Despite title, Georgia doesn't lead early look at the Top 25 for the 2022 college football season
Led by the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and the nation's most dominant defensive player, Alabama is USA TODAY Sports' pick for No. 1 in our way-too-early glimpse at next season's Top 25.
After knocking off the Crimson Tide to claim the program's first national championship since 1980, Georgia comes in at No. 3. The two SEC juggernauts sandwich No. 2 Ohio State, which has loads of skill talent on offense to go with a new defensive coordinator.
Rounding out the top 10 are Clemson, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Utah, Michigan, Notre Dame and Iowa.
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1. Alabama (2021 record: 13-2)
The Crimson Tide will bring back the nation's top offensive player in quarterback Bryce Young, the top defender in linebacker Will Anderson and, of course, Nick Saban himself. There is also reason to believe the offensive and secondary line will be improved based on the depth and experience set to return in 2022. The schedule includes road trips to Texas, Mississippi and LSU but isn't intimidating. At this point, Alabama is the safest pick to start and end next season No. 1.
2. Ohio State (11-2)
The Rose Bowl gave an indication of what the Buckeyes' offense will look like without receivers Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson. Don't expect any slowdown from a unit that ranked No. 1 in total offense and scoring. C.J. Stroud should again contend for the Heisman Trophy and receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba might join him in New York. Changes on the defensive staff illustrate the concerns with that side of the ball. Denzel Burke was a bright spot in the secondary as a freshman, but there are needed improvements everywhere. Ohio State has recruited well, so the players are there.
3. Georgia (14-1)
There's the question of what Georgia does at quarterback. Does JT Daniels return for another season? Is the answer in the transfer portal? There will also be some big shoes to fill on each level of the defense, as the Bulldogs could have four or more starting defenders go in the first two rounds of this year's draft. But the conveyer belt of talent coming into Athens means there will be more than enough talent to offset those losses and keep Georgia right at or near the top of the SEC and the FBS.
4. Clemson (10-3)
This slot could end up being a reach: Clemson has lost both coordinators and will have a major staff shake-up for the first time under Dabo Swinney; all this while the Tigers have to complete a total overhaul of an offense that hit a low point in 2021. This is still one of the top programs in the country, however, and on paper the best team in the ACC. Will Clemson bounce back and make a return trip to the playoff? That might depend on who plays quarterback — incumbent starter DJ Uiagalelei or incoming freshman Cade Klubnik.
5. Texas A&M (8-4)
After a down season defined by key injuries and one major upset of Alabama, the Aggies are poised to take the next step under coach Jimbo Fisher. Look for A&M to overcome the loss of multiple key starters (defensive lineman DeMarvin Leal, offensive lineman Kenyon Green, tight end Jalen Wydermyer) with the help of several top-rated recruiting classes, including the nation's top group in the 2022 cycle. There are also options at quarterback, including LSU transfer Max Johnson. But it'll have to be done against a very stout schedule of nine Power Five opponents.
6. Oklahoma (11-2)
Transition season doesn't even begin to describe the changes in Norman. Lincoln Riley is gone after his fifth season as coach and heralded freshman quarterback Caleb Williams is in the portal. Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables arrives with a different approach that should make the Sooners better at stopping opponents. There are enough pieces to quickly become one of the top units in the Big 12 with Jalen Redmond and Woodi Washington among the leaders. The challenge to continue the program's offensive success starts with new coordinator Jeff Lebby. Dillon Gabriel, his former quarterback at Central Florida, arrives in the transfer portal. Marvin Mims leads what should be a strong receiving unit. The offensive line has several vacancies, but has been an area of disappointment and it could improve under the physical approach of Venables.
7. Utah (10-4)
Blessed with the return of many of its key components from this season's first Pac-12 title winners, the Utes can set their sites on the College Football Playoff as an achievable goal. Cam Rising lost one game as the starting quarterback prior to the Rose Bowl and he'll have an opportunity to fully unlock his potential with a healthy offseason. There are several contributors on both lines returning along with running back Tavion Thomas and defensive back Clark Phillips.
8. Michigan (12-2)
Will Jim Harbaugh be back on the sidelines in Ann Arbor? It's worth wondering if the former San Francisco 49ers coach leaps back to the NFL after finally breaking through with a Big Ten championship in 2021. If he comes back, the Wolverines are again the biggest threat to OSU and a possible playoff team. (If not, all bets are off.)
9. Notre Dame (11-2)
How promoted defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman changes tack after taking over for Brian Kelly will determine where the Irish go in 2022 and beyond. Freeman's energy and positivity will be needed with his first regular-season game coming at Ohio State. Quarterback is a mystery. Tyler Buchner appears to be the front-runner but don't discount the transfer portal because experience is needed. The running back and receiver groups also are concerns as is raising the level of play on the offensive line. Freeman's defensive acumen will help after a shaky secondary performance in the Fiesta Bowl, and there's help needed at linebacker.
10. Iowa (10-4)
The defending Big Ten West champs may not have the overall talent and explosiveness to reach the playoff but are again among top contenders for the New Year's Six. Iowa has the makings of a filthy defense that will be extremely strong in the secondary and at linebacker. It will again be solid up front on offense, has a potential All-America tight end in Sam LaPorta and can roll out multiple solid options in the running game. The question marks are in the passing game. The Hawkeyes may be hampered once again by subpar quarterback play.
11. Wisconsin (9-4)
It's time for Graham Mertz to develop into the type of quarterback who can lead the Badgers to a Big Ten title. Heralded as one of the top recruits at the position in school history, he's been too inconsistent for a team that needs more than its strong running game and elite defense to win at the highest level. Mertz is entering his fourth year in the program and third as starter. The positives for the Badgers start with running back Braelon Allen, who ran for 100 yards in eight of the final nine games of his freshman season and looks to be the latest star at the position for the Badgers. The defense that easily ranked No. 1 in yards allowed will take some hits in the back seven, however, it should again be another elite unit that can serve as the foundation for a team looking to make a playoff run.
12. Oklahoma State (12-2)
It's rare that a top Power Five program has the advantage of a four-year starter at quarterback, yet that is what Spencer Sanders provides the Cowboys. He's had an up-and-down career and needs to avoid mistakes to break though and win the Big 12. A number of super seniors are expected to join Sanders, though replacements are needed at running back and receiver. The defense that served as the strength of the team loses coordinator Jim Knowles to Ohio State along with its top players.
13. Brigham Young (10-3)
With Jaren Hall entrenched at quarterback, California transfer Christopher Brooks set to take over at running back and the line perhaps the strongest unit on the roster, the offense could be even better after ranking in the top 10 nationally in yards per play. That should help BYU take on a schedule that includes five Power Five teams (Baylor, Oregon, Notre Dame, Arkansas, Stanford) and goes without a bye until Nov. 12. But the Cougars need more depth on defense to make a run at the top 10.
14. Baylor (12-2)
You know what you will get from the Bears every week and that is what makes them so hard to beat. It starts on defense. The unit finished second in the Big 12 in scoring defense. The offense remains a work in progress, but brings back starting quarterback Gerry Bohanan, who is more productive running than throwing, and freshman Blake Shapen, the starter in the team's conference championship game defeat of Oklahoma State after Bohanon was injured. There will be many new faces on both sides of the ball, however, there shouldn't be a dropoff.
15. Wake Forest (11-3)
One breakthrough season may lead into another for coach Dave Clawson and the Demon Deacons. With quarterback Sam Hartman and almost the entire supporting cast set to return, Wake's offense will light up scoreboards and engineer another push for the ACC Atlantic crown. The defense remains a huge concern after giving up at least 40 points in five of the final eight games of 2021. But given this offense, even a mediocre defense would be enough for Wake to win 10 games in the regular season.
16. Houston (12-2)
The torch in the American Athletic, at least temporarily, will be passed to the Cougars this season after Cincinnati takes a step back in 2022. Clayton Tune threw for 3,546 yards and 30 touchdowns, so the offense looks in great shape at quarterback. Nathaniel Dell provides an elite target and Alton McCaskill ran for 16 touchdowns during his freshman season. The defense has several key contributors back, giving Dana Holgorsen's team an opportunity to run the table with a schedule that doesn't boast overwhelming non-conference opposition.
17. Michigan State (11-2)
After a huge second season with the Spartans, Mel Tucker looks firmly ensconced with the program after signing a major extension that presumably keeps him in East Lansing for the foreseeable future. A blowout loss at Ohio State illustrated the concerns about a shaky secondary that must be addressed this offseason. On offense, quarterback Payton Thorne and receiver Jayden Reed give Michigan State two standouts to rely on. Wisconsin transfer Jalen Berger could follow in the footsteps of departing running back Kenneth Walker and have a big season. Eleven wins may not be realistic but it should be another good season for Tucker.
18. Oregon (10-4)
New coach Dan Lanning takes over the most impressive roster in the Pac-12 and the offseason favorite to win the North division. But there are pretty substantial questions to answer before taking on a schedule that kicks off with a bang against Georgia (in Atlanta) and BYU before moving to conference play. Is Lanning ready for the job? Who will play quarterback? Will Lanning’s background on defense help the Ducks overcome several key losses, led by star end Kayvon Thibodeaux?
19. Arkansas (9-4)
There's no better recent hire in college football than Sam Pittman. The coach has taken the Razorbacks from winning just one conference game in three seasons to seven wins in his first two campaigns. Wins against Texas, Texas A&M and Penn State, plus a close loss at Alabama, prove their record was not a fluke. Now the expectation is for Arkansas to keep building on the success. KJ Jefferson did almost everything for the offense, leading the team in running and passing. The run game looks again to be the backbone of the offense, while Jefferson has lost top target Treylon Burks. Several experienced players depart on defense and how quickly that unit jells against a difficult schedule will tell whether nine wins are possible in 2022.
20. Penn State (7-6)
A loaded recruiting class arrives on campus amid a staff shakeup and big losses on both sides of the ball. On defense, PSU must replace seven of the top 11 tacklers — look for a bunch to go in the 2022 NFL draft — while the offense loses star receiver Jahan Dotson. After going 11-11 in the past two seasons, the Nittany Lions can use the influx of talent. But that group's impact may not be truly felt until 2023 or later. Without a major improvement from the offensive line and a breakthrough year from veteran quarterback Sean Clifford, the Nittany Lions resemble a team good enough to finish in the top 20 but not good enough to take home the Big Ten.
21. Coastal Carolina (11-2)
Bringing back quarterback Grayson McCall will help this offense stay among the most productive in the FBS even with star tight end Isaiah Likely off to the NFL. With multiple veteran starters gone, McCall's leadership and experience will help the Chanticleers take on a rapidly improving Sun Belt and non-conference games against Army and Virginia. For the third year in a row, CCU is one of the top teams in the Group of Five.
22. UCLA (8-4)
Much of this inclusion is based on the return of quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson. The Bruins have the services of an elite signal caller with experience in Chip Kelly's system that could also have back RB Zach Charbonnet and a veteran offensive line. The big questions are on defense. Can that unit improve enough to push UCLA to the top of the Pac-12?
23. Kansas State (8-5)
The Wildcats will have two big pieces on offense heading into coach Chris Klieman's fourth season. One is running back Deuce Vaughn, a preseason All-America candidate. The other is Nebraska QB transfer Adrian Martinez, who brings extensive experience to the table as a fifth-year senior. Kansas State will need to avoid the extended lulls in play that defined an eight-win season against a schedule that includes Missouri and Tulane in non-conference play and five Big 12 games on the road (Oklahoma, Iowa State, TCU, Baylor, West Virginia).
24. Kentucky (10-3)
Mark Stoops simply overcomes expectations with the Wildcats and next year should be no exception. Will Levis threw for 24 touchdowns in his first season with the program, and his return gives them one of the better quarterbacks in the conference. The defense, which typically drives the success for Stoops, should again be talented and could be bolstered by the return of some super seniors.
25. Boise State (7-5)
The Broncos beat five eventual bowl teams in coach Andy Avalos' first season, including three teams that won 10 or more games. Boise State lost five games by a combined 34 points. It's not hard to imagine 7-5 quickly turning into nine or more wins. But Boise will have little room for error against a non-conference schedule of Oregon State, UTEP and BYU before facing off against a very deep Mountain West.