We don’t get as excited about the start of August practice as we do for spring training. We aren’t emerging from the dead of winter, begging for any sign that it soon will be warm and green again. There’s no magical phrase, like “Quarterbacks and centers report …”
And yet practice has begun, and college football will be here in a matter of days, and heavens be praised. After an offseason about coaches leaving teams and money and NIL and money and realignment and money, football is here. There are a few things I can’t wait to see in the 2022 season, a few questions waiting to be answered, a few games that will serve as mileposts on the road to Los Angeles.
Here are a few things to keep an eye on.
What to make of Clemson?
In a sport where coaches leave on a moment’s notice – and now players can, too – coach Dabo Swinney has created an insular culture at Clemson. For more than a decade, he made minimal changes in his coaching staff. He has been vocal in opposition to bringing in players through the transfer portal. That insularity is what makes the 2022 season so interesting for the Tigers. Swinney lost both coordinators to head-coaching jobs (DC Brent Venables to Oklahoma, OC Tony Elliott to Virginia). And he has been adamant about sticking with quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei, who looked overmatched (55.6 completion percentage, 6.0 yards per attempt, nine TDs, 10 picks) as a first-year starter in 2021. Clemson doesn’t play an FBS opponent that had a winning record in 2021 until Week Four, when the Tigers go to Wake Forest. That will be the first chance we get a true assessment of how Swinney reacts to change.
Young vs. Young for Heisman
Alabama quarterback Bryce Young’s chance of joining the one and only Archie Griffin as a two-time Heisman Trophy winner will be hamstrung by one player – the Bryce Young of 2021. Every other player in the FBS will be judged by that peculiar Heisman criteria, some unwritten mixture of personal stats and team performance. Young will be judged against how he and the Crimson Tide performed last season. Young threw for 4,872 yards, 47 TDs (both school records) and seven picks. If the Tide continues to win and Young doesn’t meet those numbers, he’ll have to depend on the intellect of Heisman voters to discern his ability. In other words, he’s sunk.
Buy or sell on Texas?
Are you buying into Texas this season? Are you willing to bet that Steve Sarkisian has transformed the Longhorn culture in Year Two? Do you believe Sark can take a team with two starts in the quarterback room and return to Big 12 contention? Can an offensive line with little experienced depth create holes for Bijan Robinson? Will Sark, who has averaged a 7-6 record over seven seasons as a coach, find his inner Saban in Season Eight? Texas has a lot of ground to cover in the 2022 season and not much time to cover it. Alabama comes to DKR-Texas Memorial Stadium in Week Two.
Can Miami guy get ‘The U’ going again?
For all the excitement that Lincoln Riley has generated at USC, the new coach with the most potential to reshape the FBS landscape is Mario Cristobal returning to his alma mater at Miami. Cristobal played high school football in Miami, played on The U’s great teams of three decades ago (44-4, two national championships) and has set out to rebuild the recruiting fence that Jimmy Johnson constructed around south Florida four decades ago. The fence is in tatters, building materials are hard to come by these days and that metaphor has gone far enough. Cristobal applied the skills he learned at Saban Finishing School to rebuild Oregon, and he didn’t even know that place. He has a lot of returning starters, he has discipline, and in Week Three, when the ’Canes go to Texas A&M, he’ll have the national stage. If a Miami guy gets Miami going again, that will be great fun.
C.J. Stroud on the road
The one thing I want to see from Ohio State sophomore quarterback C.J. Stroud in 2022 is to win a big game on the road. The schedule-maker did Stroud wrong last season. He didn’t play a road game against a team with a winning record last season until he got to the Big House, and the atmosphere, not to mention the Wolverines’ defensive front, unsettled him. Stroud threw for 394 yards, but twice in the first half Michigan forced Ohio State to kick field goals. Stroud also got sacked four times. Credit Stroud for the 48-45 comeback victory over Utah in the Rose Bowl but that was no road game; the Arroyo Seco was awash in Scarlet and Gray. The Buckeyes play only four games away from the Horseshoe this season. The first one comes Week Six (Oct. 8) at Michigan State, which should be a sufficient test.
An underrated Week 1 gem
Week One game under the radar: Central Michigan at Oklahoma State. Here’s why I am interested: The Chippewas have the nation’s leading returning rusher in fourth-year sophomore (thank you, pandemic) Lew Nichols III, who gained 1,848 yards and scored 31 touchdowns. Nichols carried the ball 341 times (26.2 per game), the most by any FBS back in five seasons. Oklahoma State, which played such good defense last season that coordinator Jim Knowles got plucked away by Ohio State, now has former Vandy coach Derek Mason in charge. Mason ran Auburn’s defense last season, the defense that limited Alabama to one field goal in the first 59:35 of last year’s game. This is a good yardstick for both the ’Pokes and Nichols.
Sam Hartman deserves notice
Heisman candidate under the radar: Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman. No one is patting Wake Forest on the head for having a winning record anymore. Dave Clawson slowly has built the Demon Deacons into a force, the same way he slowly built Fordham, Richmond and Bowling Green into a force. Hartman, a redshirt junior, has thrived in Clawson’s RPO offense, accounting for 50 touchdown (39 pass, 11 run) last season. If Hartman adds some discipline to his game and improves upon his .589 completion percentage and 14 picks, watch out. Oh, and he can’t lay an egg when Clemson visits Winston-Salem in Week Four.
Brian Kelly used to early success
Forget that Brian Kelly is new at LSU. There are so many new faces on the roster – thank you, portal – that handicapping the Tigers is difficult. Look at it this way: This is Kelly’s fifth coaching gig, and he found success in his opening season at each of the previous four. He took Grand Valley State to the Division II playoffs in 1991; improved Central Michigan from three wins to four in 2004; won 10 games at Cincinnati in 2007; and improved Notre Dame from 6-6 in Charlie Weis’ last season in 2009 to 8-5 in 2010. That tells you, if 284 wins didn’t already, that the man has a system and knows how to implement it. Kelly’s full introduction into the SEC is a six-game midseason stretch: at Auburn, Tennessee, at Florida, Ole Miss. Alabama, at Arkansas. Yikes.
Setting a record for starts – maybe
Illinois offensive lineman Alex Palczewski has started 52 games in five seasons (36 games at tackle, 16 at guard). And thanks to the pandemic, Palczewski has another year of eligibility. That gives him a chance at 64 career starts, 65 if the Illini reach a bowl. Illini coach Bret Bielema declared last week that Palczewski will set an FBS record. That makes sense. The problem is no one at the NCAA has kept track. “I don’t think we’ve ever had a record for number of starts, unfortunately,” Jeff Williams of the NCAA statistics office said. “Sixty starts would be hard to top, quite frankly.” Unofficially true. Palczewski turns 23 Wednesday. His freshmen teammates were in eighth grade when he arrived at Illinois.
Keep an eye on Chip Kelly, UCLA
This is how good Chip Kelly was at Oregon: four seasons, 46-7, three Rose Bowls, one last-second BCS Championship Game loss. Since Kelly left Eugene a decade ago, he blew through two NFL coaching jobs and has treaded water (18-25) at UCLA. His innovative up-tempo spread offense is no longer an innovation. But last season’s 8-5 record, followed by quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s decision to return for his fifth season, has hope rising in Westwood. A soft-serve September gives the Bruins a great chance at being 5-0 when defending Pac-12 champ Utah visits. UCLA should be primed to play well, especially because the Bruins have a week off after playing the physical Utes. What a springboard that game could be.