Biggest strength for every team in our Way-Too-Early top 25

Sports

With our 2022 Way-Too-Early college football top 25 established, we asked our reporters what each team’s biggest strength will be in the coming season — in other words, what makes the best teams so good.

Looking into a crystal ball more than six months before the start of the season can be a bit murky, particularly with the transfer portal continuing to churn, but here is what our experts came up with.

1. Alabama: Pass-rushing LBs

You’ll have to keep a close eye on the quarterback when Alabama plays, and not just because the Crimson Tide return Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young, who threw for 4,872 yards and 47 touchdowns in his first season as the starter. You’ll have to watch the opposing QB carefully as well because Alabama’s defense possesses what promises to be the best pass-rush tandem in college football. On one side at outside linebacker will be Will Anderson Jr., the presumptive first-round draft pick who led the country in sacks (17.5) and tackles for loss last season (31). On the other side at outside linebacker is Dallas Turner, who came on like a rocket late last season with 5.5 sacks in the final four games, earning Freshman All-America honors. — Alex Scarborough

Quarterback C.J. Stroud was a Heisman finalist and got better and better as the season went on. He has experience now and the offense is going to need him after losing receivers Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave to the NFL. Stroud threw for 4,435 yards and 44 touchdowns. He has Jaxon Smith-Njigba returning at receiver and we got a glimpse of the future offense in the Rose Bowl when Smith-Njigba had 347 yards and three touchdowns. We also got a chance to see who could fill the void left by Wilson and Olave as freshman Marvin Harrison Jr. also caught three touchdown passes. — Tom VanHaaren

Good luck to the linebackers and safeties trying to cover Georgia’s tight ends next season. Alabama coach Nick Saban called freshman Brock Bowers “one of the premier players in college football,” and after Bowers scored 13 touchdowns last season, it’s hard to argue the point. But Bowers isn’t alone. Darnell Washington, at 6-foot-7, is a matchup nightmare who struggled with injuries early in the season and could be poised for a breakout junior year. Then there’s Arik Gilbert, who looked like a star in the making at LSU in 2020, transferred to Georgia and hasn’t been heard from since. While he wasn’t part of the team last season, he was a student and could return to the fold, adding to the talent at offensive coordinator Todd Monken’s disposal. — Scarborough

4. Texas A&M: Defensive line

Defensive coordinator Mike Elko is now the head coach at Duke, and several of the Aggies’ outstanding defensive linemen headed for the NFL, including DeMarvin Leal, a probable first-round pick. Even so, the Aggies are stocked there thanks to several stacked recruiting classes, including a freshman group that will include the nation’s Nos. 1 and 2 defensive tackles and No. 6 and No. 9 defensive ends in the ESPN 300. And an experienced secondary, featuring safety Antonio Johnson, Pro Football Focus’ best returning safety in the country, plus stars in safety Demani Richardson (32 games played), cornerbacks Tyreek Chappell (SEC coaches’ all-freshman team) and Jaylon Jones (started 22 games in two seasons), will allow new coordinator D.J. Durkin to turn those big fellas loose up front. — Dave Wilson

5. Michigan: Offensive line

Michigan won the Joe Moore Award this past season for best offensive line unit in college football. The line was a key to Michigan’s successful run game in 2021. Coach Sherrone Moore has done an excellent job turning this into a dominant unit, and he will lose only starting center Andrew Vastardis from this past season’s group. Michigan is replacing that hole with grad transfer Olusegun Oluwatimi, who at Virginia was a finalist for the Rimington Trophy, given to the nation’s best center. — VanHaaren

6. Notre Dame: Defensive front seven

The front seven should be absolutely dynamite. End Isaiah Foskey and tackle Jayson Ademilola combined for 19 tackles for loss and 14.5 sacks, and end Justin Ademilola came on strong late in the season as well. Of the 10 linemen who played at least 100 snaps in 2021, eight currently return, and while size could be an issue — only one of the eight is currently listed higher than 280 pounds — speed and playmaking are not. The linebacking corps was thinned out a bit but still includes run-stopper JD Bertrand and the sure-tackling Jack Kiser, and the 2022 signing class includes a trio of blue-chip LBs led by Jaylen Sneed and Niuafe Tuihalamaka. — Bill Connelly

7. Utah: Depth and experience

Just moments after Utah fell to Ohio State in a memorable Rose Bowl, coach Kyle Whittingham was asked about the program’s prospects for the future and — while this wouldn’t have been his intent — he succinctly summed up why expectations in Salt Lake City should only increase. “We went through the roster the other day, and it was 72 of our 85 scholarship guys are scheduled to be freshmen or sophomores again,” he said. “We were almost in the same boat as this year. Many, many of those guys are playing for us already, particularly on defense.” Let’s repeat: 72 scholarship players on the 2021 team — the first Utah team to ever win the Pac-12 and play in the Rose Bowl — will be freshmen and sophomores, again, in 2022. That depth is an incredible starting spot for a program with a reputation for developing talent. — Kyle Bonagura

This will be the best team Dave Doeren has returning for the Wolfpack, so picking one strength is a challenge. Quarterback Devin Leary returns, and that is absolutely huge. But the bigger strength has to be the return of just about every key contributor on a defense that ranked No. 3 in the ACC in total defense. All-ACC players Drake Thomas (the team’s leading tackler), Tanner Ingle (second-leading tackler) and Cory Durden all are back, as are several players who lost last season to injury, including linebacker Isaiah Moore, safety Cyrus Fagan and linebacker Payton Wilson. Some are asking whether NC State should be the preseason ACC favorite, and the defense is a big reason why. — Andrea Adelson

While many pieces from a spectacular 2021 defense are gone — coordinator Jim Knowles, linebackers Malcolm Rodriguez and Devin Harper, four of the top five defensive backs — the new coordinator will inherit one of the best defensive fronts in the country. Ends Tyler Lacy, Brock Martin and Collin Oliver were relentless this past fall, combining for 52 tackles for loss and 24 sacks, and although the status of a couple of senior tackles remains unclear, tackle Brendon Evers is returning at the very least. After one of their best seasons ever, the Cowboys are suffering pretty significant turnover. But they’ll have a great D-line and a veteran quarterback (Spencer Sanders), and that’s not a bad starting point. — Connelly

The Spartans are losing quite a bit from last season’s team, including running back Kenneth Walker III and receiver Jalen Nailor. The offense is going to need quarterback Payton Thorne and receiver Jayden Reed to be one of the team’s strengths. Reed led the team in receiving yards (1,026) and touchdowns (10) and was a reliable receiver for Thorne, coming up with plenty of big plays throughout the season. Without Walker, the passing game is going to need to put points on the board as the coaches figure out who will lead in the run game. —VanHaaren

11. Clemson: Running game

The Tigers did not put up the prolific numbers in the passing game they have in the past, but their offensive fortunes shifted in the latter part of last season when their running game started to take off. Will Shipley, who missed three games early with a knee injury, showed off what made him one of the best high school prospects in the country after returning to the lineup, finishing with a team-high 747 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns. Kobe Pace and Phil Mafah joined Shipley with 100 carries each, and all three return to the Tigers. In addition, Clemson got a boost to its offensive line with the return of starting left tackle Jordan McFadden. — Adelson

12. Oregon: Linebacker

Even following Kayvon Thibodeaux‘s departure for the NFL, the Oregon defense has a chance to improve next season with the arrival of new coach Dan Lanning. At Georgia, Lanning coordinated an all-time great defense, and in Eugene he’ll have a talented group to work with, especially at linebacker. Noah Sewell is a possible preseason All-American and if he’s paired next to a healthy Justin Flowe, the Ducks could have arguably the best ILB pairing in college football. Mase Funa will also return, having been a major contributor at outside linebacker the past three seasons. — Bonagura

13. Houston: Skill-position trio on offense

The Cougars had a dominant defense that helped in a breakthrough 12-2 season, and they managed to hold on to coordinator Doug Belk, who became a hot name for coaching openings. But Dana Holgorsen also finally got the Cougars’ offense clicking, and he’ll have an incredible skill-position nucleus returning in the trio of quarterback Clayton Tune (3,456 yards, 30 TDs, 10 INTs), running back Alton McCaskill (961 yards, 16 TDs) and receiver Nathaniel Dell (1,329 yards, 12 TDs). There’s enough talent on hand for optimism in Houston with a realistic shot at an AAC title. — Wilson

Without question, the biggest strength is quarterback, where Sam Hartman goes into his third season as the starter. This past season served as a breakout year for the fifth-year player, as Hartman threw for a career-high 4,228 yards with 39 touchdowns and 14 interceptions in leading the Demon Deacons to the ACC championship game. Hartman had 50 total touchdowns on the season, joining Deshaun Watson and Lamar Jackson as the only three players in ACC history to reach that mark in a season. Leading receiver A.T. Perry also returns, in addition to Taylor Morin (621 yards, 5 TDs) and Ke’Shawn Williams (404 yards, 3 TDs) and veteran Donavon Greene, who missed last season with an injury. — Adelson

15. Iowa: Linebacker

A strong case could be made for the defensive line, where all but one key contributor (end Zach VanValkenburg) return for 2022. But Iowa’s linebacker unit could rival the best groups of the Kirk Ferentz era. Senior Jack Campbell, a second-team FWAA All-America selection, will lead the group after topping the FBS tackles chart with 143 stops, to go along with two interceptions, two fumble recoveries, a forced fumble and two touchdown returns. He will be joined by fellow senior Seth Benson, who had 105 tackles in 2021 and was an effective pass rusher with eight quarterback hurries and 2.5 sacks. Junior Jestin Jacobs is back after his first season as a starter, and Iowa should have decent depth behind the top three with Jay Higgins and others. — Rittenberg

16. Baylor: Offensive line

The Bears lose running backs Abram Smith and Trestan Ebner, but they’ll return almost the entire offensive line that helped them lead the Big 12 in rushing with 219.3 yards per game and 29 touchdowns on the ground. All four seniors — left tackle Connor Galvin, center Jacob Gall, right guard Grant Miller and right tackle Khalil Keith — are back from a unit that was a finalist for the Joe Moore Award as the country’s best offensive line and will provide cover for an offense that will be finding its footing with the losses at RB and the departures of starting receivers Tyquan Thornton and R.J. Sneed. But the line is a substantial building block to have in place. — Wilson

The Oklahoma roster will look almost completely different in 2022 under first-year coach Brent Venables, which includes having to replace six starters on defense. But the Sooners still feel good about their talent on the defensive side of the ball, particularly their depth at linebacker. Senior DaShaun White is returning for a fifth season after collecting a career-high 60 tackles a year ago. Senior David Ogwoegbu started at middle linebacker in the Alamo Bowl and returns along with junior Shane Whitter and sophomore Danny Stutsman, who showed great promise as a freshman last season but missed part of the year with an injury. In addition, Clemson transfer Jaren Kanak has the size and speed to be a hybrid-type player for the Sooners. Venables recruited Kanak to Clemson, and Kanak’s speed makes him a natural in Venables’ defense. — Low

18. BYU: Offensive line

Even before former top-100 recruit Kingsley Suamataia announced he was transferring to BYU from Oregon, the offensive line figured to be a major strength next season. With Suamataia in the mix, returning quarterback Jaren Hall should feel ever better about his protection following an encouraging 2021 season. The left side will be particularly strong with tackle Blake Freeland and guard Clark Barrington returning. The line paved the way for Tyler Allgeier to finish third in the country with 1,601 yards rushing, while allowing just 15 sacks all season. — Bonagura

Cincinnati loses a lot from its College Football Playoff team on both sides of the ball, but the offensive line returns relatively intact. Center Jake Renfro and guard Lorenz Metz both earned first-team All-AAC honors in 2021 and will solidify the interior alongside Jeremy Cooper, who has started games in each of the past three seasons. Left tackle James Tunstall, a transfer from Stony Brook, will enter his second season as a starter, while right tackle Dylan O’Quinn earned first-team All-AAC honors in his second season as the starter. The key will be developing tackle John Williams and other depth pieces, but Cincinnati’s line will provide a foundation for a largely reshaped offense. — Rittenberg

20. Arkansas: Offensive line

It should surprise no one that longtime offensive line coach Sam Pittman returns what promises to be one of the best offensive lines in the SEC next season. The only significant loss is Myron Cunningham, a three-year starter at left tackle. Left guard Brady Latham, right guard Beaux Limmer, center Ricky Stromberg and right tackle Dalton Wagner are all back. Throw in four-stars Andrew Chamblee and E’Marion Harris — the Razorbacks’ second- and third-highest-rated prospects in the 2022 class — and there’s a lot to feel good about up front on offense. — Scarborough

21. Kentucky: Offensive backfield

Quarterback Will Levis and running backs Chris Rodriguez Jr. and Kavosiey Smoke are all scheduled to return, giving the Wildcats one of the most experienced and physical offensive backfields in the country. Rodriguez’s return is particularly exciting after he rushed for 1,379 yards at 6.1 yards per carry. Kentucky has players to replace elsewhere — receivers Wan’Dale Robinson and Josh Ali, plus perhaps four of its top six offensive linemen — but coach Mark Stoops has made some astute transfer portal additions, including receivers Tayvion Robinson (Virginia Tech) and Javon Baker (Alabama) to address those areas. If some new players stick, returning players could carry another ultra-efficient offense. — Connelly

22. USC: Coach Lincoln Riley

Although it might not be the case at the moment, there’s a good chance USC’s strength will be its quarterback position, which currently appears depleted and down to rising sophomore Miller Moss. Moss threw 13 passes last season. But the reason all signs point to former Oklahoma quarterback Caleb Williams taking his talents to downtown Los Angeles is new coach Lincoln Riley, and it’s hard to argue that the Trojans currently have a bigger strength than a coach who is changing the tide of the program by the day. In nearly two months, Riley and his staff have reshaped a substantial part of the roster by flipping recruits and attracting players from the transfer portal — four four-stars and eight three-stars — including players from Alabama, Auburn, Oregon and multiple players from Oklahoma. Williams is a five-star. USC has the top transfer class in the nation heading into next season. The roster will lack continuity and despite a seemingly easy schedule, it’s unclear what to expect from USC in Year 1 of the Riley era. But there’s no doubt that the ingredients to succeed now and in the future are there. And that’s before Williams makes his decision. — Paolo Uggetti

23. Ole Miss: Offensive line

Losing a quarterback the caliber of Matt Corral would hurt any offense, but the Rebels should again be good where it really counts — up front. Nick Broeker returning for his senior season was a huge coup for the Rebels on offense. He has been a fixture at left tackle but could move inside to guard with Western Kentucky transfer Mason Brooks coming over as one of the most coveted tackles in the transfer portal. Jeremy James is also back after playing right tackle a year ago. He has started 23 games at Ole Miss, and Caleb Warren returns after starting 11 games last season at guard. He’s versatile enough to move to center. It only helps that TCU transfer Zach Evans steps in as the go-to running back, meaning the Rebels’ running game shouldn’t fall off any in 2022. — Low

Wisconsin’s defense likely will remain a strength but must replace significant players at all three levels, especially at linebacker and in the secondary. The Badgers always lean on the running back spot, but might do so even more this fall. Braelon Allen‘s emergence as a 17-year-old true freshman helped turn around Wisconsin’s season in 2021. Allen had 1,286 yards and 12 touchdowns, while eclipsing 100 rushing yards in seven of the final eight games. If Chez Mellusi returns, Wisconsin will have another reliable option in the backfield alongside Allen. Mellusi and Isaac Guerendo both dealt with injuries in 2021, but can be valuable assets to the run game, if healthy. Julius Davis and Brady Schipper provide depth. — Rittenberg

Bringing in quarterback Spencer Rattler and tight end Austin Stogner from the transfer portal gives the Gamecocks the kind of pop on offense they were missing for much of last season. Coach Shane Beamer worked with both players at Oklahoma and knows what he’s getting. He also knows that offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield will have more pieces to work with in 2022, especially with receiver Josh Vann returning after a career year in 2021 along with Jaheim Bell, who is listed as a tight end but will line up everywhere, including the backfield. Running back Juju McDowell showed promise in limited opportunities as a freshman. Three more transfers — running back Christian Beal-Smith (Wake Forest), Lovasea Carroll (Georgia) and receiver Antwane Wells (James Madison) — should add firepower to a South Carolina offense that also returns the star of the Duke’s Mayo Bowl win over North Carolina, Dakereon Joyner, the Gamecocks’ version of Taysom Hill. — Low

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