And this is all just in Week 1.
The 2022 college football season can’t get here soon enough — Week 0 is on Aug. 27 — and our reporters break down the games, players and matchups they are most looking forward to seeing early on this season.
What game are you most looking forward to next season?
Blake Baumgartner: Notre Dame at Ohio State on Sept. 3. The Marcus Freeman era at Notre Dame gets off to a roaring start as the former Buckeye linebacker faces his alma mater. The Fighting Irish will be looking to get the bad taste of the Fiesta Bowl loss to Oklahoma State out of its mouth. C.J. Stroud, TreVeyon Henderson and Jaxon Smith-Njigba lead what should be another potent offense for the Buckeyes, who may still be smarting over what happened in Ann Arbor last November.
Adam Rittenberg: There are the standard in-conference must-sees — Michigan-Ohio State, Alabama–Texas A&M, Baylor–Oklahoma State and USC-Utah, to name some — but I tend to think about nonleague games when looking ahead to the next season. Miami-Texas A&M might not get as much buzz as other early contests, but it’s fascinating to see two programs with similar trajectories matching up. Both programs are desperately trying to break through in their respective leagues. Jimbo Fisher and the Aggies have captured more recruiting momentum than anyone right now, but first-year coach Mario Cristobal and the Canes should enter the conversation soon. Miami quarterback Tyler Van Dyke gets a good early road test against an extremely talented Texas A&M defense. How will the Aggies’ quarterback situation unfold? These are two teams that should be generating more national discussion in the next few seasons, and they’ll match up at Kyle Field.
Chris Low: Any time the SEC and Pac-12 square off — on somebody’s campus — sign me up. There’s just something about one school and its fans trekking all the way across the country to play another school with a different culture and different group of fans. There are tons of storylines to the Florida-Utah season opener in Gainesville on Sept. 3. For one, it’s Billy Napier’s debut as Florida’s head coach and Gator Nation is hungry to see him get off to a rousing start. The schedule is a daunting one for Napier in his first season. There are trips to Tennessee (Sept. 24), Texas A&M (Nov. 5) and Florida State (Nov. 25), not to mention the annual clash with Georgia in Jacksonville (Oct. 29). So if the Gators are going to win 10 or more games in 2022, they need to take care of business in the opener. For a Utah team ranked in the top 10 of some early season polls, it’s a chance to beat an SEC foe on the road, which would bolster the Utes’ College Football Playoff résumé if they can repeat as Pac-12 champions. Moreover, former Florida linebacker Mohamoud Diabate, second on the team in tackles a year ago, transferred to Utah and will be going up against his old teammates.
Harry Lyles Jr.: Even if it doesn’t end up being the most exciting game, I’m still looking forward to the Backyard Brawl being revived between Pitt and West Virginia on Sept. 3. The two schools haven’t played since 2011 — you don’t have to be a fan of either school to know that this is wrong, and college football is better off with this rivalry taking place annually. If nothing else, the atmosphere for this game is going to be one of the best we see all season.
David Hale: I love Harry’s answer here. Pitt needs to play either Penn State or West Virginia every year. It just makes college football better. But in the interest of offering more diverse opinions, how about the opening matchup between Florida State and LSU? These are two teams with a ton of historic success but some serious recent struggles. It’ll be Brian Kelly’s first test at LSU and a chance for Mike Norvell to land a signature win at FSU. The winner gets an immediate injection of national respect — much needed for both programs. The loser is likely to spend the rest of the season digging out of a big hole. There are games with more at stake when it comes to the CFP race, but in the larger narrative of the season, this one has a chance to have a huge impact on two blue-blood programs.
Bill Connelly: It’s hard to top an early-season Backyard Brawl, but in terms of sheer curiosity, it’s hard to top Cincinnati at Arkansas. I have so many questions about both of these teams — How does Cincinnati QB Desmond Ridder‘s replacement (either Ben Bryant or Evan Prater) look? Does Arkansas have the requisite firepower in the skill corps without Treylon Burks and Trelon Smith? Whose retooled defense needs the most time to figure things out? — and we could have some pretty decent answers by the end of Week 1. And if the Bearcats win, a third straight unbeaten regular season begins to look semi-realistic.
Andrea Adelson: The only correct answer is the Backyard Brawl (H/T Harry, Hale, Bill), but to avoid redundancy, I am surprised to see there are no takers on Georgia-Oregon. I guess Mark Schlabach was busy at the Masters. There are so many storylines headed into this one, starting with Dan Lanning making his debut for the Ducks against his former team. That actually might be the fifth best storyline now that I think about it. Georgia will have plenty of new faces on defense as it tries to defend its national championship — who will step up to replace All-Americans Jordan Davis and Nakobe Dean, for starters? Will Stetson Bennett provide the same type of “walk-on” magic that he did a year ago? Does Oregon have any hope as a Pac-12 playoff contender? Will Auburn transfer Bo Nix win the starting quarterback job? There are so many juicy subplots, it’s hard to keep track of them all.
Who will be the most exciting player to watch on Saturdays?
Baumgartner: Quarterback Caleb Williams deciding to follow Lincoln Riley to USC. Williams provided an undeniable spark for Riley last year at Oklahoma in relief of Spencer Rattler. And surely the familiarity between Riley and Williams, and the desire for the Trojans to reassert themselves in the Pac-12 and nationally, will be weekly storylines to watch and follow.
Lyles: You can’t go wrong with Bryce Young or C.J. Stroud, but since we have to pick one, I’m going to go with Stroud. If Ohio State’s offense looks anything like it did in the Rose Bowl against Utah, it’s going to be hard to find a player that’s going to be more exciting than Stroud. Losing players like Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave isn’t nothing, but we ultimately gained a glimpse of what life without those guys would look like, and it was still pretty glamorous for the Buckeyes. With TreVeyon Henderson and Jaxon Smith-Njigba coming back, among others, Stroud will have plenty to work with in his second year as a starter.
Low: Everybody knows the usual suspects, the next wave of NFL first-round draft picks. But if you want a treat (really, really want to be entertained), make sure you check out Kansas State‘s Deuce Vaughn. There’s a reason I didn’t include his position because he does it all and does so in spectacular fashion. Sure, he’s only 5-foot-6 and 173 pounds, but he plays as big as anyone in college football. He was the only FBS player last season with more than 1,400 rushing yards (1,404) and more than 400 receiving yards (468). He was fourth among Power 5 players in average yards from scrimmage (144 per game), and the only Power 5 player with more running/receiving plays of 10 yards or longer was Ohio State’s Smith-Njigba, who had 60 to Vaughn’s 59. In the words of Lane Kiffin, when No. 22 touches the ball, get your popcorn ready.
Hale: It’s hard to get too excited about Louisville, a team that’s woefully underperformed in each of the past two years. But even when they’re down big, there’s at least one reason to tune into the Cardinals, and that’s QB Malik Cunningham, who might be the most electric player in college football. A year ago, Cunningham threw for nearly 3,000 yards, ran for more than 1,000 and had 19 passing TDs to go with 20 more on the ground. How wild is that? Only four other players in the past 15 years have posted a similar line — and you might’ve heard of them: Jalen Hurts, Johnny Manziel, Colin Kaepernick and Cunningham’s predecessor, Lamar Jackson. The comparisons to Jackson might feel a bit unfair because it’s tough to think of another athlete as good as he was to play QB, but watch Cunningham run and it can be hard to tell them apart. Cunningham is an exceptional deep ball player, a game-breaking runner and an increasingly smart decision-maker (just six INTs last year). He’s unlikely to crack the Heisman race if Louisville doesn’t take a big leap forward, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be appointment viewing in 2022. Set aside the stats and just ask the question: Who’s the most fun player in college football? It’s hard to argue with Cunningham as the logical answer.
Rittenberg: I didn’t pay enough attention to Alabama’s Will Anderson Jr. in 2021, and certainly will not let that happen again. Anderson generated incredible numbers for the Crimson Tide defense: 34.5 tackles for loss, 17.5 sacks and 102 total tackles. He won the Bronko Nagurski trophy and SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors. Anderson should have been a Heisman Trophy finalist and will enter what should be his final college season with as much hype as any defensive player in recent memory. Opponents are certainly aware of how he affects games and will try anything to limit his impact this coming season. If he replicates or exceeds his 2021 production, he will go down as one of the most impressive defenders in Alabama history. I heard the buzz about Anderson before his freshman year in 2020. He will be on my radar from the opening game onward.
Connelly: Since Harry picked Stroud, I’ll pick Young. You know, the guy who won the Heisman while learning on the job? He threw for 4,872 yards and 47 touchdowns, and he still had a few bad habits he was trying to iron out — occasionally scrambling into trouble, for instance. He has a new receiving corps to break in, and that might hold him back a little, but it’s hard to ever worry too much about how Alabama might fare at the skill positions. The Tide will have some scary weapons out wide, and Young should be all sorts of fun to watch.
Adelson: It is always fun to watch quarterbacks, and you cannot go wrong with anybody listed here. But if we are going to stay on the quarterback theme, I urge folks to dedicate a weekend to watching them in the ACC. Yes, I mean that. The league returns the most talented quarterback group in the entire country top to bottom, even with Kenny Pickett off to the NFL. Hale mentioned how fun it has been to watch Cunningham. Virginia quarterback Brennan Armstrong put together one of the most entertaining seasons a year ago, with 4,700 total yards and 40 total touchdowns and ranked No. 2 in the nation in total offense. In seven of the 11 games he played, he accounted for 400 or more yards. Another 4,000-yard passer, Sam Hartman at Wake Forest, also returns. NC State returns a 3,000-yard passer of its own in Devin Leary, and Miami quarterback Tyler Van Dyke nearly threw for 3,000 yards as a freshman last year. Safe to say, there is no easy choice as the preseason All-ACC selection.
Which player-opponent matchup is the most captivating early on?
Baumgartner: I’m anxious to see what Smith-Njigba offers up as an encore to his performance in Ohio State’s Rose Bowl victory over Utah. With Wilson and Olave off to the NFL, Smith-Njigba will have ample opportunity to build off his 15-catch, 347-yard, three-touchdown effort against the Utes. Notre Dame lost Kyle Hamilton from its secondary, and how the Fighting Irish deal with the Buckeyes’ passing game will be a crucial test in Week 1.
Connelly: I’ll take the other side of the ball in Ohio State-Notre Dame. Marcus Freeman’s Fighting Irish will be breaking in a new starting quarterback, running back and No. 1 wideout against a Buckeye defense led by new coordinator Jim Knowles and a line replacing three rotation guys. There’s a lot of newness in this matchup. We know Ohio State will score plenty of points — it’s what Ohio State does — but we don’t know how long it might take Knowles to get all of his chess pieces in the right place, and we don’t know how capable Notre Dame might be of exploiting weaknesses with its own key, new starters. This is a heck of a tone-setter right out of the gate.
Rittenberg: Nix first has to win Oregon’s starting quarterback job, but if he does, what a scene he’ll have for his opening performance. Nix, the former top-25 national recruit who started his career at Auburn, will return to the South to face defending national champion Georgia in Atlanta. This will be a virtual road game for Nix and the Ducks, who make their debut under new coach Dan Lanning, the former Georgia defensive coordinator. Georgia will be heavily favored but loses a lot on defense, and Nix has a chance to show just how formidable Oregon will be in a wide-open Pac-12. Nix has 639 pass yards with a touchdown and two interceptions in three previous games against Georgia (all losses).
Lyles: I’m excited to see what Texas running back Bijan Robinson is able to do against what will be an improved Alabama defense. Robinson rushed for 1,127 yards and 11 touchdowns last season as a sophomore, and was easily one of the most exciting players in the nation. In the Longhorns’ biggest game of the year against Oklahoma, he rushed for 137 yards and a touchdown in the best game we’ve seen from the Red River rivalry. How Steve Sarkisian is able to further open things up for Robinson in 2022 is going to be fun to watch — and there won’t be a greater test than the Will Anderson Jr.-led defense.
Low: Transfers, especially at quarterback, are the way of the world now in college football. And in Week 2, Spencer Rattler gets his first real test as South Carolina‘s starting quarterback against Arkansas on the road after transferring this offseason from Oklahoma. Arkansas’ defense allowed just 16 touchdown passes a year ago and intercepted 13 passes. Veteran defensive coordinator Barry Odom has squeezed everything and then some out of the Hogs’ personnel on defense since coming with Sam Pittman to the Ozarks, and he has his own influx of transfers to go along with returning stalwarts Bumper Pool at linebacker and All-SEC safety Jalen Catalon. Among the transfers who could make a big impact on defense for the Hogs are defensive ends Landon Jackson (LSU) and Jordan Domineck (Georgia Tech), linebacker Drew Sanders (Alabama) and safety Latavious Brini (Georgia).
Adelson: Utah travels to play Florida on Sept. 3 in one of the more under-the-radar nonconference matchups, perhaps because the Gators played so poorly to close out last season. This will be the first time the Gators play a Pac-12 team since 1989 — Emmitt Smith’s last year on the Gator roster! Because Florida has been so averse to scheduling home-and-home games against Power 5 opponents not named Florida State in its past, games like this one in Gainesville provide a rare treat. It is not exactly a cupcake opener for new coach Billy Napier against the defending Pac-12 champs. What will be most intriguing to watch is the way Anthony Richardson takes control of the offense as the projected starting quarterback, against what is typically one of the best defenses in the entire country. Utah has plenty of holes to fill on that side of the ball, starting with linebacker Devin Lloyd. But there will be at least one familiar face trying to stop Richardson — linebacker Mohamoud Diabate transferred from Florida to Utah in the offseason and adds a veteran presence to the Utes’ group.