College football season preview: The games, players and teams to watch to have the most fun in 2022

The college football extended universe is something a fiction writer could only dream of creating. Star Wars never had a side plot as worthwhile as the BYU-Utah Holy War. The Buffyverse was never capable of something as unexpectedly rich as the Grand Valley State-Ferris State rivalry. (And I say that as someone who married a distinctive Anya type.) J.K. Rowling only wishes she could create something as lasting as the feeling of telling people what it was like to watch Auburn’s Bo Jackson, UNLV’s Randall Cunningham or Missouri’s Brad Smith in person.

Some people are content with focusing on their team and their tailgates. Others expand their reach primarily to a single conference. If that’s what satisfies you, so be it. But I’m here to tell you that eating the whole cow is the way to go. College football is a rabbit hole with no bottom. The further you fall, the richer the experience and the more you find to love and enjoy. As I did last year, allow me to walk you through how to get the most out of this coming season, nose to tail.

The big ones

We’re going to go a lot deeper than the national title and Heisman Trophy races, but those still matter. So let’s start the journey with the big-ticket items. Based on preseason projections, here are the two biggest games of each week when it comes to combined SP+ ratings. These are the games with the most combined quality and, if you check the current betting odds, feature most of this year’s initial Heisman favorites.


Sept. 3: Notre Dame at Ohio State; Georgia vs. Oregon

Sept. 10: Alabama at Texas; Tennessee at Pitt

Sept. 17: Georgia at South Carolina; Miami at Texas A&M

Sept. 24: Wisconsin at Ohio State; Florida at Tennessee

Oct. 1: Alabama at Arkansas; NC State at Clemson

Oct. 8: Texas A&M at Alabama; Ohio State at Michigan State

Oct. 15: Alabama at Tennessee; Penn State at Michigan

Oct. 22: Mississippi State at Alabama; Iowa at Ohio State

Oct. 29: Ohio State at Penn State; Georgia vs. Florida

Nov. 5: Tennessee at Georgia; Clemson at Notre Dame

Nov. 12: Alabama at Ole Miss; Georgia at Mississippi State

Nov. 19: Georgia at Kentucky; Ohio State at Maryland

Nov. 26: Michigan at Ohio State; Auburn at Alabama

Since Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State are by far the best teams in the country from a projections standpoint, this list obviously features a lot of all three. But early-season nonconference games such as Tennessee-Pitt and especially Miami-Texas A&M are massive statement opportunities, and matchups such as Penn State-Michigan and Clemson-Notre Dame are must-wins for teams that are outside the top three but have clear potential to be elite.

(Seriously, though, watch Tennessee-Pitt. The chaos potential is off the charts whether either team is a genuine top-10 contender or not. And for that matter, watch any game that includes Arizona State, Central Michigan, Florida State, Louisville, Maryland, Mississippi State, Texas Tech or UCF, too. I’m not sure how good any of them will be, but the chaotic energy could be high with all of them. They could be capable of just about anything good or bad.)

The Pepto-Bismol All-Stars

According to the final preseason SP+ ratings I will release Sunday, there are 19 teams with at least seven games projected to finish within one score (~7.5 points) and seven teams with eight such games. These are chaos teams of a different sort. You will want to be watching at least the fourth quarter of many of their games this year.

• 8 tight games: Arkansas, Baylor, Kansas State, Northern Illinois, Oregon State, TCU, Western Michigan

• 7 tight games: Arizona State, Florida, Florida State, Georgia State, Louisville, LSU, Ohio, South Alabama, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Virginia, Washington State

There are six more teams that (a) will be projected in the SP+ top 40 and (b) have at least six such tight games: Auburn, Minnesota, Mississippi State, North Carolina, Ole Miss, Purdue.

Every week of the season features at least two games that involve the teams above and have a projected margin of 2.5 or fewer points. Be prepared to watch quite a bit of each of these games.

Sept. 3: Utah at Florida, Cincinnati at Arkansas, Florida Atlantic at Ohio

Sept. 10: Kentucky at Florida, Houston at Texas Tech, Louisville at UCF (Sept. 9), Western Michigan at Ball State

Sept. 17: Penn State at Auburn, Mississippi State at LSU

Sept. 24: Arkansas vs. Texas A&M, Coastal Carolina at Georgia State (Sept. 22)

Oct. 1: Oklahoma State at Baylor, Arizona State at USC, Texas A&M at Mississippi State

Oct. 8: Kansas State at Iowa State, Arkansas at Mississippi State, Purdue at Maryland

Oct. 15: Nebraska at Purdue, Northern Illinois at Eastern Michigan

Oct. 22: Ole Miss at LSU, Kansas State at TCU, Eastern Michigan at Ball State

Oct. 29: Arkansas at Auburn, Oklahoma State at Kansas State

Nov. 5: Texas at Kansas State, Iowa at Purdue, Minnesota at Nebraska, UCLA at Arizona State, Washington State at Stanford, Oregon State at Washington (Nov. 4), South Alabama at Georgia Southern, Buffalo at Ohio (Nov. 1), Western Michigan at Bowling Green (Nov. 2)

Nov. 12: Texas A&M at Auburn, North Carolina at Wake Forest, Northern Illinois at Western Michigan (Nov. 9)

Nov. 19: Ole Miss at Arkansas, Texas Tech at Iowa State, Ohio at Ball State (Nov. 15), Eastern Michigan at Kent State (Nov. 16), Miami (Ohio) at Northern Illinois (Nov. 16)

Nov. 26: Florida at Florida State (Nov. 25), Washington at Washington State, Bowling Green at Ohio (Nov. 22), Central Michigan at Eastern Michigan (Nov. 25)

Goodness, do things pick up in November.

The underrated rivalries

After a Week 0 run-through, the 2022 season begins in earnest with the return of one of the most mourned rivalries lost to conference realignment: the Backyard Brawl. Pitt hosts West Virginia on Thursday, Sept. 1, and College GameDay will be in attendance. The teams will play eight times over the next 11 years. Hell yes.

I can’t think of a better tone-setter for the season. And with Brawl energy in mind, let’s note some of 2022’s other more exciting offerings — either underrated rivalries, particularly hostile environments or annual games that are seemingly always close.

Aug. 27: North Texas at UTEP. UTEP is attempting to sell out the Sun Bowl. Such an environment will likely trump Week 0’s primary offering (Northwestern vs. Nebraska in Dublin).

Sept. 2-3: Virginia Tech at Old Dominion, NC State at East Carolina, North Carolina at Appalachian State. Three “What on Earth were they thinking??” road trips for ACC teams. I would be shocked if they went 3-0.

Sept. 10: Iowa State at Iowa. Every year, this wonderful rivalry game seems to be determined by the most ill-timed turnover imaginable.

Sept. 17: Cincinnati at Miami (Ohio). Cincinnati’s 15-game rivalry win streak has evened the all-time series at 59-59-7 — that’s right, they’ve played 125 times — so this would be a hell of a time for the Redhawks to get back on the right end of things.

Sept. 24: Louisiana at UL-Monroe. Despite an outstanding run of form for Louisiana (and what we’ll diplomatically call a lesser run for ULM), seven of the past nine games in this series have been decided by a single score.

Oct. 1: Stanford at Oregon. This was a Pac-12 bellwether game for much of the 2010s, and it produced a memorable and meaningful upset last season.

Oct. 7: Colorado State at Nevada. Jay Norvell went from Nevada to CSU last year and took double-digit transfers with him. That might get brought up a time or two in the run-up to this one.

Oct. 15: South Dakota State at North Dakota State and Grand Valley State at Ferris State. Give yourself over to maybe the biggest games of the year at the FCS and Division II levels.

Oct. 22: North Texas at UTSA. The Mean Green prevented a perfect regular season for UTSA with a November blowout last season. The revenge attempt should be pretty fun to watch.

Oct. 29: Missouri at South Carolina and Miami at Virginia. In the past four years, seven of eight games in these two series have been decided by one score.

Nov. 5: Texas at Kansas State. Five of the past six meetings have been decided by one score, and this is potentially UT’s last trip to Manhattan, Kansas, as a Big 12 member.

Nov. 12: James Madison at Old Dominion. Old Colonial foes, now Sun Belt rivals.

Nov. 19: Ole Miss at Arkansas. The most reliably zany game the sport has to offer.

Nov. 26: UCF at South Florida. The final time these Interstate 4 rivals meet as conference-mates. For now, anyway.

Some of the silliest things happen midweek

In the Pepto-Bismol section above, did you notice how many November MACtion games are on that list? From the Backyard Brawl through MACtion, this year’s Monday-through-Friday slate is particularly delightful. Here are some of my favorites.

Thursday, Sept. 1: West Virginia at Pitt, Penn State at Purdue

Friday, Sept. 9: Louisville at UCF

Friday, Sept. 16: Florida State at Louisville

Thursday, Sept. 22: West Virginia at Virginia Tech

Friday, Sept. 30: San Diego State at Boise State, Washington at UCLA

Friday, Oct. 7: Houston at Memphis

Wednesday, Oct. 12: Louisiana at Marshall

Friday, Oct. 21: UAB at Western Kentucky

Thursday, Oct. 27: Utah at Washington State

Tuesday-Wednesday, Nov. 1-2: Ball State at Kent State, Buffalo at Ohio, Central Michigan at Northern Illinois, Western Michigan at Bowling Green. All of it.

Thursday, Nov. 3: Appalachian State at Coastal Carolina

Wednesday, Nov. 9: Northern Illinois at Western Michigan

Wednesday, Nov. 16: Eastern Michigan at Kent State

USC and UCLA road games are going to be nasty

In last year’s piece, I noted how hostile Big 12 games were likely to get when Oklahoma and Texas, having recently announced their departures for the SEC, took to the road. Sure enough, the Sooners and Longhorns went a combined 4-4 on the road in conference play, and three of the wins were tight in the fourth quarter.

Expect something similar when Big Ten-bound USC and UCLA leave Los Angeles for Pac-12 road games this fall. USC’s trips to Oregon State (Sept. 24) and Utah (Oct. 15) could be particularly virulent. UCLA’s trip to Cal on Nov. 25 — aka The Regents Bowl — could be awkward too.

How does Nebraska top the angst of 2021?

Scott Frost’s Cornhuskers pulled off one of the most unusual feats you’ll ever see last fall, winning three games by a combined 119 points while losing nine by a combined 56. They went 1-8 in Big Ten play with a +0 scoring margin. Things can only play out that way if a team with obvious talent figures out how to lose close games in every imaginable way — ill-timed turnovers, a wide (and often hilarious) array of special teams miscues, errors of aggression, errors of conservatism, you name it.

Nebraska lost games by 3, 3, 5, 7, 7, 7, 7, 8 and 9 points, and against a particularly difficult schedule, no less. This legitimately might have been the greatest 3-9 team of all time. The Huskers showed just enough promise that Frost managed to keep his job despite a 15-29 record over four years — Nebraska lost 29 games over the final 17 seasons of Tom Osborne’s tenure there — but showed enough flaws that Frost took a salary cut and turned over a large portion of his coaching staff. He also brought in a new starting quarterback in Texas’ Casey Thompson, who went 2-5 in one-score games with the Longhorns last season.

I have absolutely no idea what Nebraska might do this season. Extreme progression to the mean in close games and a 10-win turnaround season? Frost getting fired after losses to Northwestern and Oklahoma? Every outcome is on the table, and whatever happens will be transfixing.

Watch the mid-major standouts

We are as blessed as ever when it comes to standout talent at the Group of 5 level. Coastal Carolina quarterback Grayson McCall and Army edge rusher Andre Carter II lead the way this year — and honestly, watching Coastal and Army play is good advice for virtually any week of the year. They are absolute delights, but carve out time to catch Fresno State (quarterback Jake Haener), San Diego State (defensive tackle Jonah Tavai), Air Force (quarterback Haaziq Daniels), Buffalo (linebacker James Patterson) and UTEP (defensive end Praise Amaewhule) while you’re at it.

Watch as much smaller-school football as you can

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: The more small-school ball you watch, the healthier you become. In my Friday preview columns during the season, I always try to identify at least one smaller-school game to keep an eye on, but here are two games per week that, either because of rivalry, competitiveness or high preseason poll rankings, are all but guaranteed to rock. You can find some of these games on the ESPN family of networks, but almost all will be available via some sort of (often free) streaming service.

Before the first Saturday: Jacksonville State at Stephen F. Austin (FCS) (Aug. 27), Colorado School of Mines at Grand Valley State (Div. II) (Sept. 1)

Sept. 3: Southern Illinois at Incarnate Word (FCS), Northwestern (Iowa) at Morningside (NAIA)

Sept. 10: South Dakota at Montana (FCS), Mary Hardin-Baylor at Wisconsin-Whitewater (Div. III)

Sept. 17: Southern Illinois at Northwestern, Montana State at Oregon State

Sept. 24: Montana State at Eastern Washington (FCS), Monmouth at Villanova (FCS)

Oct. 1: Sam Houston at Stephen F. Austin (FCS), Kennesaw State at Jacksonville State (FCS)

Oct. 8: Southern Illinois at Missouri State (FCS), South Dakota at South Dakota State (FCS)

Oct. 15: South Dakota State at North Dakota State (FCS), Grand Valley State at Ferris State (Div. II)

Oct. 22: Montana at Sacramento State (FCS), Marian (Indiana) at Concordia (Michigan) (NAIA)

Oct. 29: Montana at Weber State (FCS), NW Missouri State at Nebraska-Kearney (Div. II)

Nov. 5: Dartmouth at Princeton (FCS), West Florida at Valdosta State (Div. II)

Nov. 12: Eastern Washington at Montana (FCS), Baldwin Wallace at Mount Union (Div. III)

Nov. 19: Montana at Montana State (FCS), Delaware at Villanova (FCS)

And definitely watch Travis Hunter

Here’s your reminder that maybe the best college freshman in the country will be plying his trade for Deion Sanders’ Jackson State this fall. The Tigers are in the preseason FCS top 20, and they play a number of high-profile games, including their season debut Sunday, Sept. 4, at Florida A&M. Games against Southern (Oct. 29) and Alcorn State (Nov. 19) should also be very much worth the price of admission, and they’re favorites to once again reach the SWAC championship game and Celebration Bowl as well. You’ve got many chances to get acquainted with JSU this fall.

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