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College football rankings: Predicting the AP Top 25 preseason poll

Your first look at the preseason Top 25 college football rankings
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We're inside a month before the kickoff of the 2022 college football season and that means one thing — our first look at the AP Top 25 preseason rankings.

Georgia is the defending national champion in the most recent College Football Playoff, and should be well in the mix to compete for another semifinal spot.

As will SEC champion Alabama, the consensus top team in the nation, in addition to the usual suspects in Ohio State out of the Big Ten and presumptive ACC favorite Clemson.

But as last season proved, there's room for a first-timer, too, after Michigan and Cincinnati qualified for the College Football Playoff a year ago.

What will the first rankings look like heading into kickoff?

Predicting the AP Top 25 preseason college football rankings

Note: this doesn't propose to be an objective ranking of the actual 25 best teams, but a projection of how AP Top 25 voters will rank them.

25. Tennessee Volunteers

tennessee vols football

Final 2021 ranking: Unranked

Record: 7-6 (4-4 SEC)

Chance to make College Football Playoff: 0.0%

Where Tennessee is right now: The Vols have just over a 1 percent chance to win the SEC East, according to the ESPN metrics, which predict another 7-win outing this fall. Tennessee returns quarterback Hendon Hooker, officially the most efficient passer in the SEC a year ago, and he gets back receivers Cedric Tillman and USC transfer Bru McCoy. But the Vols' success depends on how well second-year coach Josh Heupel can fine-tune a secondary unit that allowed 34 points per game to SEC teams in 2021.

24. Oklahoma State Cowboys

oklahoma state football

Final 2021 ranking: No. 7

Record: 12-2 (8-1 Big 12)

Chance to make College Football Playoff: 4.0%

Where Oklahoma State is right now: The third-best defense in college football a year ago lost its coordinator after Jim Knowles took the Ohio State job, in addition to three key pieces in the secondary.

Quarterback Spencer Sanders showed flashes last fall, throwing 20 TDs and finishing with over 2,800 yards, but he had 12 picks and seven games when he threw one touchdown or none. And the Cowboys won't have 1,200 yard rusher Jaylen Warren back to help him out, either.

23. USC Trojans

College football powerhouse USC hired Lincoln Riley to get the Trojans back in the playoff rankings.

Final 2021 ranking: Unranked

Record: 4-8 (3-6 Pac-12)

Chance to make College Football Playoff: 0.0%

Where USC is right now: If a team can "win" an offseason, the Trojans did after signing Lincoln Riley on as head coach and with him a pile of blue-chip transfers, including 5-star quarterback Caleb Williams and Biletnikoff receiver Jordan Addison, who led the nation in TD catches a year ago, in addition to other key skill pieces.

But how far USC can really go depends on how well Riley and coordinator Alex Grinch can repair a defensive unit that ranked 89th nationally last fall. There's skill at edge rusher and linebacker, thanks to the portal, but the Trojans need to get a ton more pressure on the quarterback if they want to move up the Top 25 rankings.

22. Texas Longhorns


Final 2021 ranking: Unranked

Record: 5-7 (3-6 Big 12)

Chance to make College Football Playoff: 18.0%

Where Texas is right now: ESPN really likes the addition of transfer quarterback Quinn Ewers, the 5-star prospect whose addition bumped up the Longhorns' chances to win the Big 12 to around 41 percent, according to FPI.

Bijan Robinson returns after rushing for 1,127 yards last fall with a 5.8 ypc average and 11 touchdowns to go with four additional scores as a receiver. And Ewers will have Xavier Worthy, who had 981 receiving yards with 12 TDs last fall. Watch for a major Week 2 home tilt against Alabama.

21. Wisconsin Badgers

braelon allen wisconsin

Final 2021 ranking: Unranked

Record: 9-4 (6-3 Big Ten)

Chance to make College Football Playoff: 0.6%

Where Wisconsin is right now: Much of this Badgers defense, which ranked No. 1 overall nationally ahead of Georgia last year, will need replacements, but the program has recruited well enough to re-stock those shelves adequately enough.

The question is whether quarterback Graham Mertz can finally prove he deserves the starting job. Any rebuilding project there will depend on how well Wisconsin re-supplies at receiver.

Good thing Wisconsin gets lead rusher Braelon Allen back — the youngster carried for 1,268 yards last season with 12 touchdowns with a nearly seven ypc average and is running behind a line of solid oak.

20. Kentucky Wildcats

Kentucky quarterback Will Levis at a college football game in the SEC.

Final 2021 ranking: No. 18

Record: 10-3 (5-3 SEC)

Chance to make College Football Playoff: 1.0%

Where Kentucky is right now: Statement wins over LSU and Florida — in the latter case a first at home since 1986 — and knocking off No. 15 Iowa in the bowl were all positive steps forward.

As is the return of quarterback Will Levis, a 2,800-yard passer with 24 TDs last year, and lead rusher Chris Rodriguez, who ran for 1,379 yards and nine scores (and over 100 yards in all but three games) in '21.

But gone is Wan'Dale Robinson at receiver, three O-line starters, and six defensive contributors. A home tilt in November against Georgia could go a long way in sorting out the SEC East race again.

19. Wake Forest Demon Deacons

a.t. perry wake forest football

Final 2021 ranking: No. 15

Record: 11-3 (7-1 ACC)

Chance to make College Football Playoff: 0.4%

Where Wake Forest is right now: Wake jumped out to an 8-0 mark last fall behind a top 15 offense and a scoring unit that placed fifth nationally. There's some concern about quarterback Sam Hartman, who won't start the season because of a non-football medical issue, but coach Dave Clawson said Hartman will play this season.

Maybe no other player means as much to his team after he accounted for 50 touchdowns on college football's 11th ranked offense. A support cast of nine expected starters also comes back on offense, including star receiver A.T. Perry.

But the Deacs also ranked 91st in total defense and the unit was costly in a 1-3 stretch against UNC, Clemson, NC State, and Pitt.

18. Pittsburgh Panthers

israel abanikanda pittsburgh football

Final 2021 ranking: No. 13

Record: 11-3 (7-1 ACC)

Chance to make College Football Playoff: 1.4%

Where Pitt is right now: Kenny Pickett is gone from the defending ACC championship squad, but Pitt scored what could be the difference-maker at the position in former USC starter Kedon Slovis, a 65% passer with 11 TDs and eight picks last fall.

But the absence of Jordan Addison cuts a huge hole in Pitt's passing attack. The reigning Biletnikoff Award winner led college football with 17 touchdown catches last season, the ACC's most since Deandre Hopkins' 18 in 2012. 

Pitt has Jared Wayne coming back and can push the ball on the ground behind Israel Abanikanda, but there's no looking over the loss of a phenom like Addison.

17. BYU Cougars

byu football

Final 2021 ranking: No. 19

Record: 10-3

Chance to make College Football Playoff: 0.0%

Where BYU is right now: Coming off another stellar outing in which this team beat five Pac-12 opponents, including two ranked teams, among them conference champ Utah. And against Virginia after scoring 66 points. But then also losing to UAB in the bowl game

BYU returns quarterback Jaren Hall after a 2,500-plus yard outing that included 20 passing touchdowns against just five interceptions. Gunner Romney is back at receiver, too, but the Cougars need to replace Tyler Allgeier, who scored almost half this team's TDs a year ago. But another very tough schedule awaits once again.

16. Miami Hurricanes

Miami built a college football powerhouse in the 1980s, but has struggled to maintain that dominance in the 21st century rankings.

Final 2021 ranking: Unranked

Record: 7-5 (5-3 ACC)

Chance to make College Football Playoff: 8.9%

Where Miami is right now: Mario Cristobal returns to his alma mater with a great coaching staff and a solid fixture at quarterback in Tyler Van Dyke, but with some work to do everywhere else. Especially at receiver, which just lost most of its top production to the NFL.

But there's a lot of youth and promise here, especially in the secondary, which brings a lot of speed and athleticism to the fore. FPI gives The U, which was just eight combined points from a perfect ACC record last fall, a 28 percent chance to win its division this season.

15. Ole Miss Rebels

Ole Miss was aggressive in the college football transfer portal, signing former USC quarterback Jaxson Dart, among others.

Final 2021 ranking: No. 11

Record: 10-3 (6-2 SEC)

Chance to make College Football Playoff: 0.9%

Where Ole Miss is right now: The Rebs lost a ton of that offense that ranked No. 1 in the SEC a year ago (and No. 6 in college football), but scored two noteworthy transfer players in former USC quarterback Jaxson Dart and TCU running back Zach Evans.

Expect a slight step back offensively, but there's still plenty enough speed here to keep Ole Miss undefeated or at one loss heading into mid-October. This team improved defensively last season and should have six starters back, but has to restock at most positions.

14. Oregon Ducks

Oregon football transfer quarterback Bo Nix will lead the Ducks' offense in the coming college football season.

Final 2021 ranking: No. 22

Record: 10-4 (7-2 Pac-12)

Chance to make College Football Playoff: 0.8%

Where Oregon is right now: A program in transition, Oregon is coming off a 2021 season in which it seemed on the precipice of a College Football Playoff. Then came the dominoes: first, losing to Utah twice, losing coach Mario Cristobal, and then running back Travis Dye to USC.

But the Ducks also gained a lot: coach Dan Lanning, who orchestrated Georgia's suffocating defense last year, inherits linebacker Noah Sewell, and Auburn transfer quarterback Bo Nix in addition to some athletic receivers.

13. Michigan State Spartans

Michigan State wide receiver Jayden Reed at a college football game in the Big Ten.

Final 2021 ranking: No. 9

Record: 11-2 (7-2 Big Ten)

Chance to make College Football Playoff: 2.2%

Where Michigan State is right now: Kenneth Walker is gone, but Payton Thorne is back, fresh off a 3,240-yard passing season to go with 27 TDs and 10 INTs. And he'll have Jayden Reed returning at receiver after going for over 1,000 yards with 10 scores and averaging almost 18 yards per catch last fall.

But the Spartans had far and away the Big Ten's worst secondary, allowing more than 337 passing yards per game. No other B1G team surrendered more than 260, and the unit overall ranked No. 111 in the nation.

12. Arkansas Razorbacks

kj jefferson arkansas

Final 2021 ranking: No. 21

Record: 9-4 (4-4 SEC)

Chance to make College Football Playoff: 0.1%

Where Arkansas is right now: For the first time in a decade, the Hogs were a 9-win team, quite the achievement for head coach Sam Pittman in his second season at the helm of this program. Now he gets KJ Jefferson back at quarterback after a solid outing and transfer wideout Jadon Hazelwood to help replace Treylon Burks.

But the Razorbacks need to find a half-dozen new inputs on its starting defensive alignment before going up against one of the toughest schedules in college football that includes two non-conference tilts against Cincinnati and BYU.

11. NC State Wolfpack

nc state football thayer thomas

Final 2021 ranking: No. 20

Record: 9-3 (6-2 ACC)

Chance to make College Football Playoff: 0.3%

Where NC State is right now: Four points kept the Wolfpack from an undefeated mark in ACC play, a run that included a win over No. 9 Clemson and with losses at Miami and at Wake. Ten starters on defense that ranked No. 3 in the ACC last fall come back for a reunion in 2022, as does quarterback Devin Leary, a 3,400-yard passer in 2021 with 35 touchdowns against three picks.

There's a slip-up somewhere on this schedule with road dates against Clemson and then Louisville and UNC to end the season, plus a home tilt with Wake. FPI projects four losses here, which might seem harsh when looking at this roster. NC State could start 4-0 going into Clemson, and there's no Notre Dame this year.

10. Baylor Bears

baylor football big 12 rankings

Final 2021 ranking: No. 5

Record: 12-2 (7-2 Big 12)

Chance to make College Football Playoff: 1.2%

Where Baylor is right now: Dave Aranda brought Baylor from two wins to a Big 12 championship and a Sugar Bowl victory in one year's time, and has a chance to build on that work in 2022.

Blake Shapen, a 72% passer with five TDs and no picks last season, returns at quarterback, as does most of this offensive line, but Baylor has to find new inputs at receiver and running back. This defense was one of two in the Big 12 to surrender fewer than 20 points per game, and brings back most of that production.

9. Oklahoma Sooners

Oklahoma has been to four College Football Playoff games, but is yet to win a semifinal matchup.

Final 2021 ranking: No. 10

Record: 11-2 (7-2 Big 12)

Chance to make College Football Playoff: 11.4%

Where Oklahoma is right now: Maybe no other big-time program will look more different this year after losing coach Lincoln Riley and quarterbacks Caleb Williams and Spencer Rattler.

OU scored a major coaching hire in Brent Venables, which should ensure this defense will be among the nation's best. Jeff Lebby is on as OC and he gets quarterback Dillon Gabriel as a transfer: the two orchestrated a top 10 offense at UCF in 2019, but the Sooners need to do some work at receiver.

8. Michigan Wolverines

Michigan wide receiver Andrel Anthony looks to help get the Wolverines back to the College Football Playoff.

Final 2021 ranking: No. 3

Record: 12-2 (8-1 Big Ten)

Chance to make College Football Playoff: 17.8%

Where Michigan is right now: Hoping to revive some of the momentum it got last season when UM beat Ohio State, won the Big Ten, and made the CFP. Michigan could return just three defensive starters, loses a dynamic pass rush, and has to replace its top safety and two lead backs. 

But it brings back Cade McNamara and J.J. McCarthy at quarterback and plenty of promise behind RBs Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards and wideout Andrel Anthony.

7. Utah Utes

utah football pac-12 rankings

Final 2021 ranking: No. 12

Record: 10-4 (8-1 Pac-12)

Chance to make College Football Playoff: 6.3%

Where Utah is right now: Losing wideout Britain Covey is notable, but Utah returns star rusher Tavion Thomas, a thousand-yard fixture who scored 21 times a year ago, and quarterback Cameron Rising, who passed for 20 TDs with five picks.

Defensively, the Utes allowed a respectable 20.6 ppg, a number that fell to 19.1 in Pac-12 games, but lost a solid speed/physicality combo in linebacker Devin Lloyd and two safeties in Brandon McKinney and Vonte Davis.

6. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Michael Mayer, one of the best tight ends in college football, powers the Notre Dame offense.

Final 2021 ranking: No. 8

Record: 11-2

Chance to make College Football Playoff: 18.8%

Where Notre Dame is right now: A new era in South Bend after Brian Kelly bolted and the Irish picked defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman to replace him. ND brought on some important coaching additions and hopes it can get the most from its skill position players. A season-opening game at Ohio State will set the tone for the Irish this season, who could be in the playoff race with a win there.

5. Texas A&M Aggies

Texas A&M has a chance to get into the College Football Playoff rankings conversation with a strong recruiting class.

Final 2021 ranking: Unranked

Record: 8-4 (4-4 SEC)

Chance to make College Football Playoff: 1.9%

Where Texas A&M is right now: Jimbo Fisher has recruited this program into College Football Playoff contention, but it can still win or lose on any given Saturday. 

Last season was proof of that, as the Aggies both beat No. 1 Alabama but still lost four other SEC West games, including at Ole Miss by 10 last November. A&M needs to cash in on its major recruiting gains and finally throw some elbows in this division.

4. Clemson Tigers

clemson football will shipley

Final 2021 ranking: No. 14

Record: 10-3 (6-2 ACC)

Chance to make College Football Playoff: 57.4%

Where Clemson is right now: Clemson only got nine scores against 10 picks from quarterback DJ Uiagalelei last fall and ranked second-worst in the ACC in total offense while failing to surpass 27 points per game on average.

Getting things right on this side of the ball should get the Tigers back in the top 10 nationally when looking at this defense, a unit stacked with blue-chip talent like Bryan Bresee and Myles Murphy playing up front. But watch for games at Wake, against NC State, at Notre Dame, and at home to Miami.

3. Georgia Bulldogs

Stetson Bennett led Georgia to a College Football Playoff national championship and a No. 1 spot in the rankings in the 2021 season.

Final 2021 ranking: No. 1

Record: 14-1 (8-0 SEC)

Chance to make College Football Playoff: 75.1%

Where Georgia is right now: Just three starters from this national championship defense come back, though Kirby Smart's recruiting machine has ensured there's more than enough to choose from among the replacements. Not least Jalen Carter, one of the top linemen in America who comes back to anchor the interior pass rush.

And Stetson Bennett returns at quarterback, armed with the likes of Brock Bowers, Darnell Washington, and Arik Gilbert on the receiving end. Georgia has a talent edge just about everywhere, can generate pressure at the line like few teams can, and boasts perimeter speed that's hard to stop.

2. Ohio State Buckeyes

Ohio State has been a regular feature of the college football Top 25 rankings in the playoff era.

Final 2021 ranking: No. 6

Record: 11-2 (8-1 Big Ten)

Chance to make College Football Playoff: 82.7%

Where Ohio State is right now: Much of the core of what last season was the No. 1 offense in college football comes back highlighted by Heisman finalist quarterback C.J. Stroud, running back TreVeyon Henderson, and wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba.

But it was defense that cost Ohio State in statement losses to Oregon and Michigan last year; the unit should be on sounder footing with Jim Knowles coming in after he coached the No. 3 defense in America at Oklahoma State last fall, a group that also led the nation in sacks.

1. Alabama Crimson Tide

Alabama linebacker Will Anderson is arguably the single greatest player in college football, at any position.

Final 2021 ranking: No. 2

Record: 13-2 (7-1 SEC)

Chance to make College Football Playoff: 79.5%

Where Alabama is right now: Eight starters coming back on defense, including college football's leader in sacks and TFLs in linebacker Will Anderson, and Heisman-winning quarterback Bryce Young round out a customarily stacked Crimson Tide roster.

And the defending SEC champions scored some choice transfer players, too: former LSU cornerback Eli Ricks, Georgia's leading 2021 receiver in Jermaine Burton to open some lanes downfield, and Jahmyr Gibbs, the former Georgia Tech back who comes in as the nation's current active leader in total yards.

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