What a college football 64-team playoff bracket would look like in 2022

ByChris Low via ESPN logo
Tuesday, March 15, 2022
ESPN

Nobody in college football's upper hierarchy can seem to agree on anything remotely related to playoff expansion, so we'll do it for them.

Truth is we've been way ahead of the curve for years.

So once again, we'll count it down from 64 teams (not just four), and that way, just about everybody has a shot and not just the usual suspects.

Here's the format for ESPN's fictional 2022 NCAA football tournament: We've seeded the teams 1 through 64, and the seeds are based to some degree on ESPN's latest SP+ projections entering the 2022 season.

The top four teams are Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia and Michigan (yes, with 14 playoff appearances among them). With the Wolverines being the fourth No. 1 seed, that means they will travel to the West Region. The seeds are just seeds. So, yes, there will be upsets. There always are, especially in the early rounds. We'll keep things interesting and create some compelling storylines to make it even more fun and potentially create a little angst among certain fan bases.

We're braced for all the criticism and skepticism the playoff selection committee faces every year, particularly in the seeding -- claims of SEC bias, snubbing our noses at Group of 5 teams, favoring the big brands and relying too much on the eye test.

So, yes, we get it. But with 64 teams, it's not like the party will be a smaller, exclusive affair.

Today, we will examine the field and work our way through the first two rounds of the tournament, narrowing the pool from 64 to 16. We'll then play the rest of the games and crown a champion. For the record, we had Alabama beating Clemson a year ago in the national title game and Georgia (the eventual national champion) and Iowa State both losing in the semifinals.

The Bracket

1-seeds: Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia, Michigan

2-seeds: Clemson, Texas A&M, Notre Dame, Utah

3-seeds: Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Cincinnati, N.C. State

4-seeds: USC, Penn State, Oklahoma State, Florida

5-seeds: Baylor, Miami, Michigan State, Arkansas

6-seeds: Wake Forest, Kentucky, Tennessee, Iowa

7-seeds: BYU, Ole Miss, Oregon, South Carolina

8-seeds: Pittsburgh, Houston, Mississippi State, Florida State

9-seeds: LSU, UCLA, Minnesota, Texas

10-seeds: Purdue, Arizona State, UCF, Louisville

11-seeds: Auburn, SMU, Nebraska, North Carolina

12-seeds: Fresno State, Kansas State, Maryland, TCU

13-seeds: Boise State, Iowa State, San Diego State, Appalachian State

14-seeds: Texas Tech, Western Kentucky, Marshall, Oregon State

15-seeds: Missouri, Washington, UTSA, Memphis

16-seeds: Army, Syracuse, Toledo, Liberty

First four out: West Virginia, Coastal Carolina, Virginia Tech, UAB

SOUTH REGION

FIRST ROUND

(1) Alabama 45, (16) Liberty 13: Once upon a time, Hugh Freeze beat Nick Saban and Alabama in back-to-back seasons when Freeze was at Ole Miss. Freeze has done a terrific job at Liberty, but the Flames simply can't measure at the line of scrimmage against the Tide.

(2) Utah 33, (15) Memphis 10: There's a lot to like about Kyle Whittingham's Utah team in 2022, and the Utes take it to the Tigers with a bruising running game and a defense that racks up seven sacks, one going for a safety.

(3) N.C. State 28, (14) Oregon State 14: The Beavers take an early lead in this ACC vs. Pac-12 matchup, but the Wolfpack never blink and score three unanswered touchdowns to give Dave Doeren his first true 10-win season in his 10th season at N.C. State.

(13) Appalachian State 24, (4) Florida 23: Here it is, the first big upset of the tournament. Appalachian State quarterback Chase Brice, in his sixth FBS season, rallies the Mountaineers with a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown passes to send Billy Napier and the Gators packing in his first season in Gainesville.

(5) Arkansas 41, (12) TCU 21: In what was a big season for Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson, he has his biggest game yet to open the tournament by accounting for five touchdowns (three passing and two rushing), as the Hogs cruise into the second round.

(6) Iowa 27, (11) North Carolina 20: Between them, Kirk Ferentz and Mack Brown have 58 years of head coaching experience in college football. The Hawkeyes' experience, though, is the difference in this one, as their defensive line takes control of the game in the second half.

(7) South Carolina 31, (10) Louisville 21: South Carolina talked with Scott Satterfield about its head-coaching job before ultimately hiring Shane Beamer. Those talks didn't sit well with the Louisville fans, but it worked out just fine for the Gamecocks, who are on to the second round.

(9) Texas 37: (8) Florida State 34: Florida State last won a national championship in 2013 and Texas in 2005. Both fan bases are clamoring for another, but the Longhorns keep their hopes alive in the best game of the tournament so far. Bijan Robinson scores the game-winner on a 24-yard touchdown run with 35 seconds to play.

SECOND ROUND

(1) Alabama 42, (9) Texas 16: Steve Sarkisian goes up against his old boss, and it goes the way most of the games have gone when Nick Saban faces one of his former assistants. Alabama's defense holds its second straight opponent to one offensive touchdown to move into the Sweet 16.

(2) Utah 30: (7) South Carolina 24: Spencer Rattler passes for three touchdowns for the Gamecocks, but they simply can't stop a Utah running game that piles up 275 yards with Tavion Thomas romping for 150 of those yards to go along with two touchdowns.

(3) N.C. State 20, (6) Iowa 17: Played in rainy, sloppy conditions, this slugfest goes down to the final minutes when N.C. State star linebacker Drake Thomas, one of several talented Wolfpack linebackers, makes a diving tackle inside the 5-yard line on fourth down.

(5) Arkansas 38, (13) Appalachian State 10: Drained from the emotion of its first-round upset of Florida, Appalachian State is never able to get going against an Arkansas defense that forces four turnovers and turns one of them into a defensive touchdown.

REGIONAL SEMIFINALS

(1) Alabama vs. (5) Arkansas

(2) Utah vs. (3) N.C. State

MIDWEST REGION

FIRST ROUND

(1) Ohio State 48, (16) Toledo 14: For only the fifth time in history (twice during the 2022 season), these two Ohio neighbors square off in football. The Buckeyes score the first four times they have the ball and never look back.

(2) Notre Dame 35, (15) UTSA 28: Marcus Freeman's postseason debut as Notre Dame's coach is a lot closer than any of the Golden Domers would have preferred. But the Irish stiffen late on defense and make a few key stops to advance.

(3) Cincinnati 31, (14) Marshall 13: In this clash of Group of 5 heavyweights, the Bearcats send a message that even with heavy personnel losses from their 2021 playoff team, they're not fading from national prominence.

(4) Oklahoma State 35, (13) San Diego State 20: This is a tricky first-round matchup for Mike Gundy and the Cowboys. The Aztecs aren't intimidated and play that way, but some of the newer faces on defense for Oklahoma State come up big in the clutch.

(12) Maryland 23, (5) Michigan State 21: Just like hoops, the No. 5 vs. No. 12 curse always seems to reach up and get one of the higher seeds. This time, it's Michigan State, which fails to put away Maryland when it has a chance, and Mike Locksley gets a huge win to avenge a regular-season loss to Sparty.

(6) Tennessee 35, (11) Nebraska 24: Few programs have mirrored each other the last two decades the way Tennessee and Nebraska have. Both have been desperately trying to get back to national relevance. The Vols take a much-needed step by getting out of the first round.

(10) UCF 28, (7) Oregon 20: In the new world of the transfer portal, you never know who you might run into again. Case in point: Oregon quarterback Bo Nix transferred from Auburn, where he once played for current UCF coach Gus Malzahn. Nix's two touchdown passes aren't enough to win it for the Ducks.

(9) Minnesota 34, (8) Mississippi State 30: Two of the most prolific offensive players in the country put on a show -- Mississippi State quarterback Will Rogers and Minnesota running back Mohamed Ibrahim. But it's Ibrahim and the Golden Gophers who walk away victorious.

SECOND ROUND

(1) Ohio State 40, (9) Minnesota 16: After putting up huge numbers in the first-round win over Mississippi State, Ibrahim runs into a scarlet and gray brick wall against Ohio State, which holds the Gophers' star running back under 75 yards to end its Big Ten counterpart's season.

(2) Notre Dame 34, (10) UCF 17: No Brian Kelly, no problem. The Irish play with poise and confidence in their second-round game and score on offense, defense and special teams to advance to the Sweet 16.

(3) Cincinnati 28, (6) Tennessee 23: The Vols' offense fails them in their quest to get to the Sweet 16, but it's the Bearcats' defense that deserves the most credit. They force Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker into an uncharacteristic three-turnover day.

(4) Oklahoma State 37, (12) Maryland 17: Spencer Sanders has had his good days and his bad days as Oklahoma State's quarterback. This is one of his good days (one of his best, actually), as he shreds the Terps' defense to the tune of 465 yards of total offense and four touchdowns.

REGIONAL SEMIFINALS

(1) Ohio State vs. (4) Oklahoma State

(2) Notre Dame vs. (3) Cincinnati

EAST REGION

FIRST ROUND

(1) Georgia 35, (16) Syracuse 10: The Dawgs take their first postseason step toward what they hope will be a second straight national championship. Quarterback Stetson Bennett just keeps doing what he does, and that is deliver yet another Georgia win.

(2) Texas A&M 27, (15) Washington 21: Too close for comfort for Jimbo Fisher and the Aggies in this first-round escape. But give first-year Washington coach Kalen DeBoer credit for having the Huskies ready to play. They're just unable to finish drives on offense.

(3) Wisconsin 37, (14) Western Kentucky 20: The Hilltoppers no longer have Bailey Zappe and his 62 touchdown passes from a year ago, but they have enough to keep this game close for a while until the Badgers' offensive line takes over in the second half.

(4) Penn State 24, (13) Iowa State 14: James Franklin and Matt Campbell have been two of the hottest names on coaching search lists the last few years, but it's a red-hot Sean Clifford that leads two key second-half drives to win it for the Nittany Lions.

(5) Miami 31, (12) Kansas State 30: Deuce Vaughn is sensational for the Wildcats with two rushing touchdowns and a receiving touchdown, but a 48-yard field goal in the final seconds by Andres Borregales sends The U into the second round.

(6) Kentucky 42, (11) SMU 20: Few coaches have been as successful at developing talent as Mark Stoops, and the Wildcats just keep rolling along with a convincing victory over SMU and first-year coach Rhett Lashlee.

(7) Ole Miss 35, (10) Arizona State 17: Matt Corral was tremendous in Lane Kiffin's system, and USC transfer Jaxson Dart also looks the part. His three touchdown passes and an inspired Ole Miss defense help the Rebels pull away from the Sun Devils.

(8) Houston 32, (9) UCLA 21: The Cougars follow up a AAC championship with a comeback victory over Chip Kelly and the Bruins in the first round. Houston converts two second-half turnovers into points to win its 11th game of the season.

SECOND ROUND

(1) Georgia 24, (8) Houston 16: Fifth-year safety Christopher Smith returns an interception 55 yards for a touchdown and forces a fumble that leads to another touchdown, helping the Dawgs overcome some sluggishness on offense and survive.

(2) Texas A&M 35, (7) Ole Miss 31: The "free agency" and "NIL" chatter between Fisher and Kiffin during the lead-up to the game is entertaining, but the game itself is even more entertaining. Antonio Johnson seals it for the Aggies with a safety blitz to stop a late Ole Miss drive.

(6) Kentucky 29, (3) Wisconsin 23: For the second straight season, the Wildcats win double-digit games and polish off the Badgers on the strength of 188 rushing yards from Chris Rodriguez, who twice converts on fourth-and-short in the fourth quarter.

(5) Miami 30, (4) Penn State 24: Miami quarterback Tyler Van Dyke, further cementing his place as one of the country's top breakout players, has his way with a Penn State defense that simply can't stop the Hurricanes' passing game.

REGIONAL SEMIFINALS

(1) Georgia vs. (5) Miami

(2) Texas A&M vs. (6) Kentucky

WEST REGION

FIRST ROUND

(1) Michigan 34, (16) Army 27: The Black Knights' option offense gives the Wolverines' fits, and for a while it looks like a No. 16 seed is going to take down a No. 1 seed, but J.J. McCarthy comes off the bench at quarterback to save Michigan and prevent the epic upset.

(2) Clemson 28, (15) Missouri 10: Clemson's defense sets the tone early by forcing three consecutive three-and-outs, and Missouri is never able to find any momentum offensively. Missouri is held to 45 rushing yards in this battle of Tigers.

(3) Oklahoma 30, (14) Texas Tech 27: These two teams won't be Big 12 rivals much longer with the Sooners set to move to the SEC. If this is indeed their last meeting, it's one nobody will forget anytime soon with Oklahoma rallying from a two-touchdown deficit to escape in the final minutes.

(4) USC 38, (13) Boise State 24: Lincoln Riley's postseason debut at USC is a successful one, as the Trojans start slowly but get it going after halftime. A transfer (no, not Caleb Williams) leads the way. Running back Travis Dye, who moved over from Oregon, gains 110 of his 135 yards in the second half.

(12) Fresno State 24, (5) Baylor 20: We're all looking for last season's version of Cincinnati from the Group of 5. Why not Fresno State? The Bulldogs look the part in their NCAA tournament opener with a resounding upset of the Bears.

(6) Wake Forest 40, (11) Auburn 24: If you like offense, you're going to love Sam Hartman and the Demon Deacons. Hartman shows why he's one of the best quarterbacks in the country with four touchdown passes in Wake Forest's first-round win.

(10) Purdue 32, (7) BYU 29: Jeff Brohm guided Purdue to its first nine-win season since 2003 a year ago, and the Boilermakers continue that wave of momentum with Aidan O'Connell passing for 405 yards and four touchdowns to move into the second round of the tourney.

(9) Pittsburgh 28, (8) LSU 21: The Panthers lost star quarterback Kenny Pickett to the NFL and offensive coordinator Mark Whipple to Nebraska, but they didn't lose Biletnikoff winner Jordan Addison, who is LSU's worst nightmare with 168 receiving yards and two touchdowns.

SECOND ROUND

(1) Michigan 21, (9) Pittsburgh 17: The two defenses take charge in this game, which becomes a punt-fest. Thankfully for the Wolverines, they have the one-two punch of Blake Corum and Hassan Haskins at running back, which is enough to squeeze out the win.

(2) Clemson 33, (10) Purdue 14: The Tigers, while improved on offense from a year ago, are still a defensive-centric team, which is never a bad thing in the postseason. Bryan Bresee, Myles Murphy, Trenton Simpson and Co. are too much for the Boilermakers.

(3) Oklahoma 41, (6) Wake Forest 38: It's always dicey when you get into a scoring match with the Deacons. That's where Hartman shines, but this is a scoring match the Sooners survive with Dillon Gabriel throwing a late touchdown pass on third-and-long.

(4) USC 30, (12) Fresno State 28: Getting a shot at the Trojans in the postseason is something the Bulldogs crave, and the stage is certainly not too big for Jeff Tedford's club. However, USC is a little too deep and too athletic for Fresno State to pull off its second straight upset.

REGIONAL SEMIFINALS

(1) Michigan vs. (4) USC

(2) Clemson vs. (3) Oklahoma

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