The college football season is finally here.
After a news-filled offseason, we got our first taste of the action with Week 0 over the weekend. But now Week 1 is here.
And before the action on the field really gets underway, let’s dive in on the biggest on-field storylines entering the 2022 season.
1. Georgia goes for the repeat
Kirby Smart finally got the best of Alabama and his old boss Nick Saban and led Georgia to its first national championship since 1980. What can the Bulldogs do for an encore?
Georgia had a historically good defense and lost 15 players in all to the NFL draft. How will the Bulldogs fill the void left behind by all of that talent? Well, that’s what recruiting is for. Smart and his staff have been recruiting at an elite level for years and it’s expected that the next wave of blue-chip talents will step in and be ready to produce.
Still, it would be a surprise if UGA didn’t take somewhat of a step back on defense. Can the offense pick up some of the slack? Stetson Bennett is back at quarterback and he has a strong group of receivers and the best tight ends room in the country to work with.
Will it be enough for a repeat?
2. Alabama out for revenge
Alabama beat Georgia in the SEC title game but fell to the Bulldogs in the national championship game. With so much talent returning, Alabama has Georgia in its sights and enters the 2022 season as the favorite to win it all.
That talent is highlighted by quarterback Bryce Young, who won the Heisman Trophy to cap off his brilliant season last fall. The Crimson Tide also returns All-American linebacker Will Anderson, who had 34.5 tackles for loss and 17.5 sacks. Those two are the headliners on arguably the most talented roster in college football.
Last season marked Alabama’s seventh appearance in the national championship in an eight-year span, and Nick Saban characterized it as “kind of a rebuilding year.” If that team was rebuilding, then how good can the 2022 Crimson Tide be?
3. Ohio State and Michigan battle for Big Ten supremacy
Michigan knocked off rival Ohio State for the first time since 2011 and did so in dominating fashion, 42-27. It was a momentous occasion for Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines, who went on to win their first outright Big Ten title since 2003 and clinch a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Michigan rushed for 297 yards in that win, showcasing how far Ohio State’s defense had fallen. OSU had one of the top offenses in the country, and that offense could be even better this season. But the Buckeyes need to show drastic improvement on defense if they want to return to the top of the Big Ten and win a national title. To head that effort, OSU brought in Jim Knowles from Oklahoma State to run the defense.
And for Michigan to defend its Big Ten crown, it has to replace two All-American pass rushers, Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo. The Wolverines are loaded on offense but have yet to decide on a starting quarterback.
These two teams could have a major impact on the CFP race, especially with their showdown in the final week of the regular season.
4. Can Clemson bounce back?
Was the 2021 season the start of a downturn for Clemson? Or was it just a hiccup? The Tigers won 10 games but it was a considerable step back for what has been a perennial playoff contender under Dabo Swinney.
Clemson lost a combined three games in the three previous seasons but ended up going 4-3 over its first seven games in 2021. During that stretch, the Tigers averaged a measly 15 points per game against FBS competition with quarterback DJ Uiagalelei struggling mightily.
The defense, however, was tremendous and is again expected to be one of the nation’s best this season. But will Uiagalelei and the offense find a way to turn things around? The issues went beyond just Uiagalelei, but if he continues to struggle, five-star freshman Cade Klubnik is waiting in the wings.
If Uiagalelei falters, the cries for Klubnik will come quickly.
5. Lincoln Riley’s move creates new eras at USC, Oklahoma
Lincoln Riley shocked the college football world by leaving Oklahoma for USC.
Riley, who had a 55-10 record and won four Big 12 titles in five seasons at Oklahoma, hit the ground running to revamp the USC roster after the Trojans went 4-8 in 2021. With QB Caleb Williams, WR Jordan Addison and many others in the fold, expectations are sky-high for the Trojans. Will USC live up to the hype in Riley’s first season?
Meanwhile, Oklahoma turned the page on the Riley era by hiring Brent Venables, the longtime defensive coordinator at Clemson. Before he went to Clemson, Venables spent 13 seasons on Bob Stoops’ staff at OU, so he’s no stranger to Norman. Like the Trojans, the Sooners will have a lot of new contributors in 2022, including QB Dillon Gabriel.
Will all of those new faces come together and rise to the top of the Big 12?
6. How will Brian Kelly fit at LSU? What’s next for Notre Dame?
The other big shocker of the coaching carousel was Brian Kelly’s decision to leave Notre Dame for the lure of the SEC at LSU. Kelly, a Massachusetts native who spent the majority of his coaching career in the Midwest, isn’t a seamless cultural fit in Baton Rouge, but he knows how to win.
Kelly won at least 10 games in six of his last seven seasons at Notre Dame and now inherits an LSU program on the heels of back-to-back disappointing seasons following the magical run to the national championship in 2019. Kelly came close but never won a national title at Notre Dame, and expectations are always high when it comes to a program like LSU. There is pressure to win immediately. But if there are early growing pains for Kelly in Baton Rouge, will the LSU community be patient?
Meanwhile back in South Bend, Marcus Freeman takes over as Notre Dame’s head coach. Freeman, a fast riser in the industry, was Kelly’s defensive coordinator last fall and previously made a name for himself at Cincinnati. Is he ready for a massive job like Notre Dame?
He’s got a heck of a foundation, but can Freeman elevate the Irish? So far, he has boosted the program’s recruiting with top five-ranked classes in 2023 and 2024. The bigger questions for Freeman are how he’ll fare during game situations. The Irish open the 2022 season at Ohio State in a significant early test for the new Notre Dame regime under Freeman’s leadership. Oddsmakers at BetMGM have the Irish as heavy underdogs at +17.
7. Mario Cristobal goes home to Miami
Another high-profile coaching move was Mario Cristobal’s decision to go home.
After four seasons at Oregon, Cristobal left Eugene to become the head coach at Miami, his alma mater. With Cristobal leading the charge, Miami is going all-in on returning to national prominence. Can that happen in Year 1 for Cristobal?
Expectations are through the roof, but how will the fan base react to a solid, not great season? Cristobal is a relentless recruiter and is going to bring plenty of talent to Miami, but there may not be enough there right now for the Hurricanes to compete for an ACC title right away. One reason for optimism is sophomore quarterback Tyler Van Dyke, but Cristobal’s got work to do with this roster and the schedule is tough.
8. Can Texas A&M take the next step?
The Aggies snapped an eight-game losing streak to Alabama last year but that triumphant win came in a disappointing 8-4 season. If the Aggies want to take the next step and move past Alabama in the SEC West, they need to find a way to be more explosive on offense. That’s especially true after Jimbo Fisher’s war of words with Nick Saban this offseason.
Fisher was paid big bucks by A&M to turn the Aggies into an elite program, not just a good one. Now in his fifth season in College Station, Fisher has a 34-14 overall record with a 21-12 mark in SEC play at A&M. The recruiting has been excellent, but that collection of blue-chip prospects still needs to help the Aggies break through into a legitimate national championship contender.
9. Can the Pac-12 end its CFP drought?
The CFP era has not been kind to the Pac-12. The conference has not had a member reach the playoff since 2016, when Washington was the No. 4 seed and got dominated by Alabama.
Will that drought end in 2022?
History shows that an undefeated or one-loss conference champion will have the best chance to do so. According to the oddsmakers, USC (+200), Utah (+225) and Oregon (+300) are the three favorites to win the conference crown.
Utah is the defending champion after it trounced Oregon twice late last season, including in the conference title game. Oregon is entering its first season under former Georgia defensive coordinator Dan Lanning and could have the conference’s best defense. The Utes will also be strong defensively and return QB Cam Rising and RB Tavion Thomas.
10. Can Texas and other big-name programs rebound?
USC is the most obvious candidate for a bounce-back season, but what about Texas? The Longhorns went 5-7 in 2021, Steve Sarkisian’s first season as head coach. The Longhorns started the year 4-1 before losing six of seven down the stretch.
UT has stars at running back (Bijan Robinson) and receiver (Xavier Worthy) and will help former top recruit Quinn Ewers at QB. The Longhorns, like always, will attract plenty of attention this season.
Other prominent programs looking to rebound in 2022 include Florida, LSU, Penn State and Washington.
Nebraska also fits into this category but the Huskers’ season got off to a miserable start with a loss to Northwestern in Ireland on Saturday.