Lots of people are putting together Top 25 lists, but what’s the point? It’s about the national championship in these parts. I identified the five best teams, in order, for 2022. This isn’t the time to give in to my love of underdogs. The title winner will be one of the six teams above, and chances are four of them will be in the College Football Playoff.
Clemson didn’t make my list because coach Dabo Swinney replaced both coordinators, and it’s still not clear that D.J. Uiagalelei is the guy at quarterback. Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher has built a deep talent base, but the Aggies aren’t in my top five because he hasn’t proved he can win big if Jameis Winston isn’t his quarterback. Too many of the long-shot CFP hopefuls have questions about talent, experience or both.
Here’s my top five:
1. Ohio State
The Buckeyes didn’t even win the Big Ten last season, largely because they struggled on defense. Wide receivers Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson were first-round NFL draft picks. A Big Ten team hasn’t finished No. 1 since Ohio State in 2014. The 2020 Buckeyes were the last Big Ten team to play CFP Championship game, and Bama blew them out. Those all are valid reasons to doubt whether the Buckeyes can break through.
I like their chances because they have a lot of good players coming back from last season’s Rose Bowl champion squad. Ohio State is the highest ranked of the contending teams in ESPN analyst Bill Connelly’s weighted returning production formula. Quarterback C.J. Stroud was fantastic in his first season as a starter. The Buckeyes also added one of the nation’s best transfers, ex-Oklahoma State defensive back Tanner McCallister. Coach Ryan Day’s team is stacked and ready for another national championship run.
It’s obvious that Nick Saban’s beef with NIL and liberalized transfer rules is motivated by his rational self-interest in not seeing other teams poach talent away from him. It’s just as obvious that Saban needn’t worry much about that. The Crimson Tide landed three of the top 10 transfers in the 247Sports ranking while losing none. Cornerback Eli Ricks (LSU), running back Jahmyr Gibbs (Georgia Tech) and wide receiver Jermaine Burton (Georgia) are good players who will fill immediate needs for Bama.
Bryce Young, the 2021 Heisman Trophy winner, is back. He’s projected to be the first QB selected in the 2023 draft (pay attention, Falcons fans). Ricks, Gibbs, linebacker Will Anderson, and defensive back Malachi Moore also could be first-round picks in 2013. Alabama has a no-sweat nonconference game at Texas and gets Texas A&M at home. The Tide have made the CFP in seven of eight seasons. This season will eight of nine.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart finally bested his old boss, and he did it in the biggest game of the season. Now Smart will have to replicate Saban’s knack for replacing the wave of NFL talent headed out the door. Five ex-Bulldogs were selected in the first round of the draft, all of them defensive players, and 15 Georgia players were picked overall. Smart didn’t have close to that kind of NFL attrition after his first five seasons. Now we’ll see if his recruiting is on Saban’s level for the long term.
I always assume that Smart will field an elite defense. I’ve never been proved wrong, so I’ll stick with that notion even though so many good defenders are gone. I think Stetson Bennett is a very good quarterback. That seems to put me at odds with a lot of Bulldogs backers even after Bennett won a national championship. I just doubt whether Bennett can do it in back-to-back years without an elite wide receiver and with Georgia’s defense due for a bit of regression.
The nation’s most underachieving program got a big boost when coach Lincoln Riley decided to leave Oklahoma for L.A. Normally this would be a rebuilding job, but Riley added 16 players from the transfer portal. There are two offensive stars among them. Quarterback Caleb Williams was a top recruit who played for Riley at Oklahoma, and wide receiver Jordan Addison was an All-American for Pitt in 2021.
The Trojans have the kind of talent on offense that can overcome what figures to be a lackluster defense. That’s how Riley won at Oklahoma. USC faces a tough game at Utah in October, but the schedule doesn’t include Oregon. The best non-conference foe, Notre Dame, goes to L.A. in November. USC is poised for a dramatic turnaround from 4-8 to contenders for the CFP.
5. N.C. State
OK, I couldn’t help it. I had to put one underdog in my top 5. The Wolfpack are a good choice. They have a lot of returning production from last season’s 9-3 team. N.C. State’s hardest game is at Clemson on Oct. 1. This Wolfpack team is better than the one that lost in overtime at No. 3 Clemson in 2016.
N.C. State quarterback Devin Leary returns after he was fantastic in 2021, his first season as the full-time starter. The Wolfpack must replace left tackle Ikem Ekwonu, who was the sixth pick in the NFL draft. Otherwise, N.C. State has everything it needs to topple Clemson and make a bid for the CFP.