Ranking all 131 college football teams in tiers for the 2022 season

Preseason projections are a difficult task. We can review last season’s results, but that only gets us so far. In an era in which the transfer portal allows for massive roster overhauls in a single offseason (hello, USC), there aren’t many constants from year to year. And yet, the job of ranking teams remains.

So, how do we find a meaningful strategy for solving this dilemma?

First, we’re avoiding old-fashioned rankings. Putting teams in order, 1 through 131, is so passé. Instead, we’re focusing on tiers — grouping together teams with similar profiles and separating the contenders from the rest.

Second, we’re turning to the one group of prognosticators with a truly astonishing ability to accurately predict the future: The writers of “The Simpsons.” They foresaw Donald Trump’s presidency, the discovery of the Higgs boson particle and theorized we may all be living in a doughnut-shaped universe (Note: This has yet to be proved, but we want to believe).

So, with Homer, Bart and the rest of Springfield as our muse, let’s try to create some order in this doughnut-shaped world.

Tier 1: The clear favorites

“Sorry, Mom, the mob has spoken.”

Three teams: Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State

Let’s nitpick for a second: Alabama’s defense has some question marks, and the Tide will be relying on a couple of transfers to carry their receiving corps. Georgia lost approximately 34 defenders to the NFL draft and, without J.T. Daniels, who will everyone insist is a better quarterback than Stetson Bennett this year? Ohio State has a new defensive coordinator, but it’s still tough to forget that the Buckeyes allowed more than 30 points in a game five times last season, including 87 total in their final two. But the mob has spoken. All 63 first-place votes in the AP poll went to one of these three schools. All but one in the coaches’ poll, too. (Note: The stray vote for Texas was about as smart as Krusty betting against the Harlem Globetrotters. “I thought the Longhorns were due!”) They’re the top three teams in SP+ and FPI. Las Vegas has these three as the top picks to win it all, too. Alas, who are we to argue with the masses? Now, let’s go build that monorail!

Tier 2: How quickly we forget

“I used to be with it, but then they changed what ‘it’ was. Now what I’m with isn’t ‘it,’ and what’s ‘it’ seems weird and scary to me.”

Four teams: Clemson, Michigan, Notre Dame, Oklahoma

Clemson made the College Football Playoff six straight seasons, but in 2021, the offense fell apart and the Tigers ceded the ACC to Pitt. Was that a blip or the start of a trend? Dabo Swinney has made no secret that he doesn’t enjoy the cool new trends sweeping college football (name, image and likeness, the transfer portal, and for most of 2021, the forward pass) and with a slew of new assistants (nearly all of whom were promoted from within), 2022 stands as a referendum on whether Swinney’s old standards will hold up in the modern era.

Michigan, Notre Dame and Oklahoma are all playoff veterans, too, but aren’t getting quite the buzz their pedigree might suggest. The Wolverines won the Big Ten last season, but you wouldn’t know it from all the Ohio State hype. Jim Harbaugh’s khakis just don’t turn heads the way they used to. Meanwhile, the Irish and the Sooners both have energetic new coaches, but while both Marcus Freeman and Brent Venables have shown they can win a news conference, neither has won a college game as a head coach.

This group has 13 playoff appearances among them, and odds are, someone from this tier will add to that tally in 2022. But, like the latest releases from Bread, one or two might also be relegated to the “oldies” section.

Tier 3: Rising stars

“I’d trade it all for just a little more.”

Four teams: NC State, Texas A&M, Utah, Wisconsin

All four teams open the season ranked in the top 18, and all have lofty expectations for 2022. But none have sniffed the playoff to this point, and all lost some ugly games last season. (Yes, Utah fans, we blame Charlie Brewer, too.) If the hype for 2022 is real, it’ll mean someone stepping beyond their historical comfort zone of nine- or 10-win seasons and going toe-to-toe with the blue bloods. From Devin Leary and Cameron Rising to Devon Achane and Braelon Allen, these teams have plenty of elite talent. But they’re going to need to show a little more if they want to be legitimate playoff contenders in 2022.

Tier 4: They’re (maybe) back!

“Everything looks bad if you remember it.”

Three teams: Miami, Texas, USC

Fans of the Canes, Longhorns and Trojans are chili cook-off-level excited about 2022, and for good reason. Miami hired Mario Cristobal and an all-star staff in a quest to finally rejuvenate the program. It’s Year 2 for Steve Sarkisian, who has a bevy of QB talent on the roster in a wide-open Big 12. And Lincoln Riley, Caleb Williams and Jordan Addison all arrived at USC this year to great fanfare and high expectations. It all sounds pretty good … until you remember recent history. How many times have we said Miami, Texas and USC are back, only to see them soon be thwarted by critical injuries, inept coaching or the occasional Halloween monkey attack? Maybe this time really is different. Or maybe Quinn Ewers gets hold of some Guatemalan insanity peppers.

Tier 5: The (kind of) basketball schools

“A little higher, Wendel. A lot higher, Martin. Uh, Ralph, that’s a basketball.”

Six schools: Baylor, Houston, Kentucky, Michigan State, Oklahoma State, Wake Forest

Sure, there’s a better chance this tier sends multiple teams to the Final Four than the College Football Playoff in their coming seasons, but don’t dare call them basketball schools. Every one of these teams won at least 10 games last season, and four played for league titles. Indeed, this group finished with a better winning percentage in football (.829) than in men’s basketball (.715), and not a single one of them lost a bowl game to St. Peter’s.

Tier 6: The under-the-radar gems

“Stupid carbon rod. It’s all just a popularity contest.”

Six teams: Arkansas, BYU, Cincinnati, Iowa, Ole Miss, Pitt

This tier was a combined 63-18 last year. Cincinnati made the playoff. Pitt went to a New Year’s Six bowl. Iowa was ranked as high as No. 2. Arkansas, BYU and Ole Miss spent time in the top 10, too. And yet, none are getting much respect as real playoff contenders this year. True, each team lost some important players, but they all return their fair share of talent, too. So while teams like USC, Miami and Texas spent the offseason more popular than an inanimate carbon rod, it’s about time the teams in this tier earned some respect, too.

Tier 7: Wilder things have happened

“Your ideas are intriguing to me, and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter.”

Five teams: Oregon, Minnesota, Mississippi State, Purdue, Tennessee

What if we were to tell you there’s a sleeper playoff team in this tier, and it’s simply the College Football Deep State — or, maybe the Stonecutters — that’s keeping them down? A quick list of teams that lost to someone in this tier last year: Ohio State, NC State, Texas A&M, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Kentucky. Pretty good, eh? Sure, there’s the occasional loss to Stanford or Bowling Green in here, too, but that was all part of the plan — luring the opposition into a false sense of security. Just look at Mississippi State’s defense, which could be elite. Or check out Aiden O’Connell’s 85.7 Total QBR, fifth best in the country. And if you rearrange the letters in Minnesota, it spells “Saint Omen,” which is clearly a reference to the New Orleans Saints, who play in the same division as the Falcons, who play at Mercedes-Benz Arena, which is where the Peach Bowl will be held. Don’t you see! It’s all so obvious!

Tier 8: Big names, bad records

“I’m not easily impressed. Wow! A blue car!”

Five teams: Auburn, Florida, LSU, Penn State, Washington

Five college football blue bloods, who all recruit at a championship level. And yet, they finished a combined 29-35 last season, with only Penn State (7-6) managing a winning record. It’s hard to separate the sparkling sheen on these programs from the immensely average performances. FPI is impressed with Auburn (No. 11 in the preseason ranking), but Bryan Harsin could be abandoned at an I-85 rest stop any day now. LSU ranks even higher (No. 10 in FPI), but Brian Kelly’s dance moves might be better than his defense. Billy Napier hired a support staff that roughly equals the population of Vermont, and yet none of them are likely to figure out how to block Jalen Carter. The point is, don’t get distracted by simple th… ooh, that dog has a puffy tail!

Tier 9: Plucky upstarts

“I can’t promise I’ll try, but I’ll try to try.”

Five teams: Kansas State, Louisville, Maryland, North Carolina, UCLA

Louisville QB Malik Cunningham is as electric as any player in the country. UNC’s Josh Downs caught 101 balls last year. By leaving Nebraska, Adrian Martinez broke the curse put on him by the ghost of Bo Pelini, and he can finally blossom into a terrific player for Kansas State. Across the board, this tier is rollickingly fun. And yet, you can also count on them to completely collapse a few times a year. Don’t ask too much, and you won’t be disappointed.

Tier 10: The system is rigged

“Somehow I just never made it to the big time. … Why not? … Because I got knocked out 40 times in a row. That, and the politics. You know, it’s all politics.”

Eight teams: Air Force, Appalachian State, Army, Boise State, Coastal Carolina, Fresno State, San Diego State, UCF

Coastal Carolina went 11-2 last season. Its two losses came by a combined five points. It returns one of the nation’s most prolific QBs in Grayson McCall. There’s a reasonable path toward an undefeated season for the Chanticleers. App State has a schedule that mirrors Cincinnati’s from 2021 with genuine tests against North Carolina and Texas A&M that, if they somehow won both, the Mountaineers would certainly be the talk of college football entering October. Air Force is favored to win every game it plays this season. This whole group represents some genuinely good teams from outside the Power 5, and yet, you can sum up their playoff chances as approximately zero. Why? Well, for one, any of them would likely lose to Alabama by 50. But also politics. It’s all politics.

Tier 11: Hot seats

“I’m fired, aren’t I?”

Four teams: Arizona State, Florida State, Nebraska, West Virginia

Eight months ago, fans tried to fire Mike Norvell on Twitter Spaces. Herm Edwards has danced around NCAA violations, but a sizable chunk of his staff took the hit and a number of his best players, including QB Jayden Daniels, hit the transfer portal. Scott Frost has his O-linemen working so hard they throw up 10 to 15 times a day, which mirrors how Nebraska fans have felt the past four years. Neal Brown is just 17-18 through three seasons at West Virginia, but by bringing in J.T. Daniels, he has at least assured himself his backup QB will blossom into a star this season. So, can any of these teams be proactive enough to change the paradigm? And aren’t “proactive” and “paradigm” just words lazy writers use to sound informed?

Tier 12: The overachievers

“It’s not easy to juggle a pregnant wife and a troubled child, but somehow I managed to fit in eight hours of TV a day.”

Six teams: Boston College, Iowa State, Oregon State, South Carolina, Stanford, Virginia

It’s our overachievers tier. None of these five schools has a blue-blood roster, but they’ve all had their moments of triumph. Stanford knocked off Oregon last season. Virginia’s offense was among the most dynamic in the country. Shane Beamer had a giant tub of mayonnaise dumped on his head. The big question in 2022 is whether any of them can emerge as something more than an occasional pleasant surprise. Iowa State is a perfect example. After an unlikely 9-3 campaign in 2020, expectations were ratcheted up for 2021, and the Cyclones stumbled to a 7-6 finish. Rising from the meaty part of the bell curve is a tough job, and while these schools all have a few reasons to think they might — Phil Jurkovec, Brennan Armstrong, Will McDonald — there are real questions about whether they have enough depth to take the next step forward.

Tier 13: All gas, no brakes

“There’s three ways to do things: The right way, the wrong way, and the Max Power way. … Isn’t that the wrong way? … Yes, but faster!”

Four teams: Syracuse, Texas Tech, TCU, Washington State

As a group, this tier finished last year 24-26, but Syracuse has a new Air Raid offensive coordinator in Robert Anae (who averaged 517 yards per game with Virginia last year). Texas Tech hired its own Air Raid coordinator in Zack Kittley (who averaged 44 points per game with Western Kentucky last season). TCU hired Air Raid coach Sonny Dykes as its new head coach (after SMU was 10th in the nation in scoring last season). And Washington brought in FCS transfer Cameron Ward and his offensive coordinator, Eric Morris, who both arrived from Incarnate Word (which averaged 40 points per game last season). In other words, they may not be good, but they’ll be a far more fun version of bad than anyone else.

Tier 14: The rebuilding projects

“Oh, why must life be so hard? Why must I fail at every attempt at masonry?”

Five teams: Cal, Illinois, Missouri, Virginia Tech, Rutgers

Building a winning program is difficult. Justin Wilcox is a good coach, but Cal — particularly post-COVID — is a nearly impossible job. Brent Pry thinks he has a recipe for revitalizing the Hokies, but he inherits a particularly thin roster. Greg Schiano built Rutgers into a winner once, but doing it again amid the far more grueling confines of the Big Ten might take a while. Odds are, this group will pull off a few surprises this season, but getting beyond .500 will be an uphill climb.

Tier 15: Trending up in the Group of 5

“Cloud goes up …”

Six teams: East Carolina, Memphis, SMU, Toledo, Tulane, Western Michigan

The trend lines on these Group of 5 teams are positive. ECU finally put together a winning season in 2021, and hopes are high for 2022. Toledo has a particularly manageable schedule and a veteran roster, and FPI projects the Rockets as the favorite in the MAC. SMU brings back one of the most productive QBs in the country. Ask around for sleeper teams in the Group of 5, and odds are, these six teams will represent the bulk of the answers.

Tier 16: Trending down in the Group of 5

“… cloud goes down.”

Six teams: Louisiana, Northern Illinois, UAB, Utah State, UTSA, Western Kentucky

All six teams in this tier won at least nine games last year, and it wasn’t all smoke and mirrors. Still, it’s hard to envision how they each repeat that success in 2022. Louisiana was immensely lucky last season. It had roughly the same cumulative EPA for the season as 3-9 Nebraska, but the Cajuns finished 13-1. How? They were 7-0 in games decided by a touchdown or less and +15 in turnover margin. That’s hard to repeat, and the job gets even tougher with Billy Napier leaving for Florida. Similar dynamics are at play throughout this tier. Western Kentucky loses Bailey Zappe and the bulk of the transfers who made last year’s offensive explosion possible. UTSA has back-to-back seasons of ridiculously good turnover luck. It’s not that any of these teams are bad, per se, but they all benefited from the stars aligning last season in a way that’s unlikely to happen again in 2022.

Tier 17: Group of 5’s plucky upstarts

“Dad, what’s a muppet? … Well, it’s not quite a mop, and it’s not quite a puppet, but man… So, to answer your question, I don’t know.”

Six teams: Georgia State, Liberty, Marshall, Navy, Troy, Tulsa

Could Liberty go 9-3 this year? Sure. How about 3-9? Yup, that’s possible. Same is true for pretty much this whole group that has some recent history of success and also has its share of complete dumpster fires. What are they in 2022? Well, they’re not quite good and they’re not quite bad. So, to answer your question, I don’t know.

Tier 18: Man, Ohio and Michigan have a lot more teams than you’d think

“We have a little saying around here: Let Michigan handle it.”

12 teams: Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Florida Atlantic, Kent State, Ohio, Miami (Ohio), Middle Tennessee, North Texas, Old Dominion, San Jose State, UTEP, Wyoming

Technically this tier includes only two directional Michigan schools, but existentially, they’re all directional Michigan schools.

Tier 19: At least they’re not as bad as Kansas

“You don’t win friends with salad.”

Five teams: Arizona, Colorado, Georgia Tech, Indiana, Northwestern

This group was a combined 7-42 vs. Power 5 opponents last season. That’s bad. And yet, they’re not without their strengths. Geoff Collins rebuilt his coaching staff this offseason and has put immense resources behind developing QB Jeff Sims. Pat Fitzgerald has worked miracles at Northwestern in the past. Arizona is slowly putting together a roster that won’t completely embarrass itself. Colorado and Indiana are just a year removed from solid seasons. So, is there hope for this group or will they keep showing up for parties with a bowl full of gazpacho? We’d bet at least one of these teams scrapes together a surprisingly solid season.

Tier 20: At least they’re not markedly worse than Kansas

“You know, Homer, it’s very easy to criticize. … Yeah. Fun, too.”

Three teams: Duke, Kansas, Vanderbilt

Clark Lea promises Vanderbilt will be the best team in America one day, which might also be noted in the Book of Revelations. Duke went 0-8 in ACC play last year, losing by an average of 32 points, but at least there’s a nice Mike Krzyzewski documentary fans can watch during this year’s games. Kansas was 0-10 against FBS schools last year. (Note: This is technically a Texas joke.)

Tier 21: Diamonds in the rough

“Did you know that the Chinese use the same word for ‘crisis’ as they do ‘opportunity’? … Yes, crisitunity!”

Six teams: Bowling Green, Colorado State, Georgia Southern, James Madison, Louisiana Tech, UNLV

Bowling Green has just 12 wins over the past five years, but it returns the most veteran roster in the country. James Madison is making the leap from FCS to FBS, but the talent on the roster matches up well with a number of its new neighbors in the Sun Belt. UNLV went 2-10 last season, but six of those losses came by eight points or less. Georgia Southern, Louisiana Tech and Colorado State are all coming off dismal campaigns but have new coaches and new energy. Each of them has a real crisitunity on their hands in 2022, and at least one of them is likely to make the most of it.

Tier 22: The long and winding road to the Myrtle Beach Bowl

“No, they’re saying Boo-urns.”

Eight teams: Ball State, Buffalo, Charlotte, Louisiana-Monroe, South Alabama, Southern Miss, Texas State, USF

We’re not sure the ceilings are particularly high for the teams in this tier, but if you squint a bit and watch them from just the right angle, you can see some genuine upside. See, no one’s booing them. They’re saying “Boo-uffalo.”

Tier 23: It could be worse

“If something is hard to do then it’s not worth doing. You just stick that guitar in the closet next to your shortwave radio, your karate outfit and your unicycle and we’ll go inside and watch TV. … What’s on? … It doesn’t matter.”

Seven teams: Arkansas State, Florida International, Hawai’i, Nevada, New Mexico, Rice, Temple

There are few words of encouragement for this tier, but don’t think for a second we won’t be staying up until 2 a.m. to watch Timmy Chang’s Hawaii team while enjoying some ice cold Dr. Pepper this season. Eat your heart out, Todd Graham.

Tier 24: See, we told you it could be worse

“Lisa, if I’ve learned anything, it’s that life is just one crushing defeat after another until you just wish Flanders was dead.”

Four teams: Akron, New Mexico State, UConn, UMass

These four teams are a combined 15-126 vs. FBS opponents since 2018. They account for four of the bottom six teams in both SP+ and FPI. They’ve been honored for lifetime achievement in The Bottom 10 (which includes a complementary fanny pack and discount card for 10% off at all Ohio-area Blimpie locations). They have virtually no hope for 2022. And yet, UMass plays New Mexico State and UConn in back-to-back weeks on Oct. 29 and Nov. 4 and we simply couldn’t be more excited.

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