The king is dead, long live the king.
In college football, there is no greater determinant of team success than how programs fare in the preceding December — it is usually the case that experienced talent wins games, individual teams do not. And often, just one player can make the difference. In 2010, Cam Newton was the best player by a wide margin on an otherwise merely above-average team. That was enough for a title. In 2014, a veteran offense and dominating lines stacked with future pros brought the natty to Columbus. In 2019 and 2020, veteran experienced offenses had generational outputs led by runaway Heisman winners and obliterated practically everyone en route to the crown. Last year, a decade of Top 5 recruiting paid off for the perennial also-ran Dawgs, as an experienced Georgia team was able to field healthier elite depth to out-talent the Tide down the stretch.
Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia — not without coincidence, those are once again your leaders going into the clubhouse this season, with one in particular being a strong favorite to claim the CFP Championship. And, not without coincidence, those three teams have overwhelmingly brought in the most elite talent to campus over the last decade. Two of them figure to have the nation’s No. 1 and No. 2 offensive players (and both are likely to be 2 of the top 3 NFL draft pick). But only one player can be the very best in the nation, and that person is what separates one team from the rest and gives one team the nod from Vegas.
Here are the Top 30 favorites to claim the national title, and in a moment we will discuss the strongest bets and why. Odds via Draftkings.
Alabama is your clear favorite, sitting at +200 as of this writing. It is the heaviest preseason favorite for the Tide since 2020, when Alabama opened at +125. While that team was a clear runaway for preseason No. 1, there’s not quite that guarantee for 2022 Alabama. Nor — given its serious questions on offensive line and cornerback, as well as a revamped first-year coaching staff — should there be. Still, talent does win titles, and Alabama brings in the very most of it in 2022. Owing to Alabama’s youth last season (123rd most experienced out of 130), ‘Bama did not quite have the annual defection of underclass superstars exit, nor did a great many veteran seniors depart. Moreover, they return one of the two best quarterbacks in the nation, and the country’s best defender and overall best player — dominant Will Anderson.
Besides talent, there is a lot to like about Alabama. The SEC is in a state of flux, as most of the Western contenders are rebuilding (Two notable exceptions are the much-improved Razorbacks, and a veteran Mississippi State team could play a serious spoiler role). The Tide likewise drew a decent schedule — it may be the second or third toughest conference slate, but is still light years better than usual in terms of B2B road games and opponents coming off of byes. (I discussed that in-depth over here.)
The thing that gives me the biggest pause — even over the OL and CB — is the very nasty four-game midseason swing. In one month Alabama goes to Fayetteville vs. the dangerous Hogs; comes back home the next week for a
bad blood revenge game against Aggie; the Tide immediately turns around for a trip Neyland’s hillbilly hellmouth and what should be a scary-decent Vols teams; and then, without a break, must face the MSU Bulldogs at home. Finally, Alabama gets to its bye, but even getting there is a bitch. Three tough, emotional games — any one of them loseable, the two hardest on the road — with the prototypical letdown game vs. MSU being what separates ‘Bama from a week of rest.
Even assuming the Tide has just one hiccup, there is still too much uncertainty at critical positions to wholly buy-in.
Vegas also has tabbed Georgia (+360) and Ohio State (+450) as strong contenders. The reigning champs are obviously going to get some love, on talent potential even if not demonstrable production. The passing game should be serviceable with one outstanding guy on the outside and the nation’s most dangerous TE getting throws from a reasonably accurate game manager. The running game (and OL) took a hit, but there is still more than enough in the tank to likely run through a retooling East. But, unlike the West, the East’s rebuild makes everyone instantly better. While the Dawgs eyes maybe on Florida and Tennessee, don’t overlook a UK squad with a competent passing attack, and the annual trap game at South Carolina.
The greatest issue however is one of depth — the same bugaboo that bit Alabama last season. UGA lost 11 players by way of the NFL. But the portal exodus after the season was more concerning: 17 guys are gone. It is very hard for anyone to lose 28 players, no matter how well they’ve recruited, and have the next-man-up be as good as the folks on the two-deep. I suspect it will matter at least once, and perhaps twice, to keep UGA out of the Natty.
Then there is to my mind the team with the easiest path to both the CFP title game, and a healthy season: the OSU Buckeyes. Besides having arguably the nation’s best returning QB and WR, and a very good running game, the Buckeyes were gifted a schedule from
Indianapolis the gods.
As I wrote two weeks ago, in the preseason Heisman edition of GAM:
Stroud should have a big year too, just as the Bucks will: OSU has an absolute joke of a schedule, playing their first five games at home. Four of the five competitive games are all at home too. And there are some defensive stinkers on here that are sure to be stat-padders — Arkansas State, Michigan State, Rutgers. Maryland, Indiana, and Toledo all come to mind. Even the marquee OOC game, Notre Dame, figures to see a reeling and rebuilding Irish team.
The only competitive, athletic road game the Buckeyes face all season is at Penn State. And even the Lions may not be much more than an 8-4 team this season.
To my mind, this is the squad with the fewest question marks in June and the easiest path forward in the Fall. And at +$450, the Buckeyes are a quality bet. I’d lay the same units on OSU that you do with the Tide. They really are 1A and 1B entering the season.
That said, the Buckeyes question marks are substantial: how do you replace three 1st round WRs; and, will a new DC improve that ghastly soft OSU interior defense. Then again, will the offense be so good that defensive liabilities may not even matter? Hell, LSU won a national title doubling down on one side of the ball.
The rest of the bunch are strictly for the mooks. In particular:
- Clemson (+1200) is here for its name recognition, though it is a team that has now lost the entire assistant staff that made Dabo look competent for 8 seasons — Brent Venables simply cannot be replaced. More troubling, DJU still hasn’t shown that he can throw the ball consistently, and it is a very thin team that had significant losses of personnel. They may not even win the ACC (you heard it here first!)
- Aggie (+2800) and Michigan (+4000) are here on the basis of recruiting and/or stellar recent seasons. However, what they lost, and questions in the QB room, make both iffy prospects. The Wolverines especially seems a sucker’s bet.
- USC (+3000) is going to get all the love on earth — strong recruiting classes, strong pickups out of the portal, a conference as soft as baby shit, and a coach who will put up points on the board. But, the issue with the Trojans is both in who they play (they share the division with ASU, a retooled Bruins squad, and the Utes), and in how they play. Lincoln Riley has never lost fewer than two games in his career, and there have been about another 8-10 “shoulda’ lost” games against absolutely dreadful teams. And, on the big stage, he’s abominable: just a 1-3 postseason record, with three of them being blowout losses. His results have been diminishing as well. Three straight years atop the B12, then a second-place finish, then a third. Once he did not have the Stoops talent, there was definite slippage. The biggest question is, can the rest of the P12 improve around him to be competitive, or will he rely on the usual ploy of out-talenting other opponents?
In either case, this isn’t the year to put your hard-earned money on the line to find out.
- Notre Dame, Oklahoma (+4500) are both programs in the middle of rebuilds, and both are helmed by outstanding veteran defensive coordinators making their first appearance as head coaches. That’s too much uncertainty, and far too many personnel losses, to take seriously. OU especially seems to have the steepest climb back up: no way is Brent Venables going to let the Sooners stay that soft, though it may take a year or two for a new attitude to arrive in Norman.
That said, there are two dark horses that it may be worth throwing 10-20 bucks at.
The first are the Oregon Ducks (+5500). Yes, it’s a long shot, but Lanning has already impressed with how he’s handling the program, and god knows anyone has to be better at holding on to late leads than Mario Cristobal. But, ole’ Mario also didn’t leave the cupboard bare. The Ducks are stacked and are going to play a very physical style of ball.
The last team that really intrigues me are the Baylor Bears (+9000). They got their man in Waco, for sure. In two years, Aranda took the work Matt Rhule did, made it his own and made it better. That is a quality program, with great facilities and stadium, with very good coaching that is improving each year, and plenty of talent...especially in a down B12. In a one- or two-game playoff, anything can happen. In terms of long shots, you could do worse.
Biggest sucker bet?
Notre Dame (+4500)