The 2022 Way-Too-Early college football top 25
- Senior college football writer
- Author of seven books on college football
- Graduate of the University of Georgia
The 2021 college football season has just ended, with Georgia beating Alabama 33-18 in Monday night’s national title game, but it’s already time to look ahead to the 2022 season.
Not surprisingly, Nick Saban’s Alabama squad will start our 2022 Way-Too-Early college football top 25 as No. 1, leading three SEC teams in the top four.
Thanks to some industry-shaking coaching moves and an overflowing transfer portal, this has been a wild offseason that shows no signs of slowing down. As a result, these rankings will be updated several times throughout the offseason.
1. Alabama Crimson Tide
2021 record: 13-2 (7-1 SEC)
Starters expected to return: 6 offense, 7 defense, 2 special teams
Key starters expected to leave: OT Evan Neal, WR Jameson Williams, DE Phidarian Mathis, S Jordan Battle, CB Josh Jobe, RB Brian Robinson Jr., WR John Metchie III
Key additions: CB Eli Ricks, OT Tyler Booker, DE Jeremiah Alexander, WR Shazz Preston, RB Emmanuel Henderson, RB Jahmyr Gibbs
Outlook: It probably wasn’t the strongest team of the Nick Saban era, given the Crimson Tide’s struggles on the offensive line and on defense at times this past season. Nonetheless, the Tide will be favored to win it all in 2022, with Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Bryce Young and much of the defense coming back. The Tide might dip into the transfer portal to help replace Williams’ and Metchie’s massive production. Ricks, an All-American at LSU in 2020, will help shore up the Tide’s secondary.
2. Ohio State Buckeyes
2021 record: 11-2 (8-1 Big Ten)
Starters expected to return: 6 offense, 7 defense, 1 special teams
Key starters expected to leave: WR Garrett Wilson, WR Chris Olave, G Thayer Munford, OT Nicholas Petit-Frere, DT Haskell Garrett, DE Tyreke Smith, CB Marcus Williamson, PK Noah Ruggles
Key additions: ATH Alex Styles, OLB C.J. Hicks, DE Kenyatta Jackson Jr., OLB Gabe Powers, ATH Kaleb Brown, DT Caden Curry
Outlook: The Buckeyes just missed making the College Football Playoff for a third straight time under coach Ryan Day, with a humbling 42-27 loss at rival Michigan knocking them out of contention. Much of Ohio State’s problems in 2021 can be attributed to the defense. Day hired Jim Knowles, who revamped Oklahoma State’s defense the past two seasons, and Knowles will have his work cut out for him. With quarterback C.J. Stroud and running back TreVeyon Henderson coming back, the offense should again be explosive, even with Wilson and Olave turning pro. The receiver corps is in good hands with Jaxon Smith-Njigba. The 2022 season will be demanding, with a home opener against Notre Dame, Big Ten road games against Michigan State and Penn State and divisional crossover games versus Iowa and Wisconsin at home.
3. Georgia Bulldogs
2021 record: 14-1 (8-0 SEC)
Starters expected to return: 9 offense, 5 defense, 1 special teams
Key starters expected to leave: DE Travon Walker, NT Jordan Davis, DT Devonte Wyatt, LB Nakobe Dean, LB Channing Tindall, CB Derion Kendrick, OT Jamaree Salyer, RB James Cook
Key additions: S Tykee Smith, DB Malaki Starks, CB Jaheim Singletary, RB Branson Robinson, OLB Jalon Walker, CB Daylen Everette, QB Gunner Stockton
Outlook: The Bulldogs finally ended a 41-year national championship drought with a win over the Tide, and will enter the 2022 season as the SEC East favorites. Georgia will undergo a massive facelift on defense, starting at the top with coordinator Dan Lanning leaving to become Oregon’s new coach. Former Florida and South Carolina coach Will Muschamp and inside linebackers coach Glenn Schumann will work as co-coordinators in 2022. Georgia’s losses on defense will be extensive, and younger players such as Tramel Walthour, Jalen Carter and Nazir Stackhouse will have big shoes to fill on the D-line. Quarterback Stetson Bennett is eligible to return for another season; he will probably battle JT Daniels and Brock Vandagriff for the starting job next season. Georgia’s offense might have to do more heavy lifting in 2022.
4. Texas A&M Aggies
2021 record: 8-4 (4-4 SEC)
Starters expected to return: 5 offense, 5 defense, 1 special teams
Key starters expected to leave: OT Kenyon Green, DT DeMarvin Leal, RB Isaiah Spiller, TE Jalen Wydermyer, DL Jayden Peevy, DB Leon O’Neal Jr., DE Tyree Johnson, LB Aaron Hansford, DE Micheal Clemons
Key additions: QB Max Johnson, QB Conner Weigman, DT Walter Nolen, DT Gabe Brownlow-Dindy, WR Evan Stewart
Outlook: The Aggies took a step back in 2021, which wasn’t much of a surprise after they lost four starting offensive linemen and quarterback Haynes King broke his leg in the second game. Now, Texas A&M’s defense, its strength this past season, will have to be rebuilt. Defensive coordinator Mike Elko left to become Duke’s new coach; Aggies coach Jimbo Fisher hired Mississippi’s D.J. Durkin to replace Elko. The entire front four on defense — tackles Leal and Peevy and top pass-rushers Johnson and Clemons — are expected to leave. Leading tackler Hansford will have to be replaced, as well. If King is healthy, he’ll battle LSU transfer Max Johnson and incoming freshman Weigman, the No. 1 pocket passer in the ESPN 300, for the starting job next season.
5. Michigan Wolverines
2021 record: 12-2 (8-1 Big Ten)
Starters expected to return: 6 offense, 5 defense, 0 special teams
Key starters expected to leave: DE Aidan Hutchinson, OLB David Ojabo, RB Hassan Haskins, LB Josh Ross, SS Brad Hawkins, CB Vincent Gray, S Daxton Hill, C Andrew Vastardis, OT Andrew Stueber, DT Christopher Hinton
Key additions: CB William Johnson, DE Derrick Moore, OT Tyler Morris, S Keon Sabb, WR Darrius Clemons
Outlook: It might have taken seven seasons, but Jim Harbaugh finally broke through what looked like a ceiling at his alma mater. The season ended with a flop, a 34-11 loss to Georgia in the Capital One Orange Bowl, but that won’t take away from a breakout campaign. The Wolverines defeated Ohio State for the first time in a decade, won the Big Ten for the first time since 2004 and reached the playoff for the first time. After there was mounting pressure to fire Harbaugh following the 2020 season, he shook up his coaching staff, and the changes paid off. First-year defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald did fantastic work, and he might have to do even more next season with Hutchinson and Ojabo turning pro. Identifying Haskins’ replacement and settling a quarterback battle between Cade McNamara and J.J. McCarthy will be priorities this spring.
6. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
2021 record: 11-2
Starters expected to return: 7 offense, 7 defense, 1 special teams
Key starters expected to leave: S Kyle Hamilton, RB Kyren Williams, G Cain Madden, QB Jack Coan, NG Kurt Hinish, DE Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, LB Drew White
Key additions: LB Jaylen Sneed, WR Tobias Merriweather, CB Jaden Mickey, DE Tyson Ford, ILB Niuafe Tuihalamaka, OT Aamil Wagner, S Brandon Joseph
Outlook: The start of the Marcus Freeman era didn’t go off as planned, as Notre Dame blew a 21-point lead in a 37-35 loss to Oklahoma State in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl. The former defensive coordinator will grow into the position, but it’s hard to ignore his energy and desire to upgrade recruiting. The defense got a boost with junior end Isaiah Foskey deciding to return, along with fifth-year seniors Jayson Ademilola and Justin Ademilola. Joseph, an All-American at Northwestern in 2020, has had nine interceptions the past two seasons. Center Jarrett Patterson also hasn’t announced his future plans. With Coan departing, Drew Pyne and Tyler Buchner will battle for the quarterback job this spring. The offensive line should be better, especially after freshmen Joe Alt and Blake Fisher emerged as the starting tackles. The Irish will play road games against Ohio State, North Carolina, Syracuse and Southern California in 2022.
7. Utah Utes
2021 record: 10-4 (8-1 Pac-12)
Starters expected to return: 7 offense, 6 defense, 2 special teams
Key starters expected to leave: LB Devin Lloyd, LB Nephi Sewell, DE Mika Tafua, WR Britain Covey, RB TJ Pledger, C Nick Ford, OT Bamidele Olaseni, S Vonte Davis
Key additions: LB Mohamoud Diabate, QB Nathan Johnson, ATH Justius Lowe, LB Lander Barton, S Elijah Davis, LB Justin Medlock, WR Landon Morris, TE Logan Kendall
Outlook: The Utes’ inspiring season ended with a disappointing 48-45 loss to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl. Still, Kyle Whittingham and his team did amazing work following the tragic deaths of two players. The Utes should again be favored to win the Pac-12, even with star players such as Lloyd, Sewell and Covey departing for the NFL. Last week, the Utes added transfer Diabate, who was Florida’s second-leading tackler last season. Quarterback Cameron Rising will enter the offseason as the undisputed starter. The Utes open the 2022 season at Florida and also play San Diego State in a nonconference game.
8. NC State Wolfpack
2021 record: 9-3 (6-2 ACC)
Starters expected to return: 8 offense, 10 defense, 1 special teams
Key starters expected to leave: OT Ikem Ekwonu, RB Zonovan Knight, RB Ricky Person Jr., WR Emeka Emezie, DE Daniel Joseph
Key additions: ATH Michael Allen, DT Brandon Cleveland, OLB Torren Wright, G Jacarrius Peak, QB M.J. Morris, P Shane McDonough
Outlook: The Wolfpack were disappointed about not having the chance to complete just their second 10-win season in 116 years when the Holiday Bowl was canceled because of COVID-19 issues for UCLA. But NC State will be in prime position to reach that milestone in 2022, and possibly win even more. Quarterback Devin Leary, who threw for 3,433 yards with 35 touchdowns, is returning. Ekwonu, a potential top-10 pick, will be difficult to replace, but the other four starting offensive linemen should return. With linebacker Payton Wilson, cornerback Derrek Pitts Jr. and safety Tanner Ingle already declaring their intentions to stay, the Wolfpack might bring back 14 of their top 15 tacklers. NC State’s nonconference schedule in 2022 (East Carolina, Charleston Southern, Texas Tech and UConn) is more than manageable.
9. Oklahoma State Cowboys
2021 record: 12-2 (8-1 Big 12)
Starters expected to return: 7 offense, 6 defense, 1 special teams
Key starters expected to leave: RB Jaylen Warren, WR Tay Martin, G Josh Sills, LB Malcolm Rodriguez, LB Devin Harper, S Kolby Harvell-Peel
Key additions: WR Talyn Shettron, QB Garrett Rangel, RB Braylin Presley, OT Tyrone Webber, LB Xavier Benson, RB C.J. Brown
Outlook: The Cowboys came within a few inches of winning the Big 12 title and possibly reaching the CFP, but instead settled for a 21-point comeback in their win over Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl, which coach Mike Gundy called the biggest in the program’s history. With quarterback Spencer Sanders and most of the offense returning, the Pokes should be potent again in 2022. The defense will need a facelift — Knowles left for Ohio State and leading tacklers Rodriguez and Harper departed. Gundy isn’t sure whether he’ll promote from within or hire an outside candidate as defensive coordinator. The Pokes will play Big 12 road games at Baylor, TCU, Kansas State, Kansas and Oklahoma next season.
10. Michigan State Spartans
2021 record: 11-2 (7-2 Big Ten)
Starters expected to return: 5 offense, 9 defense, 1 special teams
Key starters expected to leave: RB Kenneth Walker III, WR Jalen Nailor, C Matt Allen, OT Kevin Jarvis, DE Jacub Panasiuk, DE Drew Beesley, K Matt Coghlin
Key additions: LB Aaron Brule, DE Khris Bogle, LB Jacoby Windmon, RB Jalen Berger, CB Caleb Coley, DT Alex VanSumeren, RB Dillon Tatum, WR Antonio Gates Jr.
Outlook: Mel Tucker is convinced he can build a national championship caliber program at Michigan State, and he took a big step toward credibility in his second season. The nine-win improvement from 2020 is the biggest in school history. The Spartans started 8-0 and were No. 3 in the initial CFP rankings before cooling off. They’ll undoubtedly miss Walker, who was the second-leading rusher in the FBS with 1,636 yards in 12 games. The Spartans added Berger, a transfer from Wisconsin, and might be looking for another running back to help. Three starting offensive linemen are expected to exit, along with Nailor, the team’s second-leading receiver. Much of the defense will return, but the Spartans need better pass-rushers, which is why they added Brule from Mississippi State and Windmon from UNLV.
11. Clemson Tigers
2021 record: 10-3 (6-2 ACC)
Starters expected to return: 11 offense, 6 defense, 1 special teams
Key starters expected to leave: DE Xavier Thomas, LB James Skalski, CB Andrew Booth Jr., FS Nolan Turner, CB Mario Goodrich
Key additions: QB Cade Klubnik, CB Jeadyn Lukus, WR Antonio Williams, OT Collin Sadler, WR Adam Randall, CB Toriano Pride
Outlook: Change is finally coming to Dabo Swinney’s dynasty, and the Tigers are undergoing a major overhaul on their coaching staff, after Brent Venables left for Oklahoma and offensive coordinator Tony Elliott was named Virginia’s new coach. Swinney stayed in house to replace them, promoting Wes Goodwin to defensive coordinator and Brandon Streeter to offensive playcaller. Quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei threw more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (nine) in his first full season as a starter, and he might be pushed by Klubnik, who is enrolling this month. The Tigers have to play better on the offensive line and need playmakers to emerge at receiver. Streeter might look to get running backs Will Shipley and Kobe Pace and tight ends more involved in the passing game. The defense will get a boost from the return of tackle Bryan Bresee, who missed much of 2021 with a torn ACL.
12. Oregon Ducks
2021 record: 10-4 (7-2 Pac-12)
Starters expected to return: 8 offense, 7 defense, 2 special teams
Key starters expected to leave: DE Kayvon Thibodeaux, CB Mykael Wright, CB DJ James, QB Anthony Brown, WR Devon Williams, G George Moore, S Verone McKinley III
Key additions: QB Bo Nix, LB Devon Jackson, ATH Jalil Tucker, DE Gracen Halton, S Trejon Williams, LB Harrison Taggart, DB Christian Gonzalez, DT Sam Taimani
Outlook: After former coach Mario Cristobal bolted to return to Miami, his alma mater, the Ducks are gambling on Lanning, a first-time head coach. Lanning inherits a defense that loses Thibodeaux, potentially the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, but brings back a lot of talent, including LB Noah Sewell, CB Dontae Manning and NT Popo Aumavae. Only three starters on offense are expected to leave, and Lanning is bringing in former Auburn starter Nix to compete for the starting quarterback job. Even with Lanning’s inexperience, there’s enough in place for the Ducks to win the Pac-12 North again. The Ducks open the season against Georgia in Atlanta and play BYU at home.
13. Houston Cougars
2021 record: 12-2 (8-0 AAC)
Starters expected to return: 7 offense, 6 defense, 1 special teams
Key starters expected to leave: G Keenan Murphy, C Kody Russey, OT Dennis Bardwell, CB/KR Marcus Jones, DT Logan Hall, DE David Anenih, LB Deontay Anderson, CB Damarion Williams, WR Jake Herslow
Key additions: WR Matthew Golden, WR Brice Johnson, OL Demetrius Hunter, CB Moses Alexander, DE Nadame Tucker, DT Amipeleasi Lange
Outlook: After winning 12 games for only the third time in school history, the Cougars will again be among the AAC favorites in 2022, if not the favorite. There are plenty of pieces coming back on offense, including quarterback Clayton Tune, RB Alton McCaskill and receiver Nathaniel Dell. The offensive line needs to play better and Dell needs help on the perimeter. Houston’s “Third Ward” defense is what has fueled its resurgence under Dana Holgorsen, and the Cougars are fortunate coordinator Doug Belk is sticking around after drawing interest from a handful of Power 5 programs. Jones’ big-play capabilities on kick returns and in the secondary will be sorely missed.
14. Wake Forest Demon Deacons
2021 record: 11-3 (7-1 ACC)
Starters expected to return: 8 offense, 7 defense, 2 special teams
Key starters expected to leave: WR Jaquarii Roberson, RB Christian Beal-Smith, TE Brandon Chapman, DT Miles Fox, LB Luke Masterson, LB Traveon Redd, CB Ja’sir Taylor
Key additions: DT Kobie Turner, WR Jaydn Girard, CB Zamari Stevenson, DE Eli Hall, WR Wesley Grimes, LB Tommy Bebie
Outlook: Dave Clawson continues to do amazing work at Wake Forest, leading the Demon Deacons to at least 10 wins for only the second time in the 114-year history of the program. Wake Forest won the Atlantic Division and played in its sixth consecutive bowl game. With quarterback Sam Hartman coming back, the Demon Deacons should be right back in the mix for an ACC title in 2022. Hartman will miss Roberson, who had 71 catches for 1,078 yards with eight touchdowns, but A.T. Perry is just as good. Beal-Smith, the team’s leading rusher, entered the transfer portal. As potent as Wake Forest has been on offense, its defense could be better. Clawson hired Purdue defensive coordinator Brad Lambert to replace Lyle Hemphill, who left for Duke.
15. Iowa Hawkeyes
2021 record: 10-4 (7-2 Big Ten)
Starters expected to return: 8 offense, 7 defense, 1 special teams
Key starters expected to leave: C Tyler Linderbaum, RB Tyler Goodson, G Kyler Schott, DE Zach VanValkenburg, FS Jack Koerner, CB Matt Hankins, S/LB Dane Belton
Key additions: DE Aaron Graves, S Xavier Nwankpa, DE Caden Crawford, RB Kaleb Johnson, RB Jaziun Patterson, OT Jack Dotzler
Outlook: Kirk Ferentz’s football machine keeps chugging along, inch by inch, at a very Iowa-like speed. The Hawkeyes won 10 games for the second time in three seasons, but it’s impossible not to imagine what they might have done with a more-than-pedestrian offense. Iowa ranked 121st in the FBS in total offense (303.7 yards), 109th in passing (180.1 yards) and 99th in scoring (23.4 points). Quarterbacks Spencer Petras and Alex Padilla combined to complete 55% of their attempts with 12 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Goodson turned pro after running for 1,151 yards with six scores. The Hawkeyes need much more out of their passing game. Even with Hankins and VanValkenburg moving on, Iowa’s defense will again be stingy in 2022. Will its offense be better?
16. Baylor Bears
2021 record: 12-2 (7-2 Big 12)
Starters expected to return: 3 offense, 4 defense, 2 special teams
Key starters expected to leave: RB Abram Smith, CB Kalon Barnes, S Jalen Pitre, WR Tyquan Thornton, LB Terrel Bernard, S JT Woods, WR R.J. Sneed, CB Raleigh Texada, RB Trestan Ebner
Key additions: WR Armani Winfield, TE Kaian Roberts-Day, G George Maile, S Devyn Bobby, OLB Jeremy Patton, RB Richard Reese
Outlook: The Bears completed a remarkable turnaround after going 2-7 in coach Dave Aranda’s first season. They set a school record with 12 victories, won a Big 12 title and defeated five ranked foes. With a 21-7 victory against Ole Miss in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, they won a New Year’s Day bowl game for the first time since 1957. Now, Aranda and his staff will carry a lot of momentum into 2022, with four starting offensive linemen electing to come back. Ebner and Smith will be big losses in the running game, and Gerry Bohanon and Blake Sharpen will duke it out for the starting quarterback job this spring. Help will also be needed on the perimeter, with Thornton and Sneed moving on. Aranda might once again look for replacements through the transfer portal.
17. Oklahoma Sooners
2021 record: 11-2 (7-2 Big 12)
Starters expected to return: 4 offense, 4 defense, 1 special teams
Key starters expected to leave: DE Nik Bonitto, LB Brian Asamoah, DE Isaiah Thomas, DL Perrion Winfrey, S Delarrin Turner-Yell, S Pat Fields, WR Jadon Haselwood, RB Kennedy Brooks, G Marquis Hayes, OT Tyrese Robinson
Key additions: QB Dillon Gabriel, G McKade Mettauer, TE Daniel Parker Jr., RB Gavin Sawchuk, ATH Gentry Williams, LB Kobie McKenzie, WR Nicholas Anderson, DL Jonah La’ulu
Outlook: The Sooners’ transition from former coach Lincoln Riley to Brent Venables might be a lot smoother if quarterback Caleb Williams sticks around. He has entered the transfer portal, although Williams said returning to OU remains an option. The Sooners weren’t taking a chance, however, and grabbed Gabriel, who threw for more than 8,000 yards with 70 touchdowns in three seasons at UCF. Freshman receiver Mario Williams also might transfer. Venables, who has never been a head coach, will have to address heavy losses on the line of scrimmage. Perhaps the team’s six best defenders are departing, along with the leading rusher and three of the top four receivers. The addition of Mettauer, who started 28 games at California, will help ease the losses in the interior offensive line.
18. BYU Cougars
2021 record: 10-3
Starters expected to return: 8 offense, 11 defense, 2 special teams
Key starters expected to leave: RB Tyler Allgeier, WR Neil Pau’u, C James Empey
Key additions: OT Kingsley Suamataia, WR Cody Hagen, WR Dominique McKenzie, DE Aisea Moa, DE Logan Fano, RB Christopher Brooks, FB Houston Heimuli
Outlook: The Cougars went 21-4 the past two seasons, which earned coach Kalani Sitake a new contract and hefty raise. This past season, BYU went 6-1 against Power 5 foes and 5-0 against the Pac-12. With BYU moving to the Big 12 in 2023, it has to get bigger, stronger and deeper on defense, which was a shortcoming in losses to Boise State, Baylor and UAB in the Independence Bowl. The good news is that every starter is expected back on defense in 2022, when injured players like linebacker Keenan Pili and cornerbacks Micah Harper and Keenan Ellis should be available. Replacing Allgeier, who ran for 1,606 yards and led FBS players with 23 rushing touchdowns, won’t be easy. The Cougars added Brooks, who led Cal in rushing last season, and Heimuli, a transfer from Stanford to help. Quarterback Jaren Hall and four starting offensive linemen are returning. BYU’s schedule next season includes home games against Baylor and Arkansas, road games at Oregon, Boise State and Stanford and a contest against Notre Dame in Las Vegas.
19. Cincinnati Bearcats
2021 record: 13-1 (8-0 AAC)
Starters expected to return: 7 offense, 2 defense, 2 special teams
Key starters expected to leave: QB Desmond Ridder, CB Ahmad Gardner, CB Coby Bryant, DE Myjai Sanders, WR Alec Pierce, RB Jerome Ford, LB Joel Dublanko, LB Darrian Beavers, DT Curtis Brooks
Key additions: DE Mario Eugenio, CB Oliver Bridges, DT Derrick Shepard, QB J.Q. Hardaway, QB Luther Richesson
Outlook: The Bearcats became the first team from a Group of 5 conference to reach the CFP, and now they’ll have to reload their roster and replace much of the firepower that got them there. The good news: Coach Luke Fickell stuck around to help them do it. There are expected to be especially heavy losses on defense, including star cornerbacks Gardner and Bryant, leading tackler Dublanko and top pass-rusher Brooks. Ridder, a two-time ACC Offensive Player of the Year, had a 44-6 record as a starter and won’t be easily replaced. Redshirt freshman Evan Prater, who was named Ohio’s Mr. Football in 2019, will be the favorite to take over in 2022. Cincinnati might take a step back next season, but it’ll still be a contender for an AAC title. The Bearcats play at Arkansas and host Indiana next season.
20. Arkansas Razorbacks
2021 record: 9-4 (4-4 SEC)
Starters expected to return: 6 offense, 3 defense, 2 special teams
Key starters expected to leave: WR Treylon Burks, OT Myron Cunningham, WR Tyson Morris, LB Grant Morgan, LB Hayden Henry, DE Tre Williams, CB Montaric Brown, DT John Ridgeway, S Joe Foucha, DB Greg Brooks Jr.
Key additions: WR Jadon Haselwood, DE Landon Jackson, OT Andrew Chamblee, S Myles Rowser, OT E’Marion Harris, WR Isaiah Sategna
Outlook: It might have taken Sam Pittman decades to finally get a chance to be a head coach, but he’s making the most of it now. The Hogs went 9-4 in his second season, winning two more games than they had in the previous three years combined. They beat three ranked foes and nearly took down two more. There will be much work to do in the spring in rebuilding the front seven on defense. Star safety Jalen Catalon will be back from shoulder surgery, although three starting defensive backs are leaving, including Foucha and Brooks Jr., who unexpectedly entered the transfer portal. Three top receivers are departing, but the addition of Haselwood should give the passing game a boost. As if playing in the rugged SEC West wasn’t enough, the Hogs will play nonconference games against Cincinnati, BYU and Liberty in 2022.
21. Kentucky Wildcats
2021 record: 10-3 (5-3 SEC)
Key starters expected to return: 7 offense, 7 defense, 1 special teams
Key starters expected to leave: OT Darian Kinnard, C Luke Fortner, WR Wan’Dale Robinson, DE Joshua Paschal, NG Marquan McCall, CB Cedric Dort Jr., FS Yusuf Corker
Key additions: WR Tayvion Robinson, OT Kiyaunta Goodwin, DE Tyreese Fearbry, LB Keaten Wade, WR Dane Key, WR Barion Brown, G Tashawan Manning, DT Darrion Henry-Young, CB Zahquan Frazier
Outlook: The Wildcats narrowly missed out on possibly playing in a New Year’s Six bowl game, but they still won 10 games in a season for only the second time since 1977. (The first was 2018, also under coach Mark Stoops.) With tailback Chris Rodriguez Jr. opting to come back, the Wildcats could be very explosive on offense next season. Quarterback Will Levis, a Penn State transfer, should be even better with a full offseason. Both offensive tackles might turn pro. Defensively, there are a lot of questions about who is coming back with 10 senior starters on that side of the ball. If at least a handful decide to return, the Wildcats might push for 10 victories again.
22. USC Trojans
2021 record: 4-8 (3-6 Pac-12)
Starters expected to return: 6 offense, 6 defense, 2 special teams
Key starters expected to leave: WR Drake London, LB Drake Jackson, LB Kana’i Mauga, CB Chris Steele, CB Isaac Taylor-Stuart, G Liam Jimmons, T Jalen McKenzie
Key additions: WR Terrell Bynum, DT Tashawn Manning, CB Domani Jackson, RB Raleek Brown, S Zion Branch, CB Fabian Ross, DE Earl Barquet, OT Bobby Haskins
Outlook: Lincoln Riley inherited a top-five program from Bob Stoops at Oklahoma, but he’s taking on a mess at USC. The Trojans are coming off their worst season in 30 years and haven’t won more than eight games since 2017. On Monday, QB Jaxson Dart entered the transfer portal (former starter Kedon Slovis has already transferred to Pittsburgh), potentially opening the door for former Oklahoma quarterback Caleb Williams to rejoin Riley at USC. London caught 88 passes in just eight games and will be sorely missed. The right side of the offensive line will have to be replaced; Haskins started at left tackle at Virginia last season. New defensive coordinator Alex Grinch will have to rebuild the linebacker corps and secondary. Riley won’t work miracles in his first season, but there’s enough talent to make noise in the mediocre Pac-12.
23. Ole Miss Rebels
2021 record: 10-3 (6-2 SEC)
Starters expected to return: 4 offense, 6 defense, 1 special teams
Key starters expected to leave: QB Matt Corral, RB Jerrion Ealy, WR Braylon Sanders, WR Dontario Drummond, C Orlando Umana, DE Sam Williams, LB Mark Robinson, SS Jake Springer, LB Chance Campbell
Key additions: WR Jordan Watkins, S Ladarius Tennison, LB Jaron Willis, DT Zxavian Harris, CB Nick Cull, OT Bryson Hurst, LB Reginald Hughes, RB Zach Evans
Outlook: The Rebels took a gamble on Lane Kiffin, but it paid off when he guided them to their first 10-win regular season in school history. The season ended with a thud, after they lost Corral to an injury and lost to Baylor in the Sugar Bowl. Now, Kiffin will have to replace many of the difference-makers on offense, including Corral, leading rusher Ealy and top receivers Drummond and Sanders. Backup quarterback Luke Altmyer was shaky in the Sugar Bowl, but it was the first extensive action of his career. It wouldn’t be a surprise, however, if Kiffin adds a more experienced passer through the transfer portal. Robinson and top pass-rusher Williams are big losses on defense, but as many as six starters might be returning on that side of the ball.
24. Wisconsin Badgers
2021 record: 9-4 (6-3 Big Ten)
Starters expected to return: 6 offense, 4 defense, 2 special teams
Key starters expected to leave: WR Kendric Pryor, WR Danny Davis III, TE Jake Ferguson, G Josh Seltzner, OT Logan Bruss, LB Leo Chenal, LB Jack Sanborn, S Scott Nelson, LB Noah Burks, CB Caesar Williams
Outlook: The Badgers recovered from a 1-3 start to produce a nine-win campaign, which ended with a 20-13 victory against Arizona State in the Las Vegas Bowl. To compete in the Big Ten West in 2022, they’re going to have to rebuild a defense that led the FBS in total defense (239.1 yards) and run defense (64.8 yards). Leading tacklers Chenal and Sanborn are moving on, along with four starters in the secondary. Quarterback Graham Mertz needs to play better, and he’ll have to do without his three top pass-catchers from 2021: Davis, Ferguson and Pryor. Two starters will have to be replaced up front on offense, along with offensive line coach Joe Rudolph, who left for Virginia Tech. The Badgers will play Michigan State, Purdue, Ohio State and Iowa on the road in 2022.
25. South Carolina Gamecocks
2021 record: 7-6 (3-5 SEC)
Starters expected to return: 8 offense, 6 defense, 1 special teams
Key starters expected to leave: RB ZaQuandre White, RB Kevin Harris, FS Jaylan Foster, LB Damani Staley, DE Kingsley Enagbare, DT Jabari Ellis, PK Parker White
Key additions: QB Spencer Rattler, TE Austin Stogner, QB Tanner Bailey, CB Keenan Nelson Jr., QB Braden Davis, S Peyton Williams, LB Stone Blanton, S Kajuan Banks
Outlook: Shane Beamer’s first season as a head coach couldn’t have gone much better, given the Gamecocks’ lack of depth and problems at quarterback. Still, they scratched out seven victories, including wins over Florida, Auburn and a 38-21 rout of North Carolina in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl. Beamer addressed his quarterback issues by bringing in former Oklahoma starter Rattler and signing three high school passers. Bailey was the No. 6 pocket passer and Davis was the No. 7 dual-threat quarterback, according to ESPN recruiting. Some key players will have to be replaced on defense, but linebacker Brad Johnson and safety R.J. Roderick will be returning for another season.
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