Monday, March 20, 2023

College football storylines to watch across the second half of a landscape-shifting 2022 season

Most seasons, the college football schedule unfolds in stages. The preseason is all about hype and anticipation. The first weeks of the regular season — mostly comprised of nonconference games — allow for wild overreactions. And then September turns to October where preseason thoughts are forgotten, early season overreactions have been put the test in conference play and the sport begins to separate itself into tiers with teams preparing to sprint to the finish line.

This moment, here in the middle of October, is the best time of the year in college football. It’s late enough that we have an idea of how these teams compare to one another but with enough time left for multiple twists and turns that might flip our understanding of the college football landscape upside down. 

For those who champion the regular season as the great selling point of college football, the next eight weeks is our playoff. It’s a playoff of survival to see who from this group of more than a dozen contenders will be able to maintain their status through the end of conference championship weekend.

Every Power Five conference has three or four undefeated or one-loss teams heading into Week 8, but there’s not enough room in the championship races for all of those 18 teams to play for trophies at the end of the season. The stakes of competition across the next eight weeks, in games that will all be played on campus, provide a playoff atmosphere that will last more than two months. 

So, with Week 8 on the doorstep and the midseason honors all handed out — check the 2022 CBS Sports Midseason All-America team and our second-chance expert picks for the College Football Playoff — let’s turn our attention to the big stories that will power the conversation around college football for its dramatic finish to the 2022 season. 

Tennessee disrupts the status quo 

When the Volunteers beat Alabama 52-49 in Neyland Stadium, everything changed. Few things in the entire sport were more predestined heading into the season than Alabama and Georgia meeting again in Atlanta at the SEC Championship Game in another epic Nick Saban vs. Kirby Smart battle with the stakes now altered after the Bulldogs had landed a haymaker with a CFP win last season.

Tennessee beating Alabama changed the view of the Crimson Tide’s dominance in the SEC West, but it also created some uncertainty about the Dawgs’ death grip on the SEC East. If Alabama is not quite the runaway favorite in the SEC West, then how will the Tide fair in another tough road environment on Nov. 12 against an Ole Miss team that’s 7-0 for the first time since 2014? That 2014 season, of course, included a win for the Rebels against the Tide in Oxford, Mississippi.

Adding layers to this exhilarating twist in the SEC title race is the potential impact on the playoff, where the “what if” crowd will be quick to point out a scenario that could involve the league having two one-loss non-division winners and potentially three or four one-loss teams when the CFP Selection Committee announces its final ranking. History favors at least a couple more combined losses for this foursome, but if we get to those CFP headaches at season’s end, we can credit Hendon Hooker and Tennessee for complicating a seemingly clear-cut playoff picture with the Vols’ arrival to the elite tier in the sport. 

Will Georgia remain the standard?

The reigning national champions are undefeated at 7-0 and currently ranked No. 1 in the AP Top 25. Yet, the Dawgs find themselves a bit off the radar amid Tennessee’s surge and Alabama’s struggles. Georgia did hit a speed bump in an upset scare at Missouri earlier this season that saw the Dawgs take a slight dip in the polls, but the shake up of the last couple weeks has brought a return to the top spot in the rankings as Smart’s team turns its attention to the challenges remaining on the schedule.

Georgia has not faced a single ranked opponent since it rolled Oregon in the season opener, 49-3, but its remaining schedule starts with the rivalry game against Florida in Week 9 followed by a three-week test that starts with Tennessee at home and includes back-to-back road games at Mississippi State and Kentucky. After spending much of the 2022 season being dubbed “elite” and acknowledged for its accumulation of talent and domination against lesser opponents, Georgia will spend the month of November attempting to prove it is the standard for excellence in college football. 



C.J. Stroud’s statistical supremacy

Who is the best quarterback in college football this year?

Michigan running back Blake Corum may have something to say about the Heisman Trophy discussion specifically, but choosing the best QB in the country has a wide-ranging impact on end-of-season awards and honors. Hooker has already delivered the kind of signature moment many Heisman and award voters desire from their winner, but he started the year behind Ohio State’s Stroud on the odds board, and it may be difficult for Hooker to surpass Stroud in the eyes of many unless the latter stumbles somewhere along the way. 

Stroud currently ranks No. 1 nationally in passer rating. He also leads the country with a 10.9 yards per attempt average while being tied for the lead among all FBS quarterbacks with 24 touchdown passes. The Buckeyes star doesn’t even get the green light to fill up the stat sheet late in some of these blowouts, but he makes the most of every attempt he gets within the framework of the offense.

Those blowouts are going to make it difficult for Stroud to generate the kind of week-in, week-out attention that Hooker has gotten recently and will continue to get during the Vols’ run at an SEC title, but the statistical profile that he’s on pace to collect by the end of the season is going to be impossible to ignore. Plus, the biggest games of the season for Ohio State — at Penn State, vs. Michigan at the end November — could quickly change the narrative from Stroud as a stat-stuffer to being the most valuable player on one of the top national title contenders. 

Of course, the QB1 debate is not limited to Stroud and Hooker. Dorian Thompson-Robinson has exploded onto the scene, Bryce Young is carrying the Alabama offense, and Caleb Williams seems to have just hit his stride at USC. But for now, it’s Stroud as the man to beat and Hooker as the top challenger. 

Big 12, Pac-12 elimination games

The most fun conference title races in the country are taking place in the Big 12 and Pac-12, in part because of the conferences’ lack of divisions. That’s nothing new for the Big 12, but having the Pac-12 join the fun in 2022 is perfect timing because of the overwhelming number of contenders. Each league has four teams ranked among the top 20 of the AP Top 25, and all are either unbeaten in conference play or just have one loss heading into Week 8. Because there are no divisions and the conference championship games will be decided by the top two teams in the standings, all the head-to-head games between contenders carry massive weight for their role in tiebreaker scenarios. 

We already saw one wave of potentially decisive results in Week 7. In the Big 12, TCU handed Oklahoma State its first loss while Texas was able to avoid an upset defeat at the hands of Iowa State while Kansas State was off. Now, we get the next round right away in Week 8 with TCU hosting Kansas State while Texas travels to Oklahoma State. In the Pac-12, Utah took down USC in thrilling fashion, but was it a Pac-12 title preview? That’s going to largely be up to Oregon and UCLA, who are each unbeaten in league play before meeting this weekend in Eugene, Oregon.

The way things are unfolding in the Big 12 and Pac-12 is a great sign for our division-less future. The ACC will remove divisions in 2023, and it’s possible that with conference expansion we see the Big Ten (adding USC, UCLA) and the SEC (adding Texas, Oklahoma) move to a similar model in the future. That’s made the math a little more complicated, yes, but it’s also brought tremendous intrigue to some of these tiebreakers among top teams. 

Clemson would like its key back

One of the CFP’s most frequent attendees — six appearances and two national championships in the eight years — the Tigers are pacing towards a return to the ACC Championship Game and contention for one of the four spots in the playoff. After throwing just nine touchdowns to 10 interceptions and finishing last in the ACC in passer rating in 2021, QB DJ Uiagalelei has delivered a strong showing in 2022 that is much closer to his five-star status as a high school prospect. DJU has thrown 17 touchdowns to just two picks so far this season and ranks in the top five among ACC QBs in completion percentage, passer rating and passing yards per game. He’s also played a key role in the team’s success on the ground with 337 yards and four touchdowns rushing on 11.6 attempts per game.

The Week 8 matchup against Syracuse provides potentially the toughest game left on the schedule for Clemson, which has already wrapped its ACC road schedule and has just one road trip left, traveling to Notre Dame on Nov. 5. Clemson has the longest active home winning streak in the country, and as long as it can defend home turf and avoid a slip-up in South Bend, Indiana, the Tigers should gets their keys back to the CFP club. 


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Coaching searches and hot seats

It is undeniable that there is already chatter among relevant figures in the sport regarding the upcoming coaching changes. Until we get to the final weeks of the season, most candidate lists might as well be mail-order catalogs — filled with plenty of sensible options for the average customer but lacking the intimacy to know if everything fits. At midseason last year, we already had USC and LSU in the market for new coaches, so it was obvious that there was going to be a major shake up in the coaching landscape.

None of the five Power Five schools currently in the market for a new coach in 2023 have a national championship in 21st Century like the Trojans and the Tigers, but a couple have the potential to cause a ripple effect of coaching movement as they look to fill the position. Nebraska’s move to hire Scott Frost had sentimental backing as a proud program was turned over to a coach with just two years of head coaching experience, so expect Frost’s replacement to be a bit more seasoned. Wisconsin has an apparent option already on staff with current interim coach Jim Leonhard, but if the Badgers (who lost to Michigan State last weekend) stumble to the finish does, he have enough backing to fend off an outside hire? Both jobs could potentially pull a coach from another power conference program and spark more coaching searches as the carousel spins. 

There is one scenario where Nebraska hires former Carolina Panthers coach Matt Rhule, Wisconsin promotes Leonhard, Deion Sanders lands somewhere (Georgia Tech?) and the domino effect is lessened along with a couple of former coaches and Group of Five coaches receiving new opportunities. But hey, at least everyone on those candidates lists will get extensions. 

Year 2 coaches are diverging

Auburn has a decision to make with Bryan Harsin. It’s not uncommon for schools to move on from a coach in the modern era after just two seasons — after all, we just saw Arkansas and Florida State do it in 2019 — but after an internal investigation into the football program in May, a change in athletic director and what’s shaping up to be a season with few SEC wins, Harsin will either get a loud and boisterous statement of support from the school and community or he will be replaced. Unless the Tigers (3-4) rip off a long winning streak to close the season, the assumption is that Auburn will also be in the market for a new coach. Classic coaching timelines suggest it startlingly early to be hitting the reset button, but Harsin’s case for more time is not helped by the success found elsewhere by Year 2 coaches. 

After all, right there in the SEC we have seen Josh Heupel looking like a national coach of the year candidate in Year 2 with Kansas‘ Lance Leipold and Illinois‘ Bret Bielema having a good chance to win those same honors in their respective conferences. Steve Sarkisian has Texas up in the top 20 after going 5-7 last year, Shane Beamer is going to have a shot at his second-straight bowl appearance in as many years and — this is the one that really stings Auburn fans — even Gus Malzahn is having a strong Year 2 with a UCF team that looks like it’s bounced back from a disappointing 2021. 

So, on one end we have potentially three or four Year 2 coaches that are going to earn either conference or national honors, while Harsin might find himself joining the short, but growing, list of coaches to be removed before the start of Year 3.

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