In 2019, we knew all about Trevor Lawrence but didn’t necessarily see Joe Burrow coming. In 2020, Lawrence and Justin Fields were slam dunks, but no one was predicting what we got from Mac Jones and Kyle Trask.
Heading into each college football season, there are known stars and unknown stars. We know what to expect from the sport’s proven studs — in 2022, that includes Bryce Young, Will Anderson Jr., C.J. Stroud and Jaxon Smith-Njigba — but others will emerge. Maybe they will come out of nowhere, or maybe they have simply been waiting their turn, but the unknown stars of 2022 will determine both what we remember about the season and how the national title race plays out.
My annual Most Important Players list is about those unknowns. We know what we’re getting from Stroud, Young and company, but here are 25 players who could define the season with either moments or long spells of greatness. Some play for contenders, while others play for the teams that might prevent contenders from reaching their goals. All of them will have a chance to make their mark on 2022.
Like Zach Calzada and Texas A&M against Bama last season, plenty of quarterbacks could pilot an upset that turns the title race, even if they and/or their teams aren’t quite strong enough to do it repeatedly. (Not surprisingly, all of these QBs are in the Big Ten or SEC, since that’s where many of this year’s contenders reside).
The Arizona State transfer is enmeshed in a four-way battle to become Brian Kelly’s first starter at LSU. He probably has the highest upside of the bunch.
Daniels is ungovernable. Among QBs with at least 375 dropbacks last season, his 15.1% rate of scrambles per dropback was comfortably the most, but he’s good at it. He averaged 8.9 yards per carry on scrambles and produced a raw QBR of 85.5 when passing from outside the pocket. LSU probably isn’t going to contend for the SEC West, but with the Tigers’ overall athleticism and Daniels’ unique improv skills, they could beat any single team on the schedule. If he wins the job.
His full-season averages — 8.3 yards per pass, 7.9 yards per rush — were a thrill, but after the first two games of the season (easy wins over FAU and USF) those numbers fell to 6.4 and 3.2, respectively. Former Florida coach Dan Mullen clearly trusted Emory Jones more as starter, but both Mullen and Jones are gone this year. Billy Napier’s Gators debut will depend primarily on coaxing consistency out of this all-or-nothing QB.
He still has that ridiculous right arm, and in wideout Josh Vann and tight end Jaheim Bell, he has at least two players who didn’t produce a ton last year but might have with actual stability at the QB position. South Carolina hosts Georgia and Texas A&M and plays Clemson. This is one high-upside spoiler contender.
Last season, Rattler was hemmed in by smart Big 12 defenses focused on zone and big-play prevention. He will face more man-to-man defense in the SEC, which could help, and if he has learned from last year’s errors, he could produce big numbers and take down a contender.
A reminder: Clifford’s Total QBR rating was 10th in FBS last season — 66% completion rate, 7.8 yards per dropback (despite having played three elite defenses), 7.7 yards per scramble — before he got hurt against Iowa. Both he and the PSU offense were rather dismal from there, but when Clifford is healthy, he brings a strong combination of playmaking and excellent mobility to the table. It doesn’t take too many other ifs to make PSU a contender if Clifford is at his best, but at the very least he remains capable of taking down Michigan on the road or, perhaps, Ohio State at home.
On the same day Clifford was injured against Iowa, Thompson, Texas‘ starting QB at the time, hurt his thumb against Oklahoma. He struggled mightily over the next five games (all losses) before rebounding with an efficient performance against Kansas State, but it’s worth noting that Thompson was 17th in Total QBR — 67% completion rate, 8.8 yards per dropback, 8.4 yards per scramble — and in the process of torching Oklahoma when he got hurt.
He seems to be seizing control in the battle for QB1 at Nebraska, and he might get another shot at OU on Sept.17 (and then Michigan in November, too).
If you buy into Tennessee’s borderline top-10 SP+ projections, you could view Hooker and the Vols as longshot title contenders. But if that proves a bridge too far — and it probably should — there’s still nothing saying they can’t be a great spoiler. Tennessee should have one of the best offenses in the country, and Hooker is the perfect pilot, combining accurate passing (68% completion rate) with both big-play potential (14.3 yards per completion) and a strong presence in the run game (6.1 yards per non-sack carry).
The Vols topped 40 points in seven of his 11 starts last year and could be even more dangerous this time around.
Potential stars in need of a breakthrough
All eight players in this batch play for teams picked in the top seven of the preseason coaches’ poll. They’ve all shown great potential, and if they take star turns, their team’s title odds will improve accordingly.
19. WR Adonai Mitchell, Georgia
It’s wild to step back and realize that Georgia won the national title with a former walk-on quarterback (Stetson Bennett) throwing primarily to a freshman tight end (Brock Bowers) and freshman slot receiver (Ladd McConkey). But who caught the 40-yard bomb to put the Dawgs ahead in the fourth quarter of the national title game? Mitchell, another freshman. He’s the only returning wideout who caught more than seven balls last season, and even he only caught 29; a more consistent effort would assure that Bennett isn’t relying on scheme and safer outlets — no matter how good those outlets are — to keep thriving.
18. RB Devon Achane, Texas A&M
If you cheated and scrolled down to the end, you already know that the A&M quarterback position is of vital importance this season. But Achane has a chance to make said QB’s job awfully easy. With starting running back Isaiah Spiller gone to the pros, Achane, a track-and-field standout and one of the fastest players in the sport, has a chance at a star turn. He averaged 7 yards per carry and 11 yards per reception last season, and despite his diminutive size (5-foot-9, 185) he actually averaged more yards per carry after contact (3.7) than Spiller did last season (3.0). His potential is endless.
17. WR Joseph Ngata, Clemson
Quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei suffered through a dire 2021 season, but for as poorly as he played, he didn’t get a ton of help either. He also didn’t get a full season from Ngata. The former four-star recruit produced some of Clemson’s most important early-season moments — a 44-yard catch that kept the Tigers within a touchdown of Georgia in the fourth quarter; a 54-yarder that set up Clemson’s last score in a tight win over Boston College — but missed four of the final seven games and caught just five passes after Oct. 15. If he enjoys a breakout year, so might Uiagalelei.
16. NT Jalen Carter, Georgia
Honestly, the 310-pounder from Apopka, Florida, is already a star. He is impossibly active — he averaged a tackle on 11.7% of snaps last year — for comparison, leading linebacker Nakobe Dean was at only 11.4% — and on a line loaded with future pros, he led his unit with 8.5 TFLs. He is an All-American linebacker stuck in a nose tackle’s body. Decent fullback, too.
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) October 2, 2021
Of the eight linemen and linebackers who saw at least 350 snaps last season, however, six are gone. If Georgia’s defense is to remain the best in the country, Carter will need to step perfectly into a larger leadership role. He also might need to make even more plays. The scary part is that he’s capable of doing just that.
When stars Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave opted out of the Buckeyes’ Rose Bowl appearance against Utah, star slot man Jaxon Smith-Njigba caught an incredible 15 balls for 347 yards and three scores. That’s incredible, but it’s also hard to maintain over an entire season.
As good as Smith-Njigba and running back TreVeyon Henderson are, quarterback C.J. Stroud will need strong contributions from at least one of last year’s backup receivers. We’ll call Harrison the place-holder because of his own Rose Bowl breakout (six catches, 71 yards, three TDs), but Fleming is more experienced, and Egbuka topped Harrison’s full-season receiving yardage (191 to 139) while running less than half as many routes (57 to 126). The potential here is obvious, but someone must come through.
14. [Insert defensive end here], Michigan
Despite the departure of offensive coordinator Josh Gattis, Michigan could be poised to improve offensively thanks to overall experience and upside. But If you’re trying to talk yourself into Michigan having a shot at another Big Ten title or CFP appearance, it’s hard to overlook the departures of star ends Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo. They combined for 28.5 TFLs and 25 sacks and offered Michigan a chance at constant pressure without excessive blitzing.
Five returning ends combined for just 5.5 TFLs and four sacks. Mike Morris, Taylor Upshaw, Braiden McGregor and company have a ridiculously high bar to clear if the Wolverines want to avoid regression. It doesn’t matter who takes a star turn as long as someone does.
Against Minnesota, Oregon, Michigan and Utah — aka the four most physical teams on their schedule — Ohio State allowed 249 rushing yards and 38 points per game last season. While new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles has made the most noise with his brilliant and physical approach to pass defense, it’s the run defense that needs the most immediate improvement in 2022, and Harrison and Vincent are the only two returning linemen who recorded more than 300 snaps last year.
The seniors are both former top-20 prospects, and both flashed blue-chip form last season: Harrison had six TFLs in his final eight games, and Vincent was seemingly everywhere against Utah in the Rose Bowl. They must both make plays and provide leadership for a young defensive front that must not only overcome inexperience but also improve on the showing of last year’s line.
Most important transfers
11. LB Eric Gentry, USC
It was almost heartening to see that this week’s preseason coaches poll did not include USC in the top 10. Lincoln Riley’s Trojans were among the top five when it comes to national title betting odds this offseason, which is utterly ridiculous for a team that went 4-8 last season, even if it also added the deepest and most impressive class of transfers in the country.
While Caleb Williams and company will probably not need long to turn USC’s offense into an absolute force, the defense is far less proven. Among others, the Trojans will need a huge season from Gentry, a sophomore who was Arizona State’s steadiest defender late last season.
If they had worn Bama uniforms last year, both of these players would have likely appeared in the previous category. Burton caught 53 passes for 901 yards and eight touchdowns for Georgia over the last two seasons, while Gibbs gained 1,974 combined rushing and receiving yards with 13 scores in the same period. Both are potentially electric, and both stood out in Alabama’s spring game.
“Potential” won’t cut it in 2022, however. The Crimson Tide need production. With last season’s leading rusher (Brian Robinson Jr.) and top three receivers (John Metchie III, Jameson Williams, Slade Bolden) all gone, Bama requires immediate help in the skill corps. There are plenty of home-grown former blue-chippers hoping to crack the rotation — RBs Trey Sanders and Roydell Williams and WRs Ja’Corey Brooks, Traeshon Holden and JoJo Earle, plus incoming freshmen — but the most likely breakthroughs might come from the transfers. Gibbs is versatile and ridiculously fast, while Burton and Louisville transfer Tyler Harrell combined to average 23.2 yards per catch last season.
8. CB Eli Ricks, Alabama
Alabama is blessed with what might be its best and most experienced front seven in a number of years. The line is deep, and outside linebackers Will Anderson Jr. and Dallas Turner comprise the best pass-rushing duo in the country.
(Granted, you would have an elite tandem combining Anderson with almost literally anyone, including me, but Turner’s genuinely awesome).
There are holes at cornerback, though, where both of last year’s starters are gone, and Ricks and sophomore Kool-Aid McKinstry are the most likely successors. Rather all-or-nothing as a blue-chip freshman for LSU in 2020, Ricks was on his way to a breakthrough sophomore campaign before an October shoulder injury sidelined him. If he completes that breakthrough this fall, this should be Alabama’s best defense since 2017.
7. QB Caleb Williams, USC
He went from second-stringer to Heisman contender in a heartbeat last season, saving Oklahoma against Texas after Spencer Rattler had been benched, then leading the Sooners to an average of 46 points per game over his next three starts. He struggled down the stretch, then followed Riley to USC.
An aggressive downfield passer and a willing runner — he combined a 65% completion rate with an explosive 14.1 yards per completion while averaging 9.6 yards per non-sack carry — Williams will take on spectacular expectations out west. And with a remodeled skill corps and veteran line, he’ll have a shot at meeting those expectations. Any hope of a huge USC season will require it.
6. QB Dillon Gabriel, Oklahoma
Gabriel ranks higher on this list than the man he is replacing, primarily because OU’s overall roster is readier for a title swing than USC’s. He reunites with former UCF offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby, and if his accuracy and mastery of high tempo translate against a strong set of Big 12 defenses, the Sooners are likely conference title favorites.
Gabriel inherits a lovely skill corps that features receivers Marvin Mims, Theo Wease and LV Bunkley-Shelton (an Arizona State transfer), running back Eric Gray, and offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh almost always fields an excellent offensive front. He is set up to succeed.
Quarterbacks with a potential game-changing leap in them
As always, this section is for QBs who could clearly take another step forward … and would completely transform their team’s outlook if they did so.
5. Cam Rising, Utah
Utah was 1-2 and off the national radar when Rising, a Texas transfer, started his first game last season. The Utes won nine of their next 10 and took their first Pac-12 title as Rising finished the season sixth in Total QBR.
In 352 dropbacks, Rising suffered only five interceptions and six sacks. He was accurate, mistake-free and ridiculously dangerous with his legs (9.0 yards per scramble). Can he maintain this level of form with a top-10 spotlight on him this fall and with a line that lost a pair of all-conference performers? And can he and his receivers produce a few more big plays and easy points? A pair of affirmative answers could make the Utes a top-five team.
Last year, McNamara led Michigan to its first CFP bid and first outright conference title since 2003; he finished ahead of stars like Cincinnati‘s Desmond Ridder and NC State’s Devin Leary in Total QBR, too. And yet, if you’re talking about what he might be capable of in 2022, you have to include an “… as long as he’s still the starter” asterisk. Such is life when your backup (McCarthy) saw just enough snaps to confirm his blue-chip potential.
Whoever starts will have an excellent line in front of him and a high-upside skill corps (RB Blake Corum, WR Ronnie Bell, TE Erick All) surrounding him. He’ll also likely have to engineer enough improvement to offset defensive regression. McNamara is safe and efficient, and McCarthy is explosive. Which will Harbaugh and his coaching staff prefer?
3. DJ Uiagalelei (No. 4 in 2021), Clemson
Let’s be honest: There’s almost literally nowhere to go but up for the junior who looked so promising as a freshman fill-in in 2020 but did very little right a year ago. He finished 97th in Total QBR, and you can’t even point to late-season improvement as a source of optimism — he was 98th over the second half of the season. A “game-changing leap” might barely move him into the top 50.
Be it Uiagalelei or freshman Cade Klubnik, Clemson needs infinitely more from the QB position than it got last year. But if there’s a bright side, it’s that the Tigers won’t need a Heisman-level performance — with merely a good offense, their incredible defense should be able to drive an ACC title run and CFP push.
Other candidates: Devin Leary (NC State).
New starting quarterbacks for potential contenders
Marcus Freeman’s first Notre Dame team will boast one of the best offensive lines in the country and, at worst, a very good defensive front seven. The Fighting Irish are a top-10 team on paper, and if they get what they need from the QB position, they could easily be top five.
Freeman and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees continue to treat the race for QB1 as an open battle between Buchner and Pyne, but most media close to the scene have been predicting an eventual Buchner win. He showed off fantastic mobility last season, gaining 346 yards in 45 non-sack rushes, but he also threw three interceptions in 35 passes. If his big plays-to-disasters ratio is sound, he could bring a level of upside to the position that Irish fans haven’t seen in a while. They’ll need quite a bit of it, since reaching the CFP will likely require going 2-1 (at worst) against Ohio State in Columbus, Clemson at home and USC in Los Angeles.
New starting quarterbacks for potential contenders with both a potential game-changing leap in them and shots at lots of contenders
Only one QB qualifies as an All of the Above pick for 2022: the winner of Texas A&M’s quarterback battle.
King entered last season in the Buchner category, a well-touted, athletic and almost entirely unproven prospect. In 77 snaps, he averaged 8.2 yards per dropback and 7.8 yards per carry but threw three picks in 35 passes (like Buchner!) and missed most of 11 games with injury.
Johnson, meanwhile, held the reins for an LSU team aiming for a swift bounceback after a disappointing 2020. It didn’t happen. He improved only from 72nd to 58th in Total QBR, mostly avoiding picks but taking too many sacks and averaging a subdued 6.3 yards per dropback. After the season, he transferred to A&M.
It appears to be a prototypical ceiling-versus-floor QB battle in College Station. King’s got plenty of the former, but Johnson might have the advantage in the latter. Regardless, the stakes for A&M couldn’t be clearer in 2022. While some new stars need to emerge on the defensive line, the Aggies are loaded in the defensive back seven and on the offensive line. Achane and slot receiver Ainias Smith (once he returns to team) will give the QB of choice some nice safety valves, and the Aggies don’t have to leave their home state until October (when they do it three games in a row).
Jimbo Fisher is recruiting like a title contender, but he hasn’t figured out how to craft strong quarterback play since Jameis Winston left Florida State in 2014. If he gets it this year, A&M is a top-five team and playoff contender. If not, the Aggies might have to settle for four more losses and potential spoiler status. At some point, that might start to get old.