Biggest question mark for each team in the Way-Too-Early top 25

Sports

Recently our college football reporters examined the biggest strength for every team in our 2022 Way-Too-Early top 25, breaking down what makes the best teams so good.

Now we’ll turn the tables and look at each team’s biggest question mark. What could keep them from reaching their preseason aspirations? What will be the focus of spring practice?

We’re still a long way from September, but these are the items our experts think should be at the top of each coach’s to-do list.

1. Alabama: Depth at wide receiver

Granted, no one could have foreseen both John Metchie III and Jameson Williams being sidelined by major injuries, but their absence against Georgia in the national championship game revealed a lack of established playmakers at receiver for 2022. Ja’Corey Brooks, JoJo Earle, Agiye Hall and Traeshon Holden are all talented options at the position, but their inexperience showed against the Bulldogs. With Metchie, Williams and Slade Bolden off to the NFL, along with the departure of Javon Baker via the transfer portal, Alabama needs someone to step up. The addition of Georgia transfer Jermaine Burton should help in that regard, but depth is necessary to have the kind of well-rounded passing game the Crimson Tide have become accustomed to. — Alex Scarborough

The Buckeyes’ defense was inconsistent last season and showed weaknesses we aren’t used to seeing from an Ohio State team. It led to changes in the staff, with defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs being let go in the offseason and head coach Ryan Day bringing in Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles. The offense is losing some stars at receiver, but we saw how deep that group is in the Rose Bowl and got a glimpse of what could be. The defense made strides, but it still has question marks after finishing the season ranked 61st in total yards allowed per game, 45th in yards allowed per play and 97th in passing yards allowed per game. Knowles must fix that, and the team has the talent to do it. It’s just a matter of making the adjustments to ensure the Buckeyes don’t see a repeat of 2021. — Tom VanHaaren

3. Georgia: Championship letdown

So you’ve won your first national championship in 41 years. Now what? You’ve lost the heart and soul of your defense, lineman Jordan Davis and linebacker Nolan Smith. How do you bounce back? To beat Alabama over the long haul, Georgia has to reload rather than rebuild and avoid down seasons. Complacency can’t creep into the locker room, no matter how talented the roster might be. Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart seemed to acknowledge the tough road ahead after winning the national championship when he told fans, “I just hope they remember this feeling and understand they don’t need to get spoiled; they need to stay hungry like these players.” — Scarborough

4. Texas A&M: Passing attack

Despite Isaiah Spiller‘s departure for the NFL draft after two straight 1,000-yard seasons, the Aggies are set at running back with Devon Achane and a loaded running back room. But if the Aggies are going to keep pace and keep defenses from loading up on those backs, they’re going to have to address the vertical passing game. The Aggies ranked 88th in passing yards per game last season, 108th in completion percentage and 73rd in yards per completion. Ainias Smith, who had 47 catches for 509 yards, was the Aggies’ leading receiver and returns. But with the departure of Jalen Wydermyer to the NFL draft, the other top returners are Jalen Preston (17 catches, 255 yards, 2 TDs) and Demond Demas (15-235-1). The Aggies don’t lack for talent, and with the return of QB Haynes King, who was injured early last season, along with new arrivals Max Johnson, the LSU transfer, and prized recruit Conner Weigman, there is plenty of room for improvement in the passing game. — Dave Wilson

5. Michigan: Replacing Aidan Hutchinson & Co.

The Wolverines’ defense is losing a ton of production and its coordinator from this past season, and there isn’t a clear picture of who will step in to fill the void. Jim Harbaugh has yet to announce a new defensive coordinator, and the team is also losing defensive ends Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo, safety Daxton Hill, linebacker Josh Ross, safety Brad Hawkins and corner Vincent Gray. That is a lot to lose in one offseason, and there is no definitive answer up front for how Michigan will replace Hutchinson and Ojabo’s 25 sacks from this past season. — VanHaaren

Who’s the QB? With Jack Coan gone after one year as the starter, Tommy Rees’ first year as playcaller without Brian Kelly will be defined by which of two seemingly stylistic opposites is taking snaps. Tyler Buchner ran designed runs on more than half his snaps and ripped off quite a few huge runs while completing 60% of his passes. He also threw three picks in just 35 passes. Drew Pyne, meanwhile, scrambled quite a bit but didn’t attempt many actual rushes; he completed just 15 of 30 passes but at nearly 15 yards per completion with no picks. He was excellent while filling in for an injured Coan late against Wisconsin. The winner of the job will have veterans like tight end Michael Mayer and running back Chris Tyree around him, but will carry some pretty big expectations as well. — Bill Connelly

7. Utah: Developing playoff-caliber talent

If someone wanted to make the case that Utah doesn’t have any major questions about the 2022 roster, there wouldn’t be a lot of pushback here. Utah deserves to be the favorite in the Pac-12 after its young team went 8-1 in the league last season en route to the Rose Bowl and has depth in the areas where star players are departing (LB Devin Lloyd, WR Britain Covey, TJ Pledger) for the NFL. The biggest question might be if that remaining talent can develop into a team that can reach the playoff. The Pac-12’s track record gives plenty of reason to be skeptical, but Utah should remain on the rise, and after last season, a playoff berth is the logical next step. — Kyle Bonagura

8. NC State: Running game

The Wolfpack return veterans across the board, but the biggest question surrounds their offense. First, they lose stalwart left tackle Ikem Ekwonu, a likely first-round pick. Second, the Wolfpack need to find a way to be more consistent running the ball with an entirely new backfield. NC State ranked No. 13 in the ACC in rushing offense, averaging only 126.2 yards per game. With their top two rushers from a year ago, Zonovan Knight and Ricky Person Jr., off to the NFL draft, that leaves quarterback Devin Leary as the top returning rusher. Watch for veteran Jordan Houston, Demie Sumo-Karngbaye and Delbert Mimms III and true freshman early enrollee Michael Allen during spring practice competition. — Andrea Adelson

One could spin this one of two ways: With what OSU has to replace on defense — coordinator Jim Knowles (hired by Ohio State), incredible linebackers Malcolm Rodriguez and Devin Harper, plus four-fifths of a spectacular and aggressive secondary — either the back seven of the defense is the biggest question mark or, if we simply assume that defensive regression is forthcoming despite what should be a strong line, the bigger concern is the offense because it will have to carry more weight in 2022. Can experienced (and often maddening) quarterback Spencer Sanders finally establish a new level of consistency? Will there be a new go-to receiver now that Tay Martin is gone? Will the run game remain as physical and strong without stalwart Jaylen Warren? OSU had an incredible 2021, but lots of new leaders must emerge. — Connelly

The Spartans’ secondary gave them problems this past season, and the defense ranked 130th in pass yards allowed per game. Michigan State gave up 7.3 yards per attempt, ranked 60th in interceptions and ranked 111th in receiving touchdowns allowed. The staff is bringing in transfer corner Ameer Speed from Georgia and signed ESPN 300 corner Caleb Coley in the 2022 class, but it’s an area that needs to show vast improvement for the Spartans to have another successful season. — VanHaaren

11. Clemson: Passing game

For the second straight offseason, it seems there are far more questions about the Tigers than there are givens. First, with the biggest coaching turnover under coach Dabo Swinney, how will new offensive coordinator Brandon Streeter, defensive coordinator Wes Goodwin and multiple new position coaches handle their new roles? But the bigger questions will once again revolve around the offense and quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei, who struggled in his first year replacing Trevor Lawrence. Uiagalelei seemed uncomfortable through large stretches of the season, and Clemson struggled to get any consistency and rhythm going in the passing game. Big, explosive plays down the field were pretty much nonexistent. Not only does Uiagalelei have to get better — so do the receivers. Their growth and development is a huge key to watch. — Adelson

12. Oregon: Running game

There was a time when it seemed at least possible the Ducks could see running backs CJ Verdell and Travis Dye share the backfield again in 2022. Then, of course, Dye announced he was transferring to USC and Verdell declared for the NFL draft, leaving the Ducks short on established names. Byron Cardwell figures to be the next man up, having rushed for 417 yards as a freshman last season, but with a new coaching staff, it’s fair to wonder how it will end up shaking out. Seven McGee is the only other returning running back who had any carries last season (14 carries for 61 yards). — Bonagura

13. Houston: Offensive line

While the Cougars put together a stellar 2021 season, the offensive line was not without its issues, making Dana Holgorsen’s offensive output even more remarkable. But against Cincinnati in the AAC title game, the Cougars averaged just 1.8 yards per carry on 47 attempts and gave up eight sacks (23 of those 47 carries, for 21 yards, were attributed to QB Clayton Tune). For the entire season, Houston gave up 39 sacks, ranking 105th nationally. The Cougars lose three seniors of those five starters, so finding the right fit and mix to improve will be key for the Cougars’ hopes next season. — Wilson

There is no question Wake Forest has to make major defensive improvements across the board, a huge reason why coach Dave Clawson hired Brad Lambert as defensive coordinator. Lambert coached at Wake Forest previously under former coach Jim Grobe, so he is intimately familiar with what it takes to recruit in the area and put together a solid defense. Wake Forest won the ACC’s Atlantic Division last season thanks in large part to its offense, while the defense struggled to get off the field. The Demon Deacons ranked No. 10 in the conference in both scoring defense and total defense and gave up more than 30 points seven times, including five games in which they gave up 40 more points. With the vast majority of the offensive playmakers set to return, fixing the defense is atop the priority list for 2022. — Adelson

15. Iowa: Quarterback

There are position groups that need to reload after 2021, such as running back, offensive line and the secondary, where standouts Matt Hankins, Dane Belton and Jack Koerner depart. But Iowa is never going to take the next step without improved quarterback play. Spencer Petras and Alex Padilla both are back after combining for 2,516 pass yards with 12 touchdowns and 11 interceptions last season. Iowa finished 112th nationally in total QBR. Unless Iowa makes a somewhat surprising move in the transfer portal, the competition will feature Petras, Padilla and second-year player Joey Labas, a three-star recruit in 2021. The Hawkeyes have a decent collection of wide receivers and a strong tight end group led by Sam LaPorta. But without a consistent threat at quarterback, Iowa will be limited. — Rittenberg

16. Baylor: Running back

After an out-of-nowhere breakthrough, Abram Smith is gone from the Baylor backfield, where the running back-turned-linebacker-turned-running back ran for 1,601 yards, setting a Baylor school record. His counterpart, Trestan Ebner, who ran for another 799, also graduated. The Bears ran for 219.3 yards per game, 10th-best nationally, and were able to win the Big 12 title despite injuries and growing pains at quarterback. Taye McWilliams is the Bears’ leading returning rusher from 2021, with just 17 carries in three games, all blowout wins over West Virginia, Kansas and Texas Southern. — Wilson

17. Oklahoma: Turnover on offense

The combination of the coaching staff overhaul and exodus of talented players on offense could make for a challenging transition for new offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby and his staff. With quarterbacks Caleb Williams and Spencer Rattler both gone via the transfer portal, Lebby will reunite with UCF transfer Dillon Gabriel. Lebby coached Gabriel in 2019, when he passed for 3,653 yards and 29 touchdowns. Some of the biggest question marks for the Sooners will center around the players trying to make plays for Gabriel. Running back Kennedy Brooks is off to the NFL after rushing for 1,000 yards in three different seasons for OU. This is a big opportunity for Tennessee transfer Eric Gray to step up as the go-to running back. Leading receiver Marvin Mims returns, but Jadon Haselwood (Arkansas) and Mario Williams (USC) both transferred. Theo Wease is coming off a 2021 season in which he barely played after being injured in the preseason, and tight ends Jeremiah Hall (NFL draft) and Austin Stogner (transfer to South Carolina) have both moved on. — Low

18. BYU: Running back

The Cougars aren’t a team with many holes. Aside from questions about depth at various positions groups that are normal after every season — more so on defense — BYU is well-positioned to continue to compete at a high level under Kalani Sitake. Replacing running back Tyler Allgeier, however, won’t be so straightforward. The former walk-on ran for over 2,700 yards over the last two seasons and how to replace his production is a worthwhile question. Christopher Brooks, an incoming transfer from Cal, is the most proven option, having run for 1,704 yards over the past four seasons, including a career-best 914 in 2019. — Bonagura

19. Cincinnati: Departures on defense

Few defenses in the country lose a larger, more decorated group of stars than Cincinnati. Cornerback tandem Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner and Coby Bryant are NFL bound, alongside safety Bryan Cook, lineman Myjai Sanders and others. Cincinnati also loses top linebackers Darrian Beavers and Joel Dublanko, and leading pass-rusher Curtis Brooks. Every area of the defense has been hit hard by departures. The program’s recruiting and development success will be tested, especially in the secondary. Cornerback Arquon Bush and safety Ja’von Hicks return, which will help, but there will be plenty of competition and uncertainty at the other positions. Cincinnati boasts some veteran options but also has recruited well, landing cornerback prospects such as Oliver Bridges and J.Q. Hardaway in the 2022 class. — Rittenberg

20. Arkansas: Defensive secondary

A so-so secondary that allowed 213.8 passing yards per game last season (sixth in the SEC) already lost Montaric Brown to the NFL. Then came the 1-2 punch of Joe Foucha and Greg Brooks Jr. announcing that they would transfer. Former All-SEC safety Jalen Catalon is a nice piece to build around, but he’s coming back from injury. Bringing in Latavious Brini from Georgia and Dwight McGlothern from LSU should help, but they’ll need to get up to speed in a hurry with a difficult first five games next season, beginning with Cincinnati and South Carolina, and closing with Texas A&M and Alabama. — Scarborough

21. Kentucky: The trenches

Who steps up in the trenches? The Wildcats have established a consistent and physical identity under Mark Stoops, but they must replace four of six primary offensive linemen, plus three regulars on the defensive line. Offensive lineman Jager Burton, monstrous defensive tackle Justin Rogers and Ohio State defensive end transfer Darrion Henry-Young, all recent blue-chippers, could thrive in bigger roles, and at this point the Wildcats certainly have a track record of producing quality beef, but All-American tackle Darian Kinnard, All-SEC guard Luke Fortner and 20-TFL defensive end Joshua Paschal were standout talents. They’ll be particularly difficult to replace. — Connelly

22. USC: Defense

What about the defense? Lincoln Riley has already done extensive work in revamping the USC offense by getting Caleb Williams to be QB1 as well as Mario Williams from Oklahoma. Even in Year 1, scoring should not be a problem. The defense, however, remains a question mark. Sure, the Trojans were able to pick up a few defensive transfers such as linebackers Shane Lee and Romello Height from SEC programs, but they also lost standout linebacker Drake Jackson, among others, to the NFL. New defensive coordinator Alex Grinch will need to work wonders on that side of the ball — after all, this was a unit that former interim head coach Donte Williams referred to as “disgusting” last season. No matter how shiny the new offense might look, the defense will need to step up for USC to compete for the conference title this season. — Paolo Uggetti

23. Ole Miss: Receiving corps

The Rebels got great news last week with former USC quarterback Jaxson Dart announcing that he would be throwing passes in Oxford next season. The question now: Who will be his top targets? Five of Ole Miss’ top seven pass-catchers from a year ago are gone, including the top four (running back Jerrion Ealy being one of those). A healthy Jonathan Mingo would be a huge plus for the Rebels after he suffered through an injury-plagued 2021 season. Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin has bolstered the roster significantly via the transfer portal, and one of Dart’s former teammates at USC also figures prominently in the Rebels’ passing game. Tight end Michael Trigg had seven catches as a freshman last season for the Trojans and is a former ESPN 300 prospect. The Rebels also could use a big senior season from Dannis Jackson. — Low

The Badgers’ defense has been consistently elite since 2013, ranking third nationally in both points allowed and yards per play allowed during the span. The unit has shined under three different coordinators (Dave Aranda, Justin Wilcox and now Jim Leonhard). But if there ever was a year to take a step back, it might be 2022. Wisconsin loses a lot of production, especially at linebacker, where Jack Sanborn, Leo Chenal and Noah Burks are moving on. Sanborn and Chenal combined for 304 tackles, including 44.5 for loss, during the past two seasons. Wisconsin needs Nick Herbig, who had an excellent sophomore season, to anchor the linebacker group, but also must find answers inside. Tatum Grass and Jordan Turner bring limited experience, but the competition and Leonhard’s rotations will be interesting to watch. — Rittenberg

The Gamecocks closed the 2021 season with a ton of momentum under first-year coach Shane Beamer and have scored big this offseason in the transfer portal. And while the defense more than held its own a year ago, replenishing the defensive line won’t be easy in 2022. Gone is top pass-rusher Kingsley Enagbare, who opted out before the bowl game and could be a first-round NFL draft pick. Two other defensive line starters from a year ago also won’t be back — Aaron Sterling at end and Jabari Ellis at tackle. Ellis was especially valuable as a leader and a strong locker room presence. The Gamecocks are hopeful that former five-star edge rusher Jordan Burch will be more consistent next season as a junior, and Zacch Pickens‘ decision to return for his senior season was a coup for the middle of the South Carolina defensive line. Jordan Strachan will be in his second season in the program after transferring from Georgia State and could make a big jump in 2022. — Low

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