Saturday, May 25, 2024

College football predictions: Second-chance expert picks for 2022 national champion, playoff field, more

Seven weeks into the 2022 college football season, let’s just say it has not played out as expected. One of the most chaotic seasons of the last 15 years enters the halfway point with Tennessee, USC, Ole Miss and perhaps even Texas in the College Football Playoff conversation while programs like Alabama and reigning national champion Georgia are not looking as consistently impressive as they have in the recent past.

Whereas the Bulldogs were the clear No. 1 team in the nation at this point last season, that top spot has not yet been gripped in 2022. Georgia does sit No. 1 in the AP Top 25 and Coaches Poll, but Ohio State leads the pack in the CBS Sports 131 with the Buckeyes also a +180 favorite to win the national championship, according to Caesars Sportsbook.

Tennessee has arguably the best resume at the midway point sitting at 6-0 with four wins over top-25 opponents and its first victory over rival Alabama in 15 seasons. Led by quarterback Hendon Hooker, the Volunteers sit with the nation’s No. 2 scoring offense, averaging 47.7 points per game, as Hooker himself has swiftly moved into the Heisman Trophy race as a key contender (+450) alongside OSU signal caller C.J. Stroud (+100).

Besides Georgia, Ohio State and Tennessee, six other programs are still undefeated at the midway point: Michigan, Clemson, Ole Miss, TCU, UCLA and Syracuse. The Horned Frogs are in the midst of a tremendous turnaround in Year 1 under Sonny Dykes, while the Bruins seem to finally be putting it all together behind Dorian Thompson-Robinson in Year 5 with Chip Kelly.

Speaking of the Bruins, the Pac-12 seems to be undergoing a bit of a resurgence as it prepares for USC and UCLA to leave for the Big Ten. Oregon and Utah have both bounced back from Week 1 losses to SEC opponents; they now sit in the top 15 nationally with the previously unbeaten Trojans now hoping to power through the rest of their after falling at the Utes last week.

Beyond the on-field successes, the coaching carousel is already in full swing with five open jobs among Power Five programs (Arizona State, Colorado, Georgia Tech, Nebraska, Wisconsin) with more openings expected in the coming weeks.

We at CBS Sports open each season by having our staff break down its picks for the College Football Playoff, national champion, Coach of the Year and Heisman Trophy winner. But we are human, and even we can get things wrong. There was even a shakeup in our All-America selections on our midseason team.

That’s why we’re back at the halfway point of the season with a handful of second-chance expert picks. Here’s how we believe the rest of the 2022 college football season will play out.

College Football Playoff predictions

First two out

2022 national champion

Ohio State: I could sit here and list all of the reasons why Ohio State’s offense is elite … but you probably already know them. What is important, though, is that its defense — widely regarded as the Achilles heel of last year’s squad — is not just decent but elite. The Buckeyes rank among the top 10 in defensive yards per play (4.47), third-down defense (27.16%) and fewest plays allowed of 10+ yards (48). It limits big plays and tightens up when it matters most — two important factors that lead to defensive success. When you combine that dominance with the explosiveness brought by the offense on a consistent basis, you have the recipe for a national champion. Ohio State will run the table into the College Football Playoff and ride its elite level of complementary football to its first national crown since 2014. — Barrett Sallee (unanimous staff prediction)

Midseason Coach of the Year

Lance Leipold, Kansas: Four coaches came and went after Mark Mangino at Kansas without getting the Jayhawks to a bowl game. Leipold has KU on the cusp of ending that misery with five games still remaining in the regular season. Even if Kansas finishes 5-7 on a seven-game losing streak, it would still go down as a remarkable coaching job from Leipold, who in Year 2 has led the Jayhawks to their most victories since 2009. Kansas matched its win total from the last three seasons combined by Oct. 1 when it put the cap on a 5-0 start by beating Iowa State. Two competitive losses against TCU and Oklahoma amid a shoulder injury to star quarterback Jalon Daniels in the last two weeks do little to detract from the remarkable improvement seen in a short time under Leipold. — David Cobb (also Tom Fornelli, Jerry Palm, Shehan Jeyarajah)

Josh Heupel, Tennessee: Twenty-one months after taking over a 3-7 mess amid an NCAA scandal, Heupel has the Volunteers back in the national conversation. In doing so, he developed a Heisman Trophy candidate (Hendon Hooker) and the nation’s No. 1 total offense (No. 2 scoring offense) that just posted more points against Alabama (52) than it has given up in any game since 1907. Oh, and Heupel also cost the athletic department a couple hundred grand in goalposts and SEC rushing-the-field penalties after the Vols beat the Crimson Tide for the first time in 15 years. — Dennis Dodd (also Barrett Sallee)  

Bret Bielema, Illinois: In just two years, Bielema has gotten Illinois back into the top 25 for the first time since 2011. The Fighting Illini have a real chance to compete for the Big Ten West title and finish in the top 25 for the first time since 2007. But points are awarded not just for a quick turnaround but for how he’s gotten the job done, leaning on an elite defense and overcoming the adversity of key injuries to maintain pace in the division title race. A Bret Bielema team is running the ball well, playing great defense and in the mix for some hardware in the Big Ten. Sound familiar? — Chip Patterson

Heisman Trophy front-runner

C.J. Stroud, QB, Ohio State: While Hendon Hooker is making a strong and deserved push for the award following Tennessee’s win over Alabama, Stroud entered the season as the Heisman favorite and has done nothing that would keep him from continuing to hold that mantle. He leads the nation in passing efficiency by a mile and is tied with North Carolina’s Drake Maye for most touchdown passes (24), but Stroud has thrown them while playing one fewer game. He’s also done all this while Ohio State has been missing its best wide receiver (Jaxon Smith-Njigba) for all but one quarter. Also, as terrific as Tennessee has been, Stroud plays on the team that’s far more likely to remain undefeated and win its conference. Whether that should matter is up for debate, but we all know it does. — Fornelli (also Dodd, Palm, Patterson, Sallee, Cobb)

Hendon Hooker, QB, Tennessee: The Heisman is a narrative award, and no one has put together a more compelling narrative so far this season than Hooker. Tennessee was unranked to start the year, but Hooker has taken his game into the stratosphere. The senior ranks No. 2 among Power Five quarterbacks in total offense and has been the face of the Vols’ unexpected rise to No. 3 in the country, their highest in-season ranking since 2001. Hooker also has a trump card: a legitimate Heisman moment during which he threw five touchdowns against Alabama as Tennessee topped its rival for first time since 2006. The Vols got the ball back with just 15 seconds remaining and traveled 45 yards on the arm of Hooker to set up a game-winning 40-yard field goal. Even if Tennessee loses to Georgia, Hooker’s case is airtight. — Jeyarajah

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