The 2022 college football season is less than two weeks away, with Week Zero looming Aug. 27. Before things kick off on the gridiron, Sports Illustrated is revealing its preseason top 25 ranking.
1. Alabama: If 13–2 was a “rebuilding year,” heaven help all Crimson Tide opponents this time around. Alabama has the best player in college football in linebacker Will Anderson Jr. leading a ferocious defense. It has the returning Heisman Trophy winner in quarterback Bryce Young. It has the GOAT coach in Nick Saban. Just need some offensive linemen and skill players to step up, and it will be dominance as usual.
2. Ohio State: This is the best offensive team in the nation, probably by a wide margin. There are potential first-team All-Americans in the passing game (quarterback C.J. Stroud and receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba), the running game (TreVeyon Henderson) and the trenches (tackle Paris Johnson Jr.). The Buckeyes’ defense was not great last year, especially at the point of attack, which is why Ryan Day grabbed coordinator Jim Knowles from Oklahoma State and is paying him $1.9 million a year. Improve on that side of the ball, and Ohio State could win it all.
3. Georgia: Kirby Smart’s Sabanesque recruiting prowess makes it possible to lose five defensive players in the first round of the draft and still be considered a consensus top-three team. The Bulldogs have underrated sixth-year quarterback Stetson Bennett, a proven wideout corps, the best tight end group in the nation and some powerful offensive linemen. They won’t be historically great on defense this season, but you know they’ll still be good. Get by Oregon in the opener, and it could be smooth sailing through the first two-thirds of the schedule.
4. Michigan: Coach Jim Harbaugh had this to say in July about his quarterback conundrum: “Cade McNamara is going to be really tough to beat out for the starting quarterback job. J.J. McCarthy is going to be really tough to beat out for the starting quarterback job.” Someone will be beaten out, but the position is in very good hands. So is the rest of the offense, with big-play potential all over the place and a very good line. There are obvious holes to fill in the pass rush, and there are new coordinators on both sides of the ball. But a soft September should allow the Wolverines to grow into contender status thereafter.
5. Utah: If Kyle Whittingham can get his team out of the gate more quickly, this could be a season to remember for the Utes. In its first four games of the year from 2018 to ’21, Utah was 9–7. Thereafter, Utah was 24–7. This year’s opener, at Florida, looms especially large. The Utes have experience and talent on offense, led by quarterback Cameron Rising and running back Tavion Thomas, and they’re always solid defensively. This is the Pac-12’s best hope for a return to the College Football Playoff for the first time since ’16.
6. Notre Dame: Is this too high for a team with a new head coach and a new starting quarterback? Probably. But everyone after the top three has question marks. The proven commodities on the Fighting Irish roster include some big-time talents: tight end Michael Mayer, center Jarrett Patterson, defensive end Isaiah Foskey, middle linebacker JD Bertrand and Northwestern transfer safety Brandon Joseph. The season-ending injury to receiver Avery Davis in preseason camp takes away a big-play threat.
7. Clemson: This is a new chapter of sorts for Dabo Swinney, who for the first time in a decade will not have trusted assistants Brent Venables and Tony Elliott on his staff. Swinney also must figure out whether quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei is the phenom who flashed as a freshman or the disappointment we saw as a sophomore. This much seems certain: The Tigers should once again be a nasty defensive unit, especially up front, where end Myles Murphy and tackle Bryan Bresee have first-round NFL talent.
8. Texas A&M: There is one certainty in College Station: Jimbo Fisher has talent on his roster. Whether that talent is ready to produce at a level that makes the Aggies national title contenders is the pressing issue. Do they have a big-time quarterback? Can new defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin maintain the good work done by the departed Mike Elko? Which members of the nation’s No. 1 freshman class can crack the lineup? How ugly will it be for Fisher when A&M goes to Alabama on Oct. 8? Answers arriving soon.
9. USC: No team worked a more radical revamp in the offseason than the Trojans. They acquired a rock-star new coach, new standout quarterback, new star running back and multiple new star receivers. Lincoln Riley is talking boldly: “We didn’t come here to play for second; we are not wired that way. We came here competitively to win championships, win them now and to win them for a long time.” Excitement for USC football has skyrocketed accordingly. The hard part is fixing a bad defense and lackluster offensive line—areas where quick revamps don’t happen often. USC’s 6.37 yards allowed per play was 112th nationally last year.1
10. Oklahoma: The Sooners were the most dramatically impacted program by USC’s offseason moves, losing their coach and quarterback and a talented young receiver, among other things. The new era in Norman starts with Venables in his first head coaching job and UCF transfer QB Dillon Gabriel running the offense. Oklahoma fans feeling spurned by Riley’s departure have already declared the program better off, anticipating a return to more physical football and stronger defense.
11. North Carolina State: Year 10 for Dave Doeren brings with it more excitement than the Wolfpack have generated in a long time. (Guarded excitement. When it’s been 43 years since your last conference title, fans have an acquired fatalism.) Led by star quarterback Devin Leary and 10 returning starters on defense, NC State is as loaded as it will ever be. Does it have enough to challenge Clemson? It’s been 20 years since the Pack won in Death Valley; they visit Oct. 1.
12. Michigan State: Mel Tucker won the transfer portal last season, particularly at the running back position with Kenneth Walker III becoming a star after arriving from Wake Forest. He’s restocked that position through the portal again, with Jarek Broussard (Colorado) and Jalen Berger (Wisconsin) coming in. The Spartans have a productive pass-and-catch combo in QB Payton Thorne and receiver Jayden Reed, friends since middle school. The defense has to improve on the back end after giving up the most passing yards per game in the nation.
13. Oklahoma State: Quarterback Spencer Sanders had one of the more dramatic game-to-game turnarounds in recent memory to close last season, going from a four-interception debacle against Baylor in the Big 12 championship game to a four-touchdown, 496-yard shredding of Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl. Sanders is back with the usual array of weapons in Mike Gundy’s offense. The Cowboys’ best defense in years lost a ton, including coordinator Jim Knowles, and their two biggest games are on the road: Baylor on Oct. 1 and Oklahoma on Nov. 19.
14. Miami: After coming up soft several times last year, the Hurricanes got a jolt of fire with the arrival of new coach and glory-days alum Mario Cristobal from Oregon. He’s put together an impressive staff and inherits the very talented Tyler Van Dyke as his quarterback. Miami has to improve running the ball, and on defense must get better in the red zone and in takeaways. Cristobal got rid of the program’s turnover chain, perhaps because it wasn’t getting much use—The U produced only 11 turnovers last season, tied for 119th nationally.
15. Oregon: With Cristobal out, the Ducks went replacement shopping in the SEC and hired Georgia defensive coordinator Dan Lanning—who, in turn, brought in an SEC quarterback via the portal in Bo Nix from Auburn. He will operate behind an offensive line that returns all five starters. Still, the strength of the team could be the defensive front seven, which features linebackers Noah Sewell and Justin Flowe and end Brandon Dorlus. Flowe, a former top-10 national recruit, made 14 tackles in the season opener last year before being lost for the year due to injury.
16. Iowa: The Hawkeyes won 10 games last season despite being 13th in the Big Ten in total offense. They did this the way they always do things—holding a plus-12 turnover margin, throwing sensible passes to tight ends and running backs, committing the fewest penalties per game in the league and very efficiently punting 82 times. If Spencer Petras improves at quarterback and a new bell-cow running back emerges, everything else is in place for another Ferentzian season of fundamental soundness. It’s only boring if it doesn’t work.
17. Houston: Dana Holgorsen’s reputation is all offense, all the time, but the product of the Air Raid generation fielded a team in 2021 that ranked sixth nationally in total defense. Coordinator Doug Belk, 34, could be a hot commodity on the head coaching market after this season. Combine that unit with an offense led by 7,900-yard career passer Clayton Tune and burner receiver Nathaniel “Tank” Dell, and the Cougars may have what it takes to dethrone Cincinnati in the American Athletic Conference.
18. Baylor: The Bears won the Big 12 last year, but that did not stop coach Dave Aranda from shaking up the QB position: He elevated sophomore Blake Shapen to the starting spot over incumbent Gerry Bohanon. Shapen was very impressive in late-season performances while Bohanon was injured and could further enliven a passing attack that ranked eighth in the 10-team Big 12. Expect Baylor to be strong again on both sides of the line of scrimmage—the Bears averaged 2.06 more yards per rush than they allowed and had 26 more sacks than they allowed.
19. Cincinnati: Nine Bearcats were selected in the draft, the final validation of a transformational group that elevated a non–Power 5 team to the CFP Promised Land. What do they do for an encore? Show that the program is built to last. Luke Fickell had a banner hanging at preseason camp that read, “Just be us.” The message: Do the things Cincinnati has done while winning 44 games the last four seasons. The offensive line is intact, which will help whoever is named the starting quarterback, Evan Prater or Ben Bryant. Consistent recruiting and player development will guarantee that Cincinnati remains solid defensively.
20. Wake Forest: The Demon Deacons were much higher in this ranking before the nonfootball medical situation that sidelined star quarterback Sam Hartman last week. Hartman is out indefinitely, but coach Dave Clawson said he will be back this season. Could his return be in time for Wake’s home showdown with Clemson on Sept. 24? We’ll see. For now, Mitch Griffis—who has completed four of 15 college passes in two seasons of light duty—is getting starting reps.
21. BYU: After consecutive double-digit-win seasons, the Cougars are on the verge of becoming an annual top-25 program again. Kalani Sitake’s team has 15 of its top 16 tacklers returning from a year ago, plus quarterback Jaren Hall and an experienced receiving corps. NFL scouts are intrigued by Hall, a good athlete with a quick release who still has to make strides in reading defenses.
22. Kentucky: Speaking of quarterbacks who intrigue the league: Will Levis fits that bill as well. The task for Levis this season will be showing he can light up the best opponents and not just the weak spots on the Kentucky schedule—his 2021 efficiency rating was 90 points higher against non–Power 5 opponents than those in the P5. The Wildcats historically are never ranked preseason but have earned a new level of respect (from everyone but the school’s men’s basketball coach).
23. UCLA: Chip Kelly had a breakthrough in Year 4, posting his first winning record in Westwood. Whether the Bruins can increase last season’s eight-win total likely depends on a rebuilt defense that must replace nine starters and has a new coordinator. The offense is in good hands with veteran quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson (8,700 yards career total offense) and running back Zach Charbonnet (nearly 2,000 yards career rushing). The schedule is user-friendly, with no Power 5 nonconference opponents.
24. Tennessee: If the Volunteers can win at Pittsburgh on Sept. 10 and LSU on Oct. 8, the annual rivalry game with Alabama could mean something for the first time in a long time. The Crimson Tide come to Knoxville on Oct. 15, and Tennessee could be undefeated at that time. Quarterback Hendon Hooker thrived in his first season with Josh Heupel, and he is surrounded by capable skill players and a veteran line. Strides still need to be made defensively, where the Vols’ 273 yards allowed per game passing was their most since 2012.
25. Purdue: If you want a candidate for a Kenny Pickett–esque senior season leap, check out Boilermakers QB Aidan O’Connell. He was a big reason why Purdue won five of its last six games in 2021, and coach Jeff Brohm is always willing to throw the ball around the yard. The only thing that might hamper O’Connell is whether Purdue’s receiving corps takes a step back. The Boilers’ defense was much improved last year but loses first-round rush end George Karlaftis. Purdue gets an immediate statement opportunity, opening at home on a Thursday night against Penn State.