College football roundtable: Which team will be the biggest surprise in 2022?

Monday, March 28, 2022

Michigan entered the 2021 season unranked, and the Wolverines ended the season as Big Ten champions and in the College Football Playoff.

Iowa State and North Carolina were both top-10 teams in the preseason AP poll, and they finished 7-6 and 6-7, respectively.

Which teams will overperform and underperform in 2022? Which conference has the most to prove next season? And after Cincinnati lost so many seniors like Desmond Ridder and Ahmad Gardner, is there another Group of 5 team that can crash the CFP party again?

Our team of writers break everything down.

Which team will exceed expectations this season?

Adam Rittenberg: There's so much to discuss in the SEC West -- from Alabama's national title quest to LSUopening the Brian Kelly era to Texas A&Mseeking a CFP breakthrough to the Lane Train -- that Mississippi Statewill easily be overlooked. The Bulldogs were maddeningly inconsistent in 2021, recording strong wins over NC State, Kentuckyand Texas A&M, but dropping games to Memphis, LSU and Arkansasby three points or fewer. They return one of the nation's best quarterbacks in Will Rogersand other standouts such as running back Jo'quavious Marks and wide receiver Jaden Walley. Defensive coordinator Zach Arnett always gives his unit a chance, even against more talented offenses. The schedule also favors Mississippi State, which plays four of its first six games at home and won't leave the state during the month of November. Coach Mike Leach gets his breakthrough in Year 3.

Chris Low: Road games at Texas A&M (Sept. 17) and Clemson(Nov. 19) are daunting, but don't sleep on Miamibeing a real contender in the ACC's Coastal Division in Mario Cristobal's first season at The U. Quarterbacks are always the great equalizer, and Tyler Van Dyke returns for his third season on campus after earning ACC Rookie of the Year honors a year ago with 2,931 passing yards and 25 touchdown passes. Cristobal loaded his staff with veteran coaches, and the Hurricanes have already made waves on the recruiting trail. If some of the newer faces come through at receiver and at linebacker, Miami has the talent to make the month of November an interesting one in Coral Gables.

David Hale: Expectations are relative. Odds are, most Nebraskafans expect their team to be better than the Las Vegas oddsmakers do, mostly because fans aren't required to be reasonable. I don't think this is necessarily a 10-win team with a real shot at the Big Ten title, but it's certainly a bowl team and potentially one that could make a run at the West Division. As awful as last year's 3-9 record (1-8 in conference play) looked, the Huskers were every bit as unlucky as they were bad. Nebraska was 0-7 in one-possession games -- a historically unlucky performance -- and the Huskers were within a TD in the fourth quarter of all but one game. It's not even as if there was one big issue -- turnover margin, red-zone efficiency, special teams -- that really killed the Huskers. They were mostly middle of the pack, a six- or seven-win team that just happened to win three. That luck has to change eventually, so here's betting the football gods swing the pendulum back in the other direction and Scott Frost finally puts together something resembling a successful campaign.

Mark Schlabach: Nebraska, whoa, good luck with that one, Hale. Since we're talking about past dynasties that have struggled to get their footing recently, how about Florida State? I predicted the Seminoles would play in a bowl game last season and they came close by finishing 5-7. I still believe that if the 41-38 loss in overtime to Notre Damehad turned out differently, it would have been a much better season. I think the Seminoles allowed the Irish to beat them at least twice by falling to FCS program Jacksonville State the next week. Jordan Travis should be more comfortable at quarterback, but the offensive line continues to be a trouble spot. FSU has to get better up front.

Ryan McGee: BYU's last stand as an independent will ride on the arm (and legs) of QB Jaren Hall, but with a gaggle of receivers, the entire defense returning (though it needs work) and a schedule made for getting attention (Stanford, Arkansas, Baylor, Oregon, Notre Dame, Boise State), the Cougars could be rolling into the Big 12 next season with some real momentum.

Heather Dinich: Schlabach has the right league, wrong team. I'm going with NC State, which is facing high expectations within the ACC, but nationally the Pack's a sleeper team. We'll know on Oct. 1 how seriously to take NC State, after it rolls into Clemson, but NC State should be undefeated heading into that game, and this is arguably the best team Dave Doeren has had there. It's one thing to talk about winning the ACC. It's another to enter the playoff discussion. Can the Pack do both?

Which team will underperform?

Rittenberg: I'm a bit concerned about both recent Fiesta Bowl participants, as Oklahoma Stateloses transcendent defensive coordinator Jim Knowles and many of its top defenders from a top-5 unit. Notre Dame is my pick because of questions on both sides of the ball, as well as a coaching transition that could pay off long-term, but might be bumpy at first. The learning curve for Marcus Freeman is both understandable and real, and even showed up during the Fiesta Bowl loss. The Irish are replacing a solid and productive offensive backfield of Jack Coan and Kyren Williams, All-America safety Kyle Hamilton and valuable defensive linemen Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish. Plus, the defense has a new coordinator in Al Golden, who hasn't coached in college since Miami fired him in October 2015.

Hale: Here's a stat that shouldn't be too surprising. In 2019, LSU averaged 3.5 points per drive against Power 5 opponents -- essentially a TD every other drive. In no other year since 2014 have the Tigers averaged more than 2.4. Indeed, since 2008, LSU averages just a tick more than 2 points per drive, 2019 excepted. The point here is that the national championship season was an anomaly, and the job Kelly inherits is far bigger than people think. In fact, LSU has been pretty lucky over the past two seasons. Of the Tigers' 11 wins, six came by a TD or less. Given the tough competition in the SEC West, it's entirely reasonable to think LSU isn't going to be much better than last year's 6-6 regular-season record, which probably isn't what LSU fans want to hear after hiring Kelly away from Notre Dame.

McGee: Keeping in mind that "underperform" is a relative term, it's hard to imagine that Georgiacan replicate what it did in 2021. Big pieces are missing from that historically great defense and Stetson Bennett's time as a folk hero among the fanbase seems to have lasted about a week. Will the Bulldogs win the SEC East? Probably. Will they win double-digit games and play in Atlanta in December? More than likely. Will that be enough? Not a chance. I just heard a click. I think Schlabach just unfriended me.

Low: Notre Dame just missed out on a trip to the College Football Playoff a year ago, even with its head coach being wooed to LSU. Freeman takes over amid a bright future and even bigger expectations. Of course, when are expectations at Notre Dame not grandiose? Freeman will be learning on the job next season and doing so without some key players who moved on to the NFL. That's never a good combination, which means Notre Dame's five-year stretch of winning 10 or more games could be in jeopardy in 2022.

Schlabach: Who is going to beat Georgia during the regular season? Tennessee?Florida? The Bulldogs won't be nearly as good as they were on defense last season, but Kirby Smart and his staff have recruited exceptionally well. I'm looking at the team the Bulldogs defeated in a CFP semifinal at the Capital One Orange Bowl -- Michigan. Like Georgia, the Wolverines lost so much off their defense, including end Aidan Hutchinson, linebackers David Ojabo and Josh Ross, safeties Vincent Gray and Daxton Hilland tackle Christopher Hinton. Throw in defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald going back to the NFL, it's going to be a steep climb for Michigan to get back to the Big Ten championship game.

Dinich: Oooh, I almost put Michigan in the "exceed expectations" category and here you are stomping on them. Is it too late to change my answer?! I'm going with Texas A&M here, though Notre Dame and Oklahoma State are both tempting. I'm in believe-it-when-I-see-it mode with the Aggies, who have had more hype than real results. I'm more curious to see how Arkansas (which beat A&M last fall) fares this year. Texas A&M has a lot of questions on defense and a quarterback competition. Yes, the Aggies beat Alabama, but they weren't able to make it amount to much more than bragging rights. Best guess is A&M finishes lower than where it starts this preseason.

What conference has the most to prove next season?

Rittenberg: The standard answer is the Pac-12, which hasn't made the CFP since 2016, but I'm going with the ACC. Clemson last season missed the playoff for the first time since the inaugural season of 2014, and the ACC didn't supply another realistic contender. The Tigers enter a fascinating season with new coordinators on both sides of the ball, and a potentially new quarterback if Cade Klubnik replaces D.J. Uiagalelei. While a return to the CFP wouldn't be a total shocker, Clemson has a lot of areas to address. If Clemson once again falls short, will anyone else from the ACC make a push? NC State has what should be its best team in coach Doeren's tenure. The Wolfpack boast a talented quarterback in Devin Leary and playmakers on both sides of the ball. But NC State is a historic underachiever, not winning the ACC since 1979 and never truly challenging for the CFP. Miami is expected to enter the CFP mix relatively soon under Cristobal. While a first-year run would be a surprise, the Hurricanes are worth watching.

Hale: I'm with Adam. It's been a rough start for Jim Phillips as the ACC's commissioner, with Clemson's playoff run coming to an end in 2021 and three of the league's bowl games getting nixed. But here's something most folks don't remember: The ACC actually had three 10-win teams last year (Clemson, Pitt and Wake Forest) and might've had a fourth if NC State's bowl game vs. UCLAwasn't nixed due to COVID-19. Add in an improving Florida State, a renewed Miami, and talented (if underperforming) teams in North Carolina and Louisville, there's no lack of depth in the league. The question is whether any of those teams can actually step up and blossom into something special. Phillips desperately needs a strong season to build some real energy behind his "football first" mantra.

Schlabach: The SEC needs to do more. Just kidding. But it would be nice to see a team other than Alabama and Georgia contend for a CFP spot. Every other team in the league lost at least three games in 2021, and Auburn, Florida and LSU were dumpster fires. Can Ole Misssustain its success without Matt Corral? Can Tennessee, Arkansas and South Carolina continue to get better? Texas A&M is on the clock after Georgia won a national title. The Aggies haven't finished No. 1 in 83 years.

Low: There's no truth to the rumor that the Pac-12 is going to secede from the rest of college football and just play each other. That said, it's sort of seemed that way over the past decade or so. The Pac-12 has been shut out of the College Football Playoff since the 2016 season when Washingtonlost 24-7 to Alabama in the semifinal. Utahhas a chance to make a move in 2022, as this could be one of Kyle Whittingham's most complete teams. But there's no getting around how average the Pac-12 was last season (eight of the 12 teams had six or more losses) and has been for several seasons. Lincoln Riley is being paid a ton of money to resuscitate USC(and his quarterback, Caleb Williams, tagged along with him from Oklahoma), and Riley is one of four new coaches in the league. It would also help the Pac-12 if Stanford could get back on track under David Shaw after finishing 3-9 a year ago and 4-8 in 2019.

Dinich: It's easy to pile on the ACC here, but it has only been a year. Last year was the first time in eight seasons the ACC didn't have a team in a semifinal. The Pac-12's drought is a wee bit longer. Clemson has won two national titles during the CFP era. The Pac-12 is 0-2, with Oregon beating Florida State, but then losing to Ohio State, and Washington lost to Alabama in its semifinal. Until proven otherwise, the onus is on the West Coast.

McGee: The Big 12 has made the CFP four times, and it was Oklahomaall four times. The Sooners missed out two years in a row, and no one else managed to step up, even when handed opportunities to do so as the Big 12 vanished. And spoiler alert: Oklahoma has one boot out the door. If this group is going to truly stay relevant in the future, it needs to prove it can do so without the Sooners carrying them in the Schooner.

How does the Pac-12 get back on track?

Rittenberg: Quarterback development and USC returning to the national radar. The two concepts are connected, as USC added the biggest quarterback prize in the transfer portal in Williams. If things pick up where they left off in Oklahoma, Williams will be contending for national awards, and USC will field a thrilling and productive offense under Riley's direction. But the Pac-12 needs more teams to upgrade at the most important position. Will Oregon take a step with Auburn transfer Bo Nix joining Ty Thompson and Jay Butterfield under the direction of new offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham? New Washington coach Kalen DeBoer is a proven quarterback guru, and has an interesting first group that includes Indiana transfer Michael Penix Jr., former five-star recruit Sam Huard and multiyear starter Dylan Morris. UCLA's Dorian Thompson-Robinson and Utah's Cam Rising both took big steps in 2021, and have opportunities to grow this coming season. The Pac-12 footprint might not be as football crazy as other parts of the country, but look how many top quarterbacks come out of California and Arizona alone. Once the Pac-12 starts capitalizing on its local talent, the conference's overall profile will improve.

Low: Pretty simply, USC has to be USC, as in the USC of the Pete Carroll, Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart days (minus the NCAA issues, which by the way, wouldn't be an issue in today's NIL world). The Trojans were a fixture nationally and flirted with three straight national championships. They were named AP national champions in 2003, won the BCS national championship game to cap the 2004 season and lost to Texasin the BCS national championship game to cap the 2005 season. Without USC returning to national relevance under Riley, it's hard to see the Pac-12 doing so on a regular basis. There's no reason given the recruiting pool on the West Coast and the attraction of playing in Riley's offense that the Trojans shouldn't rejoin the national conversation and give the West Coast a pulse again when it comes to chasing championships.

Hale: Perhaps the strangest twist to last year's coaching carousel was the way USC's hiring of Riley was framed as not just a win for the Trojans, but for the whole Pac-12. That's how desperate this league is for something to hang its hat on. But the truth is, Riley has a big job in front of him at USC, and there are certainly no guarantees of a quick fix. Meanwhile, the league's other traditional competitors -- Washington, Oregon and Arizona State-- either have new head coaches or, in Herm Edwards' case, a coach with one foot out the door due to off-field issues. I tend to think success is cyclical (it wasn't that long ago USC was the toast of college football, after all), but the Pac-12's upswing might still be at least a year away.

Dinich: It doesn't have to be USC. Is that the ideal situation for the league and its branding? Yes. But if Utah were to finish in the top four this fall, the negative narrative would still change. The Pac-12 needs somebody -- anybody -- to be great. Nobody complained when Oregon (2015) or Washington (2016) finished in the top four (ahem, except maybe Penn Statethat year). I agree with Adam in that recruiting, retaining and developing quarterback talent is a critical component, but overall consistency has been lacking. The Pac-12 is notorious for beating itself up. It needs a one-loss conference champion that captures the country's attention. The ACC can vouch for that path to national relevance.

McGee: Let's start small, shall we? Just get through September while still in the conversation. Oh, and win a bowl game. Just one. I remember years ago we were all at ACC media days breathlessly asking then-commissioner John Swofford if his league was going to survive because everyone thought it was going to be eaten by the SEC and Big East. He calmly said, "If we win our non-conference games in September and Thanksgiving and win our New Year's Day bowl games, this panic talk will stop immediately." And they did, so it did. This September the Pac-12 teams play TCU, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi State, Oklahoma State, Wisconsin, Notre Dame, Minnesota, BYU and Michigan State. Win even 50% of those games and it's a step in the right direction. Then they have to get better bowl tie-ins. I love the Alamo Bowl, but the drop off from the Rose Bowl to that game is like stepping off the pool deck of Riley's new house.

Which Group of 5 team is in the best position to be the next Cincinnati?

Rittenberg: The chance of a Group of 5 team making the four-team playoff in consecutive years seems slim, but Houston is a squad to watch. It's important to remember that Cincinnati reached the CFP largely because of a defense that almost any Power 5 program would take in a heartbeat. Houstoncoach Dana Holgorsen has a celebrated background in offense, but the Cougars' Third Ward defense emerged as a force in 2021, finishing sixth nationally in yards allowed and 19th in points allowed. Doug Belk is one of the top young defensive coordinators, and Houston returns several key players from last year's unit. Holgorsen also should have his best offense as UH coach with quarterback Clayton Tune, wide receiver Nathaniel Dell, running back Alton McCaskill and others. Houston lacks a nonconference national showcase game, but if it can beat defending Conference USA champion UTSA in the opener, and then record two Big 12 wins (Texas Tech, Kansas), the CFP buzz could start.

Hale: Houston is the correct answer, but since the Cougars -- along with BYU, Cincinnati and UCF-- are set to join the Big 12 in a couple years, that feels like a cheat. If you want a real dark horse, how about Appalachian State? Sure, the odds are long, but the Mountaineers have won nine games or more in seven straight seasons, return a ton of talent from last year's squad that finished 10-4, and have opportunities to prove themselves with games against North Carolina(at home) and Texas A&M to open the season. Could App State really pull off two huge upsets in the first two weeks of the year? The odds are ridiculously low, but if it happened, the committee would have little choice but to start taking the Mountaineers seriously.

Dinich: They're both right in that Houston AND Appalachian State have nonconference opportunities that could impress the selection committee enough to get top-four consideration if -- and that is a monumental if -- they were to go undefeated. The reality is college football will come back to reality with a Power 5-laden top four. Houston has the best shot to silence the naysayers, though nothing should be assumed with back-to-back road trips against UTSA and Texas Tech to open the season. If the Cougars can start 3-0, they've got to be very careful not to stumble in their own league -- and they also have to hope that wins against UTSA, Texas Tech and Kansas still amount to something in late November. Just because Cincinnati got through the gate doesn't mean it's still swinging open. It will take another perfect season that includes wins against top 25 opponents.

McGee: I would love to see Coastal Carolinado it simply for the Beverly Hillbillies party-crasher factor. That same philosophy applies to Holgorsen. But BYU has the best chance simply because they have the schedule to do it. And by best chance I mean no chance, because Cincy used up the Gang of Five's one-use-only lift ticket.

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