Welcome back to the first “normal” spring since 2019. In 2020, COVID-19 put a stop to everything. In 2021, the pandemic was still affecting college football programs. Now all — well, most — is back to normal, making it the proper time to discuss depth charts, quarterback battles and new coaches. Welcome back, then, as we dive into CBS Sports’ 22 Things to Watch in 2022.
The 10-year contract is upon us. So is name, image and likeness. Alabama must “rebound”. Nick Saban turns 71 this year as he begins his 16th spring with the Crimson Tide. Georgia finally turned the corner and is looking for a repeat. There’s no use debating College Football Playoff expansion because it’s not here until at least 2026.
Player freedom has never been more, well, free. One translation: Ole Miss landed five of the top 50 players in the portal. It’s never been harder to be a coach. They’ve never been paid better either. That’s where this spring’s list begins.
1. Lincoln Riley goes to Hollywood! Those words would have been a foreign language a few months ago, but by leaving for USC, Oklahoma’s former coach sent a message that OU wasn’t going to be OU in the SEC. Without saying it, he is saying it: If things fall right, the Trojans might be closer to a playoff run than the Sooners. That’s what made a monumental job hop worth it. Well, that and a reported $10 million per year. The spring has to be about what the Trojans aren’t at the moment: tough. Even during the Pete Carroll heyday, USC was physical. In recent years, it lost its identity. Riley has to realize he can work the transfer portal all he wants and run his version of the Air Raid, but he has to develop a physical culture. It starts in both lines this spring.
2. Alabama gets stronger: Following the loss of six first-round draft choices, all Bama did was win the SEC and play for the national championship. Guess what? The Tide are loaded again, perhaps even more so than in 2021. They begin the spring with arguably the single best players on either side of the ball: Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Bryce Young and Bronco Nagurski Trophy-winning linebacker Will Anderson Jr. Saban has killed it in the portal with Georgia wide receiver Jermaine Burton and Georgia Tech running back Jahmyr Gibbs, the nation’s active career leader in all-purpose yards.
3. Georgia runs it back: Judge for yourself if the guts of a championship team have been ripped out: Outland Trophy winner Jordan Davis, defensive coordinator Dan Lanning and countless others are gone from Georgia’s Forever Team. What’s back? An expectation to be able to do it again. Kirby Smart broke the cement ceiling that separated him from Saban. A monster offensive line will block for a promising set of back. Even if Stetson “One More Year” Bennett doesn’t win the job, the position is in good hands with Carson Beck and Brock Vandagriff gunning in the spring. Don’t dismiss the Dawgs, who should be favored to win the SEC East, at least.
4. Ohio State eyes a rebound: The Buckeyes can score, but can they stop air? That question had to be in the back of the mind of every Ohio State fan during the Rose Bowl struggle against Utah. That left me with the feeling QB C.J. Stroud and WR Jaxon Smith-Njigba could be the top two Heisman contenders heading into next season. The problem is a defense that was punked physically and scheme-wise at times last season. Ryan Day brought in Oklahoma State coordinator Jim Knowles whose progress with the defense should be the No. 1 story this spring in Columbus, Ohio.
5. JABA (Just Auburn Being Auburn): Don’t you love stories where essentially nothing changes? The Bryan Harsin mini-saga was just that. In the space of a week, Auburn’s coach went from preparing for spring practice to … preparing for spring practice. In between, it’s not really clear what happened except that Harsin kept his job through turmoil. Apparently, he had the temerity to work his players hard in practice. Well, that and lose the final five games of his debut season. In the end, the administration basically didn’t have the stones to swallow Harsin’s $18 million buyout (this time). Either way, Auburn is a car wreck we have to slow down to gawk at this spring.
6. BK at LSU: What’s next for the Tigers’ new coach? Maybe “The Masked Singer” or “America’s Got Talent”. Brian Kelly has been selling himself and LSU so hard he makes Flex Seal infomercials look understated. There won’t be a grace period for Notre Dame’s winningest coach, which is one reason Kelly took the job. He’s in the best conference with better access to the best players at one of the SEC’s best programs. Kelly must use the spring to find a quarterback, install his system and work in his new staff that doesn’t include his Notre Dame coordinators, Marcus Freeman and Tommy Rees. Also, get used to andouille, coach.
7. The heir apparent: Any discussion of Kelly is intertwined with the elevation of the Fighting Irish’s 36-year-old defensive coordinator. Freeman was the answer when Kelly bailed with Notre Dame still in contention for a playoff spot. While Freeman might not be ready, there weren’t many options that late in the season. He comes in as an accomplished coordinator and recruiter. Early reports are positive. The players love him. Freeman has been open with the media. But leading Notre Dame is like running a Fortune 500 company. There a million duties, discussions, experiences to soak in before the opener at Ohio State. We’ll say it again: The last three Notre Dame coaches without head coaching experience were Charlie Weis, Bob Davie and Gerry Faust.
8. Transfer palooza: Forget the bitching and moaning about the transfer portal. The criticism is unfair for schools like Michigan State that built an 11-win season off it. It’s also becoming clear those who embrace it the best and quickest will be the most successful. Watch these schools in the spring as they welcome a gaggle of transfers:
USC: Riley has a plug-and-play tailback (Oregon’s Travis Dye) and his Oklahoma QB (Caleb Williams).Alabama: Saban may complain about the portal, but he has mastered it. This year it’s Burton and Gibbs.Ole Miss: Lane Kiffin snagged USC’s Jaxson Dart to (supposedly) replace Matt Corral.
9. NIL: Millions are now being thrown around to secure the services of players. Such is the state of name, image and likeness, which entered its ninth month of existence on March 1. The NCAA has little to no oversight. Maybe that’s karma for lacking foresight on the issue for years. Nothing is changing anytime soon. Collectives have been set up as de facto cash centers. Congress shows no interest in rushing to the rescue before or after the midterms. Prediction: In two years, we won’t be talking about NIL in everyday conversation. It will be an accepted part of college athletics.
10. Spencer Rattler: The early NIL poster child. At one point in his Oklahoma career, Rattler was driving two free cars from a local dealership. His sin was turning it over a bit too much and playing on the same team as Williams. Rattler started the 2021 season as the Heisman front-runner. Halfway through the season, he’d lost his starting job. Starting over at South Carolina going against SEC defenses will be fascinating. Coach Shane Beamer formed a relationship while he was an assistant at Oklahoma.
11. Jimbo creates his own pressure: Texas A&M won the recruiting Olympics, finishing with the No. 1 class in the nation and highest-rated class of all-time. Instead of celebrating, coach Jimbo Fisher chose to give oxygen to an anonymous message board post that suggested Texas A&M paid as much as $30 million in NIL benefits to secure that class. This spring, the focus has to be on the field. Fisher finally broke through in beating Alabama, but the Aggies were a disappointing 7-4 in the other games. There is uncertainty at quarterback, defensive coordinator Mike Elko left for Duke, and that recruiting class needs time to develop. After a program-defining win, it’s fair to say the Aggies have to get better in a hurry.
12. The new coaching normal: These 10-year guaranteed contracts are the new two-year extension. The market changed when a coach with a record barely above .500 (Michigan State’s Mel Tucker) got a 10-year, $95-million deal financed by two boosters. He wasn’t the only one (see: Kelly, Riley and Penn State’s James Franklin). Perhaps that explains here were 29 coaching changes in a year when it was thought that COVID-19 would slow the roll. There is more impatience and desperation from athletic directors than ever before. In the last three offseasons, 68 schools have changed coaches. That’s more than half of the FBS. Warning to coaches everywhere: Beginning with spring practice, you’re all on the hot seat. (OK, expect Nick, Kirby and Dabo Swinney.)
13. Spring hot seat: The good news for coaches on the hot seat after all those changes? There aren’t many of you.
Scott Frost, Nebraska: Since last spring, the Cornhuskers legend had to answer for alleged NCAA violations and saw his contract get restructured after underachieving again on the field. There aren’t many mitigating factors left to save Frost (15-27 in four seasons) if he doesn’t go to a bowl game. Bryan Harsin, Auburn: It’s Auburn. It’s always something. See above.Karl Dorrell, Colorado: The Buffaloes have gone 6-10 in two seasons after Dorrell replaced Tucker. The 2021 offense was horrible. Star RB Jarek Broussard transferred to join his old coach at Michigan State. Ouch. Geoff Collins, Georgia Tech: Collins enters 2022 with a six-game losing streak and the lowest winning percentage (.265) of any full-time Georgia Tech coach in history. “Less branding, more coaching,” Collins said in December.Steve Sarkisian, Texas: Just sayin’ after the Kansas loss and a disappointing 5-7 debut.
14. Harbaugh hijinks: Only at Michigan does the coach interview with an NFL team on National Signing Day. Only at Michigan does that coach not only return after that interview and hold the class together but also get an extension and raise. Such is the situation at Ann Arbor where Jim Harbaugh finally delivered — and now gets the opportunity to keep delivering. He has lost both his coordinators, and Ohio State is waiting for revenge in 2022 smarting from that November smackdown. But the average Wolverine doesn’t care this spring. Coach Khaki is back.
15. The time has finally come: Oklahoma looked in disarray after Riley bolted for USC. Who would the Sooners get of substance who was available? It ended up being Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, who had previously been unavailable to basically everyone. After turning down interest from several schools over the years, Venables came “home”. The former Sooners defensive coordinator under Bob Stoops inherits a football factory in full flower. Watch the defense this spring; Oklahoma will play it better than it has in years. Take a long look. Venables is the face of the franchise as it transitions into the SEC.
16. Super Mario: Miami power brokers threw millions at a 20-year-old problem. All of it was enough to lure native son Mario Cristobal from Oregon and convince accomplished coordinators Josh Gattis (offense) and Kevin Steele (defense) to head an impressive staff. Cristobal’s plan is to make Miami such a recruiting haven that local talent can’t possibly go elsewhere. It happened before in a football galaxy far, far away. Will it happen again? One thing is certain: The Canes will be physical. Cristobal’s teams are always tough.
17. Billy’s Army: After the frenzied finish to the Dan Mullen era, Florida not only needed normal, it needed to find consistency. Billy Napier brings that to the Gators. The rising star from Louisiana, 42, should get Florida back in the SEC East hunt quickly without the drama. Think of a young Urban Meyer (41 when he took over at Florida). Again, without the drama. The Gators want to be back on top of the SEC. Napier has built a massive support staff to do just that — compete with the Alabamas and Georgias on the field first by competing with them off it. Recruiting is the focus, and we may see a Sunshine State heavyweight battle between Napier and Cristobal for years to come.
18. Win the (Next) Day: Lanning takes over a Pacific Northwest starship. Cristobal left plenty in the cupboard after winning two Pac-12 titles in four seasons. The issue with the Power Five’s youngest coach is that Lanning, 35, has to keep Oregon going in an upward trajectory. He is the Ducks’ fourth coach since 2016. Best spring story to watch: Auburn transfer Bo Nix parachuting into the quarterback room with holdovers Ty Thompson and Jay Butterfield.
19. Playoff meetings: What else do you need to know? The CFP, its commissioners and presidents failed us last month be refusing to expand in 2024. The long wait until 2026 begins April 26-28 at The Four Seasons in Irving, Texas. That’s when the annual CFP meetings will be held with commissioners attempting to hammer out … something for the future. Urgency starts all over again as we’re 30 months away from ESPN’s exclusive negotiating window for keeping the CFP all in-house.
20. ACC reset: With Clemson slipping out of CFP contention (only 10 wins!) and the ACC slipping out of the CFP, it’s fair to speculate what’s next on the field for the league. Entering his eighth season, Pat Narduzzi has built a solid program at Pittsburgh. Miami has thrown the GDP of a small European country at its two-decade drought. Wake Forest has a swift, productive offense. Dave Doeren has NC State on a consistent arc. While the Pac-12 has noted, extensive problems, the ACC faces its reality. Without Clemson ruling the earth, will the conference stay in the CFP hunt?
21. Scandal in the desert: Arizona State president Michael Crow has exonerated coach Herm Edwards, who is at the center of a recruiting scandal. As the Sun Devils head into spring, they can’t effectively recruit, their coach is reportedly on film courting a recruit during COVID-19, and five assistants have either been fired or resigned. Advice for Crow: Self-impose a bowl ban — now. Let the healing begin. Prostate yourself at the altar of the NCAA. Be proactive. The program could be back to some kind of normal by 2023. Every day you delay, the program sinks further into quicksand.
22. Next Big (Group of Five) Thing: After Cincinnati’s playoff run and the CFP’s failure to expand, this designation means more than ever. Houston is the pick for 2022 to get the Group of Five auto bid. The Cougars are coming off a 12-win season and a Birmingham Bowl win over Auburn. Dana Holgorsen gets back his quarterback (Clayton Tune) and top runner (Alton McCaskill). The American has snagged six of the eight automatic New Year’s Six berths. The Cougars should make it seven of nine. Remember the name of defensive coordinator Doug Belk.