NC State v Miami
Getty Images

Preseason college football magazines are out, media days are getting underway, and soon enough we'll be previewing and picking the first games of the 2022 season. This early stage of the preseason is filled with prognostication and virtually everyone will have, or has released, their preseason top 25 college football rankings. 

Filling out the top of the rankings is often easy, and it seems to be especially so this season. We know who the top seven or eight teams are going to be, and there's not going to be a ton of disagreement across the different rankings -- at least among the more traditional ones found in preseason magazines and opinion-based polls. Maybe there's some disagreement about how to order Clemson, Michigan and Texas A&M. Maybe one ranking will be especially high on Notre Dame heading into Marcus Freeman's first full season. But those four plus the "obvious three" -- Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State -- make up the sport's top tier as most see it heading into the season. 

But after that is where we find some real variance across the rankings, and that variance shines a spotlight on some of the most interesting teams in the country. 

The true second tier of college football actually extends beyond No. 25, as that was initially chosen as a cut off at a time when there were far fewer teams competing at the highest level of the sport. The differences between, say, No. 15 and No. 40 might be minimal, which allows for fascinating debate regarding who does or doesn't deserve those coveted spots in the rankings that bring extra attention and fanfare to the program. On average, more than a third of the preseason AP Top 25 finishes the year unranked, and just last year we saw Michigan start the season unranked only to finish in the College Football Playoff. It's not that all preseason rankings are flawed, it's that most of these teams in the second tier are tough to figure out until they hit the field. 

So after scanning the landscape of preseason rankings and scouring the news stands as though it's 2010 again, I've identified seven teams that have notable disparities across their placement among these top-25 lists. These are our mystery teams for 2022, so let's figure out why experts are struggling to reach a consensus on each one.   

Our scan of the preseason magazines and post-spring top-25 lists has shown Oklahoma State showing up anywhere from No. 9 to No. 25, and that 16-spot difference is one of the most notable we were able to find. The Cowboys are actually the perfect candidate for this kind of debate because the same set of qualities can be read two different ways, and that especially applies to quarterback Spencer Sanders. A First-Team All-Big 12 pick in 2021, Sanders led the conference in total offense and is going into his fourth year as a starter with 24 victories to his name. But Sanders also led the Big 12 in interceptions last season (12) and has thrown two or more picks eight times in his career. The fact that a defense-led Cowboys team might need to transition back into one that leans heavier on the offense means more responsibility for Sanders, so your outlook for Cowboys probably starts with how you feel about their all-conference quarterback.
We still don't know how to rate or rank these transfer-heavy teams heading into the season, as we're still only a few seasons into the transfer portal era. The Trojans were 4-8 last year, and while you can blame the early-season firing of Clay Helton for some of those struggles, even a larger sample size -- USC has a 22-21 record across the last four seasons -- doesn't do a lot to suggest this team is ready to hit the gas with the Lincoln Riley alone. That's why Riley and his staff have worked the portal to assemble one of the most unique rosters in USC football history, where more than a handful of starters will not only be newcomers, but established contributors (in some cases, stars) from other Power Five programs. So will it work? No one is ready to bump USC into that top-seven/top-eight category yet, but the Trojans have landed as high as No. 9 and checked in as low as the mid-20s. No one wants to pass on a roster this intriguing and potentially prolific, but there is some hesitation with concerns on both lines of scrimmage and with the defense, in general.
Like USC, Oregon has a first-year coach and a transfer quarterback with Power Five starting experience. Unlike USC, the Ducks' new hire has never been a head coach and doesn't have four conference titles and a 84.6% winning percentage. Yet look at the preseason rankings and Oregon has about the same ceiling and floor as the Trojans, which speaks to the health of the program that Dan Lanning is taking over for his first head coaching gig. Oregon has cracked the top 10 of some preseason rankings while also falling closer to the edge of the top 20. That kind of disparity mostly comes from questions as to whether the offense will be dynamic with QB Bo Nix and plenty of turnover at the skill positions, because defensively, Oregon has one of the best linebacking corps in the country and enough talent in the trenches to have an edge against nearly every conference foe on its schedule.
There's a sound argument for the best-case scenario unfolding in Raleigh this fall. It's one in which quarterback Devin Leary continues to add to his upward career trajectory, the defense again performs at a top-10 level nationally and results in NC State being back in the thick of the ACC Championship race. Such a season, especially with a favorable nonconference schedule, should have the Wolfpack near double-digit wins and flirting with the program's first top-10 finish. Right around No. 10 is what those most optimistic rankings have for NC State, while others are more conservative and close to program history with a starting spot near the edge of the top 20.
Solid recruiting by Luke Fickell has allowed most of college football to simply nod and acknowledge the consistency of his Bearcats program with a preseason top-25 ranking until proven otherwise. Cincinnati lost nine players to the NFL Draft from the group that not only made the College Football Playoff a year ago, but went 22-2 across the last two seasons with no conference losses. Yet, the expectation is that the Bearcats will again be the team to beat in the American Athletic Conference thanks to Fickell's recruiting and player development. But what's that worth in the national picture? The highest rankings check in around No. 15, while the lowest are right on the edge of many preseason rankings close to No. 25. Where Cincinnati ends up is likely to be dependent on how tings go in the nonconference portion of the schedule against Arkansas (Sept. 3) and Indiana (Sept. 24).
One of the most prolific offenses in program history returns its starting quarterback in Hendon Hooker, one of the top SEC wide receivers in Cedric Tillman, its leading rusher and nearly the entire offensive line. The expectation is that we will once again see Josh Heupel's Vols put up points, but in 2021 all those points still only resulted in a 7-win season. So can the defense level up even with losses to key contributors? Some clearly believe so, penciling the Vols in as high as fourth among SEC teams in preseason rankings, falling somewhere between No. 15 and No. 20 nationally. Others foresee something a little closer to last season, placing the Vols either on the very edge, or just outside, the top 25. That's a position the fan base is fairly used to, as the team started both the 2020 and 2017 seasons right at No. 25 in the preseason AP poll. The hope for those fans is a different result, as both of those seasons included falling out of the top 25 for good before the start of November.
The more favorable preseason rankings for Ole Miss -- ones that fall between No. 15 and No. 20 -- are similar to USC in that they are counting on transfers to click. Quarterback Jaxson Dart (USC), running backs Zach Evans (TCU) and Ulysses Bentley (SMU) and tight end Michael Trigg (USC) were all blue-chip prospects coming out of high school who have shown a high-level potential at their previous stops. However, this on-field turnover pairs with off-field turnover, as offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby was hired away by Oklahoma and co-defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin was brought on by Jimbo Fisher to replace Mike Elko at Texas A&M. So there are reasons why not everyone is in on a top-20 Ole Miss, but the results of 2021 were significant enough that no one is expecting a return to the basement of the SEC West standings. Even the least favorable preseason rankings are inside the top 30 nationally, which for Ole Miss suggests something close to an eight-win season against a schedule that gets extremely difficult in late October and November.