Here we go: Yardbarker’s 2022 Preseason College Football Top 25. All statistics in parenthesis are from 2021, unless noted otherwise.
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Will this be another case of smoke and mirrors when it comes to the Texas program in 2022? There was plenty of hype surrounding the Longhorns in 2021, during Steve Sarkisian’s season as coach, then they went 5-7. And while Bijan Robinson (1,127 rushing yards, 11 touchdowns) might be the nation’s top rusher and there is plenty of receiving talent, the Longhorns need to play better defense after yielding a whopping 39.4 points per game last season — and losing at home Kansas. This might be the most unpredictable squad in the country.
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Are the Razorbacks ready to take the next step? That is, making enough waves in the SEC to possibly be a division contender. In 2021, Arkansas went 9-4 for its first winning season since 2016, and won a bowl game. This season, the Razorbacks host Alabama and LSU, and should feel confident of beating Texas A&M in Arlington, Texas, for a second consecutive season. Nearly all of Arkansas’ offensive line returns, and quarterback KJ Jefferson (2,676 yards, 24 touchdowns, four interceptions; team-leading 664 rushing yards) is a force at 6-foot-3, 242 pounds. Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see if a defense that has 14 players with a combined 114 career starts can better the 23 points it allowed per game in 2021.
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BYU will be looking to post three straight seasons of double-digit wins for the first time since 2007-’09. However, the task to win another 10 games might be difficult with Baylor and Arkansas on the schedule, plus a neutral site contest versus Notre Dame and a visit to Boise State. Cal transfer Chris Brooks (1,734 career rushing yards, 14 touchdowns; 50 receptions, seven receiving touchdowns) bolsters the backfield; meanwhile, according to ESPN, 16 of 17 BYU returning defensive players have at least 250 snaps.
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The good news for Houston is quarterback Clayton Tune (3,544 yards, 30 touchdowns, 10 interceptions) and top receiver Nathaniel Dell (90 receptions, 1,329 yards, 12 touchdowns) are among six starters returning from an offense that averaged 36 points from last season’s 12-2 squad. The even better news: the Cougars don’t have to play Cincinnati or UCF again this regular season. Expectations are pretty high for Houston to seriously contend for an American Athletic Conference title.
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A return to the College Football Playoff or another undefeated run through the regular season doesn’t seem likely for Luke Fickell’s Bearcats. Not without stars like Desmond Ritter, Jerome Ford, Alec Pierce, Ahmad Gardner or Coby Bryant. That said, Cincinnati does return 13 starters who are looking to become household names, like tight end Josh Whyle (54 receptions 685 yards and,12 touchdowns over the past two seasons). Meanwhile, the Bearcats should remain the class of the American Athletic Conference, with an Oct. 29 matchup at UCF the game to watch in the league.
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The top-line buzz is coach Mario Cristobal leaving Oregon for the familiarities of Miami. Whether morally right or wrong, the impact of the move can potentially be huge when it comes to recruiting and sustainability. While a national title doesn’t seem immediately in the cards, that “U” swagger could see a resurgence. Quarterback Tyler Van Dyke (2,931 yards, 25 touchdowns, six interceptions) has some talented skill players to work with, thus putting the Hurricanes seriously in the mix for an ACC Coastal Division crown.
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18. Michigan State
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Even with roughly nine returning starters on defense, and arguably one of the Big Ten’s top receivers in Jayden Reed (148 career receptions, 2230 yards, 21 touchdowns in 33 games), Michigan State’s chances of overwhelming success could be hindered by the fact it plays in perhaps the nation’s toughest division. It wouldn’t be a stretch to think the Spartans can start 5-0, but then Ohio State awaits. They also draw a crossover with Wisconsin, and must play at rival Michigan and a Penn State squad that’s expected to be better than last season’s 7-6.
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Iowa was good enough to win the Big Ten West Division by starting and finishing the regular season on a strong note. While the Hawkeyes’ offense could still battle with inconsistency in 2022, a defense that allowed an average of 19.2 points brings back the likes of leading tackler Jack Campbell (143 tackles) and defensive back Riley Moss (39 tackles, four interceptions — two returned for a touchdown). Mark down that Nov. 12 home matchup with Wisconsin as the likely game to watch in the Big Ten West.
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Perhaps no team in the nation will be under the national microscope more than USC. With Lincoln Riley in charge and elite transfers in quarterback Caleb Williams (Oklahoma), Biletnikoff Award-winning receiver Jordan Addison (Pittsburgh) and veteran running back Travis Dye (Oregon), the Trojans, at least on paper seem capable of winning at least 10 games for the first time since 2017. Though, nobody should be talking about a College Football Playoff berth, just yet. That said, there needs to be defensive improvement after allowing an average of 34.2 points in Pac-12 play last season.
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Perhaps the Badgers are still kicking themselves for allowing the Big Ten West title to slip through their hands a year ago. Well, it’s about moving forward, and Wisconsin should be poised to get it done in 2022. Braelon Allen (1,268 yards, 12 touchdowns) could very well end up being the Big Ten’s top rusher. Meanwhile, linebacker Nick Herbig (64 tackles, nine sacks, 14 1/2 tackles for loss) is the leader of a relatively experienced defense that ranked among the best in the nation, allowing an average of 16.1 points and 239.1 total yards.
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Don’t tell the Panthers they can’t repeat as ACC Coastal Division champions despite losing stars Kenny Pickett and Jordan Addison. Pitt has reached the “we don’t rebuild, we reload” phase in the program’s history. Ex-USC quarterback Kedon Slovis (7,576 career passing yards, 58 touchdowns, 24 interceptions) is trying to restart his collegiate career. Defensively, linemen Habakkuk Baldonado (nine sacks) Calijah Kancey (seven sacks), linebacker SirVocea Dennis (87 tackles, four sacks) and safety Brandon Hill (81 tackles) lead a unit that held eight opponents to 23 or fewer points in 2021.
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13. Oklahoma State
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The Cowboys won the regular-season Big 12 title with one loss, then blew a chance to win the league’s title game. Still, a 12-2 finish is certainly something to build on while doing so with quarterback Spencer Sanders (2,839 yards, 20 touchdowns, 12 interceptions; 668 rushing yards, six rushing touchdowns) leading the way. The belief is that the Big 12, in its current formation, is there for the taking. The Cowboys return only 11 starters and play at fellow contenders Baylor and Oklahoma, so the task gets more formidable in 2022.
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12. North Carolina State
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For as well as N.C. State has fared in recent years (10 winning seasons in the last 12), the program’s most recent 10-win campaign was in 2002. However, 17 starters return from last year’s 9-3 team, including 10 from a defense that allowed an average of 19.6 points. Linebacker Drake Thomas (team-leading 100 tackles, six sacks, three interceptions) and defensive back Tanner Ingle (82 tackles) are two of the best in the business that most casual college football fans probably have not heard about.
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Baylor closed the 2021 season with five consecutive wins, including the Big 12 title game and a bowl triumph over Ole Miss. That’s certainly something to build on, and the Bears should be in the hunt for the league title again this year. Defensive tackle Siaki Ika (four sacks) and linebackers Matt Jones (48 tackles, 5 1/2 tackles for loss) and Dillon Doyle (83 tackles, 7 1/2 tackles for loss) all return from a stellar unit that allowed an average of 18.3 points, and 71 total over the final five games.
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Just because Lincoln Riley and Caleb Williams (not to mention former Heisman candidate Spencer Rattler), doesn’t mean the Sooners are a thing of the past. Baylor and Oklahoma State will again challenge for the Big 12 crown. However, the Sooners get both at home, where they’ve lost three times since 2015. Brent Venables bided his time until the right coaching job came open, and Oklahoma is still a place to thrive. UCF transfer quarterback Dillon Gabriel (8,037 career passing yards, 70 touchdowns, 14 interceptions) is an excellent veteran to run the show, but Oklahoma’s overall success likely depends on the play of a defense that held only three opponents to fewer than 20 points last year.
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Mario Cristobal might have bolted to Miami, but new coach, and former Georgia defensive coordinator, Dan Lanning could be a star in the making. The Pac-12, in its current formation, isn’t the Ducks to dominate like it once was, but they are the clear frontrunners in North Division — where Washington looks to back to get back to prominence, and the rest are not contenders at this point. The addition of Auburn quarterback Bo Nix (7,251 career passing yards, 39 touchdowns, 16 interceptions in three seasons at Auburn) is intriguing. Meanwhile, linebacker Noah Sewell (114 tackles, 8 1/2 tackles for loss) and defensive end Brandon Dorlus (seven tackles for loss) are two of the country’s top defenders.
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Let’s keep out the Jimbo Fisher-Nick Saban comedy-hour antics on the back burner and see if the Aggies are truly capable of beating Alabama on the road — and winning the SEC West. Texas A&M beat the Tide in 2021 at home, and returns some worthy talent, and welcomed former LSU quarterback Max Johnson (2,815 yards, 27 touchdowns, six interceptions) into the mix. Plus, the Aggies get Miami, Ole Miss, Florida and LSU all at home, so the possibility for a truly special season exists.
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Clemson’s run of six straight ACC championships ended in 2021, when they didn’t even win the Atlantic Division. However, the Tigers won their final six contests, including a bowl game, to go 10-3, and are poised to return to national prominence in 2022. Quarterback DJ Uiagalelei (2,246 passing yards, nine touchdowns, 10 interceptions) has plenty of experience under his belt to find some consistency. Meanwhile, the Tigers held four opponents to fewer than 10 points last season, and defensive linemen Bryan Bresee and Myles Murphy (eight sacks) are stars of that unit. A Nov. 5 date at Notre Dame could have profound CFP implications.
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Coming off their first Pac-12 title, the Utes are favored to repeat as overall champions because they return a host of talent from last season’s 10-4 team, and the league is probably going to be a two-team race. Cameron Rising (2,493 yards, 20 touchdowns, five interceptions; 499 rushing yards, six rushing touchdowns might be the most underrated signal-caller in the nation. Meanwhile, Tavion Thomas ran for 1,108 yards and a league-best 21 touchdowns last season. Defensively, 300-pounder Junior Tafuna (4 1/2 sacks) is a potential star in the making and Utah might have the conference’s best secondary with Clark Phillips (63 tackles) and Cole Bishop (54 tackles, nine tackles for loss) anchoring that unit.
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The best-case regular-season scenario for Michigan is that it will be undefeated when visiting Ohio State on Nov. 26. Yes, the Wolverines have to go to Iowa, but they are still loaded with quarterback Cade McNamara (2,576 passing yards, 15 touchdowns, six interceptions), running back Blake Corum (962 yards, 11 touchdowns) and linebacker Junior Colson (61 tackles). Getting over the CFP hump was a big deal for the Wolverines, but getting back will be a chore considering that other school with the Scarlet and Gray is poised for revenge.
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Good riddance to Brian Kelly. This is Marcus Freeman’s team, and the former Irish defensive coordinator has plenty of talent around him. Linebacker JD Bertrand (101 tackles), defensive end Isaiah Foskey (11 sacks) and Northwestern-transfer defensive back Brandon Joseph — are among the top players in the nation. Meanwhile, tight end Michael Mayer has caught 1113 passes for 1,290 yards and nine touchdowns in two seasons. Even if Notre Dame opens with a loss at mighty Ohio State, its CFP hopes wouldn’t be completely dashed. The Irish are good enough to run the table from there, with games versus Clemson and USC as the only likely real hurdles.
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The Bulldogs are trying to become the first team since Alabama in 2011 and ’12 to repeat as national champions. At the very least, Georgia should win the SEC East, which looks to extend an 11-game league regular-season winning streak. The Bulldogs return 55 letter winners, and seven starters on offense, from its championship squad. Quarterback Stetson Bennett (2,862 yards, 29 touchdowns, seven interceptions) is likely undervalued, but the Bulldogs are an elite team that could be on the verge of sustaining that status.
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Regarding top-line star power, Ohio State can seriously rival anyone in the nation. C.J. Stroud (4,435 passing yards, 44 touchdowns, six interceptions), TreVeyon Henderson (1,248 rushing yards 15 touchdowns) and Jaxon Smith-Njigba (95 receptions, 1,606 receiving yards, nine touchdowns) are All-American-caliber offensive performers. Meanwhile, defenders Ronnie Hickman (100 tackles, two interceptions) and Zach Harrison (four sacks) are two of the Big Ten’s best. The Buckeyes will be challenged right off the bat by Notre Dame, and Michigan again has lofty expectations. However, anything less than a CFP berth would be a 2022 disappointment for Ohio State.
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It’s a national championship or bust for the Crimson Tide. Then again, isn’t that always the case with Nick Saban’s program? Yes, but especially when Alabama didn’t win it all the year before. Like Georgia, if things fall into the place, the Tide likely won’t need to win the SEC to earn a CFP spot. And if it didn’t that would qualify as a shock. Reigning Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young (4,872 passing yards, 47 touchdowns, seven interceptions) and the nation’s top defender in edge star Will Anderson Jr., (17 1/2 sacks; 34 1/2 tackles for loss) are just two key reasons why Alabama opens the season as our preseason No. 1. A wealth of more talent and depth also helps.
Jeff Mezydlo has written about sports and entertainment online and for print for more than 25 years. He grew up in the far south suburbs of Chicago, 20 minutes from the Mascot Hall of Fame in Whiting, Ind. He’s also the proud father of 11-year-old Matthew, aka “Bobby Bruin,” mascot of St. Robert Bellarmine School in Chicago. You can follow Jeff at @jeffm401.