College football rankings: ESPN unveils SP+ top 25 poll for 2022

College football rankings: ESPN unveils SP+ top 25 poll for 2022

College football’s preseason SP+ top 25 rankings for 2022 are out at ESPN. They feature several surprises, highlighted by the inclusion of a handful of teams who have not appeared in most other way-too-early polls this offseason. Rankings are surfacing in rapid succession ahead of spring practice, but this one’s different and is sure to be a conversation starter given the placement of a couple head-turning potential contenders.

Three factors are weighted heavily in the SP+ rankings — returning production, recent recruiting and recent history. And as ESPN’s Bill Connelly notes, SP+ “is a predictive measure of the most sustainable and predictable aspects of football, not a résumé ranking, and, along those same lines, these projections aren’t intended to be a guess at what the AP Top 25 will look like at the end of the year.”

Essentially, like all other way-too-early polls, it’s a preseason power ranking of where teams will be at in September.

Here’s a look at ESPN’s SP+ preseason top 25 selections and how much they differ from other early polls you may have seen in recent weeks:

25. Auburn Tigers

You didn’t expect to see Bryan Harsin and the Tigers here given what transpired this offseason, did you? ESPN’s SP+ rankings are high on Auburn as one of the SEC’s better teams in 2022, much of that likely falling on the shoulders of returning superstar tailback, Tank Bigsby.

24. Florida State Seminoles

This will be FSU’s best team since Mike Norvell’s arrival according to the SP+, which projects the Seminoles to be a tougher out in the ACC Atlantic than Wake Forest, a program many have tabbed to challenge Clemson and N.C. State at the top of the division.

23. BYU Cougars

BYU welcomes back a number of key starters and has a schedule with enough beef to earn New Year’s Six love or even College Football Playoff recognition if the Cougars are able to conquer it. That won’t be easy, however.

22. Ole Miss Rebels

Lane Kiffin has his quarterback in USC transfer Jaxson Dart, and he gives the Rebels reason for hope in the post-Matt Corral era in Oxford.

21. Kentucky Wildcats

Kentucky welcomes back Will Levis, Chris Rodriguez and Kavosiey Smoke in a talented backfield and should be solid up front with one of the SEC’s biggest offensive lines. It’s hard to imagine the Wildcats flying under the radar following their second 10-win season in Stoops’ tenure and the schedule — by SEC standards — is once again conducive to success for a team with depth.

20. Miami Hurricanes

Few first-year coaches generated as much offseason momentum as Mario Cristobal, who put together an impressive staff in Miami. And his quarterback, Tyler Van Dyke, is one of the ACC’s best and gives the hurricanes a crack at winning the Coastal Division.

19. Minnesota Golden Gophers

Anyone taking a flyer on Minnesota to win its side of the Big Ten in 2022? You have an opportunity to buy low now on the Golden Gophers, who are one of the conference’s most-veteran laden teams.

18. Florida Gators

What’s the ceiling for the Gators in Year 1 under former Louisiana coach and longtime SEC assistant Billy Napier? If you ask anyone close to the program, Florida expects to be one of the better teams in the SEC East and challenge reigning national champion Georgia for top billing. Few outsiders believe the same, however. Quarterback Anthony Richardson likely assumes first-team honors and could take this new-look offense to notable numbers if he’s able to take hold of the position and get help from other playmakers in Gainesville.

17. Michigan State Spartans

Michigan State won 11 games last season and did so with one of the nation’s worst defenses against the pass. That in itself should bring optimism ahead of Mel Tucker’s third season in 2022. On the other side, the offense may ask quarterback Payton Thorne to handle much of the load since it’s hard to imagine the Spartans being as productive on the ground without Kenneth Walker and several veteran offensive linemen. Michigan State’s backfield will see this as motivation.

16. Penn State Nittany Lions

Coming off consecutive disappointing seasons, Penn State is out to prove its 2022 team is Big Ten Championship-caliber next fall. James Franklin signed a massive multi-year extension recently and has the backing of the Nittany Lions’ power brokers long-term. That’s great news, along with the program’s first-ever signing class that featured three five-star players, per the 247Sports Composite. The SP+ rankings have Penn State inside the top 20, which is higher than most.

15. NC State Wolfpack

ESPN ranked NC State at No. 8 in its preseason poll while the Wolfpack came in just inside the top 20 in the 247Sports version, so it should come as no surprise that Dave Doeren’s team is ranked where they are in the SP+ edition. N.C. State welcomes back quarterback Devin Leary (35 TDs, 5 INTs) and many of the playmakers who helped the Wolfpack nearly win the ACC Atlantic last season. This team was one win away from finishing 10-3 overall and could be better in 2022.

14. Utah Utes

Utah was the unanimous No. 8 team across all 247Sports preseason ballots and ESPN slotted the Utes one spot better than that. NCAA.com’s preseason top 25 placed the Utes even higher. Here, Utah comes in at No. 14 as the Pac-12’s only ranked team, per the SP+. The reigning conference champs could be one of next season’s preseason darlings after winning 10 games under Kyle Whittingham. Much of that nucleus is back in 2022, including quarterback Cam Rising. Running back Tavion Thomas is back, too, after rushing for 1,108 yards and 21 scores.

13. Pittsburgh Panthers

Where’s the love for the Panthers nationally given what they accomplished in 2021? Pitt is one of the more underrated teams in numerous early rankings given the Panthers’ stance as the ACC’s defending champion. With Slovis taking over for Heisman finalist Kenny Pickett at quarterback, the Panthers are hoping their transition to a new offensive coordinator is just as explosive as last season’s ACC champion squad. Jordan Addison’s return at wideout helps.

12. Mississippi State Bulldogs

Arguably the most surprising selection in the SP+ top 25 is Mississippi State inside the top 15. Will Rodgers returns as the facilitator of Mike Leach’s Air Raid and there’s talent elsewhere, but this schedule is brutal for the Bulldogs. It in our estimation, it’s the toughest slate nationally with as many as seven opponents who could potentially be ranked inside the top 20 at the time of the matchup. Leach takes the one game at a time approach with this team and try to conquer a brutal set of games.

11. Cincinnati Bearcats

Given Cincinnati’s heavy personnel losses, the Bearcats were not included in the 247Sports way-too-early rankings for next season after replacing multi-year starter Desmond Ridder at quarterback, leading rusher Jerome Ford and both difference-makers on defense Coby Bryant and Ahmad Gardner. We’re expecting Luke Fickell’s squad to take a small step back and fellow AAC member Houston to replace the Bearcats at the top of the Group of Five power rankings. The SP+ has a very different view of Cincinnati, however.

10. Wisconsin Badgers

The major offseason question for Paul Chryst and Wisconsin was getting their paws on Oklahoma transfer quarterback Caleb Williams and trying to lure him to Madison — but it didn’t happen. USC wrestled Williams away from Wisconsin and others leaving the Badgers with their same quarterback room that underachieved a bit last fall. With a veteran defense returning however and a new scheme offensively, Wisconsin expects to be back in contention for a divisional crown near the top of the Big Ten.

9. Tennessee Volunteers

With Hendon Hooker returning at quarterback and a signing class that second-year coach Josh Heupel expects will be impactful, Tennessee should have a preseason win total exceeding the 2021 campaign and continues strides in the right direction next season. The Volunteers have been ranked as high as No. 17 in preseason polls we’ve seen, but not inside the top 10 like the SP+ suggests. Like other SEC teams out to prove themselves, Tennessee will endure an arduous slate that includes games against Georgia and Alabama.

8. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Notre Dame ranked No. 5 in the 247Sports preseason poll, along with NCAA.com’s best guess at the nation’s best. The Fighting Irish are just outside the top 5, per the SP+. Marcus Freeman’s added a number of key coaching hires ahead of his first season at Notre Dame coming off the bowl loss to Oklahoma State, including Indiana running backs coach Deland McCullough, who could be bringing his sons with him to South Bend who are elite-level recruits. Notre Dame has a challenging schedule, one that will test this team at every turn in 2022.

7. Oklahoma Sooners

SP+ is higher on Oklahoma than nearly every preseason projection. No program in college football has been ravaged by the transfer portal quite like the Sooners. There’s not a preseason top-20 team in our eyes that will look more different than Oklahoma roster-wise next season under first-year head coach Brent Venables, which is why the Sooners ranked outside the top 10 in our own rankings. Venables watched several top-end playmakers enter the transfer portal since arriving in December, including a couple play-making wide receivers and Heisman candidate Williams at quarterback.

6. Texas A&M Aggies

Is this Texas A&M’s time to shine? The widespread belief among voters at 247Sports is Jimbo Fisher should have his best team in College Station next fall given what’s coming back for the Aggies and the highest-rated signing class of all-time on the way in. Many of those incoming five-star will be instant-impact players. When projecting college football’s best seven months out, there’s some guessing involved and the belief previous question areas have been solved. SP+ labels the Aggies as a preseason playoff contender and so do we.

5. Clemson Tigers

Clemson is still on the short list of title contenders according to our 247Sports experts, but this isn’t a preseason top-five team and there are a few analysts who believe the Tigers should be outside of the top 10 to open. ESPN’s SP+ has a very different view and slots Clemson as a national title contender. Dabo Swinney enters a crossroads at a program he built into a national power. He lost both of his longtime coordinators to head coaching jobs and another high-ranking assistant, Todd Bates, during the offseason. Can Swinney maintain national championship-level expectations in Death Valley and get there from the ACC with other programs seemingly gaining on his own?

4. Michigan Wolverines

Ranked No. 7 in the 247Sports way-too-early poll, the Wolverines come off their most impressive campaign in Jim Harbaugh’s tenure with a Big Ten title. That is the expectation once again, despite replacing both coordinators and there being a small sense on unrest following the coach’s flirtation with the NFL this month. Michigan likes its quarterback room with Cade McNamara and J.J. McCarthy back and it’s hard to overlook a two-deep on defense that should be very good despite losing two first-round pass rushers and an elite safety in Dax Hill.

3. Alabama Crimson Tide

We hadn’t seen a way-too-early ranking yet that did not have the Crimson Tide in the top spot until now. By most accounts, Alabama is the unanimous choice for next season’s way-too-early No. 1 due to the return of Heisman winner Bryce Young and top defender Will Anderson Jr., two potential top-five picks in the 2023 NFL Draft primed on potentially winning the program’s second national championship in three seasons with the Crimson Tide. SP+ places Nick Saban’s team behind a fellow SEC program and one from the Big Ten in the No. 3 hole.

2. Georgia Bulldogs

Georgia was ranked as high as No. 2 on our ballots and as low as No. 3, so needless to say Kirby Smart’s team is expected to be elite again as a national championship contender. SP+ has a similar view on the Bulldogs. Given Georgia’s recruiting prowess under Smart, this will be a program in the mix at the top of the rankings every year for the foreseeable future and he’s building a potential dynasty the same way Saban has carried out his empire Alabama. Stetson Bennett’s return at quarterback and JT Daniels’ entry into the portal offers an intriguing dynamic at the position.

1. Ohio State Buckeyes

The first preseason ranking to put the Buckeyes at No. 1 this offseason, ESPN’s SP+ is high on Ryan Day’s elite player-laden team. Ohio State should be the preseason favorite to win the Big Ten next season and get to the College Football Playoff with Heisman finalist C.J. Stroud returning at quarterback along with a host of playmakers surrounding him within an explosive offense. The Buckeyes should play with a chip on their shoulder after a disappointing 2021 campaign by program standards. A new-look defensive scheme under Jim Knowles should help this team tremendously.

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