It’s always guesswork projecting next season’s college football top 25 this early, but it’s now more haphazard than ever. The rearranging of coaches and quarterbacks (not to mention other players) has turned this offseason into a festival of fluidity.
Twenty percent of the Power 5 coaching jobs have changed hands, and Jim Harbaugh may yet trigger a January domino effect. At least one-third of the 65 starting quarterbacks will be different, with more transfers likely in the coming weeks.
So with that as a backdrop, here is the Way-Too-Early, Way-Too-Unsure top 25 for the 2022 season.
Shocking, I know. But when you start with the reigning Heisman Trophy winner (quarterback Bryce Young), the nation’s best defensive player (linebacker Will Anderson Jr.) and the GOAT (Nick Saban), that’s a pretty good foundation. The rest of the team will be ridiculously talented as well, as usual.
2. Ohio State
Last we saw of the Buckeyes, quarterback C.J. Stroud was throwing for 573 yards and six touchdowns, Jaxon Smith-Njigba was breaking a bowl record with 347 receiving yards, and Marvin Harrison Jr. was nabbing three TD catches. They’ll all be back in 2022, and Jim Knowles arrives from Oklahoma State to shore up the defense. Buckeyes should be loaded.
The NFL will have a huge influx of Bulldogs this offseason, especially from their vicious defense. But an abundance of talent remains, thanks to Kirby Smart’s stacking of monster recruiting classes. Will QB Stetson Bennett actually start the next season No. 1 on the Georgia depth chart, or will he be demoted once again?
This will be a fascinating season for the Tigers, with Dabo Swinney overhauling his previously super stable coaching staff after losing both coordinators and others. But the player roster is stocked with guys who gained valuable experience in 2021 and should be improved in ’22. Quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei must make strides after a disappointing season, but there is an intriguing Plan B in freshman Cade Klubnik.
The Utes lose a few key contributors off their Rose Bowl team, but more are coming back. Running back Tavion Thomas is returning after a 21-touchdown season, and so is quarterback Cameron Rising. The defense should again be nasty. They open with a winnable game at Florida that could be a springboard into a big season.
6. Texas A&M
With Haynes King returning and Max Johnson arriving from LSU, the quarterback position should be in better hands. Most of the rest of the lineup is in good shape, thanks to several years of Jimbo Fisher’s recruiting. How quickly will the nation’s No. 1 freshman class make an impact? The nonconference schedule is manageable, with Miami coming to College Station.
The losses from the 2021 Playoff team are major, especially on defense. And, again, we’ll see whether Harbaugh is still coaching the Wolverines in the coming days. But if he is, there is a good nucleus of skill-position talent to build around, starting with the quarterback tandem of Cade McNamara and J.J. McCarthy. The nonconference schedule should provide little opposition.
8. Wake Forest
The Demon Deacons return a loaded roster after just the second 11-win season in school history. Quarterback Sam Hartman should start the season as a Heisman candidate leading what could be the nation’s most explosive offense outside of Alabama and Ohio State. If the defense improves, this could be the nontraditional breakthrough team. Clemson, Wake’s annual problem, must come to Winston-Salem in 2022.
9. Notre Dame
Marcus Freeman takes on a tough schedule, with an opener at Ohio State and games against Clemson, BYU and USC. He will need a quarterback to step up, with Tyler Buchner the leading candidate as of now. But there is talent all over the roster after years of excellent recruiting.
10. Oklahoma State
The Cowboys tend to be a program that does its best work when little is expected of it, so perhaps this is an inflated ranking. But Spencer Sanders played like a superstar in the Fiesta Bowl in leading a thrilling comeback to beat Notre Dame and could be poised for a huge season. He’ll need to be that good in 2022, because Oklahoma State will probably take a step backward defensively after losing Knowles and many of its top players on that side of the ball.
11. Michigan State
Losing Kenneth Walker III’s production hurts, but there are other weapons on hand. Payton Thorne had an excellent sophomore season at QB, and Wisconsin transfer Jalen Berger arrives with a chance to fill Walker’s shoes and reenergize his career. The defense returns many of its key parts, and let’s face it—the secondary can only get better.
The Bears had a veteran team in 2021 and will have to retool in some areas, but trust in Dave Aranda, whose second season was National Coach of the Year material. His defenses will always be solid. Gerry Bohanon should take another step forward in his second season as the starting QB. Key early game: a trip to Provo to face BYU.
The Lincoln Riley Effect should be immediate .With both Kedon Slovis and Jaxson Dart transferring, the door is wide open for mega-talent Caleb Williams to follow Riley to Norman to Los Angeles and take over the quarterback position. (Fellow Oklahoma evacuee Mario Williams may well be coming with him as a big-time receiver.) Beyond the talent infusion, Riley should have a cleaner team in terms of penalties and turnover margin than what we saw from the Trojans in the Clay Helton Era.
If Sam Pittman keeps this program on its current growth curve, the Razorbacks could finish even higher. There are some big shoes to fill on defense, but linebacker Bumper Pool is coming back for a fifth year. Dual-threat KJ Jefferson returns at QB and powerful Raheim Sanders could be a 1,000-yard rusher. The issue could be the schedule: The Hogs open at home against Cincinnati and visit BYU in mid-October, in addition to the usual SEC mayhem.
Brent Venables finally takes on a head-coaching role, and he’s assembled a very good staff. He should dramatically improve the defensive product. But the offensive losses are significant. Dillon Gabriel arrives to fill Caleb Williams’s spot at QB; while he was good at UCF, there would be some drop-off at that position. Gabriel's pass efficiency rating has ranged between 156 and 159 in three college seasons, while Williams registered a 170 as a true freshman and is a better runner. Two receivers have transferred and running back Kennedy Brooks is going pro.
Josh Heupel hit the ground running, recording a winning season in his first year on the job and rejuvenating a downtrodden fan base. Transfer QB Hendon Hooker flourished under Heupel and should have another big season with 1,000-yard receiver Cedric Tillman coming back. The running game is in capable hands as well. A defense that allowed 29 points per game needs to make strides in 2022.
The Badgers tend to reload defensively instead of rebuild, and running back Braelon Allen is a star in the making. But they need QB Graham Mertz to make a lot of progress if they want to return to winning the Big Ten West after two years of watching someone else from that division go to Indianapolis.
Dana Holgorsen got his career back on track in a big way in 2021, taking the Cougars to 12 wins. He should have the roster to win the American Athletic Conference in ’22, though there are some defensive holes to fill. In QB Clayton Tune, running back Alton McCaskill and receiver Nathaniel Dell, Houston has star power that should light up the scoreboard.
19. North Carolina State
Dave Doeren has built a consistent winner, with last year’s 9–3 team among his best. Plenty of key parts from that group return, starting with quarterback Devin Leary (3,400 passing yards and 35 touchdowns in 2021). Linebacker Payton Wilson, who missed most of 2021, is coming back as well to anchor the defense. Between Clemson, Wake Forest and NC State, the ACC will tilt heavily toward the Atlantic Division again.
The Ducks are losing plenty from their Pac-12 North championship team, including head coach Mario Cristobal. But Cristobal signed three straight top-10 recruiting classes from 2019 to ’21, so there is talent on hand waiting for an opportunity. Noah Sewell might be the nation’s best inside linebacker and will be the centerpiece of Dan Lanning’s defense. Mercurial quarterback Bo Nix arrives from Auburn, where he made a lot of things happen (some good, some bad).
With two 10-win seasons in the last three, the Wildcats have arrived as a consistent contender. They should keep that momentum going in 2022, with quarterback Will Levis returning and leading rusher Chris Rodriguez Jr. expected to do the same (big-play receiver Wan’Dale Robinson has declared for the draft). There will be some retooling on defense. Kentucky has been active in the transfer portal, both in terms of who’s coming and who’s going, but Mark Stoops is bringing in the highest-rated recruiting class in school history and some of those freshmen could have an immediate impact.
The Hawkeyes are here because they’re simply too consistent to count out, piling up winning seasons year after year under Kirk Ferentz. They need improvement at quarterback and lose the best center in college football, but the defense should again be stout—especially after safety Riley Moss announced that he will stay in school.
The Bearcats finally broke up the large band of seniors who built the program into a power, but they’ve held on to Luke Fickell. (So far. Again, we’ll see whether there is going to be an opening at Michigan.) As long as he’s there, Cincinnati will be good. But there are big personnel losses on both sides of the ball. Fickell has always said he wants an offensive line-driven program, and this is the chance to prove that. That’s where the greatest experience lies.
We got a glimpse of what the Boilermakers will be without NFL talents David Bell and George Karlaftis in the Music City Bowl—and it was pretty good. QB Aidan O’Connell (more than 5,700 career passing yards) is coming back, and Jeff Brohm never runs out of receivers. Losing defensive coordinator Brad Lambert is a blow, but Brohm has gotten more involved on that side of the ball and should maintain the same style of play defensively.
25. Coastal Carolina
With quarterback Grayson McCall famously declaring, “I piss teal,” in announcing his return for another season, expectations remain high for the Chanticleers. They’re 22–3 the past two seasons, since McCall became the starter. There will need to be a major rebuilding job on the defensive side and at receiver, however.
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