College football gets knocked sometimes for its predictability at the top. Look no further than an SEC Championship Game rematch between Alabama and Georgia in last season's College Football Playoff National Championship for supporting evidence. However, a deeper look at the 2021 season reveals how surprises remain a part of the sport's fabric, even at the highest levels.
Coming off losing seasons in 2020, Baylor, Michigan and Michigan State began their 2021 campaigns unranked in the AP Top 25. By season's end, however, the trio was ranked in the top 10 of the final AP poll after playing in New Year's Six bowl games. Baylor won the Big 12 and the Sugar Bowl; Michigan won the Big Ten and appeared in a playoff semifinal against Georgia; and Michigan State won the Peach Bowl while producing an unexpected Heisman Trophy contender in running back Kenneth Walker III.
The collective success of that group should give some hope to programs beginning the 2022 season on the outside looking in of the. In fact, the "others receiving votes" category is comprised of so many big names that it wouldn't be surprising to see a few of them become factors on the national stage -- just as the Bears, Wolverines and Spartans did last season. .
As the beginning of the 2022 season creeps ever closer, here is a look the five unranked teams with the best chance to finish the 2022 season in the top 10.
With an 11-11 (8-10 in Big Ten) record over the past two seasons and a 2-6 finish to 2021, Penn State was easy for voters to overlook. However, that line of thinking ignores the Nittany Lions' 5-0 start last fall -- which could have been 7-0 had quarterback Sean Clifford not suffered an injury against Iowa.
Defensive coordinator Brent Pry's departure to become Virginia Tech's head coach would have been cause for concern -- he and coach James Franklin coached together for more than a decade -- but Franklin hit a home run by hiring Manny Diaz to replace Pry. With offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich in his second season, plus a healthy Clifford back with a loaded group of skill players around him, the Nittany Lions are capable of beating anyone on their schedule. That includes No. 2 Ohio State at home on Oct. 29. The offensive line is the biggest question mark, but if that group can facilitate even a serviceable rushing attack, this can be a top-10 team.
Texas somehow managed a No. 18 ranking in the preseason Coaches Poll -- with one first-place vote, no less -- which is at odds with the program's 5-7 record from last season. Clearly, the coaches (or whoever is filing ballots on their behalf) are riding the annual hype wave surrounding the Longhorns. AP voters are taking a more sensible approach, which is to wait and see if this team can put it all together.
If we assume Texas will lose to top-ranked Alabama in Week 2, then the program's candidacy for a top-10 finish will likely depend on how it fares against No. 9 Oklahoma (Oct. 8), at No. 12 Oklahoma State (Oct. 22) and vs. No. 10 Baylor (Nov. 26). Wins against two of those three would put the Longhorns in prime position to climb in the polls throughout the season. Texas finished 0-3 against that group last season by a combined 22 points during a brutal October. Those games are more spaced out this season, giving a team that has already proven injury-prone during preseason practice the chance to breathe a bit. With Quinn Ewers , expectations are that the Longhorns have the key ingredients to compete for a Big 12 title and just its second top-10 finish in the AP poll since 2009.
AP voters poured some cold water on one of the top offseason darlings by leaving the Volunteers out of the preseason poll. Trips to No. 17 Pittsburgh, LSU and No. 3 Georgia -- in addition to home games against Alabama, Florida and No. 20 Kentucky -- could leave this team struggling to improve on last season's 7-6 mark. But coach Josh Heupel's high-octane offensive philosophy also makes the Volunteers capable of beating anyone on their schedule.
Because of how reliant this team is on quarterback Hendon Hooker, and because of how iffy the defense appears, this group qualifies as one of this season's most unpredictable squads. Then again, the same could have been said about Ole Miss last season. The Rebels also had a second-year coach, questionable defense and a singularly important star quarterback. But they finished 10-3 and ranked No. 11 at the conclusion of the season. The Vols could follow that blueprint if the breaks go their way in 2022.
When LSU won the 2020 CFP title, it did so with a 64% Blue-Chip Ratio, which is one way that 247Sports measures a program's overall talent. The metric looks at how many four- and five-star prospects a program signed over the previous four recruiting cycles, and LSU actually has a higher BCR in 2022 (66%) than it did when it won the national title. The Tigers also have a better coach, with Brian Kelly making his SEC debut following a highly successful run at Notre Dame. Joe Burrow isn't walking through that door to play quarterback, but if Arizona State transfer Jayden Daniels can find the promise he showed as a freshman in 2019, then LSU may have what it takes to be a national factor ahead of schedule under Kelly.
While the schedule makes a top-10 finish challenging, a Nov. 5 game vs. Alabama seems like the only definite loss. Even that one could get weird if it's a Death Valley night game. Per usual, a high level of variance is possible with this program; games against Southern, New Mexico and UAB look like the only definite wins. As we saw in 2019, however, the upside for this program is as high as it gets. A 10-3 record is just as much within the realm of possibility as a repeat of last season's 6-7 mark.
Florida is all the way down at a tie for No. 37 in the AP poll. The Gators received just 14 votes following a 6-7 season and the coaching transition from Dan Mullen to Billy Napier. However, this program is also less than one calendar year removed from taking eventual SEC champion Alabama down to the wire and less than two years removed from winning the SEC East.
The Gators have a potential star at quarterback in Anthony Richardson and a track record of popping under first-year coaches. UF's past seven coaches have led their teams to the top 15 at some point in their first season, and six of those seven coaches had the Gators as high as the top 10. Only Mullen and Galen Hall finished their debut seasons with a top-10 team, but that's a still an incredible hit rate in a league as tough as the SEC.
A cross-division trip to No 6 Texas A&M the week after playing Georgia, along with a tough opening stretch against No. 7 Utah and Kentucky, make for a big-boy schedule in 2022, but those quirks also present huge opportunities for Florida to become a surprise player on the national stage.