Way-too-early top 25’s have never been easy. So much changes over every summer that each list seems silly when we get to August. It’s even more silly now, as the transfer portal and quick-moving coaching carousel that is far from finished at this point will result in many of these teams looking much differently than they do today.
But, after Georgia just took home its first national title since 1980 on Monday night, here is a way-too-early top 25 that surely will look terrible by Valentine’s Day.
The top two teams here are really interchangeable. Alabama will bring back the Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young on an offense that is poised to take a step forward next year due to improved play up front. Will Anderson, who was maybe the best football player in America this year, will return with Malachi Moore to form a formidable pair of presumptive top-ten picks in the 2023 draft.
A Georgia program that has long been a sleeping giant is operating at full capacity, and will enter next season as your defending national champion. Stetson Bennett has another year of eligibility should he decide to return. Tight End Brock Bowers will only be a true sophomore and belongs in the NFL right now, and while the defense will lose a lot of starters, they’ll be replaced with players just as highly touted.
3. Ohio State
It’s unclear who will be the Ohio State coach come the season, as Ryan Day could certainly leave for the NFL. No matter who is at the helm, they’ll inherit a Heisman finalist in CJ Stroud, a wide receiver room oozing with talent led by my 2022 Heisman favorite Jaxon Smith-Njigba, and a dynamic back in TreyVeon Henderson. The defense was bad and soft this year, but new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles is highly respected and will have a ton of elite talent to work with, especially up front.
4. Texas A&M
Their schedule is a bear, as always in the SEC West, but Jimbo Fisher should have one of the most talented teams in the country. Quarterback is a question, but Haynes King returns from injury and Max Johnson was added through the portal. Jaylon Jones will lead a very talented defense, and they’ll be buoyed by one of the great recruiting classes in history. One thing to keep an eye on is how much the loss of defensive coordinator Mike Elko, who is now the head coach at Duke, will hurt the Aggies.
Utah nearly ran the table after a slow start, before falling in a classic Rose Bowl to Ohio State. Cameron Rising is a great college quarterback, and the Utes never lost a game that he played all the way through this year. Utah’s teams are always physical under Kyle Wittingham, something that helps them tremendously in a PAC-12 that does not have many physical football teams.
A “down year” still resulted in a 10-3 season with one of the losses coming to Georgia. D.J Uiagalelei was not the Heisman candidate many had him poised to be in 2021, but he has that level of talent, and Will Shipley will return after an outstanding true freshman season in the Tiger backfield. Bryan Bresee returning after an ACL injury he suffered in 2021 will be a huge boost to the defense, who will have to deal with Brent Venables leaving to become the head coach at Oklahoma. Offensive coordinator Tony Elliott is also gone, having taken the top job at Virginia.
It was a weird season for Wisconsin in 2021, as they got terrible QB play and a running game that was not to Paul Chryst’s standards early on. Both of those things got better as the year went on, and signal-caller Graham Mertz and star freshman running back Braelon Allen return. Couple that with a Jim Leonhard-coached defense that is always really good, and I expect the Badgers to win ten games.
How quickly things can change. A year ago, USC was a floundering program with a lame duck coach in Clay Helton that had lost every ounce of the national relevance it regained under Pete Carroll. Now, it is as hot as any program in America after the shocking hire of Lincoln Riley, who got most of his staff from Oklahoma to join him in USC. He’s almost certainly bringing in Caleb WIlliams and Mario Williams with him, too. It’s a program that hasn’t recruited as well as it should, but it’s still light years more talented than every PAC-12 program not named Oregon. This is a real playoff contender with a quarterback that could very well find himself in New York City in December.
Sam Pittman has done a great job in Fayetteville, and while key players like Treylon Burks will be moving on, he will return quarterback and human battering ram KJ Jefferson. The defense needs to improve, especially against the pass, but if you’ve got a great quarterback you’ve got a great chance, the Razorbacks have a great chance.
10. Notre Dame
Brian Kelly leaving for LSU came as a shock to everybody, but he did not leave the cupboard bare for Marcus Freeman. The offensive line play will be great with Harry Hiestand, one of the nation’s top offensive line coaches, returning to South Bend, and I accept Tyler Buchner, who got plenty of snaps as a freshman, to be the starting quarterback for the Irish. The defense loses Kyle Hamilton, but Notre Dame is recruiting as well as they’ve ever been and they have great talent all over the defense.
Maybe no one has had as wild as an offseason as Oklahoma, who abruptly lost Lincoln Riley, and nearly their entire staff, as well as a ton of key players. Caleb Williams hasn’t ruled out going back to Norman, but it seems very unlikely. UCF transfer Dillon Gabriel will likely take over the offense that will still have some elite weapons led by Marvin Mims. Elite play caller Jeff Lebby comes over from Ole Miss to call plays for the Sooners. Oklahoma fans hope Brent Venables can help the Oklahoma defense get back to where it was before the explosion of the air raid, and if that happens, they may be your conference champs and find themselves in the College Football Playoff.
Dave Aranda has proven himself to be a very good head coach in short order, and Baylor ended the season playing their best football. Gerry Bohanan is back at quarterback for Baylor, and the defense, led by massive nose tackle Siaki Ika, will return enough to give a defensive savant like Aranda to make into an elite unit once again.
This ranking may be the one most subject to change, as Luke Fickell could very well be coaching somewhere else soon. Cincinnati does lose a ton, including star quarterback Desmond Ridder and likely first round pick Sauce Gardner. But, they’ve recruited considerably better than all of their AAC peers, and Evan Prater, a former blue-chipper, will take over quarterbacking duties. He could be an upgrade over Ridder.
This ranking shows just how much I believe in Brian Kelly. Yes, it’s a weird culture fit. However, he’s inheriting a ton of talent, kept key players like star receiver Kayshon Boutte in LSU, and every Brian Kelly-coached team is going to be smart, well-coached, and disciplined. That coupled with elite talent should result in a good season as Kelly builds towards a national championship.
15. Oklahoma State
Mike Gundy is the coach that’s closest to the elite level of coaches that no one talks about. He will bring back his quarterback, Spencer Sanders, and a plethora of young and talented skill guys that will keep the Cowboy offense humming. Defense is the question mark, with defensive coordinator Jim Knowles going to Ohio State and a bunch of players graduating, but I expect an improved Oklahoma State offense to keep them very competitive in conference play.
Kalani Sitake does a great job in Provo, and they beat the PAC 12 champions Utah handily earlier in the season. The Cougars bring back a ton of their starters, and got a huge boost when star receiver Gunner Romney announced he would come back for another season. The defense started no seniors in 2021 and Ben Bywater is someone who should generate preseason all-american buzz. The schedule is brutal, but BYU will be really good.
17. South Carolina
This is another team that some may think I have too high, but I’m a huge believer in Shane Beamer, and the SEC East won’t be exactly strong in 2022. Spencer Rattler was the Heisman favorite just five months ago and he will be under center in Columbia. Cornerback Cam Smith showed real NFL potential in 2021 and will help anchor a Gamecock secondary that could be one of the SEC’s best.
Miami was better than most people thought in 2021 after some embarrassing performances early. Tyler Van Dyke instantly improved the offense when he took over at quarterback, and Miami returns a ton of production from one of the nation’s youngest defenses. Add in Mario Cristobal, who has shown the ability to hit the ground running at Oregon, and Miami may be the favorites in the ACC Coastal.
After nearly two decades of treading water, Tennessee seemed to make progress under first-year head coach Josh Heupel. Hendon Hooker will return at quarterback as a second-tier Heisman candidate. The defense will need to take a huge step forward, but Tennessee should be able to score a ton of points.
Michigan is a hard team to rank. Put the Georgia game aside, and they were a really great football team that dominated Ohio State. But, they lose a significant amount of production including projected top-five pick Aidan Hutchison, and star safety Daxton Hill is also going pro. I expect JJ McCarthy to beat out Cade McNamara for the starting job, and that will add a new dimension to the Wolverine offense. The biggest question mark is who will be coaching the Wolverines, as Jim Harbugh looks to be seriously entertaining overtures from the NFL.
I have the Ducks lower than most do, because their schedule is really tough and I don’t believe in the offense. New coach Dan Lanning has done a good job of hiring a great staff, but there aren’t many offensive coordinators better than Joe Moorhead, who left to become the head coach at Akron. New offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham will likely start former blue-chipper Ty Thompson at quarterback, but I expect the offense to be midlding at best. The defense could be special, and it may be the best linebacker room in America, led by Justin Flowe and Noah Sewell. Still, it’s a team I see losing at least three games.
22. Wake Forest
Wake Forest was one of the nation’s best stories in 2021, and Dave Clawson has done an incredible job at one of the toughest power five jobs in America. All-ACC quarterback Sam Hartman returns, and Wake Forest’s offense should still be in the upper echelon of the ACC. The question in Winston-Salem is, can a team that is playing nearly every conference game with less talent than their opponents overachieve for a second consecutive year?
Houston was mighty close to an undefeated regular season, as their only loss was a seventeen-point blown lead in Week 1 against Texas Tech. Dana Holgerson has done an excellent job and Clayton Tune did a nice job running Holgerson’s quarterback-focused offense in 2021. The defense returns a lot of key contributors, especially on the back end, and it would not be unfair to consider them favorites in the AAC.
24. Penn State
Penn State started hot and looked like they were going to be ranked #2 in the country when they were throttling Iowa in the first half of their top-five matchup in October, but everything changed when Sean Clifford went down with an injury in that game and he never played the same as he did the first five games. Clifford is returning for a sixth year, which is a good or bad thing depending on what Nittany Lion fan you’re talking to. The good news is, the line play can’t be worse and Gatorade National Player of the Year Nick Singleton should step right in as a top-tier running back in the big ten. The defense has questions at linebacker and defensive end, but the secondary should be one of the nation’s best and is led by Joey Porter Jr. The question for Penn State is just how big of a leap will the offensive line take? How big a leap it does will decide whether Penn State goes 6-6 or 10-2.
Iowa’s offense in 2021 was an insult to football, and Kirk Ferentz still found a way to win ten games and play in the big ten championship game. They do lose star back Tyler Goodson and Rimington Award winner Tyler Linderbaum, but even without those two it’s going to be hard for the offense to not improve. Even the slightest improvement from the offense, paired with a Phil Parker-coached defense and the Hawkeyes could sneak their way to ten wins again.
Follow Garrett Carr on Twitter @RealGarrettCarr