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The Five Most Interesting College Football Story Lines

To celebrate the return of college football, The Ringer explores the topics that will matter most this season, from potential domination by Alabama to the fallout from Lincoln Riley’s decision to leave Oklahoma for USC

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College football is back! (Well, technically, it came back last Saturday with Northwestern’s weird win over Nebraska in Dublin, but, well, those guys aren’t going to be playing for the national championship.) Yes, a lot of the usuals will be contending for a championship—but between conference realignment, one of the wildest coaching carousels ever, a transfer free-for-all, and the rapid death of the NCAA, the sport’s ecosystem is changing at a ridiculous pace. Here are five of the biggest story lines for the 2022 season:

Alabama’s Done “Rebuilding”

In the sick and twisted world of Nick Saban’s Alabama, 2021 was a “rebuilding year.” (He actually said this.) To recap: Alabama went 13-2, lost exactly one regular-season game (on a last-second field goal), scored nearly twice as many points as its opponents (598 to 302), won the SEC championship, beat the eventual national champions in the conference title game, had the Heisman Trophy winner and the winner of an award for best defensive player, and led the national championship game in the fourth quarter. They gave up 20 unanswered points in that fourth quarter and lost to Georgia—but still, sounds like a pretty solid year.

To be fair, Saban’s “rebuilding year” comment was just a coach hyping up their team. A lot of teams are “really developing as players and as young men” and “ready to go out there and compete,” according to their coaches, but we don’t have to take them at their word. But the disturbing thing is … Saban has a point.

The guys who won the Heisman and the Bronko Nagurski Award for Alabama? They’re still there. Quarterback Bryce Young was a sophomore last year, as was linebacker Will Anderson Jr. These two are probably the two best players in the sport, and are ranked as the two best prospects in the 2023 NFL draft by Pro Football Focus. Alabama returns 15 of its 22 starters from last year’s national championship game, including nine on defense. Alabama’s stars typically go to the NFL ASAP. The Crimson Tide don’t typically have this many guys back.

You might have seen Georgia turn the tables on Bama and get payback for so many years of losses and thought that the Bulldogs are the new kings of the sport. But it’s going to be hard for the Dawgs to pull it off again. Their stunning defense from last season is mostly gone, as Georgia ranks 122nd in returning defensive production after five defenders got picked in the first round of the NFL draft, the most ever from one team’s defense. Georgia still has a hell of a lot of talent—its no. 1-ranked 2020 recruiting class is still in school—but it’s got a lot of holes to fill to maintain last year’s level, while Alabama is ready to go.

Saban might have been just gassing up his team, but he wasn’t necessarily lying when he said last season was a rebuilding year. Which raises the terrifying question: If Alabama can lead the national championship game with a team that’s “rebuilding,” what sort of monstrosity is it actually building?

The Game Is the Game

College football is a sport of circled calendars. There may be 12 games on your team’s schedule, but there’s always one that stands out above the rest; the one that everyone’s going to come to town for. Even for national fans of the sport, this rings true. With so few teams legitimately in national title contention each year, it’s easy to identify the games that will define the season.

It used to be that one of those games would always be Ohio State–Michigan. Two of the fiercest rivals and strongest programs in the sport, these two would consistently meet with championships on the line—like in 2006, when the teams were ranked no. 1 and no. 2, with a win pushing OSU into the national title game. There’s a reason this matchup is called the Game—not some contrived rivalry name like “the Battle for the Steel-Toed Boots” or “the Corduroy Bowl,” simply the Game.

But around the time of that 2006 matchup, things started to go badly at Michigan. Lloyd Carr eventually gave way to Rich Rodriguez, who gave way to Brady Hoke. Things were bleak. There were losing seasons, something which hadn’t happened in Michigan in decades. Jim Harbaugh was supposed to be the program’s savior, but he lost his first five games to OSU. From 2006 to 2020, Ohio State won 15 out of 16 games in the series, and the Game became simply a game, a stepping stone on OSU’s way to Big Ten title games and playoff appearances.

By 2021, people had seemingly acquiesced to the fact that Michigan just wasn’t going to be very good ever again. They entered the season unranked in the AP poll for the first time since Harbaugh’s debut season in 2015. And then they went 11-1 in the regular season, beat Ohio State, won the Big Ten, and made the College Football Playoff for the first time. Goes to show you: Nothing you read about college football in the preseason matters. (Probably should’ve told you this about 1,000 words ago, huh.)

OSU-Michigan firmly seems like the Game again this year. OSU quarterback C.J. Stroud is the preseason favorite to win the Heisman Trophy, and he’s throwing to Jaxon Smith-Njigba, who went for 347 yards and three touchdowns in the Rose Bowl last season. (That’s about two-tenths of a mile of receiving in one game.) Michigan retains its confusing quarterback situation—Harbaugh has decided to start different players in the team’s first two games, comparing the situation to the Judgment of Solomon. (Is … is the starting quarterback job the baby Solomon threatened to cut in half?) The teams are ranked third and sixth in ESPN’s SP+ ratings, making the Game the best game on the regular-season schedule.

The winner of Ohio State–Michigan will likely play in the Big Ten championship; the loser’s championship hopes may be dashed. It’s the same situation as last year, and so many before it.

Lincoln Riley’s USC Experiment

We don’t normally expect college football coaches to do much in their first year at a new school. Sure, they can change the culture, but they won’t really take off until they build connections and bring in top-tier talent via their own recruiting classes. After all, most of the players on the roster were recruited by the previous guy. Even Nick Saban had a 7-6 season in his first year at Alabama, including a loss to Louisiana-Monroe—he won a championship in Year 3.

When USC hired Lincoln Riley last November, people had big dreams of the future. The offensive mastermind who turned Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray into Heisman Trophy winners and no. 1 draft picks was taking over a sleeping giant in Los Angeles. USC should be able to heavily recruit Southern California, one of the most talent-rich areas in high school football, but the program had slipped since Pete Carroll led the team to back-to-back national titles in the 2003 and 2004 seasons. Under Lane Kiffin, Steve Sarkisian, and Clay Helton, the Trojans became an afterthought. The Pac-12 became the worst of the five power conferences, and USC wasn’t even a consistent contender to win that. Riley is already following through on his potential to make USC a destination for elite West Coast prospects, landing a slew of five-star recruits from California and Nevada, including Malachi Nelson, a five-star quarterback in the Class of 2023. It’s not hard to imagine USC restored to its glory sometime in the near future.

But in 2022, the future doesn’t have to wait. Transfers no longer have to sit out a year after switching schools, thanks to the NCAA realizing that its longtime transfer rules were [checks notes] extremely unpopular and probably illegal. And since players can now receive big-time money in name, image, and licensing (NIL) deals, it’s easier than ever to land players on the transfer market. Riley raided his old Oklahoma roster and got the Sooners’ best player, quarterback Caleb Williams, to follow him to Los Angeles, and also got Pitt’s Jordan Addison, winner of the Biletnikoff Award for the best wide receiver in college football. All in all, Riley got 20 transfers, including 11 players who were ranked as a five- or four-star recruit in high school or as a transfer prospect. It’s the best transfer class in the history of the sport, and it’s not clear who would be second.

It’s a college football experiment we’ve never really seen before. Riley is assembling a football team on the fly, a mix of superstars he’s familiar with, superstars he’s working with for the first time, new recruits, and leftovers from the Helton regime. And Riley’s good enough at coaching offense that it’ll probably work. I’m picking USC to win the Pac-12—but many others are picking Utah, last year’s champs. The Utes are extremely passionate about grinding their opponents into dust, and if Riley can’t get USC to coalesce before their matchup in October, the Trojans will be the dust.

Oklahoma’s Rebound Season

Oklahoma did not handle the breakup well. When Riley shocked the college football world by leaving the Sooners a few days after Thanksgiving, headed for a bigger contract and warmer climates, the state engaged in a months-long meltdown. Suddenly, Riley’s accomplishments in Norman were not enough, even though he’d won four straight Big 12 championships, produced two Heisman winners, both of whom were no. 1 draft picks, and made the College Football Playoff three times. Perhaps Riley was scared of Oklahoma’s upcoming move to the SEC, Sooner fans said, a rare pre-emptive case of conference bragging rights. Some fans said that Riley was actually a loser because he would have to pay more in taxes in California, a condemnation of Oklahoma’s own tax code and somewhat of an acknowledgment that it may be nicer to have a little bit less spending capital if it means you get to live in a spectacular oceanfront villa instead of, well, Norman, Oklahoma. One state senator proposed a bill naming the final three inches of “desolate highway” at the western end of Oklahoma’s panhandle the “Lincoln Riley Highway,” to mock the coach for leaving the state in that direction. Are you listening to yourselves? “I’ve decided to name this door ‘the Darlene Door,’ because it’s the last place I saw my ex-wife Darlene when she was leaving me.”

All that rage masked one surprising fact: Oklahoma is still going to be good this year. The new coach is Brent Venables, Dabo Swinney’s longtime right-hand man who always sounds hoarse because he spends all of practice yelling. Venables was co-defensive coordinator on the Oklahoma team that won the 2000 national championship. He could’ve had just about any head-coaching job in the country after helping build Clemson’s defense into a powerhouse and NFL draft pick factory. He wanted Oklahoma, and now it’s his chance to lead a program.

The Sooners may have lost 20 players in the transfer portal, but they added 14, including UCF quarterback Dillon Gabriel. (Unfortunately, Gabriel’s arrival means juco transfer and folk hero General Booty is listed at third on the depth chart.) Despite Riley’s departure, Oklahoma ranked eighth in the 247Sports recruiting composite … which is actually higher than they were in the last two seasons under Riley. Oklahoma should be solidly in the mix to make the College Football Playoff after missing out last year, because, quite frankly, the Sooners don’t face a lot of competition. They’re ranked fifth in SP+ this season, and nobody else in the Big 12 ranks in the top 15. (Baylor is ranked 10th in the AP poll, but 40th in SP+.)

If Oklahoma handles its business in a weak Big 12, the Playoff will be within its grasp. Sooners fans may not have handled the breakup well—but that doesn’t mean they can’t win it.

Clemson: In or Out?

We think of college football as a sport where bluebloods hang around forever—but the truth is, the sport doesn’t have room for dozens of elite programs. Teams can fall out of the contention quicker than you’d imagine.

Take Clemson. Ten years ago, nobody would have pictured Dabo Swinney’s program as a year-in, year-out championship contender. The young coach with the goofy smile and the even goofier name had won an ACC championship, but so had schools like Georgia Tech and Wake Forest. Clemson hadn’t won a national championship since the 1981 season, and there was little reason to believe it’d ever get back there. The average college football fan wasn’t fully sure how to pronounce “Dabo” ... or “Swinney” ... or, for that matter, “Clemson.” (You may not realize it, but there is a subtle, hidden “P” somewhere in the middle of the university’s name.)

But before long, Clemson began an unprecedented run of success. With Deshaun Watson at QB, the Tigers lost an epic national championship game against Alabama in 2015. The next year, they beat Bama and won the national title. Watson gave way to Trevor Lawrence, who won a national title as a true freshman in the 2018 season. Clemson won six straight ACC championships and made the College Football Playoff six consecutive times. The Tigers rose to the top of the recruiting rankings, landing five-star after five-star player, pumping out 12 first-round NFL draft picks between 2015 and 2021.

But the Tigers have dropped off in two straight seasons. In 2020, they lost badly to Ohio State in the semifinals of the College Football Playoff; last year, they went 9-3 in the regular season, sat at home while Pitt won the ACC championship, and played in the Cheez-It Bowl. Dabo really seemed to enjoy the cheesy trophy ceremony—not “cheesy” as in “tacky,” “cheesy” as in, “Dabo was hand-fed Cheez-Its by the Cheez-It mascot, Prince Cheddward”—but it wasn’t where Clemson was supposed to be.

Now, the Tigers enter the season ranked fourth in the AP poll, and are healthy favorites to win the ACC. But there’s reason to wonder whether that ranking is based more on reputation than reality. Swinney has lost both of his coordinators, Tony Elliott and Brent Venables—gone to head-coaching jobs at Virginia and Oklahoma, respectively. And quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei, the anointed successor to Watson and Lawrence, had an ugly sophomore season. In 2020, Uiagalelei arrived as a five-star recruit, and showed why in a pair of substitute performances while Lawrence was out with COVID-19, throwing for 342 yards in his first start, against Boston College, and then 439 yards in an instant-classic game against Notre Dame a week later. But in 2021, when he took over for Lawrence as Clemson’s starter, Uiagalelei failed to hit 300 yards in any of his games, finishing the year with nine passing touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He looked lost.

Clemson could win a championship in 2022. Even with Uiagalelei’s horror season, the Tigers lost just three games by a total of 23 points. They were really just a couple of touchdowns short of keeping their ACC championship and CFP streaks alive. But if we don’t see improvement and the Tigers miss the playoffs for a second straight year, it’s easy to imagine Clemson slipping out of the exclusive club of consistent championship contenders as suddenly as it arrived.