20 storylines to follow heading into the 2022 college football season

Let’s start with one storyline right off the bat: there is a strong belief that the 2022 college football season will be as normal as we could want after two years of COVID ravaging the sport. Sure, we will have guys out due to safety protocols, and there is always the threat of something happening, but the prevailing feeling is that college football will go on with a “business as usual” attitude in the new normal. That’s a great thing.

Beyond that, plenty of interesting storylines will hover over the sport this fall and impact what happens on the field. Transfer rules, NIL, and conference realignment will continue to be major stories off the field, but there are some fantastic comings and goings on the gridiron that figure to make this one of the more interesting seasons in recent memory. Here are 20 storylines to follow throughout the 2022 season. 


1 of 20

Alabama vs Texas A&M

Alabama vs Texas A&M

John Rivera/Icon Sportswire

There may be more important games on the schedule, but none will have the heft that the Alabama-Texas A&M game on Oct. 8. For one thing, A&M beat Alabama last year on a walk-off field goal that ended a 23-month winning streak by the Crimson Tide. It was also Nick Saban’s first loss to one of his former assistants in a game. It would happen again when Kirby Smart and Georgia beat Alabama in the national championship.

Since then, there has been a war of words between head coaches Nick Saban and Jimbo Fisher, which has taken this rivalry to the next level. After A&M beat out Alabama for the top recruiting class in the country, Saban accused Fisher of “buying every player.” Fisher quickly called a news conference and went on a rampage blasting Saban. The beef calmed down a bit during the SEC media days, but when the two meet up in Tuscaloosa this October, all bets are off. 


2 of 20

Can Georgia repeat?

Can Georgia repeat?

Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire

After Georgia finally won its first national championship in nearly four decades, the question quickly arose: can they do it again? That’s a tough thing to ask anyone outside of Tuscaloosa.

Georgia lost a ton of talent from that title team, but the defense is still loaded, and the offense still has Stetson Bennett returning at quarterback. Although, there are some highly touted recruits gunning for his job. Despite all the guys now in the NFL, this defense will be led by Nolan Smith and Jalen Carter in the front seven, two solid running backs in Kendall Milton and Kenny McIntosh, and the offensive line will still be one of the best in the nation.

Alabama will be the favorite, and the SEC has gotten a lot better with new coaches at Florida and LSU, but Kirby Smart’s program isn’t going away. The Dawgs will be comfortably favored to win every game until they reach the SEC championship. From there, they have a great shot at getting back to the playoff. 


3 of 20

UCLA and USC’s trip around the Pac-12

UCLA and USC's trip around the Pac-12

Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

While this isn’t USC’s or UCLA’s final season in the Pac-12 before packing up for the Big Ten, it is the first season they’ll have to face a league they just rocked. A seemingly close-knit league was turned on its head when its top historic program and its fiercest rival stealthily took the Los Angeles area out of the conference and left the rest of the schools scrambling. Honestly, the future of the entire Pac-12 is at risk, and the remaining ten schools know the Trojans and Bruins put them there.

Needless to say, there will be some bad blood during the conference season as some of the schools get their last shot at USC and UCLA before they head off to the Midwest.


4 of 20

New coaches at major places

New coaches at major places

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The coaching carousel this offseason was one of the wildest in recent memory. After the dust settled, we have new head coaches at Notre Dame, Oklahoma, USC, LSU, Florida, and Miami. None of them are slam-dunk successes. Can Lincoln Riley get USC back to national title contender status as the program makes its way to the Big Ten? Can Brian Kelly work his magic (and his newfound Louisiana accent) to pull LSU out of the doldrums? Is Marcus Freeman ready for the pressure of being a Notre Dame head coach? How will Oklahoma transition from an offensive-minded guru to Brent Venables, one of the best defensive coaches in the nation? Is Billy Napier ready to take the leap from Louisiana to the hotbed of the SEC and rival of the defending national champion? And will the investment Miami and its supporters Mario Cristobal pay off?

There will be 30 new head coaches this season, and there are questions at each one of those places. With so many high-profile schools making such big changes, this will be a season we won’t forget. 


5 of 20

New quarterbacks, too

New quarterbacks, too

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Coaches weren’t the only ones moving this offseason, as the transfer portal and NIL deals have made free agency for quarterbacks the norm every offseason.

This year, we have Caleb Williams following Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma to USC. Dillon Gabriel left UCF for Williams’s old seat at Oklahoma. Jason Dart left USC for Ole Miss (Lane Kiffin’s old job to his current one), and Kedon Slovis left USC to replace Kenny Pickett at Pittsburgh. JT Daniels, who left USC for Georgia a few years ago, now is headed to West Virginia. Last year’s preseason Heisman favorite Spencer Rattler left Oklahoma for South Carolina.

Quinn Ewers left high school early to cash in on a NIL deal at Ohio State and is now transferred to Texas, his original committed school. Casey Thompson left Texas to try to resurrect Scott Frost‘s Nebraska program. Former Husker Adrian Martinez heads down the road to take over at Kansas State. Max Johnson departed LSU for a quarterback battle at Texas A&M. Zach Calzada won’t be part of that battle because he left Texas A&M for Auburn. Bo Nix left Auburn, his legacy school, to take snaps at Oregon.

Remember Michael Penix Jr. and his wonderful season at Indiana in 2020? Well, he’s at Washington now. Former Missouri starter Connor Bazelak will fill in Penix’s spot at Indiana. Emory Jones traded Florida for Arizona State, Jack Plummer left Purdue for Cal, and Grant Wells left Marshall for Virginia Tech.

Jayden De Laura led the Pac-12 in passing touchdowns last year and will stay in the conference as he left Washington State for Arizona. Add in Washington State’s Cameron Ward, who led Incarnate Word with 47 touchdown passes last year, and you have some interesting quarterback switches across the country.  


6 of 20

Jim Knowles may be the most impactful new hire

Jim Knowles may be the most impactful new hire

Barbara J. Perenic/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

No, Jim Knowles isn’t one of the 30 new coaches in the FBS, but he may be the most important hire in the national championship picture. Knowles leaves Oklahoma State, where he was the architect for a stout defense in the passing-frenzied Big 12, for an Ohio State squad that had issues stopping opposing offenses. In Ohio State’s two losses last season, they gave up an average of 38.5 points and nearly 500 yards per game with various points during the season where they really struggled to stop the run, including a wild Rose Bowl win over Utah. After a great 2019 season, the Buckeyes’ defense has been mediocre the last two years.

Knowles will be tasked with shoring up a defensive unit usually filled with talent, and he’ll be bringing a key contributor. Safety Tanner McCalister will use his fifth year of eligibility by transferring from Oklahoma State to Ohio State and becoming a coach-on-the-field of sorts to help ease the transition. 


7 of 20

Bryan Harsin drama at Auburn

Bryan Harsin drama at Auburn


Bryan Harsin’s first year at Auburn didn’t go very well. The Tigers lost their final five games of the season to finish with an ugly 6-7 mark and enter 2022 picked to finish last in the ultra-competitive SEC West. In between, he was investigated by the school after a mass exodus of players and coaches where Harsin’s culture was attacked (and defended by others). Ex-players said he was like “a dictator,” and he mistreated players. The investigation didn’t find any abuse or wrongdoing, but the damage may be done. Recruiting hasn’t gone well as the narrative surrounding Harsin isn’t a good one, and he is likely on the hottest seat in the nation with a brutal schedule staring at him. 


8 of 20

Can Clemson come back?

Can Clemson come back?

John Byrum/Icon Sportswire

Clemson had been a College Football Playoff mainstay until last season, when its hold on the ACC ended after a six-year reign. Clemson finished 10-3 on the season but third in the Atlantic Division and missed the league’s title game (Pittsburgh became the first Coastal Division champ to win the ACC title since 2010 when they beat Wake Forest).

The Tigers’ falloff can be contributed to the loss of major talent from their playoff runs (most notably quarterback Trevor Lawrence and running back Travis Etienne). In contrast, new quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei (9 TDs, 10 INTs) struggled to find consistency. Clemson got better as the season went along, but it is not the dominant team it has been, while the ACC isn’t as down as it has been, either.

The biggest news is that Clemson lost both of its long-time coordinators. Offensive coordinator Tony Elliott left to become the head coach at Virginia, while vaunted defensive coordinator Brent Venables is now the head man at Oklahoma. Not to say that either man is irreplaceable, but their departures will put some stress on a coaching staff that had been not only one of the most talented in the country but also the most stable.

Clemson is caught up in the middle of the fast-changing world of college football. From Dabo Swinney’s comments about NIL and transfer rules to the school’s posturing amidst the realignment rumors, the program needs to regain its footing as one of the elite.


9 of 20

Who will be this year’s Cincinnati?

Who will be this year's Cincinnati?

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Cincinnati finally broke through and became the first Group of 5 school to reach the College Football Playoff last season. Who could be the 2022 version?

Well, there is BYU (who will be joining Cincinnati in the Big 12 next season). BYU had a fantastic 2020 season (11-1) and followed it with a 10-3 record last year. Quarterback Jaren Hall is the real deal, and a lot of the Cougars’ top playmakers are back. They also get something that not most Group of 5 heavyweights get: opportunity. BYU gets Arkansas, Baylor, Notre Dame, and Oregon on their schedule, so there will be almost no way an undefeated Cougars team could get left out of the playoff conversation.

Cincinnati will also be in the mix, though losing QB Desmond Ridder to the NFL will be a tough hurdle. Still, Luke Fickell shooed away other high-profile gigs to stay at Cincinnati, and he still has one of the best defenses in the country. AAC (and soon Big 12) rival Houston will also contend for a conference crown with quarterback Clayton Tune in tow.

Fresno State may have the top quarterback you’ve never heard of in Jake Haener. The Bulldogs, led by the return of head coach Jeff Tedford, can win an underrated Mountain West conference. 


10 of 20

Sun Belt gets bigger

Sun Belt gets bigger

Andrew Wevers-USA TODAY Sports

The first wave of moves due to Oklahoma’s and Texas’ moves to the SEC happens this year as the Sun Belt welcomes James Madison (in their first FBS season), Marshall, Old Dominion, and Southern Miss (the final three from Conference USA). While not earth-shattering like the realignment moves coming down the line, it is significant. James Madison has been one of the better FCS programs over the last decade, while Marshall has had its moments in the sun (no pun intended) as well.

This was also a bit of a contentious split, as the Sun Belt originally scheduled the three Conference USA schools’ football programs, even though they weren’t supposed to be in the league yet (there is a 14-month notice that wasn’t adhered to). That caused lawsuits and injunctions. Whatever deal was made threw Conference USA in a bind since they have an odd number of members and needed to petition the NCAA for certain scheduling issues that will come up. The league faces more upheaval as six schools will leave after the 2022 season.

The Sun Belt, however, has positioned itself nicely as one of the best Group of 5 leagues.


11 of 20

BYU’s final year as an independent; 11 others on the move

BYU's final year as an independent; 11 others on the move

Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

The Sun Belt expands this year, but 2023 is when a lot of movement will begin. BYU will play its final season as an independent before heading to the Big 12. That move coincides with Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF playing their last seasons in the AAC before joining the Cougars in the Big 12. Those three schools comprise five of the seven AAC championship game winners: UCF won the AAC title in 2013; Cincinnati was part of a three-way tie in 2014 before there was a title game, and Cincinnati is the two-time defending champ. Cincinnati and Houston met for the AAC championship last year and are the favorites to meet again in 2022.

As previously mentioned, Conference USA will undergo another massive change for the 2023 season. With Marshall, Old Dominion, and Southern Miss leaving the league before this season, 2022 will be the final year Charlotte, FAU, North Texas, Rice, UAB, and UTSA compete in Conference USA before they head to the AAC. Liberty and New Mexico State join BYU as playing their final seasons as independent programs (those two head to Conference USA next year). Jacksonville State and Sam Houston State will join C-USA in 2023.

That’s a lot of changes on the horizon and doesn’t even mention the big moves of UCLA, USC, Oklahoma, or Texas, which are still years away from happening. 


12 of 20

Realignment rumors

Realignment rumors

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The world of college athletics is on edge right now, with football at the forefront of the decision-making. So the question over everyone’s head is, what’s next? Certainly, every school has different answers to that question. For instance, the ten remaining members of the Pac-12 are simultaneously sticking together to keep the league alive while looking for opportunities to jump ship. The ACC’s Grant of Rights clause has both made the league stable and uneasy. The Big 12 seems a bit on solid ground right now, but only because no one really wants any of its programs.

The Big Ten’s reported new television contract will put a lot of athletic directors and university presidents on notice. The Big 12 and Pac-12 are up for new TV deals, while the ACC is trying to find a way to make their bad deal with ESPN better. Lawyers from ACC schools have made trips to Greensboro to try to find cracks in the league’s bylaws, while the Big 12 and Pac-12 have tried to steal schools away from each other and simultaneously talked about a merger of sorts. There’s also pushback from the University of California system about UCLA walking away from its brothers.

And that Alliance that was created a year ago? That’s dead.

Don’t forget that white whale of Notre Dame just swimming out there on its own. Last year, it seemed like the Big 12 was teetering, and everyone else was doing alright. Only the Big Ten and SEC are in charge this year, while the other three Power 5 leagues are trying to hold their conferences together. 


13 of 20

End of the crazy ACC Coastal Division

End of the crazy ACC Coastal Division

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

With leagues changing their scheduling now that divisions aren’t required to hold a conference championship game, some of the quirks of the divisional format will soon be coming to an end. One of those is the ACC’s Coastal Division, one of the craziest collections of schools in the nation.

The ACC will ditch divisions in 2023, which makes this the last season of the Coastal Division. The Coastal was never great and rarely able to hold a candle to the dominant Clemson or Florida State in the Atlantic Division, but it had a charm all its own where no one had any idea how it would shake out year to year. Pittsburgh stunned many by not only winning the Coastal last season but becoming the first team from the division to win an ACC championship since 2010.

From 2013 to 2019, all seven schools in the Coastal Division won it exactly once. Yes, even Duke won it. None of them won the ACC title. A group of schools that, for the most part, were put together with no actual reasoning other than an attempt to create Miami-Florida State ACC title games that ended up never happening.

North Carolina and Duke shared a division to be opposite NC State and Wake Forest. Well, you have to stick Virginia with North Carolina in the “South’s Oldest Rivalry.” That means Virginia Tech stays with Virginia. Miami needs to be in the opposite division than Florida State, with Georgia Tech, for whatever reason, thrown into the mix. When Pitt and Syracuse joined in the 2010s, Pitt stuck with the Virginia schools while Syracuse gave Boston College a buddy in the Atlantic.

No Coastal Division team played for a national championship or the College Football Playoff during its run. Still, the only predictable thing about the division was its unpredictability. As 2022 is its last hurrah, it is only fitting that the division is again up for grabs. 


14 of 20

Pac-12 goes division-less

Pac-12 goes division-less

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Pac-12 will start going division-less in 2022, ending the North vs. South concept. Initially, it made sense as the four California schools that were split up along division lines would now be together, but that thought has been tossed aside as USC and UCLA will be leaving the league in a couple of years.  

The North has dominated the championship game, winning 9 of the 11 games, and had become the best part of the league in the College Football Playoff era. The league will now play a nine-game schedule like it usually has along the typical divisional format (five games against your own division; four against the other division) but without actually having divisions. The top two teams in the standings will face off in the title game. They were still discussing scheduling models for the future when the UCLA/USC news happened, so the Pac-12 could use a round-robin format if the league stays at ten members. 


15 of 20

Travis Hunter at Jackson State

Travis Hunter at Jackson State

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One of the biggest coups of the season was when Deion Sanders beat out several big-time programs to get cornerback Travis Hunter to come to Jackson State. Hunter was rated as the No. 1 prospect in many rankings, and schools like Florida State, Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, Oklahoma, Michigan, and Florida were after him. Yet, Sanders was able to get the highest recruit in HBCU and FCS history to come to Jackson State — beating his alma mater Florida State in the process — in one of the most stunning moves in recruitment history. It was such a stunner that Deion and Jackson State became part of Nick Saban’s rant about schools paying players.

The move shined a light on HBCUs, the value of the education you receive, and the ability to get to the NFL by committing to one of the schools. It also showed that NIL money will find you no matter where you are. The move has shown the electricity surrounding Deion Sanders and his ability not just to build a program but do it with access to the best prep talent. It also says a lot about Hunter, who could’ve done the easier thing and committed to one of the elite programs recruiting him instead of creating his own path. Defensive backs at FCS schools don’t typically move the needle, but Hunter will be a player to watch over the next several seasons. After all, he’ll be coached by one of the best corners to walk the earth. 


16 of 20

Will Nebraska finally bounce back?

Will Nebraska finally bounce back?

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Scott Frost was supposed to get Nebraska back to its winning ways. Heck, he was supposed to have the Cornhuskers contending for Big Ten titles. But the Huskers haven’t reached a bowl game in his four seasons in Lincoln. They’re coming off a 3-9 season where they lost 8 of 9 conference games. So, why is there optimism?

The record was bad, but it wasn’t like the Huskers weren’t competitive. Eight of their nine losses were within one score (eight points or less), with that one outlier being a nine-point loss to Ohio State. They hung with Oklahoma in Norman (23-16 loss), took Michigan State to overtime (23-20), and gave Big Ten champ Michigan all it could handle (32-29). Offensive coordinator Mark Whipple gets to develop Texas transfer quarterback Casey Thompson to lift an offense that let them down at times in 2021. The defense is already solid and will need to continue to be if Frost is going to last beyond this season. Finishing games would be a great start. 


Bryce Young: repeat Heisman winner

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Ohio State’s Archie Griffin is the only player ever to win multiple Heisman Trophy awards, and that was nearly 50 years ago. Alabama’s Bryce Young has a great opportunity to be the second player to do it.

Young had a fantastic first season as a starter, but he has room to improve. He is the best player on the best team (as of now), which gives him a great starting point in the race. A second year as a starter should make him much more prepared and confident in the pocket. What will work against him is losing two key receivers to the NFL — John Mechie and Jameson Williams — and competing in a much-improved quarterback class.

Following the Heisman race will be exciting no matter what, but especially if Young is a strong contender to repeat. 


18 of 20

What’s next at Michigan?

What's next at Michigan?

Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

What a difference a year makes. After going 2-4 in the pandemic-ravaged 2020 season, where the Wolverines canceled their game against rival Ohio State, many around the country felt Jim Harbaugh was on the thinnest of ice in Ann Arbor. Instead, he signed a four-year extension with a severe pay cut. Then, Michigan went 12-1, beat Ohio State for the first time in his time with the Wolverines, won the Big Ten title for the first time since 2004, and made their first appearance in the College Football Playoff.

Michigan offered Harbaugh a new contract, raising his base salary to $7 million a season. Before he signed it, however, he was in the running for NFL head coaching jobs in Las Vegas and Minnesota. In fact, he was interviewing with the Vikings on national signing day, which led to a lot of confusion around the program. He ultimately stayed at Michigan but will have some work to do to repeat as Big Ten champs. Aidan Hutchinson and defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald are gone. But the offense will have continuity with quarterback Cade McNamara and running backs Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards.

In the rollercoaster Harbaugh era, who knows what to expect in 2022? 


19 of 20

Pac-12’s quest to get back to the Playoff

Pac-12's quest to get back to the Playoff


Needless to say, news of UCLA and USC leaving for the Big Ten was a huge blow from an already reeling conference. The league was already having a tough time shedding its reputation as a Power 5 conference that can’t produce championship-caliber teams. Since the College Football Playoff started eight years ago, the Pac-12 has only sent the 2014 Oregon Ducks and 2016 Washington Huskies to the event, with the Ducks’ win over Florida State the only Playoff win the league has.

That means the Pac-12 has been shut out of the Playoff for the last five years and hasn’t won a game in eight. Can that streak end in 2022?

The league’s best bet is Utah. The defending champs return quarterback Cameron Rising and most of his receiving corps. Although, replacing Britain Covey will be tough. Running back Tavion Thomas, who had a remarkable stretch to end the regular season in ’21 and figures to be one of the top backs in the country this season, is also returning. The defense will be just as tough as it was a year ago.

Oregon could be in the mix, especially if they can beat Georgia in the season-opener in Atlanta. And you have to wonder how quickly Lincoln Riley gets things turned around at USC. The rest of the league is rather mediocre, so picking up a big non-conference win (Utah at Florida, Oregon vs. Georgia, USC vs. Notre Dame) would go a long way toward credibility.


20 of 20

Miami pushes its chips to the middle of the table

Miami pushes its chips to the middle of the table

Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Miami wants to be Miami again. It has been nearly 20 years since the Hurricanes have been a feared program. The current players were toddlers (or younger) when the ‘Canes boasted one of the most talented stables of players ever witnessed on a college football team. Aside from a surge in 2017, Miami hasn’t been that program at all.

They want that to change now. The school openly went after Oregon’s Mario Cristobal even before firing their now-ex-coach Manny Diaz. They brought in Clemson’s athletic director Dan Radakovich to run their program. Boosters and administrators are promising to fund the program (even attempting to build a stadium on campus) to bring the Hurricanes back to their glory days. All of this will take some time, but Miami has a good shot at winning the ACC Coastal Division this year, which gives them a shot at the ACC title. Those are reachable goals from a program that has won precisely one bowl game since 2006. Still, the long-term goals are much grander. 

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