0 out of 6
Quinn Ewers | Adam Davis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
In any college football season, it’s easy to point to a specific player or group that has shaped conference races and national title talks.
They are, in short, the X-Factors of the season.
Given the importance of the position, quarterbacks tend to get the most attention, especially from a national perspective. But a positional unit and an entire defense also stand out as potentially defining groups for the 2022 campaign.
1 out of 6
Sam Hartman | David Jensen/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Sam Hartman played a key role in Wake Forest’s rise last season. The dual-threat quarterback amassed 4,594 total yards of offense and was responsible for 50 touchdowns, leading the Demon Deacons to the ACC Championship Game.
Clemson regained his spot as the division favorite, but Hartman gave the Deacs a chance to assert themselves.
Unfortunately, a non-football related medical issue has sidelined him indefinitely. Wake Forest said the timeline for his return is uncertain.
Without him, the Deacs will likely still defeat VMI, Vanderbilt, and Liberty. But the September 24 showdown with Clemson — for whom Wake would have been an underdog anyway — is a different story altogether.
2 out of 6
Bo Nix | Abbie Parr/Getty Images
The top level of the Pac-12 seems relatively fixed.
Utah, the defending champions, have an experienced group led by returning quarterback Cam Rising and permanent coach Kyle Whittingham. USC’s redesigned group is a wild card, but Lincoln Riley and Caleb Williams are one hell of a coach/QB combination. Mario Cristobal also left Oregon for Dan Lanning in fine form.
However, Lanning has a lot to prove – as does Bo Nix. The freshman coach brought Nix out of Auburn, where he excelled but lacked consistency in the high-end.
Perhaps a reunion with offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham, who coached at Auburn in 2019, will propel Nix closer to his ceiling. If not, the Ducks won’t be able to dethrone the Utes or keep up with USC.
3 out of 6
Haynes King | Bob Levey/Getty Images
The result of a quarterback contest can make or break a season. Sometimes the right answer doesn’t show up until it’s too late.
Michigan ranked sixth in the first coaching poll, one spot ahead of Texas A&M. Michigan has incumbent Cade McNamara trying to stop JJ McCarthy and A&M is deciding between Haynes King and Max Johnson, with newcomer Conner Weigman on the periphery.
Both programs need the right quarterback to lead their championship pursuits.
Meanwhile, Texas must choose between Hudson Card and Quinn Ewers. The Longhorns struggled a lot in 2021, but an upgrade below middle would help them make the Big 12 a four-program rather than three-program race.
Clemson and Notre Dame could also fit into the conversation, although DJ Uiagalelei and Tyler Buchner are each expected to start.
4 out of 6
Yes’ Corey Brooks | Set number: X163895 TK1
we think Alabama is fine. Ja’Corey Brooks, Christian Leary, JoJo Earle and Traeshon Holden were all highly recruited, while transfers Jermaine Burton (Georgia) and Tyler Harrell (Louisville) had encouraging years at their former schools.
At the same time, the unit will not be flooded with proven production.
Harrell had 523 receiving yards last season and Burton has booked two 400-yard campaigns. Among returning Crimson Tide players, Holden has a season-high 239 yards.
There seems to be far too much talent for this receiving corps not to have a few productive options that will boost Alabama’s title hopes. But we also cannot guarantee that it will happen.
5 out of 6
DJ Uiagalelei | John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
After the 2020 season, Clemson lost star quarterback Trevor Lawrence to the NFL. However, a great two-game tryout by DJ Uiagalelei kept the Tigers as the top national threat of the 2021 campaign.
But it didn’t go nearly as planned.
The Tigers never scored more than 21 points against their first six FBS opponents. Not coincidentally, they went 3-3 in those matchups and fell out of ACC competition.
Of course, there is optimism for a revival. Head coach Dabo Swinney has consistently and passionately defended Uiagalelei this offseason, even as the arrival of freshman Cade Klubnik has drawn comparisons to returning starter Kelly Bryant’s passing of Lawrence in 2018.
The simple truth is that Clemson’s defense will likely overwhelm most opponents, so this offense doesn’t need to be much more than solid. That should happen.
However, like Alabama’s wideouts, it is a key variable that cannot be taken as a certainty.
6 out of 6
Ronnie Hickman | Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Inconsistency plagued Ohio State’s defense in 2021.
During the opener, Minnesota rushed for 203 yards. Oregon followed with 269 grounded yards as the Ducks rushed into Columbus and upset the Buckeyes. Tulsa made the next weekend more uncomfortable than expected with 428 passing yards.
The unit rallied for about a month, but Penn State, Nebraska and Purdue all threw the ball productively at the Buckeyes. To close out the year, Michigan and Utah were thriving locally.
Ohio State’s offense hid most of those lazy defensive performances, but Michigan’s sensational running ball day resulted in the Buckeyes not winning the Big Ten for the first time in five years. Shortly thereafter, head coach Ryan Day steals Oklahoma State star coordinator Jim Knowles to oversee defense.
Ohio State is an elite contender again, and offense should be outstanding. But that defense will set the Buckeyes’ ceiling.