing attacks under Clark, and similar to the defense, don’t expect that to change with Vincent as head coach this year. Running backs DeWayne McBride and Jermaine Brown Jr. anchor the league’s top backfield after combining for 2,002 yards last season. Dylan Hopkins (18 TDs to 7 INTs) is the favorite to start over Bryson Lucero and Baylor transfer Jacob Zeno at quarterback, but the staff has holes to fill at receiver and tight end following the departure of a couple of key targets. Trea Shropshire (26 yards per catch) is back to serve as the No. 1 downfield weapon. Cutting down on sacks allowed (35) is a priority for a line set to return three starters.
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Just seven starters are back from a team that went 5-7 for coach Justin Wilcox last season. Although there’s a massive amount of turnover in the lineup, contending for a bowl trip should be well within the reach of the ’22 squad. As usual, defense should be the strength of this team. In Pac-12-only games, the Golden Bears ranked second in scoring defense (20.1 points a game) and tied for first in yards per play (5.03) last season. The return of Brett Johnson from injury boosts the line, while Washington transfer Jackson Sirmon is an impact pickup at linebacker. A defense that ranked fourth in the league in pass efficiency defense last season must replace safety Elijah Hicks, but Daniel Scott (safety) and Lu-Magia Hearns III (CB) are back. California’s offense averaged 21.6 points a game in Pac-12 action last season and features big questions in ’22. Purdue transfer Jack Plummer is the favorite to start under center, with Kai Millner also in the mix. Damien Moore (518 yards) returns at running back, but just two starters return up front and the receiving corps lost its top four statistical options from ’21. How fast the offense jells with the new faces will determine just how high this team can climb in the Pac-12 North.
New coach Tony Elliott inherits one of the ACC’s top quarterbacks (Brennan Armstrong) and receiving corps (Billy Kemp IV, Dontayvion Wicks, Keytaon Thompson and Lavel Davis). Armstrong led all Power 5 quarterbacks by averaging 427.3 total yards a game last fall, but Elliott and the new staff would like to take some of the pressure off their signal-caller by installing more balance with the run game and backs Ronnie Walker and Mike Hollins. However, Virginia lost all five starters up front and will be counting on a pair of FCS transfers (John Paul Flores and Mac Hollensteiner) to fill the voids at the tackle spots. Even though there are concerns up front, scoring points shouldn’t be a concern for Elliott. The other side of the ball remains an issue, however. Virginia struggled to generate pressure, allowed too many big plays and surrendered 34.3 points a contest and 6.8 yards per play in ACC matchups. This unit also ranked last in the conference versus the run.
62. Virginia Tech
The cupboard isn’t completely bare for new coach Brent Pry, but the Hokies will need a lot to go right in order to challenge for a finish in the top three of the Coastal Division. Pry guided one of the Big Ten’s top defenses at Penn State and should make an impact on that side of the ball in his debut in Blacksburg. Virginia Tech held teams to 25.3 points a game but allowed 5.9 yards per play and generated only 16 sacks in ACC contests. Depth and difference-makers in the trenches remain a concern, while linebacker (Dax Hollifield) and the secondary (Chamarri Conner) should be a strength. The question marks are just as large on an offense that averaged only 24 points per game in ACC play last fall. Two transfers – Grant Wells (Marshall) and Jason Brown (South Carolina) are battling to start under center, and there’s a lack of proven playmakers at receiver after the departure of Tayvion Robinson and Tre Turner at receiver. A backfield led by Malachi Thomas and Jalen Holston is the strength of this unit. Three starters are back up front, but any injuries could be a huge issue for the trenches with very little depth in place this fall.
61. Texas Tech
New coach Joey McGuire is the right pick to rebuild in Lubbock. McGuire – a former successful high school coach in the state and assistant at Baylor – has never been an FBS head coach but surrounded himself with a top-notch staff, including coordinators Zach Kittley (offense) and Tim DeRuyter (defense). A three-man quarterback competition – Tyler Shough, Donovan Smith and Behren Morton – will continue into the fall for the chance to pilot Kittley’s high-powered passing attack. Some retooling is needed around the signal-caller with two returning starters up front, along with the departure of receivers Erik Ezukanma and Kaylon Geiger. The one-two punch of SaRodorick Thompson and Tahj Brooks at running back is among the top combos in the Big 12. DeRuyter inherits seven returning starters, but there’s work to be done to shore up a group that ranked near the bottom of the Big 12 in pass efficiency defense and has holes to fill at linebacker and in the secondary. The Red Raiders have allowed 30 or more points a game in each of the last 12 seasons. If DeRuyter can generate some improvement here, and the offense takes off under Kittley’s watch, another bowl trip should be within reach in McGuire’s first season.
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New coach Rhett Lashlee inherits a team ready to win right away. The Mustangs started 7-0 but lost four out of their final five games under previous coach Sonny Dykes. Three of those four losses came by one score and the other defeat came at Cincinnati, so the Mustangs weren’t far from a push at double-digit wins. The coaching switch adds some uncertainty to this team, but Lashlee worked at SMU from 2018-19 and the overall transition should be seamless. A high-powered offense (38.4 points a game) returns two capable quarterbacks – Tanner Mordecai and Preston Stone – along with talented weapons at the skill spots (Tre Siggers and Camar Wheaton at running back and Rashee Rice and Beau Corrales at receiver). A couple of transfers (Owen Condon and Joe Bissinger) bolster a line already slated to return three starters. Scoring points likely won’t be a problem for SMU, but last year’s concern (the defense) is still the biggest question mark. New coordinator Scott Symons inherits seven returning starters, but the Mustangs gave up 31.1 points a game in AAC play, allowed too many big plays, and struggled against the pass (eighth in AAC in pass efficiency defense). Linemen DeVere Levelston and Elijah Chatman and linebacker Turner Coxe headline the list of key returners. The schedule does break a bit in SMU’s favor. The Mustangs will host both Cincinnati and Houston and catch TCU at home as well.
59. Washington State
After guiding the Cougars through a chaotic second half of the season amidst a coaching change, Jake Dickert gets a much-deserved chance at the full-time gig. Dickert wasted no time putting his stamp on the program, hiring FCS Incarnate Word head coach Eric Morris to call plays among a handful of other staff changes. Morris’ arrival was also huge in the pursuit (and eventual commitment) of transfer quarterback Cameron Ward. The Texas native shined at UIW from 2020-21 and was a second-team FCS All-American last fall after throwing for 4,648 yards and 47 scores. The dynamic sophomore has plenty of weapons to throw to with Renard Bell back from injury, along with De’Zhaun Stribling on the outside. The biggest concern for Morris is the offensive line after three starters departed from a unit that allowed 31 sacks last fall. Washington State’s defense showed marked improvement under Dickert’s watch in ’21. After allowing 6.7 yards per play in ’20, this unit allowed only 5.5 last year. The strength of this unit is a pair of active ends in Ron Stone and Brennan Jackson (combined for nine sacks last season), while transfers Daiyan Henley (linebacker) and Jordan Lee (safety) will help to fill voids in the back seven.
After winning five games in coach Mike Locksley’s first two seasons (2019-20) at the helm, the Terrapins posted seven last fall. Also, the 7-6 record marked the program’s first winning record since ’14. While progress was evident, Maryland’s six losses – all to teams with a winning mark – came by a combined score of 281-100. Taking the next step in the Big Ten’s East Division will require better play out of a group that allowed 38.8 points a game, 6.23 yards per play and ranked near the bottom of the conference in rush and pass efficiency defense in league play. Seven starters return, but there are holes to fill up front for new coordinator Brian Williams. The unquestioned strength of Locksley’s ’22 squad is an offense featuring quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa (26 TDs to 11 INTs) and one of the nation’s top receiving corps with Rakim Jarrett, Dontay Demus and Jacob Copeland out wide. All five starters return up front. Talented true freshman Ramon Brown could become the team’s No. 1 running back after Tayon Fleet-Davis departed.
57. San Diego State
Repeating last year’s 12-2 season and division title will be tough, but the Aztecs should be in the thick of the race to win the West Division once again. A timely offense (27.4 points a game and 5.1 yards per play) brings back only three starters. However, one of those players is standout receiver Jesse Matthews (57 catches) and linemen Alama Uluave and Brandon Crenshaw-Dickson. At quarterback, Virginia Tech transfer Braxton Burmeister is favored over promising redshirt freshman Will Haskell to start. A backfield-by-committee approach is likely after the departure of Greg Bell at running back. Defense remains the strength of coach Brady Hoke’s team in ’22. This unit limited teams to 19.8 points a game, ranked first in fewest yards play (4.7), and led the Mountain West in rush and pass efficiency defense. Hoke and coordinator Kurt Mattix have a few holes to fill, but this group should be dominant once again. Replicating last year’s success (6-0) in one-score games won’t be easy – especially with punter Matt Araiza and his field-flipping ability off to the NFL. The Aztecs have a new stadium (Snapdragon Stadium) to call home, but the team’s toughest games – Utah, Fresno State and Boise State – take place away from San Diego.
56. Utah State
The Aggies are projected to finish third in the Mountain Division, but the gap between coach Blake Anderson’s team and the top two (Boise State and Air Force) is small. Quarterback Logan Bonner (36 TDs) is back to power an offense that averaged 32.6 points a game and 5.9 yards per snap. The senior is among the top returning quarterbacks at the Group of 5 level, but Utah State is breaking in new receivers after Deven Thompkins, Brandon Bowling and Derek Wright departed. Transfers Brian Cobbs (Maryland) and Xavier Williams (Alabama) are two names to watch. Leading rusher Calvin Tyler Jr. (884 yards) and four starters are back along the offensive line. After allowing 35.2 points a game in ’20, the Aggies allowed only 24.4 last fall and held five of their last six opponents under 20 points. This unit still has room to improve (eighth in MW against the run and ninth in pass efficiency defense), but five starters and a handful of experienced contributors are back to provide a good foundation. A tricky road schedule – Alabama, BYU, Colorado State, Wyoming and Boise State – will be tough to navigate.
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For the first time since 2000, a new head coach will roam the sidelines for the Horned Frogs. Gary Patterson’s tenure ended during the ’21 season, so transition – a rarity at TCU – is the big storyline going into the fall. New coach Sonny Dykes went 30-18 over four-plus years at SMU and is no stranger to the state of Texas. The Patterson-led teams were usually strong on defense, but Dykes’ squads at California, Louisiana Tech and SMU have leaned on offense. How that translates in ’22 is uncertain, especially with a quarterback battle between Max Duggan and Chandler Morris and the ongoing implementation of a new scheme. Center Steve Avila and tackle Andrew Coker provide a solid foundation to build around up front, and skill-position talent isn’t in short supply with running back Kendre Miller (623 yards) and receiver Quentin Johnston (33 catches for 634 yards) returning. TCU’s defense struggled mightily last year. This unit ranked ninth in the Big 12 against the run (222 yards a game allowed), ninth in pass efficiency defense, and surrendered 7.2 yards per play. Also, this unit was torched for 28 plays of 40-plus yards and generated only 15 sacks. New coordinator Joseph Gillespie returns seven starters and has standouts returning at every level (end Dylan Horton, linebacker Dee Winters and cornerback Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson). Steady improvement on this side of the ball, along with a quarterback emerging as the clear No. 1, might be enough for TCU to get back to six wins and play in the program’s first bowl since ’18.
Wins in three out of Missouri’s final five SEC contests allowed coach Eli Drinkwitz’s team to reach bowl eligibility in a season marred by major issues on defense and inconsistency at quarterback. Both of those concerns lead the way in ’22. Although the Tigers played a little better on defense down the stretch, this unit still allowed 6.7 yards per play, 36 points a game and more than 200 rushing yards a contest in SEC action last fall. Ends Isaiah McGuire and Trajan Jeffcoat lead the way up front, while cornerback Kris Abrams-Draine and safety Martez Manuel are two building blocks for new coordinator Blake Baker. Transfer additions at every level should help bring some improvement in ’22. Offensively, the Tigers averaged only 22.6 points and 5.2 yards per play in SEC games last season. Exceeding that production this fall will require a running back (or two) to emerge to replace Tyler Badie (161.6 all-purpose yards per game last year) and a quarterback to take control of the offense. Three candidates are vying for the No. 1 spot on the depth chart – true freshman Sam Horn, sophomore Brady Cook and redshirt freshman Tyler Macon – with Cook the likely front-runner. Whoever wins the job has a solid group of receivers to throw to – including five-star freshman Luther Burden – and four starters back up front.
The 2022 season is a make-or-break year for coach Scott Frost in Lincoln. The Cornhuskers are 15-29 and have yet to earn a winning season or reach a bowl under his watch. Last year’s 3-9 record sparked major changes in hopes of a turnaround in ‘22, including the arrival of a new play-caller (Mark Whipple) on offense. Whipple is highly-regarded for his work in developing signal-callers, and that acumen will be tested right away with Texas transfer Casey Thompson (24 TDs last year) exiting spring as the frontrunner to replace Adrian Martinez under center. Omar Manning and Trey Palmer headline the weapons for Thompson in the receiving corps, while a backfield-by-committee approach is likely with Rahmir Johnson, Anthony Grant and Jaquez Yant in place. However, improvement on offense is unlikely without better play up front and fewer turnovers lost (18 last year). The defense has been a strength in each of the last two seasons and returns a strong linebacker unit anchored by Garrett Nelson and Luke Reimer. The rebuilding process up front was expedited by the transfer arrivals of Ochaun Mathis (TCU), Devin Drew (Texas Tech) and Stephon Wynn (Alabama). Coordinator Erik Chinander also has to rebuild a secondary that lost three starters, including All-Big Ten cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt. Special teams have also been a major issue in recent years, but the arrival of transfers Timmy Bleekrode (Furman) and Brian Buschini (Montana) could provide instant help.
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A fresh start for the program under new coach Kalen DeBoer should get Washington back on track in ’22. Although the Huskies are coming off their worst season since ’08, DeBoer’s track record on offense and success as head coach at Fresno State should mix well with a roster that has more talent than last year’s 4-8 mark would suggest. Improving the offense – DeBoer’s specialty – is the top priority this offseason. The Huskies averaged a paltry 4.8 yards per play and 21 points a game in Pac-12 action last fall. Indiana transfer Michael Penix Jr. has battled injuries throughout his career but thrived under DeBoer in Bloomington and is the front-runner over Dylan Morris and Sam Huard to start at quarterback in ’22. The Huskies also have capable playmakers on the outside in Jalen McMillan and Rome Odunze. The return of left tackle Jaxson Kirkland is huge for an offensive line that underachieved last fall and needs (along with the running backs) to do a better job of improving the rushing attack (3.2 yards per carry in ’21). Despite last year’s offensive issues, Washington limited teams to 5.02 yards per play and 22.7 points a game. New defensive co-coordinators William Inge and Chuck Morrell should be able to keep this unit performing at a high level, especially with a healthy Zion Tupuola-Fetui coming off the edge and rising stars like Carson Bruener anchoring the linebacker unit until Edefuan Ulofoshio returns from an offseason injury. The Huskies do have some work to do to maintain a stingy pass defense (first in the Pac-12) after the departures of cornerbacks Kyler Gordon and Trent McDuffie.
51. West Virginia
With a 17-18 mark over the last three years, ’22 season is a critical point in coach Neal Brown’s tenure in Morgantown. The Mountaineers have made back-to-back bowl appearances but are just 11-15 in Big 12 action since ’19. Defense has been a strength for West Virginia in each of the last two years, and the ’21 edition held teams to 23.8 points a game and 5.6 yards per play. However, a few personnel losses via transfer leave just three starters on this side of the ball. Dante Stills is one of the stalwarts and his return should keep the Mountaineers among the best in the Big 12 in the trenches. Linebacker and the secondary units experienced the most turnover, but the cupboard isn’t completely bare for coordinator Jordan Lesley. Although West Virginia’s defense may take a small step back, the offense seems ready to carry this team in ’22. This unit has ranked eighth or worse in the Big 12 in scoring in each of Brown’s three seasons at the helm, but the arrival of Georgia transfer JT Daniels at quarterback, along with five returning starters up front, should help this group show marked improvement. New coordinator Graham Harrell called the plays for Daniels when he was the starting quarterback at USC in 2019, so the transition should be minimal. Leading rusher Leddie Brown is gone to the NFL, but Tony Mathis, Justin Johnson and Jaylen Anderson are a capable group. Sam James, Bryce Ford-Wheaton and Kaden Prather form a solid trio on the outside.
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50. Iowa State
The Cyclones didn’t meet top-10 preseason expectations last season, but coach Matt Campbell still guided this team to its fifth consecutive winning record (5-4) in Big 12 play. Campbell will have his work cut out for him in ’22, however. Iowa State brings back only eight starters and must replace several players who were the heart and soul of the recent success, including quarterback Brock Purdy, running back Breece Hall, tight end Charlie Kolar and linebacker Mike Rose. Considering Campbell and Iowa State’s track record of talent development, it’s safe to assume this team will find the right answers. Sophomore Hunter Dekkers could be primed for a breakout year as the No. 1 quarterback, and the same could be said for Jirehl Brock, who replaces Hall in the backfield. Three starters are back to provide a solid foundation up front, and receiver Xavier Hutchinson returns after catching 83 passes last fall. The defense held teams to 5.04 yards per snap in ’21, but several new faces need to emerge around standout edge rusher Will McDonald IV (11.5 sacks in ’21). Retooling a secondary that finished third in the Big 12 in pass efficiency defense might be the biggest challenge for coordinator Jon Heacock.
49. Coastal Carolina
The Chanticleers have been one of the top Group of 5 programs over the last two seasons with a 22-3 overall mark and just two losses in Sun Belt play in that span. Another year of double-digit wins won’t be easy, as coach Jamey Chadwell will be busy this offseason with just six returning starters. Of course, the transition on both sides of the ball is eased with quarterback Grayson McCall (287.5 total yards a game) returning. Helping McCall pilot an offense that averaged 40.9 points a game and 7.7 yards per play in ’21 is the one-two punch of Braydon Bennett and Reese White at running back, and the losses in the receiving corps – Jaivon Heiligh and tight end Isaiah Likely – are eased by the arrival of Georgia State transfer Sam Pinckney. Only two starters are back in the trenches, but both are among the Sun Belt’s top returning linemen – center Willie Lampkin and right tackle Anwine Loper. The effort to reload is greater on defense. The Chanticleers bring back only two starters from a group that held teams to 21.6 points a game, 5.2 yards per play and ranked fourth in the Sun Belt in pass efficiency defense last fall. Jarrod Clark is one of the two returning starters and Josaiah Stewart (15.5 TFL) is a rising star after playing in all 13 games last fall. Transfers have eased some of the concerns at linebacker and in the secondary – along with the return of standout corner D’Jordan Strong – but this unit may take a few games to jell. Despite all of the turnover, McCall’s return is more than enough for Coastal Carolina to win the Sun Belt again, especially if this team can navigate road dates at Georgia State and Marshall with Appalachian State coming to Conway.
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48. Appalachian State
Any of the projected top four teams – Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina, Georgia State and Marshall – could win the Sun Belt East in ’22. The Mountaineers get a slight edge here thanks to coach Shawn Clark’s team returning 13 starters from a squad that won the division and a total of 10 games last fall. Quarterback Chase Brice (3,337 yards and 27 TDs) is one of the Sun Belt’s top returning signal-callers after directing a productive group (34.5 points a game and 6.3 yards per snap) last fall. The backfield is deep once again with Nate Noel and Camerun Peoples back after combining for 2,052 yards and 18 touchdowns in ’21. New play-caller Kevin Barbay also inherits a strong offensive line but needs to identify new playmakers at receiver after Corey Sutton, Thomas Hennigan and Malik Williams departed. The ’21 season marked the eighth consecutive year Appalachian State ranked inside of the top four of the Sun Belt in yards per play allowed, and this group gave up just 22.1 points a game over 14 contests. A strong track record on defense suggests the transition time will be minimal on this side of the ball. However, a couple of key stalwarts – linebackers D’Marco Jackson and T.D. Roof, linemen Caleb Spurlin and Demetrius Taylor and defensive backs Shaun Jolly and Kaiden Smith – have departed. Linebackers Nick Hampton, Brendan Harrington and Trey Cobb lead the next wave of stars on defense, and cornerback Steven Jones Jr. leads the way for a secondary that led the Sun Belt in pass efficiency defense in ’21.
47. North Carolina
Expectations of contending for the Coastal Division title and a finish in the top 10-15 of postseason rankings never came to fruition in Chapel Hill last fall. And after last year’s 6-7 mark, the Tar Heels won’t enter the season with top 25 aspirations. However, the cupboard isn’t bare for coach Mack Brown, and a couple of standout recruiting classes could start to pay dividends. Although quarterback Sam Howell’s departure is significant, it’s not the biggest concern on offense. Talented redshirt freshman Drake Maye will battle Jacolby Criswell for the starting quarterback job in fall practice, and the winner has one of the nation’s top receivers in Josh Downs (101 catches last year) back on the outside. In addition to developing more weapons to help Downs, the Tar Heels must improve an offensive line that allowed 49 sacks last year and returns just two starters. North Carolina’s defense was a massive disappointment in ’21, surrendering 32.1 points a game and 6.1 yards per play. The defensive struggles weren’t limited to just one area, as the Tar Heels ranked 11th in the ACC in pass efficiency defense and 10th against the run. New coordinator Gene Chizik has pieces to work with, however. Tackle Myles Murphy (nine TFL) leads the way up front, Virginia transfer Noah Taylor and Cedric Gray anchor the linebacker unit, and the secondary features cornerbacks Tony Grimes and Storm Duck.
46. Oregon State
The 2021 season marked a big step forward for coach Jonathan Smith at his alma mater. The Beavers won nine games over his first three years (2018-20) but improved to 7-6 – the program’s best win total since ’13 – and finished 5-4 in league play. More progress is within reach in ’22. Oregon State led the Pac-12 in yards per play (6.4) last fall and returns quarterback Chance Nolan (227.9 total yards a game) and three starters to form one of the league’s top offensive lines. True freshman Damien Martinez is a rising star and could become the No. 1 running back over Deshaun Fenwick (448 yards) in the battle to replace B.J. Baylor. The bulk of the receiving corps returns, but if there’s an area to improve, it’s the big plays on the outside. In nine Pac-12 games last fall, Oregon State managed only four completions of 40-plus yards. Trent Bray took over as defensive coordinator in early November, and the unit’s progress down the stretch earned him the full-time job. The former standout Oregon State linebacker has work to do after the Beavers managed only nine sacks in league play, struggled to get stops on third down, and gave up too many big plays on a unit that surrendered 25.8 points a game and 6.1 yards per play (Pac-12 games). The return of Isaac Hodgins from injury is a boost to the trenches, and Florida transfer Andrew Chatfield Jr. will help off the edge to bolster a linebacker unit already returning standout Omar Speights. There’s a ton of experience back in the secondary but improvement is needed after finishing ninth in the league in pass efficiency defense.
Related: Pac-12 Football 2022 All-Conference Team
Despite injuries to a couple of key players (including quarterback Dillon Gabriel), coach Gus Malzahn guided the Knights to a 9-4 season capped by a win over Florida in the Gasparilla Bowl for his debut in Orlando. UCF is stocked for another run at nine (or more) wins thanks to a favorable schedule and 13 returning starters. Ole Miss transfer John Rhys Plumlee and Mikey Keene will battle for the starting job under center, with standout skill talent returning in the form of running back Isaiah Bowser, receiver Ryan O’Keefe and transfers Kobe Hudson (WR) and Kemore Gamble (TE) adding more weapons to the mix. Three starters return up front and Virginia transfer Ryan Swoboda is likely to start at one of the tackle spots. UCF held opponents to 5.1 yards per play and 24.8 points a game in AAC games last fall and should be strong on defense once again. The line and secondary should rank among the best position groups in the conference, alleviating some of the concern about turnover at linebacker. UCF has winnable non-conference matchups against Louisville and Georgia Tech, catches Cincinnati at home and won’t face Houston in the regular season.
Back-to-back losing seasons and a 10-14 mark in that span have likely turned the ’22 campaign into a make-or-break one for coach Scott Satterfield. A handful of transfers on both sides of the ball have helped to address needs and hopes of a winning record are boosted with quarterback Malik Cunningham back under center. In ACC-only games, Cunningham led all quarterbacks in the conference in yards per attempt (9.4) and averaged 322.6 total yards a game. The senior will be throwing to a revamped group of receivers with Jordan Watkins, Tyler Harrell and Justin Marshall departing, but the additions of Tyler Hudson (Central Arkansas) and Dee Wiggins (Miami) bolstered the weapons on the outside. Tight end Marshon Ford (49 catches) is a first-team All-ACC pick by Athlon Sports for ’22. The line should be a strength with four starters back, including standout guard Caleb Chandler. There were signs of progress on defense last season, limiting teams to 23.9 points a game (down from 27.2 in ‘20) and 5.4 yards per play (down from 5.9) in ACC play. The linebacker unit will be a strength with Yasir Abdullah (10 sacks) returning, and a healthy Kei’Trel Clark at cornerback is a huge boost to a pass defense that finished seventh in the ACC. A schedule featuring toss-up games at Syracuse, UCF, Boston College and Virginia isn’t easy.
Related: ACC Football Predictions for 2022
43. Boston College
After a 6-5 mark in 2020, coach Jeff Hafley’s team seemed poised for another jump in wins last year. However, Hafley’s second season at Boston College was derailed by an injury to quarterback Phil Jurkovec in September. Although Jurkovec eventually returned in November, his absence was a huge blow to an offense that scored only 40 points in the four ACC games he missed. A healthy Jurkovec is good news for the Eagles, and the senior has capable skill talent around him thanks to the return of running back Pat Garwo III and receiver Zay Flowers. A rebuilt offensive line with just one returning starter is the biggest concern for Boston College going into ’22. The Eagles bring back seven starters on defense, and there’s optimism for improvement from a unit that held teams to 22.2 points a game last fall. Defensive backs Josh DeBerry and Jaiden Woodbey are two standouts on the back end, but BC needs to do a better job at getting to the quarterback (21 sacks) and stopping the run.
42. South Carolina
The Gamecocks easily exceeded preseason expectations last season with a 7-6 finish. A jump in wins in coach Shane Beamer’s second year is aided by the arrival of a handful of transfers, including quarterback Spencer Rattler (Oklahoma) and receivers Corey Rucker (Arkansas State) and Antwane Wells (James Madison) to add to a receiving corps already featuring Josh Vann (15.8 yards per catch) and Dakereon Joyner. A solid stable of running backs is in place, but even with five starters back, the offensive line is an area of concern after averaging 3.8 yards per carry in ’21. The line of scrimmage is an area of focus on the other side of the ball too. The Gamecocks allowed 175 rushing yards a game last fall and must replace standout lineman Kingsley Enagbare (seven TFL). Cornerback Cam Smith leads a secondary that finished fourth in the SEC in pass efficiency defense but lost All-SEC safety Jaylan Foster. The schedule features tough crossover matchups against Texas A&M and at Arkansas, along with the annual showdown against Clemson. Getting to seven (or eight) wins will require Rattler to regain his freshman form from Oklahoma and better play along the line of scrimmage.
Related: SEC Football 2022 Predictions
Between the five-game losing streak to end the 2021 campaign, offseason drama surrounding the job status of coach Bryan Harsin and plenty of roster turnover, there’s been no shortage of drama on the Plains. For Harsin to steer the program back on track and prevent another hot-seat situation, the offense must show significant improvement. The Tigers ranked 11th in the SEC in scoring and averaged only 17.8 points a game over their final five contests. The strength (and focus) of the offense remains at running back with Tank Bigsby and Jarquez Hunter providing a standout one-two punch. The rest of the two-deep is a concern, however. The quarterback battle will extend into the fall with four candidates – Zach Calzada, Robby Ashford, T.J. Finley and true freshman Holden Geriner – vying for the job. Also, more playmakers need to emerge at receiver, and an inconsistent offensive line needs to step up with four returning starters. Auburn’s defense held teams to 21.8 points a game and 5.3 yards per play last fall but has its share of transition in ’22. This unit lost some depth to the portal, has a new coordinator (Jeff Schmedding), and must replace standouts in cornerback Roger McCreary and linebacker Zakoby McClain. End Derick Hall should be one of the SEC’s top linemen. The Tigers have enough pieces to be solid on defense once again. However, without improvement on offense or at least an answer emerging at quarterback, it’s tough to envision a major jump in wins.
40. Kansas State
Looking for a sleeper in the Big 12 title race? This is the team to watch. The Wildcats are led by all-purpose running back Deuce Vaughn, and Nebraska transfer Adrian Martinez is slated to join him at quarterback in a backfield that won’t be easy for Big 12 defenses to contain. Martinez needs to be more careful with the ball (30 INTs in four years at Nebraska), but new offensive coordinator Collin Klein should maximize his strengths. Cooper Beebe is an underrated standout on the left side of the line and should be a preseason All-American after starting all 13 games for the ‘Cats last fall. Only one other returning starter joins Beebe up front, so Klein will have to do some retooling here. A stingy defense (5.4 yards per play allowed and 21 points a game) brings back five starters and plenty of other players with experience. End Felix Anudike-Uzomah (11 sacks) is the headliner up front. Restocking the secondary is likely the biggest concern for coordinator Joe Klanderman.
The Bruins had a breakthrough year in coach Chip Kelly’s fourth season in Westwood. After a 10-21 mark from 2018-20, UCLA went 8-4 and defeated LSU, Washington and USC en route to its best season since ’15. Building off last year’s is a reasonable expectation with quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson (274.4 total yards per game) and running back Zach Charbonnet anchoring an offense that averaged 36.5 points per contest. Duke transfer Jake Bobo (74 catches in ’21) should be Thompson-Robinson’s No. 1 receiver after the departure of tight end Greg Dulcich and receiver Kyle Philips. Three starters are back up front, but the tackle spots are a concern going into the fall. Last season marked the first time UCLA allowed less than 30 points in a game since ’16. However, the depth chart experienced a hefty amount of turnover and is under the supervision of a new play-caller (Bill McGovern). The Bruins alleviated some of the losses by dipping into the portal for help, including ends Grayson and Gabriel Murphy (North Texas), tackle Gary Smith III (Duke), linebacker Darius Muasau (Hawaii), and cornerback Azizi Hearn (Wyoming). Addressing a pass defense that allowed too many big plays (11 of 40-plus) is a priority. UCLA catches the top team from the North (Oregon) in crossover play, but Utah and USC both visit the Rose Bowl in the regular season.
Related: Pac-12 Football 2022 Predictions
Although the Golden Gophers are picked fourth here, not much separates coach P.J. Fleck’s team from the top three in the division. The return of Kirk Ciarrocca as coordinator provides optimism for improvement on an offense that averaged only 5.45 yards per play and 25.5 points a contest last fall. Ciarrocca’s return is also good news for quarterback Tanner Morgan, who threw for 3,253 yards and 30 touchdowns under his watch in ’19. A deep stable of running backs has been trimmed due to transfers, but the return of Mohamed Ibrahim from a torn Achilles gives Minnesota one of the top rushers in the Big Ten. The top five statistical receiving options are back, including Chris Autman-Bell (36 catches last year) and Dylan Wright (20.3 per catch). Center John Michael Schmitz is one of the top interior linemen in college football, but he’s the only returning starter up front. Restocking the trenches is also a concern on defense following the departure of Boye Mafe, Esezi Otomewo, Nyles Pinckney and Micah Dew-Treadway. The rest of the defense is in better shape, especially with Mariano Sori-Marin at linebacker and the secondary led by cornerback Justin Walley and safeties Tyler Nubin and Jordan Howden. Minnesota ranked second in the Big Ten in scoring defense (17.3 points a game) and fourth in yards per play (4.86). Some retooling is obviously needed, but a good foundation is in place.
37. Air Force
The Falcons are 21-5 over the last two full seasons (2019 and ’21). With 15 starters back, coach Troy Calhoun’s team has the pieces in place to make a run at the Mountain West title. Quarterback Haaziq Daniels and fullback Brad Roberts return to anchor an offense that led the nation in rushing (327.7 yards a game) last year. Three starters are back to anchor one of the Mountain West’s top offensive lines. Receiver Brandon Lewis is gone, but the Falcons return David Cormier, Micah Davis and tight end Kyle Patterson to give Daniels (eight completions of 40-plus yards in ’21) plenty of weapons on the outside. Air Force ranked second in the Mountain West in scoring defense (19.8 points a game) and third in yards per play (5.24) allowed. Although a couple of key cogs – linebacker Demonte Meeks, cornerback Tre Bugg III, safety Corvan Taylor and end Jordan Jackson – have departed this unit should be stingy once again under the direction of new coordinator Brian Knorr. Road trips to Wyoming, Utah State and San Diego State are tough. However, Boise State comes to Colorado Springs on Oct. 22 for a matchup that could decide the winner of the Mountain Division.
36. Florida State
The Seminoles showed progress in coach Mike Norvell’s second year in ’21, just missing out on a bowl with a 5-7 mark. Although Florida State isn’t ready to challenge for the ACC title, another jump in wins and overall performance is expected. Jordan Travis has made big gains under Norvell (2,074 total yards and 22 TDs last year) and ranks among the league’s top signal-callers going into ’22. Travis’ emergence, along with additions through the portal at receiver in Mycah Pittman, Johnny Wilson and Winston Wright (if healthy), should help the offense take another step forward. An intriguing group of running backs anchored by Treshaun Ward and Oregon transfer Trey Benson will run behind an improving offensive line. After giving up 6.5 yards per play and 36 points a game in ‘21, Florida State’s defense limited teams to 26.5 points a game and 5.2 yards per play last fall. Ends Jermaine Johnson II (17.5 TFL) and Keir Thomas (12 TFL) were a big part of the improvement, but both have departed Tallahassee. However, coordinator Adam Fuller still has seven returning starters to build around, including tackles Robert Cooper and Fabian Lovett and rising star cornerback Omarion Cooper.
35. Fresno State
Jeff Tedford returns to the sidelines in Fresno with a team capable of winning the conference and making a run at finishing in the top 25. The Bulldogs went 10-3 behind Kalen DeBoer (left to be the coach at Washington) and a high-powered offense that averaged 33.4 points per game last fall. Quarterback Jake Haener (4,096 yards and 33 TDs) is among the top signal-callers in the nation, with Jalen Cropper (85 catches) leading a deep group of receivers. Ronnie Rivers will be missed at running back, but Jordan Mims (710 yards) should keep the ground game performing at a high level. The overall concerns about transition on offense are eased with Haener’s return and Tedford’s familiarity with the personnel. However, if there’s a concern, it’s up front where three starters are back on a unit that allowed 25 sacks last fall. Although the defense isn’t as dominant as the other side of the ball, this unit held teams to 20.5 points a game and 5.2 yards per play in ’21. Additionally, the Bulldogs ranked second in the Mountain West in pass efficiency defense and finished third against the run. With seven starters back, coordinator Kevin Coyle has plenty of pieces returning to keep this unit near the top of the conference.
Related: College Football 2022 All-America Team
34. Boise State
It’s a close call between Boise State, Utah State and Air Force for the No. 1 spot in the Mountain in ’22. The Broncos aren’t the lock at No. 1 they have been in previous seasons, but the guess here is second-year coach Andy Avalos gets the program on track after a 7-5 finish last fall. Jump-starting an offense that averaged only 29.2 points a game and 5.3 yards per play is the top priority this summer. Quarterback Hank Bachmeier returns, but top receiver Khalil Shakir is off to the NFL. Stefan Cobbs (34 catches) is the next star wideout in Boise. Although Bachmeier has room to improve, Boise State’s biggest concern remains the trenches (3.1 yards per carry and 27 sacks allowed). A healthy season from running back George Holani (limited to nine games) would boost the ground attack. The unquestioned strength of Avalos’ second squad is a defense that returns eight starters. This unit allowed only 19 points a game and 5.5 yards per play last fall and limited teams to just 12 touchdowns through the air. The secondary should be a shutdown group once again, and the front is anchored by the return of FCS Weber State transfer George Tarlas, along with Jackson Cravens, Scott Matlock and Demitri Washington. The Broncos need better play out of the linebackers to help this unit reach its full potential. Road treks to Oregon State and Air Force are tough. However, key games versus San Diego State, BYU, Fresno State and Utah State come on the blue turf.
Related: Mountain West 2022 All-Conference Team
The Gators are just one year removed from winning the East Division, and while coach Billy Napier won’t fix everything in one season, there should be noticeable improvement in Gainesville after posting a 6-7 mark in ’21. Quarterback Anthony Richardson is the biggest reason for optimism. In eight games last fall, Richardson averaged 8.1 yards per play, ran for 401 yards and was responsible for nine total scores. Napier’s background should help Richardson take a step forward in his development. The Gators have a solid collection of running backs – including Louisiana transfer Montrell Johnson and former top recruit Lorenzo Lingard – and the addition of Ricky Pearsall (Arizona State transfer) boosted a receiving corps set to return Justin Shorter, Xzavier Henderson and Trent Whittemore. Improvement is needed along the line, with Louisiana transfer O’Cyrus Torrence likely to make an instant impact at guard. The line of scrimmage is a concern on the other side of the ball after Florida finished 10th in the SEC against the run and recorded only 20 sacks in conference play. Edge rusher Brenton Cox Jr. is back, and Ventrell Miller’s return from injury should boost the linebacker unit. Kaiir Elam will be missed at cornerback, but sophomore Jason Marshall is a rising star on the back end. A September slate featuring games versus Utah, Kentucky and Tennessee (road) should provide plenty of insight into where this team is in Napier’s debut.
A repeat of last year’s Big Ten West Division title will hinge on one thing for Iowa: Offensive improvement. In conference games last season, the Hawkeyes averaged only 4.5 yards per play and 23 points a game. Also, this unit struggled to generate big plays and ranked near the bottom of the league in third-down and red-zone offense. Adding to the challenges of generating improvement is the departure of running back Tyler Goodson and standout center Tyler Linderbaum, along with an ongoing quarterback battle between Spencer Petras and Alex Padilla. Gavin Williams and Leshon Williams should be a capable one-two punch on the ground, and there are capable options in the receiving corps, including tight end Sam LaPorta and receivers Nico Ragaini and Keagan Johnson. Even with Linderbaum leading the way last season, Iowa’s line was not a strength in ’21 and needs to play a lot better this fall. Despite a few departures, the Hawkeyes should have one of the top defenses in college football. Jack Campbell and Seth Benson lead a strong linebacker unit, while Riley Moss is one of the top cornerbacks returning in college football. Logan Lee, Noah Shannon and Lukas Van Ness are back to anchor one of the Big Ten’s top defensive lines. Forcing 31 turnovers again is a tough ask for this defense, adding to the urgency of finding improvement on offense in preseason practices this fall. Michigan, Wisconsin and Nebraska come to Iowa City next year, but coach Kirk Ferentz’s squad gets Ohio State, Purdue and Minnesota away from home.
Related: Big Ten Football 2022 Predictions
Last year’s 9-4 record was Purdue’s highest win total under coach Jeff Brohm and the program’s best season since 2003. The Boilermakers have a few concerns to address, namely how the defense improves under a new coordinator, but contending for the Big Ten’s West Division title is within reach. A favorable schedule sees Purdue miss Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan in crossover play, and Penn State visits West Lafayette in the season opener. Aidan O’Connell ranks among the Big Ten’s top signal-callers after throwing for 3,708 yards and 28 touchdowns last fall. A better rushing attack (2.8 yards per carry) is needed, and some retooling is needed in the trenches with two starters departing. O’Connell’s supporting cast at receiver is in transition after David Bell went to the NFL and Milton Wright was ruled academically ineligible. Iowa transfer Charlie Jones and Broc Thompson are likely to be the go-to options on the outside. New defensive signal-caller Ron English inherits a group that limited teams to 5.5 yards per play and 22.4 points a game last season, but ends DaMarcus Mitchell and George Karlaftis, safety Marvin Grant and linebacker Jaylan Alexander departed.
30. Mississippi State
Mike Leach’s team took a step forward last fall, upping the win total from four in ’20 to seven. With 17 starters back – the most of any team in the division – another jump in the SEC West is a reasonable goal. However, the Bulldogs have to overcome a brutal schedule that includes crossover matchups versus Kentucky and Georgia, along with road treks to Ole Miss, LSU and Alabama. Quarterback Will Rogers leads an offense that averaged 378.3 passing yards per game and just under 30 points (29.1) a contest. Reloading a few pieces around Rogers to keep the Air Raid performing at a high level is one of the key storylines this offseason. Running back is set with Jo’quavious Marks and Dillon Johnson returning, and while the Bulldogs have options at receiver, Makai Polk (105 catches) will be missed. The departure of tackles Charles Cross and Scott Lashley is a big concern after the line allowed 34 sacks in ’21. The defense allowed 27.3 points in SEC play last season, but eight starters are back, including a talented linebacker unit and cornerback Emmanuel Forbes. Addressing the pass defense (11th in the SEC in efficiency and 13 plays of 40-plus yards allowed) is a priority for coordinator Zach Arnett.
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Although last season’s record (5-7) was a major disappointment, the Longhorns improved the roster this offseason and should have a chance to return to a winning record in coach Steve Sarkisian’s second year. Defense was a major issue on the Forty Acres last fall. Texas surrendered 6.03 yards per play, 31.1 points a game, and more than 200 rushing yards a contest in ’21. Just four starters return, but there’s hope for improvement in the second year of the scheme under coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski. In addition to overall improvement, this unit needs to be better around the margins with takeaways (just 14 last year) and sacks generated (20). The optimism meter should be higher on offense. Ohio State transfer Quinn Ewers is expected to edge Hudson Card for the starting nod under center. The former five-star prospect is ultra-talented but has yet to attempt a pass in college and is working behind a line that could start two (albeit very talented) true freshmen at the tackle spots. Running back Bijan Robinson and receivers Xavier Worthy and Isaiah Neyor are the strength of this offense. Considering how open the Big 12 is, a run to the conference title game can’t be ruled out. However, based on last year’s record and question marks up front on both sides of the ball, a small step forward and a bowl game is a more reasonable goal for the Longhorns.
28. Ole Miss
Intrigue might be the best way to sum up coach Lane Kiffin’s team in 2022. The Rebels won 10 games and made the Sugar Bowl last year but lost a handful of key contributors, including quarterback Matt Corral, running backs Jerrion Ealy and Snoop Conner, receiver Dontario Drummond, linebacker Chance Campbell and end Sam Williams. However, Kiffin navigated the transfer portal as well as any coach this offseason, restocking the offense with quarterback Jaxson Dart (USC), running back Zach Evans (TCU), wide receivers Jordan Watkins (Louisville) and Jaylon Robinson (UCF), and tight end Michael Trigg (USC) as well as Mason Brooks (WKU) in the trenches. Dart is considered the favorite to start under center, but Luke Altmyer can make a push for the job in the fall. In addition to Brooks, the Rebels bring back three starters up front to give this team one of the top offensive lines in the SEC. Ole Miss showed considerable improvement on defense last year, allowing just 24.7 points a game (down from 38.3 in ’20). However, building on last season’s progress will be tough with a new coordinator (Chris Partridge) and a few key players gone. While there is turnover, similar to the offense, Kiffin landed several impact transfers here, including edge Khari Coleman, linebacker Troy Brown and defensive backs Isheem Young and Ladarius Tennison. Matching last year’s win total will be tough, but Kiffin’s recruiting efforts and a favorable schedule will prevent a major drop in victories.
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Coach Kalani Sitake has guided BYU to a 21-4 mark over the last two seasons and significantly exceeded preseason projections in the process. With that in mind, it’s dangerous to pick the Cougars outside of the top 25 here, but Sitake’s team has a brutal schedule to navigate in its final year of FBS Independence. BYU plays five Power 5 games – Baylor, at Oregon, Notre Dame (Las Vegas), Arkansas, and at Stanford – and catches Boise State and Liberty on the road this fall. However, the pieces are in place for Sitake’s team to push for double-digit wins again. Scoring points won’t be a problem behind an offense featuring quarterback Jaren Hall, one of the top offensive lines in the nation and a receiving corps returning Puka Nacua and Gunner Romney. Replacing running back Tyler Allgeier is the top priority for coordinator Aaron Roderick, but California transfer Christopher Brooks provides instant help. Injuries took a toll on BYU’s defense last season and remains the team’s biggest concern in ’22. This unit has to do a better job against the run (71st nationally) and generating a pass rush (20 sacks in ’21). But with 10 returning starters – and a healthy Keenan Pili and Payton Wilgar at linebacker – improvement across the board is a reasonable expectation.
Brian Kelly’s move from Notre Dame to LSU is the top storyline in Baton Rouge as the program looks to rebound from an 11-12 record over the last two seasons. Although a return to the top of the SEC West is unlikely, the Tigers should show steady improvement throughout the year. Just six starters return, but as usual, talent isn’t in short supply in Baton Rouge. A strong line anchored by Maason Smith and edge rusher BJ Ojulari is the strength of the team, and several transfers will step in right away to bolster a secondary that finished 12th in the SEC in pass efficiency defense last fall. An offense that averaged only 5.3 yards per play and 23.5 points a game in SEC matchups last season enters the year with major question marks up front and an ongoing quarterback battle between Garrett Nussmeier, Myles Brennan and Jayden Daniels. Talented running back John Emery also looks poised for a breakout year after missing all of ’21, and the receiving corps should be among the best in the SEC with standout Kayshon Boutte back after a season-ending leg injury. If the offensive line jells, and Kelly and coordinator Mike Denbrock can figure out the quarterback spot, a top-25 finish and eight (or nine) wins could be within reach.
25. Penn State
It’s a crucial year for Penn State to get the program back on track after an 11-11 mark over the last two seasons. Also, after a 5-0 start last fall, the team went 2-6 over the last eight matchups. Reversing that trend starts on offense. Quarterback Sean Clifford has to play with more consistency, but the senior also needs more help from a shaky offensive line that surrendered the most sacks (44) of any team in the Big Ten. In addition to better pass protection, the line has to improve its run blocking after the Nittany Lions failed to have a 100-yard rusher and managed just 2.96 yards per carry in ’21. Assuming Clifford takes a step forward and the line improves, the skill talent – receiver Parker Washington and talented true freshman running back Nick Singleton headline the key returning playmakers – is there for the offense to improve (25 points a game last fall). New defensive coordinator Manny Diaz has to retool a bit up front after the losses of linebackers Brandon Smith and Ellis Brooks, along with linemen Arnold Ebiketie, Jesse Luketa and Derrick Tangelo. However, the return of end Adisa Isaac and tackle PJ Mustipher from injury is a huge boost. Cornerback Joey Porter Jr. and safety Ji’Ayir Brown lead the way in the secondary.
Related: Big Ten 2022 All-Conference Team
The Cougars jumped to 12-2 in coach Dana Holgorsen’s third year at the helm, and with Cincinnati losing a handful of key contributors, the door is open for Houston to close the gap a little more in ’22. A high-powered offense (35.9 points a game in ’21) returns projected first-team All-AAC quarterback Clayton Tune, along with an All-America candidate at receiver Nathaniel Dell (90 catches for 1,329 yards and 12 TDs). Running back Alton McCaskill was lost indefinitely due to a torn ACL in the spring, but Ta’Zhawn Henry and USC transfer Brandon Campbell should be an effective one-two punch in the backfield. Holgorsen supplemented Dell and the receiving corps with a handful of transfers, including Cody Jackson (Oklahoma), Joseph Manjack (USC) and Samuel Brown (West Virginia). An offensive line that allowed 38 sacks and cleared the way for rushers to average 3.9 yards per carry must replace three starters. Houston’s defense showed big-time improvement under coordinator Doug Belk last fall. After giving up 32 points a game in ’20, the Cougars cut that total to 20.4 in ’21. This unit ranked first in the conference against the run, third against the pass, and led the way in sacks (43). Replacing lineman Logan Hall and cornerbacks Marcus Jones and Damarion Williams tops the list of priorities for Belk. Another run to 10-plus wins is within reach, as the Cougars open at UTSA and catch winnable games at Texas Tech and Kansas (home). There’s also no matchup against Cincinnati or UCF in the regular season.
Quarterback Kenny Pickett and receiver Jordan Addison leave big shoes to fill in the Steel City, but don’t count out Pitt from winning the Coastal Division once again. All five starters return up front, and a solid stable of running backs anchored by Israel Abanikanda, Vincent Davis and Rodney Hammond should be the strength of the offense under new play-caller Frank Cignetti Jr. USC transfer Kedon Slovis is the front-runner to replace Pickett, but Nick Patti will continue to push for the job into the fall. The Panthers are also strong on defense with seven starters back, including Calijah Kancey and Habakkuk Baldonado up front, along with SirVocea Dennis at linebacker. This unit held opponents to 5.1 yards per play, led the ACC in rush defense, and limited teams to 23.6 points a game last year. Replacing cornerback Damarri Mathis and cutting down on some of the big plays allowed in the passing game (11 of 40-plus last season) is a priority). The schedule features intriguing matchups versus West Virginia and Tennessee, along with a Nov. 26 showdown at Miami that could decide the Coastal Division.
Third-year coach Sam Pittman has Arkansas on the rise entering ’22. After winning nine SEC games from 2015-19, the Razorbacks have won seven over the last two years. There’s reason to believe another step forward is in store, especially with All-SEC candidate KJ Jefferson returning at quarterback to go with four starters on the line and a solid set of running backs led by Rocket Sanders. Replacing Treylon Burks (66 catches) and his big-play ability is the biggest concern on this side of the ball. A couple of transfers in Jadon Haselwood (Oklahoma) and Matt Landers (Toledo) will push Warren Thompson and Ketron Jackson to be the No. 1 option. Although Arkansas allowed just over six yards a play and 29.6 points a game in SEC matchups last year, the defense thrived at getting stops on third downs and limiting teams inside the red zone. Just four starters are back, but Pittman and coordinator Barry Odom have added help through the portal, including ends Jordan Domineck (Georgia Tech) and Landon Jackson (LSU), linebacker Drew Sanders (Alabama), and defensive backs Dwight McGlothern (LSU) and Latavious Brini (Georgia). A non-conference slate featuring BYU and Cincinnati is tough, but Pittman’s team gets Ole Miss, LSU and South Carolina in Fayetteville next year.
Related: SEC Football 2022 All-Conference Team
It’s a tough call between Tennessee and Kentucky for the No. 2 spot in the East behind Georgia. Although the Wildcats have a favorable crossover draw (host Mississippi State and play at Ole Miss), a trip to Knoxville might be the deciding factor in which team finishes second in the East. The offense took a big step forward under the play-calling of Liam Coen last fall, averaging 32.3 points a game (up from 21.8 the previous year). Coen left Lexington for a spot on the Rams’ staff, prompting coach Mark Stoops to hire Rich Scangarello away from the NFL to call plays. Kentucky won’t change too much on offense, which is a good thing considering quarterback Will Levis ranks among the best in the SEC, and a deep stable of running backs is led by Chris Rodriguez Jr. Replacing three standouts along the offensive line and reloading at receiver after the departure of Wan’Dale Robinson tops the list of question marks for Scangarello. The Wildcats ranked fourth in the SEC in scoring defense (21.7 points a game allowed) last year and also limited teams to 5.5 yards per snap. There are holes to fill up front and in the secondary, but the linebacker unit ranks among the best in the SEC. Mark Stoops’ squad has a handful of question marks to answer going into ’22. However, the track record of this program suggests a quick reload to win nine or 10 wins is a reasonable goal.
20. MiamiIt’s a new era at Miami with Mario Cristobal returning home and incoming investments in the program for needed facility and staff enhancements. After winning the offseason, the ‘Canes can add to that momentum with a Coastal Division title in ’22. Although this division is always tough to project, Cristobal has the pieces in place to make a splash in year one. Quarterback Tyler Van Dyke was brilliant in his last six starts (2,194 yards, 20 TDs, 3 INTs) last season and should thrive under coordinator Josh Gattis. The ‘Canes have a trio of talented options at running back, and the line brings back three starters, including All-America candidate Zion Nelson. The only concern on offense likely rests at receiver after Mike Harley and Charleston Rambo departed after combining for 136 receptions and 1,715 yards last season. The defense is in need of repair after surrendering 28.4 points a game and struggling with missed tackles. Rising star tackle Leonard Taylor and a couple of transfers should boost the defensive front, but linebacker remains a concern. Cornerback Tyrique Stevenson and safeties James Williams and Kamren Kinchens are three building blocks on the back end. With Pitt coming to Coral Gables on Nov. 26, the path to the Coastal Division title likely runs through Miami.
There’s no clear favorite to win the Big Ten West in ’22 and a strong case could be made for a couple of teams here. The Badgers return only eight overall starters, but the guess here is the defense remains among the best in the conference with a quick reloading effort behind coordinator Jim Leonhard, and the offense does just enough behind rising star running back Braelon Allen. Wisconsin isn’t without question marks, however. Quarterback Graham Mertz averaged only 6.8 yards per attempt and tossed eight touchdowns to six interceptions in conference play last fall. Complicating efforts to spark the passing game is the turnover at receiver (Danny Davis III and Kendric Pryor are gone), and tight end Jake Ferguson is off to the NFL. The schedule features crossover matchups at Ohio State and Michigan State, with a trek to Iowa also on tap.
Related: Big Ten 2022 All-Conference Team
Josh Heupel’s debut was a successful one on Rocky Top. The Volunteers showed marked improvement on offense, averaging 39.3 points a game – up from 21.5 the previous year. Also, thanks to the emergence of quarterback Hendon Hooker, Tennessee led the SEC in plays of 40-plus yards (23) after collecting just three the previous fall. Hooker and receiver Cedric Tillman top the list of reasons for optimism in Knoxville, with four starters back along an offensive line hoping to improve after allowing 44 sacks last year. Although scoring points shouldn’t be a problem for Tennessee, the defense has to make major progress to push for nine wins. This unit allowed more than 200 rushing yards and 33.6 points a game in SEC play last season. Linemen Byron Young and Tyler Baron, along with linebacker Jeremy Banks, provide a solid foundation up front for coordinator Tim Banks. However, the Volunteers simply need more talent, depth and improvement to have any shot at pushing Georgia for No. 1 in the East.
17. Oklahoma State
On the strength of a standout defense and timely offense, the Cowboys came inches away from winning the Big 12 title last season. The 12-2 record tied for the most wins (2011) under coach Mike Gundy. But replicating last year’s success will require the staff to fill a few key voids on both sides of the ball. New defensive coordinator Derek Mason inherits five returning starters and one of the top fronts in college football, which features Brock Martin and Collin Oliver (combined 19.5 sacks in ’21). However, the rest of the defense is in transition. The Cowboys must replace linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez (131 tackles) and four key starters in the secondary, including cornerback Jarrick Bernard-Converse and safety Kolby Harvell-Peel. With some regression on defense expected, more production is needed on offense. Oklahoma State ranked eighth in the Big 12 in yards per play (5.46) and had the fewest plays (eight) of 40-plus yards in the conference. First-team All-Big 12 quarterback Spencer Sanders is back under center, but the senior must cut down on the interceptions (12 last year). Leading rusher Jaylen Warren (1,216 yards) and No. 1 receiver Tay Martin (1,046 yards) must be replaced. Also, the Cowboys lost two key starters up front. Road dates at Kansas State, Baylor and Oklahoma won’t be easy.
16. Wake Forest
The Demon Deacons are the defending champs of the Atlantic Division and should be in the mix again to push Clemson and NC State for the No. 1 spot. The strength of coach Dave Clawson’s team remains the offense. Quarterback Sam Hartman returns after leading the offense to an average of 41 points a game last year. The Demon Deacons had a pair of 1,000-yard receivers in ’21, and while Jaquarii Roberson departed, Hartman won’t lack for weapons with A.T. Perry, Taylor Morin and Donavon Greene on the outside. Also, four starters return up front, with Justice Ellison, Christian Turner and Quinton Cooley likely to share carries in the backfield. Defense was Wake Forest’s biggest concern last season and remains the biggest question mark going into ’22. New coordinator Brad Lambert is one of the ACC’s top assistant hires and is tasked with bringing improvement to a group that surrendered 31.2 points a game in conference play last fall. Stopping the run (195.6 yards a game allowed) is a concern, and this unit needs better play from the linebackers. End Rondell Bothroyd (16.5 TFL) is an underrated force off the edge.
Related: ACC Football 2022 All-Conference Team
Despite the departure of several key players from last year’s team that made the CFB Playoff, the Bearcats are still Athlon’s pick atop the AAC. Coach Luke Fickell has recruited well and with a strong track record of talent development, Cincinnati should be among the top 10-15 teams once again. Ben Bryant and Evan Prater will battle to replace Desmond Ridder under center, but the rest of the supporting cast is strong. The Bearcats return the AAC’s top offensive line, added LSU transfer Corey Kiner to a capable group of backs to replace Jerome Ford, while Tre Tucker and Tyler Scott anchor a receiving corps already featuring tight ends Josh Whyle and Leonard Taylor. A defense that limited opponents to 16.9 points a game and 4.5 yards per play must replace seven full-time starters, including standouts and NFL draft picks Myjai Sanders (end) and cornerbacks Ahmad Gardner and Coby Bryant. However, the next wave of stars is ready to emerge, including linebackers Deshawn Pace, end Malik Vann and defensive backs Arquon Bush and Ja’von Hicks. If Cincinnati pulls off an upset at Arkansas in Week 1, another 12-0 regular season is within reach.
14. Michigan State
Mel Tucker’s Spartans took a huge step forward last season, jumping from 2-5 in the abbreviated ’20 campaign to 11-2 with a No. 9 finish in the final top 25 last fall. Replicating double-digit wins again will hinge on how well Michigan State can replace running back Kenneth Walker III (1,636 yards and 18 TDs) and improve a defense that struggled mightily against the pass (11th in Big Ten in pass efficiency defense). Transfers Jalen Berger (Wisconsin) and Jarek Broussard (Colorado) will handle the bulk of the carries with Walker departing, and the offense will ask more of quarterback Payton Thorne (27 TDs) and receiver Jayden Reed. The addition of transfer Ameer Speed (Georgia) should help to bolster last year’s leaky secondary, but the Spartans should have optimism about their defensive front with the return of end Jeff Pietrowski, linebacker Cal Haladay and Florida transfer Khris Bogle (edge). Road trips to Michigan and Penn State won’t be easy.
The Sooners’ offseason could simply be described in one word: Change. Brent Venables takes over as head coach after Lincoln Riley left for USC, and the program also experienced its share of roster turnover with just nine returning starters in place for ’22. Losing Caleb Williams (USC) and Spencer Rattler (South Carolina) was a setback for the quarterback room, but Venables and new play-caller Jeff Lebby solved their concerns under center by bringing in UCF transfer Dillon Gabriel. The Hawaii native played under Lebby in Orlando in ’19 and should find a seamless fit again in Norman. Leading rusher Kennedy Brooks and three of the top four receivers from last season have departed. Also, Oklahoma’s offensive line wasn’t up to its normal dominant standard last season. Helping to restock the offense are a couple of transfers, including former Cal lineman McKade Mettauer and Arizona State receiver LV Bunkley-Shelton. Look for Marvin Mims (22 yards per catch in ’21) to become the go-to target for Gabriel. Venables was arguably the nation’s best defensive coordinator at Clemson, so this side of the ball should see some immediate improvement. Although, the Sooners are losing a handful of key players – edge rusher Nik Bonitto and linemen Perrion Winfrey and Isaiah Thomas – from a unit that struggled to stop the pass and gave up 5.93 yards per snap in Big 12 games. A handful of additions from the portal will help, but it may take Venables a recruiting class or two to fully address this side of the ball. Oklahoma is a program in transition. But there’s also a strong track record of success and talent when it comes to the Sooners.
Related: Big 12 Football 2022 Predictions
12. NC State
All of the pieces are in place for NC State to challenge for the ACC championship – and potentially a run at the CFB Playoff. The Wolfpack return the most starters (17) of any team in the ACC from a squad that went 9-3 last fall, including quarterback Devin Leary (35 TDs, 5 INTs) and one of the nation’s top linebacker units anchored by Payton Wilson and Drake Thomas. Leary’s development ensures there are few questions surrounding the offense, but coach Dave Doeren’s group must replace its top two rushers (Bam Knight and Ricky Person) and elite left tackle Ikem Ekwonu. More overall production on the ground is needed after NC State averaged an ACC-low 3.3 yards per rush last fall. In addition to the standouts at linebacker, a Wolfpack defense that held teams to 19.7 points a game last year returns tackle Cory Durden and a couple of likely All-ACC contenders in the secondary in Tanner Ingle (safety), Tyler Baker-Williams (nickel) and Shyheim Battle (cornerback). A trip to Clemson on Oct. 1 is likely to decide the winner of the Atlantic Division.
With no clear favorite atop the league, the Big 12 should be a wide-open battle between five or six teams for spots in the conference title game. The Bears are the reigning Big 12 champions, and with the league in flux around them, it’s hard to pick against coach Dave Aranda’s team to grab at least of those spots. Defense was the strength of Baylor’s ’21 squad by holding opponents to 5.2 yards per snap and 18.3 points a game. This unit lost a couple of key cogs, including linebacker Terrel Bernard and defensive back Jalen Pitre. However, the cupboard isn’t bare here, as the line – anchored by nose tackle Siaki Ika – is among the best in college football. Dillon Doyle (90 tackles and 10 TFL) should push for All-America honors at linebacker. Retooling a secondary with just two returning starters is Aranda’s biggest concern going into ’22 on this side of the ball. Baylor’s offense showed marked improvement in coordinator Jeff Grimes’ first season in Waco. After recording 23.3 points a game and 4.4 yards per play in ’20, the Bears averaged 31.6 a contest and 6.3 yards a snap last fall. Blake Shapen won the starting quarterback job over Gerry Bohanon in the spring, and the sophomore is likely to upgrade the team’s passing attack – provided a receiving corps losing Tyquan Thornton and R.J. Sneed is restocked. A new go-to running back must be found to replace Abram Smith, but the offensive line ranks among the best in college football. A non-conference game at BYU won’t be easy, and the Bears have tough road trips to West Virginia, Oklahoma and Texas.
Related: College Football Top 25 for 2022
New coach Dan Lanning inherits one of the best situations for any first-year coach. The Ducks bring back 14 starters off last season’s 10-4 squad that won the Pac-12 North title. Although Lanning and his staff will put their stamp on the program and make schematic changes, Oregon should be a heavy favorite in this division and catches a scheduling break by missing USC and getting Utah and UCLA in crossover play at home. The strength of Lanning’s first team should be a standout offensive line with five returning starters, along with an intriguing cast of playmakers at the skill spots, including Byron Cardwell and Sean Dollars at running back, with Kris Hutson, Troy Franklin and Dont’e Thornton at receiver. Auburn transfer Bo Nix and talented redshirt freshman Ty Thompson will battle for the starting nod under center – with Nix expected to take the first snap against Georgia. Lanning’s arrival is good news for a defense that allowed 27 points a game and 5.4 yards per snap last fall. Even though edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux is off to the NFL, the cupboard is not bare. Linebacker Noah Sewell and lineman Brandon Dorlus lead the way up front, and Colorado transfer Christian Gonzalez is a key pickup with the secondary losing three full-time starters from ’21.
A new era will begin at USC in ’22 with Lincoln Riley’s arrival after an impressive run at Oklahoma. The Trojans were 4-8 last fall and struggled mightily on defense, so a quick jump into CFB Playoff consideration would take a lot to break in USC’s favor. However, Riley has flipped the roster in a big way, landing impact transfers in quarterback Caleb Williams (Oklahoma) and receiver Jordan Addison (Pitt) among a bevy of new additions. Those two pickups, along with Riley’s scheme, should result in a much-improved offense. The backfield is also headlined by two transfers (Travis Dye and Austin Jones), while the Trojans won’t lack for other playmakers in the receiving corps to team with Addison. The line brings back four starters and could potentially be among the best in the Pac-12. Defense is where Riley has more concerns in ’22. This unit was pushed around on the ground (167.1 rushing yards a game allowed last year), ranked 11th in the Pac-12 against the pass, and struggled with big plays allowed (13 of 40-plus yards) and a lack of a pass rush (21 sacks). New coordinator Alex Grinch won’t fix all of the issues in one offseason. However, a handful of transfers have added depth and talent, and a scheme change should bring some improvement. The schedule is manageable. Road trips to Oregon State, Utah and UCLA are on tap, but Notre Dame visits the Coliseum.
Related: Pac-12 Football 2022 Predictions
USC has certainly improved under new coach Lincoln Riley, but the path to a Pac-12 title still runs through Salt Lake City. The Utes won their first Pac-12 championship last year by pounding Oregon 38-10 in the conference title game and lost by three to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl. A repeat of that success – or perhaps even more – is within reach in ’22 for coach Kyle Whittingham’s team. Utah led the Pac-12 in conference-only matchups in scoring (37.3 points a game) and yards per play (6.6) last fall and returns quarterback Cameron Rising, running back Tavion Thomas and a pair of standout tight ends in Brant Kuithe and Dalton Kincaid. Finding a receiver to replace Britain Covey and restocking the offensive line are the top priorities for coordinator Andy Ludwig. As usual, Utah will be strong on defense. Whittingham’s group returns five starters, including cornerback Clark Phillips III, ends Van Fillinger and Karene Reid and Florida transfer Mohamoud Diabate at linebacker. A return to full health by cornerback JaTravis Broughton and safety R.J. Hubert bolstered a secondary that ranked seventh in the Pac-12 in pass efficiency defense last fall. Linebacker Devin Lloyd will be missed, however. The Utes have a tough road trip to Florida to open the season but get USC in Rice-Eccles Stadium in mid-October. With few holes and an experienced roster, Whittingham’s team can make another run at the CFB Playoff.
7. Notre Dame
It’s a new era at Notre Dame with Marcus Freeman replacing Brian Kelly as the program’s head coach. Although there’s transition at the top, don’t expect drastic or big changes in South Bend. Instead, Freeman can build off the program’s recent success and work to elevate Notre Dame in the top tier of college football – especially if recruiting continues to thrive under his watch. The season opener at Ohio State is a huge test right out of the gate for Freeman’s squad, but if the Fighting Irish lose that game and win the next 11 (not a far-fetched scenario), a trip to the playoff is likely in order. The defense thrived under Freeman’s watch last season, holding teams to 19.7 points a game and 5.3 yards per snap. The front ranks among the best in college football, with end Isaiah Foskey (11 sacks) a preseason All-American by Athlon Sports and Jayson Ademilola back in the middle. Question marks on defense are small, but the Fighting Irish will need to shore up the secondary and develop more depth on the back end. The strengths of the offense start where it ended in ’21: Offensive line and ground attack. A line that returns four starters ranks among the best in the nation, while Chris Tyree and Logan Diggs are set to emerge as the one-two-punch at running back. Tyler Buchner is poised to take the reins as the No. 1 quarterback after Jack Coan’s departure. The sophomore is talented but still a work in progress as a passer. His development is the biggest x-factor for the Fighting Irish in ’22. The offense needs more depth at receiver, but Braden Lenzy, Avery Davis and Lorenzo Styles are a capable trio on the outside. And tight end Michael Mayer (71 catches) is a lock for All-America honors this fall. If Buchner takes a step forward in his development, and the defensive concerns in the secondary are eased, Notre Dame could make its third trip to the CFB Playoff in five years.
Jim Harbaugh got Michigan over the hump last season by defeating Ohio State, winning the Big Ten title for the first time since 2004 and earning a trip to the CFB Playoff. However, the Wolverines have some retooling to do in order to reach that level once again this fall. A defense that limited teams to 17.4 points a game and 4.93 yards per play lost coordinator Mike Macdonald to the NFL and several key players, including ends Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo and defensive backs Brad Hawkins, Dax Hill and Vincent Gray. Filling the voids up front and replacing the lost pass rush by Hutchinson and Ojabo remains the team’s biggest concern going into the fall under new play-caller Jesse Minter. Although the defense is likely to take a small step back, Michigan’s offense should be among the best in the Big Ten. New co-coordinators Matt Weiss and Sherrone Moore have two proven quarterbacks in J.J. McCarthy and Cade McNamara, one of the top backfields in the nation with Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards and a deep group of receivers that includes Ronnie Bell back from injury. Two starters are gone up front, but Virginia transfer Olusegun Oluwatimi should contend for All-America honors and ease any concerns about transition at center.
Related: College Football Top 25 for 2022
5. Texas A&M
Momentum is high in College Station after coach Jimbo Fisher inked the No. 1 recruiting class for ’22. The next step: Win the West Division and get to the CFB Playoff. While both of those goals are tough to attain with Alabama in the same division, a double-digit win total is within reach. An injury to quarterback Haynes King in the second game of ’21 created a major issue for the offense, but the depth chart is in better shape with King, LSU transfer Max Johnson and true freshman Conner Weigman in the mix. The Aggies need more big plays from the passing game, and true freshman Evan Stewart could provide some on the outside, teaming with Ainias Smith to give the offense a potent one-two combo at receiver. Devon Achane is the next star running back, and three returning starters provide a strong foundation up front. The defense was among the best in college football last season, holding teams to 15.9 points a game and 4.7 yards per snap. This unit is in a state of transition up front with DeMarvin Leal and Tyree Johnson headlining the list of departures. However, thanks to the ’22 recruiting haul, new coordinator DJ Durkin doesn’t lack for talent up front. Also, the secondary is one of the best in the nation. How far Texas A&M’s quarterback room develops and how fast Durkin can reload this defense will determine whether or not this team can compete for the playoff.
The Tigers had their streak of consecutive ACC titles snapped at six and failed to make the CFB Playoff for the first time since ’14 last season. A lackluster showing (5.2 yards per play and 26.3 points a game) on offense was the primary culprit for last year’s 10-3 mark and remains a concern going into ’22. A deep backfield led by rising star Will Shipley is the strength of this offense, but question marks remain at every other position. Can DJ Uiagalelei (55.6 [percent, 9 TDs vs. 10 INTs) take a step forward? Or will true freshman Cade Klubnik eventually take over as the starter? The Tigers need more out of an offensive line that brings back four starters and an inconsistent receiving corps losing Justyn Ross to the NFL. And as if those questions weren’t enough, there’s a new play-caller (Brandon Streeter) after Tony Elliott left to be the head coach at Virginia. While question marks litter the offense, the same can’t be said on defense. Coordinator Brent Venables left to be the head coach at Oklahoma, but new play-caller Wes Goodwin inherits a deep defensive line anchored by Tyler Davis, Bryan Bresee and Myles Murphy, along with rising stars at linebacker (Trenton Simpson) and safety (Andrew Mukuba). This unit could be the best defense in college football this fall.
The Bulldogs return only 10 starters from last year’s team that won it all, but there’s no reason for concern in Athens. Coach Kirby Smart’s program will simply reload with the next wave of stars on both sides of the ball. An elite defense that held teams to 10.2 points a game and 4.2 yards per play lost a handful of standout defenders, including linemen Jordan Davis and Travon Walker, linebacker Nakobe Dean and safety Lewis Cine. However, look for lineman Jalen Carter, linebackers Robert Beal and Nolan Smith, and cornerback Kelee Ringo to lead the way on another dominant defense in ’22. Quarterback Stetson Bennett is back for one more ride under center after throwing for 2,862 yards and 29 touchdowns last fall. He’s joined by Kendall Milton and Kenny McIntosh at running back, and a deep collection of targets in the receiving corps, led by tight ends Brock Bowers and Arik Gilbert. Three starters return up front, but Georgia could have the nation’s best offensive line in ’22. Barring a major surprise, the Bulldogs should be favored (and likely by double-digits) in all 12 of their regular-season matchups.
2. Ohio State
The Buckeyes should return to the top of the Big Ten behind a high-powered offense (7.96 yards per play in ’21) led by quarterback C.J. Stroud, running back TreVeyon Henderson and receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba. An offensive line returning tackles Dawand Jones and Paris Johnson Jr. should be among the best in college football. Scoring points won’t be a problem for coach Ryan Day’s team, but Ohio State’s defense has room to improve after allowing 22.8 points a game and 5.3 yards per play last fall. Jim Knowles was hired to coordinate this unit after a successful stint at Oklahoma State, and talent isn’t in short supply with end Zach Harrison, linebackers Tommy Eichenberg and Steele Chambers and defensive backs Denzel Burke and Ronnie Hickman in the lineup. Whether or not this defense is better in the trenches and takes a step forward overall is likely to determine if the Buckeyes can play for it all in ’22.
Related: College Football 2022 All-America Team
The Crimson Tide are an easy pick as the team to beat in the SEC West and the No. 1 team in college football going into 2022. A high-powered offense is led by reigning Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young at quarterback, with Georgia Tech transfer Jahmyr Gibbs primed for a breakout year as an all-around threat at running back. New faces must emerge at receiver, but transfers Tyler Harrell (Louisville) and Jermaine Burton (Georgia) should ease the loss of Jameson Williams and John Metchie III. Left tackle Evan Neal is gone off an inconsistent line that surrendered 41 sacks last year. Although the line has talent and a new coach (Eric Wolford), how this group meshes during the season is the biggest concern on the roster. The Crimson Tide held teams to 20.1 points a game last season and could be even better on defense in ’22. Will Anderson Jr. (33.5 TFL) is back off the edge, and Dallas Turner (10 TFL) is a rising star on the other side, with Henry To’o-To’o manning the middle. LSU transfer Eli Ricks adds to a talented secondary already featuring rising star Kool-Aid McKinstry on the other side, along with Jordan Battle, DeMarcco Hellams and Brian Branch at safety. Road trips to Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee, LSU and Ole Miss dot the schedule, with Alabama hosting Texas A&M for a massive SEC showdown.
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