Runner up: Miami
The loss of Trevor Lawrence proved to be costly last season as the Tigers missed the College Football Playoff for the first time since 2014 and finished third in their division. Still, Clemson managed to put together another ten-win season and had one of the highest-rated defenses in the country. Dabo Swinney is still widely regarded as one of the best coaches in college football, and the roster is loaded with five-star talent on both sides of the ball. Whether or not the Tigers can get back to the playoff is contingent on quarterback DJ Uiagelelei’s growth, but he doesn’t need to be Deshaun Watson or Lawrence to win the relatively weak ACC.
Winner: Ohio State
Runner up: Wisconsin
Michigan may have taken down Ohio State to close out the 2021 regular season to kill off the Buckeyes’ playoff hopes, but they still have a ways to go as a program before they can be recognized as the juggernaut Ohio State is. It’s one thing to beat Ohio State once; it’s another to beat them year in and year out. The truth is no one has been able to do the latter since the early 2000s. Heisman hopeful CJ Stroud leads the explosive Buckeye offense that also boasts Biletnikoff front runner Jaxon Smith-Njigba. We know the offense can and will score a lot of points. If the defense can hold up their side of the bargain is a different story. We won’t have to wait long to find the answer, as Ohio State opens the season against No. 5 Notre Dame. Ohio State has dominated the Big Ten for the last 15 years, so it’s going to take a lot more than one tough season to change that narrative.
Winner: Oklahoma State
Runner up: Baylor
Sleeper: Iowa State
The phrase “football is a game of inches” is often overused, but it’s a perfect description of the Oklahoma State Cowboys’ heartbreaking loss to Baylor in last year’s Big 12 championship. Oklahoma State won the conference regular season title and was ranked in the top five entering the game. I believe Baylor and Oklahoma State are bound to meet up in the conference title game once again in 2022. However, I’m expecting a different result. While Baylor is due for some regression, Oklahoma State should be about as good as they were last year. Having quarterback Spencer Sanders return for his fourth year as a starter is a major reason for that. Another double-digit win season should be in the works in Stillwater.
Runner up: Utah
I get the skepticism surrounding USC. An unproven team brimming with talent isn’t always an immediate success story, especially when they’re coming off a four-win season. With that said, USC now has the best head coach and the best quarterback in the entire conference. On top of this, reigning Biletnikoff winner Jordan Addison transferred to the Trojans from Pitt. USC’s current roster outlook is comparable to what Lincoln Reilly worked with when he was the coach of the Sooners. The air raid, high tempo offense that tormented Big-12 defenses could translate quite nicely to the west coast, and USC certainly has the talent to pull it off. Much like the ACC, the PAC-12 is pretty vacant outside of 2-3 programs. With all the talent Oregon lost to the draft and transfer portal, it will likely come down to USC and Utah, and I’m not sure the Utes have the talent to hold Caleb Williams and Co. in check.
Runner up: Georgia
Last week, Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban referred to the team’s 2021 campaign as a “rebuilding year.” As crazy as that might sound, it actually makes sense. Alabama lost their starting quarterback, top two wide receivers, star running back, top cornerback, and top offensive tackle. Finding replacements for all those players was difficult, even for Alabama. Last season, the Crimson Tide played some uncharacteristically bad football. Not just in the team’s regular season defeat to then unranked Texas A&M, but also in close wins against underperforming teams such as LSU and Florida. The point is even in a season where Alabama seldomly played to its potential, the team won the SEC and made the national championship game. If that’s what a down year looks like, the rest of the country should be absolutely petrified of what they’ll look like on a good day. With both quarterback Bryce Young and edge rusher Will Anderson returning to Tuscaloosa, the Tide may have the best offensive and defensive player in college football. Throw in possibly the best college football coach of all time and knocking off Bama will be as tough as ever.