Years from now, when there are only two conferences and high school juniors are signing $10 million dollar deals, college football will look very different.
The sport you know and love is changing quickly. The evolution came without much warning, through the transfer portal and NIL. Before that, the College Football Playoff and a huge infusion of television money sent us on this path.
Regardless of the conference size or the sponsorship amounts, however, Saturdays are still sacred. Waking up to a full Saturday slate is still one of the greatest moments of the year.
You will still chase on Hawaii. You will still embrace kickers being wildly inaccurate, home underdogs thriving off the environment and the imperfections that make college football great.
Yes, the sport is changing. And some of the changes, if we’re being honest, we could do without.
But make no mistake about where this is all heading: to the couch, to the parking lot soaked in warm domestic beer, to the sportsbook or your favorite betting app. It’s heading back to the places you always consume college football, because these are the proper ways to consume it.
Change all you want, college football -- we’ll come along for the ride.
The five biggest storylines entering the season
1. Welcome back, elite quarterbacks
This is not a knock on the 2021 crop of QBs; that narrative has been exhausted. With only one quarterback selected in the top 73 picks, however, it’s clear that NFL teams were unimpressed by last year’s class. That is not the case heading into 2022.
Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud (+ 250 to win the Heisman Trophy) and Alabama’s Bryce Young (+ 350) are poised to be the face of the sport and, fittingly, are the favorites to win the Heisman.
But there is also a ton of depth at the position. Caleb Williams (+ 800), just a true sophomore, should erupt at USC. (More on the Trojans in a moment.)
Dillion Gabriel (30-1) might be the most underappreciated addition of the offseason for Oklahoma. Tyler Van Dyke (35-1) looked fabulous at the end of last year, and he could be in for a massive year for Miami.
The list is deep. Quinn Ewers (35-1), Anthony Richardson (40-1) and many others are legitimate breakout candidates. The position is loaded, and more are likely to join the party.
2. Can the champs deliver an encore?
The Georgia defense was the definition of elite last fall. The offense, while secondary to the other side of the ball, was loaded with talent. After watching 15 players from its national championship team find a home in the NFL draft, however, it’s reasonable to question what happens next.
The Bulldogs are still + 380 to win the title, behind only Alabama and Ohio State. The defense is still ripe with talent, headlined by edge rusher Nolan Smith.
I’m more curious to see what happens at quarterback. Stetson Bennett likely has the upper hand after winning the national championship in somewhat emphatic fashion, although it’s not a given. Brock Vandagriff, a former five-star recruit, could push him (as could true freshman Gunner Stockton).
The talent is there, but so are the questions. Oh, and Alabama is loaded. (Shocking.)
3. Is 2022 as top-heavy as it seems?
Despite the violent conference movement, transfer portal and coaching carousel, the number of true national championship contenders feels much smaller than it has in some time.
Yes, CFB is entering a volatile phase.
No, that isn't altering expectations in 2022.
There is Alabama (+ 180), Ohio State (+ 320), Georgia (+ 380) and Clemson (+ 1000).
After that, the field -- and odds -- opens wide up.
If you like a team like Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Michigan or Texas, you will be able to get them at 40-1 or higher. For playoff contenders -- which they all are if things go well -- this feels like a decent bargain.
But as we saw with Cincinnati during the College Football Playoff last season, making the final four isn’t enough. You must make the playoff, which is difficult, and then you must slay whatever dragon stands in your way.
Given the talent levels of the favorites mentioned above, it won’t be easy. As we’ve seen before, however, college football tends to do weird, college football-y things.
There’s plenty of value to be had if you can pick the right teams squarely in the middle of the pack.
4. Behold the glorious transfer portal
Recruiting and the NFL draft are no longer the only avenues you need to be aware of during the dormant months. These days, the transfer portal might be the most potent resource of them all.
In terms of meaningful additions this offseason, a few teams stand out.
Alabama loaded up on both offense and defense, adding true difference-makers to a team already overflowing with talent.
USC, Miami and LSU all added meaningful players, as did Texas and Oklahoma. Even Nebraska, which found a way to lose every close game it played last year, did an overhaul in the portal by acquiring more than a dozen players.
This isn’t just a theme for 2022; it’s a theme from this point forward. Become one with the portal.
5. Lincoln Riley’s maiden California voyage
The move to the Big Ten will steal some shine, but Riley’s Pac-12 stay, no matter how short it might be, is one of the most intriguing components of the 2022 season.
Although they have won 10 games just twice in the past eight years, the Trojans are 30-1 to win the national title, behind only five other teams.
Those odds, frankly, feel excessive.
That said, they play in the right conference, have the right quarterback, are loaded at skill positions and should be a treat to watch on offense. The defense is another story, hence the mild pessimism.
Will we be able to have reasonable discord about USC this season?
Given the hype and expectations, it seems unlikely. Although given the massive uptick in recruitment poised for this year and beyond, this conversation will likely continue.
The 10 games you need to see this year
Every college football game should be consumed. That is an important disclaimer.
Ranking the best games of the year is always difficult, largely because meaningful football games don’t fully take shape until the middle of the year. With that out of the way, here my initial rankings of the top 10 games of 2022.
It’s worth noting that meaningful out-of-conference games, especially those played on a college campus, are always given more weight in this exercise.
1. Alabama (-16.5) vs. Texas A&M (Oct. 8)
Jimbo Fisher vs. Nick Saban. Before realignment grabbed the steering wheel, this was the primary plot line. Throw in A&M’s win over Alabama last year that the Aggies parlayed into a historic recruiting class, along with the offseason war of words and we have ourselves a delightful scenario. Tuscaloosa will be electric.
2. Alabama (-14.5) at Texas (Sept. 10)
Yes, we’re going double ‘Bama off the top. A rematch of the 2010 BCS National Championship Game will headline Week 2. Oh, and the football game will be played in Austin at 11 a.m. local time, where it will likely be 105 degrees.
3. Ohio State (-14.5) vs. Notre Dame (Sept. 3)
Speaking of unbelievable football environments, enter Columbus, Ohio. The Buckeyes’ loaded offense will welcome Notre Dame to town to begin the season, and the spread is north of two touchdowns. Marcus Freeman’s first regular season game as Notre Dame’s coach is a tall task.
4. Ohio State (-13.5) vs. Michigan (Nov. 26)
The first rivalry staple is always must-see TV. After Michigan finally conquered the Buckeyes, however, Ohio State is likely thinking of revenge. Homefield will certainly be huge for Ohio State, as it normally is in this series. I cannot get enough of this football game.
5. Georgia (-17) vs. Oregon (Sept. 3)
The spread, like many meaningful Week 1 lines, is robust. Still, watching Oregon and Georgia tussle is certainly something we welcome. Beyond seeing a remade Georgia roster, former Bulldogs DC Dan Lanning draws his old team in his very first game. I’m in.
6. Arkansas (-6.5) vs. Cincinnati (Sept. 3)
From playoff participant to near-touchdown underdog, Cincinnati’s season should be fascinating. It begins on the road against a quality opponent with a quality coach powered by a really intriguing QB. I have had this game circled since December.
7. Utah (-3.5) vs. USC (Oct. 15)
For now, these two teams will power the Pac-12. Until that changes, and it will, this is likely to be one of the more intriguing games played all season. Utah has a massive home field advantage, and USC will likely need to conquer the Utes if it plans to match the preseason hype.
8. Utah (-2) at Florida (Sept. 3)
Speaking of Utah, here is another big one for them. It seems strange seeming Florida as an underdog at home, although it feels, well, right. Bill Napier was a quality hire, although the roster certainly needs some more. Florida QB Anthony Richardson is a fascinating talent, and he is poised to have a say on this outcome.
9. Oklahoma (-3) vs. Texas (Oct. 8)
A new coach, two new QBs and two rivals planning exits to the SEC. Yes, the Red River Rivalry delivers. Last year, Texas produced an epic meltdown that led to a season-long meltdown. This year, Brent Venables will get his first taste of this home-grown hate as head coach.
10. Texas A&M (-7.5) vs. Miami (Sept. 17)
Call it the NIL Bowl, because both of these teams have it rolling on the recruiting front thanks to massive booster buy-in. Texas A&M feels like it has the more talented roster, although Miami is poised to surge after closing out last year strong.
Five (non-superstar) names to know in 2022
1. Will Levis (Kentucky, QB)
We do this every year. We take a quarterback with an NFL build, place him in and around the top 10 of every way-too-early NFL mock draft and then let the madness unfold. Levis has become a hugely popular name in NFL circles, and he has the build and gifts to warrant some of the buzz. But can he live up to it? If you’re a believer, you can get him at 50-1 to win the Heisman.
2. Cade Klubnik (Clemson, QB)
If you follow recruiting, you know this name well. Clemson’s five-star true freshman QB enrolled early, and he is likely to be a fascinating piece to the Tigers’ puzzle. The moment D.J. Uiagalelei struggles at all next fall, the chants for Klubnik will begin. Although he hasn’t played a down yet, he’s still 60-1 to win the Heisman. Stay tuned.
3. Devon Achane (Texas A&M, RB)
When the ball is in his hands, there might not be a more exciting player in all of college football -- there also might not be a faster player. Achane averaged seven yards per carry and scored nine touchdowns in a reserve role last year. With Isaiah Spiller gone, however, Achane is likely to get a much bigger workload for a team looking for a breakthrough. That is good news for all of us.
4. Isaiah Neyor (Texas, WR)
Amid the transfer madness, Texas landed a huge commitment in Neyor. The 6-foot-3 wideout left Wyoming for Austin. Last year, he caught 44 passes, 12 touchdowns and averaged nearly 20 yards per catch. Playing alongside Xavier Worthy in an offensive poised to put up points, Neyor could be in line for a monster season.
5. Jim Knowles (Ohio State, DC)
Of the coordinator hires made this past offseason, none felt more impactful than the addition of Knowles at Ohio State. The former Oklahoma State defensive coordinator was one of the primary reasons behind the Pokes’ playoff push in 2021. He will now be expected to have a similar, immediate impact in Columbus. The offense is loaded. If the defense is anything close to “good,” Ohio State will be an incredibly tough team to beat.