A memorable football season ended with Georgia dethroning Alabama to win a national championship for the first time since 1980. The Bulldogs and their fans earned a long celebration period, but everyone else might already be thinking about the 2022 season.
Knowing next season is still many months away, why not have some fun? Things can — and will — change, but here's an early, E-A-R-L-Y look at preseason college football rankings for the 2022 season. These rankings are mine and mine alone.
1. Alabama (13-2 in 2021, lost to Georgia in the CFP title game)
Look, when you bring back perhaps the two best players in the nation (Heisman QB Bryce Young, should-be-Heisman candidate LB Will Anderson) led by the coach with the most titles, you're going to start No. 1. If anything, losing to Georgia in the national championship makes it easier to pick the Tide to begin here. Any time Alabama doesn't win it all, it kind of makes it due.
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2. Ohio State (11-2, beat Utah in the Rose Bowl)
The Buckeyes finally lost a conference game under Ryan Day, falling to 23-1. Don't expect Ohio State to lose two in a row to rival Michigan. OSU outscored Utah in the Rose Bowl and has an obvious Heisman challenger in QB C.J. Stroud. Receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba will be one of the hottest names going into the season after his 347 receiving yards in the Rose Bowl. Still, the defense must get better after allowing 87 total points the last two games.
3. Georgia (14-1, CFP national champions)
The Bulldogs finally beat 'Bama (and Nick Saban), winning their first title since 1980. The NFL will take a big bite out of the Bulldogs, but Kirby Smart and his staff have been recruiting like crazy. DC Dan Lanning is now the head coach at Oregon, too. Can the offense led by QB Stetson Bennett IV — if he stays and keeps his job — take on more of a load should a young defense need time?
4. Texas A&M (8-4, withdrew from Gator Bowl due to COVID-19 positive cases, injuries)
Injuries slowed down the Aggies in 2021, but A&M still upset then-No. 1 Alabama in a thriller. This season, D.J. Durkin takes over as DC and will have to keep a strong defense from falling off much. But LSU transfer QB Max Johnson is now in College Station, plus Jimbo Fisher's elite recruiting will move A&M into an expected challenger in the SEC West.
5. Notre Dame (11-2, lost to Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl)
The hype would have been even more if the Irish held on against Oklahoma State and ended their BCS/New Year's Six woes. But Marcus Freeman brings a ton of excitement regardless as he goes into his first full season as Notre Dame's coach. Northwestern DB Brandon Joseph (nine interceptions the last two years) will work with DE Isaiah Foskey and LB Jayson Ademilola and others to form a strong defense. The biggest hurdle will be the schedule: Ohio State, BYU, Clemson and USC are all on it.
6. Utah (10-4, lost to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl)
It stung to lose the Rose Bowl like that, but the Utes likely erased any doubts about their ability to compete on a big stage. QB Cameron Rising should lead a dangerous attack, working with RB Tavion Thomas and his 21 rushing touchdowns. Some key contributors are gone, but the Utes will start 2022 as the clear Pac-12 favorite. Remember, Utah was likely one win away (Pac-12 title game) from making the Playoff in 2019.
7. Clemson (10-3, beat Iowa State in the Cheez-It Bowl)
It says a lot about a program that winning 10 games and a bowl game is considered a disappointment. But it's clear that times are changing at Clemson, at least on the sideline. DC Brent Venables is now leading Oklahoma and OC Tony Elliott is Virginia's new coach. The Tigers could be the ACC favorites — they beat eventual conference runner-up Wake Forest by 21 in a "down year" — but can D.J. Uiagalelei hold off Cade Klubnik for the starting quarterback job?
8. Oklahoma State (12-2, beat Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl)
The Cowboys were overlooked for much of the season before coming to the cusp of a CFP bid prior to falling to Baylor in the Big 12 championship. That underdog approach is when Mike Gundy's program is most dangerous. QB Spencer Sanders is back to lead the offense, which should be better. But the Cowboys lost DC Jim Knowles to Ohio State.
9. Michigan (12-2, lost to Georgia in the College Football Playoff semifinals)
The Wolverines finally got over the Ohio State hurdle, but losses to Michigan State and a blowout loss to Georgia in the CFP semifinals show Michigan still has plenty of work to do. DC Mike Macdonald will miss Heisman runner-up DE Aidan Hutchinson and LB David Ojabo — who wouldn't? On offense, we'll be watching the expected quarterback battle between Cade McNamara and J.J. McCarthy.
10. Wake Forest (11-3, beat Rutgers in the Gator Bowl)
Dave Clawson and the Deacons continue to thrive, going from unranked to 8-0 and playing in the ACC Championship Game. With QB Sam Hartman back after passing for 4,228 yards and 39 touchdowns, Wake Forest should again score a ton of points. The defense needs to get better — and it should be. The biggest concern may be how the Deacons handle expectations. There is no surprising everyone again.
11. Oregon (10-4, lost to Oklahoma in the Alamo Bowl)
New DC Dan Lanning takes over after helping to build a dominant Georgia defense. Auburn's Bo Nix comes to Eugene to possibly take over at quarterback, which should help fight growing pains there. On defense, LB Noah Sewell (114 total tackles) will lead. The Ducks open the season against defending champion Georgia.
12. Baylor (12-2, beat Ole Miss in the Sugar Bowl)
Dave Aranda worked wonders in 2021, as the Bears upset Oklahoma State to win the Big 12 championship and then topped Ole Miss to win the Sugar Bowl. A veteran offensive line will be strong, as will returning QBs Gerry Bohanon (27 total touchdowns) and Blake Shapen (three touchdowns in the Big 12 title game).
13. Pitt (11-3, lost to Michigan State in the Peach Bowl)
QB Kenny Pickett finished third in the Heisman voting, but the Panthers will replace him with USC transfer Kedon Slovis (7,576 career passing yards). He'll certainly love throwing to Jordan Addison, the Biletnikoff Award winner with his 1,593 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns.
14. Michigan State (11-2, beat Pitt in the Peach Bowl)
A run to the top 3 suddenly ran into humbling losses to Purdue and Ohio State, but Mel Tucker and the Spartans regrouped to win their last two games. The biggest loss is RB Kenneth Walker III, who rushed for 1,636 yards and won the Doak Walker Award. QB Payton Thorne will likely be asked to do more. Defensively, the Spartans will get better against the pass.
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15. NC State (9-3, Holiday Bowl vs. UCLA canceled)
COVID issues with UCLA kept NC State from adding to its official win total, but the Wolfpack appear primed for a huge 2022. QB Devin Leary (35 passing touchdowns) will be protected by a strong offensive line. On defense, NC State will bring back almost everyone of note, including LB Payton Wilson, who missed most of the season due to injury.
16. Houston (12-2, beat Auburn in the Birmingham Bowl)
After Cincinnati controlled the AAC the last two seasons, Houston might think 2022 is its time to win the American. WR Nathaniel Dell (1,329 receiving yards) will be QB Clayton Tune's favorite target again, while RB Alton McCaskill rushed for 16 scores last season. DC Doug Belk will have to work with some new faces in important spots.
17. Arkansas (9-4, beat Penn State in the Outback Bowl)
In only his second season, Sam Pittman had the Razorbacks back in the polls and winning bowl games. QB KJ Jefferson is back after passing for 2,676 yards and rushing for 664 more. Oklahoma transfer WR Jadon Haselwood is a nice addition. LB Bumper Pool will be back on defense. But Arkansas faces Cincinnati, Texas A&M and Alabama in three of their first five games.
18. Kentucky (10-3, beat Iowa in the Citrus Bowl)
Mark Stoops and the Wildcats won double-digit games for the second time in four years, crushing rival Louisville and winning a bowl game along the way. QB Will Levis returns and will throw to transfer WR Tayvion Robinson while getting help on the ground from RB Chris Rodriguez Jr. (1,379 yards). A very strong recruiting class also helps.
19. Iowa (10-4, lost to Kentucky in the Citrus Bowl)
The Hawkeyes rode turnovers and a strong defense to as high as No. 2 in the polls before going 4-4 to finish the season. If Iowa is to return to the Big Ten title game and compete for more, it'll need a better offense, though DB Riley Moss and the rest of the defense will again be strong. Iowa averaged a little more than 300 yards per game — opponents outgained the Hawkeyes by 25 yards per game.
20. Oklahoma (11-2, beat Oregon in the Alamo Bowl)
The Sooners played in close games seemingly every week but impressed in the bowl game. New coach Brent Venables will have to deal with major changes to the roster, though UCF transfer QB Dillon Gabriel is now a Sooner. But Oklahoma is Oklahoma — the Sooners expect to compete for titles every year.
21. USC (4-8)
The Trojans will be one of the more interesting teams to watch thanks to new coach Lincoln Riley. He had Oklahoma in the Playoff hunt every year, making it three times. It's highly unlikely USC can do that well in Year 1, but the Trojans could reverse that record and go 8-4. This ranking could change depending on the quarterback situation. Bringing in Alex Grinch as DC will help.
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22. BYU (10-3, lost to UAB in the Independence Bowl)
The Cougars went 5-0 against Pac-12 teams on their way to posting consecutive double-digit win seasons. BYU has one more season as an independent before joining the Big 12. It could be a big one, if the Cougars can shine against a schedule that has Baylor, Oregon, Notre Dame, Arkansas and Stanford. The defense brings back a ton after a disappointing end to the season, while the offense should be formidable.
23. Wisconsin (9-4, beat Arizona State in the Las Vegas Bowl)
The Badgers rallied from a 1-3 start to almost make the Big Ten title game, with a loss to rival Minnesota in the regular-season finale keeping them out. Wisconsin likely won't lead the nation in defense again (239.1 yards per game), not with LBs Leo Chenal and Jack Sanborn among those gone. QB Graham Mertz will have to take the next step.
24. Tennessee (7-6, lost to Purdue in the Music City Bowl)
Josh Heupel had the Vols go from 3-7 to 7-6 and should have the program in great shape for another step forward in 2022. QB Hendon Hooker (2,945 passing yards, 31 touchdowns, 3 interceptions) will be throwing to a great receiving group headlined by Cedric Tillman (1,081 receiving yards). If the defense gets better, Tennessee will really be in business.
25. Cincinnati (13-1, lost to Alabama in the CFP semifinals)
As long as Luke Fickell is on the sidelines here, it makes no sense to write off the Bearcats. But how can Cincinnati possibly top 2021? The most significant loss is QB Desmond Ridder, and the stout defense is going to need some new leaders. Thankfully, the Bearcats should be tough on the offensive line. As long as Fickell is here, it makes sense to give Cincinnati the benefit of the doubt and expect them to challenge in the AAC.