Despite the seismic changes that took place during college football’s offseason, the upcoming season will provide fans with a breath of familiarity.
Yes, the preseason College Football Power Rankings are once again led by perennial playoff teams, Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia and Clemson. But last season’s rankings had the Spencer Rattler-led Oklahoma Sooners at No. 2 and both Iowa State and North Carolina in the top 10 — and we all know how that turned out.
Which team will we talk about as a bust next season? And which teams will tumble out of the rankings after two weeks this year? None of that matters now. It’s August, and there’s hope for all top 25 teams that made the preseason rankings.
Without further ado, this season’s first Power Rankings.
Methodology: Forty-eight ESPN college football experts submitted their own top-25s, leading to this consensus list.
2021 record: 13-2
Opening week game: vs. Utah State, Sept. 3
Most important game of the season: vs. Texas A&M, Oct. 8
X factor (player the season depends on): Nick Saban mined the transfer portal for All-American cornerback Eli Ricks from LSU, All-ACC running back Jahmyr Gibbs from Georgia Tech and top receivers from Georgia (Jermaine Burton) and Louisville (Tyler Harrell). But perhaps the most important pickup might have been offensive lineman Tyler Steen, who started 33 consecutive games before leaving Vanderbilt. The 6-foot-5, 315-pound senior could go a long way toward solidifying a line that struggled for much of last season.
Biggest question mark this season: Saban said it himself after the first practice of fall camp: “I don’t think there’s any question about the fact that we need to play better on the offensive line. We need to be more physical up front … and get movement on the run.” Bringing in Steen and getting center Darrian Dalcourt healthy again should help solve last season’s Achilles’ heel. But equally as pivotal might be the change in leadership, with Eric Wolford now coaching the position. His lines at Kentucky were known for being physical and aggressive — areas where Alabama could improve. — Alex Scarborough
2021 record: 11-2
Opening week game: vs. Notre Dame, Sept. 3
Most important game of the season: vs. Michigan, Nov. 26
X factor: Quarterback C.J. Stroud. Ohio State is built to win with its big-play passing attack, which Stroud executed to perfection down the stretch last season. He’s a popular pick to become Ohio State’s first Heisman Trophy winner — and the Big Ten’s first — since Troy Smith in 2006. Stroud will throw to arguably the nation’s best group of receivers and embraces the championship-or-bust expectation in his junior season, which should be his final one with the Buckeyes.
Biggest question mark this season: Despite justified excitement about new coordinator Jim Knowles, a defense that hasn’t met the standard in three of the past four seasons must step up. Linebacker and defensive back play will be especially important, after Ohio State used a healthy rotation of players in 2021. Those under the microscope include linebacker Tommy Eichenberg and safety Tanner McCalister, an Oklahoma State transfer. Knowles’ scheme features more looks than what Ohio State has run, but the back seven ultimately must perform better. — Adam Rittenberg
2021 record: 14-1
Opening week game: vs. Oregon in Atlanta, Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC), Sept. 3
Most important game of the season: at Kentucky, Nov. 19
X factor: Quarterback Stetson Bennett, who continues to shoot down all the myths about what he can’t do, is back for another season (seems like his seventh) and is the unquestioned leader of the defending-national-champion Dawgs. There will still be the inevitable questions about his size and arm strength, but his teammates believe in him, and there’s a reason they call him the Mailman: He just keeps on delivering.
Biggest question mark this season: Yes, the Dawgs lost five defensive players from a year ago who went in the first round of the NFL draft, not to mention defensive coordinator Dan Lanning, who is now the head coach at Oregon. But don’t feel too sorry for Georgia’s defense, a unit still oozing with young talent. The inside linebacker spots, in particular, will need replenishing. Gone are Nakobe Dean, Channing Tindall and Quay Walker. That’s a ton of experience and a ton of production to replace, no matter who’s waiting in the wings. — Chris Low
2021 record: 10-3
Opening week game: at Georgia Tech, Sept. 5
Most important game of the season: vs. NC State, Oct. 1
X factor: Will the real D.J. Uiagalelei please stand up? This time a year ago, the former blue-chip recruit was a Heisman contender and a pitchman for Dr Pepper, having started two games as a true freshman in which he played brilliantly. But 2021 was a disaster from the outset — Christopher Smith’s 74-yard interception touchdown return off Uiagalelei proved the difference in a 10-3 loss to Georgia in the opening week — and he finished with just nine TD passes for the year. Injuries, off-field distractions and a lack of help from the O-line or receivers all played a part in Uiagalelei’s struggles, but now he’s slimmed down and has promised better returns in 2022. If he looks more like he did in his freshman season, Clemson will be tough to beat. If he struggles like he did a year ago, the Tigers could be in for a long season.
Biggest question mark this season: For the first time in nearly a decade, Clemson is surrounded by question marks, but perhaps none looms larger than the changes on the coaching staff. Offensive coordinator Tony Elliott and defensive coordinator Brent Venables have overseen the program’s rise and two national championships, but both have moved on to head-coaching jobs. Dabo Swinney stayed in-house to hire replacements, insisting culture outweighed résumés. That approach has worked for Swinney for a long time, but it could also be a cause for criticism if the Tigers struggle early. — David Hale
2021 record: 11-2
Opening week game: at Ohio State, Sept. 3
Most important game of the season: Ohio State
X factor: Quarterback Tyler Buchner hasn’t been named the starter yet, but the Irish need a consistent, stable presence at the position. Last season’s starter, Jack Coan, has exhausted his eligibility, and the staff has Buchner, Drew Pyne, Ron Powlus III and freshman Steve Angeli on the roster. Buchner was the No. 41 prospect in the 2021 class and one of the top quarterbacks overall. If he is the starter, it’s likely a good sign for Notre Dame that he is living up to that billing out of high school.
Biggest question mark of the season: What will this team look like under new coach Marcus Freeman? He’s a first-year head coach, and while the players were thrilled when he was hired, he is stepping in as the head coach of one of the most prominent programs in the country. He opens against his alma mater, Ohio State, and has to go through Stanford, Clemson, Boston College and USC. We don’t have much to go off of for what this team will look like or how the players will respond to Freeman as the coach. — Tom VanHaaren
2021 record: 10-4
Opening week game: at Florida, Sept. 3
Most important game of the season: vs. USC, Oct. 15
X factor: Quarterback Cam Rising’s impact on Utah’s 2021 season was among the most notable in all of college football. He didn’t start the Utes’ first three games of the season (1-2), and from the point he entered in relief of game No. 3, the offense felt like a completely different unit. The Utes went 9-1 in his first 10 starts to win the Pac-12 and qualify for the Rose Bowl — a pair of program firsts. As the entrenched starter, his value is even more important.
Biggest question mark this season: Injuries in the secondary were a key factor, but one of the lasting images of Utah’s 2021 season was its inability to slow down Ohio State’s vaunted passing game in the Rose Bowl. C.J. Stroud threw for 573 yards (347 of which were to Jaxon Smith-Njigba) in what turned into a nightmare performance for the Utes. If they are to take the next step — the College Football Playoff should be the goal — the secondary can’t be such a liability. — Kyle Bonagura
2021 record: 8-4
Opening week game: vs. Sam Houston, Sept. 3
Most important game of the season: at Alabama, Oct. 8
X factor: Quarterback Haynes King. The junior is one of the fastest players on the team, clocked at 22 mph, according to Jimbo Fisher, but doesn’t have much experience after suffering a season-ending injury in the second game last season. If he can threaten defenses with his feet and the Aggies can exploit weapons like freshman receiver Evan Stewart and a loaded tight end room, the Aggies could be an SEC threat with what is expected to be a tough defense.
Biggest question mark this season: That offense again. Among wide receivers, Ainias Smith led the Aggies with 47 catches for 509 yards, an average of 10.9 yards per catch. Next was Jalen Preston with 17 catches for 255 yards, while the Aggies ranked 88th in passing yards per game and 71st in total offense. Devon Achane will be a star at running back, but he’ll need help on the outside. — Dave Wilson
Coming off a No. 1 recruiting class and drama-filled offseason, Jimbo Fisher and Texas A&M are ready to get things going in Aggieland.
2021 record: 12-2
Opening week game: vs. Colorado State, Sept. 3
Most important game of the season: at Ohio State, Nov. 26
X factor: Michigan’s run game made the offense go last season, but the team lost running back Hassan Haskins, who led the team with 20 rushing touchdowns in 2021, to the NFL. But it returns Blake Corum, who had 11 touchdowns and 962 yards. Corum, along with Donovan Edwards, will have to take on a bigger load, as Haskins had 126 more carries than Corum last season. If the combo of Corum and Edwards can produce the type of scoring that Haskins and Corum did, Michigan’s offense will be in good shape.
Biggest question mark of the season: How does Michigan replace its stars on defense? The Wolverines lost Aidan Hutchinson, David Ojabo, Daxton Hill, Josh Ross, Christopher Hinton, Brad Hawkins and Vincent Gray on defense from last season. That’s the top three in total tackles, the top five in tackles for loss and the top two defenders in sacks from 2021. That is a ton of production to have to fill in one offseason. — VanHaaren
2021 record: 11-2
Opening week game: vs. UTEP, Sept. 3
Most important game of the season: vs. Texas, Oct. 8
X factor: Quarterback Dillon Gabriel. If he and offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby click the way they did at UCF a couple of years ago, and OU’s offense is back among the country’s best, the Sooners are this year’s likely Big 12 favorites again. Gabriel threw for 3,653 yards and 29 touchdowns as a true freshman under Lebby’s watch in 2019, and now he has Marvin Mims, Theo Wease and a high-upside OU receiving corps at his disposal. This should work out beautifully.
Biggest question mark this season: How long will Brent Venables need to fix that defense? After a reasonably positive start, the Sooners allowed over 30 points per game over their final nine games in 2021. Venables’ track record is clear — he inherited a shaky Clemson defense and made it one of the nation’s best within three years — but can he and coordinator Ted Roof make quicker work of turning around the Sooners’ D? It will be hard to contend for national titles again until they do. — Bill Connelly
2021 record: 12-2
Opening week game: vs. Albany, Sept. 3
Most important game of the season: vs. Oklahoma State, Oct. 1
X factor: Craig “Sqwirl” Williams. Coach Dave Aranda says the 5-foot-8, 168-pound Williams is Baylor’s most electric player, and with the departures of Abram Smith and Trestan Ebner to the NFL, the Bears could utilize him in their ground-heavy attack. But Williams, a fifth-year junior, has been limited to just 32 carries in just eight games since 2018 because of severe MCL and ACL injuries, but averaging 7.7 yards on those attempts. If he could bounce back, he could add a dynamic threat to Baylor’s offense.
Biggest question mark this season: The Bears had a magical season in 2021, claiming a Big 12 title and heading into this year as the media’s preseason favorite. But the Bears lost 62% of their offensive production, according to Bill Connelly’s calculations, and will have a new starting QB to enter the season in Blake Shapen, who won the job in spring practice after filling in for the injured Gerry Bohanon last year. Aranda is a defensive wizard, but the trick will be if offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes can find the pieces to replace departed stars. — Wilson
2021 record: 9-3
Opening week game: at East Carolina, Sept. 3
Most important game of the season: at Clemson, Oct. 1
X factor: QB Devin Leary. The Wolfpack have launched an unofficial Heisman campaign for their veteran quarterback, so that tells you all you need to know about why he is the biggest key to their chances this season. While it is true that they have veterans returning across the board on offense and defense, what gives coach Dave Doeren and his players confidence in their potential is what Leary brings to the table — a savvy leader who makes the right plays and rarely turns the ball over (35 touchdowns to just five interceptions a year ago).
Biggest question mark this season: On the field, the Wolfpack have to find a No. 1 receiver to replace Emeka Emezie and a far more consistent ground camp to complement Leary. Off the field, the biggest question surrounds how this team handles the heightened preseason expectations. NC State has traditionally played better when it feels disrespected. But this offseason, there has been far more praise heaped upon the players and the program based on what happened a year ago. How Doeren and the players handle that hype will absolutely be a storyline to watch. — Andrea Adelson
2021 record: 4-8
Opening week game: vs. Rice, Sept. 3
Most important game of the season: at Utah, Oct. 15
X factor: It would be easy to slot Caleb Williams in this spot and call it a day, but the reality is that USC’s running back room will be just as essential as the Williamses and Jordan Addisons of the world. Oregon transfer Travis Dye seems to be the shoo-in for the top spot in the backfield, but between Austin Jones, Darwin Barlow and incoming five-star Raleek Brown, there’s ample room for the entire depth chart to bring something to the table. As Lincoln Riley will be quick to point out, his offenses are more reliant on good running back play than meets the eye. With Dye as an anchor and the aforementioned trio shoring up the rest of the backfield, the running backs have the potential to set up this USC offense for success.
Biggest question mark this season: Defense, defense, defense. Between all of the Riley hype and the offensive firepower USC has added this offseason, the biggest reason for skepticism, on paper, is the defense. The state of the unit has been dire in previous years, but new defensive coordinator Alex Grinch is hoping to get it back on track with a new system and new additions. Alabama transfer linebacker Shane Lee has slipped comfortably into the role of defensive leader alongside the Trojans’ best returning defensive player: lineman Tuli Tuipulotu. USC has lacked physicality the past few seasons on that side of the ball, so it probably behooves the rest of the defense to follow the connection to the Tide as closely as possible. — Paolo Uggetti
Get excited as the Lincoln Riley era starts at USC with plenty of transfers including star quarterback Caleb Williams.
2021 record: 10-4
Opening week game: vs. Georgia in Atlanta, Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC), Sept. 3
Most important game of the season: vs. Utah on Nov. 19
X factor: Bo Nix. After an up-and-down season for Anthony Brown last year, the Ducks badly need some consistent quarterback play that doesn’t just involve game management. Adding Auburn’s Nix to the mix has been a step in the right direction. There’s a volatility that comes with Nix’s game that might be good for Oregon’s offense, and having his former quarterbacks coach Kenny Dillingham as offensive coordinator will certainly help as well. Should the Nix experiment go awry, Oregon is still set up to provide fireworks from that position with the electric redshirt freshman Ty Thompson, who has shown flashes of greatness already.
Biggest question mark this season: The running game. It flew a bit under the radar, but the job Travis Dye did to keep the running (and pass-catching) game afloat for the Ducks after CJ Verdell suffered a season-ending injury will be hard to replicate. Verdell declared for the NFL draft and Dye decided to bolt for greener (or cardinal, in this case) pastures and transfer to USC. Between Byron Cardwell and Sean Dollars, the Ducks are not without talent at the position. But given the turnover there and at quarterback, there will need to be a quick learning curve to get the offense rolling. — Uggetti
2021 record: 12-2
Opening week game: vs. Central Michigan, Sept. 1
Most important game of the season: at Oklahoma, Nov. 19
X factor: Receiver Brennan Presley. OSU’s receiving corps got hit hard by injuries last season, and quarterback Spencer Sanders found himself far more reliant on freshmen than intended. Speedster Braydon Johnson (who missed most of 2021) could stretch defenses on the outside, and last year’s freshmen are now sophomores, but a star turn from the tantalizing Presley could give Sanders and the overall offense the boost they need.
Biggest question mark this season: How much will the defense regress? The loss of defensive coordinator Jim Knowles, four-fifths of a dynamite secondary and sure-tackling linebackers Malcolm Rodriguez and Devin Harper all but assures some level of drop-off. But the Cowboys might have the best set of defensive ends in the country, and if they still play at a top-25 level or so, the offense might be able to pick up enough slack to keep OSU in Big 12 contention. — Connelly
2021 record: 11-2
Opening week game: vs. Western Michigan, Sept. 2
Most important game of the season: at Michigan, Sept. 29
X factor: Quarterback Payton Thorne led the offense last season and is going to have to take another step up if the Spartans want to have another good season. Thorne is losing running back Kenneth Walker III and receiver Jalen Nailor but still has leading receiver Jayden Reed. Thorne is going to have more on his shoulders this season, and the offense will have to go through him.
Biggest question mark of the season: How effective will the offensive line be? The Spartans lost Walker but brought in transfer running backs Jarek Broussard and Jalen Berger. The run game was a big part of the offense last season, and for that to continue, the offensive line needs to stay healthy and improve quickly. The team lost Kevin Jarvis, AJ Arcuri, Matt Allen and Blake Bueter from last season and doesn’t have a ton of experienced depth. There are only six offensive linemen on the roster with game experience, so the unit is going to have to mature in a hurry. — VanHaaren
2021 record: 7-5
Opening week game: vs. Bethune-Cookman, Sept. 3
Most important game of the season: at Texas A&M, Sept. 17
X factor: QB Tyler Van Dyke. Miami was picked as the preseason choice in the Coastal Division based in large part on the return of Van Dyke, who commanded the spotlight a year ago after replacing an injured D’Eriq King and emerged as one of the best young quarterbacks in the country. Van Dyke threw for 2,931 yards, 25 touchdowns and six interceptions in 2021 and looks to improve on those numbers this year under first-year coordinator Josh Gattis. To do that, Miami has to find a go-to receiver to replace Charleston Rambo and find more depth with that position group in particular.
Biggest question mark this season: There is renewed excitement and optimism in Miami thanks to first-year coach Mario Cristobal, who knows what it takes to win championships at Miami. Having said that, Cristobal has tried to de-emphasize outside expectations and put the focus on getting back to work on the practice field. In addition to finding more explosive plays and depth in the receiver group, linebacker is one area where Miami absolutely has to improve over a year ago, as too many players missed tackles and assignments. — Adelson
2021 record: 9-4
Opening week game: vs. Cincinnati, Sept. 3
Most important game of the season: at Auburn, Oct. 29
X factor: The SEC is loaded with big-name quarterbacks whether it’s last year’s Heisman Trophy winner, Bryce Young, or a pair of potential first-round picks in Will Levis and Anthony Richardson. But a name gets overlooked too often in the great QB debate: Arkansas’ KJ Jefferson. All he did as a sophomore last season was throw for 2,676 yards and 21 touchdowns, and rush for 664 yards and six scores. As coach Sam Pittman said, “He makes us go. He sets the tone for our football team.”
Biggest question mark this season: How do you replace Treylon Burks? He was Arkansas’ go-to target last season, racking up 1,104 yards and 11 touchdowns receiving, and running the ball 14 times for 112 yards and one score. The Razorbacks went into the transfer portal and found two receivers they hope can fill his shoes: Matt Landers, who caught five touchdowns at Toledo last season, and Jadon Haselwood, a former No. 1-ranked receiver in the 2019 class who caught six touchdowns at Oklahoma last year. — Scarborough
2021 record: 9-4
Opening week game: vs. Illinois State, Sept. 3
Most important game of the season: at Iowa, Nov. 12
X factor: Quarterback Graham Mertz. Wisconsin is still waiting for the highest-rated quarterback recruit in team history to blossom. After struggling with turnovers for most of 2021, Mertz gets a clean slate with new playcaller Bobby Engram, who wants to spice up the Badgers’ passing game. Wisconsin’s defense will always give the team a chance to win the Big Ten West Division, but Mertz will need to deliver in big moments and avoid the mistakes that have surfaced too often.
Biggest question mark this season: Coordinator Jim Leonhard’s defenses have been reliably elite, but cornerback features new faces after multiyear starters Faion Hicks and Caesar Dancy-Williams depart. The Badgers went to the transfer portal for Justin Clark (Toledo), Cedrick Dort Jr. (Kentucky) and Jay Shaw (UCLA). Clark and Shaw arrive with nine career interceptions combined. Leonhard will lean on all three to adjust to his scheme. If they do, Wisconsin’s cornerback depth could become a strength, and will help the defense remain on track. — Rittenberg
Braelon Allen burst onto the scene last season and looks to be next in line at running back for Wisconsin.
2021 record: 11-3
Opening week game: vs. West Virginia, Sept. 1
Most important game of the season: West Virginia
X factor: QB Kedon Slovis. Although Pitt’s quarterback competition to replace Kenny Pickett remains open, Slovis is the favorite to win the starting job based on his past experience at USC. In his breakout freshman year with the Trojans, Slovis threw for 3,502 yards with 30 touchdowns and nine interceptions. The Panthers are counting on Slovis to recapture the form that allowed him to succeed that year. He will have an experienced offensive line in front of him to help.
Biggest question mark this season: How do the Panthers do without Pickett and receiver Jordan Addison? The reigning ACC champions lost the bulk of their offensive production, leaving question marks not only with Slovis taking over but at receiver as well. Jared Wayne, the team’s second-leading receiver a year ago, returns, and the addition of freshman All-American Konata Mumpfield will certainly help. Add in a new offensive coordinator in Frank Cignetti Jr., and it is easy to see why the bulk of the questions on this team center on what the Pitt offense will look like in 2022. — Adelson
2021 record: 10-3
Opening week game: vs. Troy, Sept. 3
Most important game of the season: vs. Alabama, Nov. 12
X factor: It’s been a whirlwind for Zach Evans, but perhaps he’s found a home at Ole Miss. The Rebels certainly hope they’ve found their go-to running back after Evans transferred from TCU. As a high school senior, Evans was one of the most talented running back prospects in the country and initially signed with Georgia. He was released from his letter of intent and wound up at TCU, where he averaged more than 7 yards per carry each of his two seasons there. Ole Miss lost just about all of its rushing production from a year ago, and Lane Kiffin’s offense is predicated upon running the football. Evans figures to get as many carries as he can take.
Biggest question mark this season: The Rebels brought in several high-profile transfers, including former USC quarterback Jaxson Dart. He’s a talented passer who should fit well into Kiffin’s system, but replacing Matt Corral at quarterback would be a tall order for any player or for any team. He was the heart and soul of Ole Miss’ team last season and willed the Rebels to more than a few wins in several key games with his passing, running and grit. Those kinds of players don’t come around every day. — Low
2021 record: 13-1
Opening week game: at Arkansas, Sept. 3
Most important game of the season: at SMU, Oct. 22
X factor: The quarterback, whoever that is. Cincinnati was known for its defense for the past two seasons, but there’s no denying Desmond Ridder was one of the best quarterbacks in the country as well. Eastern Michigan transfer Ben Bryant and Evan Prater will be competing for the job, which will come with a good base behind an offensive line that returns all five starters (three of which were 2021 first-team All-AAC selections).
Biggest question mark this season: How does the defense rebound from an inevitable drop-off? The Bearcats lost six defensive players to the NFL, including college football’s best cornerback duo in Coby Bryant and Sauce Gardner. Cornerback Arquon Bush will be one of the most experienced players in the defensive backfield, along with returning starting safety Ja’Von Hicks. Defensive end Malik Vann and linebacker Deshawn Pace are also expected to be key pieces for this unit in 2021. Despite their losses, the Bearcats are expected to be a top contender in the AAC. — Harry Lyles Jr.
2021 record: 10-3
Opening week game: vs. Miami (Ohio), Sept. 3
Most important game of the season: vs. Tennessee, Oct. 29
X factor: In his first season with the Wildcats, quarterback Will Levis put up impressive numbers (24 passing TDs and nine rushing TDs) after transferring from Penn State. As he enters his second season at UK, there’s growing talk that he will be a first-round pick in next year’s NFL draft. Kentucky needs a big season out of Levis, especially with top receiver Wan’Dale Robinson headed to the NFL and top running back Chris Rodriguez’s status unclear after pleading guilty to DUI this summer.
Biggest question mark this season: The Wildcats have to find a way to be more consistent in defending the pass, and that’s not all on the secondary, either. Several defensive back contributors from a year ago are gone, and emerging talent Vito Tisdale also suffered a season-ending injury in the spring. Bringing in Ole Miss transfer Keidron Smith should help on the back end, but the Wildcats are also looking to replace all three defensive-line starters. — Low
2021 record: 5-7
Opening week game: vs. Louisiana-Monroe, Sept. 3
Most important game of the season: Oklahoma, Oct. 8
X factor: Hudson Card. Yes, Quinn Ewers was a star recruit and a ballyhooed transfer from Ohio State. But Card was selected as Steve Sarkisian’s starter last year before losing the job to Casey Thompson, who has since transferred to Nebraska. Still, Card has Sarkisian’s confidence and could still hold off Ewers, who did not attempt a pass for the Buckeyes. Between Bijan Robinson and receivers Xavier Worthy and freshman speedster Brenen Thompson, there are big-play options for the Longhorns. If an improved Card holds on to the job, that’s only good news for Sarkisian, who would have quality options, especially with a Week 2 showdown with Alabama looming.
Biggest question mark this season: The defense. Sarkisian took a page from Nick Saban’s playbook, hiring a head coach as an off-field staffer when he landed former TCU coach Gary Patterson as a special assistant, and his track record of defensive excellence can only help. The Longhorns ranked 99th in scoring defense (31.1 PPG), 100th in total defense (425.6 YPG), 91st in red zone D and 101st in third-down conversion rates allowed. Texas will score points. How the defense holds up will go a long way toward turning things around for Sarkisian after a disastrous debut season. — Wilson
2021 record: 12-2
Opening week game: at UTSA, Sept. 3
Most important game of the season: at SMU, Nov. 5
X factor: QB Clayton Tune. The Cougars should be potent on offense with seven starters returning, and Tune is the straw that stirs the drink. In 14 games last year, Tune threw for 3,544 yards, 30 touchdowns and 10 interceptions while completing over 68% of his passes. If he stays healthy, Tune will likely be the American Athletic’s best quarterback while leading one of the most talented teams in the conference.
Biggest question mark this season: How do the new defensive pieces fit? The Cougars lost three players to the NFL draft from the 2021 defense that was sixth in the nation in total defense. Defensive coordinator Doug Belk told ESPN the defense will be younger in some spots where it will have to mature fast, but he also feels there are a few guys who could be in the NFL next season. He also touted linebacker Donavan Mutin as a Peyton Manning-type on defense because of his on-field intellect. “I feel pretty confident about what we’re going to be able to do,” Belk said. — Lyles Jr.
2021 record: 10-3
Opening week game: at USF, Sept. 3
Most important game of the season: Baylor, Sept. 10
X factor: WR Puka Nacua is coming off a breakout season in which he caught 43 passes for 805 yards with six touchdowns after making just 16 grabs over the previous two seasons. After the departure of Tyler Allgeier (fifth-round pick of Atlanta), Nacua’s presence is ever more important as QB Jaren Hall tries to build off his strong 2021 season.
Biggest question mark this season: Can the Cougars get off to a strong start? Because they’ll face Baylor and Oregon in the second and third games of the season, a 1-2 start is clearly on the table. If that happens, the rest of the reason won’t have serious stakes because they are an independent team. It’s precisely the scenario to show why joining the Big 12 will be such a great move for the program. If the Cougars can get through those two games, though, 5-0 looks doable heading into the game against Notre Dame in Las Vegas. — Bonagura
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