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College football rankings are coming out in rapid succession heading into spring practice, and the latest top 10 ahead of the 2022 season is worthy of attention. Preseason magazine guru Phil Steele has revealed his way-too-early projections for the AP’s preseason title contenders this fall, which takes a precise level of knowledge on how voters will likely power-rank who they believe are the nation’s best entering the season.
Steele notes that he has hit on 96% of the preseason top 10 teams in his spring lookahead over the past 13 years, including four straight perfect seasons. Surprisingly, three teams with first-year coaches appear in his preseason AP Poll projection. The SEC, which has captured the past three national championships, leads the way with three selections.
There was more chaos within the AP rankings last season from August to December than ever before, and if the 2022 campaign plays out in similar fashion, fans can expect an exciting finish down the stretch.
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Here’s a look at Steele’s preseason projection of the AP’s top 10 teams.
USC is getting much of the recognition in the Pac-12 given the Trojans’ offseason surge through the transfer portal under Lincoln Riley, but don’t overlook Oregon out West. One of two Pac-12 teams to appear in Steele’s AP preseason top 10 projection, the Ducks were inside a few spots back of this ranking in our own way-too-early look and just outside of the top 15 per CBS Sports and others. Assuming first-year head coach Dan Lanning will get this Oregon defense to bring its hard hat to work in 2022 like he did at Georgia, the Ducks should be a title contender thanks to talent and upside.
First-year coach Brent Venables and the Oklahoma Sooners are outside the top 10 in most way-too-early rankings this spring, but Steele projects the Big 12 heavyweight to be the highest-ranked team from the conference later this year. No program in college football was ravaged by the transfer portal quite like the Sooners. There’s not a preseason top-20 team in our eyes that will look more different than Oklahoma roster-wise next season. Venables watched several top-end playmakers enter the transfer portal since arriving in December, including a couple play-making wide receivers and Heisman Trophy candidate Caleb Williams at quarterback. However, the Sooners did their own damage in the portal with the re-acquisition of talent to fill any potential holes they may have.
No preseason prognosticator was higher on Utah last season than Steele, who tabbed the Utes as a possible College Football Playoff team in spring 2021. His projection was spot-on, and Kyle Whittingham’s program won the Pac-12 to make their first-ever Rose Bowl appearance. There’s no shot at flying under the radar to glory again, however, since Utah is a unanimous preseason top 10 team for 2022 across all spring rankings that we’ve seen from CBS Sports, ESPN, NCAA.com and others. Most of that star-driven nucleus is back in 2022, including quarterback Cam Rising. Running back Tavion Thomas is back, too, after rushing for 1,108 yards and 21 scores.
After winning its first Big Ten Championship and breaking through the final four ceiling last season under Jim Harbaugh, the experts expect Michigan to be back in title contention again in 2022. Despite losing a couple first-rounders on defense along with hot-shot coordinator Josh Gattis to Miami, the Wolverines are widely-considered the Big Ten’s other national championship hopeful behind Ohio State, and that’s a testament to what this team returns at the skill positions. The production of Mike Morris and Taylor Upshaw along the defensive front is an area to watch following the exit of Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo, and the rise of sophomores J.J. McCarthy, Donovan Edwards and Andrel Anthony could be defining offensively.
What’s the ceiling for Notre Dame in Year 1 under Marcus Freeman? The expectations are lofty, which is what you happens when you lead the Fighting Irish. Freeman’s added a number of key coaching hires since his promotion to head coach and coming off the bowl loss to Oklahoma State, including the addition of Indiana running backs coach Deland McCullough. Notre Dame has a challenging schedule that will test this team at every turn in 2022, but this squad has impressive depth, brings back four offensive line starters and likes what it has in quarterbacks Tyler Buchner and Drew Pyne.
Hype comes along with signing the highest-rated recruiting class of all time, and Texas A&M has been on this preseason pedestal before as a perceived national championship contender under Jimbo Fisher. The widespread belief among our own team of national analysts at 247Sports believe this should be Jimbo Fisher’s best team in College Station given what’s coming back for the Aggies and the additions in the 2022 cycle. There are a couple notable losses defensively for this group, but few teams nationally will have a starting 22 rated higher than Texas A&M. Quarterback play could determine this program’s stay among the elites.
Steele doesn’t expect Clemson to be “down” in 2022 after a tough-to-swallow offseason was defined by longtime coordinators Brent Venables and Tony Elliott leaving for head coaching jobs and Dabo Swinney’s right-hand man, Todd Bates, joining his comrade at Oklahoma. But after seeing its streak of consecutive ACC championships end at six in 2021, the Tigers will return to the top of the throne in a big way, according to Steele. Clemson’s schedule is favorable compared to other contenders, though Swinney’s team will have to get through fellow nationally-ranked ACC Atlantic foes N.C. State and Wake Forest to get to where they want to be. Quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei and his development as a passer is an area that will be under the microscope early.
Steele loves Ohio State as the Big Ten’s primary national championship contender in 2022. Ohio State should be the preseason favorite to win the conference and get to the College Football Playoff with Heisman Trophy finalist C.J. Stroud returning at quarterback along with a host of playmakers surrounding him within an explosive offense. The Buckeyes should play with a chip on their shoulder after a disappointing 2021 campaign by program standards and a loss to Michigan that prematurely squashed title hopes. A new-look defensive scheme under Jim Knowles should help this team tremendously, as they look for a bounce-back year in a big way.
The reigning national champions should receive several first-place votes when the preseason AP rankings are released later this year. Early rounds of the 2022 NFL Draft will be littered with Bulldogs, but like Alabama, Kirby Smart’s prowess on the recruiting trail assures the next guys up within the two-deep should be just as formidable as those before them. Stetson Bennett’s return at quarterback and JT Daniels’ entry into the portal offers an intriguing dynamic at the position. And you’re not going to find a more talented tight end room in college football with Brock Bowers and Darnell Washington leading the charge in the passing game.
Anyone willing to take the field versus Alabama in 2022? The Crimson Tide won a national championship in 2020 before coming close to doing so again last fall under the direction of Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young and SEC Defensive Player of the Year Will Anderson. Both of those poster boys for the program return as juniors to try and march once again to college football’s ultimate prize. A couple notable transfer portal additions will assume vital roles, while Saban’s talent-rich 2022 class could make early waves on the depth chart. Alabama is a unanimous preseason No. 1 in the polls we’ve identified over the past few weeks, but may not get all 64 first-place votes later this year among AP entries.
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