How 20 college football teams become legit national title contenders

There are two ways to look at college football’s on-field power structure heading into the 2022 season:

1. Three familiar teams lord far over the rest of the pack. Right now, Caesars Sportsbook is taking bets on an “Alabama, Ohio State and Georgia vs. the field” national title prop, and the betting odds for that trio are currently at -345, equivalent to a 78% chance. That certainly doesn’t serve to get the larger college football public excited about the coming fall.

2. Literally almost anyone could be No. 4! At least three power conference title races are entirely uncertain at the moment, and even if all three of the favorites live up to expectations (not a given), anyone from a long list of teams has a semi-realistic path to the College Football Playoff.

Who might that fourth team be? What might trip up the power three? We can learn a lot about a contender by laying out just how many major questions it has to address.

This is my annual “Ifs List” piece — an attempt to see how many “ifs” it takes me to turn a team into a genuine national title contender. The favorites don’t require many; a few others might have more than you think.

Below are the 20 teams with national title odds better than +10000 per Caesars, sorted by the number of “ifs” required.

(As always, we’re not going to worry about obstacles like injuries to stars, which could strike any team at any time. Those concerns are obvious and universal.)

2 Ifs

Alabama (+180)

If … key transfers come up big in the skill corps. The Alabama quarterback of choice is always surrounded by former blue-chippers and potential stars. Defending Heisman winner Bryce Young will have, by my count, 20 former blue-chippers awaiting a chance in the Bama skill corps. But the leading returnees among this group gained just 314 rushing yards (Trey Sanders) and 410 receiving yards (tight end Cameron Latu) last season.

Nick Saban will be leaning on a trio of explosive transfers — running back Jahmyr Gibbs (Georgia Tech) and receivers Tyler Harrell (Louisville) and Jermaine Burton (Georgia) — to avoid a serious youth movement and provide the big plays and easy points required to maintain elite status. Odds are good that they will come through, but it’s far from guaranteed.

If … a younger set of cornerbacks is also a better set. Alabama ranked 37th in passing success rate* allowed and 41st in adjusted net yards allowed per attempt (ANY/A**) last season. That’s better than most, but it’s not particularly Bama-like, and now the Crimson Tide are replacing both starting cornerbacks. Sophomore Kool-Aid McKinstry and LSU transfer Eli Ricks will probably do well, but (a) they must do better than “well” and (b) again, there are no guarantees.

* Success rate is the frequency with which an offense is gaining 50% of necessary yardage on first down, 70% on second or 100% on third and fourth. It is an on-base percentage for football.

** ANY/A: passing yards per attempt, with sacks and sack yardage included, plus 20-yard bonuses for touchdowns and 45-yard penalties for interceptions. This ends up giving us what we’re supposed to be getting from passer rating.

Ohio State (+375)

If … the defensive line punches back (especially in the red zone). Five hundred sixty-six yards. That’s how much Oregon and Michigan combined to gain on the ground against Ohio State in 2021. Minnesota and Utah also each topped 200. If you were a particularly physical team, you could push the Buckeyes around, especially in the red zone, where Michigan and Oregon scored 11 TDs on 12 tries.

Ohio State ranked 71st in rushing success rate allowed and 123rd in red zone touchdown rate allowed. Of all the problems new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles needs to solve, this is the biggest, and three of last year’s top five linemen are gone. Veterans such as defensive end Zach Harrison and tackle Taron Vincent and young former star recruits such as end J.T. Tuimoloau and tackle Tyleik Williams must not only make plays but also push back when pushed.

If … a No. 2 receiver emerges. Quarterback C.J. Stroud has two of the best players in college football at his disposal in running back TreVeyon Henderson and receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba. But at some point, someone else will need to come up big, especially in the receiving corps. Will it be sophomore Marvin Harrison Jr.? Junior Julian Fleming? A freshman like Kaleb Brown or Kyion Grayes? The skill corps is a bounty of former blue-chippers, but they’re awfully unproven after the big two.

Georgia (+400)

If … a reloaded front seven does as well as we assume. Five first-rounders, including three linemen. Another three starters picked later in the draft. Georgia didn’t just lose lots of contributors from last season’s top-ranked defense; it lost absolute stars.

Are there more in reserve? Probably. The Bulldogs have finished first in defensive SP+ for three straight years, after all. They’ve replaced stars before, and they still have sure things such as tackle Jalen Carter and linebackers Nolan Smith and Robert Beal Jr. But any defensive regression would force quarterback Stetson Bennett and the offense to carry more weight and potentially wreck last year’s perfect balance. It’s fair to assume Georgia will have a top D again, but it’s not a given until we see it.

If … a pretty inexperienced offensive line holds up. I feel I should doubt Bennett one more time, just for old times’ sake. I’ve done it plenty. But when you play 10 perfect minutes to finish the national title game and finish the year third in Total QBR, you earn the benefit of the doubt.

Even a strong QB needs a strong offensive line, though, and while the line held up last year with freshmen taking more than 1,500 snaps, its two best players (Justin Shaffer and Jamaree Salyer) are gone. The two-deep will be overloaded with freshmen and sophomores.

3 Ifs

Clemson (+1400)

If … Brandon Streeter fixes D.J. Uiagalelei. Let’s just spell it out:

1. In the past 10 seasons, only one national champion had a starting quarterback with a Total QBR under 81.5: Alabama in 2015 with Jake Coker (70.2). The 10 champs averaged 85.9.

2. Uiagalelei’s Total QBR was a dismal 43.2 last season, 97th overall. He would need to improve by 27 points to clear the Coker bar and by 42.7 points to hit the title-winning average.

3. In the past 10 seasons, only 42 quarterbacks have improved by 27 points in a single season, only six by 42.7 or more.

It is doable. And rare. New offensive coordinator Brandon Streeter (last year’s QBs coach) needs to pull off a miracle with Uiagalelei, and if he can’t, blue-chip freshman Cade Klubnik had better be ready. Clemson doesn’t need a ton from its offense, but it needs more than what it got in 2021.

If … someone can beat man coverage. Uiagalelei against man coverage last season: 36% completion rate, and a 21.4 raw QBR. Disastrous. Joseph Ngata and company need to get open, and Uiagalelei — or Klubnik — needs to get them the ball. (A veteran line needs to better protect the QB of choice, too.)

If … the cornerback transition goes fine. There are no grave concerns with a defense that is projected second in defensive SP+, but the top two CBs are gone, leaving senior Sheridan Jones and some underclassmen to clear a high bar.

Texas A&M (+2500)

If … a star quarterback emerges. As mentioned in my SEC West preview, Jimbo Fisher’s starting quarterbacks have averaged a No. 45 ranking in Total QBR over the past seven years. Zach Calzada, who has since transferred, was 72nd in 2021. Either LSU transfer Max Johnson (58th last year), initial 2021 starter Haynes King or blue-chip freshman Conner Weigman must harness the vibe Calzada found in his randomly brilliant performance against Alabama and deploy it against every good team A&M faces this season.

If … the Aggies actually stretch the field. Fisher told reporters this season that A&M was emphasizing downfield passing in spring ball. Good. It has been a defined weakness of the Fisher offense for years — yards per completion over his four seasons in College Station: 12.1, 72nd in FBS — and the Aggies have the athletes to stretch the field and create more easy points for themselves.

If … stars emerge up front. In terms of snap counts, last year’s top four from an incredible D-line are gone. There are, by my count, 16 former blue-chip linemen to choose from, including veterans like tackle McKinnley Jackson and four five-star freshmen (led by No. 1 overall prospect Walter Nolen), but a few of them must clear a really high bar.

Notre Dame (+5000)

If … efficiency improves. Head coach Marcus Freeman inherits a team that dominated the red zone and won the big-play battle. But last year’s Fighting Irish slipped from an efficiency standpoint: Tommy Rees’ offense ranked 69th in success rate, due primarily to an all-or-nothing running game. Running back Kyren Williams is gone, and backups Chris Tyree and Logan Diggs were both less explosive and less prone to lost yardage. Maybe that’s a fair trade.

If … a star quarterback emerges (and takes fewer sacks). Staying on schedule is the biggest favor you can do for a new starting quarterback. Last year’s starter, Jack Coan, was asked to throw a lot behind schedule, and while he did it pretty well, he also took a lot of sacks. Either Tyler Buchner or Drew Pyne will take over, and while Buchner in particular has upside and mobility, title contention requires consistency and better avoidance of negative plays.

If … the secondary reins in the glitches. Williams and receiver Kevin Austin (also gone) gave the Irish an explosiveness advantage, but the secondary gave up a few too many gashes, especially without injured star Kyle Hamilton. Freeman has replaced Hamilton with excellent Northwestern transfer Brandon Joseph, and the top three cornerbacks return. They’ll get help from a tremendous pass rush. If the Irish offense is making fewer big plays, the defense will have to allow fewer, too. It probably will.

4 Ifs

Utah (+4000)

If … Cam Rising and the Utes are good favorites. Thanks in part to Rising’s emergence — he ranked fifth in Total QBR after October 1 — Utah surged to its first Pac-12 title. An accurate passer and devastating scrambler, Rising is receiving dark-horse Heisman hype, and the Utes will enter 2022 as the hunted instead of the hunter. Can this chip-on-its-shoulder program respond well to life as a heavyweight?

If … the passing game finds a few more big plays. As good as Rising was, he only averaged 12.2 yards per completion, and Utah finished just 103rd in passing marginal explosiveness.* Whether it’s 6-foot-5 sophomore Devaughn Vele or someone else, the emergence of a quality deep threat would raise Utah’s ceiling immensely.

If … the old Utah run defense returns. In three of four losses, the Utes scored more than 30 points; in three of four, they also allowed at least 200 rushing yards. Inefficient run defense was costly, and while the line is less youth-reliant now, two linebacker transfers — Gabe Reid (Stanford) and Mohamoud Diabate (Florida) — need to make a huge difference.

If … the defensive spine is glitch-free. Middle linebacker Devin Lloyd and safeties Vonte Davis and Brandon McKinney were safe and sturdy, and they’re all gone. Improved run defense would fix a lot, but increased glitches from the safety valves would create a new set of issues.

* Marginal explosiveness looks at the magnitude of a team’s successful plays (per the success rate definition) and adjusts for field position.

Michigan (+5000)

If … the Wolverines survive another defensive coordinator change. When Jim Harbaugh replaced veteran Don Brown with Baltimore Ravens assistant Mike Macdonald, it went so well that Macdonald was lured right back to the NFL. So Harbaugh brought Jesse Minter, another former Ravens assistant — and, in 2021, Vanderbilt’s DC — to Ann Arbor. Can Minter maintain a high level without an adjustment period?

If … pass rushers emerge. Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo gave Macdonald loads of pass pressure without extreme blitzing, but both were lost to the NFL. Ends like Taylor Upshaw and Braiden McGregor were strong in small samples, but they have massive shoes to fill.

If … young safeties are good safeties. Regression in the pass rush would put extra pressure on a secondary replacing two excellent safeties (Daxton Hill and Brad Hawkins). Sophomores RJ Moten and Rod Moore both played quite a bit last season, but Michigan will be leaning heavily on underclassmen.

If … an experienced passing game goes from good to excellent. The offense lost coordinator Josh Gattis but returns eight starters. After jumping to 19th in offensive SP+, the Wolverines could jump further if they can find a bit more high-end passing. With quarterback Cade McNamara, running back Blake Corum, tight end Erick All, receivers Cornelius Johnson and Roman Wilson and 2020 leader Ronnie Bell all returning, they indeed might find it.

Oklahoma (+5000)

If … G5-to-P5 transfers thrive on defense. First-year coach Brent Venables brought in some Group of 5 stars to improve the defense. Those players don’t usually dominate right away at the power conference level, but OU’s hopes of a title-worthy defense might require guys like linebacker T.D. Roof (Appalachian State), cornerback C.J. Coldon (Wyoming) and end Jonah Laulu (Hawaii) to do just that.

If … at least one young stud emerges in the secondary. Coldon, nickel Justin Broiles and others will give the OU secondary a veteran presence. But the ceiling might not be high enough unless recent star recruits — sophomore safety Billy Bowman, freshman corner Gentry Williams — command a spot in the rotation.

If … the Dillon Gabriel-Jeff Lebby marriage is still dynamite. Lebby was UCF’s offensive coordinator in 2019, when Gabriel threw for 3,653 yards as a true freshman and UCF finished 14th in offensive SP+. The two reunite in Norman. Gabriel is accurate, poised and ready for the tempo Lebby demands. This should work out really well.

If … a revamped receiving corps is as good as it looks. OU’s three receptions leaders are gone, but Gabriel will still have Marvin Mims, injury returnee Theo Wease and Arizona State transfer LV Bunkley-Shelton at his disposal. Can Mims in particular enjoy a breakout year?

Oklahoma State (+6000)

If … the big-play spigot opens again. Injuries meant OSU’s receiving corps was freshman-heavy for much of 2021, so the Cowboys turned into a defense-and-run-game team and won an incredible 12 games. Major turnover could lead to defensive regression, however, and hopes for another huge season likely hinge on receivers Brennan Presley, Jaden Bray, Braydon Johnson and others bringing back the chunk plays.

If … Spencer Sanders has one more year. His receiving corps was green last year, and he was asked to play things more conservatively, but after three years with a Total QBR between 64 and 69, Sanders will need to prove his ceiling is a bit higher.

If … new stars emerge in the secondary. Four of five defensive backs are gone from what was one of the nastiest, most effective secondaries in the country. Veterans like Thomas Harper have experience and upside, but youngsters will be involved, and they have an extremely high bar to clear.

If … missed tackles don’t become a problem. So many of the defensive stars lost from last year — linebackers Malcolm Rodriguez and Devin Harper, corner Jarrick Bernard-Converse, safety Kolby Harvell-Peel — were surer tacklers than you typically find at those positions. The Cowboys will still have a fierce pass rush, but it would only take a few extra missed tackles, and a few more big plays, to mess up the defensive equation.

Wisconsin (+6000)

If … November Graham Mertz was the real Graham Mertz. Mertz was nearly perfect in his first career start, then mostly bad for his next 10. But he completed 66% of his passes with a 77.1 Total QBR in his last five games of 2021. Freshman running back Braelon Allen enjoyed a star turn, Mertz was good and the Badgers won four of five.

If that’s what we can expect in the 2022 season, Wisconsin is the Big Ten West’s best team. But was that a real, lasting sample?

If … Bobby Engram can conjure up some explosiveness. Wisconsin ranked 122nd in marginal explosiveness last year; the Badgers’ successful plays were far less successful than most.

Head coach Paul Chryst brought in Engram, a Baltimore Ravens assistant (and former Penn State star), as his new offensive coordinator. If he can coax big plays out of a pretty green receiving corps, Wisconsin’s ceiling rises considerably.

If … transfers save the secondary. Last year’s top five DBs are all gone. Chryst brought in four transfers, and UCLA transfer Jay Shaw is particularly impressive, but there’s a chance of regression in a key unit.

If … the linebacker supply chain keeps producing stars. Over the last seven full seasons, Wisconsin has averaged 2.6 linebackers with double-digit TFLs. Three of last year’s four starters are gone, though, so new stalwarts still have to emerge alongside the dominant Nick Herbig.

Baylor (+7500)

If … the thinned-out secondary holds up. Nickelback Jalen Pitre took part in 20 tackles for loss; safeties JT Woods, Christian Morgan and Jairon McVea combined for 24 passes defensed (and a title-winning tackle); and Kalon Barnes and Raleigh Texada tackled better than any cornerback duo in FBS.

Of those, only Morgan returns in 2022. Senior Al Walcott could see a star turn, but the Bears lost so many magnificent players from a magnificent unit.

If … a brand-new skill corps has some stars. Backs Abram Smith and Trestan Ebner and leading receivers Tyquan Thornton, R.J. Sneed and Drew Estrada are all gone. Veteran tight end Ben Sims is solid, and Taye McWilliams was dynamite in a tiny, 17-carry sample (10.7 yards per carry), but quarterback Blake Shapen will be working with a green supporting cast.

If … the Shapen gamble pays off. Shapen took over for injured starter Gerry Bohanon late in 2021 and thrived. Following spring practice, head coach Dave Aranda named Shapen as the starter despite almost assuredly knowing that Bohanon would transfer as a result. (He did.) Shapen better be awesome!

If … the god of close games continues to smile on Dave Aranda. The Bears played in 10 games that were within one score in the fourth quarter and won eight of them. That’s hard to do, and even harder to do twice.

Florida (+7500)

If … Anthony Richardson smooths out rough edges. As a part-timer last season, Richardson produced passes of 75, 41, 38, 36, 36, 33 and 27 and rushes of 80, 73, 26 and 25. He’s got a big arm, and he is much faster than a 240-pounder has any right to be.

He was also too inconsistent to fully earn former coach Dan Mullen’s trust. If Billy Napier coaxes steadier play from the sophomore, Florida goes from also-ran to contender very quickly. (“Quickly” is a must — Florida plays Utah, Kentucky and Tennessee in September.)

If … a thin skill corps makes plays. Leading receiver Justin Shorter returns, and transfers Montrell Johnson (Louisiana RB) and Ricky Pearsall (Arizona State WR) could help, but there aren’t many proven ball carriers or pass-catchers. Sophomore blue-chipper Xzavier Henderson raising his game would help immensely.

If … a green front seven does, too. Four leading returning defensive linemen are all sophomores, and while veteran Brenton Cox Jr. is excellent, sophomores might carry most of the upside at linebacker too. That’s not typically part of a title recipe.

If … the defense starts creating havoc again. The Gators ranked 98th in havoc rate* last season. Defensive co-coordinators Patrick Toney and Sean Spencer have never worked together, but they need to very quickly craft a lot more disruption than Florida has produced of late.

* Havoc rate: Combined tackles for loss, passes defensed and forced fumbles divided by total plays.

Miami (+7500)

If … the run game can stay ahead of the chains. Quarterback Tyler Van Dyke finished 11th in Total QBR as a redshirt freshman, and a lot of his best work came when Miami was behind schedule. But those instances were a little too frequent thanks in part to Miami’s No. 78 ranking in rushing success rate. New head coach Mario Cristobal generally produces physical, run-intensive teams; can Miami immediately meet his standards?

If … sophomore receivers do their jobs. Last year’s top two receivers are gone, and while a quintet of returning sophomores averaged 14.7 yards per catch, only Key’Shawn Smith and Xavier Restrepo caught more than 14 balls. Security-blanket tight end Will Mallory is back, but Van Dyke will go as far as sophomores can take him.

If … the tackling improves. Per Sports Info Solutions, Miami ranked 124th in tackle percent last season, missing 13.3 tackles per game. All four of last year’s CFP teams ranked 21st or better in this category. Experience should help dramatically … or at least, it better.

If … the defensive line rebuild works. After years of high-quality play, Miami’s defensive front slipped significantly last season, and Cristobal noticed. He brought in four D-line transfers, including proven disruptors in Akheem Mesidor (WVU), Jacob Lichtenstein (USC) and Antonio Moultrie (UAB). Can they make an immediate impact?

Michigan State (+7500)

If … Jayden Reed has big-play partners. Mel Tucker’s Spartans had one of college football’s best skill-corps trios in back Kenneth Walker III and receivers Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor, who combined for 3,480 rushing and receiving yards and 38 touchdowns. Only Reed returns.

MSU has plenty of players with potential — slot man Tre Mosley, running back transfers Jarek Broussard (Colorado) and Jalen Berger (Wisconsin), tight end Maliq Carr — but standards are ridiculously high.

If … a thin offensive line holds up. Quarterback Payton Thorne will be simultaneously looking for new playmakers and operating behind a line that returns only one primary starter. The Spartans could still start up to four seniors up front, but the second string will be made up almost entirely of freshmen and untested sophomores. Any injuries could cause serious issues.

If … a bend-don’t-break secondary bends less. MSU didn’t allow huge pass plays but ranked 110th in passing success rate allowed — far too many free yards. Almost all of last year’s secondary returns, and Georgia transfer Ameer Speed joins the rotation, but MSU desperately needs more disruption in the back.

If … the god of close games continues to smile on Mel Tucker. Like Baylor, the Spartans were unsustainably successful in close games — they played in seven games that were within one score in the fourth quarter and won six of them.

Penn State (+7500)

If … a healthy Sean Clifford is an awesome Sean Clifford. Clifford is returning to State College for a sixth season, hoping to finish up on a better note than what last year’s injury-plagued campaign produced. Clifford had a top-10 Total QBR when he was injured against Iowa, but he was 85th from that point forward. PSU’s offense followed suit. When healthy, he’s aggressive and effective with both his arm and legs.

If … the run game reappears. The Nittany Lions finished a dreadful 105th in rushing success rate and 116th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line). Veteran running backs Keyvone Lee and Devyn Ford return, but PSU could get a huge boost from blue-chip running back Nicholas Singleton. Can the ground attack improve with a freshman and three new line starters?

If … the red zone offense does, too. In theory, a better run game will mean a better red zone offense, but it was a nightmare last year: PSU was 121st in red zone touchdown rate.

If … a star end emerges. New coordinator Manny Diaz usually knows how to create TFLs, but there’s a hole left by the departures of defensive ends Arnold Ebiketie and Jesse Luketa (combined: 10 sacks, 25 run stops). Some combination of Nick Tarburton, Smith Vilbert, Maryland transfer Chop Robinson and youngsters will need to fill it.

5 Ifs

USC (+2500)

If … this much change actually works. A team that went 4-8 last season has the fifth-best national title odds. New head coach Lincoln Riley could more than double USC’s win total and still get labeled a disappointment. Granted, it’s partially his fault — he’s the one who brought in transfers like quarterback Caleb Williams (Oklahoma) and receiver Jordan Addison (Pitt) — but it’s probably too much, too soon.

If … a revamped defensive front creates havoc. USC ranked 119th in havoc rate and, despite blitzing constantly, 120th in pressure rate. While Riley has imported plenty of transfers, only two players on the roster had more than one sack in 2021.

If … DC Alex Grinch picks his spots better. Grinch’s all-or-nothing style relies heavily on havoc; without it, his defenses get burned constantly. He sought more of a balance last season at Oklahoma, but the results weren’t particularly good.

If … a revamped secondary improves dramatically. An unsuccessful secondary is replacing five of last year’s top six. Colorado corner transfer Mekhi Blackmon is a keeper, but he’s going to need a lot of help.

If … November Caleb Williams is gone. The Williams of September and October: 9.6 yards per dropback, 72% completion rate, 94.8 Total QBR. November: 6.0 per dropback, 57% completion rate, 73.0 Total QBR. He actually looked like a freshman late. Has he grown past that?

Texas (+4000)

If … experience fixes a miserable run defense. Texas was 89th in rushing success rate allowed. Most of last year’s front seven returns, and nose tackle Keondre Coburn is good, but this unit needs drastic improvement.

If … new blood fixes a miserable pass defense. The secondary was passive (124th in completion rate), and the pass rush didn’t exist (117th in sack rate). Five of nine DBs with 100-plus snaps are gone, so the secondary will have some new players, for better or worse.

If … Gary Patterson and Pete Kwiatkowski work well together. Steve Sarkisian brought in the legendary former TCU head coach as a “special assistant.” It is easy to think he might become defensive coordinator if Kwiatkowski, the current DC, struggles again. None of this feels conducive to an awesome working relationship.

If … Quinn Ewers (or Hudson Card) is ready. An all-world recruit, Ewers sat the bench at Ohio State and transferred home, and word out of practice was that he wasn’t really separating himself from the sophomore Card. Whoever wins the job will have a lovely skill corps, an experienced line and major pressure to thrive.

If … the pass blocking improves. Despite facing few blitzes, the Horns ranked 90th in sack rate allowed last season. QB Casey Thompson (now at Nebraska) held onto the ball too long sometimes, but the pass protection simply wasn’t good enough.

LSU (+5000)

Again: If … this much change can produce a contender. First-year head coach Brian Kelly could start around five transfers on offense (including QB) and six on defense (including the entire secondary). New blood was a must for a team that slipped dramatically after its 2019 national title, but how long does it take for that many new players to jell?

If … (stop me if you’ve heard this before) a star quarterback emerges. Veteran Myles Brennan (injured for most of two seasons), scramble-heavy Arizona State transfer Jayden Daniels and recent blue-chippers Garrett Nussmeier and Walker Howard are all potential starters. Someone (probably Daniels) has to shine immediately against a relentless schedule.

If … the skill corps is more than just Kayshon Boutte. A healthy Boutte is one of the best receivers in FBS, but he’ll need help from players like Jaray Jenkins, Jack Bech and whoever starts at RB.

If … a brand-new secondary is as good as it looks. Transfer corners Jarrick Bernard-Converse (Oklahoma State), Sevyn Banks (Ohio State) and Mekhi Garner (Louisiana) and Arkansas safeties Joe Foucha and Greg Brooks Jr. have all flashed elite potential, but only two have played with each other before.

If … the run defense grows more consistent. Linemen BJ Ojulari, Jaquelin Roy and Maason Smith are proven playmakers, but with them LSU still ranked just 70th in rushing success rate allowed in 2021.

Oregon (+7500)

If … Bo Nix has another gear. An excellent scrambler, Nix was solid at Auburn but never topped 30th in Total QBR. Either he needs to improve or young blue-chipper Ty Thompson needs to top him on the depth chart.

If … recent young skill corps players live up to hype. Mario Cristobal left new head coach Dan Lanning loads of former star recruits in the skill corps — I count 16 four- or five-stars. But only one returnee rushed more than 14 times or caught more than 18 passes; a few will need to get up to speed quickly.

If … the front seven actually adds up to the sum of its parts. Last year’s defensive front was loaded with playmakers (ends Kayvon Thibodeaux and Brandon Dorlus, tackle Popo Aumavae, linebacker Noah Sewell) but ranked a ghastly 90th in rushing success rate allowed and 113th in sack rate. Serious improvement is needed, and without Thibodeaux.

If … new cornerbacks hold up. Excellent starters Mykael Wright and DJ James are gone; Colorado’s Christian Gonzalez could be an immediate starter, and again, there are loads of young former star recruits available. But the bar is high.

If … the tackling improves. Like Miami, Oregon was prone to whiffs — 117th in tackle percent with 12.2 misses per game. Not even Sewell was as sure as he needed to be in this regard.

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