LOS ANGELES — Spring practices have delivered the first glimpse of how college football rosters altered by high-profile transfers and coaching changes could shape the upcoming college football season. Here are some top storylines to watch as teams prepare for the 2022-23 season:
The transfer portal should affect programs like never before
Lincoln Riley's 13 transfers into the USC program is a number that he has said will grow in the coming months, and all college football rosters will remain in flux 365 days a year until some rules are put in to bring structure to the sport's era of free agency.
Lane Kiffin, who has also worked the portal to his advantage at Ole Miss, tweeted a picture of a sweatshirt declaring him "Portal King" but joked the title should probably go to Riley.
But which teams will actually win the portal in 2022? The answer will likely start at quarterback. Here are some of the top transfers at the position this offseason:
— Caleb Williams, Oklahoma to USC: Williams showed flashes of being a star as a freshman at OU and is the best reason to think the Trojans can get back to their winning ways.
— Quinn Ewers, Ohio State to Texas: Ewers, the former top recruit nationally out of Southlake, Texas, made headlines last offseason by skipping his senior year of high school to enroll at Ohio State and begin making money off his name, image and likeness. He didn't play for the Buckeyes and came home to Texas to try to bring life to Steve Sarkisian's program. He'll have to beat out Hudson Card first.
— Jaxson Dart, USC to Ole Miss: Dart led a great USC comeback last season at Washington State, but injuries kept him from further establishing himself. Now he steps in for the departed Matt Corral.
— Spencer Rattler, Oklahoma to South Carolina: Rattler never played up to his hype for the Sooners and gets a needed fresh start in the SEC.
— Cameron Ward, Incarnate Word to Washington State: Ward was unstoppable at the FCS level and should add plenty of flavor to some classic "Pac-12 After Dark" games.
— Dillon Gabriel, Central Florida to Oklahoma: Gabriel, the Hawaiian lefty, put up big numbers at UCF and will get to toss it around in the pass-happy Big 12 under new Oklahoma offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby, who excelled under Kiffin at Ole Miss and previously ran UCF's offense during Gabriel's successful true freshman season in 2019.
— Max Johnson, LSU to Texas A&M: Johnson, the son of Super Bowl-winning quarterback Brad, will try to elevate the quarterback position at Texas A&M, which has loaded up in recruiting of late.
— Kedon Slovis, USC to Pittsburgh: Slovis regressed the last two years at USC but found a friendly landing spot at Pitt, which just won the Atlantic Coast Conference championship and returns an All-American at receiver in Jordan Addison.
— Jayden Daniels, Arizona State to LSU: As Arizona State cratered the past few years, Daniels' college career struggled to take off. Coach Brian Kelly has been great in his career with getting the most out of his quarterbacks, so this will be interesting to watch.
— Adrian Martinez, Nebraska to Kansas State: Martinez showed potential at Nebraska but could not get Scott Frost into the win column nearly enough. He could find a lot more room to run in the Big 12.
— Bo Nix, Auburn to Oregon: Nix, a former top recruit, fell out of favor at Auburn, where he followed the quarterbacking legacy of his father, Patrick. If he can limit his mistakes he will be tough to keep off the field in Eugene.
— Casey Thompson, Texas to Nebraska: Thompson ended up winning the starting job for Sarkisian, but he couldn't get the Longhorns to a winning record. That's exactly what Frost is betting he could do for Nebraska in a win-now season.
— JT Daniels, Georgia to West Virginia:Daniels has had a lot of bad injury luck at USC and Georgia. Wednesday he announced his commitment to West Virginia, where former USC offensive coordinator Graham Harrell is now calling the plays.
— Non-quarterback top transfers to watch: Running back Jahmyr Gibbs, Georgia Tech to Alabama; cornerback Eli Ricks, LSU to Alabama; wide receiver Mario Williams, Oklahoma to USC; safety Brandon Joseph, Northwestern to Notre Dame; offensive tackle Kingsley Suamataia, Oregon to Brigham Young; running back Zach Evans, Texas Christian to Ole Miss; running back Travis Dye, Oregon to USC.
We will see the early returns from 2021's wild coaching carousel
Riley is now the proud owner of a breathtaking $17 million mansion in Rancho Palos Verdes — and the caretaker of the renewed hopes and dreams of legions of Trojans fans who are ready to believe great things are once again possible.
Kelly's move from Notre Dame to Louisiana State set off an earthquake of equal magnitude, and we've all gotten to chuckle at the New Englander's attempts to ingratiate himself to Cajun culture — from trying on a new Southern accent (mah fah-mah-lay) to showing a lighter side by busting a move with recruits in videos.
Mario Cristobal leaving Oregon for Miami, his alma mater located nearby his beloved mother, is a much easier change to accept at face value.
Which of these three familiar faces in new places has the best chance of success out the gate?
Funny enough, perusing through some early top 25 lists and reviewing rosters, Oklahoma, Notre Dame and Oregon may be in better shape in 2022 than the schools their former coaches jumped to during the offseason. Of course, much of that is due to the fine work of Riley, Kelly and Cristobal, respectively.
The Fighting Irish, now led by promoted defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, should begin the season in the top 10. Notre Dame will go as far as sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner (La Mesa Helix) can take it, but he's got plenty of stability around him to keep the Irish on solid footing.
The Sooners, now led by former Clemson and Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables, were hit hard by the transfer portal, but Riley recruited so well his last few years in Norman that they're expected to recover quickly. A Big 12 championship is always the expectation, and Venables certainly could get OU back to its base level.
The Ducks, now led by former Georgia defensive coordinator Dan Lanning, still feature talent that could make up a dominant defense even without losing star defensive end Kayvon Thibodaux to the draft. Between redshirt freshman Ty Thompson and Auburn transfer Nix, Oregon has to find a better answer at quarterback than it had with Anthony Brown. ESPN's Mark Schlabach didn't seem too concerned, slotting the Ducks 12th in early 2022 rankings.
Of USC, LSU and Miami, the Trojans seem the best bet to reassert themselves quickly, given Riley's ongoing roster overhaul and the assumption that the offense will thrive under Williams. This may be dangerous thinking, but it would not be surprising to see USC start 6-0 before playing Utah in Salt Lake City in what should be the biggest Pac-12 game of the year.
The Hurricanes have an exciting young quarterback to build around in Tyler Van Dyke, and Cristobal will excel in rebuilding a broken culture in Coral Gables. But Miami's schedule — featuring trips to Texas A&M, Virginia Tech and Clemson — is much more daunting than USC's.
Kelly figures to have the highest mountain to climb in Baton Rouge. LSU has been largely left out of the top 25 chatter after back-to-back rough seasons after the Tigers' 2019 national championship run. Plus, LSU will always have to deal with Alabama, Auburn and Texas A&M within the division, and Arkansas and Mississippi have built momentum fast under Sam Pittman and Kiffin, respectively.
The road to immortality ends in Inglewood
For the first time in nine seasons, the national champion will be crowned in Southern California — on Jan. 9, 2023, at SoFi Stadium.
Trying to imagine the scene, I can't escape the memory of Clemson and Alabama playing in Santa Clara in 2019 or Florida State and Auburn at the Rose Bowl in 2014.
Can a team from outside the Southeast pose a legitimate threat to win it all this season and advance to the College Football Playoff championship game, reflecting the national passion for a sport that has become increasingly centered around one region?
It feels like a big jump to think a Pac-12 team will be there. Defending champion Utah has top 10 potential with quarterback Cameron Rising and running back Tavion Thomas returning to a team that nearly beat Ohio State in the Rose Bowl. The Utes have knocked on the door of the CFP a few times and could conceivably sneak into the top four, but do they have the top-end speed on the edges it would take to win a national semifinal? Doubtful.
USC with Riley and his band of transfers (or traitors, depending on if you're conversing with folks in the Sooner State) will be a tantalizing preseason pick for some to win the Pac-12 in Year 1, but the Trojans emerging as a national contender is probably unrealistic.
The reality is that you would not be crazy to bet your mortgage on one of Alabama or Georgia paying a visit to L.A. And we should feel fortunate if both fan bases aren't taking over the beach that week for a second consecutive Southeastern Conference battle for all the marbles.
Ohio State, with its explosive offense, restructured defense and bitterness from last season, will carry national championship expectations into the fall — and rightfully so. In a down year that featured losses to Oregon and Michigan, the Buckeyes still went 11-2 and won the Rose Bowl.
In today's college football, the question of which team will win the national championship is sadly just not that interesting. But luckily 2022 is packed with juicy subplots beyond the sport's stale upper crust that should produce intrigue every week of the season.
The encores of Southern California star quarterbacks will alter the season's trajectory
All Bryce Young (Mater Dei) did during his first season as the starting quarterback at Alabama was win the Heisman Trophy and lead the Crimson Tide to the SEC title and the CFP championship game, where he came up short against a Georgia defense that is without peer.
Young surely will be the favorite to become the first two-time Heisman winner since Archie Griffin in 1974-75. To repeat, he'll have to find chemistry with a revamped receiving corps, but Alabama won't ever lack for skill talent.
CJ Stroud (Rancho Cucamonga) was so good his redshirt freshman year at Ohio State that Ewers reconsidered sticking around Columbus to compete with him. Stroud will have the weight of Buckeye Nation on his shoulders in 2022 after Ohio State lost to rival Michigan for the first time since 2011, but he will also have the country's best group of wide receivers, led by Jaxon Smith-Njigba, who set a Rose Bowl record with 15 catches for 347 yards and three touchdowns.
There's a pretty likely scenario that will put Young and Stroud, who are friends from their days growing up here, in Inglewood to battle for a national championship. But neither is the most intriguing Southern California quarterback storyline of 2022.
DJ Uiagalelei (St. John Bosco) was supposed to be jostling with Young for the national spotlight last season as Clemson's starting quarterback. But the big-bodied dual-threat quarterback struggled to ignite Clemson's passing attack after the departure of Trevor Lawrence, and the Tigers did not win the ACC for the first time since 2015.
Uiagalelei will have to hold off talented true freshman Cade Klubnik to earn his chance at redemption.
While we're here, we may as well take a peek at September
There's nothing like looking ahead to the best nonconference matchups to stay sane in the coming months:
— WEEK 1
Notre Dame at Ohio State
Utah at Florida
Georgia vs. Oregon (Atlanta)
Cincinnati at Arkansas
LSU vs. Florida State (New Orleans)
West Virginia at Pitt (JT Daniels vs. Kedon Slovis)
— WEEK 2
Alabama at Texas
Tennessee at Pitt
Baylor at BYU
Iowa State at Iowa
— WEEK 3
Penn State at Auburn
Miami at Texas A&M
California at Notre Dame
BYU at Oregon
Michigan State at Washington
Oklahoma at Nebraska