The 2022 college football games we're already looking forward to

ByHarry Lyles Jr. ESPN logo
Wednesday, January 26, 2022

We're just 16 days removed from the 2021 college football season, and after the exciting five months of football we just had, it's hard to not look ahead to 2022.

New faces in new places, rivalries renewed and rivalries intensified have us looking forward to plenty of nonconference matchups heading into next season.

Here's a list of some of those, starting with Week 1.

Notre Dame at Ohio State: Week 1, Sept. 3

Both teams are almost certainly going to be ranked in the top 10 in the preseason poll, with each expected to return at least 13 starters. Combine that with two of the biggest brands in the sport and it's obvious why this game is on the list.

This game will be the first regular-season game of Marcus Freeman's tenure at Notre Dame. Freeman coached the Irish in the Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma State, just days after Brian Kelly left for LSU. With an offseason under his belt (and the addition of safety Brandon Joseph, a Northwestern transfer) and opening against a good Ohio State team, we'll have a good idea of how Freeman's Notre Dame tenure is starting off.

On the Ohio State side, we got somewhat of a preview of the Buckeyes' 2022 iteration in the Rose Bowl, which included a seasoned C.J. Stroud and breakout games from Marvin Harrison Jr. andJaxon Smith-Njigba. We'll also see an Ohio State team with more of Ryan Day's imprint on it, with the most dramatic changes to the coaching staff since Urban Meyer left Columbus.

Utah at Florida: Week 1, Sept. 3

Both of these teams are going to be storylines in the 2022 season. Utah is coming off of one of the most exciting Rose Bowl games we have ever seen, despite being on the wrong side of the final result. And despite losing key players to the NFL in LB Devin Lloyd, LB Nephi Sewell and WR Britain Covey, the Utes will still be favored to win the Pac-12.

Utah will be an immediate test for Florida in Billy Napier's first game as head coach. It's a lot to expect an immediate overhaul and success after the mess that was 2021 in Gainesville, but if anybody can do it, it's Napier, who was 40-12 in four seasons at Louisiana, including 12-1 in 2021.

If you're looking for a thread of animus in this one, the Utes added Florida transfer LB Mohamoud Diabate, who was the Gators' second-leading tackler last season.

Georgia vs. Oregon (in Atlanta): Week 1, Sept. 3

The Bulldogs begin their championship defense 73 miles from Athens against Oregon and its new head coach, former Georgia national championship defensive coordinator Dan Lanning.

The defending national champions will look pretty similar on offense in 2022. Nine starters return, including quarterback Stetson Bennett, who is expected to compete with Brock Vandagriff for the starting job. Just five players return from Georgia's historically great defense of 2021, but given theBulldogs' recruiting acumen the past handful of years, they should still have a talented unit.

Oregon lost one of the most talented players in the country in Kayvon Thibodeaux to the NFL draft, but it returns plenty of talent on both sides of the football. The Ducks will be a favorite to win the Pac-12 North again, and will be a good early test for a Georgia team that will undoubtedly be talented in 2022 but likely will be different from the 2021 version. Oregon also might be starting a quarterback who knows about Georgia and playing against SEC teams: Auburn transfer Bo Nix.

West Virginia at Pitt: Week 1, Sept. 3

Whether this ends up being a great game isn't really the point -- what's important is that the Backyard Brawl is finally back after an 11-year hiatus. The series went on pause when the Mountaineers left the Big East for the Big 12 in 2012 and the Panthers dipped for the ACC in 2013.

After going 11-3 with a Peach Bowl appearance in 2021, the Panthers should be fun to watch again in 2022, if only for Biletnikoff winner Jordan Addison and his new quarterback, USC transfer Kedon Slovis.

This game won't have the same stakes as 2007's legendary contest when Pitt ruined West Virginia's shot at the BCS title game. But given that we haven't seen this game in over a decade, there's no doubt the energy and atmosphere for this one will be worth the watch alone, and it should be a good reminder of what makes college football great.

Cincinnati at Arkansas: Week 1, Sept. 3

After Cincinnati became the first Group of 5 program to reach the College Football Playoff, eyes will now be on the Bearcats to see how they rebuild after what was essentially a two-year effort to make history.

They will lose nine players on their defense, highlighted by defensive backsAhmad "Sauce"Gardnerand Coby Bryant. Redshirt freshman quarterback Evan Prater, who was Ohio's Mr. Football in 2019, will be the favorite to replace departing Desmond Ridder.

Cincinnati will be facing an Arkansas team that's been moving in the right direction since hiring Sam Pittman in December 2019. The Razorbacks beat three ranked teams in 2021, and while the team will be doing an overhaul on the front seven defensively this offseason, Pittman has proved he's able to get the most out of what he's got in his two seasons thus far. Plus, returning quarterbackKJ Jeffersonand coordinators Barry Odom and Kendal Briles give Arkansas much-needed continuity in growing under Pittman in Year 3.

Florida State vs. LSU (in New Orleans): Week 1, Sunday, Sept. 4

Much like with the Notre Dame-Ohio State matchup, we've got a couple of big brands of the game for this one, although they're not at their best now.

Brian Kelly begins his tenure with LSU -- a team that went 5-5 in 2020 and 6-7 in 2021, after the Tigers put together one of the greatest offenses college football has ever seen in 2019 under Ed Orgeron. Kelly will be going against a coach who also has plenty of work in front of him in Mike Norvell, who enters his third year at Florida State with an 8-13 record thus far. Combine that with a couple of the most passionate fan bases in the sport and we've got ourselves an intriguing game.

Although the programs aren't in a place they're used to being, having this game and the storylines that come along with it on a Sunday will be a nice little bow to top off a Week 1 with plenty of great games.

Texas vs. Alabama: Week 2, Sept. 10

Whether in a close contest or asserting its dominance, Alabama will be worth watching, just as it has been ever since Nick Saban took over in 2007. The Crimson Tide are returning Heisman Trophy winnerBryce Young, another should-be Heisman candidate in linebacker Will Anderson Jr. and a slew of other future NFL players.

The Longhorns enter this game in their second season under Steve Sarkisian and could be starting Southlake, Texas, native and Ohio State transfer quarterback Quinn Ewers. Ewers aside, Texas presents a compelling matchup with running back Bijan Robinson -- arguably the best in the nation -- against what will be an improved Alabama defense.

If nothing else, Texas playing against college football's standard for the past decade and change will make for a fun afternoon on college football Twitter, no matter the result.

Oklahoma at Nebraska: Week 3, Sept. 17

Because this is college football, and history and rivalries mean more in this sport than in any other in North America, this game gets a spot on the list.

This iteration of 1971's Game of the Century is going to be a different-looking game than it was in 2021. Oklahoma is now led by former Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, plusSpencer Rattlerleft the program andCaleb Williamsis in the transfer portal, with former UCF quarterbackDillon Gabrielappearing to be the favorite to start.

The Cornhuskers will still be looking for signs of improvement in Year 4 of Scott Frost's tenure. Frost gave his offensive staff a makeover and hired Mark Whipple from Pitt as the team's new offensive coordinator. Quarterback Adrian Martinez transferred to Kansas State in the offseason, and the team welcomed Texas transfer Casey Thompson. Time will tell whether these changes provide favorable returns, but beating Oklahoma would be a feather in Frost's cap.

TCU at SMU: Week 4, Sept. 24

TCU and SMU have played each other all but six years since their first game in 1915. The schools are separated by just 35 miles. And althoughSonny Dykes' departure from SMU to TCU wasn't regarded as one of the more groundbreaking moves nationally (compared with, say, those of Lincoln Riley and Brian Kelly), it was certainly a big deal for him to leave SMU for its biggest rival.

Dykes had a successful tenure at SMU, going 25-9 in his last three seasons, including a 2019 season in which he became the first coach to win 10 games since the school received the death penalty in 1984. He was replaced by Rhett Lashlee, who was most recently the offensive coordinator at Miami.

When the two teams played in 2021, a postgame scuffle ensued when SMU player Rashee Rice tried to plant the Mustangs' flag on the Horned Frogs' turf. So if tensions were high then, Dykes going across town and taking some recruits with him will add fuel to the fire in a state that takes football as seriously as anybody.

Coastal Carolina at Virginia: Week 12, Nov. 19

The Chanticleers are 22-3 in the past two seasons under Jamey Chadwell and find themselves at an all-time high for the program while the Sun Belt conference is arguably the best it has ever been. Coastal will be upgrading its Power 5 opponent from Kansas (a team it beat twice) to Virginia, which will be coming into 2022 with a new head coach, former Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott.

The big hook here is the quarterback matchup. Coastal Carolina's Grayson McCall has been the face of the Chants' success the past two years, throwing for 5,361 yards, 53 touchdowns and just six interceptions, as well as rushing for 859 yards and 11 touchdowns. Meanwhile, Virginia's Brennan Armstrong announced he would be returning for a fifth season, after breaking out for 4,444 yards, 31 touchdowns and 10 picks in 2021. Watching these two get after it should make for a fun back and forth.

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