2022 college football predictions for conferences and College Football Playoff

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American Athletic Conference: Cincinnati
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Yardbarker’s 2022 college football conference predictions are here, including our picks for division champions and College Football Playoff teams. The statistics cited in parenthesis are from 2021 unless otherwise noted; an “^” denotes the predicted overall conference champion.

 

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American Athletic Conference: Cincinnati

American Athletic Conference: Cincinnati

Albert Cesare/The Enquirer/USA TODAY NETWORK

No Desmond Ridder, Jerome Ford, Alec Pierce, Ahmad Gardner, or Coby Bryant. Yet, the Bearcats still look like the team to beat in the AAC. A return to the College Football Playoff or another 13-0 run before getting there doesn’t seem in the cards for 2022, but Cincinnati returns 13 starters, and we expect a defense that allowed an average of 17 points to be just as stout as last season. Meanwhile, the Bearcats don’t have to play potential league contender Houston, so that Oct. 29 date at UCF might be for first place in the AAC.

 

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ACC Atlantic: Clemson^

ACC Atlantic: Clemson^

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The Tigers’ run of six straight ACC championships ended in 2021 when they didn’t even win the Atlantic. A struggling offense led to Clemson’s 4-3 start last season, but it won the last six and is riding a 34-game home winning streak. Quarterback DJ Uiagalelei (2,246 passing yards, nine touchdowns, 10 interceptions) has an entire season of experience to build on, while defensive linemen Bryan Bresee and Myles Murphy (eight sacks) anchor a unit that should remain among the stingiest in the nation. The Tigers host North Carolina State on Oct. 1, and that might determine the division title. In terms of Clemson’s College Football Playoff hopes, November games at Notre Dame and versus Miami could tell that tale.

 

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ACC Coastal: Pittsburgh

ACC Coastal: Pittsburgh

Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY Sports

The Panthers not only look to repeat as Coastal champs but hope to defend the program’s first-ever ACC title. It won’t be easy without stars Kenny Pickett and Jordan Addison. However, the Panthers return defensive linemen Habakkuk Baldonado (nine sacks) and Calijah Kancey (seven sacks), linebacker SirVocea Dennis (87 tackles, four sacks), and safety Brandon Hill (81 tackles) from a unit that held eight opponents to 23 or fewer points in 2021. Pitt’s regular-season finale at Miami could be for the Coastal crown.

 

Big 12: Oklahoma

Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman/USA TODAY NETWORK

The Sooners’ national championship hopes of 2021 never panned out thanks to late-season losses at Baylor and Oklahoma State. Quarterbacks Spencer Rattler and Caleb Williams, who saw the bulk of the action in ’21, are both gone. So is head coach Lincoln Riley. Yet, new boss Brent Venables inherits a decent situation, thanks to another solid recruiting class and veteran UCF transfer quarterback Dillon Gabriel (8,037 career passing yards, 70 touchdowns, 14 interceptions). Baylor and Oklahoma State will again challenge for the Big 12 crown in its current formation, and Texas expects to be better. However, the Sooners get two of those teams at home, where they’ve lost three times since 2015. Oklahoma has won four straight over the Longhorns in the Red River Showdown.

 

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Big Ten East: Ohio State^

Big Ten East: Ohio State^

Barbara J. Perenic/USA TODAY NETWORK

Ohio State and Michigan will be top-10 teams to open the season and likely Nos. 1 and 2 in the East when the rivals meet at the Horseshoe on Nov. 26. The Buckeyes have a potentially challenging season-opener versus Notre Dame, and they play at both Michigan State and Penn State. Yet, they have too much talent with C.J. Stroud (4,435 passing yards, 44 touchdowns, six interceptions), TreVeyon Henderson (1,248 rushing yards, 15 touchdowns), and Jaxon Smith-Njigba (95 receptions, 1,606 receiving yards, nine touchdowns), plus defenders Ronnie Hickman (100 tackles, two interceptions) and Zach Harrison (four sacks), not to end up as kings of the Big Ten.

 

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Big Ten West: Wisconsin

Big Ten West: Wisconsin

David Banks/USA TODAY Sports

Four teams were in the hunt for the Big Ten West title in 2021, and the Badgers appeared in prime position to win it until Minnesota snapped their seven-game winning streak in the regular-season finale. Iowa claimed the title and expects to challenge for the West crown again. Purdue is an upstart pick, too. However, Wisconsin, paced by running back Braelon Allen (1,268 yards, 12 touchdowns) and linebacker Nick Herbig (64 tackles, nine sacks, 14.5 tackles for loss), is too talented to blow its chance at a division title again.

 

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Conference USA: UAB

Conference USA: UAB

Petre Thomas/USA TODAY Sports

Conference USA has done away with its two-division format, leaving UAB and reigning league champion UTSA as the frontrunners to win it all this season. We like the Blazers, mainly because they will host UTSA on Nov, 5 but also because UAB returns 14 starters, including the running back duo of DeWayne McBride (1,371 yards, 13 touchdowns) and Jermaine Brown Jr. (631 yards, seven touchdowns), and linebacker Noah Wilder (team-leading 93 tackles).

 

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Independents: Notre Dame

Independents: Notre Dame

Matt Cashore/USA TODAY Sports

There’s a good chance BYU records a third straight season with at least 10 victories, but Notre Dame, which faces the Cougars on Oct. 8 at Las Vegas, remains the best independent program in the country, even though Brian Kelly bolted for LSU. Defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman got promoted to head coach, and his defense — led by JD Bertrand (101 tackles), Isaiah Foskey (11 sacks), and Northwestern-transfer defensive back Brandon Joseph — could be even better than the group that allowed 18.3 points per game last season.

 

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Mid-American Conference East: Miami (Ohio)^

Mid-American Conference East: Miami (Ohio)^

Matt Blewett/USA TODAY Sports

The MAC East seems like a crapshoot just about every season. In 2021, Miami fell short by a game to upstart Kent State in the race for the division crown, but the RedHawks seem to have the overall talent to get the job done this time. That’s mostly due to an offense that averaged 32.1 points in conference play and returns nine starters, highlighted by quarterback Brett Gabbert (2,648 passing yards, 26 touchdowns, six interceptions). Miami’s last league championship came in 2019.

 

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Mid-American Conference West: Northern Illinois

Mid-American Conference West: Northern Illinois

Raj Mehta/USA TODAY Sports

NIU went from 0-6 in 2020 to 9-5 and was the winner of the MAC championship last season. A total of 18 players return from that group, including quarterback Rocky Lombardi (2,597 yards, 15 touchdowns, eight interceptions), two of its top-three running backs, and four starting offensive linemen. However, losing leading receiver and kick returner Trayvon Rudolph (51 receptions, 892 yards, seven touchdowns) to a knee injury is a blow. The Huskies also won seven games by eight or fewer points, including three by one point. It would be a tall order to think NIU will be as fortunate this season, though it will host expected division contenders Toledo and Central Michigan at home.

 

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Mountain West Mountain: Boise State

Mountain West Mountain: Boise State

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Boise’s five losses from 2021 were the most by the program since it went 8-5 in 2013. But with 17 starters returning, including quarterback Hank Bachmeier (6,108 career passing yards, 35 touchdowns, 16 interceptions) and leading tackler in safety JL Skinner (92 tackles, two interceptions), Boise State should be hungry to improve. Air Force is a sexy pick to contend for a division title and will host the Broncos in October, but we predict a nice bounce back for Boise.

 

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Mountain West West: Fresno State

Mountain West West: Fresno State

Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

Mountain West fans should mark their calendars for Oct. 8, when Fresno hosts Boise State. The Bulldogs went 10-3 last season, and even though coach Kalen DeBoer left to run the Washington program, quarterback Jake Haener (4,096 passing yards, 33 touchdowns, nine interceptions) opted to come back. He will have Jalen Cropper (85 receptions, 899 yards, 11 touchdowns) to throw the ball to again. That pair alone puts Fresno at the top of the West heap to start. Not to mention, San Diego State could take a step back in ’22

 

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Pac-12 North: Oregon

Pac-12 North: Oregon

Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard/USA TODAY NETWORK

Coach Mario Cristobal is gone, but former Auburn quarterback Bo Nix (7,251 career passing yards, 39 touchdowns, 16 interceptions in three seasons at Auburn), who beat Oregon in his college debut in 2019, is in. The Ducks also lost running back Travis Dye to rival USC. That said, Oregon won 10 games and a division title last season. The Ducks should be the class of the North again in 2022 until proven otherwise. Linebacker Noah Sewell (114 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss) and defensive end Brandon Dorlus (seven tackles for loss) are two of the best defenders in the Pac-12.

 

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Pac-12 South: Utah^

Pac-12 South: Utah^

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Not only are the Utes coming off their first Pac-12 title, but they are the favorite to repeat as overall champions in the current look of the league as we know it. There is plenty of buzz around USC and its new additions. Still, Tavion Thomas ran for 1,108 yards and a league-best 21 touchdowns last season. The 300-pounder Junior Tafuna (4.5 sacks) is a potential star. Utah might have the conference’s best secondary that boasts Clark Phillips (63 tackles) and Cole Bishop (54 tackles, nine tackles for loss).

 

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SEC East: Georgia

SEC East: Georgia

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Tennessee has some high expectations, and Florida is expected to be better than 6-7, but the reigning national champion Bulldogs are the clear favorite in the East. Riding an 11-game league regular-season winning streak and coming off an 8-0 conference mark from 2021, Georgia returns 55 letter winners and seven starters on offense. The Bulldogs open SEC play at South Carolina against new quarterback Spencer Rattler, which should be entertaining.

 

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SEC West: Alabama^

SEC West: Alabama^

Dale Zanine/USA TODAY Sports

There’s likely to be a chip on the Crimson Tide’s collective shoulder after losing to Georgia in the national title game. Alabama might not need to win the SEC to reach the College Football Playoff, but with reigning Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young (4,872 passing yards, 47 touchdowns, seven interceptions) and the nation’s top defender in edge star Will Anderson Jr., (17.5 sacks, 34.5 tackles for loss), the Tide are favorites to record a third consecutive league championship. However, they have to play at Arkansas, an improved Tennessee squad, LSU, and Ole Miss, so perhaps it won’t be a smooth path.

 

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Sun Belt East: Appalachian State^

Sun Belt East: Appalachian State^

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The Sun Belt has a new look in 2022, with the additions of Marshall and James Madison to the East division. Yet, stalwart Appalachian State should stand above the rest when the dust settles. One of seven starters returning on offense, Camerun Peoples has run for 2,237 career yards and 28 touchdowns for the Mountaineers. App State should be tested with back-to-back November road games at Marshall and Coastal Carolina, which returns star quarterback Grayson McCall (5,361 passing yards, 53 touchdowns, six interceptions in 2020 and ’21).

 

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Sun Belt West: Louisiana

Sun Belt West: Louisiana

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After guiding the Ragin’ Cajuns to a 13-1 record and Sun Belt title in 2021, coach Billy Napier left for the Florida job, and star quarterback Levi Lewis is gone. That said, Louisiana returns a host of key skill players such as running back Chris Smith (855 yards, eight touchdowns) and receivers Michael Jefferson and Peter LeBlanc, who combined for 898 receiving yards last year. Looking to rebound from a dismal 5-7 season from 2021, Troy could also contend for the West crown but has to play at Louisiana.

 

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CFP Semifinalist: Alabama

CFP Semifinalist: Alabama

Gary Cosby/USA TODAY NETWORK

Alabama’s seven appearances in the College Football Playoff since its inception in 2014 are the most of any team in the country, as are the program’s six title-game appearances and three championships. The Crimson Tide are expected to pad those stats this season and will be hungry after failing to repeat as champions last season. Nick Saban doesn’t like to settle for second-best, so anything less than winning it all will be a disappointment for Alabama in 2022-23.

 

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CFP Semifinalist: Ohio State

CFP Semifinalist: Ohio State

Joshua A. Bickel/Columbus Dispatch/USA TODAY NETWORK

The general thinking is that the Buckeyes will be the class of the Big Ten and then return to the College Football Playoff after missing out last season. Some football analysts believe Ohio State has the overall look of a national champion. We’ll see how it all plays out. But with all that talent and confidence, it would be stunning if the Buckeyes weren’t part of the final four this season.

 

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CFP Semifinalist: Georgia

CFP Semifinalist: Georgia

Jenna Watson/The Indianapolis Star/USA TODAY NETWORK

Should it be Georgia and Alabama in the SEC Championship Game again, and assuming both are undefeated, each would likely secure a CFP spot. Then again, the Bulldogs have never made back-to-back appearances in the College Football Playoff. Even so, Georgia is talented enough for that trend to end. The Bulldogs’ road schedule isn’t too daunting for them to win the SEC East rather easily. 

 

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CFB Semifinalist: Notre Dame

CFB Semifinalist: Notre Dame

Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY Sports

OK, hear us out. It is not a stretch to believe the Irish can make the College Football Playoff for the second time in three seasons. Things would need to fall into place for Notre Dame, which has a good chance to run the table following a possible season-opening loss at Ohio State. That neutral-site contest with BYU and the finale at USC are two more potential hurdles. Results of the ACC and Big 12 title games also could be a factor in the Irish’s postseason fate, but one loss probably won’t keep them from a shot at another CFP berth.

Jeff Mezydlo has written about sports and entertainment online and for print for more than 25 years. He grew up in the far south suburbs of Chicago, 20 minutes from the Mascot Hall of Fame in Whiting, Ind. He’s also the proud father of 11-year-old Matthew, aka “Bobby Bruin,” mascot of St. Robert Bellarmine School in Chicago. You can follow Jeff at @jeffm401.





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