College News & Analysis

Way-too-early 2022 college football top 25 rankings

There’s still some time left for college football players to swap teams via the transfer portal, but now that the major dust has settled as the spring season comes to a close, it’s officially time to give an early preview of the 2022 college football season.

Below are my top-25 teams in college football four months away from the Week 0 kickoff, headlined by Nebraska versus Northwestern in Dublin, Ireland. Please note that this is not reflective of PFF’s ELO power ranking.

1. ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE

There’s an argument to be made that Alabama has the best offensive and defensive player in college football with quarterback Bryce Young and edge defender Will Anderson Jr. Young tied for the highest PFF grade (92.2) among FBS quarterbacks in 2021, showcasing elite processing and playmaking ability when knocked off rhythm. Considering he was a true sophomore in his first year as a starter, that’s incredible. Anderson, meanwhile, leads the FBS in pressures generated (81) since 2020, and he did that as an underclassman. 

Head coach Nick Saban went out and plucked a couple of All-American caliber players out of the transfer portal with running back Jahmyr Gibbs and cornerback Eli Ricks. Transfer wide receiver Jermaine Burton may not have elite play on his resume, but the former Georgia product looks like a promising breakout for 2022. 

The only thing in the way of this team avenging their 2021 national title loss is the offensive line. Left tackle Evan Neal was the only offensive lineman on the Tide’s roster in 2021 who earned a 70.0-plus single-season pass-blocking grade, and he’s now off to the NFL. In replacement, Alabama brought in Vanderbilt transfer Tyler Steen, but he has yet to crack a 70.0 pass-blocking grade in three years playing in the collegiate ranks.


2. OHIO STATE BUCKEYES

Ohio State is losing two wide receivers to the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft in Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave, but they still are going to have one of the most explosive offenses in college football next fall. Quarterback C.J. Stroud got off to a shaky start in 2021 before turning a big corner in Week 5. From that point forward, no quarterback in the country earned a higher PFF grade, as he was far more accurate, a better decision-maker and more comfortable when things started to break down. Returning with Stroud is the best wide receiver in the FBS, Jaxon Smith-Njigba, who earned a 91.7 PFF grade in 2021. After that, there’s a slew of promising breakout candidates at the position, including Marvin Harrison Jr., Julian Fleming and Emeka Egbuka.

Oh, and let’s forget about their new look defense led by former Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles. There are plenty of promising breakout candidates on that side of the ball, too, such as 2021 top recruit Jack Sawyer on the edge.


3. GEORGIA BULLDOGS

An absurd amount of elite talent understandably left Georgia for the NFL after the team won the national title. That Bulldog defense was the best PFF has ever seen, and it boasted first-round-caliber talent all over the place. It’s not going to be easy to overcome all of the losses, but if any staff can do it, it's this one.

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart hasn’t been shy about the team’s weaknesses during spring practice — namely, receiver and cornerback. Smart even said that in the last seven years, his team has never been this thin at those positions. Still, this shouldn't be reason for panic quite yet. Georgia still returns one of the best safeties (Christopher Smith), slot corners (Tykee Smith) and cornerbacks (Kelee Ringo) in the country. The Bulldogs lack depth, but at the top, they have All-American talent. Christopher Smith was a top-three graded safety in the SEC in 2021, Tykee Smith was the highest-graded slot corner in the country with West Virginia in 2020 before missing 2021 with Georgia, and Ringo — a former five-star recruit — earned a solid 74.5 grade as a redshirt freshman in 2021.

Don’t forget about interior defensive linemen Jalen Carter, who ranked first at the position in the Power Five in PFF pass-rush grade in 2021 and is one of a few players who can challenge Will Anderson Jr. as college football's best defender.

Wide receiver is definitely an issue, but Georgia's tight end room is the best in the country with Brock Bowers, Arik Gilbert and Darnell Washington. For an offense that likes heavy personnel, this can help ease lack of depth in wide receiver room.


4. CLEMSON TIGERS

Clemson will go as far as its defense will take it. The Tigers' defensive unit is stacked, especially along the defensive front. With edge defenders Myles Murphy and Xavier Thomas in addition to interior defensive linemen Bryan Bresee and Tyler Davis, their defensive line is going to be in the conversation for the best in the nation. Last year’s defense finished top five in expected points added (EPA) allowed last year, and there’s a good chance Clemson holds onto a top spot in 2022 despite defensive coordinator Brent Venables' departure.

Clemson's offense didn’t have nearly the same amount of success last year and was the key reason for the team's first sub-10 win regular season since 2015. The passing offense went from 12th in the Power Five to 58th in passing efficiency year-over-year. Quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei struggled to overcome his accuracy woes and turned in a 64.8 passing grade for the season. If Uiagalelei plays at that same level, the ACC may be out of Clemson's hands once again. That is, unless Swinney and Co. make the big decision to pivot to five-star true freshman quarterback Cade Klubnik.


5. MICHIGAN WOLVERINES

Last year, Michigan's defense, led by edge defender Aidan Hutchinson, piloted the team to a Big Ten Championship and College Football Playoff berth. With the record-breaking pass-rusher off to the NFL and young talent rising on the opposite side of the ball, the offense is likely going to be the key to Michigan remaining highly competitive.

Michigan's offense is headlined by speedy running back Blake Corum, who turned in an elite 91.1 rushing grade serving as second-fiddle to Hassan Haskins in 2021. Alongside him is pass-catching back Donovan Edwards, tight end Erick All and a deep receiving corps that includes Ronnie Bell, Andrel Anthony, Cornelius Johnson, A.J. Henning and Roman Wilson. As good as that arsenal of weapons is, the quarterback position needs to improve in 2022. 

Cade McNamara was serviceable, but he couldn't put the team on his back. He has a limited arm that hinders the team's downfield passing capabilities, and his 75.0 passing grade last season backs that up. On the other hand, five-star true sophomore J.J. McCarthy has a ceiling that can place this team among the best in the nation. He has the arm talent to lead an explosive passing offense and is also a high-level athlete. McCarthy saw some action last year as a true freshman and shined in both facets. Five of his 10 deep passing attempts were deemed a big-time throw by PFF, and he squeaked out just one turnover-worthy play on 66 dropbacks. On the ground, the 6-foot-3, 197-pound quarterback picked up seven explosive runs of 10 or more yards from 25 attempts — most of which were from designed attempts. He can simply make throws that McNamara can’t while also offering more in the designed run game.


6. TEXAS A&M AGGIES

Taking quarterback out of the equation, the Aggies roster is College Football Playoff worthy. However, there are issues at the quarterback position. There’s an ongoing quarterback battle between Haynes King and LSU transfer Max Johnson, but neither of the two has proven to be a quality level starter. On the bright side, the offense does have one of the most electric running backs in the country in Devon Achane

Achane was an explosive play waiting to happen in the A&M backfield last year, as he converted 20.8% of his runs into 10-plus-yard gains and 37.7% into a first down or touchdown, which ranked second and fourth overall, respectively, among Power Five backs. Considering he is also an All-American track star for the Texas A&M track and field team, his big-play ability shouldn’t be much of a surprise. He clocked a 20.20-second outdoor 200-meter time a couple of weeks ago, which is tied for the third-best in the world so far in this calendar year.


7. UTAH UTES

Quarterback Cameron Rising was one of the biggest surprises of the 2021 season. Despite taking just seven dropbacks his first three years with the team — two of which were a turnover-worthy play by PFF’s charting — he broke out in 2021 and was one of the best quarterbacks on the West Coast. Rising earned an 88.3 PFF grade from Week 6 on last year, sporting an impressive 18-to-6 big-time throw to turnover-worthy play ratio in the process. He has one of the best tight end duos in the country at his disposal with Brant Kuithe and Dalton Kincaid, who ranked fourth and seventh, respectively, on PFF’s top returning tight ends list.

The defense lost off-ball linebacker Devin Lloyd, but it has a leader stepping in his place with cornerback Clark Phillips III, who has legitimate Thorpe Award potential. Phillips took a massive step forward midway through his 2021 campaign. Over his last six games, the 2020 No. 51 overall recruit was the highest-graded outside corner in the country.


8. USC TROJANS

USC is one of the biggest boom-or-bust teams of the 2022 college football season. With a new staff and several major additions and losses from the transfer portal, this team is going to be completely different from this past year. Finding continuity will be key, but the biggest deciding factor in USC's Year 1 fate of the Lincoln Riley era is the performance of quarterback Caleb Williams. He is one of the most talented quarterbacks in the country, but the 2021 five-star recruit displayed a raw skill set during his true freshman campaign at Oklahoma.

Williams’ elite tools helped him to a 91.3 PFF grade in 2021, which broke Trevor Lawrence’s record for the highest single-season mark by a true freshman quarterback in the PFF College era. There were times when Williams made things a little bit more difficult than they needed to be, as he was always looking for the home run downfield. Due to that, Williams was often volatile, putting up four sub-70.0 passing grades since taking over for Spencer Rattler against Texas. Learning when to check down will be an area of emphasis in 2022. His 3.51-second average time to throw and 29.2% rate of quarterback-fault pressures were both among the three highest marks in the Power Five. 

Williams is still capable of producing at an elite level despite the lack of polish, but it could come with volatility. If he comes back improved, USC can be a true top-10 team.


9. OKLAHOMA SOONERS

Oklahoma is in a similar boat as USC. With a new staff and a lot of roster turnover, the Sooners have a wide range of possibilities for 2022. Quarterback Dillon Gabriel and his connection with his wide receiver room are going to be big pieces to the puzzle in determining how competitive this team can be in 2021.

Gabriel will be reuniting with Jeff Lebby, who is now Oklahoma’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach after serving in the same role at Ole Miss from 2020 to 2021 and UCF in 2019. 

The transfer quarterback thrived as an underclassman with Josh Heupel as the head coach and Lebby as his offensive coordinator — in 2019 only — prior to missing most of 2021 due to injury. Heupel is widely known for his quarterback-friendly offense that provides simplistic reads for the passer. While the concepts are painless for the quarterback, the offense still needs the signal-caller to consistently take one-on-one vertical shots down the sideline.

Gabriel has fantastic touch downfield, and that trait led to major passing success. He earned 80.3 and 90.4 passing grades as a true freshman and sophomore in 2019 and 2020, respectively. Lebby’s offense won’t ask Gabriel to do too much and will take advantage of the quarterback’s strengths.

Wide receiver Marvin Mims is expected to carry a large load in the offense. Mims has yet to be a full-time starter, but his skill set and level of production as a true freshman and sophomore were too good to ignore. He owns an 86.5 receiving grade, 19.1 yards per catch, 3.14 yards per route run and a 143.8 passer rating when targeted since 2020. Over that span, Mims has turned 34.4% of his targets into a gain of 15 or more yards, the third-highest rate in the Power Five.


10. WAKE FOREST DEMON DEACONS

Wake Forest is once again going to have a strong passing offense in 2022. The Demon Deacons ranked fourth in the Power Five in passing efficiency for 2021, and the man that led them there — quarterback Sam Hartman — is back for 2022. He ran the Demon Deacons' patented long-mesh run-pass option (RPO) offense to big-time success. Because college football's illegal man downfield rules are more generous than in the NFL, RPOs can be longer developing and attack downfield. Hartman and the offense had a multitude of those plays built into their offense, which helped him to an FBS-leading 20 deep passing touchdowns — eight of which came from an RPO. Overall, Hartman earned an elite 91.8 PFF grade for the season. 

While he did lose wide receiver Jaquarii Roberson, Hartman and Co. do have a strong receiving corps that features A.T. Perry, Ke’Shawn Williams and Taylor Morin. Perry, in particular, was actually the third-highest-graded player at the position in the ACC last season.


11. NOTRE DAME FIGHTING IRISH
12. ARKANSAS RAZORBACKS
13. PITT PANTHERS
14. TEXAS LONGHORNS
15. SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS
16. MIAMI HURRICANES
17. NC STATE WOLFPACK
18. KENTUCKY WILDCATS
19. BYU COUGARS
20. BAYLOR BEARS
21. WISCONSIN BADGERS
22. TENNESSEE VOLUNTEERS
23. HOUSTON COUGARS
24. OLE MISS REBELS
25. OREGON DUCKS

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